Monday, September 25, 2006


Portions of this review have already been seen here at the Crane Shot. I wrote this full-length version for my weekly column in The Hub, and it was to appear in last Friday's issue. However, last Tuesday I received word that The Hub was going on "hiatus" and that last week's issue was to be the last, at least for awhile (possible 3-6 months). Now, I understand that last week's issue didn't come out after all, due to some issues with the printer (at least that's what the local blogs are saying). So, since my full review of THE LOSERS and its unauthorized remake, NAM ANGELS, was never printed, I produce it for you here and now at no extra charge:

THE LOSERS is a film that couldn't miss, since it boasts one of the greatest concepts in the history of exploitation filmmaking. During the Vietnam War, 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. Made in 1969 and released in 1970, THE LOSERS is just about the only (along with John Wayne’s execrable THE GREEN BERETS) film made about the Vietnam War during the Vietnam War. As a contrast to THE GREEN BERETS’ rah-rah approach, however, THE LOSERS is anti-Establishment all the way.

Drive-in movie legend William Smith (RUN, ANGEL, RUN), a veteran of Hollywood biker movies and other stick-it-to-The-Man flicks, stars as Link, a “Devil’s Advocate” looking tough in cutoff sleeves, a bare chest and a dangling earring. The Army comes to Link for help because he had served in ‘Nam a few years earlier and is familiar with the jungle region where the camp is located. Captain Jackson (Bernie Hamilton, who went on to play the harassed boss on STARSKY & HUTCH) lays out the plan for Link and his boys: Duke (Adam Roarke), Limpy (Paul Koslo), Speed (Gene Cornelius) and Dirty Denny (Houston Savage).

Screenwriter Alan Caillou (KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS) 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 he was able to concoct such a squirrely concept for a film. The bikers are equipped with souped-up Yamaha dirt bikes that have been modified with armor and weaponry. Their mission—and they have no choice but to accept it—is to smash into the camp, mow down the guards, blow the place up, and abscond with CIA man Chet Davis (Jack Starrett, who also directed THE LOSERS). It’s pulp fiction at its grimiest, just as if it were pulled out of a “men’s sweat” magazine.

The story is absurd, of course, but the game cast and Starrett's solid direction makes it work. THE LOSERS has long been a favorite in cult-movie circles, and it picked up many new fans when Quentin Tarantino used a clip of it in PULP FICTION. Action fans will consider its major setpiece to be a jolly good show. Even though it doesn’t occur until about an hour and ten minutes into the picture, the climax is well worth the wait, jam-packed with dynamite explosions, crashes, motorcycle stunts and bloody squibs. Not that the first two acts skimp on the action, but with a budget of only $275,000, Starrett obviously had to save the best stuff for his climax. Gary McLarty and Paul Nuckles were 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.

THE LOSERS doesn’t suffer much for placing its one big setpiece at the end. Starrett's pacing is fine, and it does some good to allow the audience 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 anti-heroes appear on the surface to care about nothing but themselves, but once we get to see them interacting with each other and the Vietnamese people, we understand that they are indeed three-dimensional humans.

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. Roger Corman must have enjoyed it, because he produced an unauthorized remake in 1989. NAM ANGELS re-serves the primary gimmick—bikers on a rescue mission in Vietnam—but with less flair and more violence. Lieutenant Calhoun (Brad Johnson in his first movie) recruits four Hell’s Angels to accompany him into the jungle to rescue two of his men who were captured by a renegade Aussie (Vernon Wells) and his army of primitive natives. To lure the degenerate Angels’ help, Calhoun promises them a treasure of gold dust worth $10 million that’s hidden in a cave.

Director Cirio H. Santiago lacks the style and precision that Jack Starrett brought to THE LOSERS, but he attempts to make up for it in sheer volume. Hardly any running time is left for story or characterization after Santiago finishes blowing up or shooting down a virtually limitless cast of Filipino extras. Although his budget couldn’t have been much more than what Starrett had 20 years earlier, Santiago puts it all on the screen in the form of machine gun blanks and explosives. NAM ANGELS isn’t a pretty film, but it does its job as mindless late-night filler. I have fond memories of sitting up late during my college years, watching it on cable and laughing at it with my friends. Thanks to the miracle of DVD, now you can do the same.

If it can be done twice, the central plot gimmick is ripe for still another remake. Can't you see a contemporary biker gang going into Iraq or Afghanistan to raise a little hell and say "screw you" to Cheney and Rummy?

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