Saturday, August 30, 2014

Fast Gun

Nobody has ever been fooled by director/producer Cirio H. Santiago’s many attempts to pass off the Philippines as authentic American locations, but then again, he was never one for verisimilitude.

The small California town depicted in FAST GUN is nothing more than unconvincing plywood facades propped up on a short stretch of dirt road in some Manila park. Signs on the “buildings” look the same and have generic names like “Supermart,” “Farm Fresh,” and “Tapes.” No sidewalks or parking lots. Santiago didn’t even spring for glass in the windows, thinking we’d never notice the squares of white cardboard. And because most of the film is set in this town, we get a very good look at the laughable exteriors. At least Santiago blows it all up at the end. But will you still be paying attention?

As with most of Santiago’s output in the 1980s, Roger Corman bankrolled FAST GUN and probably insisted on actors Richard Hill (DEATHSTALKER) and Kaz Garas (THE DEVASTATOR), who had starred in earlier Corman/Santiago productions. Likewise, Robert Dryer (SAVAGE STREETS) was in Santiago’s BEHIND ENEMY LINES. It’s safe to say that the cast, except perhaps for leading lady Brenda Bakke (SOLAR CRISIS), knew what they were getting into — barely controlled chaos, sloppy storytelling, and lots of action.

Jack Stieger (Hill, who later ghostwrote Pete Rose’s autobiography) is a badass cop who can blow up any aircraft with just three shots of his revolver. He and deputy Cowboy (Morgan Strickland) are the only law in Granite Lake, where violent arms thieves led by Nelson (Dryer) are hiding out after ripping off Army bases (that are oddly manned by Filipino soldiers). Local rich guy Jessup (Ken Metcalfe), the mayor (Anthony East), Garas, and half the U.S. Army are in on it. When Jack gets too close, the mayor takes his badge.

The plan backfires, because it means Jack is no longer tied to rules and legalities when he goes all vigilante on their asses. FAST GUNS is impossible to take seriously because of its rickety nature. Instead of springing for cheap metal badges, the cops have yellow stars sewed to their shirts. The dubbing was probably performed by secretaries and staff in Corman’s office. FAST GUN is barely 70 minutes long and probably half of it is action — clumsily staged as it may be — so it’s worth laughing at. Not the highest recommendation, but Santiago was directing an average of three films per year at this time, so what response was he expecting?

Friday, August 29, 2014

Cave In!

Irwin Allen was pretty much done as the “Master of Disaster” by the time he produced this made-for-TV tripe in 1979, the same year he made BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. NBC waited four years to finally air it, and who cared about Irwin Allen in 1983? CAVE IN! got worse ratings than reruns of THE JEFFERSONS, NEWHART, and TRAPPER JOHN, M.D. on CBS.

Allen and director Georg Fenady (EMERGENCY!), perhaps suspecting it was a dud, kicks off CAVE IN! in media res with a car chase scored wacka-wacka-style by Richard LaSalle. Psycho killer James Olson (MOON ZERO TWO) escapes the fuzz on his tail and slips away into a cave played by Bronson Caverns on the outside and a phony-looking Warner Brothers soundstage set on the inside. Oh, and the cave is covered in phosphorous of various colors to explain how everyone can see each other.

Buried within are park ranger Dennis Cole (FELONY SQUAD), state senator Susan Sullivan (CASTLE), a cop (Leslie Nielsen) mourning his dead partner, Nielsen’s wife Julie Sommars (THE GOVERNOR AND J.J.), hectoring professor Ray Milland (playing the same barking asshat he played every day in the 1970s), and Milland’s wallflower daughter Sheila Larken (THE YOUNG LAWYERS).

