Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Expendables 3

The biggest EXPENDABLES to date really piles on the guest stars, including Harrison Ford, Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas, Kelsey Grammer, and — as the bad guy — Mel Gibson. Unfortunately, though it’s great to see these veterans trading quips and bullets, THE EXPENDABLES 3 suffers from its over-stuffed nature, as well as the crummy CGI (par for the course with a Millennium/Nu Image production) and a PG-13 rating. It’s nice to have Snipes (MURDER AT 1600) in his first major role since serving a prison sentence for tax evasion (used as an in-joke here), but the screenplay by Sylvester Stallone and the OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN team of Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt jettisons him and most of the older cast members in favor of boring young new cast members.

After Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) is wounded on a mission in Somalia, Expendables leader Barney Ross (Stallone) grounds his usual team members, including Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Doc (Snipes), Gunner (Dolph Lundgren), and Toll Road (Randy Couture), as dinosaurs. Working with recruiter Bonaparte (Grammer), Barney puts together a new team that you won’t give a damn about with the possible exception of real-life fighter Rousey, the first female Expendable (director Patrick Hughes films her first fight scene in extreme close-up or long shot, so it could be anybody fighting). Banderas almost steals the picture as Galgo, a puppy dog who really, really wants to be an Expendable and sends Bonaparte a fake resume for the chance to impress Barney.

The Expendables’ target is the deliciously monikered Conrad Stonebanks, played to the hilt by Gibson, who doesn’t play for camp as he did the villain in MACHETE KILLS. Stonebanks is a former Expendable who betrayed the team and was believed to be dead. Now a wealthy arms dealer, Stonebanks is responsible for Caesar’s shooting, and Barney means to take him down. Unfortunately, his boss with the government, Drummer (Ford), orders Barney to take Stonebanks alive so he can be tried for war crimes. Obviously, that ain’t gonna happen.

The good news for the audience is that Barney’s new team of youngsters gets captured pretty quickly, forcing the original band to get back together. Schwarzenegger pops up on occasion in a reprise of his role from the first two pictures, as does Jet Li, who doesn’t even fight anybody. Hughes delivers a standard action picture with the requisite gun battles and stunts, though it would be nice if most of them had been created on the set and not by some nerd’s mouse clicks. Sloppiness abounds from the sight of European license plates on an Arizona car to the amateurish process photography behind the actors pretending to drive. You would think a $90 million production could afford to put Stallone and Grammer in an actual car on an actual road for an afternoon.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Beyond The Reach

One of the few ABC MOVIE OF THE WEEK segments to receive a major Hollywood remake, 1974’s SAVAGES is a suspenseful desert thriller with a plum leading role for Andy Griffith as a sadistic rich hunter who stalks young guide Timothy Bottoms (THE LAST PICTURE SHOW) in the scorching desert to cover up an accidental killing. A great premise inspired, obviously, by THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, it also forms the basis of BEYOND THE REACH, which cannily hands the Griffith role to a delightfully scenery-masticating Michael Douglas.

Like SAVAGES, BEYOND THE REACH is based on Robb White’s entertaining novel DEATHWATCH. SAVAGES was paced just perfectly at 72 minutes (LE MANS’ Lee H. Katzin directed it), but with twenty more minutes to fill for the big screen, director Jean-Baptiste LĂ©onetti pulls focus away from the deadly cat-and-mouse game to kill momentum with who-gives-a-turkey backstory about Douglas’ business deal and his guide’s flashbacks about his girlfriend (Hanna Mangan Lawrence) away at college.

Douglas, as established, is the rich hunter from Los Angeles. Named Madec, he arrives in a small desert town in a swank Mercedes looking for a guide to help him bag a bighorn sheep. The sheriff (a welcome Ronny Cox) recommends Ben (STONEWALL’s Jeremy Irvine). He and Madec get along okay in “the reach” (a particularly dangerous section of the Mojave) until Madec accidentally shoots an old prospector.

A weakness of both SAVAGES and BEYOND THE REACH is that the shooting is clearly an accident, albeit one caused by Madec’s reckless behavior. There would likely be little harm in notifying the authorities. But Madec doesn’t want to, and when Ben tries to follow his conscience, Madec strips him and sends him into the desert to die without water. A sadistic bastard, Madec follows Ben at a distance to watch the sun burn the poor kid to death.

With a maddeningly mundane title like BEYOND THE REACH, the film had zero chance to find an audience in theaters (what was wrong with SAVAGES or even DEATHWATCH?). Lionsgate didn’t even try, dumping it on a couple dozen screens and then off to VOD and Blu-ray. Unfortunately, the atrocious ending burns a lot of the goodwill earned by the suspenseful meat of the picture. Do yourself a favor, and stop watching when the movie fades to black.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Interns, "An Afternoon In The Fall"

“An Afternoon in the Fall”
October 9, 1970
Stars Broderick Crawford, Stephen Brooks, Christopher Stone, Hal Frederick, Elaine Giftos, Mike Farrell, Sandra Smith
Guest-starring William Devane, Albert Salmi, Brooke Bundy, Peggy McCay, Tom Hallick, Charles Shull, Richard Krisher, Jack Garner, Kathy Shawn, Joe Renteria
Music by Shorty Rogers
Executive-produced by Bob Claver
Produced by Charles Larson
Written by Mark Rodgers
Directed by Daniel Petrie

THE INTERNS was based on the 1963 film of the same title, a soapy Columbia release about young physicians that starred Cliff Robertson (CHARLY), Michael Callan (MYSTERIOUS ISLAND), James MacArthur (HAWAII FIVE-O), Stefanie Powers (HART TO HART), Buddy Ebsen (BARNABY JONES), and Telly Savalas (KOJAK). See if you can guess who plays the interns and who plays their concerned mentors.

