Monday, May 25, 2015

Out On Bail

Robert Ginty (THE EXTERMINATOR) stars as John Dee, a drifter (or is he?) who arrives in a rural Tennessee town via freight train and immediately runs into trouble with the local cops Rambo-style. The corrupt sheriff, Taggart, is played by a bad actor named Tom Badal, who seems to have gotten the part only because A) he co-wrote the movie and B) he physically resembles actor Jack Starrett, who played the brutal deputy who tortured Rambo in FIRST BLOOD.

Taggart and the equally corrupt mayor (Russ Meyer regular Stuart Lancaster, masquerading as “Leo Sparrowhawk”) are operating a narcotics ring and frame Dee for a mass murder at the local diner. Temporarily finding refuge at a motel run by single mom Sally Anne (Kathy Shower, 1986’s Playmate of the Year), Dee quickly learns the only way out of his fix is to expose the crooked government.

Although OUT ON BAIL feels a little flabby in its second act, the chases and stunts that bookend the movie are handled well enough by veteran director Gordon Hessler (SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN) and second unit director Neal Sundstrom (HOWLING V: THE REBIRTH) to make this little Trans World Entertainment release worth a watch.

For those who don’t mind a few unintended laughs, it’s fun to giggle at the off-the-wall portrayal of rural Tennessee by the producers and crew in South Africa, where OUT ON BAIL was filmed — an ersatz handprinted “Tennesse” license plate being just one example. Ginty handles himself fine, as usual, while Shower does little but pine and pose topless. Sydney Lassick (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST) is a reliably weird public defender. But not as weird as Hessler's half-ass attempt to convince us John Dee is some kind of avenging spirit from beyond.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Outfit

The underrated action director John Flynn (ROLLING THUNDER) adapted Donald E. Westlake’s 1963 novel THE OUTFIT for MGM, changing the protagonist’s name from Parker to Earl Macklin in the process.

The screenplay is refreshingly free of excess baggage, outside of Karen Black’s superfluous turn as Macklin’s woman, and Flynn turns it into a lean, tough crime drama jammed with punchy dialogue, quick violence, and a wry sense of humor. Robert Duvall (a year after THE GODFATHER) and WALKING TALL’s Joe Don Baker are an efficient team that harkens back to the day when badasses could make a stronger statement with a .38 than later wannabe-tough guys could with an armory of automatic weapons.

Macklin (Duvall) is a bank robber just out of the joint who quickly learns “the Outfit” has gunned down his brother and partner in a heist. One of the gunmen (Felice Orlandi, playing a guy named Orlandi) tries to nail Earl too, but fails, earning a glass bottle smashed across his face.

Orlandi tells Earl the hits have been ordered by mobster Mailer (Robert Ryan, who died of cancer the year THE OUTFIT came out) in retaliation for the Macklin brothers knocking off a bank filled with Outfit money. Earl decides to go on offense, picking up Jack Cody (Baker), the third partner in the heist, and busting up Outfit money drops all over California until Mailer ponies up a hefty ransom.

In addition to crafting a nifty noir scenario and directing tautly (with strong help from action coordinator Ronnie Rondell), Flynn assembled a remarkable supporting cast that deserves its own paragraph: Richard Jaeckel (THE DIRTY DOZEN), Sheree North (CHARLEY VARRICK), Timothy Carey, Bill McKinney, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook Jr., Jane Greer, Joanna Cassidy, Henry Jones, Tony Young, Roy Jenson, Tom Reese, Jeannine Riley, and boxer Archie Moore.

Not having read Westlake’s novel (written under his regular pseudonym of Richard Stark), I can’t say how many clever little touches are original to the film. I love the matter-of-fact manner in which these underworld figures relate, because dishing out death is just a job of work to them. Hence, Duvall acquiescing to Orlandi’s request for a hankerchief for his bloody face and Jenson’s request to be belted on the left side of his head because of a bad right ear. Macklin’s mission is nothing personal. Until he reaches Mailer, that is.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Enforcer From Death Row

“Have fun and stay sober,” says the boss man to his agent tasked with saving the world from deadly terrorists. There’s no mistaking the author of dialogue that loony. It’s Leo Fong in one of the earliest Fongsploitation classics, and THE ENFORCER FROM DEATH ROW finds Leo at his Fongiest.

