Sunday, August 13, 2006

Bikers Vs. Commies

THE LOSERS is a film that couldn't miss, quite frankly, as it boasts one of the greatest concepts in exploitation-film history. The U.S. Army recruits an American biker gang to break into a Red Chinese camp in Cambodia and rescue a kidnapped CIA agent. It's basically THE DIRTY DOZEN MEETS MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE with profanity, nudity and gore. It's a great idea, and it would take a pretty lame filmmaker to screw it up (actually, Cirio Santiago remade it as 'NAM ANGELS in 1989, but I haven't seen it since then, and I have no memory of it).

Jack Starrett, the director of THE LOSERS, is not a lame filmmaker, and, in fact, he was quite good, particularly with films that had a lot of action. Made in 1969 and released in 1970, THE LOSERS is one of the extremely few films made about the Vietnam War during the Vietnam War. Offhand, I can think of THE LOSERS and THE GREEN BERETS, which is just about the only pro-Vietnam War film that ever has been made. THE LOSERS is definitely not pro-war. Starrett was quite an anti-establishment personality, and many of the film's stars were well-known for performing in biker movies and other stick-it-to-The-Man drive-in flicks.

The great William Smith stars as Link, looking totally badass with his cutoff sleeves, bare chest and long earring. He and his Devil's Advocates are recruited because he and two other bikers in the gang had served in Vietnam a few years earlier. Adam Roarke (DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY) is Duke, and Paul Koslo (MR. MAJESTYK) is Limpy. Dirty Denny (the mysterious Houston Savage) and Speed (Gene Cornelius) are the other bikers, all ostensibly under the command of Captain Jackson, played by Bernie Hamilton, who went on to play the harassed boss of Starsky and Hutch on the hit TV series.

Screenwriter Alan Caillou had a long career acting and writing films and television shows, but he also made quite a living as the author of quickie paperback thrillers featuring two-fisted adventurers like Cabot Cain. Therefore, it's no surprise that he was able to concoct such a squirrely concept for a film. Of course it's absurd, but the game cast and Starrett's solid direction makes it work. It has long been a favorite in cult-movie circles, and picked up many new fans when Quentin Tarantino used a clip of it on a television set in PULP FICTION.

I have no problem with the film's structure, but it has been criticized by some contemporary critics for taking too long to get to the good stuff. And it's true that the major action setpiece doesn't come until about an hour and ten minutes into the picture. The last 25 minutes or so is full of dynamite action--explosions, crashes, motorcycle stunts, bloody squibs--but the first two acts consist mainly of establishing the characters of the bikers. There are some fight sequences and shooting and topless women during these scenes, but with a budget of only $275,000, Starrett obviously had to save the best stuff for his climax.

That said, I don't think the film suffers much. Starrett's pacing is fine, and I think it does the audience some good to get to know the characters before they go into battle. You have to care whether they live or die, and that's what the first part of the film is all about. These bikers are very anti-Establishment and appear on the surface to care about nothing but themselves, but after we get to see them interacting with each other and the Vietnamese people (Starrett actually shot THE LOSERS in the Philippines), we understand that they are indeed three-dimensional humans.

The climax, though, is THE LOSERS' bread and butter, and most of the footage from the trailer was culled from it. It involves the bikers, armed with specially armored (and armed) trick motorcycles, busting into the camp, riding around shooting and blowing up bad guys. Gary McLarty and Paul Nuckles are the ace stuntmen responsible for the more outrageous stunts, and Roger George's explosions are some of the best I've seen in a low-budget movie.

As with many '70s movies, THE LOSERS ends on a cynical note, but one that the movie has earned. Its unusual premise and top drive-in cast make it must-see viewing. It's also prime remake material. Can't you see a contemporary biker gang going into Iraq or Afghanistan to raise a little hell and say "fuck you" to Cheney and Rummy?


Anonymous said...

Something cool about Jack Starrett is his willingness to step in front of the camera as well. Not that he's a fantastic actor but somehow he's just right for the parts he's played. Back when I initially saw FIRST BLOOD seeing Starrett appear as the brutal deputy was not only a surprise but it was also perfect for that movie.

Marty McKee said...

Starrett was very good at playing rednecks and blue-collar heavies, although the CIA agent he portrays in THE LOSERS doesn't fall strictly within that category. I always thought of him as a character actor who got into directing (and was quite good at it), but Paul Koslo says that he actually was mainly a director who occasionally acted. I suspect the one role anyone remembers Starrett for is FIRST BLOOD, and he was great in it, wasn't he?