THE INTERNS was followed in 1964 by THE NEW INTERNS (with some of the same cast) and in 1970 by this CBS series. Stephen Brooks, formerly of THE FBI, took top billing as Dr. Greg Pettit. Also starring were Christopher Stone (THE HOWLING) as Pooch, Hal Frederick as Cal (the lone black intern), Mike Farrell (M*A*S*H) and Elaine Giftos (THE STUDENT NURSES) as married Sam and Bobbe Marsh, Sandra Smith (STAR TREK’s “Turnabout Intruder”) as Lydia, and gruff Broderick Crawford (HIGHWAY PATROL) as Dr. Peter Goldstone, the benevolent god who looks over the interns.

The series lasted just one season of 24 episodes on Fridays opposite THE HIGH CHAPARRAL and THE BRADY BUNCH/NANNY AND THE PROFESSOR, likely, at least in part, because there was little audiences hadn’t seen before in THE INTERNS. Also, viewers may have gotten burned out on the whole “good-looking young professionals with crusty mentors” scene during a fall season that also saw THE YOUNG LAWYERS and THE YOUNG REBELS debut, no doubt thanks to the success of THE MOD SQUAD.

“An Afternoon in the Fall” is interesting for at least one reason: a guest-starring turn by 30-year-old William Devane, who had hardly anything on his Hollywood resume outside of some N.Y.P.D. guest shots. Devane would become one of the decade’s busiest and most notable actors in films like ROLLING THUNDER, MARATHON MAN, and FAMILY PLOT. He earned Emmy nominations for THE MISSILES OF OCTOBER and FEAR ON TRIAL.

This INTERNS episode casts Devane as the dangerous William Hauser, whose fixation on his night-school teacher, Alice Vaughn (Peggy McCay), culminates in him shooting her twice. Sam saves her life in the operating table (a radio news report calling him “Simon Marsh” instigates a lot of good-natured kidding in the doctors’ lounge), but Osland (Albert Salmi), the cop on the case, is convinced Hauser will try to get to Alice in the hospital. Brooks, who worked with producer Charles Larson on THE FBI, gets the B-story, striking up a romance with a new nurse (Brooke Bundy) who moves into the Marshes’ apartment building.

The main plot by writer Mark Rodgers (POLICE STORY) is typical cop/hostage/psycho-killer machinations. By focusing on the suspense and potential violence, THE INTERNS and director Daniel Petrie (FORT APACHE THE BRONX) fail to deliver on the promise of the love story. Bundy’s Joy reveals a lot about herself in relatively little screen time. She’s new in Los Angeles, she seems uninterested in pursuing any romantic relationships, she’s divorced with a son that her ex-husband has full custody of. Just when it seems the character is beginning to go somewhere, the episode is over with Joy announcing she’s leaving town and the hospital, never to be seen on THE INTERNS again.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Death Hunt

One of the manliest movies ever made reunites Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson from THE DIRTY DOZEN, though the nature of the story means they don’t share much screen time together. Very loosely based on an actual Canadian manhunt of the 1930s between the Mounties and a trapper calling himself Albert Johnson, DEATH HUNT features a script by Mark Victor and Michael Grais, who graduated from TV cop shows to POLTERGEIST, and direction by former 007 editor and ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE director Peter R. Hunt. Backing up Marvin and Bronson are a coterie of sharp supporting actors, including Andrew Stevens (who would work again with Bronson in 10 TO MIDNIGHT) and POLICE WOMAN Angie Dickinson, whom Marvin romanced in POINT BLANK.

The real Johnson was probably less noble than Bronson’s portrayal. In DEATH HUNT, he rescues a bloody dog from a dogfight, handing the resistant owner (Ed Lauter) $200 in return. Hazel, the owner, tattles to local Mountie Millen (Marvin), who rightfully blows him off. Hazel and his buddies trek up to Johnson’s cabin in the Rockies to retrieve the mutt, and one of them is killed in the ensuing gunfight. Johnson was shooting in self-defense, but Millen has to get involved now that a man is dead.

Millen takes a straight-arrow Mountie (Stevens) and a tracker (Carl “Apollo Creed” Weathers) as part of his posse to visit Johnson. Based on a misunderstanding, one of the Mounties starts another gunfight, which leaves several more men dead, Johnson on the run into some of the coldest and most treacherous terrain in North America, and Millen on his trail.

The screenplay is as good as it needs to be, though what little dialogue is in it is clever. Its great weakness is Marvin’s perfunctory and dull affair with Dickinson, whose role is really just a cameo. The premise of man battling both man and nature combined with the star power of Marvin and Bronson is strong enough on its own. With few words to say, Bronson handles the challenge of expressing emotion and character through his eyes and his action, while Marvin ably tackles his “man in command.”

