Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Take A Hard Ride

TAKE A HARD RIDE is an interesting melding of the blaxploitation and spaghetti western genres and the most “Hollywood” film of Italian director Antonio Margheriti’s long career.

Shot in the Canary Islands of Spain, TAKE A HARD RIDE assembles a great cast of aging Hollywood veterans and exciting young black movie stars to perform a script by HAWAII FIVE-0 writers Eric Bercovici and Jerry Ludwig for release by 20th Century Fox. The title was probably chosen to remind the audience of the previous year’s THREE THE HARD WAY, the first film to team Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, and Jim Kelly.

Even with Margheriti and an Italian cinematographer behind the camera and composer Jerry Goldsmith delivering one of his experimental discordant scores, TAKE A HARD RIDE looks like a typical American western of the era. Honest cowboy Pike (Brown) gives his word to a dying rancher (Dana Andrews in a “guest appearance”) that he’ll deliver $86,000 to the old man’s family in Mexico. Pike’s journey is the worst-kept secret in the west with every nasty jasper and owlhoot in the desert out to hijack the money.

One is Tyree (Williamson), a sharp-dressed card sharp who offers to accompany Pike as far as the border, at which point all bets are off. Many more join the party. Some good, such as widow Catherine (Catherine Spaak) and mute kung fu Indian Kashtok (Kelly), but mostly mean, like bent sheriff Kane (Barry Sullivan), thugs Skave (Robert Donner) and Dumper (Harry Carey Jr.), and especially hawk-nosed bounty hunter Kiefer (Lee Van Cleef), who follows the party at a distance, waiting for the right time to pounce.

I wish I could report that TAKE A HARD RIDE is as entertaining as its cast, but I can’t. Making Kelly’s character a mute, leaving him unable to interact with his co-stars, removes some of the camaraderie among the three leads. Margheriti has a fine eye for desert action scenes, knowing just where to place the camera to take best advantage of the Canary Islands’ beautiful rocks and sand, but the non-action scenes can be a bit of a slog. Williamson later hired Brown and Kelly (and Richard Roundtree) to act with him in the unofficial THREE THE HARD WAY sequel ONE DOWN TWO TO GO.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Braddock: Missing In Action III

Chuck Norris is back and killing more Viet Cong in the final chapter of Cannon’s MISSING IN ACTION trilogy. U.S. Army colonel and ex-POW James Braddock (Norris) is forced out of the American embassy during the fall of Saigon without his Vietnamese wife Lin (Miki Kim), whom he believes to be dead.

Thirteen years later, Braddock is approached in a Washington, D.C. bar by the Reverend Polanski (Yehuda Efroni), who runs an orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City and claims that Lin and his 12-year-old son Van (Roland Harrah III) are alive there. Braddock, shell-shocked by the news, learns the CIA and the State Department will be of no help getting his family out of Vietnam, so, loading up with as many weapons and explosive devices as he can carry, he parachutes into ‘Nam to rescue them, running afoul of evil General Quoc (Aki Aleong) along the way.

The screenplay by Chuck and James Bruner, who penned several Cannon action movies, is more ambitious than the previous MIA entries, fleshing out Braddock’s character somewhat, while also directly addressing the poor living conditions still prevalent in Vietnam. Asking Chuck to stretch as an actor, though, is not a great idea, since he just isn’t up to the task. Firing a roundhouse kick into somebody’s face or blasting helicopters out of the sky with a rocket launcher, Norris is as good as anybody, but he doesn’t carry enough weight as an actor to make the domestic scenes worth caring about.

Don’t get the idea, however, that BRADDOCK is a Merchant/Ivory tearjerker. It’s a solid action movie containing plenty of explosions, car stunts, and bloody squibs, cleanly directed by Chuck’s brother Aaron Norris, a former stuntman making his debut behind the lens. Cannon’s handy production team, including cinematographer Joao Fernandez, composer Jay Chattaway, editor Michael J. Duthie, and executive producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, were able to crank these things out efficiently, probably easing Aaron’s workload quite a bit.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Tarzan And The Valley Of Gold

Smack dab in the middle of Bondmania — it was released the year after THUNDERBALL — came TARZAN AND THE VALLEY OF GOLD, which is never quite as thrilling as its title. Screenwriter Clair Huffaker, better known for westerns like THE WAR WAGON and THE COMANCHEROS, put together some decent pulp ideas for producer Sy Weintraub, and there’s no denying the novel impact of the film’s opening. Tarzan (Mike Henry) arrives in Mexico City wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase — you don’t see that every day. He enters a bullfighting ring, where he is attacked by a sniper, whom the jungle king kills with a giant Coca-Cola bottle. That’s the real thing, punk!