All get melodramatic flashbacks, de rigeur for the disaster genre, as though anything else in their lives could be as interesting as getting trapped in a cave. William Bryant and Lonny Chapman play crusty park rangers who...well, I was going to say “work to help from the surface,” but they don’t really do anything except open a gate and keep an ambulance on standby. Don’t bother to guess who lives and who dies.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Heat (1987)

Undoubtedly one of Burt Reynolds’ worst experiences as a filmmaker, HEAT had to be finished by Jerry Jameson (AIRPORT ‘77) after director Dick Richards (FAREWELL, MY LOVELY) got into a fistfight with Reynolds on the set (Richards later returned, got hurt, and left the production again). Richards wasn’t even the original director--Robert Altman was. As many as three other directors may have worked on the picture too.

Based on a novel by Academy Award winner William Goldman (ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN), who also wrote the screenplay, HEAT should have been so much better than it is, but it’s tough to make a good movie when the star and director are punching each other in the face. It was also the beginning of Burt’s downhill slide as a leading man, and so HEAT feels small like a B-movie. It also feels shapeless and aimless, as though many scenes that would have held the story together were never shot. Which wouldn’t surprise me, considering the backstage woes.

Goldman creates parallel stories for Nick Escalante, the Las Vegas “chaperone” played by Reynolds and nicknamed “Mex.” Neither story is for high stakes. If you believe that a film should be about the biggest day in its protagonist’s life, Mex must be a dull boy. One story has him getting payback on a cocky young son (Neill Barry) of a Mafioso who roughed up his young hooker friend Holly (Karen Young). The same night he ends up in a warehouse throwing down with a bunch of Barry’s boys, Mex also teaches rich wimp Cyrus (Peter MacNicol) how to be a tough guy.

Diana Scarwid pops in for a nothing role as a blackjack dealer, and Howard Hesseman is very good as a shyster attorney who shares an office with Mex. Both add considerably to the film, which doesn’t appear to know how to use them. Reynolds is just as terrific as he ever was, aging gracefully into a role that calls for a worldweariness that he hadn’t had to play up to that point in his career. Burt was still a movie star. It wasn’t his fault the pictures got small.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Five Card Stud

This Paramount release falls into that rare subgenre of serial killer/murder mystery westerns. It’s a little stodgy perhaps, especially considering the new wave of violent, political westerns coming out of Europe at the time, but 1968's FIVE CARD STUD is great entertainment, propelled by its terrific cast, odd Maurice Jarre score, and unusual premise.

Rincon, Colorado. 1880. A poker game involving laidback professional gambler Van Morgan (Dean Martin) comes to a violent end when one of the players is accused of cheating. Despite the protestations of Morgan (who is hit in the head and knocked out trying to stop it) and young, black bartender George (Yaphet Kotto), the other five players lynch their cheating companion, who is buried in an unmarked grave.

Several weeks later, Rincon is struck by a series of gruesome murders in which the victims are strangled or smothered or hanged. All the victims were members of the lynching party, which the rest of Rincon knows nothing about. Morgan, who’s carrying on dual romances with virginal Nora (Katherine Justice) and prostitute Lily (Inger Stevens) and a feud with Nora’s sociopathic brother Nick (Roddy McDowall), another member of the lynch mob, decides to find the murderer before he becomes the next victim. Adding to the mystery is Rincon’s new preacher, the odd but kindly Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum).

Although director Henry Hathaway (TRUE GRIT) throws in a couple of gunfights and one fairly violent fistfight between Martin and McDowall to satisfy the oater fans, FIVE CARD STUD is more or less an Agatha Christie mystery with spurs. Its major weakness is that it’s fairly obvious early on who the killer is—there just aren’t many suspects to choose from—although watching Martin slowly put the clues together is kind of fun. He and Mitchum, both among the most relaxed movie stars of their generation, work well together, fostering an uneasy, polite relationship between the man-of-God-with-a-past and the nomadic cardsharp.