Hunt’s terse direction is appropriate for the story he’s telling, and he doesn’t skimp on the bloody violence. While DEATH HUNT isn’t packed with action — it’s more a tale of suspense — the stunts seem treacherous, particularly when staged in the frozen tundra of Alberta, where DEATH HUNT was filmed. Score by Jerrold Immel is bold to match the film’s heightened tension. Believe it or not, Golden Harvest, a company best known for chopsocky, produced for 20th Century Fox.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Lone Wolf #8: Los Angeles Holocaust

The Lone Wolf is back in the United States in the eighth edition of his Berkley Medallion paperback series. It appears as though I didn't review the previous title, PERUVIAN NIGHTMARE, but I definitely read it. You can find my reviews of the other books in the Lone Wolf men's paperback series here.

LOS ANGELES HOLOCAUST is very light on plot and ends on something of a cliffhanger, as though it were a mediocre episode of a television series. It begins right where PERUVIAN NIGHTMARE left off with antihero Wulff aboard a hijacked helicopter returning to El Paso from Peru. With him, besides a frightened pilot, is a bag of smack -- millions of dollars worth of heroin. Well, first there's a flash-forward to Wulff in an L.A. hotel, and then a second chapter about a black cop named Evans who is killed during an undercover drug buy in Harlem. It has absolutely nothing to do with anything else in LOS ANGELES HOLOCAUST, but it helped author Mike Barry get to 192 pages. He barely has enough story as it is.

So Chapter Three shows Wulff's return from Peru, and then it's into the story proper. Here's the thing with Wulff: he's fucking crazy. Reportedly written by noted sci-fi author Barry Malzberg as a tongue-in-cheek rip of men's adventure novels, which he hated, the Lone Wolf series maintains continuity throughout its fourteen volumes, focusing on a doomed protagonist who loses a bit more sanity with each novel. It's noted in LOS ANGELES HOLOCAUST that he has killed literally hundreds of people, including a whole shipful in BAY PROWLER, so it's a little disappointing that Malzberg's body count is so low in this one.

Joining Wulff (briefly) on the West Coast is Williams, his former partner on the NYPD who was stabbed in CHICAGO SLAUGHTER. The young rookie's wounds have left him bitter, making him an easy convert to Wulff's cause: blasting the shit out of the Mafia. Williams leaves his nine-months-pregnant wife in New York, buys a U-Haul full of weapons from a Harlem priest, and drives to L.A., stopping only to kill a couple of random carjackers along a Nebraska interstate.

Wulff's ultimate goal is getting back to Chicago to kill a 72-year-old mob boss named Calabrese, who has a contract out on Wulff. The book is not only light on plot, but also on action sequences. Most pages are filled with introspection. If not Wulff in woe thinking about how shitty his life is, it's a hitman wondering how to both collect the bounty on Wulff and steal Wulff's heroin or Williams pondering his marriage, his job, his new partnership, the whole goddamn shitty society. You may have guessed -- this is a pretty bleak story in a pretty bleak series of novels.

The Lone Wolf books are fascinating, of course, thanks to Malzberg's prose, but they aren't as gritty or action-packed as their rivals on drugstore shelves -- which was probably Malzberg's point. LOS ANGELES HOLOCAUST ends with the status quo intact: Calabrese is still pissed, Wulff is still pissed (and still has the smack), Williams is on his way back to New York without ever using any of the damn weaponry in the U-Haul!

Except for the cliffhanger, which puts Williams in jeopardy and Wulff on the phone, talking shit to Calabrese. It looks like the matchup is coming up...except the next book is titled MIAMI MARAUDER. So does Wulff make it to Chicago or not? I guess I'll find out.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Vigilante Force

Gene Corman, brother of Roger, was also a prolific producer of drive-in fare that was often a little classier than Roger’s with budgets a little higher. VIGILANTE FORCE, written and directed by George Armitage, who came up through the ranks at Roger’s New World Pictures on films like PRIVATE DUTY NURSES and DARKTOWN STRUTTERS, is a good movie, very well paced with plentiful action sequences and a dose of bicentennial satire.

The stars of this United Artists release are Jan-Michael Vincent (WHITE LINE FEVER) and Kris Kristofferson (CONVOY), who play battling brothers. Widower Ben Arnold (Vincent) is a tractor salesman in a rural Southern California community that is overrun by rowdy oil riggers and the violence, drunkenness, disorder, gambling, and murder that comes with them. The cops are ineffectual, so the town enlists Ben to recruit his brother Aaron (Kristofferson), a Vietnam veteran, to keep the peace.

Aaron brings his war buddies, including Viner (Shelly Novack, just off THE FBI), Beal (HALLOWEEN sheriff Charles Cyphers), and Selden (THE HOT BOX’s Carmen Argenziano), back to his home town. And, sure, the crime rate goes down. Sort of. Until Aaron and his boys decide to take over the town for themselves and operate their own crime ring. Can pacifist Ben talk some sense into his brother? In an exploitation movie aimed at drive-ins? What do you think?

VIGILANTE FORCE, despite an original screenplay by Armitage, boasts the exact plot of BUCKTOWN, released the year before by AIP (though probably a dozen B-westerns precede both films). It’s a solid premise that gives both Vincent and Kristofferson plenty to play dramatically and physically. Armitage presents it with great precision (Ben is making the town’s offer to Aaron within the first ten minutes) and an offbeat sensibility. Not only does he take care to create memorable characters and a believable and ultimately tragic relationship between brothers Ben and Aaron, but the violent climax involves an army of bank robbers dressed in colorful high school band uniforms! The stunts and fights are expertly staged throughout, but VIGILANTE FORCE also excels in its sensitive moments, such as Kristofferson’s haunting murder of a sympathetic character — an act that seals Aaron’s dark fate.

