Wednesday, July 19, 2017

To The Limit

PM Entertainment produced very few sequels, but writer/director Raymond Martino brought back actor Joey Travolta (HOLLYWOOD VICE SQUAD) to reprise his role of ‘Nam vet turned vigilante Frank DaVinci from DAVINCI’S WAR. Sharing star billing with John’s less talented brother is an even less talented actor: Anna Nicole Smith, who bears the indignity of failing miserably in two direct-to-video action movies. In SKYSCRAPER, which reunited Smith and Martino with PM a year later, the former Playmate delivered what I believe to be the worst acting performance by a name actress in a professional Hollywood film ever. Now imagine that times two.

Smith’s acting is as natural as her breasts, which are the first part of her body we see in TO THE LIMIT, enjoying herself in a hot tub instead of getting dressed for DaVinci’s wedding. The only things she pushes to the limit in this movie are her bra and our patience. She never makes it to the wedding, as her boyfriend China Smith (Michael Nouri in a one-day cameo) is blown up in his car at the same time a hit team massacres DaVinci’s new wife (Rebecca Ferratti) on the church steps.

Three months later, DaVinci has mostly recovered from his wounds while hiding out from his attackers in Las Vegas. His support system is a bunch of stereotypical Italian goombah mobsters. Collette (Smith) is also hiding out from China’s killers, and she teams up with Frank in Vegas. LOU GRANT’s Jack Bannon plays the bad guy, a tattooed CIA spook named Jameson who giggles a lot, smokes opium, makes hot women whip him during sex, and shoots out his computer monitor.

Travolta, who was also the producer and co-writer, which explains his sex scenes with Smith, wears a New York Giants jacket, though I doubt he bothered to clear the NFL logos. Give Martino the lion’s share of the blame for TO THE LIMIT’s incompetence. The story is complicated and uninvolving, and direction and editing are sloppy (Aprea tells his boys, “I gotta job for you. You’re goin’ to L.A. right now,” and they walk off without knowing what the job is). Of course, being a PM production, the stuntwork is impressive, and so are Smith’s nude scenes. Which are, after all, the reason TO THE LIMIT exists at all.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

If He Hollers, Let Him Go!

The fine black actor Raymond St. Jacques, strong as cop Coffin Ed opposite Godfrey Cambridge in COTTON COMES TO HARLEM, stars in another Chester Himes adaptation. The screenplay, however, written by producer/director Charles Martin (THE ONE MAN JURY), has nothing to do with Himes’ book, and the author is uncredited.

In this obscure Cinerama release, St. Jacques stars as a wrongfully escaped convict who is picked up by crafty Southerner Kevin McCarthy and taken to the mansion that McCarthy shares with his wealthy wife and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS co-star Dana Wynter. McCarthy blackmails St. Jacques into murdering Wynter in exchange for $10,000 and safe passage to Mexico. An honorable, erudite man who knows classical music, St. Jacques refuses, but is propelled by Martin’s overheated screenplay into a series of absurd plot twists and lurid complications good only for providing its cast reasons to overact.

Plainly shot by regular Quinn Martin cinematographer William Spencer (137 episodes of BARNABY JONES, 162 episodes of THE FBI, and an Emmy for TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH), IF HE HOLLERS, LET HIM GO! plays like a particularly warped KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATRE episode with mild swearing and nudity. Indeed, singer Barbara McNair (CHANGE OF HABIT) makes a startling feature debut, performing on camera (and the opening theme song) and stripping down for a love scene with St. Jacques.

Aside from St. Jacques, who is his usual authoritative self, the acting is grade-A hambone all around. McCarthy is particularly crazed, but so is John Russell (LAWMAN) as the local sheriff, Arthur O’Connell (ANATOMY OF A MURDER) as a grandstanding prosecutor, Ann Prentiss (CAPTAIN NICE) as a farm girl who tries to capture St. Jacques, and Royal Dano (TEACHERS) as the father of a dead girl. The film’s biggest drawback is Martin’s flashbacks to St. Jacques’ arrest, trial, and conviction that fill in blanks we don’t really need filled. Martin claimed to have invested $1 million in the picture and chosen the provocative title for maximum exploitation.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Dark Breed

Let there be no doubt in anyone’s mind that director/producer Richard Donner and/or credited writers Jonathan Lemkin, Miles Millar, Alfred Gough, and Channing Gibson saw DARK BREED before beginning production on LETHAL WEAPON 4. Two of this PM Entertainment action picture’s eye-popping setpieces — one with two actors punching each other out in a house being transported on a flatbed truck along a busy highway and another that features the leading man being dragged on, again, a busy highway in a satellite dish by a van — were lifted verbatim for LW4, except Donner combined the two chases into one. One wonders whether DARK BREED director Richard Pepin and stunt coordinator Cole McKay should be flattered or furious.

For that matter, DARK BREED is probably about as good or better than the notoriously rushed LW4 on probably 1/70th of the budget. It isn’t quite on PM Entertainment’s A-list, but it’s a good B. Directed at a rapid clip, DARK BREED is a cheaply made monster movie that emphasizes action over logic, but when the action is this good, who cares about logic? Most of producers Pepin and Joseph Merhi’s money went to McKay’s stunt team for as many car stunts, candy glass, and fire gags as could be squeezed into the 92-minute running time.

