Sunday, July 05, 2015

Invasion U.S.A. (1985)

Chuck Norris was already one of America’s biggest box office stars before this crazy, jingoistic action movie opened at number one. Courtesy of Cannon’s Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus and featuring what may jokingly be called a screenplay co-written by Norris, INVASION U.S.A. is brainless fun with zero characterization, hardly any dialogue spoken by its star, and perhaps the worst female lead (in terms of performer and character) in the history of action movies.

Retired “Company” agent Matt Hunter (Norris) spends his life wrestling alligators and trading quips with grizzled Indian trader John Eagle (Dehl Berti) outside his shack in the Everglades. Reluctantly, he returns to active duty when hundreds of godless Commie terrorists, led by his old foe Rostov (Richard Lynch), invade the U.S.A. via Florida with a massive plan to blow up school buses, shoot up shopping malls, turn Americans against authority, and ruin Christmas.

For the most part, law enforcement is nowhere to be seen, except for a couple of government spooks (one played by Eddie Jones) and Hunter, whose condition for stopping Rostov is “I work alone.” So while hundreds of baddies roam the Sunshine State mowing down citizens, Hunter cruises aimlessly in his pickup truck with an amazing sixth sense for finding the killers, blasting them with his twin-holstered Uzis, and moving on to the next target. More often than coincidence would allow, he encounters an obnoxious female journalist, played horribly by Melissa Prophet (GOODFELLAS), who shows her gratitude at being rescued by Hunter by constantly calling him “Cowboy.”

Granted, the reporter is such an ill-conceived and superfluous character that Meryl Streep couldn’t have made her anything but an annoying appendage. But that’s the kind of perplexing mess INVASION U.S.A. is — an absurd series of setpieces in which Norris stumbles onto someone in danger and blows the bad guys away. There’s no detective work involved in which he is able to deduce where Rostov’s men will pop up next. No, he just drives around until he accidentally discovers the script’s next action scene.

Rostov’s plan, as far-fetched as it seems, would stand a better chance of succeeding if he’d just give it priority, but, noooo, he has to kill Chuck Norris first. You see, years before, Chuck had interrupted one of Rostov’s terrorist plots, and—gulp—kicked the Russian square in the face. One time. It must have been one heckuva kick, because Rostov still has nightmares about it, and refuses to fully commit himself to the invasion until Chuck is dead.

A lot of bullets fly in this movie, and director Joseph Zito (FRIDAY THE 13TH—THE FINAL CHAPTER), who previously worked with Norris on MISSING IN ACTION, at least keeps things moving quickly, tossing in a few smooth dolly shots and splashing enough blood on the screen to keep nondiscriminating audience members (like me) from getting bored. Working with a reported $10 million budget, Zito manages to get it all on the screen, photographing enough exploding houses, squibbed chests, and burning men to keep Cannon’s stunt crew plenty busy. INVASION U.S.A. may be stupid, crude, and confusing, but it certainly isn’t boring and is typical of the fun but empty-headed action movies Cannon was releasing in the 1980s.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Revenge Of The Ninja

REVENGE OF THE NINJA was a big step up for Cannon, as it was among the studio’s first films to receive a theatrical release from MGM. Cannon wanted a sequel to its smash hit ENTER THE NINJA, though REVENGE has nothing to do with it except actor Sho Kosugi is in both movies as different characters. Location filming in Salt Lake City gives REVENGE an offbeat look to match its offbeat script.

Kosugi, who played an evil ninja in ENTER, gets top billing this time as good ninja Cho Osaki, who leaves his native Tokyo for Los Angeles with his mother and his baby son Kane after the rest of his family is murdered in a ninja bloodbath. Six years later, Osaki has a successful business running a gallery of handcrafted dolls imported from the Orient. What he doesn’t know is that his business partner Braden (Arthur Roberts) is smuggling heroin inside the dolls and selling it to Italian mobster Caifano (an overacting Mario Gallo).