And right from the opening titles (they play over stock shots of San Francisco, even though the movie is set in Manila) too, which not only includes a funky blaxsploitation theme song for Leo (“He was a helluva birdman/And he’s the leader of the birds”), but also an awkwardly spliced title card in a totally different font crediting “special guest star” Cameron Mitchell, who may or may not appear in the film, depending on which version you’ll lucky enough to experience.

Yes, not see, but experience. One can not merely watch Fongsploitation. One must live it. This Fongian journey finds Fong in the role of T.L. Young, on death row for a murder he didn’t commit.

The World Organization of Peace (the WOP moniker displays prominently in the boardroom) fakes Young's death in the gas chamber and rushes him to Arizona (represented by a hilariously unofficial-looking office set) to lay out his mission. Namely, to prevent an organization calling itself Nomad from killing everyone in the Philippines with a bacteria (“stolen from Baltimore, Maryland”) unless WOP pays it $45 million. Paying T.L. (“How much money, and who do I kill?”) $100,000 to stop the plot is a real bargain.

The movie so fantastic it needed two men to direct it, ENFORCER FROM DEATH ROW came out the same year as director Efren C. Pinon’s hilarious blind-bank-robber flick BLIND RAGE (which features a pointless cameo by Fred Williamson as his Jesse Crowder character). It seems likely that credited co-director Marshall M. Borden came aboard only to shoot Cameron Mitchell’s late-in-the-game cameo.

Judging from Pinon’s other films, blame him for the obvious continuity errors (watch Fong’s mustache come and go), repeating scenes, and cartoonish “Danger Acid” set dressing. Let’s give the rest of the responsibility to the Kentucky-accented Fong for being as incompetent reciting a screenplay as he is writing one.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Top Cop

Probably the only film to pretend Little Rock, Arkansas locations are actually Washington, D.C., TOP COP is a regionally produced dud that fails in every category possible. Let’s start with the acting. A fat, clumsy, charisma-free, Old-Milwaukee-guzzling stuntman named Stephen P. Sides plays a fat, clumsy, charisma-free, Old-Milwaukee-guzzling undercover detective named Vic Malone, who is first seen singlehandedly killing child pornographers in a warehouse.

Malone and his partner Frank (Randal Files) are sent to D.C. to testify against Hot Springs crimelord Johnny Costello (Len Schlientz), a skinny, balding, middle-aged, completely non-threatening guy in a droopy mustache. Vic and Frank kill some crooks and pick up a pair of hot-for-Arkansas chicks — one of whom, Helen (Tiffany Dossey), is Johnny’s main squeeze. Frank is murdered by Johnny’s hitman, the Avenger (revealed in the stupid twist ending), and Malone is ordered to return to Little Rock after Costello is not indicted by the grand jury, before which Malone and Frank never testified.

Producer Helen Pollins wrote the screenplay, which possesses not a single original thought or line of dialogue. TOP COP is stupid and cheap (Skid Row is a burn barrel and eight guys in dirty baseball caps on the side of a country road — except for the natty old guy in suspenders who somehow knows the exact time and place of Johnny’s drug deals). The performers are ridiculous, particularly Sides’ porcine policeman, who always speaks through clenched teeth (with a gap in the middle), hates homosexuals, has no friends (except poor Frank), gets yelled at by all the angry black police captains, acts stubbornly and foolishly in every situation, and calls his new partner — a recent police academy graduate who wears glasses — an “accountant” probably ten times (it wasn’t funny the first time).

