Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Avenging Force

AVENGING FORCE is not just a terrific action movie, but it may also be the best exploitation movie Cannon ever produced. It was originally intended as a sequel to INVASION U.S.A., which starred Chuck Norris as a double-Uzied superman chasing terrorists around Atlanta. However, Norris didn’t like the script, and AVENGING FORCE was hastily retooled as a vehicle for Cannon’s new star, Michael Dudikoff, whose AMERICAN NINJA had grossed over $10 million the year before without ever getting into more than 672 theaters.

Directed by Sam Firstenberg, whose flair for staging exciting, violent action sequences has gone unheralded, even while similar low-budget filmmakers like William Witney and Isaac Florentine have found admirers in cult circles, AVENGING FORCE is a taut thriller that takes advantage of authentic New Orleans locations and a good script by actor James Booth (ZULU) that draws distinctive characters and carries a complex message, if not quite subtly. Better yet, it reunites Dudikoff with AMERICAN NINJA co-star Steve James, a charismatic actor and martial artist who elevated everything he appeared in, even as filmmakers refused to graduate him from sidekick roles before his untimely death from cancer at age 41.

But what really makes AVENGING FORCE stand out are its villains, which rank among the most vicious antagonists of any action film of the era. Not even children are immune to their evil, as these bad guys mercilessly gun down the offspring of one hero and sell the 12-year-old sister of the other into prostitution. Elliott Glastenbury (IT’S ALIVE’s John P. Ryan, convincingly crazy), the leader of the white supremacist group called the Pentangle, openly worships Hitler and declares open season on Larry Richards (James), a black man running for a United States Senate seat.

Dudikoff, who went on to make AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION with James, stars as Matt Hunter, the name of Norris’ character in INVASION U.S.A. Hunter is a former government operative who is now retired and rearing his little sister Sarah (Allison Gereighty) on a ranch after their parents were killed by a car bomb meant for him. While visiting New Orleans to see his old partner, Richards, Hunter runs afoul of the Pentangle, a secret and influential organization of survivalists who attack Richards and his family aboard their Mardi Gras float.

The Pentangle’s thing, aside from pledging to make America a lot whiter, is hunting men for sport, which we first see in the arresting main title sequence (directed by a second unit, rather than Firstenberg) of Glastenbury and his colleagues, dressed in outlandish costumes, stalking their prey through nasty, muddy, treacherous swampland.

Firstenberg eventually comes full circle with Dudikoff dodging baddies in the bayou with several terrific action scenes sandwiched in between, including a Mardi Gras shootout and rooftop chase, another chase through a shipyard, and a spectacular setpiece in a burning house that features some really dangerous-looking stuntwork coordinated by B.J. Davis.

James, always looking for an excuse to shed his shirt, is a nice balance for Dudikoff’s remote performance, though both are positively subdued compared to Ryan’s ripe ham-slicing and Booth’s ambiguous turn as Dudikoff’s former boss in the CIA (and weird mix of British and Cajun accents). One of Cannon’s more expensive exploitation movies (which is not to say the film is by any means expensive), AVENGING FORCE did not earn the same level of box office as AMERICAN NINJA did (not to mention INVASION U.S.A.), so the sequel hinted at in the end never happened. It did open with a healthy per-screen gross, but with only 500 screens to play on, AVENGING FORCE’s theatrical play was undeservedly fleeting.

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