Sunday, July 26, 2015

Street Crimes

Though one suspects ninety minutes of Character Actor Hall of Famers Dennis Farina (CRIME STORY) and Max Gail (BARNEY MILLER) sitting around shooting the breeze would be equally entertaining, STREET CRIMES is an entertaining crime drama with a heart.

Written and directed by Stephen Smoke, who had previously penned LIVING TO DIE for PM Entertainment, this is one of those action movies where every low-level street punk in L.A. is proficient in kickboxing. Luckily, so is ridiculously young-looking rookie cop Michael Worth (U.S. SEALS II), who gets razzed by fellow detectives Joe Banks and Gail for using his fists and feet instead of his gun.

Teamed with veteran Farina, who eats in almost every scene, Worth cleans up the streets by inviting the gangbangers to the gym for organized, refereed kickboxing matches with policemen. And it works. Everyone is having a good time beating everyone up, except druglord Gerardo (James T. Morris), whose business is suffering. Worth is as green as an actor as his character is as a cop, and Patricia Zehentmayr as his blind girlfriend is even worse, but the charismatic Farina (in ubiquitous Chicago Bears cap) is wonderful enough for all three (Dennis staring down a pedophile is worth a rental on its own). Smoke tries to build repartee among the cops, but it’s really Farina and Gail who make it work instead of Smoke’s clumsy dialogue.

Although STREET CRIMES has its share of action scenes, it’s as much social drama as crime drama. Smoke seems to care about people and using his little direct-to-video movie to make points and teach his audience something without getting preachy (Gail wears a D.A.R.E. T-shirt, for instance). Of course, Smoke leans on more than a few action-movie cliches — it would be hard not to at this budget level — but they play with energy and without cynicism. Worth’s first three features were kickboxing flicks for PM, but I’m unsure whether STREET CRIMES was made before FINAL IMPACT (also with Smoke) and TO BE THE BEST.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Death Squad

Well, there’s no wondering where writers Ronald Austin and James Buchanan (CHARLIE’S ANGELS) came up with the idea for THE DEATH SQUAD, a quite good made-for-TV crime drama for ABC. It’s just amazing that producers Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg were able to get it on the air a mere two weeks after MAGNUM FORCE hit theaters nationwide at Christmas 1973.

The plot is the same in both films: an honest police detective learns about a secret cadre of vigilante cops who are murdering criminals who evaded proper justice on a legal technicality. Here, it’s Robert Forster, in between BANYON and NAKIA, as a disgraced cop recruited back to the force by chief Bert Remsen (CODE OF SILENCE) and commissioner Dennis Patrick (HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS) to investigate the killings of a dozen bad guys over the past six months in which the weapons were never found. He’s quickly recruited for the death squad by his new partner (pre-Lobo Claude Akins) and is stunned to learn that it was created by his kindly old mentor (Melvyn Douglas), now terminal with cancer.

The teleplay could have used at least another polish — not surprising assuming ABC commissioned it quickly when it heard Warner Brothers had MAGNUM FORCE in production. Some of the story points aren’t believable, but it also holds a few surprises. Forster is a strong, believable leading man, and Harry Falk (MEN OF THE DRAGON) skillfully delivers the suspense. Former Mama Michelle Phillips plays Forster’s love interest, the widow of Douglas’ dead cop son. Mark Goddard (LOST IN SPACE) and Kenneth Tobey (THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD) play other Death Squadders. THE DEATH SQUAD isn't quite as good as MAGNUM FORCE, but Forster and the brutal action make it better than routine.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Private Eyes

Remember when Tim Conway was a movie star? Hot off his success as Carol Burnett’s impish second on her self-titled variety show, Conway moved into films, mostly with Disney (GUS, THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG) or Lang Elliott’s Atlanta-based International Picture Show Company (THE BILLION DOLLAR HOBO, THEY WENT THAT-A-WAY & THAT-A-WAY). Conway and fellow television sidekick Don Knotts (THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) played well off one another as bumbling gunfighters in the APPLE DUMPLING GANG movies, so producer Elliott cast the comedy team in THE PRIZE FIGHTER as a bumbling (what else?) boxer and his trainer.

Unexpectedly, when released at Thanksgiving 1979, THE PRIZE FIGHTER became the top grossing film in the history of New World Pictures, spurring Roger Corman and Elliott to commission a pseudo-sequel, this time with Elliott also directing. THE PRIVATE EYES, which stars Conway and Knotts as bumbling (what else?) detectives, was somehow an even bigger hit than its predecessor — in fact, the biggest hit Corman’s New World ever released!