Friday, September 18, 2015


Dean Cain, who was a lean and solid Superman on television twenty years earlier, has packed on the pounds for this prison picture from twin directors Jen and Sylvia Soska. From WWE Studios, which produced the MARINE series, VENDETTA also stars Paul Wight — better known to wrestling fans as The Big Show — as Cain’s nemesis. Which explains why Cain had to bulk up for his role in order to believably go toe to toe with his seven-foot 450-pound co-star.

VENDETTA has a seriously dumb and implausible premise that the Soskas try to whisk aside by making the violence brutal and cruel. Perhaps they should have concentrated more on telling a good story, otherwise they wouldn’t have shown a prison bus driving through a desert to transport a prisoner from Chicago to an Illinois correctional facility. Credit is due to Cain, who plays a lot of nice guys, for giving the story’s implausibilities some weight.

Cain is Chicago cop Mason Danvers, whose attempts at bringing hulking psycho Victor Abbott (Wight) to justice are foiled when a “key witness” disappears. Hours after being sprung, Abbott heads to Danvers’ house to kill the detective’s wife (Kyra Zagorsky in a charming but shortlived performance). To get revenge — and this is where it really gets dumb — Danvers murders Abbott’s brother (Aleks Paunovic) and allows himself to be arrested. Somehow, Danvers knows he’ll be sent to the same prison as Abbott (doubtful) and placed with the general population (really doubtful).

You would think there would be an easier way to kill Abbott. Like maybe just shooting him in the head when he was kneeling over Danvers’ dead wife in Danvers’ house. Guess the movie would have been shorter though. Behind the wall, Danvers is subject to the whims of the evil (of course) warden, Snyder, played in an annoyingly eccentric performance by Michael Eklund (BATES HOTEL).

Content to settle for a generic direct-to-video action movie, the Soskas squandered an opportunity to do more with Cain’s character, a nice guy and good cop who goes to some really dark and bad places. To be fair, WWE probably didn’t want a dramatic character study, but based on his work here, Cain might have been up for the heavy lifting. Instead, VENDETTA is a competent yet thoroughly unpleasant series of face punches and stabs in the gut without joy or purpose.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Death Race 3: Inferno

A direct sequel to DEATH RACE 2, which revealed the origin of both the Death Race and legendary racer Frankenstein, DEATH RACE 3: INFERNO reunites much of that film’s cast with its director, Roel Reine (PISTOL WHIPPED), as well as writer Tony Giglio (CHAOS). You wouldn’t think there was another story to tell with this premise, and you’d be right. The only substantial difference between DEATH RACE: INFERNO and the previous films is its setting.

Reine takes the Death Race away from the dilapidated prison and into the Kalahari Desert of South Africa, where both direct-to-video sequels were filmed. Thanks to a huge cop out elaborate plastic surgery, Luke Goss doesn’t have to wear the Frankenstein mask he earned from a fiery crash at the end of the last movie. Weyland (Ving Rhames) is out as the owner of the Death Race he created after an even bigger and richer asshole named Niles York (Dougray Scott) takes over his company.

York wants to franchise Death Race, so he sends Carl Lucas aka Frankenstein and his team Katrina (Tanit Phoenix), Lists (Fred Koehler), and Goldberg (Danny Trejo), the world’s last Mexican Jew (“I killed all the others.”) to the maximum security prison in the Kalahari. While opening up the film and exploring the beautiful Kalahari scenery gives DEATH RACE 3 a fresh look, the clumsy Reine’s haphazard coverage of the race leaves the audience confused. The race’s rules are unclear, and it’s difficult to tell who’s winning or losing.

The SAW sequels were an obvious influence on the ending, which is designed to lead into DEATH RACE. It’s easy to see a FAST AND THE FURIOUS influence too. Reine’s dedication to practical effects — fire gags, car stunts, squibs — is admirable and give his DEATH RACE sequels a boost over a lot of other direct-to-video action movies.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Death Race 2

It’s unlikely anyone cared that much about the origins of the Death Race seen in the first film nor how Frankenstein, a character killed off in the first five minutes, became involved with the race, but here we are. David Carradine, the star of DEATH RACE 2000, contributed his voice to the masked Frankenstein in DEATH RACE, but Luke Goss (HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY) plays the role in DEATH RACE 2, a direct-to-video sequel shot in South Africa.

I don’t think it’s unfair for the audience to expect plenty of Death Racing in a movie titled DEATH RACE 2, but nobody told director Roel Reine (THE MARINE 2 and 12 ROUNDS 2) that, and you would think he’d be smart enough to know. Nope, it takes DEATH RACE 2 an hour to present its first Death Race, but will you still be watching? Goss is a dull leading man, and female lead Lauren Cohan (THE WALKING DEAD) is all cleavage and no talent, leaving veterans Ving Rhames (PULP FICTION), Sean Bean (GOLDENEYE), and Danny Trejo (SPY KIDS) to do the heavy lifting, acting wise.

Before he was Frankenstein, a prisoner at Terminal Island and the most famous (so we’re told) Death Racer ever, he was Carl Lucas, getaway driver for gangster Marcus Kane (Bean) on the most poorly planned and executed bank robbery of all time. Lucas is caught and sent to Terminal Island, which is a for-profit owned by Weyland (Rhames), who also owns a television network. TV producer September Jones (Cohan) creates prison death matches as a ratings boost for Weyland’s network, and when ratings begin to drop, graduates (finally) the Death Race.

