Thursday, May 31, 2012

Savage. Ornery. Beautiful.

COMBAT! star Vic Morrow co-wrote and directed A MAN CALLED SLEDGE, a brutal spaghetti western produced by Dino de Laurentiis. Morrow's co-writer, Frank Kowalski, was a member of the COMBAT! crew, and his star, James Garner, became famous as the easygoing Western gambler Bret on ABC’s MAVERICK series. Garner had just been seen in the crowdpleasing comic westerns SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF and SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL GUNFIGHTER when A MAN CALLED SLEDGE slid into American theaters, and I suspect audiences were disappointed to see him playing against type as a taciturn anti-hero.

In his 2011 memoirs, Garner called SLEDGE “a turkey” and claimed he let de Laurentiis talk him into doing it. It isn’t as bad as all that, but it’s really only memorable because of actors like Garner, Dennis Weaver (MCCLOUD), and Claude Akins (RIO BRAVO) appearing in their only Italian western. Notorious outlaw Luther Sledge (Garner) has himself tossed into a prison where $300,000 in gold rests in a basement vault. He and his gang, including Ward (Weaver), Hooker (Akins), and an old man (John Marley) who spent twenty years in the cell next to the vault, bust the money out, and Morrow takes the third act into TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE territory.

Italian western expert Thomas Weisser claims Morrow was fired during shooting and replaced by director Giorgio Gentili (MADIGAN’S MILLIONS). There’s no telling which director shot which footage, so who knows who to credit with the handful of artful shots, such as a man who falls dead amid a cloud of gold dust. Wayde Preston, who was a Warner Brothers contract player (COLT .45) at the same time as Garner, plays the town sheriff. Also with Laura Antonelli, Ken Clark (MISSION BLOODY MARY), and Tony Young (POLICEWOMEN). The music by Gianni Ferrio (A BULLET FOR SANDOVAL) is not very good—unusual for an Italian western.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Florida Follies

The Penetrator does a fair bit of traveling in his 17th adventure for Pinnacle Books. His stops include Florida, where he blows up an organization swindling senior citizens in phony land deals; Grand Rapids, Michigan to participate in a knife-throwing contest (!); Nebraska to destroy a warehouse packed with dope, pornography, and other nefarious materials; and finally Guatemala (via Mexico) for a final showdown with a big-time baddie called The Poet.

Mark Roberts, writing as Lionel Derrick, was either writing off the top of his head or stringing together a bunch of short story ideas he had laying around. A couple of plotlines are introduced, but then forgotten, such as the continuing mission of FBI agent Howard Goodman--the head of the Penetrator Task Force--to hunt down and kill the Penetrator.

The main villains are Malcolm Stone and gorgeous redhead Nila Dennis, Stone's secretary and the star of his underground series of pornographic snuff films (the Penetrator sees a woman blown to bits in one of the films, but this is another story thread that Roberts drops). They're responsible for the Florida land swindle that only comes to the Penetrator's attention after Stone murders five senior citizens who went to the law.

The body count is high in 1976's DEMENTED EMPIRE, including six bikers who challenge the Penetrator on the side of a road and Nila's out-of-nowhere demise within the coils of a deadly anaconda. Awesome. At least no one can accuse Roberts of slow pacing or a lack of action. Despite the haphazard plotting, this book is a good one.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Random TV Title: Dr. Shrinker

Yes, this is the crazy crap I used to watch on Saturday mornings when I was a kid.

DR. SHRINKER was one segment of the weekly KROFFT SUPERSHOW, which was produced by Sid & Marty Krofft (LAND OF THE LOST). It was hosted by a fake rock group called Kaptain Kool and the Kongs (actors Michael Lembeck and Debra Clinger played two of the band members) and was comprised of several different series that played in segments of around ten minutes. ELECTRA WOMAN AND DYNA GIRL is probably the most fondly remembered, because it starred Deidre Hall and Judy Strangis in skintight superhero costumes.

But then there was DR. SHRINKER, which had a simple premise. Jay Robinson (THE ROBE), always a deliciously fey ham, played the title role of a mad scientist who shrank three teenagers to a few inches in height. He kept trying to capture them for study, while they tried to figure out how to get back to their regular height. Billy Barty played Shrinker's Igor, and Jeff MacKay, later on MAGNUM, P.I. and TALES OF THE GOLD MONKEY, was one of the kids.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

This Time It's War

You’d think by now that bad guys would leave Paul Kersey’s family alone. Wile E. Coyote has a better life expectancy than Kersey’s loved ones, going back to 1974’s DEATH WISH. Three sequels later, Kersey—still played by the increasingly flinty Charles Bronson—is back in business in Los Angeles, running a successful architectural firm and two years into a relationship with Karen Sheldon (Kay Lenz), a journalist who writes about battered women.