Conway and his PRIZE FIGHTER collaborator John Myhers wrote the screenplay, which casts Don and Tim as Inspector Winship and Doctor Tart, who work for Scotland Yard, even though they’re Americans and referred to as private eyes. The script shamelessly cribs YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN’s “Walk this way” joke and introduces a literal Chekhov’s (time) gun in the detectives’ first scene, so it’s perfectly suited to Conway’s and Knotts’, shall we say, less than subtle comic stylings.

Spoofing both Sherlock Holmes mysteries and Old Dark House thrillers, THE PRIVATE EYES is packed with sight gags, puns, pratfalls, and other cartoon slapstick aimed at kiddies and unassuming television watchers. The Yard sends Winship and Tart to the massive Morley Manor, where the lady and lord of the house were recently murdered by a hooded stalker who’s still skulking about the mansion’s secret rooms and passages.

Elliott serves up the requisite red herrings, which include stacked adopted daughter Trisha Noble (STRIKE FORCE), caretaker Stan Ross (WHOLLY MOSES!), maid Suzy Mandel (CONFESSIONS OF A DRIVING INSPECTOR), nanny Grace Zabriskie (TWIN PEAKS), chef John Fujioka (THEY CALL ME BRUCE?), groom Irwin Keyes (THE WARRIORS), and butler Bernard Fox (BEWITCHED). More bodies turn up, each accompanied by a note from the killer (one of Conway and Myhers’ funnier running gags), with the hapless Winship and Tart helpless to stop the killings.

Knotts and Conway, both of whom hosted eponymous variety shows in the 1970s, are experts at milking laughs from mediocre material, and what fun THE PRIVATE EYES offers comes from their mugging. Elliott shot on location at the remarkable Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, which is perfectly cast as an English manor. Carol Burnett’s bandleader, Peter Matz, composed the catchy score and theme for this PG-rated comedy. Though it was a major hit, Knotts and Conway didn’t do another sequel, though they and the rest of Burt Reynolds’ Rolodex made cameos in CANNONBALL RUN II.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Hunter (1980)

Three months after Paramount released THE HUNTER in theaters, Steve McQueen was dead. He was diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him at age 50 not long after completing production on THE HUNTER, and in some scenes he seems a little shaken.

It was something of a novelty then to see McQueen on the big screen. After 1974’s THE TOWERING INFERNO, he didn’t act in a nationally released film until TOM HORN in the spring of 1980 (Warners buried his adaptation of Ibsen’s AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE). THE HUNTER, McQueen’s final turn in front of the camera, came out a few months later.

THE HUNTER’s small scale and episodic structure seem more appropriate for a television pilot than a motion picture with one of the world’s most popular action stars. The director was Buzz Kulik, who had been working mostly on television movies and pilots at the time (Peter Hyams’ name on the screenplay indicates the CAPRICORN ONE director must have been set to direct at some point). He keeps the action chugging along at an entertaining pace, but nothing feels special about THE HUNTER. If only we could have known it would be all the McQueen we would ever get.

McQueen plays Ralph “Papa” Thorson, a real-life bounty hunter and a colorful personality. Most of us have one or two unusual quirks, but McQueen’s Thorson, as penned by Hyams and Ted Leighton (ELLERY QUEEN: DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU), is entirely made of quirks. He drives an old car (poorly, in a cute nod to the star’s real racing career), collects old toys, has a pregnant young girlfriend, likes opera, and hosts all-night poker parties in which he never plays. As if chasing criminals for monetary reward wasn’t weird enough.

It would be easy to presume the script was left unfinished when Hyams left the picture, as McQueen basically bounces from one setpiece to the next, occasionally interacting with a character actor you recognize from TV (David Spielberg, Kevin Hagen, Wynn Irwin, Nicolas Coster, Richard Venture). Tracey Walter (MALONE) has more screen time as a psycho named Mason, who stalks and kidnaps Thorson’s girlfriend Dotty (Kathryn Harrold, always a welcome presence) — the only subplot that runs the course of the picture.

Fred Koenekamp’s photography is flat and unappealing, McQueen overplays the humor, and Michel Legrand’s score is one of the strangest ever composed for a major studio action picture. But the chase scenes are pretty great, including one between a Trans Am and a combine in a Nebraska cornfield (actually shot in downstate Illinois) and another on top of a Chicago “L” train that culminates in a car tumbling from the Marina City parking garage into the Chicago River. Adding to the excitement is McQueen, sick whether he knew it or not, doing some of his own stunts, kneeling on a train car.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

On Her Majesty's Secret Service

After five turns as James Bond, Sean Connery finally said, “No more” (for now). Producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli turned to an unknown Australian model with no acting experience named George Lazenby to fill Connery’s shoes. His performance was universally blasted at the time, but in retrospect, it’s okay. Lazenby lacks the movie-star charisma of the other Bond actors, but he’s excellent at the physical action — probably even better than Connery. He doesn’t hold the screen the way Connery (or even Roger Moore, regarded as a lightweight) did as Bond, and James Bond really needs to be the coolest guy in the room.