Braden’s plan goes awry after Kane (Kosugi’s real-life son Kane) accidentally breaks a doll, exposing the powder inside, and witnesses a murder. As if it weren’t already crazy enough, the screenplay by James Silke (AMERICAN NINJA) really goes off the rails when we learn Braden is also a ninja (!) and that he has the power to hypnotize sexy karate student Cathy (Ashley Ferrare) and get her to kidnap Kane.

REVENGE was the first action movie directed by Israeli-born Sam Firstenberg, and he immediately demonstrates a knack for staging exciting, bloody fight scenes. The massacre that opens the film gets the picture off to a rousing start, and the action-packed climax featuring Kosugi laying waste to an entire office building of henchmen is one of the best sequences in any Cannon movie. Kosugi and stunt coordinator Steve Lambert put together a succession of fun chases and fight scenes, which are glued together with a score credited to Michael W. Lewis and Robert J. Walsh that’s so infectious that Cannon used it in other movies.

Even little Kane Kosugi gets to knock some guys on their asses, though the sight of a little boy getting slapped around may surprise contemporary audiences. Firstenberg’s touch with actors is not as strong as his action chops — all the actors are either over- or under-emoting — but nobody’s watching a film called REVENGE OF THE NINJA to see Lee Strasberg exercises. Firstenberg, Silke, Kosugi, and editor Michael Duthie returned a year later in another unrelated “sequel,” NINJA III: THE DOMINATION, which added a supernatural spin to the chopsocky thrills.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Wild Wild West #1 by Richard Wormser

Surprisingly, for a television series that ran four seasons and was quite popular among young audiences, THE WILD WILD WEST spawned only one tie-in paperback. Richard Wormser's simply titled THE WILD WILD WEST was not an original work, but rather was adapted without credit from "The Night of the Double-Edged Knife," an episode from the series' black-and-white first season.

In brief, THE WILD WILD WEST was a clever combination of old-fashioned western tropes, the new spy craze born from the explosive James Bond movies, and a dash of science fiction/fantasy. HAWAIIAN EYE's Robert Conrad starred as James T. West with character actor Ross Martin (MR. LUCKY) cast as West's partner Artemus Gordon. West, a typically dashing two-fisted type, and master of disguise Gordon worked as government agents who roamed the Old West battling bad guys. During the first year, their antagonists were more or less normal killers, robbers, and bank robbers. It wasn't until the series found its bearings that it introduced kinkier villains and more way-out gimmicks, including an episode in which West was shrunk to six inches in height.

The gifted Stephen Kandel, who created con man heavy Harry Mudd for STAR TREK, penned "The Night of the Double-Edged Knife," though it's unknown why he received no credit on the Wormser book. Wormser more or less follows Kandel's basic plot, though he obviously added characters and story branches to open the story to book length. West and Gordon, whose home base is a luxury steam train, are called to investigate blackmail and murder. Namely, the killing of five men per day on a railroad being financed by Penrose (played in the episode by Harry Townes) and Adamson (Vaughn Taylor) under the direction of General Ball (Leslie Nielsen), who once was West's respected Army commander, but was washed out of the service after losing an arm.

For three days straight, the mysterious blackmailers have made good on their promise to kill five men per day until Penrose and Adamson meet their demand for $50,000 in gold smelted into railroad spikes. Under suspicion is American Knife (John Drew Barrymore), a Dartmouth-educated Cheyenne who claims to be taking the fall for the real killer, a white man. Wormser keeps the killer's identity a mystery until the final chapters, though--perhaps in the interest of time--"Double-Edged Knife" reveals it at the beginning of the third act.

Wormser mostly does a good job capturing the humor and the derring-do of the television series, especially in adapting Robert Conrad's voice for the page. His biggest misstep is his characterization of Gordon, who is not West's equal in the novel, but instead a deferential employee. To pad the page count, West and Gordon have a butler, who's addicted to gambling at cards, always with a few aces up his sleeves.

