Monday, February 12, 2018

This Bud's for You: WE ARE ANGELS: IN SEARCH OF EL DORADO (1997)

After a rather leisurely first two episodes, ANGELS starts to fire on all cylinders with this third feature-length episode. Man, if you thought the last episode had a lot going on in it, put on your Chuck Norris Action Pants, because this one is almost impossible to synopsize without leaving out huge chunks of plot, action and great little character bits.

We last saw our ersatz ascetics going from rags to riches several times over and are now back in their cheery and colorful monastic hell. While Father Zach (Philip Michael Thomas) manages to fill his time lusting after Lupita (Mariana Mora) and teaching the village kids about America ("there are, more or less, 51 states"), Father Orso (Bud Spencer) has been tipped over the edge by Father Torment (veteran stuntman Mike Kirton), who is punishing himself for his sins by going fishing in a stream where there are no fish.

Father Raphael (Cesar Melendez), our deaf mute, has returned from a sabbatical in the jungle with the head-hunter tribe, the Niquoias, who, as native lore has it, have the duty of guarding the location of the treasure of the legendary lost city of El Dorado. Raphael's passion lies in painting landscapes and the paintings he returns with are striking in their resemblance to descriptions of the entrance to that very same loot stash. Of course we don't find this out until Father's Orso (which, amusingly, is Latin for "bear") and Zach have sold the paintings to rich heiress Michela (Nikhila Bedi), the niece of treasure hunter Grazziano (Erik Estrada), whose father had spent his final days in search of El Dorado, before dying in a plane crash in the jungle. Grazziano, frustrated by the fact that his niece holds the purse strings, has made finding El Dorado his ambition too, hiring the benign professor Clausewitz (Hill & Spencer regular Richard Liberty) and a murderous henchman, Rupert (Italian genre vet Antonio Marsina) to assist him in this goal. Got all that? Keep up, we have to keep moving here!

Rupert infiltrates the monastery (which strangely looks identical to Castle Neuschwanstein!) that has the 500 year-old diary of Bartolome de las Casas. Legend has it that the book describes the location of the treasure and contains a map showing its exact location. After going through the trouble of snatching the book and killing a monk in the process, Rupert and Grazziano discovers that the map is missing! There is only one thing to do - find the priest who painted the fabled land and Shanghai him. Once they have infiltrated the village and kidnapped Father Raphael, Orso and Zach set out on a dual purpose mission: rescue Father Raphael from Grazziano and rescue themselves from poverty!

There is so much going on in this episode, it was almost impossible to narrow everything down into a coherent synopsis. In addition to the above, there are multiple kidnappings, several double-crosses, the discovery of skeletal remains, a knockdown, drag-out pizzeria brawl, a hot air balloon ride, a hot air balloon crash, Father Orso trying to teach sex education to the village kids and even a wild drunken party in which our pious padres get likkered up on Johnny Walker (without Orso and Zach) and of course must atone for their night of sinning by being completely hung over and miserable the next day. It's almost like the writers had all these great ideas from a brainstorming session and suddenly realized that they were only doing six episodes and had to squeeze in all of their ideas that they had planned for ten episodes. After the first leisurely paced episodes, this is like setting a Bugatti Veyron on launch control.

One of the great things about this entry is the fact that pretty much all of the regulars get a chance to do their thing. Probably my favorite side character is Father Torment, who is shown in the first episode a has having taken gleeful self-flagellation to the next level with a room filled with instruments of torture which are his atonement for his evenings of sipping expensive cognac while relaxing in a silk robe. Also returning is the Scottish steamboat captain McQuade (Alfie Wise) who realizes the error of hiring his boat and services out to Grazziano after being tied up with his first mate, Hawkeye. Coming to the conclusion that Grazziano's men are definitely going to kill them he expresses this fact while Hawkeye is trying to remain positive. McQuade then tells him that he was going to make him a partner in the business to which the Hawkeye replies "now I know we're gonna die." There's also a great scene where the villains are trying to get Father Raphael to talk by hanging him upside-down over a snapping crocodile. Of course Father Raphael is mute, which makes our villains scratch their heads over how such a little monk can be such a hard man to crack.
This week's villain, played by the man who will always be, in my mind, riding the highways of California, is Erik Estrada. Estrada also appeared Enzo G. Castellari's amazing, almost proto-PM Entertainment, sci-fi/action film LIGHT BLAST (1985) and about a decade later Castellari cast him in not one, but two episodes of EXTRA LARGE. Here Estrada keeps it low key until his intellectual archaeologist cover is blown and then we get some wonderfully manic gnashing of those pearly white teeth. Also a guaranteed show in a Miami lensed Bud Spencer vehicle is Richard Liberty, who is probably best known as the mad scientist, Dr. Logan, in George Romero's DAY OF THE DEAD (1985). Somewhat appropriately, Liberty's final film was Antonio Margheriti's VIRTUAL WEAPON (1997), a Terence Hill / Marvin Hagler (yes, the Marvin Hagler) team-up shot in... you guessed it, Miami. I'm pretty sure the Italian film and television industry paid for the houses that many Miami cast and crew own.

Aside from the usual suspects, you never know who is going to show up in these series'. This time out, we get the ultra-prolific French actor Philippe Leroy, who shows up here giving a wonderfully eccentric performance as a crazed leader of a group of jungle pirates who have been making a bad rap for the Niquoias, blaming them for the deaths of those who hunt the treasure. These little guest appearances make watching these series' even more fun than they already are. I actually try not to read the opening credits just so I can be surprised by a familiar face popping up.

Interestingly, the basis for the this adventure is the very real 16th century Dominican friar Bartolom√© de las Casas. De las Casas was Spanish born, but immigrated to Haiti where he became a land and slave owner, actively oppressing and enslaving the natives until a group of Dominicans arrived and were outraged by the sadistic abuse and slaughter of the indigenous population. After being denied confession, de las Casas decided to fight for the rights of the people and eventually became a Dominican monk himself. The old joke, told back in the '80s when quitting smoking became fashionable, "the only thing worse than a smoker is a non-smoker" applies here. He became a zelot fighting against the slavers with such passion that he is a revered name in the Southern Americas.

The idea that de las Casas wrote a diary even connected to the location of the treasure of El Dorado is utterly fabricated, but the screenwriters Sandro Moretti, Alessandro Capone and Lorenzo De Luca (who also worked on EXTRA LARGE) wisely make sure to inform the audience, who may find this connection to be offensive, that de las Casas had not stolen the treasure, but was safeguarding it for the people. Uh huh. Just like the Vatican does.

Amusingly, the discovery of the treasure is highlighted by a massive golden idol of Bartolome de las Casas that looks incredibly just like Father Orso. Honestly, I would give up a month's pay for a replica of that idol to put in my living room. Seriously. PM me.

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