Hell may be for heroes, but "Hell Town," a two-hour NBC TV movie (tonight at 9 on Channel 4), is for idiots.
Made for idiots and written by idiots, and if that isn't enough to send you lurching out of the Barcalounger to the video store for a real movie, it stars Robert Blake as the most idiotic screen hero in years.
As Father "Noah" Hardstep Rivers, a tough-talking, beer-guzzling, pool-hustling priest who plucks out country-western songs on his guitar and bashes in heads like a an overgrown punk playing Robin Hood, Blake looks like an aging Don Murray with cotton balls in his cheeks in a remake of "Hoodlum Priest."
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I watched "Hollywood Wives" for three straight nights. Say three Hail Marys and sit through "Hell Town."
The purgatory begins with Blake on a rooftop, keeping watch over his ghetto neighborhood. A sultry woman (Vonetta McGee) in a leather miniskirt joins him. But she's not a hooker! She's a nun! These people must belong to the Church of the Latter-Day Thugs.
Suddenly Blake leaps from the building and stops a drug sale, dragging the dealer down the street by his nostrils and shouting, "I ain't no cop. I'm the priest down here in Hell Town. Do you hear me? This is my turf!" After warning the nasty drug dealer not to cross the street again or get whipped with a rosary (the priest may be pro-pummeling, but he's anti-guns), he tells the criminal to "stay out of Hell Town" with the same emotional impact he might tell an errant eighth-grader to stay out of the nuns' laundry room.
To enhance his image as a streetwise savior, part Bernie Goetz, part Mitch Snyder, Blake takes on the Brooklyn accent of a Bowery Boy. "Sometimes the Lord is busy," he tells a naive young nun who is walking in Hell Town alone one night. "Take a baseball bat witch yoo."
Besides nuns in miniskirts, the parish of St. Dominic's boasts a litany of Central Casting staples: the crusty but kindhearted Mother Superior, the redheaded, big-hearted bar owner who gets girls off dope and enrolls them in beauty school, a black cat named Lucifer, a crusty but lovable sidekick named One Ball, a burned-out druggie the size of Mighty Joe Young named "Stump" who can't find his way to the video arcade by himself. The Incredible Stump gets one of the best lines of the show: "You can't let anything bad happen to him," he prays aloud after Hardstep kidnaps an abused child and hides her in a storm drain, "because he lets me wash his car for him by myself."
But the real stars are the animals. ("Noah" Hardstep. Get it?) Best Supporting Livestock must go to the church's mascot, a pesky goat, who does more with the part than any of the other players.
On the human side, the only bright spot is veteran character actor Jeff Corey, playing a crusty but lovable lawyer who positively deserves better dialogue than this: "You can't save the world, Hardstep. Nobody can save the world."
This movie might have been saved if the original premise had been even remotely developed. We learn, almost by osmosis, that Father Hardstep was an orphan abandoned at St. Dominic's, grew up on the streets, went to prison and made his penance by becoming a priest. But we never learn any of the details. What made him decide to become a priest? How did he win the respect of his peers? What is his standing with the diocese? Where is the bishop when Hardstep is tucking the goat into bed?
Instead, we get a worn-out plot about a psychopathic child abuser and bathroom humor. When the parish wins 12 cases of chili after a pool game, a naive young nun asks, "Is chili good for children?" One Ball, played by Whitman Mayo (Grady on "Sanford and Son"), replies, "Oh, yes. It teaches them to say 'excuse me.' A lot."
Thanks to "Hill Street Blues," we also have not-so-subtle racism passing as gritty drama, from the menacing black teen-age gang (reportedly real live juvenile delinquents from Los Angeles recruited by Blake) to the stingy Chinese slumlord.
The movie is being touted as a pilot for a possible series next fall, and the possibilities are certainly endless. Next week Hardstep rescues a cleaning woman from the clutches of her deranged husband and busts up a PCP factory in the parish and raffles off a 1985 Cadillac Seville that is mistakingly won by a pimp.
Let's hope we've seen the last of Hardstep.
In a press release, Blake says getting "Hell Town" on the tube was a miracle. "It's been shelved at least twice as unfilmable. I even killed it myself once when it began to seem impossible."
Somebody up there should have known when to administer the last rites.