You know Kersey though. When he doesn’t kill any scumbags for awhile, he starts to get itchy, so perhaps he subconsciously regards it as a godsend when Karen’s teenage daughter dies from a cocaine overdose. After (easily) tracking down the dealer who sold her the coke and putting a bullet into his chest, Kersey is summoned to the stately home of wealthy Nathan White (John P. Ryan), who knows of Kersey’s past and offers him a chance to clean up L.A.’s streets for good.

White will supply money, weapons (including an exploding wine bottle!), and information, and Kersey will murder the leaders and top gunmen of the city’s two leading drug suppliers. Of course, if this arrangement sounds too good to be true, it probably is, but at least it leads to several car explosions, squibbed chests, fights, chases, and a lengthy shootout inside an improbably crowded roller rink.

Bronson must have been comfortable during this time, working almost exclusively for Cannon and director J. Lee Thompson (for whom he acted nine times). “Comfortable” doesn’t mean “challenging” though. Bronson is typically solid here and still believable at age 65 doing action scenes, but he does little to differentiate Kersey from, say, the cops he played in MURPHY’S LAW and 10 TO MIDNIGHT.

Lenz (RICH MAN, POOR MAN) is criminally underused, virtually vanishing long enough during the middle to make you forget she’s even in the movie, while Ryan (IT’S ALIVE) shamelessly overacts as usual. Thompson and writer Gail Morgan Hickman (NUMBER ONE WITH A BULLET) make some attempt at ambition, getting into Kersey’s dreams and throwing slight symbolism into the finale, but that’s not really what DW4 is all about. It’s about the beatings and the shootings, and, truth be told, it’s done pretty well.

It isn’t as good as the original DEATH WISH, which actually had something worthwhile to say, but it’s better than the dismal DW2 and probably even DW3, which is the funniest film in Bronson’s canon.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Angel Collection

From time to time, I plan to use this space to repurpose film reviews I wrote for several local independent newspapers during the previous decade:

THE OCTOPUS: 1999-2000
THE PAPER: 2003-2004
THE HUB: 2005-2006

During my tenure as a professional (re: paid) film critic, I wrote about both new releases and cult classics. The date provided below is the date the newspaper issue containing the review hit the streets.

This review has been slightly edited from the original published piece.

Perhaps no other drive-in franchise is as consistently entertaining as the ANGEL movies. None are a whole lot better or worse than the others in the series, and none are particularly great. The novelty of child prostitution being presented in a relatively positive fashion, as well as the unusual camaraderie among the street people, puts ANGEL at the top of the heap, with ANGEL III slightly edging out the more exciting AVENGING ANGEL, which suffers from Russell’s lifeless acting. While THE ANGEL COLLECTION is no must-see—and would definitely hold little interest for non-fans of 1980’s drive-in fare—late-night movie watchers on the lookout for titillating sex and violence could do a lot worse.

"High School Honor Student By Day, Hollywood Hooker By Night."

A great ad campaign featuring that tag line was instrumental in ANGEL becoming a box-office hit in 1984. After being abandoned by both her parents, 15-year-old Molly Stewart (Donna Wilkes) puts herself through private school by turning tricks on the sleazy streets of Hollywood as an underage hooker named Angel. A makeshift family of colorful street people—including silent movie cowboy star Kit Carson (Rory Calhoun), cigar-smoking lesbian Solly (Susan Tyrell), and flamboyant transvestite Mae (comic Dick Shawn)—watches over her. Angel needs all the help she can get after an egg-sucking necrophilic serial killer (MIAMI VICE’s John Diehl), who disguises himself as a Hare Krishna and dismembers prostitutes, learns Angel can identify him. Top-billed Cliff Gorman is good as the detective investigating the murders.

Not as much skin as you might expect, considering the subject matter (except for some completely gratuitous locker-room shots). In fact, ANGEL’s biggest flaw is its timidity. Angel does a lot of street-walking and posing in sexy clothes, but not much hooking. While this was probably an issue of taste, the film’s antiseptic view of street life and frequent comic relief dispel any tension in the story. Director Robert Vincent O’Neil would have you believe that Hollywood Boulevard at night presents about as much danger as a Coney Island Ferris wheel. The veteran cast members are fun to watch, I guess, but Wilkes, who does at least look the part, isn’t tough enough and is never believable as either a high school honor student or a Hollywood hooker.

The cinematographer was future director Andrew Davis (THE FUGITIVE). 25-year-old Wilkes was formerly McLean Stevenson's daughter on TV's HELLO, LARRY. This was a step up.

