Tuesday, March 6, 2018

This Bud's For You: BIG MAN: THE FALSE ETRUSCAN (1988)

As anyone who indulges in genre cinema knows, many films can be released with many titles. There are some Germans who have made fortunes buying cheap spaghetti westerns from the '60s and '70s and renaming them to tie into the DJANGO (1966) series, which is factually only two movies, the second of which, DJANGO STRIKES AGAIN (1987) wasn't made until over a hundred other films had the moniker casually slapped on them. BIG MAN doesn't go very extreme in this area, but for some odd reason, the titles got changed to supposedly appeal to foreign audiences. Apparently someone thought that THE FALSE ETRUSCAN was much more of a hook to the English speaking market than the original title THE LAUGHING GIRL. Both tie in, but neither one gives you much of an idea as to what the hell to expect.

Extra large insurance investigator Jack Clementi (Bud Spencer) is about to learn a thing or two about the Etruscan's, though we the audience are assumed to have had this in history class. Speaking as someone who went to American public school, I can tell you that the only thing I learned in history class was that George Washington had wooden teeth and chased Mobey Dick. So before we dive into The Professor's latest... (cue dramatic pause ) The Etruscan civilization encompassed the north and western areas of modern Italy in the years of about 800 BC to 246 BC. They were prosperous and like many other civilizations of the time, they buried their dead in tombs, complete with all of the comforts that they would have had in life. Because of this, the Roman Republic which would shortly become the Roman Empire, gradually took over the Etruscan lands and cities culminating in complete domination by 100 BC. The Romans, being Romans, plundered the Etruscan's for everything of value and destroyed anything they disapproved of, which was basically anything that didn't help them kill people and steal land. In spite of numerous archaeological sites, not much is known about the Etruscan's, so it's a perfect basis for a TV show, because you can basically just make shit up.

Opening with what appears to be an ancient religious ritual involving a bust of a smiling woman, we suddenly find Clementi returning from a fishing trip to his residency hotel, run by the cheerful, but annoying Fernande (Mylène Demongeot). After rudely dismissing Fernande and his driver/assistant Simon (Denis Karvil), quite by accident Jack discovered two articles, one in Time Magazine and one in the newspaper, that claim that the famous Etruscan statue The Laughing Girl is located in two different places. This is intriguing because he knows full well that his employer, Lloyd's of London, has the statue insured by Prince Don Pietro of Roccaferro (Jacques Sernas) for £800,000. After making a phone call to Houston Texas, he finds that the other statue has also been certified as authentic and is also insured for a wad of cash. Clearly this is a matter that needs his very particular set of skills. Well, except for the fact that he has to do a lot of convincing to get both his boss at Lloyd's and his grumpy contact on the police force, Commissario Caruso (Raymond Pellegrin), to let him so much as visit the Roccaferro castle museum, which is open to the public! Apparently all the pushback is from the fact that the Prince is a bit of a touchy prick and nobody wants get him rankled.

After finally getting permission to check out the statue under the pretense of inspecting the state of the art security system, Jack heads up to the fictitious Italian village and on the way helps out a villager who is being savagely whipped by several men on horseback. As it turns out, it ain't just the Price that's a touchy prick, but so is his right-hand man Vasco (Spencer regular Raimund Harmstorf), who doesn't take too kindly to having his brutal dispensation of justice interrupted. I guess we know who is to be slapped this episode!

Jack now gets himself into an inn which carves ham made from wild boar with the fur still on! The innkeeper pets the fur and says that it's "nice and firm, just like it should be". I'm not sure whether this is what passes for a joke in this series, or the scene was written by a vegetarian. I'm not Italian, but I have a decent knowledge of Italian charcuterie and I've never heard of the fur being left on a ham of any kind. In a later scene Jack is served a single sausage (presumably the Italian Diet Plate lunch) which he prods several times with a fork and then pushes away saying "food is to be looked at, not eaten." What the hell does that mean? Is that joke? In this series it seems like the writers are afraid of making jokes, or maybe it's just director Steno, who's films with Bud have tended to less comedic than the norm. There are frequently set-ups for jokes that strangely never have a pay-off. These two scenes seem to be either very low-key jokes for Italians, or something out of a pneumonia-induced fever dream.