Air Force captain Nick Saxon (Jack Scalia) is called to the scene when an American space shuttle crashlands off the Long Beach waterfront. Its six astronauts, including Saxon’s ex-wife Debbie (Donna W. Scott) and his best pal Joe (BREAKING BAD’s Jonathan Banks), have been invaded by alien parasites — purposely, as it turns out. Evil government honcho Cutter (Lance LeGault) sent the oblivious crew into space specifically to be invaded, so they could return to Earth, lay eggs, and be used by Cutter as unstoppable killing machines. And in less than two days, the slimy creatures will have matured enough to burst free of their puny human shells and begin destroying Earth.

Ignore the holes in Richard Preston Jr.’s (HOLOGRAM MAN) screenplay and dig the stylish stunts. Scalia carries the non-action scenes just as well, handling the obligatory character quirks, such as his attachment to an antique pocket watch, in a manner that lends a human touch to the gun battles and explosions, including PM’s signature vehicle-flipping-upside-down-through-a-fireball gag. Michael Taylor’s visual effects are okay, considering the budget, though it’s probably a smart move on Pepin’s part not to allow more than a glimpse of the man-in-a-suit title creature.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

I, the Jury

Though based on the most famous of Mickey Spillane’s many best-sellers, I, THE JURY is in no way a faithful adaptation. It is, however, a terrific action movie with great stunts, creative use of New York locations, and a fun Bill Conti (FOR YOUR EYES ONLY) score. It was a troubled production — director Richard T. Heffron (FUTUREWORLD) replaced screenwriter Larry Cohen (BLACK CAESAR) a week into shooting — but I, THE JURY shows little sign of confusion. Except for its plot, which nobody has ever been able to understand.

One thing is for sure: the Mike Hammer played here by Armand Assante (PROPHECY) isn’t the Hammer of Spillane’s books. This Hammer doesn’t wear a hat or drink alcohol, but he does drive a Camaro and may be Italian. Jack Williams, a private detective who lost an arm saving Hammer’s life in Vietnam, is shot to death in a squalid hotel room. Despite an admonishment by his policeman friend Pat Chambers (Paul Sorvino) to “stay out of it,” Hammer begins tracking the killer.

Hammer’s investigation leads to a shady sex therapy clinic where men and women participate in orgies while doctors in lab coats stand around making notes on clipboards, a dilapidated summer camp where Hammer and his sexy and loyal secretary Velda (MANIAC COP’s Laurene Landon) are beset upon by machine gun-wielding government agents, a “Mama’s boy” psycho killer (Judson Scott, who was in STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN and his own television series, THE PHOENIX, that year) who dresses his female victims as redheads before stripping and mutilating them, a gunrunning New York mobster (comic Alan King), and a CIA plot to brainwash men into murdering suspected terrorists under the guise of a sex crime. Whew.

Needless to say, almost none of this overly complex story is faithful to Spillane’s text (Spillane’s infamous final scene does make the transition to film, however). Loaded to the brim with tawdry sex, ample amounts of female nudity (including twin Playmates Leigh and Lynette Harris), and explosive action sequences, I, THE JURY makes for a complicated if exciting ride, culminating in a country chase, shootout, and fist fight. Assante handles the action very well and possesses a nifty panache with a bon mot. Landon is an appropriately plucky and lovely Velda, and Barbara Carrera (NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN) is unforgettable. Other actors who have portrayed Mike Hammer on film include Ralph Meeker, Darren McGavin, Biff Elliot, Stacy Keach, Kevin Dobson, Rob Estes, and even Spillane himself.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Menace From Outer Space

ROCKY JONES, SPACE RANGER was one of many science fiction shows made for children in the early days of television. Not among the most popular — it was cancelled after just 39 episodes — ROCKY JONES has endured longer than many of its competitors because it was filmed, rather than broadcast live. Also helping it live on was the decision to edit many of its half-hour episodes into movies that could be syndicated in 90-minute timeslots. Although this practice often led to incomprehensible stories (as fans of GEMINI MAN, THE GREEN HORNET, and KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER can tell you), it worked for ROCKY JONES, because many of its episodes were three-parters, as was “Bobby’s Comet,” the shows that became MENACE FROM OUTER SPACE.

Directed by the prolific Hollingsworth Morse (LASSIE) from teleplays by Warren Wilson (THE CISCO KID), the dull MENACE FROM OUTER SPACE stars serial hero Richard Crane (MYSTERIOUS ISLAND) as Rocky, a 22nd century cop who flew around space in a rocketship fighting crime and preventing Earth invasions alongside his sidekick Winky (Scotty Beckett) and his pretty, platonic girl companion Vena (Sally Mansfield). They and little Bobby (Robert Lyden) lift off for one of Jupiter’s moons to find out who is firing deadly missiles at Earth. Turns out it’s evil expatriate Cardos (Nestor Paiva), who has convinced moon leader Zoravac (Walter Coy) that Earthlings are mean and rotten and pass gas in elevators.

Cheap and talky (“The acceleration thrust will be G4 + 6.”), each ROCKY JONES was probably shot in a couple of days. Criticizing the sets and special effects are moot — all the sci-fi series from this era were created on accelerated schedules and paltry budgets — but the script is fair game. Actually, aside from the technobabble, it’s not awful for what it is, which is juvenile space opera made to keep the kiddies quiet for awhile. Crane is good-looking, knows how to throw a punch, and is friendly to kids (and probably pets), making him the perfect face for lunch boxes and decoder rings.