Saturday, June 25, 2016

Three The Hard Way

Probably the greatest film ever to end on a freeze frame of a burning car, THREE THE HARD WAY is a milestone among 1970s action films for bringing together three of the decade’s most popular blaxploitation stars: Fred Williamson (BLACK CAESAR), Jim Brown (SLAUGHTER), and Jim Kelly (ENTER THE DRAGON).

Unsteadily directed by SUPER FLY’s Gordon Parks Jr., a photographer and film cameraman who made only four films before his tragic 1979 death in a plane crash, this Allied Artists release is a wild, action-packed blast that includes dummy deaths, a burning man, several exploding cars, nudity, a sense of humor, and songs by the Impressions.

Credit frequent HAWAII FIVE-O writers Eric Bercovici and Jerry Ludwig for the outrageously campy premise that would have fit perfectly into a Marvel superhero comic book of that period. A wealthy white supremacist named Mr. Feather (the incomparably fey Jay Robinson) plans to exterminate America’s black population by poisoning the water supply of several major cities with a deadly chemical that affects only African-Americans. Record producer Jimmy Lait (Brown), public relations man Jagger Daniels (Williamson), and karate teacher Mister Keyes (Kelly) discover Feather’s plan after Jimmy’s girlfriend Wendy (Sheila Frazier) is kidnapped, and they join forces to destroy it.

Bercovici, Ludwig, and Parks give their stars properly heroic introductions that show off their particular skill sets in the most glamorous manner. After Brown, Williamson, and Kelly split up to damage Feather’s operation in solo adventures — again, tried-and-true comic book plotting — the three team up for a Bondian climax to shoot down an army of henchmen and blow up the villain’s compound. Hal Needham’s Stunts Unlimited team don machine guns and red berets in a valiant attempt to dodge the heroes’ fists, feet, bullets, and bombs. Though THREE THE HARD WAY has too little story for its 89 minutes and too little budget for its ambitious storyline, action fans get more than their money’s worth with a high body count, imaginative stunts, and super-cool good guys to root for.

Rising above the typical urban fireworks in its plot and Robinson’s campy melodramatics, THREE THE HARD WAY also features a bizarre scene where Williamson extracts information from Feather’s henchman (Howard Platt) by siccing a trio of sassy, sweaty, and topless dominatrixes (one of whom is played by busy Chinese actress Irene Tsu) on him. Alex Rocco (THE GODFATHER) appears briefly as an ineffectual cop, and look closely for THE BIG BIRD CAGE star Roberta Collins and a practically unrecognizable Corbin Bernsen (his father Harry produced this film and the unofficial followup, TAKE A HARD RIDE). Kelly’s first scene is a cool karate fight against corrupt cops on a very windy day in New York City, and Brown and Williamson fight some punks on Chicago’s LaSalle/Van Buren Blue Line platform.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Girls Next Door aka Teen Lust

James Hong, one of the busiest Asian character actors in the history of Hollywood filmmaking, earned his first acting credit on television in 1955 and was still performing sixty (!) years later.

He also found time to direct a handful of movies, including the X-rated HOT CONNECTIONS and this R-rated teen sex comedy that played under many titles. It first came out as THE GIRL NEXT DOOR (the Elisha Cuthbert comedy of 2004 is no relation) in 1978 as a star vehicle for the lovely Kirsten Baker, better known for wearing a tight Mickey Mouse tee in FRIDAY THE 13TH, PART 2.

It’s very strange and often in bad taste, even for this genre. The rambling storyline includes a rich retarded kid with whom all the neighborhood mothers try to set up their daughters, an attempted gangrape by a bunch of grade schoolers, and heroine Carol’s (Baker) dysfunctional family, including an oblivious drunk mother and a lecherous father (who turns out to be not only not her mother, but also an impotent virgin!).

I don’t know what to make of the uncomfortable scene in which Carol (“You’re tearing me apart, Mom!”) confronts her mom about her drinking. Serious drama done poorly or satire of Afterschool Specials? It’s a perfect example of Hong’s unsteady direction, though the film deserves credit for being weird, if not particularly good. Hong knows what his audience is looking for, though, and he delivers it: plenty of nudity, drug use, pop music, and silliness.