Unfortunately, this 1966 novel was Signet's only WILD WILD WEST book, though Wormser went on to write TV tie-ins of THE GREEN HORNET, THE HIGH CHAPARRAL, and THE MOST DEADLY GAME, as well as a few movie novelizations and a lot of pulp fiction, sometimes under the name Ed Friend. Gold Key did release a handful of WILD WILD WEST comic books during the late 1960s through the show's cancellation in 1969.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The French Atlantic Affair

ABC’s adaptation of Ernest Lehman’s 1977 novel THE FRENCH ATLANTIC AFFAIR does not get off to a promising start with LOVE BOAT-esque main titles (“in alphabetical order”) and a startlingly phony opening shot of a cut-out photograph of a cruise ship pasted to a monitor showing the New York City skyline. At least the long scroll of television stars and character actors shows promise of high camp (and Phill Norman’s titles won an Emmy, by the way).

The talented Douglas Heyes, a former MAVERICK and TWILIGHT ZONE veteran who adapted Lehman’s book and directed, doesn’t let us down, starting with KOJAK’s Telly Savalas as a charismatic cult leader in a flashy medallion who amazingly dresses, smokes, and acts more like the Savalas in the “If” video than Jim Jones. At least Heyes doesn’t leave us hanging. Before the first commercial break, a velvet-tuxedoed Savalas informs Louis Jourdan (GIGI), the captain of the SS Marseilles, that he and his followers, most of whom are posing as passengers, have taken the luxury liner hostage.

While we all wait with baited breath to find out Telly’s end game, life aboard goes on, including — of course — a masquerade party that gives us the unique spectacle of Chad Everett in a dog costume. The MEDICAL CENTER star is THE FRENCH ATLANTIC AFFAIR’s male lead, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and journalist traveling with his estranged young son, who luckily smuggled aboard his ham radio, which is forbidden on a French ship. Savalas lured Chad aboard through false pretenses, as he wants the writer to tell the world his final story. Not that Everett, whose scenes with Savalas look like Battling Medallions, gets too worked up over the crisis. He even finds time for a haircut.

In typical disaster-movie fashion (really, that’s what THE FRENCH ATLANTIC AFFAIR is), Heyes tells us the backstories of the supporting cast, which includes Mama Michelle Phillips as Jenny Your Cruise Director, John Rubinstein (CRAZY LIKE A FOX) and Rebecca Balding (LOU GRANT) as a young couple, Shelley Winters as — what else — a blowsy old lady, Carolyn Jones (THE ADDAMS FAMILY) as a seasick passenger, and Stella Stevens as the suspicious wife of one of Telly’s flock.

ABC aired the miniseries in three parts over a November Thursday, Friday, and Sunday to unimposing ratings. The second part really drags, as Heyes takes the story off the ship to follow Richard Jordan’s (THE CAPTAINS AND THE KINGS) negotiations with cruise line execs Donald Pleasence (HALLOWEEN) and James Coco (MURDER BY DEATH) for the ransom and thinktankers Richard Anderson (THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN) and John Houseman’s (THE PAPER CHASE) efforts to learn the extortionists’ identities.

It’s unclear if one can criticize an actor for overacting when everyone is doing it, but Everett and Savalas seem to be in a fierce scenery-chewing competition with Jordan trying to catch up. Strangely, it’s amusing when Telly does it and just plain bad when Chad does it. As is often the case, there’s a pretty good two-hour movie buried in Heyes’ six-hour miniseries. I’m sure we all could have done without Coco’s petulant resignation from the cruise ship company because Pleasence made fun of his fat ass.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Abby

ABBY is one of the most obscure blaxploitation movies of the 1970s, due to American International Pictures coming out on the wrong end of a lawsuit instigated by Warner Brothers. Warners claimed this unintentionally hilarious ripoff of THE EXORCIST infringed upon its copyright, and somehow a judge agreed. Considering the dozens of movies that are no less similar to THE EXORCIST than ABBY is, but were allowed to unreel in theaters without resistance, it’s unknown why Warners picked ABBY to bully. Unless it’s because AIP was making big money on ABBY, which was an enormous success in its short theatrical run despite how silly it is.