Tarzan, who hadn’t been seen on screen in Africa since 1960’s TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT, is in Mexico at the request of his old friend Ruiz, but he doesn’t know why. Before Tarzan can find out, Ruiz and everyone else in his house is murdered by the devious Augustus Vinero (David Opatoshu), who kidnaps the lone survivor, a young boy named Ramel (Manuel Padilla Jr., who became Ron Ely’s sidekick in the TARZAN TV series that premiered on NBC a few months later).

Ramel’s value is his knowledge of the legendary Valley of Gold, which Vinero wants for his own bad self. Turning down the offer of troops from the Mexican government, Tarzan barges after Vinero’s parties armed with just a knife, a leopard, a lion, and a chimpanzee. Despite Tarzan finally stripping down to the loincloth we’re so familiar with, Huffaker’s plot is firmly in spy territory. Vinero exterminates his enemies by gifting them with explosive jewelry, and the delectable Nancy Kovack (JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS) would fit right in with the Bond Girls of the era.

Henry, a former NFL star, replaced stuntman Jock Mahoney, who did a good job in his two MGM films, but was significantly older and trimmer than most screen Tarzans. Henry is a weak actor, but he’s buff and more like the bodybuilder physique that Gordon Scott brought to the role. Henry made three Tarzan films for Weintraub in 1965, but he hated the experience of filming in Mexico and (in the latter two films) Brazil and later sued Weintraub.

Director Robert Day made four Tarzan features, as well as an episode of the Ely television series (Henry turned down the series). VALLEY OF GOLD isn’t up to the high standards of his TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT, partially because a more formidable villain than Opatoshu was needed. Tarzan and Vinaro never even lay eyes on each other, which is baffling, though Tarzan squares off with big, bald henchman Mr. Train (Don Megowan). Van Alexander’s jazz score is, again, more appropriate for a spy film than a jungle adventure.

American International Pictures handled the one-off release, which was supported by a novelization of Huffaker’s screenplay penned by noted fantasy author Fritz Leiber. It was the first time the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate had authorized a Tarzan novel written by an outside author, and it’s quite good.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Assassination (1987)

ASSASSINATION was one of the last Cannon films to receive a wide theatrical release of over 1000 screens. Still, the studio knew enough to release this stinker in January, when it opened in sixth place. Written by THE WHITE BUFFALO’s Richard Sale and directed by DEATH HUNT’s Peter R. Hunt, the film is a ripoff of Clint Eastwood’s THE GAUNTLET, even to the point of hiring a real-life couple to play the leads.

In the worst of Charles Bronson’s Cannon films, Charlie plays Jay Killion, a Secret Service agent assigned to protect the new First Lady, Lara Craig (Jill Ireland using her natural British accent), a frosty snob who takes an immediate dislike to “Killy” for no discernible reason except the story demands it. This mismatched couple find themselves on the run from killers who want to prevent her from spilling the beans about the President’s impotence! In one listlessly directed action scene after another, Bronson’s and Ireland’s stunt doubles pile into trains, cars, motorcycles, boats, and dune buggies. Can they discover the mole in the White House...if they don’t kill each other first?!

One bright spot is actress Jan Gan Boyd (STEELE JUSTICE), who manages to shine, despite being saddled with an unflattering wardrobe, a silly name (“Charlie Chang”), and sexual banter with the much-older Bronson as ill-fitting as co-star Michael Ansara’s toupee. As usual, Ireland — from all accounts, a classy lady — delivers an amateurish, shrill performance, and having her on the set doesn’t seem to have done much for her husband, who seems disinterested (not that one can blame him). Valentine McCallum (the couple’s son) and Robert O. Ragland receive credit for the score, but some of it is Jay Chattaway’s from INVASION U.S.A.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Thunderball

Based on an original screenplay created by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, and Ian Fleming himself, the fourth 007 screen adventure was a natural followup to game-changer GOLDFINGER. THUNDERBALL, released in 1965, is bigger, longer, and louder with more stunts, more spectacle, more special effects, and more gorgeous girls in the shapely shapes of Claudine Auger (BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA), Luciana Paluzzi (THE GREEN SLIME), Martine Beswicke (DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE), and Molly Peters (DON’T RAISE THE BRIDGE, LOWER THE RIVER).

So many screenwriting hands in the fire (Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins receive ultimate credit) means the story doesn’t always hang loose, and some of the visuals are a little sloppy, particularly the process shots. Still, what is here is pretty fun, mostly exciting, and occasionally funny.

Sean Connery’s James Bond is sent to Nassau to investigate the theft of two nuclear bombs, which SPECTRE is holding for ransom. Though we see M (Bernard Lee) giving orders to several 00 agents on the same case, the film never checks in with them. Since we know SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) is in the Bahamas with the bombs, what the devil are M’s other agents doing all this time?

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON crewmen Ricou Browning and Lamar Boren handle the copious underwater photography, which includes a busy climax featuring dozens of extras in distinctively colored wetsuits killing each other — exactly the way a James Bond film should end. Connery was still enjoying the role of Bond, while on the other end, a dubbed Celi is a little wet as Largo.