Robert Gribben (HITCHHIKE TO HELL) and Michael Heit (BARE KNUCKLES) play cops. Male lead Perry Lang did Spielberg’s 1941 and Sam Fuller’s THE BIG RED ONE right after this. Hong’s film bounced around drive-ins through much of the 1980s under such titles as HIGH SCHOOL TEASERS, POLICE GIRLS ACADEMY, MAMA NEVER TOLD ME, and — most notably — TEEN LUST. The Internet Movie Database claims Jewel Shepard is in it, but that may be because she’s one of the models on the HIGH SCHOOL TEASERS one-sheet.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Cosa Nostra, An Arch Enemy Of The FBI

Warner Brothers, looking to squeeze more nickels out of its television properties, released “The Executioners,” a two-part episode of THE FBI, as a feature film in overseas theaters. Perhaps executive producer Quinn Martin (THE FUGITIVE) and Warners intended COSA NOSTRA, AN ARCH ENEMY OF THE FBI to be a film from the beginning of production, since it’s packed with big-name guest stars--even for a QM show (famous for paying top dollar for guest actors). Director Don Medford and cameraman Robert Moreno seem to have composed their shots with a theatrical aspect ratio in mind, though it still looks like a television show.

Series star Efrem Zimbalist Jr. still takes top billing as stalwart FBI agent Lew Erskine, but the story sets him back in second place in favor of Walter Pidgeon (FORBIDDEN PLANET) and Telly Savalas (THE DIRTY DOZEN) as mobsters trying to avoid indictment by a New York grand jury. Probably because of the heat Martin took from the Italian-American community for the ethnic gangsters on THE UNTOUCHABLES, the Cosa Nostra are decidedly WASPy, including Robert Drivas and Robert Duvall (THE GODFATHER) as hitmen and Ted Knight (CADDYSHACK) as a gun dealer.

Savalas and Pidgeon play old friends whose families disapprove of their careers. Savalas hasn’t lived with wife Celeste Holm in ten years, and Pidgeon’s daughter Strasberg (THE TRIP) proclaims “I haven’t got a father.” Pidgeon fears Savalas, who’s still in love with Holm and yearns for their old life together, is getting soft, which could mean that Telly might end up like the last two grand jury witnesses against them.

As a TV show, “The Executioners” (which aired in 1967) is pretty good television, but it lacks scope and action. Cast aside, it’s a mystery why it was chosen to play for a paying audience. Maybe they didn’t show up, which could explain why there wasn’t a second THE FBI movie. Pidgeon and Savalas, the real stars of the film, are very good with Telly’s tentative mobster bouncing solidly off Pidgeon. Ken Lynch, Wesley Addy, Ross Elliott, Russell Thorsen, Dan Frazer (KOJAK), James B. Sikking (DOOGIE HOWSER, M.D.), Jerry Douglas, Susan Seaforth Hayes, and Anthony Eisley (HAWAIIAN EYE) co-star. Richard Markowitz (THE WILD WILD WEST) composed the score using Bronislaw Kaper’s television theme over the main titles.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Made Men

MADE MEN is the reason some film buffs dig through the bargain bins filled with cheap, obscure direct-to-video action movies. Directed by Louis Morneau (BATS), MADE MEN received no theatrical distribution, even though it features a name cast, exciting action sequences, good humor, and production credits by Richard Donner (LETHAL WEAPON) and Joel Silver (DIE HARD).

It eventually bogs down in a series of monotonous gunshots, last-minute rescues, pistols that never run out of ammo, and probably one twist too many, but MADE MEN is still a delightful sleeper for action fans who like wiseass humor and quirky characterizations mixed with their explosions.

Jim Belushi (RED HEAT) is funny as a character right in his wheelhouse: Bill “The Mouth” Manucci, who scammed $12 million from a Chicago mobster, ratted him out to the Feds, and moved to a dusty Oklahoma farmhouse with his sexy wife Debra (Vanessa Angel from KINGPIN) under the Witness Protection Program. The Syndicate finds out where he is and sends four assassins to kill Bill and retrieve the dough. The Mouth is harder to kill than predicted, and ends up on the run from not only the mob’s gunsels, but also a gang of hillbilly drug dealers led by Steve Railsback (THE STUNT MAN) and the local Southern sheriff, played deliciously by the very Welsh Timothy Dalton (THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS).

The screenplay by television veterans Robert Franke (CBS’ THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) and SMALLVILLE’s Alfred Gough and Miles Millar doesn’t have enough story for 91 minutes, but the boisterous performances and slick action make up for any script deficiencies. Even though Belushi’s character is a liar and a schemer, he wouldn’t really hurt anyone, and the actor does a fine job getting the audience on his side. Dalton is a real gas, taking a role he seems miscast in and pretty much stealing the picture with it. The best performance, however, is by Michael Beach (SONS OF ANARCHY), who projects both humor and menace as a hit man with unexpected depth.

