Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

Sci-Fried Theater: Dead Mountaineer's Hotel (1979)

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Listomania: Thomas' August 2012 Barn-Burners

I seem to have watched an amazing amount of movies this month (47), but managed to only get one up on the blog. This Listo is me trying to make up for all that. This month's obsession went from being blown away by how awesome Shusuke Kaneko's GAMERA trilogy still is to my rediscovery of ULTRAMAN and KAMEN RIDER.

RONAL THE BARBARIAN (2010): He rules!! Thanks to Dr. AC's BIFFFtastic Adventure, I've rustled up some movies that I would have otherwise over looked, and this is one of my favorites. This Dutch-produced computer animated send-up of decades of Dungeons & Dragons inspired media is pretty damn silly, but it sure is a lot of fun. An ancient barbarian legend tells of the mighty warrior Crane (pronounced "Khran") who took down a mighty demon who had enslaved the world. In the aftermath of the fray, he realized he was mortally wounded and bled for seven days before dying. Those who were in the area drank his blood and became mighty warriors with massive bulges in all the right places. These people became the mighty barbarian tribe, commited to questing, drinking, more questing, fighting, questing again and lavishing their muscles with oil. After the village is razed to the ground by an army of dark forces, the last remaining barbarian, the weak and spindly Ronal, must go on a quest ("rule number one: It's not a quest!") to find a sword to save his clan. To do this he forms a party with a Shield Maiden, who has kicked every guys ass she has ever met, an Elf, who is relentlessly pretentious and of unknown "orientation" and a stoner Bard dude.
A bizarre mix of genre in-jokes, fetish humor, and straight up-comedy, this flick is actually more entertaining than most of the stuff Pixar has been putting out lately. Imagine Pixar spoofing Warcraft with a PG-13 rating, and you kind of get the gist. It should be noted that there is a big difference between the (badly) dubbed English language version, that envisions barbarians with Southern hick accents and mistranslates jokes. The subtitled version has excellent voice acting, even if it is in Dutch. The producers had previously made a similar, but in my mind, much less successful flick back in 2008 titled JOURNEY TO SATURN, which was a 90-minute string of scat jokes (one of which involves a blob of urine in zero-g floating into someone's mouth). While this one has maybe a bit too much of an obsession with men wearing thongs, it's still a helluva lot of fun, particularly if you watch any of that kind of fantasy geek stuff. Which, of course, we do not. We are much too cool for that sort of thing.

VENDETTA (1995): Excellent adaptation of Jan Guillou's 6th Hamilton novel in which Hamilton (Stefan Sauk) is sent to Polermo to act as an unarmed liason between the son of a dead Mafia boss, Don Tommasso (Ennio Fantastichini), who has re-located to Sicily after getting too much heat on his drug smuggling operations in New York. He has arranged a shady deal with a Swedish weapons manufacturer who get cold feet on the deal, so he takes them hostage, and Hamilton is sent in, unarmed, to simply negotiate. Of course things take a nasty turn when his partner is gunned down, by Tommasso's hot headed brother in a bloody mess in retribution for a perceived insult. While Hamilton plots his revenge, the Carabinieri step in and convince him to settle the score by finding out the details of the mafioso's drug shipment. Pretty well trodden ground in the plot department, I grant you, but the "movie" version of this Swedish mini-series, runs just over two hours (half of the running time of the original series) and never feels dry or routine. Sauk (Wennerström in the DRAGON TATTOO series), plays Hamilton here and while he may not be the most handsome or dashing secret agent, I think that is one of the things that makes him really engaging in the part. He's balding, lanky and not terribly fashionable; he looks like a college math professor. Definitely not the badass that he actually is. Surprisingly bloody for a TV movie, one of the most amusing things about it, is that because it's a Swedish production, the sizable Italian cast acts Swedish! They are all reserved, unemotional, calm and collected. Nobody yells and waves their arms around, no heated “conversations” about seemingly minor things. It must have been killing the Italian actors to behave that way.