One of the best directed and edited films in the 007 series, ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE suffers not just from Lazenby’s dramatic deficiencies, but also its early pacing. At 142 minutes, it’s the second longest Bond film (after CASINO ROYALE) and feels it, notably the interminable scenes with Bond and the girls at Piz Gloria. On the other hand, pretty much everything from Bond’s escape from Piz Gloria to the end is great: a cable car escape, a ski chase, an amazing car chase, an avalanche, a bobsled chase and the Bond series’ most downbeat conclusion.

Bond, having failed to secure megalomaniac Ernst Stavro Blofeld while destroying his operation at the end of YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, has spent the last two years tracking him. His boss M (Bernard Lee) takes Bond off the case at the same time 007 begins a romance with the reckless Contessa Tracy di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg), perhaps at the instigation of her gangster father Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti).

Bond and Tracy fall in love, and he considers marriage. Through Draco’s connections, Bond gets a line on Blofeld (Telly Savalas), who has opened an allergy-research clinic atop Piz Gloria in the Swiss Alps. The clinic is, of course, a front for Blofeld’s latest world-domination plot, which involves brainwashing beautiful young women from different countries into releasing a virus that could destroy the human race.

Nitpicking a James Bond plot is besides the point, though it’s hard to ignore the fact that Blofeld doesn’t recognize Bond, posing as a genealogist named Sir Hilary Bray, as the agent who blew up his volcano two years earlier. The story’s biggest hangup is Hunt’s insistence on including a treacly BUTCH CASSIDY-style romantic montage with Bond and Tracy mooning over each other while Louis Armstrong sings John Barry and Hal David’s “We Have All the Time in the World.”

Speaking of Barry, his sixth consecutive Bond score is among his best, and OHMSS’ technical and production credits are impeccable. Except the poor process photography. Why the early Bonds had such poor process work is a mystery. Despite all the great stuff in the film, OHMSS’ box office, while high, was lower than YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE’s. Lazenby decided to stop after one Bond film (his career never recovered), and a $1 million salary lured Connery into returning for DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Doomsday Machine

Of course you think you want to see unctuous deejay Casey Kasem, M*A*S*H goody-two-shoes Mike Farrell, obnoxious MAKE ME LAUGH host Bobby Van, HIGH ROLLERS babe Ruta Lee, and one-time Tarzan Denny Miller in a cheap, stupid, boring space movie. DOOMSDAY MACHINE was literally never finished. Production shut down twice, quickie specialist Lee “Roll ‘Em” Sholem shot new footage with different actors after the fact, and the film somehow got released five years after production began. Miller and co-star Mala Powers didn’t even know it was out until they (separately) came across it on television.

Blue sweatshirts double as astronaut wear — a good example of the penny-pinching in Hope’s production. The superfluous prologue and the incomprehensible climax are obviously Sholem’s footage, but don’t blame the hired hand for fumbling an impossible task. Poor Grant Williams, who starred in a genuine science fiction classic, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, is reduced to playing a crude, thuggish rapist, which is at least one note more than almost everyone else gets to play. Somehow, Van scored top billing for his role as the odious comic relief — same as he played in THE NAVY VS. THE NIGHT MONSTERS, which is actually better than this movie. Almost everything is better than this movie. Oral surgery is better than this movie.

Seven astronauts bound for Venus are waylaid on their way to the launch pad by Air Force officers who replace three of the crew with women (“Are you insane?” is one enlightened astronaut’s reaction to — gulp — girls on a spacecraft). Hours after launch, Earth is destroyed by the doomsday device teased in the opening scene of a Chinese lady spy tossing a cat over a wall to distract the guard protecting it.

Oh. So that’s why the women are there. To keep the human race alive. It’s three on three with poor old Henry Wilcoxon (MRS. MINIVER) left out. At least they have sweet Barcaloungers for a little novelty in their race-perpetuating. Not that they get to first base after two of the crew are sucked out the airlock and two others go floating in space in a filmmaking dodge so cynical, it makes Michael Bay look like Frank Capra.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Along Came A Spider

Morgan Freeman returns as criminal profiler and Washington, D.C. cop Alex Cross in 2001's ALONG CAME A SPIDER, a sequel to the limp 1997 thriller KISS THE GIRLS. Instead of Ashley Judd, this time he’s teamed up with Monica Potter (TV’s PARENTHOOD) as Jezzie Flannigan, an agent of the United States Secret Service.