Crown International Pictures tossed TOP COP onto a DVD set over twenty years after it was made. No chance any theaters booked it in 1990 (unless director Mark Maness owned one), and who knows whether it made it to VHS. Why would anyone want to see TOP COP anyway, unless you really needed a couple of cheap laughs.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Scorpion (1986)

SCORPION is Crown International’s attempt to capitalize on the success of Cannon’s Chuck Norris vehicles. It stars another international karate champion, Tonny Tulleners, who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Norris, though not as much charisma (which is hard to believe, I know).

Oddly, Tulleners is unbilled in his film debut as American agent Steve Woods—codename: Scorpion—who is assigned by big-shot attorney Gifford Leese (Don Murray) to bodyguard a Middle Eastern terrorist who’s turning state’s evidence against his partners. After Steve’s fellow agent and childhood pal is murdered, as well as the terrorist he’s supposed to be protecting, Scorpion kicks and thumps his way across Los Angeles in an attempt to find the man responsible. His plan includes hiding the dead terrorist’s body in a ripoff of BULLITT, which will anger you as much as it does the mercurial Leese.

Although director/writer/producer William Riead seems to have been an interesting individual—he was formerly a news anchor and documentary filmmaker who made behind-the-scenes featurettes about films such as THE TERMINATOR, LONE WOLF MCQUADE (which starred Norris) and FIRST BLOOD—he isn’t much of a dramatic storyteller, staging some very lethargic action scenes within a fractured, confusing narrative.

Riead gets little help from his lackluster leading man, who didn’t follow up SCORPION with other films. Tulleners is a dreadful screen presence, but you can’t blame him for the movie’s failure to show off his karate skills. It seems weird to hire a karate champion for your movie and not let him do any good action scenes. Perhaps to pick up Tulleners’ slack, Riead surrounded the star with a steady cast, including top-billed Murray (BUS STOP), Robert Logan, Allen Williams (LOU GRANT), John Anderson, Robert Colbert (THE TIME TUNNEL), Ross Elliott, Bart Braverman, and John LaZar.

Believe it or not, SCORPION did receive a theatrical release, although it may have been the last for Crown International. Although the budget couldn’t have been much, Riead did go to Hawaii, Spain, and the Netherlands to shoot footage.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Doctor Of Doom

If you’re curious about the weird world of Mexican wrestling movies, DOCTOR OF DOOM is a decent way to jump in. It seems influenced by old Republic serials, full of superhero-type action, mad science, cunning death traps, and mind control. The difference between DOCTOR OF DOOM and the dozens of adventures starring famous wrestling heroes like Santo, Blue Demon, and Mil Mascaras is that the hero is a woman, Gloria Venus, played by the gorgeous Lorena Velazquez.

A mad doctor, his face always hidden to allow the audience the game of guessing his identity, is kidnapping women to use in his brain transplant experiments. All are failures, and the women die, leading the doc to deduce that he’s choosing women that are just too damn stupid to handle the strain of having their brains removed and replaced with a gorilla’s. His response is to kidnap a scientist named Alice (Sonia Infante), but she dies too.

So he figures to try experimenting on a woman who is physically strong. He chooses voluptuous lady wrestler Gloria and her new roommate Golden Ruby (Elizabeth Campbell). He botches the snatch in more ways that one, because Gloria just happens to be Alice’s sister and dating a cop, Mike (Armando Silvestre), which gives her more motivation to bring down the mad doctor’s deadly reign of doom.

American distributor K. Gordon Murray created a dubbed English soundtrack for DOCTOR OF DOOM’s television release by AIP. Because Murray preferred dialogue that matched the Mexican actors’ lip movements, rather than an accurate translation of the original dialogue, some of the lines induce wild laughter, particularly when delivered by actors replicating the over-the-top deliveries.