Four years after the events portrayed in ANGEL, former child prostitute Molly Stewart (Betsy Russell, replacing Donna Wilkes) has escaped the streets of Hollywood to become a college track star in 1985’s AVENGING ANGEL. However, when her mentor, Lt. Hugh Andrews (Robert F. Lyons, replacing Cliff Gorman), is murdered, “Angel” squeezes into her old working clothes and hits the seamy streets of Los Angeles to find the killers.

Reuniting with foulmouthed lesbian Solly (Tyrell) and flamboyant ex-cowboy star Kit Carson (Calhoun), Angel shoots her way through the ranks of mobster Arthur Gerrard’s (Paul Lambert) private army, culminating in a standoff in L.A.’s historic Bradbury Building.

More comic and less sleazy than the original film, AVENGING ANGEL still provides decent entertainment, mixing a few bare breasts into the steady stream of squealing tires, flying bullets, and unusual characters. What Russell lacks in acting chops she makes up for in looks, and she was already well-known in exploitation circles for her topless scenes in PRIVATE SCHOOL and OUT OF CONTROL. Today, Russell is likely better known for her roles in the lucrative SAW franchise. She’s a looker for sure, although her “of age” casting takes away the kinky thrills that Wilkes’ jailbait streetwalker provided in ANGEL.

ANGEL creator Robert Vincent O’Neil had nothing to do with 1988’s ANGEL III: THE FINAL CHAPTER. Neither did Donna Wilkes and Betsy Russell. It’s now 14 years after ANGEL, and Molly Stewart (future SILK STALKINGS star Mitzi Kapture) appears to have forgotten all about law school, as she’s now a freelance photographer working in New York City. Tom DeSimone (CHATTERBOX) directed.

After glimpsing a woman she believes to be her long-gone mother, Molly hops a flight to Los Angeles to discover that not only is her mom, Gloria (Anna Navarro), a successful art dealer, but she also has a 14-year-old half-sister Michelle (Tawny Fere). Unfortunately, just a few hours after Molly’s tearful reunion with the mother who left her alone to a life of child prostitution, Gloria is murdered by drug-smuggling white slaver Nadine (OCTOPUSSY’s Maud Adams), who also holds Michelle in her mansion to “entertain” wealthy criminals. Rounding up a new posse of colorful helpers, including gay hustler Spanky (Mark Blankfield, the FRIDAYS funnyman who headlined JEKYLL AND HYDE…TOGETHER AGAIN) and bland film editor Neal (Kin Shriner), “Angel” tarts up and becomes an actress in porn movies in an attempt to infiltrate Nadine’s harem.

Kapture’s performance is better than those of Wilkes and Russell, but, despite the presence of pornography, prostitution, murder, white slavery, and dope in DeSimone’s screenplay, ANGEL III isn’t as gritty or sleazy as it should be, presenting an antiseptic feel more akin to a SILK STALKINGS episode than an R-rated feature meant for drive-ins. Richard Roundtree (SHAFT) pops up occasionally as Angel’s new police contact, and Dick Miller plays Molly’s boss.

Anchor Bay Entertainment previously released all three movies as THE ANGEL COLLECTION, a 3-disc set featuring each film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 viewing. ANGEL includes a trio of deleted scenes, albeit with subtitles, since the original audio tracks have been lost, and a pair of interesting trailers. The first is action-oriented, playing up the murder plot and showing the various chases and murders accompanied by a throbbing fast-paced score (“ANGEL—a very special motion picture. Coming this January.”). The second is reminiscent of an ABC Afterschool Special and concentrates on Angel’s life on the streets. You would never know ANGEL’s plot actually involves a serial killer (“Angel. It’s her chance, her choice…and her life.”).

For AVENGING ANGEL, ABE included a healthy still gallery, in addition to two trailers carrying New World Pictures‘ logo (“When you get to Hell, tell ’em Angel sent you.”). Both use more or less the same clips that emphasize both the violence and the eccentric supporting cast, but the second trailer wisely eliminates many of Betsy Russell’s stilted line readings.

Only a trailer is present to represent ANGEL III, but it does confirm that the ’88 release was intended for theatrical release, although the New World International logo could mean it played in theaters only overseas. Each disc is adorned with a glamour shot of its particular Angel, and art from the provocative posters covers both the interior and exterior package, although ANGEL’s notorious tagline isn’t prominently featured. Jay Marks provided copy for the eight-page insert.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Get In The Car, Witch

Before heavy metal knucklehead Jon-Mikl Thor amazed the world with ROCK ‘N’ ROLL NIGHTMARE, the hilarious horror movie that he wrote, produced, starred in, and composed the terrible rock score for, he headlined the equally laughable ZOMBIE NIGHTMARE, which New World sent straight to video in 1987.