William Girdler, the twentysomething director of ASYLUM OF SATAN and THREE ON A MEATHOOK, shot ABBY in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. It’s difficult to guess which of those films induced good actors like Carol Speed, Terry Carter, William Marshall, Juanita Moore, and Austin Stoker (who also starred in Girdler’s COMBAT COPS aka PANIC CITY aka THE GET MAN) to perform this particular screenplay in Louisville. They work hard and take the material seriously — perhaps more so than it deserves — but the reality is that ABBY is more funny than scary. Stuck with a very low budget, Girdler’s po’-faced approach to an absurd story turned out to be wrong, and ABBY lacks the horrific atmosphere necessary to set the story on its edge.

While exploring some African ruins, holy man/archeologist Garnet Williams (Marshall, who was also Blacula) uncovers a horny evil spirit named Eshu. Somehow (don’t ask me) it makes its way to Louisville (!), where it invades the body of Abby (Speed), the sweet newlywed wife of Reverend Emmett Williams (Carter, then a regular on MCCLOUD), Garnet’s son. Before you can say “the power of Christ compels you,” Abby has transformed into an ugly, cruel, foul-mouthed sex machine, frightening the elderly church organist into a fatal heart attack and cruising singles bars in search of carnal debauchery. For some reason, nobody notices Abby’s green makeup or the fact that she speaks in a raspy male voice (provided by Bob Holt) when under Eshu’s spell. I’m pretty sure the cast during production didn’t know Speed was going to be dubbed.

The sight of little Carol Speed foaming at the mouth, swearing like a drunken sailor, and tossing grown men around like rag dolls is impossible to take seriously. On one hand, one feels guilty mocking ABBY, since Girdler is nothing if not sincere in his intent to create a work of ghastly horror. Being as he was usually able to get name actors to work for him, there must have been something about his personality that attracted them, because they certainly couldn‘t have been impressed with his films. And ABBY‘s cast really does shine, struggling as they do with the silly script by Girdler and Cornell G. Layne. Marshall does his best to anchor the film in some sort of reality, spouting his Eshu expertise as if he really believed it, while Carter and Stoker as Abby’s cop brother provide fine support.

On the other hand, Robert O. Ragland’s inappropriately funky score, some very cheap sets, and some of the most painful wardrobe choices this side of Chad Everett on MEDICAL CENTER prevent ABBY’s audience from experiencing any emotion except giggly amusement. Let’s face it—the sight of an innocent-looking young woman possessed by demonic forces and compelled to spit up green foam, curse, emit a sinister laugh, and latch on to the honkers of total strangers is intrinsically ridiculous. THE EXORCIST managed to pull it off because of the brilliant filmmakers—such as William Friedkin, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Dick Smith and William Peter Blatty—involved with that production. It’s to Marshall’s credit that you almost buy it in ABBY, but Girdler ain’t no Hurricane Billy.

Girdler followed ABBY with another blaxploitation film — the unsuccessful SHEBA, BABY with Pam Grier in the title role — and then four more movies in the horror and science fiction veins, culminating in the bizarre THE MANITOU. Girdler died just before THE MANITOU’s 1978 release in a helicopter accident while scouting locations in the Philippines. He was just 30 years old. ABBY has never been legally available on home video, though a few bootlegs have slipped out over the years, and a random theatrical screening pops up occasionally, presumably under Warner’s radar.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Nashville Girl

I can imagine Southern drive-in audiences lapping up this New World release. Roger Corman put it in theaters as both NASHVILLE GIRL and, in Northern theaters, where audiences were presumably less enchanted with country music, NEW GIRL IN TOWN. Years later, after COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER was a smash hit, NASHVILLE GIRL found more playdates under the title COUNTRY MUSIC DAUGHTER. Now that’s exploitation. Gus Trikonis, a former dancer and husband to Goldie Hawn, directed it in the same professional style as his other New World pictures, THE EVIL and MOONSHINE COUNTY EXPRESS.

Softcore star Monica Gayle, who had earned a small fanbase among the drive-in crowd after appearing in films like SWITCHBLADE SISTERS and THE EROTIC ADVENTURES OF PINOCCHIO, takes the title role of jailbait Jamie, a product of a strict Baptist upbringing who runs away from her hillbilly home and hitches with a pair of truckers to Nashville to become a country-western star. After her brothers beat up her rapist and her dad takes a strap to her for listening to the radio in church, 16-year-old Jamie leaves the country for the big city, only to be pawed and groped by almost every man she meets.