THUNDERBALL includes an appearance by (a partially seen) Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who would be the main heavy in the next film, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, with the face of Donald Pleasence. John Barry composed the iconic score and co-wrote the theme song with Don Black, which Tom Jones performed. Because of the odd legal arrangements involving the title, McClory was able to produce a remake in 1983 called NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN and somehow convince Connery to star in it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

They Came From The Swamp: The Films Of William Grefe

I don’t know why anyone would make a 123-minute documentary about the man who directed DEATH CURSE OF TARTU, MAKO: THE JAWS OF DEATH, THE NAKED ZOO, and STING OF DEATH, but I am sure as hell glad someone did.

The director of record is Daniel Griffith, who made a name for himself creating featurettes and small-scale documentaries as DVD extra features. Griffith’s full-length THEY CAME FROM THE SWAMP profiles Florida filmmaker William Grefe, who began his directing career with a pair of independent car-racing dramas, THE CHECKERED FLAG and RACING FEVER, aimed at drive-ins across the South.

While Grefe never escaped the world of exploitation movies, he did at least manage to lure some Hollywood names, including Jeremy Slate (TRUE GRIT), Alex Rocco (THE GODFATHER), Mickey Rooney, Richard Jaeckel (THE DIRTY DOZEN), Christopher George (THE RAT PATROL), and William Shatner. None of these stars, unfortunately, sat down with Griffith to share stories about working with Grefe in the Sunshine State (to be fair, most of them are dead), but STANLEY star Chris Robinson, WILD REBELS star Steve Alaimo, and character actor John David Chandler did, as well as filmmakers Frank Henenlotter (BASKET CASE) and Herschell Gordon Lewis (BLOOD FEAST).

A love letter to Grefe, THEY CAME FROM THE SWAMP stints on salacious stories and gossip, possibly because Grefe was a mild-mannered family man, possibly because his films were generally short on sleaze. Griffith spared every expense in sharing film clips, which, entertaining as they are, are mushy and grainy and pixelated and look half as good as these films did in theaters fifty years ago.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Tarzan's Three Challenges

At age 42, stuntman/actor Jock Mahoney became the oldest man to play Tarzan for the first time when producer Sy Weintraub hired him to star in 1962’s TARZAN GOES TO INDIA. The film was a hit, and everyone involved, including the studio (MGM), was eager to make the next one. Set to film in Thailand under the direction of Robert Day, who helmed the excellent TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT (Mahoney played the heavy opposite Gordon Scott’s Tarzan), TARZAN’S THREE CHALLENGES is the film that almost killed Jocko. Ironic that one of Hollywood’s premier stuntmen — who never suffered a serious injury on the set, despite the brawls, falls, and crashes — was almost taken down by tiny germs.

Because Day more or less shot TARZAN’S THREE CHALLENGES in sequence, Mahoney’s drastic weight loss during production from 220 pounds to 175 is obvious. The star contracted dysentery (apparently by swallowing water while shooting an ambush scene on a polluted river) with his body temperature occasionally reaching 105 degrees. He finally collapsed after finishing a rigorous fight scene with co-star Woody Strode (SPARTACUS) and might have died without the aid of Strode, who carried Mahoney to an ice-filled bathtub, and a physician who pumped the actor full of antibiotics.

Needless to say, TARZAN’S THREE CHALLENGES was the final Tarzan film for the then-44-year-old actor, whose career never recovered from the health scare (it was 18 months before he got his full strength back). The bright side is that this film is quite good with plenty of well developed action (despite his condition, Mahoney insisted on performing his own stunts, as always), gorgeous scenery, and the ever-intimidating Strode in a dual role.

Despite the title, the three challenges have little to do with the plot, but Tarzan must complete them successfully before taking possession of a little boy named Kashi (Ricky Der), the chosen successor to the throne of his country. The dying leader, Tarim (Strode in “Asian” makeup), sends for Tarzan to retrieve Kashi and escort him across dangerous terrain to Tarim’s city. Unfortunately, Tarim’s brother Khan (Strode at his most badassedness) believes his young son Nari (Robert Hu) should be the next leader and sets out with his men to stop Tarzan and kill Kashi.

A harrowing fire sequence satiates action fans during the first half, but the film’s show-stopper is the afore-mentioned fight to the death between Tarzan and Khan. Did I mention Mahoney and Strode battle with swords on a large net suspended over barrels of boiling oil? TARZAN’S THREE CHALLENGES was Mahoney’s swan song as the jungle king, but he also guest-starred in three episodes of Ron Ely’s TARZAN television series, including an excellent turn as a whip-wielding colonel in the two-part “The Deadly Silence,” which later was released to theaters as TARZAN’S DEADLY SILENCE.