They’re supported by a nifty cast of western veterans, including John Anderson, Roy Jenson, Bill Fletcher, Denver Pyle, Whit Bissell, and Don Collier, but the most interesting performances come from unexpected sources. Thirty-year-old Kotto is wonderfully warm as bartender George, a loyal friend to Morgan who is treated as an equal, still an unusual sight in a late-1960s western. Also great is McDowall, who may not have been appearing in his first western, but he certainly didn’t make many. As the venal and vicious Nick (and obvious red herring), McDowall makes the most of his rivalry with Martin, emerging as the film’s most hateful character.

Dino, who had already started making Matt Helm movies and starring in THE DEAN MARTIN SHOW, seems to have taken his role seriously for a change. He made this and BANDOLERO!, another western shot in Mexico, the same year. Martin also performed the catchy theme, written by Jarre and Ned Washington.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Final Voyage

FINAL VOYAGE is a direct-to-video thriller that manages to rip off UNDER SIEGE, which was a ripoff of DIE HARD. Amazingly, director Jim Wynorski got Erika Eleniak, who was in UNDER SIEGE, to star in it. It’s one of many action movies made in the late 1990s: a time when independent studios often bought stock footage of setpieces from studio movies and wrote a story around them (for instance, shots from DEEP RISING and, I think, NAVY SEALS). That practice dried up a few years later when the producer of CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER saw one of his action sequences on a JAG episode and went apeshit.

The charisma-challenged Dylan Walsh (CONGO) stars in FINAL VOYAGE as professional bodyguard Aaron Carpenter, who, after screwing up a job in the opening scene (although it appears to me as though he did okay), receives an even better gig (!) protecting an heiress (Eleniak) on a cruise ship. Unfortunately, the ship is the target of terrorists led by Josef (Ice-T) and slinky Max (Claudia Christian).

What’s really amazing about FINAL VOYAGE is how shoddy the production looks. The cruise ship rarely has more than a handful of extras, the “bowels” of the ship were obviously filmed in some sort of factory or refinery (check out the concrete walls), and every other scene features the same prop life preserver hanging on the wall—one that misspells the name of the ship!

If you’re looking for an exciting action movie, avoid this voyage at all costs, but if you don’t mind mocking the multitude of continuity errors (keep your eye on the shoulder Walsh gets shot in), cheap sets, clunky dialogue, and mismatched stock footage (one lengthy sequence borrows quite heavily from JUGGERNAUT, a movie made 25 years earlier!), you could have a good time with it.

While the movie is nothing to get excited about, the audio commentary track on the out-of-print Artisan DVD is. Wynorski and (especially) Christian have a rollicking time ripping the movie to shreds, "MSTing" everything from Ice-T's acting deficiencies to the ludicrous plot contrivances to, of course, that damned life preserver. It's one of the most entertaining commentaries I've listened to, and I agree with Wynorski when he says it's ten times more entertaining than the film.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Horror Express

This gory Spanish thriller marked the sixteenth time that British horror icons Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing appeared in the same film. It is said that HORROR EXPRESS was made because producer Bernard Gordon owned the model train and the sets built for PANCHO VILLA and needed to do something with them (the miniature effects in HORROR EXPRESS are excellent).

The plot by Julian Zimet and Arnaud d’Usseau, who also wrote PSYCHOMANIA together, is farfetched and the science is dubious, to say the least, but fast-paced direction by Eugenio Martin (PANCHO VILLA) and a thrilling score by John Cacavas (THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA) make HORROR EXPRESS a very entertaining ride. Do I need to mention the expert thesping by the British dynamic duo at the top of the bill and Telly Savalas’ hammy turn as a crude Cossack?

1906 China. Rival scientists Sexton (Lee) and Wells (Cushing) are traveling aboard a Trans-Siberian express train. So is a horrific-looking two-million-year-old iceman from outer space that is killing passengers just by looking at them. Sexton found it frozen in the Manchurian ice and was trying to secretly transport it back to Europe. Lee plays him as an arrogant snob, which is a terrific counterbalance to Cushing’s livelier, more humorous turn as the surgeon Wells.