She meets a friend while showering at the YWCA, loses her, meets another while serving a prison sentence for prostitution, is pawed by a lesbian guard, gets paroled, bounces around from one sleazebag record producer to another, loses her virginity to another sleazebag, and finally signs a personal contract with a country singer (Glenn Corbett of ROUTE 66) with a penchant for young girls.

Like many exploitation movies from the 1970s, rape and statutory rape are treated casually, and without the sleazier elements, NASHVILLE GIRL would probably fit well as a made-for-TV movie. Gayle, a better actress than the material she was usually given, handles Jamie’s arc quite well, graduating from naive country girl to country music superstar with aplomb. Corbett, busy hoping from one television guest shot to another, probably relished the opportunity to tackle an edgier role (and being surrounded by so many nude actresses was probably fun).

Singer Johnny Rodriguez and songwriters Rory Bourke, Gene Dobbins, and John Wills give Trikonis’ expose a stamp of approval, even though it’s a roaring indictment of the music industry. The songs are pretty good, and I wonder if a NASHVILLE GIRL soundtrack album ever existed. Marvel Comics writer Gary Friedrich, the co-creator of Ghost Rider, penned a softcore novelization of producer Peer J. Oppenheimer’s script that contains even more sex than the film does.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

River Of Death

Cannon released this Alistair MacLean adaptation that’s somewhat of a change of pace for action star Michael Dudikoff (AMERICAN NINJA) in that it’s a period piece that contains no martial arts. It seems tailor-made for Cannon stalwart Chuck Norris, but reports say Robert Ginty and Christopher Walken were considered for the leading role. Dudikoff had just been in a pretty good Vietnam War flick for the studio called PLATOON LEADER, so it was natural he would get the call for this.

A prologue set during the final days of World War II finds sadistic mad scientist Manteuffel (U.N.C.L.E. man Robert Vaughn) and Nazi officer Spaatz (Donald Pleasence) planning to escape to South America to continue the doctor’s experiments to perfect a deadly virus with which to conquer the world. During a firefight, Manteuffel double-crosses his friend, shooting him and leaving him for dead. Twenty years later, John Hamilton (Dudikoff) leads a physician and his daughter into the Amazon jungle to discover the origin of a fatal disease that is decimating the Indian tribes. In an attack, the doctor is killed and the daughter captured; only Hamilton manages to escape to civilization.

Despite his cynical exterior and world-weary attitude, Hamilton is determined to rescue the girl, even though everyone, including his friend Hiller (L.Q. Jones) and the local police chief, Diaz (Herbert Lom), tries to convince him she is dead. An incognito Spaatz joins Hamilton’s party, as do his sexy young lover Maria (Cynthia Erland), an interpreter, a chopper pilot, a pair of rebels, Hiller, and a couple of others. Their destination is a legendary lost city of the Incas, but, to reach there safely, they must contend with cannibals, pirates, sneak attacks, plagues, and a few more double-crosses.

There’s much to like about RIVER OF DEATH, even though it isn’t as good as it should be. MacLean’s excellent premise is treated decently (though not completely faithfully) by adapters Andrew Deutsch (PLATOON LEADER) and Edward Simpson, and director Steve Carver (LONE WOLF MCQUADE) shows a steady hand directing his cast of crafty veterans through their obligatory action scenes.

The decision to have Dudikoff provide dollops of existential narration, a la Martin Sheen in APOCALYPSE NOW, doesn’t really work, and the action sequences, though plentiful, could have used more bite, particularly the climax, which feels like a letdown after we’ve been slogging through a treacherous jungle for 100 minutes. I imagine it was felt that Dudikoff’s martial arts talents would feel anachronistic in the 1960s setting, but hiring Robert Vaughn and Donald Pleasence to play Nazis is hardly the right move for an adventure film with ambitions of being “realistic.” The performances are fine, once you accept that most of the supporting actors are miscast, which provides this pulpy ride with an added level of fun, to be truthful.