Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Gods Must Be Lazy: AFRICAN EXPRESS (1990)

In the annuls of Indy knock-offs, there are sub-genres that seem to want to capture everything about the Indiana Jones mythos, except for all of that old stuff that he keeps trying to find. Ark-e-logy or sumpthin'. Too complicated! All you need are bad guys, preferably German, a nifty jacket and hat, and maybe an old airplane and presto, you are in business! This was probably done best with the Aussie film SKY PIRATES (1986), but that is another story, though it does seem that AFRICAN EXPRESS was definitely influenced by it.

In the middle of World War II, an African neutral zone called Mira Mira is the home of the African Express delivery service. Crew-cut American flyboy Brad Stevens (US TV actor Patrick Dollaghan) is returning with some cargo in his temperamental dual engine prop plane named Emily and finds himself not only fighting the weather, but some Nazi schwein have stowed away and are now trying to kill him and destroy his plane with a bomb! Why? Oh, don't worry we will get to that, trust me.

Unfortunately for the Reich, these two aren't the most lethal bullets in der fuhrer's pistol. In the process of getting out of the compartment they stowed away in, they cut loose a massive crate which slides around at the plane pitches from the turbulence, causing SS officer Helmut (Danny Keogh trying his damnedest to be Ronald Lacey) to get knocked out so that trooper Fritz (Norman Anstey) can get punched out of the plane and crash through the ceiling of a dwarf and a fat lady's bedroom. Are you starting to get the picture now? Yeah, it ain't just the weather that's getting rough.

After managing to fight off Helmut and safely land via the miracle of editing, Brad tells his South African mechanic George (Russel Savadier), an American girl, Jo (Karen Mayo-Chandler), and pretty much anyone who will listen, about his mid-flight fight with the krauts. Of course nobody believes him. There are many points in the movie where I believe that something might be intended to be a joke, but it's really hard to tell. This is one of them. I think it's a joke because it is repeated several times. Nobody believes him! Ha, ha, ha? One of the bits that I'm sure is intended to be funny, is the exchange where a frustrated Jo yells at Brad "you are such a smart ass!" to which Brad smirks and replies, "does that mean you like my buns?" Oh, the paaaiiin! This is just the first ten minutes or so. By the time this is over, a med-kit and a fifth of whiskey couldn't ease my suffering.

Brad convinces the clearly unappreciated, but smokin' hot, Jo to run a package for him. All she has to do is deliver this small crate to the customs office in Chrundu, but while in the air, Helmut pops up from the passenger seat of her bi-plane to demand that package at gun point! Didn't Jo do any pre-flight checks? Engine oil pressure? Check. Fuel quantity? Check. Nazis hiding in passenger seat? Che - ah, crap.

After Helmut forces Jo to land in a desolate airstrip, we learn that the evil Nazi officer Baron von Kleinschmidt (Crispin De Nuys) is grounded because his plane has a broken fuel pump, which they have somehow managed to order for delivery, so that he, Helmut and Fritz can repair the plane and take a stolen British radar device back to Berlin so that they may win the war and the Reich will live for a thousand years! Or just get their asses kicked by the Allies anyway. There is a reason these dithering dumpkoffs are stuck in the middle of Africa during the war. While Helmut is trying to force Jo to land in the ten foot square patch of Nazi occupied Zambia, he actually tells her "I have no wish to hurt you." Uhhh, wait - what? In a much later scene, after you think that maybe Jo will never be coming back into the movie, we find she is able to escape after playing on the sympathy of the Baron. Yes, that's right, the Nazi's in this movie have sympathy. Matter of fact they have Brad, George and Jo at gunpoint at least a half a dozen times in the movie and only once does any of these schnauzer stuffers take a shot at them, and even then it's just a warning shot! You could say these guys are the wurst. Did their plane really "break down" or did someone up the chain of command make sure that their aircraft would get them only just so far?

Directed by Bruce McFarlane, directly after his other boneheaded African adventure outing, KILL SLADE (1989), that also starred Patrick Dollaghan and Danny Keogh, it's surprisingly confusing for having such a minimal plot. Where as KILL SLADE featured lengthy scenes of people walking and driving in the African bush and played the kidnapping, chloroforming, and subsequent blindness of a female reporter for light chuckles and romance, EXPRESS tries to be less ROMANCING THE STONE and more like a '40s screwball farce. The film rapidly cuts from character to character, who run around from a variety of different, uninteresting locations, trying to grab the box that contains the fuel pump which keeps getting mixed up with another box of women's undergarments that are to be delivered to same location. Of course the boxes both have the same markings on the side and... I would say hilarity ensues, but oh, my friends, it most certainly does not. It isn't until a significant way into the film that we discover this "plot", and really what it boils down to is that the Nazi's just want the gottverdammt package they ordered! Man, as a regular user of Amazon, I'm kind of feelin' for these guys.