Of course, a monster needs victims, and Martin has stocked his train with more than enough, including a mad monk (Alberto de Mendoza), a spy (Helga Line), and a gorgeous Russian countess (Silvia Tortosa). In act three, after the creature has plowed its way through most of the cast, Savalas (KOJAK) jumps aboard as Cossack captain Kazan, who not only brings with him an army of monster fodder, but also could care less which humans die, just so long as he can take the creature with them.

Spotted with splashes of blood, HORROR EXPRESS is blessed with a really cool monster that flashes a crimson eye during its attacks. Its victims gasp, bleed from their eyes and nose, and die in terror as their eyes turn white like they’re being boiled. Wells’ autopsy shows their brains have turned completely smooth (“like a baby’s bottom”), because the monster absorbs all its victims’ thoughts. I told you the movie’s science was dubious. At least it gives us wonderful howlers like, “You saw his eyes! One look at them, and you’re dead!”

Clever twists and dark humor abound in HORROR EXPRESS, but it’s hard to imagine the film working without its lead tandem of Lee and Cushing. Usually in movies in which the two share scenes, like Hammer’s Dracula series, they play antagonists, but HORROR EXPRESS allows them to work together as a team, despite their characters’ disparate personalities (Cushing pleading with a cockblocking Lee to find a different berth so he can score with a pretty young woman is delightful). Nice little horror movie filmed in Madrid.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Striking Distance

Pittsburgh is the setting for this routine crime thriller by Rowdy Herrington, the director of ROAD HOUSE. Originally filmed as THREE RIVERS, it was reshaped a bit during post-production and rechristened with a more action-oriented title. Outside of a couple of decent chase scenes (one of which was recycled in Jim Wynorski’s ABLAZE), STRIKING DISTANCE is memorable only for its bonanza of kickass character actors.

Tom Hardy (Bruce Willis) is a Pittsburgh police detective. It’s in his blood—his father, two uncles, and three cousins are cops too. Two years after his father (FRASIER pop John Mahoney) is murdered by a serial killer and his cousin Jimmy (Robert Pastorelli from MURPHY BROWN) commits suicide in disgrace, Tom is reduced to wearing shorts on river patrol and generally just not giving a damn. Until it appears that the strangler that stalked Pittsburgh two years earlier is back and targeting Tom’s former girlfriends, even though a man was convicted of those earlier crimes and is sentenced to die in the electric chair.

The screenplay by Herrington and Martin Kaplan (THE DISTINGUISHED GENTLEMAN) is full of red herrings, flashbacks, and wild coincidences. It also conjures up a weirdo killer who tortures his victims by playing his theme song, Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs’ “Little Red Riding Hood.”

Hardy suspects the killer is a cop, but gets the runaround from his uncle Nick (the great Dennis Farina), a department bigwig. Everyone on the force thinks he’s a rat for testifying against Jimmy on a police brutality charge, so the only help Tom can rely on is his new partner, a rookie named Jo Christman (Parker). Also co-starring are Tom Sizemore (SAVING PRIVATE RYAN) as Farina's other cop son, Brion James (BLADE RUNNER), Timothy Busfield (THIRTYSOMETHING), Andre Braugher (BROOKLYN NINE-NINE), and Tom Atkins (THE FOG) in one scene as another Hardy uncle.

STRIKING DISTANCE is…okay. It’s a failure as a mystery, because we know Bruce Willis is always right, and it doesn’t take an experienced filmgoer to be able to figure out the real killer’s identity. However, everyone plays it seriously, aside from a few de rigeur Willis one-liners, and Herrington, if nothing else, knows how to pace an action movie. Nope, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense—what’s the killer’s obsession with that song?—but the movie is painless, occasionally exciting, and gives a lot of interesting actors something to do. It didn’t fare well with audiences or critics in the fall of 1993, but I think it plays a little better than that.