Just about every scene has something to crack you up, whether it’s the terrible acting (like the “mamma mia” Italian store owner or the coroner who sounds like Burgess Meredith attempting a Bogart impression), inept period setting (it’ll take you a reel to figure out the opening is set during the ‘50s), clueless plotting (when the hero is killed, witnesses drive the corpse to his mother’s house), or inept fight choreography.

A little boy watches his Good Samaritan father (uncredited co-writer/co-director John Fasano, who later wrote SNIPER 4 and ANOTHER 48 HRS) get killed while breaking up a rape attempt. He grows up to be Tony, an amiable, wheat-germ-loving musclehead played by the longhaired Thor. Seconds after beating up a pair of robbers, he is run over and killed by irresponsible teenagers, led by super-wimpy, super-mulleted “tough guy” Jim (Shawn Levy, who went on to direct NIGHT IN THE MUSEUM and DATE NIGHT!) and including sexy Amy (a teenaged Tia Carrere, whose role is undeserving of her third-billed status).

Tony’s mom runs to the local voodoo priestess, Molly Mokembe (Manuska Rigaud, who manages to eclipse all other awful performances to give the worst), who was the girl her husband saved from rapists thirty years earlier. Molly revives Tony as a zombie, and he roams the streets with an aluminum softball bat on a quest for vengeance against his killers.

Simply amazing and essential viewing for fans of Fasano’s ROCK ‘N’ ROLL NIGHTMARE. Adam West (BATMAN) shows up 45 minutes in, smoking stogies and reading his script on-camera to play one of the cops investigating the killings. He sits behind a desk in his first scene, which is supposed to be a busy police station and slathered with riotously phony “clackety clack” typewriter sound effects. West is actually entertaining in a stupid role. Thor appears only as himself at the beginning and is being doubled by a smaller man in many of the zombie scenes. As for Tia, she’s a knockout and certainly competent in her first feature.

ZOMBIE NIGHTMARE shot in Montreal for very little money, almost none of which went for makeup and gore effects. Thor’s band, imaginatively called Thor, provides songs for the metal soundtrack, along with Motorhead, Girlschool, and several other rock groups. Credited director Jack Bravman’s career had been producing sex films in the 1960s. He basically directed scenes with West and Carrere, and Fasano did everything else. Either ZOMBIE NIGHTMARE is set in Canada, or the filmmakers do the worst job ever of disguising Canada as the United States. Also with Linda Singer, Hamish McEwen, Manon Turbide (who was set to perform the film’s lone nude scene until the filmmakers discovered she was fifteen years old), and clumsy Canadian dancing.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mission To Moscow

Warner Brothers delivered a new POLICE ACADEMY movie every March for most of the 1980s like clockwork. After the dismal box office of Part 6, which was the first in the series not to have a chart-topping opening weekend, the studio quietly retired the franchise. Why a seventh movie was made five years later is a mystery. It’s unlikely anyone was eagerly waiting to see it, and the five-year gap meant going to a POLICE ACADEMY sequel was no longer even an annual habit for moviegoers.

MISSION TO MOSCOW (I miss the numeral in the title) does sport one of the series’ more impressive casts, and filming in Russia adds some novelty to the hijinks. But the formula went stale during the five-year absence. Film comedy was changing—becoming cruder—and the good-natured appeal of the increasingly childish POLICE ACADEMY movies had become outdated. Making matters worse is that MOSCOW is a dismal outing.

Screenwriters Randolph Davis and Michele Chodos didn’t even try to inject logic into the script, which contains way too much story for a POLICE ACADEMY movie. Jones (Michael Winslow), Tackleberry (David Graf), Callahan (Leslie Easterbrook), Harris (G.W. Bailey), Lassard (George Gaynes), and computer expert Kyle Connors (Charlie Schlatter, failing to Guttenberg up this movie) go to Moscow as part of an officer exchange program. Schlatter is remarkably free of charm and charisma, and director Alan Metter takes too much time away from the more familiar cast members to focus on a dull romantic subplot between Schlatter and Claire Forlani (MALLRATS) as a Russian interpreter.

With Lassard out of the way as an accidental houseguest with a Russian family that speaks no English, his American friends investigate crimelord Konstantin Konali (Ron Perlman), who has created a computer game called, uh, The Game that is creating addicted couch potatoes all over the world. Callahan goes undercover as a chanteuse to seduce Konali, while her co-stars scamper desperately for laughs.