Not that it’s possible to get too melodramatic in a film featuring cliffhangers, a super-strong man-ape named Gomar, plenty of fistfights in rooms stocked with empty cardboard boxes, cheap sets, and a spiked-wall trap. Director Rene Cardona repeated the formula in the direct sequel, THE WRESTLING WOMEN VS. THE AZTEC MUMMY, and his son Rene Cardona Jr. remade DOCTOR OF DOOM as the gorier NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Furious Seven

Multiple locations, an overstuffed cast, and a soupcon of poignancy stand out in FURIOUS SEVEN, the first in Universal’s engine-revving series to not be directed by Justin Lin since 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS. Taking the driver’s seat this time is SAW’s James Wan, whose touch with slow-burning horror is better than his skills shooting and pacing coherent action scenes.

Star Paul Walker died in a fiery car crash during filming, and, yes, it’s a little weird to watch his character driving like an asshole, knowing what we know. Wan used doubles, including Walker’s brothers, and CGI to fill in the scenes Walker hadn’t shot yet, and the seams mostly don’t show. Despite the series’ emphasis on family and loyalty, what keeps audiences returning to these FAST AND THE FURIOUS movies are their increasingly ludicrous action scenes, which by now are no different than what you’d see in Looney Toons shorts (in this one, Vin Diesel literally survives a plunge off a steep cliff a la Wile E. Coyote).

Beginning with FAST FIVE, the franchise began a switch toward spy/caper plots, and FURIOUS SEVEN is no exception. In fact, it has too many plots. Half of FURIOUS SEVEN is Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) stalking Dom Toretto (Diesel) and his team to avenge the crippling of his brother Owen in FURIOUS 6 (and Dom promising revenge against Shaw in return).

Then there’s Mr. Nobody, a shadowy government spook who recruits Dom and his team for a secret spy mission that the United States, for unclear reasons, can’t be a part of. When your story has a lot of exposition to lay out, it’s smart to hire a charisma machine like Kurt Russell (ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK) to say the words, and Russell’s amusing turn is one of FURIOUS SEVEN’s great delights (he even gets hands-on with the gunplay).

Dom, Brian O’Conner (Walker), Letty (Michelle Rodriguez, who shines her attractive smile more often than usual), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), and Taj (Ludacris) need to retrieve a shapely computer hacker named Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) who controls a device called God’s Eye that allows its user to literally hack every computer, smartphone, tablet, you name it in the world. Obviously, it can’t fall into the wrong hands of terrorist Jakande (Djimon Hounsou, who’s barely in the movie and has nothing to do when he is).

As if that ain’t enough, Letty gets to kick-punch and punch-kick a bodyguard played by MMA fighter Ronda Rousey (THE EXPENDABLES 3), while O’Conner goes fist-to-fist twice with Jakande’s man Kiet, played by Thai action star Tony Jaa (ONG BAK). Wan’s worst crime as director is screwing up Jaa’s fight scenes, shooting them in jerky-cam so that we can’t see the acrobatic star do his thing. While this may have been done to hide Walker’s double, there’s no sense in hiring an amazing athlete like Tony Jaa and not letting him cut loose with spectacular stunts.

Oh, yeah, there’s also Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, charismatic as always in a bookended cameo as agent Luke Hobbs, who gets all the funniest one-liners. Hell, even Lucas Black, last seen in the SEASON OF THE WITCH-esque THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT, stops by for a cameo. And let’s not forget poor Jordana Brewster, once again relegated to the sidelines, tucked away in a heavily armed fortress in the Dominican Republic (just go with it) with her and Brian’s son to protect. Whew. And somehow, there’s room for a zillion chases, explosions, crashes, and stunts, most of which are heavily imbued with CGI and a disregard for physics.

If you like these movies — and I admit that I mainly do — there’s no reason you won’t get a kick out of FURIOUS SEVEN. It isn’t smart, it isn’t performed well (this franchise may be the most woodenly acted in film history), and Wan’s direction of the action is shaky. It’s more sincere than blockbusters tend to be, however, and the tag’s tribute to Paul Walker is genuinely touching — a feat quite rare in a film that features as many destroyed vehicles as FURIOUS SEVEN.