Casting Trejo as a prison inmate is indicative of the originality of the screenplay by CHAOS’ Tony Giglio (from a story co-written by DEATH RACE director Paul W.S. Anderson). Like the first movie, the stunts and action scenes are quite good. Reine, being a better director than Anderson, is hamstruck by a dull leading man, an inessential story, and a plot that doesn’t introduce its first Death Race until Act 3, but manages to pull off some exciting action. Not enough to make DEATH RACE 2 a better film than the original, but it isn’t worse either.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Death Race

Most likely the biggest budgeted film Roger Corman ever received a producing credit on, DEATH RACE is a remake of one of Corman’s most popular films. In 1975’s DEATH RACE 2000, directed by Paul Bartel (CANNONBALL) from a screenplay by Robert Thom (WILD IN THE STREETS) and Charles B. Griffith (LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS) and a story by Ib Melchior (ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS), competitors in a cross-country road race earned points by mowing down pedestrians with their tricked-out cars. Leave it to hack writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson (SOLDIER) to remove the one element that everyone remembers about the original film and replace it with...nothing, really.

In removing DEATH RACE 2000’s central gimmick, Anderson has also removed its clever social satire and, thus, its reason for existing. What’s left is a thoroughly uninteresting melange of loud noises (the soundtrack is too graceless to be called “sound”) and blurry violence. No longer a cross-country race, Anderson’s Death Race is merely a bunch of cars — still tricked out, at least — driving around in circles behind the walls of a prison called Terminal Island (also the title of a better exploitation film of the 1970s).

The newest inmate is Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), an unemployed steelworker and former race car driver who is framed for the murder of his wife. Anderson doesn’t miss a prison cliche — cafeteria fights, cruel guards, loss of dignity, threats of solitary. The evil warden (another cliche), played by a slumming Joan Allen (THE CRUCIBLE), needs Ames to drive in the next Death Race as a substitute for the masked champion Frankenstein (voiced by David Carradine, the star of DEATH RACE 2000), who was killed in his last race.

Ian McShane (DEADWOOD) and Fred Koehler (KATE & ALLIE) serve dual functions: Ames’ pit crew and disseminators of information about the race and its drivers to the audience. Natalie Martinez (UNDER THE DOME) plays Ames’ sexy navigator, though why a driver who’s just going around in circles needs a navigator is left vague in Anderson’s screenplay. As is the warden’s reason for needing Ames to pretend to be Frankenstein. We’re told millions of people are watching Death Race, yet we see none of them or their supposed idolization of Frankenstein.

Unlike DEATH RACE 2000, which contributed food for thought to the dark humor and violence, it seems very little thinking went into crafting the remake. The races are streamed over the internet for the viewing pleasure of its bloodthirsty viewers, but satirizing reality television is low-hanging fruit. Anderson’s race choreography is poor — you rarely know the geography of the racers or even who’s winning — but exploding cars is always entertaining. The well-executed CGI is seamlessly blended with excellent stuntwork, which manages to keep this dumb movie watchable.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

The greatest of producer Walt Disney’s adventure films won Academy Awards for its special effects and color art direction and still entertains audiences young and old decades later. Jules Verne’s 1870 novel has been adapted dozens of times in film, television, stage, and comic books, but Disney’s 1954 movie, directed by Richard Fleischer (THE BOSTON STRANGLER), is the most popular.

Filmed in Technicolor and CinemaScope on location in Jamaica, the Bahamas, and California, as well as soundstages on the Disney, Universal, and 20th Century Fox lots, 20000 (sic) LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA was one of Disney’s most expensive productions. The film’s most celebrated sequence, a battle with a giant squid during a pounding thunderstorm, was reshot at considerable expense, but is a testament to Disney’s determination to get it right, costs be damned.

James Mason (THE DESERT FOX) is perfectly cast as the villainous Captain Nemo, commander of a futuristic submarine called the Nautilus that is terrorizing Pacific Ocean shipping lanes in 1868. The rest of the world hears accounts and rumors of a sea monster that’s responsible for destroying warships, so the United States government recruits French oceanographer Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his manservant Conseil (Peter Lorre) to investigate.

Months later, just after Captain Farragut (Ted de Corsia) has announced he’s calling off the snipe hunt, leaving Aronnax disappointed, their ship is attacked by the “monster.” Only Aronnax, Conseil, and cocky harpoonist Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) survive. They discover the monster is no flesh-and-blood creature, and a large mechanical device the likes of which no man has ever seen. Of course, it’s the Nautilus, and the three men are taken aboard.

Mason’s great performance as Nemo is as brooding, as complex, and as serious as Douglas’ is jocular and hammy. If 20000 has a central flaw, it would be Douglas, though it’s certain kids of the 1950s idolized the impulsive, treasure-happy womanizer. Aronnax falls for Nemo’s self-sufficiency and disdain for warring nations, especially after he learns how the captain and his crew escaped from a penal colony. But after witnessing Nemo’s utter destruction of an ammunition ship and mass murder of its crew, Land and Conseil begin making escape plans.