Even by POLICE ACADEMY standards, MISSION TO MOSCOW is miserable. What little humor exists in the script is trampled on by the leadfooted Metter (BACK TO SCHOOL), who colluded with his timing-challenged editors to deliver a slow-moving 82 minutes. The new characters don’t register at all—not even Christopher Lee as a bumbling Russian chief—and the old gang look like they’re joylessly going through the motions.

Thankfully, producer Paul Maslansky called it quits after MISSION TO MOSCOW failed to attract even $1 million at the box office. Considering he had not only squeezed seven films, but also a syndicated sitcom and a Saturday morning cartoon out of the concept, I’d say he managed to overachieve very well.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

City Under Siege

The sixth POLICE ACADEMY movie in six years was the first not to open at number one at the box office; it opened second behind LEAN ON ME. It may also be the best of them all.

Its director, like the four who preceded him, was a veteran of TV sitcoms: Peter Bonerz, best known for playing Bob Newhart’s orthodontist friend on THE BOB NEWHART SHOW. He and writer Stephen Curwick (POLICE ACADEMY 5) bring something to the table that’s unusual for a POLICE ACADEMY movie: an actual storyline, one that isn’t afraid to be completely silly with deathtraps, a mysterious criminal mastermind, and a Scooby-Doo ending, complete with an unmasking.

The precinct commanded by Captain Harris (G.W. Bailey) is being plagued by a trio of robbers who hit furriers, banks, and museums with ease. The crooks’ leader is a shadowy figure whose identity is a secret, but who may well be a mole in the police department. The mayor (Kenneth Mars, who worked with Bonerz in their improvisational comedy days) brings in a special outside task force: Commandant Lassard (George Gaynes), Hightower (Bubba Smith), Tackleberry (David Graf), Jones (Michael Winslow), Hooks (Marion Ramsey), Callahan (Leslie Easterbrook), Fackler (Bruce Mahler, missing since Part 3), and Lassard’s nephew Nick (Matt McCoy, who joined the series in Part 5).

POLICE ACADEMY movies are difficult to defend, but I must admit much of the cartoony slapstick works for me on some primal level. While the jokes aren’t exactly fresh here, considering many of them are variations of other gags that have appeared in the series (how many times has something been glued to Captain Harris?), the energetic cast and professional direction make them work. Bringing back the klutzy Fackler allows Bonerz and his crew to engineer some creative Rube Goldberg sight gags straight out of the silents. While many cast members have little to do overall, they’re likable enough to engender laughs from material that probably looked weak on the page. During a martial arts fight scene, Jones convinces his opponent that he’s an unstoppable robot—a good bit that probably only Winslow could pull off.

Credit must be paid to the fine work done by CITY UNDER SIEGE’s veteran character actors. Mars (THE PRODUCERS) spices up his dialogue with deft wordplay gags likely based on one of his old improv characters. The always funny Gerrit Graham (USED CARS) shares good chemistry with his cohorts in crime (Brian Seeman and Darwin Swalve), and G.W. Bailey (later a regular on THE CLOSER), the butt of too many jokes to count in five POLICE ACADEMYs, is really very impressive, falling down, getting splashed with various substances, and embarrassing himself with dignity. Robert Folk, who scored the entire series, provides a diverse musical backdrop that embellishes the film’s comic-book tone.

I don’t want to praise POLICE ACADEMY 6 too highly; it is, after all, a cheaply produced slapstick comedy with a 6 in its title. It’s something of a throwback, however, to a Hollywood in which something this innocent could be produced. The PG film offers no profanity, sex, or scatological humor, relying on a more traditional approach to create its humor. There’s certainly no way anything like it could be made in the 21st century, and if a POLICE ACADEMY remake ever happens, it will likely look nothing like this movie. Also with George R. Robertson, Arthur Batanides, and Billie Bird. After a POLICE ACADEMY movie every year for six years, five more years would elapse before the final sequel.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Assignment: Miami Beach

Alan Myerson, a television veteran who began his feature career with the accomplished STEELYARD BLUES, was the fourth straight sitcom director to take the reins of a POLICE ACADEMY movie. Although he already had hours of TV comedy and drama under his belt by the time he went to Florida to helm this awkwardly titled farce, PRIVATE LESSONS is probably what attracted producer Paul Maslansky to him. Myerson’s experience is evident in this sun-soaked sequel, as it moves more nimbly and hits more comic targets than the dismal POLICE ACADEMY 4.

Not that you notice the director very much, since by this time the POLICE ACADEMY series had degenerated into random scenes of flatulence, puerile gags, and raucous property destruction tied together with the flimsiest of storylines (this one created by FAMILY TIES writer Stephen Curwick). Even Steve Guttenberg had enough of it, splitting the series for greener grass of three men, babies, cocoons, and short circuits and earning big Bubba Smith top billing. POLICE ACADEMY 5 manages more laughs than you would expect from a sequel with a 5 in its title, and offering up Janet Jones in a swimsuit is just a bonus. It ain’t sophisticated, but it doesn’t hurt much either.