Heist (2015)

You can tell Jeffrey Dean Morgan has made the jump from character actor to leading man by his fictional offspring. In 2005, he was the father of adult sons on SUPERNATURAL. Ten years later, he has a sick little girl in HEIST, one of the dumbest thrillers to come down the path recently. It’s the kind of film where a five-year-old kid takes public transportation around a major city at 4:00 a.m.. There’s absolutely no story reason a little kid has to be on the bus, but either nobody cared enough about the movie to tell director Scott Mann (THE TOURNAMENT), “Hey, it’s kinda stupid to have a kid on the bus,” or somebody did and Mann said, “Eh, whatever.”

The kind of movie that casts Gina Carano (DEADPOOL) for her acting skills, HEIST casts Morgan as a dealer in a casino owned by Robert DeNiro, who cares less about this film than Scott Mann does. Luckily, DeNiro is a lot better at his job than Mann is, and he’s enormously watchable even playing a cliche character spouting cliche dialogue that wasn’t written so much as cut and pasted from IT TAKES A THIEF fanfic. Morgan needs $300,000 for his daughter’s medical bills (“Insurance doesn’t even cover the treatments.” Shoulda explored the Obamacare exchanges, Jeff.). He asks DeNiro for it, DeNiro refuses, mainly out of spite. Unfortunately for him, just coincidentally it happens the same night security man Dave Bautista (SPECTRE) approaches total stranger Morgan to ask, “Hey, wanna help me steal $3 million from Robert DeNiro?”

Shockingly, their crack plan devised in a bar the night before goes wrong, and Morgan, Bautista, and a shot sidekick end up on a hijacked bus carrying the little kid, a pregnant woman, a guy in a beaver suit, driver D.B. Sweeney (FIRE IN THE SKY), and some other caricatures. Who will catch up to them first: DeNiro’s assassin Morris Chestnut (HALF PAST DEAD) or cops Gina Carano (DEADPOOL) and Mark-Paul Gosselaar (SAVED BY THE BELL), whose insouciant performance indicates he also doesn’t care about this movie, but had a good time making it. He also more than makes up for his partner’s impression of the walking tree in FROM HELL IT CAME.

HEIST starts in media res with some action, then a flashback to “One Week Earlier,” which is the laziest way to open a picture. On the other hand, Mann isn’t bad at the action scenes, and he seems to have shot a lot of the bus scenes on a bus on an actual road, which helps open up the picture and add some realism to a plot that desperately needs some. The big plot twist near the end assumes the local cops are as dumb as Enos and Roscoe, and the whole story hinges on the unlikelihood of a hospital accepting a bag of cash that the whole city knows was stolen the night before in a heist that has resulted in several murders and attempted murders, including those of police officers. Kate Bosworth (SUPERMAN RETURNS) has one scene as DeNiro’s daughter, and model Summer Altice plays a woman who lays naked in bed with DeNiro, providing the veteran actor with the only reason he did this movie.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Unmasking The Idol

Definitely one of the strangest action movies of the 1980s, UNMASKING THE IDOL is a surprisingly fun 007 takeoff filmed in North Carolina and South Carolina. Director Worth Keeter got his start behind the camera making cheap action movies for local producer Earl Owensby, such as WOLFMAN, CHAIN GANG, and ROTTWEILER: DOGS OF HELL (in 3D!). The cast is made up of unknowns — most likely locals from the Shelby, North Carolina area — and it’s unlikely UNMASKING THE IDOL played at many theaters above the Mason-Dixon Line. Somebody must have paid to see it, because Keeter directed a sequel, THE ORDER OF THE BLACK EAGLE, a year later.

Ian Hunter, whose screen acting resume starts with IDOL and ends with BLACK EAGLE, stars as the balding Duncan Jax, a British ninja (!) who gambles, romances exotic women, enjoys weapons and electronic gadgetry, and works as a spy for a man named Star (Charles K. Bibby). If that isn’t cool enough for you, Jax has a pet baboon named Boon that wears a ninja costume (!) and kung fus bad guys. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen this boss little monkey dropkicking bad guys.

The plot by Phil Behrens and producer Robert Eaton is a bit hazy, but it has something to do with Jax invading Devil’s Crowd Island, the most highly protected fortress in the world (it isn’t), and rescuing a cache of gold belonging to the Scarlet Leader, an evil masked red ninja who rules from a throne room surrounded by a pool stocked with piranha. Cool, right? I doubt Keeter was all that concerned with the story — at one point, Jax finds the man who killed his parents, but the film never reveals the where, when, why, and how of their deaths, and Jax doesn’t really seem to care any more than Keeter does.

