No Code of Conduct and A Letter from Death Row (1998)

Did you know that actor Charlie Sheen and Poison’s lead vocalist Bret Michaels (The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years) are best buds? So much so that they formed their own production company, Sheen Michaels Entertainment. Another principal in the company is writer-director Nick Cassavetes (remembering that Sheen and Cassavetes co-starred in The Wraith).

The company’s debut release was the chick-flicky drama Unhook the Stars (1996), followed by the Sean Penn-starrer She’s So Lovely (1997), both written and directed by Cassavetes. Charlie Sheen starred in the shingle’s third production, Under Pressure, aka Bad Day on the Block (1997), a tale about a psychotic fireman’s (Sheen) obsession with a family he saved from a fire (remembering 1992’s Unlawful Entry with Ray Liotta’s crazy cop). The company’s best known and most successful film (box office, not critically) was the action buddy-comedy Money Talks (1997), in which Chris Tucker co-starred with Sheen.

Prior to shutting down the shingle in 1999 (for a total of 9 films and 2 documentaries), the studio also produced the Charlie Sheen-narrated Discovery Mars (1997), the Zalman King-directed (Galaxy of Terror) surfing-drama In God’s Hands (1998, which also features Michaels in a support role), Free Money (1998), starring Marlon Brando, Donald Sutherland, and Sheen, and Five Aces (1999), also starring Sheen.

Hey, what about Bret Michaels?

Well, that’s why we’re here, isn’t it? It is “Rock ‘n’ Roll Week,” after all.

Michaels wrote, directed, starred, and scored two crime-driven action-dramas for the company: No Code of Conduct, his debut, and A Letter from Death Row; the films are said to be sequels, but are, in fact, two distinct films unto themselves.

Yes. The man who gave you the hits “Unskinny Bop,” “I Want Action,” and rakes in the royalty greens with the constantly-spinning classic rock and classic hits radio staples “Nothing but a Good Time” and “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” carved out a career behind the camera.

No Code of Conduct

As with their mutual work in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Charlie Sheen and his father, Martin Sheen, co-star in No Code of Conduct, as a strained father and son: this time they’re (troubled) vice detectives, with Martin’s Bill Peterson as the leader of the unit. When Charlie’s Jake Peterson’s partner dies on-the-job, the Petersons put their differences aside to find the killer. The investigation comes to uncover a Mexican drug smuggling ring that connects in Pheonix, Arizona. The action, as we say, ensues, with all of the expected car chases and crashes, rains of bullets, and exploding buildings . . . only on a less, cost-effective budget than the Sly Stallone films (1986’s Cobra, in particular), and Lethal Weapon, as well as your favorite John Woo squib-fest, it desires to be.

The dirty copy adventures also stars the always-welcomed Mark Dacascos (Double Dragon, The Base) and Estevez acting-family warhorse, little brother and Uncle Joe Estevez (300-credits strong, with a dozen films currently in production) and, of course, look for Bret Michaels in a supporting role as Frank “Shane” Fields. Yeah, there’s Joe Lando (of TV’s Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman). And hey! Is that the late Paul Gleason, playing yet another, arrogantly inept authority figure (this time, he’s DEA), as he did in Die Hard? Oh, and don’t forget his work as the put-upon school counselor in The Breakfast Club.

Hey, this Bret Michaels industry-calling was never intended to be more than a B-Movie (at a reported cost of $12,000,000) and Michaels is new to the game; so while the proceedings are second rate, it’s still not an Al Adamson-incompetent or Godfrey Ho-chopshop joint (know your B-Movie Kings), and pans out to be a decent little direct-to-video action romp. That’s not to say it is still not disheartening to see Charlie Sheen — who made his bones in Oliver Stone’s Platoon and wowed us in Wall Street — stuck in a direct-to-video sorta-kinda clunker, but he did give us the really fine No Man’s Land (1987). However, if not for this being a Bret Michaels joint — regardless of the likeable Mark Dacascos on board — we probably wouldn’t be writing this review (for “Rock ‘n’ Roll Week”).

A Letter from Death Row

Bret Michaels ups his game in his second joint, aka “creation,” starring in the lead role of Michael Raine — with Martin Sheen as his father (and, like his dad, Charlie also appears in a blink-and-he’s-gone cameo) — a Death Row convict (shot on location in Tennessee State Prison and casting real prisoners in roles).

As result of Michaels starring, this is the one most rock ‘n’ roll flick lovers have seen, first, only to then discover Michaels made his debut with No Code of Conduct. And, sadly, everyone drops the ol’ “Citizen Kane of Bad Movies,” the same snotty critical descriptor bestowed to Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, for A Letter from Death Row.

So, is it as bad (or so bad it’s good) as a Wiseau joint? Is it better than — or worse than — No Code of Conduct? Well, you know how it goes down at the ol’ Road House, Dr. Dalton: opinions vary.