You gotta say this for the POLICE ACADEMY graduates—they certainly are loyal to their befuddled old commandant, Lassard (George Gaynes). After nemesis Captain Harris (G.W. Bailey) engineers a scheme that forces Lassard to retire from the department, the old man goes to Miami to accept his (inexplicable) award for Police Officer of the Decade. There, he accidentally switches suitcases with a gang of jewel thieves, and needs former recruits Hightower (Bubba Smith), Jones (Michael Winslow), Callahan (Leslie Easterbrook), Hooks (Marion Ramsey), and House (Tab Thacker) to get him out of trouble.

The formula is set by now—Jones does his kung fu bit, the meek-voiced Hooks shouts at someone, Harris is utterly humiliated over and over, and it all ends in a big chase. Myerson doesn’t vary from it and deserves some credit for making it palatable the fifth time through. Matt McCoy (best known from L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and as SEINFELD's Lloyd Braun) takes over for Steve Guttenberg as the prank-pulling leading man. However, he’s far less charming than (even) Guttenberg, and his wiseguy antics and romantic chemistry with the wooden Jones (AMERICAN ANTHEM) fall flat. Also with James Hampton (F TROOP), Dan Fitzgerald (KING FRAT), Archie Hahn, Jerry Lazarus, George R. Robertson, Dan Barrows, and Myerson smoking a cigar. Music by Robert Folk.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Citizens On Patrol

Sitcom legend Jerry Paris, who directed the first two POLICE ACADEMY sequels, was also supposed to do POLICE ACADEMY 4, but he died of a brain tumor. Replacing him was Jim Drake, who earned Emmy nominations for episodes of BUFFALO BILL and THE GOLDEN GIRLS. The screenplay by Gene Quintano (NATIONAL LAMPOON’S LOADED WEAPON 1) is basically a remake of earlier POLICE ACADEMY plots with the misfit heroes attempting to help their old commandant, Lassard (PUNKY BREWSTER's Gaynes), and sycophantic comic villain Harris (M*A*S*H's G.W. Bailey, returning from the first POLICE ACADEMY) trying to sabotage them in order to earn a promotion for himself.

The increasingly loopy Lassard’s latest brainstorm is a program called Citizens on Patrol (yes, COP) in which civilians will be trained to operate as amateur police officers. Carey Mahoney (Steve Guttenberg), Hightower (BubbaSmith), Callahan (Leslie Easterbrook), Hooks (Marion Ramsey), Jones (Michael Winslow), Tackleberry (David Graf), Zed (Bobcat Goldthwait), and Sweetchuck (Tim Kazurinsky) volunteer to train Lassard’s new recruits, while Harris and old foil Proctor (Lance Kinsey) struggle like Wile E. Coyote to make the new program fail. Also helping Lassard is journalist Claire, who becomes Mahoney’s latest love interest and is played by Sharon Stone, who was just coming off a pair of unsuccessful Allan Quatermain adventures for Cannon.

This film is a real mess with barely a story and a mismatch of individual scenes spliced together to make ninety minutes. With so many characters running around and screeching at each other, none is able to distinguish themselves. It feels like even the main stars like the smarmy Guttenberg and Smith are hardly ever onscreen, and Stone may as well be Blonde #4 for as much as she gets to do. Drake’s direction is lifeless, not that the material is particularly distinguished, and the energy that directors Hugh Wilson and Paris brought to the earlier movies is missing. The unstructured climax involves ninjas, biplanes, and hot air balloons (as well as admittedly fine stuntwork), and Stacy Peralta (DOGTOWN AND Z-BOYS) directed the zippy skateboard scenes.

A definite letdown from the three previous POLICE ACADEMYs, this one still opened at #1 at the box office and led to still another (Guttenberg-less) sequel the following spring. Also with David Spade (in his film debut), Randall “Tex” Cobb, Brian Tochi, Billie Bird, Corinne Bohrer, Tab Thacker, Jackie Joseph, Arthur Batanides, Brian Backer, Andrew Paris, Derek McGrath, Tony Hawk, and Colleen Camp returning from POLICE ACADEMY 2 as Tackleberry’s wife. Music by Robert Folk. Filmed in Toronto. Motown released a soundtrack album.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Back In Training

Mahoney (Steve Guttenberg), Tackleberry (David Graf), Hightower (Bubba Smith), Jones (Michael Winslow), Hooks (Marion Ramsey), Callahan (Leslie Easterbrook, missing in POLICE ACADEMY 2), and Fackler (Bruce Mahler) are called back to their old academy to help Commandant Lassard (George Gaynes). Budget cuts demand that either Lassard’s academy or a rival academy commanded by Mauser (Art Metrano) be closed down, so the two sides engage in a competition to decide which academy is the better. Writer Gene Quintano’s plot is a nice opportunity to bring back characters from earlier movies, such as Copeland (Scott Thomson) and Blanks (Brant von Hoffman), to stock Mauser’s team.

