Well-Hanging Offense: Josh Lucas Talks About Ron Launius

This is a 2004 review from the Sydney Morning Herald. I guess this article is from when the DVD came out.

I wonder which cop Josh Lucas talked to regarding “story after story” of Ron Launius. I wonder if it was Sacramento cop Beder Clifton, or one of the L.A. cops. I wonder what exaggerated stories he was told? Or, were they true stories?

Also, it looks like they made the movie in a few weeks. Lucas was only there filming for 8 days.


Well-hanging offence

Val Kilmer had big pants to fill when playing porn star John Holmes in his darkest days, reports Sacha Molitorisz.

Director James Cox
Stars Val Kilmer, Josh Lucas, Lisa Kudrow, Kate Bosworth, Tim Blake Nelson
Rated MA | Screening Now

Actor Josh Lucas has never been on a film shoot as intense as Wonderland. In the drama, based on a true story, Lucas’s character is a low-life crook with an appetite for cocaine and violence.

“This was a very difficult film for me, even though I was only involved for eight days,” says the Hulk star and Salma Hayek squeeze. “It was the only time I ever felt haunted. The character I played was so dark.

“Actually, I was finding it hard to get a handle on him, so I sat down with a cop who knew him quite well, and he told me story after story. So then I got a real sense, and from then on I was haunted.

“It was eight days of nastiness, in which I was discovering the head space of someone that high and violent and dangerous.”

Lucas’s character is Ron Launius, a pistol-wielding, drug-snorting psycho who was not the sort of bloke you’d bring home to meet your mother. Unless you wanted your mum’s legs broken.

A ringleader of a drug-dealing gang that took up residence in a house on Wonderland Avenue, Los Angeles, Launius died as violently as he had lived. In 1981, Launius and three of his pals were murdered in a crime that remains unsolved. Like the Sharon Tate bloodbath, it has become a defining moment in US criminal history.

“We all saw the crime scene footage,” says Lucas. “This was the first time the LAPD used video cameras at a crime scene, and we saw it. It’s like the worst movie you could ever see.”

Director James Cox hasn’t sugar-coated the brutality of the film, shot in only 21 days with a limited budget of reportedly $US5 million ($6.5 million), although Lucas puts the figure closer to $US2 million.

Instead, Cox has made a clever film, a nod to the Kurosawa classic Rashomonthat takes in several perspectives of the crime and culminates with the slayings.

“I’m gonna be straight with you,” says Lucas. “I love this movie, but there’s a level of violence there that’s not for everyone, and it captures the drug use and malevolence and nastiness with an extraordinary honesty. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s up there with Taxi Driver in many ways.

“And one of the things that fascinated me is it captures the transition from the playful free-love, free-drug element of the ’70s to the nasty greed-is-good, cocaine element of the ’80s.

“I think that crime really was the beginning of the shift. Cocaine was a horrific drug, and these people were some of the main suppliers at that point. The murders showed just how evil that edge can be.

“So I think this movie is very hard-core.”

Hard-core is a good description, especially as one of the most intriguing aspects of the murders is the involvement of John Holmes, aka Johnny Wadd, aka the man with the imposing appendage, who starred in hundreds of porn films and bedded thousands of women.

By the time of the Wonderland Avenue murders, Holmes had stopped making porn and dived into drugs. And before the blood had dried, rumours started circulating that Holmes was somehow involved in the murders, if not an active participant.

Accordingly, six months after the killings, he was arrested in Florida and charged. Soon after, he was acquitted. The crime was still unsolved when Holmes died of AIDS in 1988.

“Holmes is obviously one of the great Shakespearean characters,” says Lucas. “He was a pedophile, a rapist, a thief, a murderer, a porn star – and he was cocky and playful to boot.”

So is Lucas convinced Holmes was involved?

“In a way, the film might have solved the crime,” he says. “The filmmakers got Sharon [Holmes’s wife, played by Lisa Kudrow] to admit that John had showed up at her house covered in blood. After all these years of research and talking, they’re the first to ever really tie this crime to John.”

Whatever happened, Wonderland is a superior crime film. The retro soundtrack and aesthetic are exceptional, the script is clever and engaging and the performances are excellent. Lucas, for one, is brilliant.

Still, the central performance of the film belongs to Val Kilmer, as John Holmes. Kilmer manages to be cheeky, arrogant, dissembling, obnoxious and awful, and yet still charismatic.

Kilmer, like Russell Crowe, has a reputation for being prickly on set.

Lucas has now worked with both men, having co-starred with Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. How did Lucas find Kilmer, and how did he find Crowe?

“Actually, I experienced the same thing with Val as I did with Russell,” says Lucas. “When an actor is extremely dedicated to a character and a film, they will often be destructive towards anything they feel gets in the way of that.

“Val brought that to this film, and he asked that of the rest of us. So now he’s one of my favourite people to work with, because this film was a terrific collaboration.

“He was so deeply committed to creating his character, and in that process I developed a high respect for him. And the same is true of Russell.”