The title means nothing — probably was intended to fool people into thinking they were buying a ticket to a ROMANCING THE STONE sequel. Acting and dialogue are deliciously bad (the double entendres are so bad, even Roger Moore would refuse to say them), but Keeter plays the scenes with wry humor and an entertaining pace. The movie has some really cool comic-book stunts and setpieces, albeit constructed on a low budget, and a hilariously bad main title sequence based on the James Bond openings. Keeter eventually moved to television, helming many episodes of the various POWER RANGERS series.

Monday, June 06, 2016

The Expert

The expert is John Lomax (Jeff Speakman), and his expertise is kicking ass. If only Rick Avery, a busy stuntman (THE DARK KNIGHT RISES) whose directing career started and ended with two Speakman movies, had let his star do his thing.

Sorely lacking in action, THE EXPERT’s screenplay by noted crime novelist Max Allan Collins is a muddled pro-death-penalty screed that pours too many subplots and characters into a blender and spits out nothing of consequence. The courtroom scenes bear no resemblance to any American jurisprudence and are a phony excuse to trot out the old “what about the rights of the victims” plot again.

The victim is Jenny Lomax (Michelle Nagy), John’s younger sister, and when her killer, the smarmy Martin Kagan (ANGELFIST's Michael Shaner), is sentenced to a mental institution instead of Death Row, John doesn’t think it’s punishment enough. The number of real-world serial killers who have been set free after a couple of years in a hospital is pretty low, to the best of my memory, but Collins and Avery are under the impression it happens as often as bears crap in woods. To prevent Kagan from “walking” one day, Lomax loads up on weapons from Vietnam vet Snake (a ponytailed Jim Flippin' Varney in a colorful one-day cameo) and breaks into prison so he can kill the killer.

Dr. Alice Barnes (Alex Datcher) is the prison’s new assistant warden, a namby-pamby liberal shrink who works for prisoners’ rights and gets Kagan’s sentence reduced (one of the pointless subplots involves her molestation by her late father, a hard-nosed prison warden worshipped by the current hard-nosed warden, played hammily by James Brolin). The film cops out on its vigilante theme by having Kagan escape and go on a shooting spree while Lomax is breaking in, making it okay for him to kill in self-defense. Avery has a good eye for action, and the fights and stunts are handled quite well. If only THE EXPERT had more of it.

I’ve rested the blame for this mediocre picture on Collins and Avery, because their names are on the screen. THE EXPERT was a troubled production with Collins rewriting an original screenplay by low-budget auteur Larry Cohen (IT’S ALIVE), Collins being rewritten by original director William Lustig (MANIAC COP), who walked off the picture during shooting, and everyone being rewritten by Speakman, who needed the script to reflect what he thought his fans wanted to see. Too Many Cooks Syndrome often leads to watered-down creative, and it’s safe to say all the interference on THE EXPERT did the film no favors.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

The Final Girls

FRIDAY THE 13TH meets THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO in this good-looking but empty takeoff on 1980s slasher movies. THE FINAL GIRLS is ultimately never as clever as its premise, partially because it doesn't have enough story to stretch to the end and partially because the filmmakers are not as familiar as the subject matter as they should be.

Teenagers Max (AMERICAN HORROR STORY’s Taissa Farmiga), Gertie (ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT’s Alia Shawkat), Vicki (THE VAMPIRE DIARIES’ Nina Dobrev), Duncan (SILICON VALLEY’s Thomas Middleditch), and Chris (VIKINGS’ Alexander Ludwig) check out a revival screening of the 1986 horror movie CAMP BLOODBATH, which starred Max’s late mother Amanda (TROPHY WIFE Malin Akerman). The fivesome are somehow transported inside the movie, where they join the formerly two-dimensional camp counselors dodging the bloody machete of spree killer Billy (Daniel Norris).

Obviously, SCREAM was a major influence on director Todd Strauss-Schulson (A VERY HAROLD & KUMAR 3D CHRISTMAS) and screenwriters M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller, particularly the character of Duncan, who echoes Jamie Kennedy’s film buff Randy, but is less likable. Where THE FINAL GIRLS feels original is in the relationship between Sam and her mother...or rather Sam and Nancy, the character portrayed by Amanda in CAMP BLOODBATH. The horror scenes are a bust (for some reason, the film is PG-13 with no gore or nudity), and the movie-within-a-movie isn’t an accurate depiction of ‘80s horror (the actors are playing it like a parody). The mother/daughter scenes are touching and human, and Akerman and Farmiga make the unlikely relationship play. Having a character dance to Warrant’s 1990 hit “Cherry Pie” is an egregious anachronism. Come on, guys.