In one scene Fritz, after walking for miles through the African desert to make it to Brad's favorite watering hole, The Red Garter Saloon. Once there we set up a running joke. The bartender Heinrich (Lance Vaughn) tells the broke soldier that his drink is "on the house" at which point Fritz looks up and says "the roof?" Oooooooh yes that did actually happen. Not only is this grueling butchery of a great MUPPET MOVIE (1977) throw-away gag, but it becomes a running joke with the character offering to pay people for rides and then telling them to put it "on the roof!" This dire attempt at comedy came from South African writer Terry Asbury, who also wrote KILL SLADE and, oddly, the sleazy Wings Hauser / Arnold Vosloo thriller REASON TO DIE (1990). Clearly after two attempts at making things like violent rape joke fodder, Asbury lent his talents in bad taste to the grimy side of cinema, but I'm guessing the damage was done and REASON was his final film.

There's also a couple of odd scenes with a Chinese merchant trying to sell potions that will do everything from making people fall in love to knocking out that same person. The potions have been known in the past to do nothing more than make people run without using their legs (ifyouknowwhatimean), and when Wolf tries to use one in Brad's drink, it explodes. Uhhhh, ok. Maybe it's an African thing? What do I know? It's like a comedy of errors, except for the comedy part.

As if the terrrrible comedy wasn't bad enough, it is frequently punctuated with "amusing" tuba notes. I think these guys got their ideas of what Nazis are like from watching too many episodes of HOGAN'S HEROES (1965-1971). Don't get me wrong, I watched the shit out of that show when I was a kid, but I never thought that anyone should get their ideas from it. Even worse than the occasional tuba that is used to remind audiences to laugh, is the musical score (credited to two people) that is one jaunty ragtime piece that plays over and over and over through-out almost every scene. In one scene there's a cheery march and in another scene where Jo is trying to sneak the six feet between the Baron and his airplane, we switch to an appropriately moody suspense tune for all of 10 seconds. Then it's right back to the cheery ragtime theme. By the end of the movie I was ready to go out and bust up a Shakey's Pizza! What do you mean they don't do that anymore? Crap. So much for that metaphor.

It is interesting that, like the more heavily RAIDERS influenced South African film JEWEL OF THE GODS (1988), the Nazi's have zero menace to them. Both films, maybe EXPRESS more than JEWEL, portray's the world's most evil, bloodthirsty, and insane military group in modern history as little more than Keystone Kops. In Ivan Hall's South African martial arts classic KILL OR BE KILLED (1977), the Nazi villain is mostly ineffectual and insecure. Perhaps this is due to the 1973 formation of the neo-nazi party the Afrikaner Resistance Movement. Numbering in the thousands these were an organize, political gang of brutal murderers who attempted to put a stop to the abolition of the apartheid in the '70s and '80s. The police turned a blind eye to their activities until 1986. I am assuming since this was so close to the bone for South African filmmakers, that lampooning them was a good way of fighting back. There's nothing Nazi's hate more than not being taken seriously. Just look at the orange clown in the white house.

Patrick Dollaghan comes off as a poor man's Sam Jones, which is probably the nicest thing I can say about the film. They do have some aerial photography and they half-ass a couple of air stunts, but there is almost no action to speak of. In one of the rather weak stunts, Fritz jumps from a very low-flying plane into the back of a moving pick-up truck, yet it's edited in such a way that it appears as if they simply had Fritz's double standing in the doorway of the airplane about to jump and then they cut to a shot of him landing in the truck bed. Clearly they didn't actually do the stunt. Though the bump that the stuntman takes when he tries to hop from the back of the moving truck onto a speeding motorcycle and missing, definitely was not faked. Even so, it wouldn't even be worth a mention if there was something, anything else to provide some entertainment. It's a damn shame that those are the only notable moments as South Africa has a lot more to offer in exploitation movies than just being a place to film a Hollywood or Hollywood-style movie. In addition to Ivan Hall's action films, actor Cobus Rossouw made quite a few outstanding thrillers, such as the excellent crime outing THE BANKROBBER (1973) with Marius Weyers and the gothic suspenser MY BROTHER'S GLASSES (1972). All well worth hunting down and capture the flavor of South African cinema far more than this.

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