Technically, 20000 is virtually flawless (though Fleischer couldn’t solve the problem of convincingly faking underwater actors on dry soundstages). The Nautilus is a remarkable design, inside and out, and Disney’s money was well spent creating the sumptuous sets and miniatures. While Fleischer delivers a steady supply of thrilling action in the forms of cannibals, explosions, and, yes, the vaunted giant squid, the dramatic meat of the film is the sparring between the misanthropic Nemo and the humanistic Aronnax, who doesn’t waver in his determination to break down the captain’s defenses.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Rain Killer

He isn’t credited on the print, but you can tell Roger Corman was the executive producer of THE RAIN KILLER, because Maria Ford plays a stripper in it. Sliding into a few theaters under Corman’s Califilm label, this serial-killer thriller is also notable for its camerawork by Janusz Kaminski, who would escape the direct-to-video world in three years to become Steven Spielberg’s cinematographer, beginning with SCHINDLER’S LIST.

Also on the cusp of bigger things: co-star Michael Chiklis, who played the title role in THE COMMISH beginning the next year and went on to THE SHIELD and two FANTASTIC FOUR movies. The star of THE RAIN KILLER is Ray Sharkey, who supported Chiklis in 1989’s WIRED and was just coming off an acclaimed run on WISEGUY. He was already HIV positive, due to his heavy drug use, and he died of AIDS in 1993.

With Kaminski involved, THE RAIN KILLER is a good-looking movie for its budget level. Writer Ray Cunneff, whose experience was in daytime television, and debuting director Ken Stein held no illusions about what kind of film they were making, staging two bloody knife murders in the first few minutes. The serial killer, who wears a hat and raincoat, is targeting women in a support group for drug addicts. And wouldn’t you know that investigating detective Sharkey’s new partner, straight-laced FBI agent David Beecroft (FALCON CREST), is married to a member (Tania Coleridge)?

Sharkey and Coleridge begin a sexual relationship, which is bad for Beecroft (who still loves her) and bad for us, because the two actors have no chemistry. Nor does Sharkey strike any sparks with Beecroft. Whether he was high, receiving poor direction, or just didn’t care, Sharkey seems lost and unfocused in THE RAIN KILLER and unable to gel with his co-stars while chewing scenery inappropriately. Not that anyone else in the movie is delivering a great performance — not even Chiklis, whose character is confined to the baseball caps he wears.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

10 To Midnight

Charles Bronson in a sleazy slasher movie? You bet, and it’s one of his most popular films for Cannon, the studio that employed him consistently throughout the 1980s. The title 10 TO MIDNIGHT is meaningless, merely one presold to foreign backers by Cannon heads Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus and tacked on to the film in post-production.

10 TO MIDNIGHT is certainly the best of Bronson’s Cannon films and among his best that decade. Its status as a horror movie may be debatable (Bronson’s only straight horror film was 1953’s HOUSE OF WAX, in which he was billed under his real name of Charles Buchinsky), but it certainly leans more on gore and nudity than typical cop-movie shenanigans like car chases and gun battles. In fact, Bronson fires his piece only once in the film during its memorable finale. It’s a bit surprising to see such a tawdry movie being created not only by Bronson, but also its 70-year-old screenwriter, William Roberts of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, and its genteel 69-year-old director, J. Lee Thompson, who made THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, CAPE FEAR, and, yes, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME.

It doesn’t take long to reveal 10 TO MIDNIGHT is more than a typical Charles Bronson crime drama. Someone is slashing beautiful and often naked young women in Los Angeles — an act Thompson shows us in an extended, blood-drenched setpiece that fits more comfortably with FRIDAY THE 13TH than DIRTY HARRY or even DEATH WISH. The killer’s identity is no mystery to us. He’s Warren Stacey (Gene Davis), a sexually repressed film buff striking back at women who reject his advances by stripping nude and stabbing them with a large knife.

You don’t have to be Freud or even a first-year psychology student to understand the symbolism Thompson and Roberts are hammering into our heads. Even “mean, selfish son of a bitch” detective Leo Kessler (Bronson), investigating the murders with his by-the-book partner Paul McAnn (Andrew Stevens), gets it. Stacey’s latest victims were friends of Kessler’s daughter Laurie (BEVERLY HILLS COP redhead Lisa Eilbacher), a nursing student who feels neglected by her father and attracted to Paul, a college graduate with a cerebral approach to chasing killers.

Kessler, old-fashioned enough to remember when “legal meant lawful,” instead of loopholes intended to set killers free, tries to plant evidence to secure a conviction against Stacey. In an interesting twist involving the star of DEATH WISH, Kessler’s attempt at vigilante fails, and Stacey does indeed go free — not because of any loopholes, but because of Kessler’s own actions. It costs the cop his badge and spurs him obsession with stopping Stacey’s bloody reign, maybe even at the cost of Laurie’s life.

While 10 TO MIDNIGHT doesn’t seem to have done much for Davis’ career, his dedication to making Stacey as creepy as possible is appreciated. Obviously inspired by real-life Chicago mass murderer Richard Speck (as was Roberts in writing the script), Davis’ unusual approach to his character involves underplaying, rather than the expected histrionics and “witty” one-liners, and playing his slashing scenes in the buff, even in a cold forest in the middle of the night.

Bronson, who played many a cop in his day (and would go on to play more for Cannon and others), could have played Leo Kessler in his sleep, but he seems charged by the role. Certainly his presence and power are strong enough to propel him through. Eilbacher and Stevens have less to play, but handle their supporting roles well, as do Wilford Brimley (COCOON), Robert F. Lyons (also in Bronson’s MURPHY’S LAW), Geoffrey Lewis (EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE), a young Kelly Preston (JERRY MAGUIRE), Ola Ray (48 HRS.) and THE BEACH GIRLS’ Jeana Tomasina.