Beginning with this entry, the remaining POLICE ACADEMY sequels would be rated PG, so I suppose it made sense to hire television directors to make them. Jerry Paris’ setups and lighting look like television, but are well-suited to the broad slapstick and setup/joke blackouts. The jokes are ridiculously obvious—Smith is huge and strong and scary, small Tim Kazurinsky is meek, the Asian guy knows kung fu and struggles with the language. The plot is basically the same as the first POLICE ACADEMY—taking the franchise back to its roots, as it were—but with all the new characters running around and screaming, the sense of friendship that makes us want to root for our lovable losers is lost.

Paris died ten days after POLICE ACADEMY 3’s release in March 1986. A talented character actor and sitcom director best known for playing the dentist neighbor on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and directing 237 episodes of HAPPY DAYS, Paris’ last two features were POLICE ACADEMY sequels. He was reportedly set to direct POLICE ACADEMY 4 too, but he was too sick to take the job, and Jim Drake, another sitcom director (WHO’S THE BOSS), landed the gig. Music by Robert Folk. Also with Debralee Scott, Ed Nelson, Brian Tochi, Lance Kinsey, Georgina Spelvin, Arthur Batanides, David James Elliott (JAG), Paris’ lookalike son Andrew as Tackleberry’s brother-in-law (why wasn’t Colleen Camp in this?), and George R. Robertson.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Their First Assignment

It only took Warner Brothers twelve months to get a sequel to its monster hit POLICE ACADEMY into theaters. To ensure an even wider audience, sitcom director Jerry Paris (HAPPY DAYS) brought it in with a PG-13 rating, though it contains about the same amount of adult humor, including a naked Art Metrano, as the R-rated original. It was a hit and led to more increasingly silly installments.

Academy graduates Carey Mahoney (Steve Guttenberg), Tackleberry (David Graf), Hightower (Bubba Smith), Jones (Michael Winslow), Hooks (Marion Ramsey), and Fackler (Bruce Mahler) are assigned to the worst precinct in the city, the one run by Commandant Lassard’s (George Gaynes) brother, Captain Pete Lassard (WKRP IN CINCINNATI's Howard Hesseman). Lassard has thirty days to end the crime wave sweeping his precinct, or else the chief will turn over command to the sycophantic watch commander Mauser (Metrano). It goes without saying that our favorite misfits will have to foil Mauser’s sabotage to save their jobs.

This sequel looks more expensive than the original with more extras, stunts, and slapstick. I wouldn’t exactly call it funny, but it’s an amusing if soft timewaster with a cast that aims to please. Also with Tim Kazurinsky, Jackie Joseph, Bobcat Goldthwait, Just Say Julie Brown, Lucy Lee Flippin, Sandy Ward, Jennifer Darling, Arthur Batanides, and Ed Herlihy. Music by Robert Folk. Ex-SNL writers Barry Blaustein and David Sheffield penned COMING TO AMERICA next.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Chicago Slaughter

Mike Barry is still trying to figure out if his leading man is named Martin or Burt in his sixth Lone Wolf novel for Berkley Medallion. Both names are used in this explosive 1974 adventure.

What's fascinating about the Lone Wolf books is that they slowly detail a man's slide into insanity. While each book is self-contained, it also works as one chapter of a continuing story, in that plot threads continue from one book to the next. Also, Wulff, the Lone Wolf himself, shows distinct signs of emotional distress that become stronger with each book. By the time of CHICAGO SLAUGHTER, Wulff no longer even cares if he lives or not.

Mike Barry is actually Barry N. Malzberg, a well-known author of science fiction. The story goes that Malzberg hated the men's adventure genre and set about to make fun of it and make money from it at the same time.

Wulff, who has been dragging around a valise containing confiscated heroin seemingly forever, finally makes it back to his hometown of New York City, where he learns his former partner, young, black David Williams, is hospitalized after being stabbed on the street while undercover. Wulff decides to fly to Chicago to turn in the drugs to a hotshot D.A. there, but he's immediately nabbed at the airport and taken to see a local mobster named Versallo.