The case that brings them together is the kidnapping of little Megan Rose (Mika Boorem), the daughter of an undistinguished U.S. Senator (Michael Moriarty). Both are fighting demons: Cross, the death of his partner eight months earlier, Flannigan, the guilt of allowing Megan to be taken from school by one of her teachers, Gary Soneji (Michael Wincott). Soneji is one of those super-villains that only inhabit mediocre thrillers—brilliant, obsessed, cool, collected, a master of disguise, and the kind of guy who intentionally leaves behind arcane clues that no real cop would ever spot.

As it turns out, Soneji is just about the most believable character in the film, which delivers not one, but two ludicrous plot twists that come as a surprise only because they’re too ludicrous to anticipate. Freeman is silk, as you would expect, and acts rings around the miscast Potter, who lacks the gravitas to inhabit a role with so many sides. Director Lee Tamahori (DIE ANOTHER DAY) delivers a slick, professional product, but an empty one.

Although ALONG CAME A SPIDER, based on James Patterson’s 1992 novel—his first about Alex Cross—grossed more than KISS THE GIRLS did, Paramount didn’t make a third Cross movie. Tyler Perry, of all people, played the character in 2012’s ALEX CROSS, a much worse film.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Invasion U.S.A. (1985)

Chuck Norris was already one of America’s biggest box office stars before this crazy, jingoistic action movie opened at number one. Courtesy of Cannon’s Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus and featuring what may jokingly be called a screenplay co-written by Norris, INVASION U.S.A. is brainless fun with zero characterization, hardly any dialogue spoken by its star, and perhaps the worst female lead (in terms of performer and character) in the history of action movies.

Retired “Company” agent Matt Hunter (Norris) spends his life wrestling alligators and trading quips with grizzled Indian trader John Eagle (Dehl Berti) outside his shack in the Everglades. Reluctantly, he returns to active duty when hundreds of godless Commie terrorists, led by his old foe Rostov (Richard Lynch), invade the U.S.A. via Florida with a massive plan to blow up school buses, shoot up shopping malls, turn Americans against authority, and ruin Christmas.

For the most part, law enforcement is nowhere to be seen, except for a couple of government spooks (one played by Eddie Jones) and Hunter, whose condition for stopping Rostov is “I work alone.” So while hundreds of baddies roam the Sunshine State mowing down citizens, Hunter cruises aimlessly in his pickup truck with an amazing sixth sense for finding the killers, blasting them with his twin-holstered Uzis, and moving on to the next target. More often than coincidence would allow, he encounters an obnoxious female journalist, played horribly by Melissa Prophet (GOODFELLAS), who shows her gratitude at being rescued by Hunter by constantly calling him “Cowboy.”

Granted, the reporter is such an ill-conceived and superfluous character that Meryl Streep couldn’t have made her anything but an annoying appendage. But that’s the kind of perplexing mess INVASION U.S.A. is — an absurd series of setpieces in which Norris stumbles onto someone in danger and blows the bad guys away. There’s no detective work involved in which he is able to deduce where Rostov’s men will pop up next. No, he just drives around until he accidentally discovers the script’s next action scene.

Rostov’s plan, as far-fetched as it seems, would stand a better chance of succeeding if he’d just give it priority, but, noooo, he has to kill Chuck Norris first. You see, years before, Chuck had interrupted one of Rostov’s terrorist plots, and—gulp—kicked the Russian square in the face. One time. It must have been one heckuva kick, because Rostov still has nightmares about it, and refuses to fully commit himself to the invasion until Chuck is dead.

A lot of bullets fly in this movie, and director Joseph Zito (FRIDAY THE 13TH—THE FINAL CHAPTER), who previously worked with Norris on MISSING IN ACTION, at least keeps things moving quickly, tossing in a few smooth dolly shots and splashing enough blood on the screen to keep nondiscriminating audience members (like me) from getting bored. Working with a reported $10 million budget, Zito manages to get it all on the screen, photographing enough exploding houses, squibbed chests, and burning men to keep Cannon’s stunt crew plenty busy. INVASION U.S.A. may be stupid, crude, and confusing, but it certainly isn’t boring and is typical of the fun but empty-headed action movies Cannon was releasing in the 1980s.