10 TO MIDNIGHT opened at #2 at the box office — sandwiched between TOOTSIE and GANDHI (!) — but went on to gross less than other Cannon productions that year, HERCULES and REVENGE OF THE NINJA. Bronson’s next Golan/Globus production, which Cannon also released, was DEATH WISH 3, which was one of the studio’s biggest hits and led to it making a Bronson film every year the rest of the decade.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Rage And Honor

BLOODFIST director Terence H. Winkless returned to the martial arts genre in the direct-to-video RAGE AND HONOR, not to be confused with the earlier Sho Kosugi vehicle RAGE OF HONOR. This one, which was also written by Winkless (another of his screenwriting credits is THE HOWLING), teams kung fu fighters Richard Norton and Cynthia Rothrock, who made about a dozen movies together, including LADY DRAGON, GUARDIAN ANGEL, and two CHINA O’BRIEN movies.

Norton is Preston Michaels, a Melbourne cop with mad origami skills who’s visiting Los Angeles on a policeman-exchange program. Rothrock is Kris Fairfield, a schoolteacher who instructs cops in kung fu in her spare time. Together, they’re forced to solve a murder...if they don’t kill each other firsnahhh, they actually get along pretty well.

She’s the only person an Australian stranger in a strange land can turn to when he’s framed for the murder of a corrupt cop involved in a drug deal. The real killer is Rita Carrion, played in a delightfully demented performance by ALIEN NATION’s Terri Treas (who also worked with Winkless in THE NEST), the lady friend of druglord Conrad Drago.

If an action movie is only as good as its villains, RAGE AND HONOR is pretty darn good. Drago, played by Brian Thompson (COBRA) wearing a ridiculous blond mullet wig, is certainly colorful. His relationship with Rita is not only more complex than in most films of this type, but they seem to actually care about one another. Of course, Drago has plenty of karate experts in his employ, including an all-girl street gang who gang up on Kris and Michaels in an alley.

In addition to a good script with interesting supporting characters (though Norton’s and Rothrock’s are dry) and appropriate humor (Norton gets steamed when he’s accused of being Canadian), Winkless turns in a solid directing job, delivering a rapidly paced series of well-staged fights and action scenes. The camera is usually placed for maximum impact, and Winkless and his editors let each shot play out to give their talented leads plenty of room to show off their action skills.

Catherine Bach (THE DUKES OF HAZZARD) is offbeat casting as Norton’s concerned boss, and Alex Datcher (PASSENGER 57) is Hannah the Hun, part of Drago’s underground. Oddly, a photo of Master Bong Soo Han (KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE) plays Kris’ dead sensei. For some reason, the sequel turned Michaels and Kris into secret agents and sent them to Jakarta, where production company IRS Media’s money stretches a lot further.

El Vampiro Y El Sexo aka Santo In The Treasure Of Dracula

A Santo movie with naked women! Thought lost or at least hidden away for decades, the “adults only” version of SANTO IN THE TREASURE OF DRACULA — titled EL VAMPIRO Y EL SEXO (aka THE VAMPIRE AND SEX) — finds the masked Mexican battling none other than Count Dracula (!), who prefers to strip his female victims to the waist before biting their beautiful necks.

In this film — Santo’s first in color — we learn that he isn’t just a wrestler and crime fighter, but also a scientist who has built a time machine. Women are more capable of time travel than men are (because they are “four times stronger”), so Santo enlists Luisa (Noelia Noel), the daughter of his nuclear physician friend Dr. Sepulveda (Carlos Agosti), to test the machine.

Luisa lands in the 19th century, where Santo, Sepulveda, and cowardly comic sidekick Perico (Alberto Rojas) watch her on a television screen, as she unwittingly performs in a relatively straightforward version of Bram Stoker’s story with Luisa in the role of Lucy. Unbeknownst to Luisa, a mysterious man named Count Alucard (ahem) wants to make her one of his vampire brides. But just before Drac (Aldo Monti) can fully transform her, Santo (remember...he’s watching) yanks her back to 1969.

However, Santo, who believes Dracula’s treasure could be useful to help those in need, decides to use the time machine to retrieve from the vampire’s crypt a medallion and a ring that reveal the location of Dracula’s treasure. Opposing Santo and his friends is the Black Hood, who wants Dracula’s wealth for his own nefarious purpose. And if you get the feeling you’re watching two films at the same time, you aren’t wrong.

Fans of TV’s THE TIME TUNNEL will notice the show’s design influence on Santo’s time machine, though on a much less expensive scale. While EL VAMPIRO Y EL SEXO is certainly entertaining, it suffers from a pronounced lack of Santo, who appears in less than ten minutes of the first half of the movie. The reason is clear: Santo (the real Santo) refused to appear in any erotic scenes, which leads to implausible scenes of Santo, Sepulveda, and Perico watching Luisa (Sepulveda’s daughter, remember) being stripped and molested by Dracula while she sleeps.

If it were just a few topless women, that would be unusually frank enough for a Santo adventure, but the erotic content also includes full nudity and much breast kissing by Dracula (I think we found his fetish). Strangely, despite the sexual material, director Rene Cardona (NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES) refrains from showing even a drop of blood. Cardona isn’t shy about ripping off his own work, though. To set up a lengthy wrestling match between Santo and the Black Hood’s son Atlas (surprisingly, the film’s lone wrestling scene), Cardona swipes plot points from his earlier film WRESTLING WOMEN VS. THE AZTEC MUMMY.