Of course, Wulff bloodily escapes captivity, but is captured by two corrupt cops who don't know his identity, but want to beat his head in just for the hell of it. He's rescued by Randall, Versallo's security chief, and eventually ends up in the home of Chicago's big don, Calabrese.

The Lone Wolf is something of a passive hero this time around, as he is passed around from one captor to another. Though he usually manages to free himself, he doesn't seem to give much of a damn whether he does or not. He also kills a couple of lawmen unnecessarily, which is over the line for most men's adventure protagonists. I suspect Wulff's ability to tell right from wrong will become more blurred as the series continues.

Police Academy (1984)

Well, if the Onion AV Club can do a POLICE ACADEMY Week, so can I! And I'm starting with a review I previously posted here early last year.

The first of seven POLICE ACADEMY comedies over a ten-year period is, surprisingly, the only one to carry an R rating. Obviously influenced by STRIPES and other slob comedies of the period, director/co-writer Hugh Wilson made POLICE ACADEMY his directorial debut after creating WKRP IN CINCINNATI and penning STROKER ACE. Joining Wilson on the screenplay were BACHELOR PARTY writer/director Neal Israel and Pat Proft, a veteran of POLICE SQUAD and many TV variety shows. The result is a silly stick-it-to-the-Man farce that made Warner Brothers a ton of money and Steve Guttenberg a major movie star.

After local government drops minimum height, weight, and other physical requirements to join the police force, a bunch of lovable screwups sign up to become cops. Among them are the gun-happy Tackleberry (David Graf, who later died of a heart attack at age 50), hulking Hightower (footballer Bubba Smith), human sound effect Jones (standup comic Michael Winslow), mousy-voiced Hooks (Marion Ramsey), clumsy Fackler (Bruce Mahler), and uppercrust Karen Thompson (Kim Cattrall, whose previous film was PORKY’S). Their unofficial leader is grinning smartass Carey Mahoney (Guttenberg), who defends them against dictatorial sergeant Harris (G.W. Bailey) and befuddled commandant Lassard (George Gaynes), who have orders from the chief to weed out the undesirables.

POLICE ACADEMY is structured like STRIPES, starting with the characters’ introductions, moving on to their training, and climaxing with a mission in which they put their new skills into action, namely quashing a big riot. Wilson’s budget and the Toronto locations don’t offer much of a riot, however, and the cadets’ big chore is little more than taking down one psycho with a pistol. Considering how popular it is, POLICE ACADEMY isn’t really very funny, but it’s amusing, and the cast is affable enough. Guttenberg is actually charming here—he became somewhat smarmy in his later films—and Cattrall (SEX & THE CITY) has little to do but be cute.

The R-rated material is extremely tame, and POLICE ACADEMY may qualify for a PG-13 today—not uncommon for a studio comedy of the era. It was a huge hit — the sixth most popular release of 1984. Warners made a sequel every year through 1989 and another in 1994. There was also an animated TV series and a syndicated sitcom. Winslow is the only cast member to appear in all of them. Guttenberg left after number 4. A constant throughout the series is the terrific music by Robert Folk, including one of the most hummable movie themes of the 1980s.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Random Comic Book Splash Page: Avengers #1

With the big movie officially hitting U.S. theaters today, I can't think of a more fitting tribute than Page 1 of the first Avengers comic book ever published. Here is Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers' splash to AVENGERS #1, coverdated September 1963. Dialogue by the book's editor, Stan Lee. Interesting how Kirby sets the stage with the Easter Island shot of Loki looking pensively at the heroes along the book's border.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Random TV Title: Time Express

THE LOVE BOAT and FANTASY ISLAND were both enormous Saturday-night hits for ABC, so, thought CBS, why not one series that rips off both of them?

TIME EXPRESS was set aboard a train, instead of a cruise ship, with a cast of characters eerily reminiscent of the LOVE BOAT regulars. Instead of bringing passengers' fantasies to life, the Time Express carried its passengers back in time to let them relive or redo a memorable moment from their past.

Created by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts from MANNIX and CHARLIE'S ANGELS, TIME EXPRESS is most notable for casting the great horror star Vincent Price as its Mr. Rourke. Only four episodes aired on CBS in 1979, probably because viewers recognized the show as the ripoff it was.

Here's the opening from the May 10, 1979 episode. Guest stars include Robert Hooks (TROUBLE MAN), John Beck (FLAMINGO ROAD), Marcia Strassman (WELCOME BACK, KOTTER), Vic Tayback (ALICE), and Richard Erdman, who's still working at age 86 as a semi-regular cast member on the NBC sitcom COMMUNITY. The theme may be by Richard Hazard, but I'm just guessing.