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.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Divine Enforcer

THE DIVINE ENFORCER, directed by Robert Rundle and released (presumably) directly to videocassette in 1992, is the world’s first psychic vigilante kung-fu priest movie! 

Don Stroud (COOGAN’S BLUFF) is over-the-moon deranged as the “Vampire of Los Angeles,” a serial killer who picks up prostitutes, removes their blood with a syringe, injects it into his arm, and keeps his victims’ skulls as trophies. He screams, rambles, rants, bugs his eyes, messes up his hair, takes off his shirt, flips the bird, and says dumb stuff like “You know what I mean, jellybean!” At one point, he looks at a mirror, yells, ties a shirt around his head, and takes a Polaroid of himself. I don’t know what the hell Stroud is doing, but it’s a sure thing he’s making it all up. It’s a remarkably terrible performance matched by a director who focuses on a skull shouting at Stroud to “kill the bitch” and “give me some blood.” 

Most of the actors have the excuse of being amateurs, but the experienced stars like Stroud have done better work elsewhere. Granted, they’re entirely on their own at the mercy of a foolish script, cheap sets, and incompetent direction. Erik Estrada (CHIPS) is hilariously miscast (his name is misspelled in the main titles) as a pipe-smoking monsignor, who lives in a suburban house with Father Thomas (top-billed Jan-Michael Vincent, whose script can be seen glued to the newspaper he’s holding), newcomer Father Daniel (Michael Foley, so wooden I think moss was growing on him), and their sexy dumb maid/landlady (?) Myrna (Judy Landers).

Daniel’s plan to clean up the crime-ridden streets is not through confession, but ass-kicking. Whenever he hears about ne’er-do-wells victimizing innocents, the director moves in close on Foley’s bugging eyes and slaps a red filter over the light to lead into Daniel’s imaginary dramatizations of what happened. Armed with throwing knives and a pistol with a cross engraved on the grip, Father Daniel goes into priest-fu mode, tossing off inept bon mots and punching out punks with laughable (for the audience) results. 

At least Stroud has the (slim) dignity of getting a character to play. A stupid, illogical character, but a character. Estrada and Vincent just sit around the kitchen table, while Jim Brown (SLAUGHTER) and Robert Z’Dar (SAMURAI COP) show up barely long enough to cheat one another in a drug deal. I doubt any of these guys worked more than one day in Rundle’s feeble attempt to fool videotape renters into grabbing this off the shelf. Every scene is slathered with monotonous underscoring that drowns out the dialogue. Not that these lines are worth hearing, but still… A stunningly incompetent action movie that deserves to be discovered by the “so bad it’s good” crowd.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Octagon

In just his fourth starring role, Chuck Norris plays Scott James, a martial arts superstar who retired from competition after seriously injuring an opponent. Now he just works out and hangs around the site of the latest big match with his karate pal A.J. (Art Hindle, who's got the feathered hair thing going big time).

Scott and A.J. attend a dance recital, and Scott, after meeting the lead dancer backstage, asks her to dinner. His plans for romance are foiled after he takes her back to her place to discover an army of ninja has slaughtered her entire family. During Scott's battle with them, the dancer dies. The next day, he meets sexy heiress Justine (Karen Carlson from THE STUDENT NURSES), who tries to trick him into hiring on as an assassin. She wants to whack a man named Seikura, who she believes murdered her father. Scott knows Seikura well—they grew up together in Japan as brothers, but Seikura was forced to leave after shaming their father.

There's much more going on in director Eric Karson's film, including a secret training base for ninja assassins run by Seikura in Central America, a crusty old mercenary with a hoop earring played by B-movie vet Lee Van Cleef (THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY), and the "octagon" itself, which is never explained or showcased very well by Karson. It's actually an impressive set—an eight-sided obstacle course filled with blade-wielding ninja who leap out of every corner and behind every barrier.

Norris' climactic tangle in the octagon is the best scene in the movie, even if you hardly understand the plot to that point. It's possible Karson (OPPOSING FORCE) was aware of his story's pitfalls, since he in no way skimps on the action, throwing in several well-choreographed (by Chuck and his brother Aaron) karate battles, along with a few explosions, a car chase, some bullets, and even a burning man. Still, it's hard to take seriously an action film that tries to illustrate what's going through its hero's head by having Chuck dub his thoughts in a low whisper and playing them back with a laughable echo effect ("Seikura-ah-ah-ah...why-why-why-why? My brother-er-er-er-er.").

THE OCTAGON isn't one of Norris' best films, but it's well paced with lots of kung fu fighting and a cool score by Richard Halligan. Co-starring are Carol Bagdasarian, Tadashi Yamashita, Richard Norton, Kim Lankford, an unbilled Tracey Walter, Brian Tochi, stunt coordinator Aaron Norris, and Chuck's son Mike as Chuck's father in a flashback. You also might notice big Brian Libby, who later turned up in a much larger role in Norris' SILENT RAGE.

Paul Aaron, who receives story credit, was probably originally attached to direct, since he had just worked with Chuck on A FORCE OF ONE. Screenplay writer Leigh Chapman (DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY) had an interesting career, combining acting as "The Girl" in '60s television shows like THE MONKEES and THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. with penning action-oriented scripts for MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and THE WILD, WILD WEST.

Below is the original theatrical trailer for THE OCTAGON's 1980 release, digitally remastered for the recent Blu-ray.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Executioner #17, "Death Stalk"

DEATH STALK was Executioner creator Don Pendleton's return to the character after a brief contractual tiff with publisher Pinnacle. That led to 1973's SICILIAN SLAUGHTER, the series' 16th book, being written by William Crawford using the pseudonym Jim Peterson.

When Pendleton put out #17, 1974's JERSEY GUNS, he chose to ignore SICILIAN SLAUGHTER completely--it is said that he never even read it--and picked up where #15 left off. Unfortunately, that meant we never got an adventure involving Mr. Molto, the intriguing villain who popped up in the epilogue of SICILIAN SLAUGHTER.

A wounded Mack Bolan ends up in New Jersey, where he is found passed out and near death in a stream bed by Bruno, a medic who served under Bolan in Vietnam, and his younger sister Sara, nineteen years old and a widow, thanks to that damned war.

Despite their knowledge of what will happen to them if the mobsters searching for Bolan find him in their barn, the siblings are good people and nurse him back to health. Of course, both are eventually captured by gunsels working for Mike Talifero, returning from earlier Bolan adventures, and Bruno is turned into "turkey meat" (you don't want to know).

As he was wont to do, Pendleton often goes off-subject with ramblings about war and humanity that allowed him to express his worldview without having to mess with his characters (as opposed to Joseph Rosenberger, whose Death Merchant was just as crazy and racist as he was). Skip those chapters and enjoy the pages where Bolan mows down dozens of bad, bad guys without compunction. If nothing else, Pendleton knew how to tell an action story, and JERSEY GUNS does it as well as ever.