With ‘The Two-Bear Mambo,’ ‘Hap and Leonard’ Continues to Give Pulp Fiction a Good Name

SundanceTV

After a so-so second season, ‘Hap and Leonard’ comes roaring back to life with ‘The Two-Bear Mambo.’

There may never be a more perfect unity of pulp and fiction than the one formed by Joe Lansdale, Jim Mickle, and Nick Damici. The trio first came together in 2014, when Mickle and Damici brought Lansdale’s Cold In July to the big screen; the three would reunite in 2016 for the first season of Hap and Leonard, based on Lansdale’s long-running book series about a pair of smart-ass handymen who navigate the violence and politics of East Texas in the 1980s. Starring James Purefoy and Michael Kenneth Williams as the title duo – an aging peacenik pining after his ex-wife and a black and openly gay Vietnam veteran, respectively – the first season of Hap and Leonard was the best that good Southern noir has to offer: a dark, funny, and bittersweet exploration of men and women with good hearts and looming expiration dates.

Thankfully, SundanceTV recognized a good thing when they had it, and renewed Hap and Leonard for a second and now a third season. Picking up more-or-less where the last one left off, the third season of Hap and Leonard – bearing the subtitle The Two-Bear Mambo, which will make all the sense in the world after you watch the season premiere – shows our middle-aged heroes taking their particular brand of East Texas justice down to the neighboring city of Grovetown in search of a missing friend. There they encounter a town untouched by time and progress. The ghosts of men brutally murdered seem to hang about Grovetown, and as Hap and Leonard dig deeper into their missing person’s movements, they find echoes of the past in the music of L.C. Soothe, the region’s blues legend who sold his soul to the devil and paid the ultimate price.

It may seem a little unfair to call Two-Bear Mambo a bounce-back season season for Hap and Leonard, but that speaks more to the strength of the show’s first season than the weaknesses of Season 2. Mucho Mojo offered a fine six episodes of television, just ones absent the dark humor and oddball character beats of the first season. To make matters worse, the show’s true strength – the near-effortless chemistry between Purefoy and Williams as lifelong friends with nothing and everything in common – was weakened by storylines that sent them spinning off in separate directions. There are no glaring mistakes in Much Mojo, just something of a split party – and you never, ever, split the party.

With Season 3, both Purefoy and Williams are reunited and in fine form. The appeal of the Hap and Leonard series – an appeal that remains consistent between the books and the movies – is how little life actually changes for both men. Hap and Leonard are perpetually past their prime, prone to reminiscing on the people they’ve lost and frequently being confronted by how old they got somewhere along the way. Much like the previous seasons, Two-Bear Mambo thrives on their inherent contradictions. Old-fashioned but amenable to the dawn of political correctness, Hap and Leonard find themselves constantly on the outs of those around them: Leonard because of the color of his skin and his sexual orientation, Hap because of his friendship with Leonard and his status at the very, very bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Both characters have learned to wear their outsider statuses as a badge of honor, and to this point, the series has suggested that Hap and Leonard could always fight off any comers when back-to-back.

Until Grovetown. The beauty of Two-Bear Mambo is where it starts in the narrative: with both characters beaten and broken, poured into the back of a squad car and making the long drive home from that accursed city. Grovetown is a New York Times columnist’s wet dream, a city where every day is July 1, 1964, and racism is emboldened enough to act outside the veneer of ‘economic anxiety.’ Hap and Leonard learn even before their arrival that the Klu Klux Klan is “alive and well” in Grovetown, and they’ve no more than parked in the town square before their windshield is shattered and their car painted with racist slurs. In his books, Joe Lansdale has always offered his East Texas locales as a kind of perverse twist on Stephen King’s Derry, cities where the prejudices of the past were never cured and simply bubble away beneath the surface. Some places are evil, but for Lansdale, these places are also entirely human.

Mostly, though, Hap and Leonard is a celebration of familiar faces in unfamiliar places. Along for the ride this time around are Corbin Bernsen as the vicious police chief, Louis Gossett, Jr., as the leader of Grovetown’s beleagured black population, and Andrew Dice Clay – yes, that Andrew Dice Clay – as the hot-shit disc jockey whose obsession with L.C. Soothe sets everything into motion. The show’s creators, too, take on a more active participation than they have in seasons past. It’s good to have Mickle back behind the camera after a season away; no one quite understands the rhythm of the characters as he does, and his absence behind the camera in Season 2 is made more obvious by how quickly Two-Bear Mambo finds its cadence from the decades-old cold open. Co-creator Nick Damici, himself a veteran genre actor, even gets his first on-screen appearance of the series as a piss-swilling devil in the season premiere. If they were keeping him offscreen for a particular role, they chose the right one.

All told, still hard to believe that a group of creators have come together and done this amount of justice to Lansdale’s books. Hap and Leonard: The Two-Bear Mambo blends entertainment and social commentary in ways that only the best “low-brow” fiction can. If you’ve never seen the first season, or you were turned off a little by the tonal inconsisencies of Season 2, don’t sleep on Two-Bear Mambo. It’s everything the discerning genre fan could hope for.

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Matthew Monagle :Matthew is a feature writer for Film School Rejects and a freelance film critic at the Austin Chronicle. His writing can be found at /Film, RogerEbert.com, Playboy, and more.