Go’s tribute to the ’90s rave scene is still watchable as hell

Go may be a Tarantino ripoff and not strictly a film about dance music, but this suspenseful story about a botched ecstasy deal with a great electronic soundtrack still holds up. Words by JIM POE.

I just saw Go for the first time since it came out in 1999. Not sure how I managed to put it off all this time, though of course I’d always been peripherally aware of it – it’s regularly among the first mentioned whenever anyone lists movies about dance music. For some reason I thought I wouldn’t like it.

Though it was quite well-received by critics upon its release – you couldn’t exactly call it underrated – it’s always had a reputation as a Quentin Tarantino knockoff that’s more style than substance, trafficking in the then-trendiness of ’90s Los Angeles rave culture without delving too deeply. And that’s true to a degree, but once you get past those things, Go is actually quite watchable and a hell of a lot of fun. It’s a slick blend of black comedy and crime caper, with a cracking story that’s made up of three grippingly intertwining narratives.

Go is the follow-up to director Doug Liman’s beloved cult-classic debut Swingers, and is set in the same unglamorous ’90s L.A. of low-rent jobs, cheaply furnished apartments and all-night diners. However Go swaps out the retro fixation on swing and the Rat Pack for warehouse parties, ecstasy (or X, as we used to call it on the West Coast) and an electronic score by progressive icon BT. The ace soundtrack also features Air, Lionrock, Leftfield and Fatboy Slim; and makes great use of Massive Attack’s Angel.

The hundreds of revelers are all kitted out in typical late-’90s candy-raver style – adidas, ski visors, pacifiers, fluoro everything.

And whereas Swingers was more of a laid-back comedy-romance, Liman doesn’t even really try to hide Go’s debt to Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction – which was released five years earlier and was by then already a massively influential classic. It’s a blatant, loving tribute – and a very good, very skilful tribute at that. It features many of the same elements, the most obvious being the she-said/he-said/they-said episodic storyline that tells the story of a botched ecstasy deal and a violent confrontation at a rave from multiple perspectives. There are also Tarantinoesque rambling dialogues, knowing references to pop culture, deep conversations in diners, tense encounters in suburban apartments and warped comedy mixed nonchalantly with the macabre.

But once you’re down the rabbit hole of the storyline(s), you forget the comparisons and just go with it (see what I did there?). Liman and the great ensemble cast create surprisingly effective suspense from the various twists and turns and doublecrosses, with quite a few big tension-releasing laughs. Sarah Polley (who has since gone on to become an acclaimed film director) is outstanding as Ronna, a teenaged supermarket clerk who risks life and limb on a shady improvised ecstasy deal, trying to move 20 hits in a hurry so she can pay her rent and stave off eviction. Other excellent performances include Taye Diggs as the unflappable Marcus, who’s stuck with a bunch of losers on a disastrous trip to Vegas; and veteran character actor William Finchtner as a weirdo narc.

Like Human Traffic, released the same year, Go nicely juxtaposes the frustrations of working-class wage slavery with a gritty, detached view of the drug underworld. All of the characters do criminal or transgressive or sometimes terrible things while remaining human and likeable. Go also stands out among films of its ilk and of its era for featuring a tough, brave, resourceful female lead in Ronna amongst its fairly diverse cast; as well as two gay leads, Adam and Zack, who are allowed to be nuanced and dorky and even selfish, instead of the usual walking clichés with good taste.

So what doesn’t work?

There are some improbable plot twists which drag things down, including an absurd drug deal in a supermarket checkout line that’s unfortunately crucial to the plot; and some pretty standard car chases and shootouts that sometimes make Go feel like a TV movie. Though most of the dialogue is clever and sharp, some of it falls flat, or ends up being silly or cringeworthy when it’s trying too hard to be Tarantino-cool.

As for the rave itself, which is the locus point of the crisscrossed plots and the reason we’re talking about this film in the first place: It’s a big Christmas Eve shindig called Mary Sex-mas, taking place in a hangar at a suburban airstrip, complete with lasers and giant Christmas-themed figures towering over the dancefloor. Quite a few parties in LA back then were indeed that lavish.

At one point it’s mentioned that former pornstar Traci Lords is one of the promoters (why not?). The hundreds of revelers are all kitted out in typical late-’90s candy-raver style – adidas, ski visors, pacifiers, fluoro everything – romping away while BT’s music pumps away in the background. As is typical of Hollywood raves, it’s a bit too flashy, a bit too cartoonish; but a fair bit of thought went into the production and overall it’s a decent depiction of that era. The tripped-out punters trying to score X from Ronna make for some of the film’s best laughs.

So while it’s not a film about dance culture as such, the centrality of the party and those 20 hits of X to the plot makes Go worth considering alongside more dancefloor-oriented films. And once you’re in, the great story and characters will keep you invested.

Jim Poe is a writer, DJ, and editor based in Sydney. He tweets from @fivegrand1.