Thursday, August 8, 2013

Adrenaline Shot: PRIVATE WARS (1993)

Believe it or not, Video Junkie actually existed in print form before this site and we managed to get two issues out to the public (very rare now; housed behind double-plated glass in the Library of Congress and protected by top men.  Top…men.).  Even crazier, we did a lot of work on the never-to-be-published issue three.  One of the things Tom had wildly convinced me to do was a history of the films of producers Richard Pepin and Joseph Merhi, founders of the video label PM Entertainment.  I started writing up note cards on their various films but somehow fate intervened.  Perhaps it was for the best as an article of that magnitude probably would have driven me insane as I tried to catalog their dozens upon dozens of productions in every genre from kids films to adventure movies to kickboxing flicks to even kickboxing kid adventure flicks (no, I’m not kidding). An endeavor like that would have resulted in me driving down the freeway and then launching my car 50 feet in the air out of a huge fireball.

At that time (circa 1995/96), Tom and I were totally suffering from PM-S (PM Entertainment Shellshock).  While cinemas were clogged with lukewarm sequels like DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE (1995) or UNDER SIEGE 2 (1995) and tired action hero stuff like TRUE LIES (1994) and ERASER (1996), we were digging the adrenaline-fueled antics of these low budget action flicks starring the likes of Gary Daniels, Jeff Fahey and C. Thomas Howell.  PM stood apart from most DTV fare by putting a heavy emphasis on their action scenes. Their brand of action was something wholly unique and a breath of fresh air.  Growing up on a steady diet of real stunt work, the Hollywood trend of using CGI enhanced feats of “danger” was giving us the green screen blues (who knew it would get so much worse?).  Thankfully, PM showed up to remind us that bigger is always better when it comes to explosions.  How was it that the makers of low budget, direct-to-video action vehicles were making better action films than most majors?  I’d like to think the production meetings went something like this.

Stunt coordinator: “So what do you want for this movie?”
Pepin: “Can you do big explosions?”
Merhi: “Can you do car flips?”
Stunt coordinator: “Fuck yeah!”

We’ve only covered a few PM flicks on the blog (ALIEN INTRUDER, RAGE, T-FORCE), but don’t mistake that for lack of enthusiasm.  We love their stuff, but only have so much time, dammit!

PRIVATE WARS is one of the films that eluded me for a while. Fact is, I’m glad I waited to see it 20 years after its release as I’ve endured enough shaky-cam-is-great movies in the interim to make me feel like a static shot where I can tell what is going on is as cherished as Andy Sidaris is to 13-year-old boys with Skinemax in the early ‘90s.  The film opens with vice cop Jack Manning (Steve Railsback) doing a little off-the-clock investigative work.  He quickly finds out that his captain Carpenter (Michael Champion, looking oddly like Steve Martin) is on the take with crooked businessman Alexander Winters (Stuart Whitman) being the one lining his pockets.  The captain notices Manning and calls his underlings to arrest him. Of course, being a PM flick, this results in an insane car chase.  How insane?  Half the time Manning drives his van around with a uniformed officer dangling precariously from the windshield.  When he finally gets the stuck cop off, Manning proceeds to run straight into a police barricade and his van launches 50 plus feet in the air.  Seriously, look at the hang time on this thing:

Tom summed it up perfectly when he saw that in the trailer and said, “That van had to check in with the air traffic controller before it took off!”  Miraculously, Manning survives this.  Also miraculously surviving is a bag of cocaine that cops planted on him and he is arrested and sent up river.

Michael Champion as Steve Martin in 

The action picks up 8 years later as the Winters-owned neighborhood is in bad shape.  How bad? Paul Kersey would think twice before signing a lease here.  The scourge is the deadliest of all cinematic types – deadly whiteboys who know kung fu!  To showcase just how brutal these guys are, there is a montage that shows them kicking the postman in the face and ripping down Neighborhood Watch signs.  Obviously, the residents are fed up living in terror with corrupt police, but community activist Mo Williams (Dan Tullis, Jr.) has a plan – we’ll pool our money together and hire someone to beat the crap out of these dudes.  His first choice is his old buddy Jack Manning, who did his time as a framed “dirty” cop and now runs a one-man private eye firm.  That’s the good news.  The bad news? Manning is a total drunk.  We’re talking the kind of drinker that Oliver Reed sees and says, “Slow down there, mate.”  Jack, however, initially declines the offer.  After holding an open call for vigilantes (interviewees include – I’m not making this up – a midget and ninja), the residents are greeted with Jack outside their church, firing his pistol into the engine of his broken down car.  Yes, nothing says “I trust this guy to do the job” like a drunk blasting caps into a Chevy.  Naturally, Jack sobers up and starts teaching the locals to stand up for themselves.  This gig is doubly beneficial for him as he also gets to exact a little revenge on his old enemies Carpenter, who is now the police chief, and Winters.

Playing like a cross between DEATH WISH (1974) and FIGHTING BACK (1982), PRIVATE WARS is a film where you would fully expect Don “The Dragon” Wilson to be the lead. But he isn’t as the lead is Steve Railsback.  And this isn’t just Railsback dropping in front of the camera to just get a paycheck.  He actually gives a damn about the performance he is giving on screen. That, to me, is the sign of a true professional. Also of this group is Stuart Whitman. Yes, Stuart F’N Whitman was doing PM Entertainment flicks before it was cool (does Paul Smith stink-eye at William Shatner). Not only is he great as the villain, but he has the guts to strap a PM blood squib to his chest.  Now if you know anything about this company, you know their explosions are sometimes like Old Faithful.  Dude definitely earned his paycheck here. And the supporting cast isn't that bad either.

Railsback employs strict method acting:

You also have to admire the film’s sense of the absurd. Whether intentional or not (I assume it is), the screenplay by director John Weidner and Ken Lamplugh delves a bit into ridiculous.  For example, when the thugs steal a garbage truck, they strap the garbage man to the hood and drive around with him on it (allowing for another crazy stunt). Later, Winters isn’t pleased with Carpenter’s efforts in trying to get the residents out of the neighborhood so he says he decided to employ some professionals.  Enter two guys who proceed to whip out their weapons and do a martial arts display in the middle of his mansion while he cackles.  There is also the scene where Manning is sent to jail and kickboxes the hell out of two thugs (including fight coordinator John Salvitti) who are half his age.  Salvitti has gone on to do some incredible work, most notably in Donnie Yen’s recent films. The screenwriters take things just past reality, often coming off like a comic book.  I assume this was all intentional as you can’t write a line like the one James Lew says (“Fuck! Let’s kill everyone!”) and be 100% serious. That tongue-in-cheek style coupled with some crazy ass stunt work makes for one hell of an enjoyable b-movie.  

Rambo, Jr. had a long way to go to live up to his father:

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