Quickly Jack learns that the local gun-shop (??) has connections to the art forgery racket and will be happy to provide him with realistic fake Etruscan artifacts, for a price. After making the deal Jack decides it's time to visit the museum and after Vasco's men try to ward him off, Jack checks out the artifacts and meets the curator Leopold Voltera (Mario Pilar) who appears to be the same person who was performing the ritual in the pre-credit scene! After some discussion Jack makes a deal with Leo to make him a fake that would pass any tests, including a carbon dating test! Man, this is going to be a long episode if we have to wait a month or two to get this fake that we still don't know how it fits into the plot. Fortunately Leo has mad pottery skillz as he tells Jack that he'll have it done by tomorrow. Granted the statue in question bears absolutely no resemblance to any actual Etruscan artworks, but still that seems quick.

As it turns out, Jack's cunning plan is to have Simon switch the Prince's statue with the new fake which will be caught on camera and will then give Jack the scoop based on the reaction. If the Prince files an insurance claim, the statue is real, if Jack suddenly gets nostril deep in trouble, then we know the statue is fake. Foolproof, right? Unfortunately for Jack, the people who he hires to test the stolen statue alert the cops who promptly arrest and interrogate him. The police, including Commissario Caruso, seem to legitimately think that the famous insurance investigator actually masterminded this bumbling scheme to steal the statue.

After Vasco's men kill Leo and make it look like a suicide, we discover that Leo really was a genius as he has a big red button built into a boulder about 50 feet from the cave in which he makes all his forgeries. According to his wishes, his forgery dealing buddies, discovering his death, press the button and blow the living crap out of his lab for no adequately explained reason. I say "no adequately explained reason" because apparently Leo left behind a tape for Jack to play in case of his demise. On it Leo rambles on about being not of this world and not wanting anyone to possess the real Laughing Girl which possesses powers and... oh jeezus, somebody pass me the Robitussin, I must be hallucinating again! Oh and nobody seems to notice the giant fireball and smoke cloud coming out of the middle of the forest. Aside from getting busted by the cops, Jack's master plan actually works and suddenly he has a target on his back during one of the Prince's hunting parties, with Vasco and his men looking to take him back to the castle, stuffed and mounted.

While this is a big step up from the opening episode, BIG MAN: DRUG POLICY (1988), Steno has a way of not making use of situations to deliver much of what people want from a Bud Spencer outing. As VJ co-conspirator William Wilson pointed out, we have Jack being shadowed by Vasco's men in the museum full of glass cases of antique artifacts which he has been told are "priceless". This seems like a perfect set-up for a brawl to break out with badguys being punched and thrown through the displays. At the last minute, right before all hell breaks loose, the day is saved and we get no fight, not even a broken trinket. We do, however, get a bit of hide and seek in a labyrinth of Etruscan tombs that look so realistic that I was waiting for Sigmund the Sea Monster to show up at any moment. While even Forrestal would be in no danger of cashing in around this place, you have to take what you can get some times.

It's also fun to see the late German genre great Raimund Harmstorf show up as the villain and have quite a few scenes with Spencer. His role is somewhat limited to a lot of scowling and the occasional intimidating smile to show off his almost Erik Estrada-like dental work, but his presence is always appreciated. Harmstorf got his start in German television in the 1960's and his first feature film turned out to be David F. Friedman and Adrian Hoven's THE LONG SWIFT SWORD OF SIEGFRIED (1971), which in turn with his second film, the notorious grindhouse classic BLOODY FRIDAY (1972) cemented him as a genre icon. He went on to appear in such other cult classics such as Enzo G. Castellari's THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (1978) and Fabrizio De Angelis' THUNDER WARRIOR (1983). He also appeared in the Terence Hill solo project A GENIUS, TWO PARTNERS AND A DUPE (1975) and the Bud Spencer solo project BULLDOZER (1978). Harmstorf worked steadily, mainly in Germany, until his tragic suicide in 1998 at the age of 58. Like so many others, he is gone but not forgotten.

While delivering only slightly more action than your average episode of MURDER SHE WROTE (1984-1996), this is definitely getting the series on more stable footing. Not one precocious child is to be found.

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