EL VAMPIRO Y EL SEXO is likely the only Santo movie to receive a theatrical release in the United States, but not in Mexico. The “adults only” cut played in New York City in 1969, but didn’t hit the big screen south of the border until producer Guillermo Calderon Stell’s family recovered the missing footage and debuted the film at the Guadalajara International Film Festival in 2011. SANTO IN THE TREASURE OF DRACULA, of course, unspooled in Mexican theaters.

Monday, September 07, 2015

RIP Martin Milner

I wanted to write a few words about Martin Milner, who died over the holiday weekend at the age of 83.

During the first stage of his career, Milner was, frankly, a competent, solid, but thoroughly uninteresting actor who often played the "square" among a cast of crazies or at least more colorful characters. He was an Earp brother in GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL and a journalist in COMPULSION. His blandness actually made him stand out in the execrable SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE amid weirdos like Mamie Van Doren, Jackie Coogan, Conway Twitty, John Carradine, and Vampira.

After 13 years in Hollywood, he finally became a bonafide television star in ROUTE 66, which teamed him with George Maharis (and later Glenn Corbett) in a groundbreaking one-hour drama about two handsome young men driving around America in a Corvette and having adventures.

But I want to talk about Milner's second television series.

Milner first worked with maverick television producer/director/star Jack Webb in several DRAGNET episodes in the 1950s. When Webb and Robert Cinader created ADAM-12 in 1968, they pegged Milner to star alongside a young, inexperienced actor named Kent McCord as a pair of uniformed police officers patrolling Los Angeles in a squad car. Milner was the veteran officer, Pete Malloy. McCord played rookie Jim Reed. On and off the screen, Milner was something of a mentor and friend to McCord, and their chemistry helped ADAM-12 run for seven seasons on NBC.

I loved ADAM-12 when I was a kid. It ran weeknights at 6:30 p.m. right after the 6:00 News on WCIA-TV in Champaign, Illinois, and I tried never to miss it. Like DRAGNET, ADAM-12 was based on actual LAPD cases, and each half-hour episode featured two to three different stories, so the pacing was quick. The show featured action, drama, violence, humor. Best of all, it seemed real. McCord was green as an actor when the series started, which actually worked in his favor playing a green patrol officer who is seen in the first episode making a grave error that could have killed him and his partner. With Malloy's (re: Milner's) steadying influence, Jim Reed grew to become an excellent policeman and his partner's equal in every way.

I caught up with ADAM-12 a few years ago and watched all 174 episodes. It holds up. It holds up because the stories are good. It holds up because the stories are told well -- not flashy -- but well by workmanlike directors like Hollingsworth Morse and Dennis Donnelly and Christian I. Nyby who knew pacing and drama and stayed out of the actors' way.

It holds up because it respects police officers. Do you realize that literally every cop show on the air today shows police officers routinely breaking the law? Trampling citizens' private rights. Ignoring due process. Think about it. They're supposed to be the heroes. Yet routinely -- every week -- you see Benson or Rust Cohle or McGarrett or the Mentalist or Vic Mackey or Raylan a cop show, and the cops are routinely breaking the law, often hurting the citizens they're sworn to protect.

On ADAM-12, the cops were good people. To protect and to serve. And they did. ADAM-12 wasn't naive. It knew policeman weren't always good. That there was corruption and graft in the ranks, that some cops were violent or untrustworthy. But they weren't the good guys and weren't to be rooted for. Malloy and Reed knew this, and I think so did Milner and McCord.

Would ADAM-12 have been successful without Martin Milner? Probably not. He was likable, strong, authoritative, and absolutely completely 100% believable. It was a great show. And Martin Milner was great in it. TV Land misses him already.

Friday, September 04, 2015


BORDERLINE is your only opportunity to see Charles Bronson pretend to be a retarded Mexican.

Ed Harris (THE ABYSS) earned a special Introducing credit for his first major role in a motion picture. Harris plays Hotchkiss, a “coyote” who takes money to smuggle undocumented aliens across the Mexican border into California. Bronson is Jeb Maynard, a Border Patrol officer who wants Hotchkiss’ ass for killing his partner (Wilford Brimley) and doesn’t wanna hear any “probable cause crap” outta his men investigating the murder.

Directed by Jerrold Freedman (KANSAS CITY BOMBER), who mostly worked in television, BORDERLINE relies less on action than one might expect from a Bronson vehicle. The script by Steve Kline (LOU GRANT) is in the police procedural mode, as Maynard and his new rookie partner (Bruno Kirby) follow the clues to Hotchkiss, who learned his lessons in killing from the United States government in Vietnam, and beyond to the white collar executives pulling the strings on the flesh smuggling operation for their skyscraper offices.

Maynard's plan involves recruiting the mother of a young boy also murdered with Brimley and using her to smuggle both of them (he’s playing “slow” because his Spanish isn’t very good) into the U.S. in order to infiltrate Hotchkiss’ organization. That we know Hotchkiss is the killer means the story has few surprises, and the PG rating cuts down on the star’s trademark gore and violence. However, official cooperation from the U.S. Border Patrol lends the production an air of realism and respectability that makes it enormously watchable.