Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sci-Fried Theater: HARD KNUCKLE (1987)

In the world of exploitation cinema there are those that give the people what they want, and there are those that give the people what they want, but in their own special way. Lucio Fulci gave the people and his financial backers what they wanted (flesh eating zombies), but he did it his way. Instead of just doing a straight rip-off of DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), which is what everyone wanted of him, he delivered a zombie menace in an old-school voodoo setting that echoed WHITE ZOMBIE (1932) just as much as DAWN OF THE DEAD. Sure, it also pushed graphic on-screen undead carnage way past the already impressive level set by the Pittsburgh peeps, but it takes more than that to make it a true classic of exploitation cinema.

The Italians weren’t alone in this purpose of vision, either. The Australians also took their exploitation filmmaking seriously, writing interesting plotlines and quirky characters into what are essentially low-rent potboilers. An excellent example of this would be HARD KNUCKLE. The Aussies may have re-invented the western (with the help of Bob Clouse’s 1975 epic THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR) with the MAD MAX films, but they let the Italians and Filipinos exploit their success. When they did take the time to riff on it, you can bet that it’s not going to be what you expected.

Have you ever watched MAD MAX and thought, “damn, what this really needs is a good game of pool!” Yeah, I know, we all have. But then did you think to yourself, “a good game of pool where the loser gets his finger chopped off in a big-ass cigar cutter!” Well this is for you! Aussie character actor Gary Day’s one screen-writing credit is exactly this. As someone who at one time used to watch hours of competition pool on ESPN and is clinically obsessed with post-apocalyptic cinema, Gary Day is now my hero. Yeah, I don't know how the finger cutting comes in, but whatever.

Rolling back into town after a stretch of soul-searching in the wasteland, one-time pool champ Harry (Steve Bisley), has shaken his life-wrecking love-affair with the bottle. If there is one thing that science fiction writers like to ponder it is the nature of being human. If there is two things, it is what people will do for entertainment. ROLLERBALL (1975) hypothesized that the corporations would get larger and sporting events would become more violent. In SALUTE OF THE JUGGER (1989), David Webb Peoples downsized the corporations and made the post-apocalyptic passtime a dirty, brutal version of football where anyone could put together a team and get their teeth knocked in. Here, Day has decided that in a run-down dystopian anarchistic society, sports would be even further downsized to a more logical conclusion. Every town has a pool hall where wagers can be placed by an agent for his pro in tournaments. If you don’t have the cash (here represented by pill packets), you can always play on the Knuckle Table. The knuckle table is a game of pool where a black tile is set in the middle of the table after the break. Whoever knocks over the tile while making their shot has a digit removed and the tile is reset. The game continues until there is a winner, or, presumably, nobody has any fingers left. The audience puts up the stakes for the winner, the house provides a bunsen burner and a tin plate to cauterize the stump(s) of the loser.

Harry discovers his old rival TopDog, who he blames for ruining his life (and taking his motorcycle in a game), is living up to his name at the local pool hall. Harry is hell bent for revenge, but doesn’t have a manager for a title shot. Nor has he worked up the ladder. After a local urchin volunteers himself to be the manager, Harry, works his way up the in a tournament, only to be beaten down and robbed in the street by TopDog’s twitchy manager, Vince (Esben Storm). After a somewhat elaborate bit of revenge which leaves TopDog trussed up like a chicken, hanging in front of the pool hall, Harry with street-urchin-cum-manager, set out on a road-trip of sorts to hustle some of the smaller town tables, get enough cash for that title shot. Trouble is, the yokels don’t like being hustled and TopDog, spitting nails, decides to go after Harry himself.

Only in Australia. Seriously, there is no way in hell this movie would get made in America, even in that more tolerant era when there was so much demand for product that fucking Donald Farmer could make it into your video store. The movie isn’t really a pool movie as such, and not really a post-apocalyptic movie, either. It’s more of a character-driven film that is a sharply written and really entertaining tip-of-the-hat to Paul Newman’s classic THE HUSTLER (1961). Not only is it surprising that it got made at all, but it’s doubly surprising that it was made for television. There are plenty of TV movies made in the States that are well worth viewing, but they tend to be either low-rent ripped-from-the-headlines exploitationers or low-rent box-office knock offs. I can’t imagine this movie getting pitched to a TV executive. “So you want to do a MAD MAX rip-off? Great! Wait, what was that about pool?”

Day spends a lot of effort overcoming his lack of budget with tons of great little moments, such as the subplot in which TopDog takes a train to where he thinks Harry is going to be hustling. TopDog is a complete prick to a polite card player, who he later learns is the owner of the pool hall Harry is playing in and is really not pleased with TopDog’s attitude. Even though Day wrote the part of TopDog for himself (and is clearly having a blast playing the part to the hilt), he never softens the character up too much or makes him a really likable guy. He’s an asshole who enjoys being an asshole, but also has some honorable qualities. Yes, a muli-faceted character. In a TV movie. Really!

In spite of what is obviously a low budget, director Lex Marinos (something of a staple of Aussie TV) gives the film a very detailed, retro-future, almost Fallout-esque, look which makes the film feel bigger than it is. Add to that David Skinner’s very cool Ry Cooder style bluesy, slide guitar score and you have a movie that fires on all cylinders and is more than the sum of its parts. Ok, to be fair, it's not an action movie. Nobody wages war for a tank of juice and no dwarves are able to blow their whistles at the end of the film. Because of this it is likely to turn some people off who are wanting something more fast paced and action oriented. On the other hand, you'll be missing out on a great movie if you let that get in your way.

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