Ne’er-do-well, struggling songwriter and Nashville native Michael Raine moved to Philadelphia for a fresh start . . . and ends up convicted of murdering his exotic dancer girlfriend (for all glam rockers must date strippers) by pillow-smothering and lands himself on death row. He claims he’s innocent and someone broke into his home and did it . . . while he was practicing his sweet karate moves (look out, Napoleon!). Conveniently, thanks to Raine’s affinity for “sex games,” the cops have the crime on video tape. Of course, Raine’s dopey defense attorney (famed, but now, sadly late due to COVID, Nashville radio talk show host Phil Valentine, who may be great behind the mic but is awful in front of a camera) has his ulterior motives.

When we get to prison, everything goes film noir and Hitchcock-twisty, with Jessica Foster, the Chief of Staff — and mistress (and spy) — of the Governor of Tennessee writing a book on Raine’s high profile case . . . which leads to him being blackmailed by the also “wrongly convicted” jailhouse preacher Lucifer Jones (he raped an altar boy), who wants Foster to overturn his conviction. And it’s all very meta, as, while awaiting his execution, Raine’s penning a screenplay . . . of the very movie you’re watching . . . you got that?

And the “ensues” kick in . . . for if you’ve watched any episodes of Law & Order: TOS or SVU, you know that the Governor likes his strippers . . . and Raine’s just a pasty . . . and the dopey defense attorney, the warden and his brutal, second-in-command, natch, henchman are red herring flippin’ n’ floppin’ on the seedy n’ shady noir docks.

So, which is the better . . . or worse film?

No Code of Conduct is clearly — but not by much — the better film (thanks to Sheens sticking around longer), as I feel, for his second film, Bret Michaels bit off a bit too much from the creative Slim Jim.

If Michaels wanted to take a crack as a lead actor, he should have stuck to the thespin’ and left the directing to someone else. Sure, Michaels is Tiger Blood-trying, but he’s not a dual-auteur of the Clint Eastwood variety, here. The main weakness — but one that critics fail to understand — is that Michaels is not only inspired by classic ’40s film noir, he made a valiant attempt at recreating those films, not only in story, but in image — but no one in the contemporary home video marketplace wants to see a trope-laden retro-flick with flashbacks in cliched black & white, oddball camera angles, or tales broken down into chapters with title cards to set the scenes.

I think the critics are right on this one: This wants to be a Quentin Tarantino joint, but sunk in L.A.’s Silver Lake Reservoir. If Tommy Wiseau made a prison flick, you know it wouldn’t be inside the walls of Shawshank, right? So who liked it? Well, when ne’er-do-well security guard Jimmy Hughes of CBS-TV’s Yes, Dear met Bret Michaels (“Greg’s Big Day”), he named dropped A Letter from Death Row as one of his favorite films.

So, yeah, this one is for Poison and ’80s hair metal fans, only. Prison flick aficionados will give A Letter from Death Row a hard pass. But, in scanning the “Best of” and “Worst of” prison flicks lists of the digital divide, A Letter from Death Row shows up on neither. So that’s saying something.

After that, Bret’s never written, directed, or acted in another film. He has, however, carved out a nice career as a go-to reality television cast member, most recently appearing as a contestant on a 2020 installment of The Masked Singer and as a judge on Nashville Star (2003). And those ASCAP royalty checks keep rolling in, with Poison tunes appearing in all manner of TV series and films (60 credits and counting), so even thought Bret’s out of the movie business, he’s still having one hell of a good time. And good enough of a time, that he’s able to make sport of himself, as, well, himself, with appearances in Sharknado 5: Global Warming (2017). He still occasionally appears (as characters, not himself) in front of the camera in TV dramas, such as CBS-TV’s Burke’s Law (1994) and Martial Law (1999). And he’s actually pretty good at it (or gotten better at it, depending on your Road Housin’ opinions), and I’d like to see him guesting on more network and cable series.

You can find online streams of both films in the online marketplace on a variety of pay platforms, but not free-with-ads streams or freebie uploads, sorry. The subsequent DVDs of A Letter from Death Row also features the 60-minute documentary High Tension, Low Budget (The Making of A Letter from Death Row). You can also listen to the full solo album/film soundtrack to A Letter from Death Row (featuring members of Poison) on You Tube. You can also stream episodes of Bret Michaels’s reality series Rock of Love and its sequel, Life as We Know It, on Tubi.

From concert files: Okay. So Poison’s debut album wasn’t out and they weren’t even on the radio, yet. And here they are, opening for Alice Cooper (no, not KISS, Mike, that was Krokus, damn it). And posters, based on the album cover, below, are plastered all over the venue. So, yeah . . . we thought they were (hot) chicks (Mike, dude, did we? Yikes!) and that Poison was a band, like, you know, Vixen. And their opening tune, the title cut of the album, was pretty decent (heavy live, but poppy-overproduced on record). So, we were going to buy the album the next day . . . and discovered how wrong we were!

So that’s my Poison story.

And Poison are back on the road — with all of its original members! — as the opening act for Mötley Crüe and Def Leppard with Joan Jett for the long, COVID-delayed The Stadium Tour, currently rolling in 2021. You can learn more at the official Poison site.

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.

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