Monday, February 17, 2014

This Bud's for You: EXTRA LARGE: LORD OF THE SUN (1993)

As Bon Jovi would say, “Ooooooh, we’re halfway there.”  Six episodes down and six episodes to go. With season one coming to a less-than-explosive climax for us with the episodes “Cannonball” and “Black Magic” thumping us over the head like Bud Spencer himself, it seems as if we could only enter season two of DETECTIVE EXTRALARGE (now titled simply EXTRA LARGE) with optimism as we knew changes were in store.  Seriously, see if you can spot the difference:

Yes, Bud Spencer has a new partner in his heavy shadow in the form of POLICE ACADEMY alumni Michael Winslow (more on that in a minute).  It appears the producers took their down time between seasons to evaluate what their target audience really wanted out of a Bud Spencer TV series – namely action and comedy.  With the season opener “Lord of the Sun” they delivered plenty of both as we begin Jack Costello’s new adventures.

Following an action packed opening credits, we see “Extralarge” (Bud Spencer, of course) drive up to his apartment, which is not the same palatial place he was living before.  This is strange because he has the same landlord in Maria Martinez (the returning Vivian Ruiz), who informs Jack someone has been waiting in his office for a long time.  He enters his new digs (which look a lot like his old place, but slightly restyled) to find a young dude jamming to some music blasting out of his boom box. This mystery guest greets our beloved inspector as “Uncle Jack” and introduces himself as Archibald Baxter (Michael Winslow).  Seems he is the grown up son of Jack’s old buddy Bob Baxter, a DEA agent who recently died in drug sting.  Archibald hands Jack a letter from his dad that asks Costello to take this kid, who always wanted to be a detective, under his wing. Costello agrees with one exception – he wants to call his new apprentice “Dumas” after his friend who now resides in France. *Readers now insert mental image of an Italian writer dusting off his hands in a “that’s that” motion.*

With the principals established, it is time to get the plot in motion.  We cut to the Miami airport where Professor Tien Foo (Bob Lem) is arriving for an energy conference.  While attempting to disembark, Foo is taken for a fool as he is knocked out and switched with an exact double. The doppelganger hops into a white limousine and heads into town for whatever nefarious plans.  What the folks behind this switcheroo didn’t count on were a couple of Chinese guys in a Trans Am with a rocket launcher.  Yes, a rocket launcher.  They send the limo sky high on the freeway in a stunt that would make Richard Pepin and Joseph Merhi high five.

As one would expect, all four occupants are killed…or so we think.  Meanwhile, Jack is tricking Maria, who now also owns a bar, into coming back to his place for a surprise birthday party.  While everyone is preparing to chow down on some cake, Maria casually says she can’t believe she is celebrating her birthday with the cop that arrested her ten years ago. Whoa! Fifteen minutes in and we’re already getting more exposition into the Extralarge/Maria relationship than in the entire first season.  I totally bet he arrested her for jaywalking.  Jack hates rule breakers.  Anyway, we are never privy to her exact charges (damn it, now I have to write fanfic) because Jack and Dumas 2.0 are torn away from the party and cake to meet up with Lee (Susan Byun), the niece of the professor who is not convinced of his death.  You see, when she went to identify his body at the morgue, she noticed the corpse didn’t have a tattoo that her uncle had. Damn, Prof. Foo is a freak!  Anyway, she wants to hire Jack to see if her suspicions are correct.

It seems she might be onto something. The next day at scene of the limo wreck Jack and Dumas are denied entrance by Lt. Martin (a dude carried over from the “Cannonball” episode). Later Jack is visited by Gen. Harrison from the Pentagon, who in turn takes him to meet CIA guy Kandisky (German actor Michael Greiling).  Naturally, they want to know what Costello knows and kept abreast of the situation.  This doesn’t sit well with our hefty gumshoe.  He also doesn’t like that he arrived at Lee’s home to find the aforementioned Chinese thugs beating her up for a family photo album; the fact that her seemingly dead Uncle called her and left a phone message; or that Lt. Sam Bosely (the also returning Lou Bedford) told him one of the occupants of the limo is alive and under watch in the hospital.  With a spider web of conspiracy growing by the day, it doesn’t make much sense until Jack gets a phone call from his old pal Prince Wong (Chao Li Chi, Uncle Chu from BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA!), who speaks like a fortune cookie when he tells Jack “your mistrust is nearly as large as yourself, Mr. Costello.”

The first season of DETECTIVE EXTRALARGE proved popular enough in its native Italy (the lone report of ratings we can find in Variety said the debut drew in over 7 million viewers in November 1991) that a second season was inevitable, but as we mentioned before, changes were afoot.  First, the production switched from being co-produced by RAI to Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset.  Yes, the future disgraced Italian Prime Minister had a hand in helping Extralarge come back. Somewhere in my mind, I love to image him regaling prostitutes at his scandalous “bunga bunga” parties with stories of meeting Bud Spencer.  Anyway, back to the show. Series director Enzo Castellari was also gone and replaced by Alessandro Capone, who will helm all six entries this season. At first I thought this was a cheeky pseudonym (c’mon, Al Capone?), but he is a real guy (he later re-teamed with Spencer on the crime show I DELITTI DEL CUOCO aka THE CRIMES OF THE COOK in 2010).

The episode is also more streamlined, resulting in a well-oiled Extralarge machine.  The first season episodes always ran over 90 minutes, this season the opener runs a quick 83 minutes. While the series still jumps all over Miami, Capone definitely makes the episodes feel more like TV movies.  It appears a bit more care was put into the scripting as well. Jack and his relationships are a bit more fleshed out and the mystery this time around is actually, well, mysterious. And, of course, there is the action.  A lot of the time is filled with Jack thumping heads and car chases like the aforementioned limo flip and a vehicle launching out of a parking garage that has to be seen to be believed (see it in the opening credits video at the end of the review).

Obviously the biggest change here is the casting of Michael Winslow.  With Bud being huge in Germany in general, it is no surprise they opted to go with Winslow. While his popularity stateside may have been waning as the POLICE ACADEMY series came to an end (before 1994’s MISSION TO MOSCOW), Winslow was still very popular worldwide, especially in Germany as he appeared in the popular ZARTLICHE CHAOTEN films. So the casting makes sense.  We suspect there might be another reason.  The producers brought back virtually all the recurring characters like Maria and Sam.  Hell, they even brought back Little Tyson, the punk kid always wandering around the apartment complex with a gun.  With Winslow sliding into the assistant role, we begin to wonder if Philip Michael Thomas was originally set to return but held out for more money.  After all, Archibald dresses and acts almost just like his predecessor. Hell, they even nicknamed him “Dumas” so perhaps the scripts were already written and Winslow came in at the last second to replace a holding out Thomas.  Either way, I much prefer Winslow in the role of sidekick.  Thomas could be endearing at times, but was generally a straight actor running wild.  With Winslow you know what you are going to get and he is obviously much more seasoned than Thomas in the realm of comedy.  Plus, I think he and Spencer have a better onscreen rapport.

I will say that I was disappointed in their “Special Guest Star” as Susan Byun is nowhere up to the level of an Estrada or Ferrigno, despite debuting in SGT. KABUKIMAN NYPD (1990).  It was cool to see Uncle Chu in this though.  The episodes rise and fall on the power of their guest stars (aka washed up ‘80s actors), so let’s hope there are some better surprises down the line.  Season 2 is off and running on the right FLATFOOT though. Damn, I used Tom's joke again.

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