IRON SKY (2012): Remember when IRON SKY was a short promo reel that looked absolutely amazing? Welcome to the reality of the filmmaking industry. The finished Finish film starts out great and the production design is phenomenally cool, but while that promo film is still used in the first act, it looks like they switched writers for the movie proper. Unbeknownst to the world, the Third Reich, led by Wolfgang Kortzfleisch (Udo Kier) were the first to successfully land on the moon. Not only did they land, but they set up a massive installation on the dark side, breeding and brainwashing future Aryan soldiers for a forthcoming invasion of Earth. The first act is well written and totally sucks you in with incredibly cool visuals (I love all of the steam-powered Nazi machinery), even if the jokes fall a little flat. After that, it’s a slow slide down hill. The bulk of the film is actually set in a United States that has someone who is clearly meant to be Sarah Palin as president (Stephanie Paul). The Nazis decide that since they cannot fully power-up their invasion force (they need to steal cell phones from Earth), they will send out the ambitious Klaus Adler (Götz Otto, is there anything he's not in?) and the presumed brainwashed and white-washed captured US astronaut James Washington (Christopher Kirby). Yes, the Nazi's actually turn a black man white and yes, comedy ensues.
The bulk of the plot concerns Madam President and her obnoxious aide (Peta Sergeant) trying to spin everything for political gain. By the time it was over it seemed like they forgot they were making a comedy about Nazi’s invading from the moon, and just kept hammering on, bludgeoning the audience with really heavy handed, over-the-top “satire” of American politics and attitudes. Some of it is amusing, but it’s all stuff that we Americans have made a lot of pointed jokes about four years ago, which is a bit strange since IRON SKY started life in 2010. Even if the toothy political commentary hadn't gotten stale over those two years, the jokes are not well written, lacking timing and set-up and delivery. Peta Sergeant is probably what took me from being somewhat disappointed to never wanting to see the film again. Her character takes over the last third of the movie and she comes from the school of louder is funnier. She’s so over the top, screaming f-bombs and rolling her eyes, that she makes The Three Stooges seem like icons of subtle nuance. The IMDb lists two guys who wrote the original story, then there’s a third credit for a screenwriter. I’m guessing it’s the screenwriter who decided to change it from a comic homage to old sci-fi/horror flicks and turn it into his own personal anti-American soapbox. The whole set-up in the first act is fantastic and the production design is nothing short of incredible. Then there's that script. It’s a real shame too, if they had skipped the forced comedy (which is surprisingly absent from the trailers), this would have been the film of the decade.

THE LIQUIDATOR (2011): I pity the poor sucker who picked up this flick simply because the poster art is top-billed Vinny Jones brandishing, make that firing, a pump-action shotgun. Oh wait, that was me. I don't know why I got suckered, I'm not even a fan. I guess I figured it would be some fast-paced action silliness and hell I've never seen a movie made in Kazakhstan! Of course, after this I'm pretty sure I don't want to see another. Yes, I said Kazakhstan. You can stop quoting Borat now. Instead of quirky regional filmmaking, we are treated to an agonizingly cliched, paper-thin thriller about a professional bodyguard named Arsen (Aitzhanov Berik) whose brother is accidentally killed by the mob. Since Arsen is a master of hand-to-hand combat and firearms, he decides to start taking down the perps one by one, all under the watchfull gaze of a hand-held digital video camera. Vinnie Jones shows up 40 minutes into the film as a contract killer called "The Mute," which means he can't deliver his usual lines which consist of a string of f-bombs shouted at the top of his lungs. I was thinking it was because the production was too cheap (does Kazakhstan even have a SAG?), but maybe it was just because they've seen his other films. Either way, he's in the movie for less than five minutes and the other 89 are simply featherweight rehashes of a million other Hollywood thrillers with a teeny, little twist at the end that doesn't amount to anything whatsoever. The ending does set us up for a sequel though. I wonder who will grace the poster for that one?

THE EMPTY BEACH (1985): Every now and again someone tries their hand at making a Dashiell Hammet or Ramond Chandler adaptation without the adaptation part. In otherwords instead of remaking THE MALTESE FALCON or THE BIG SLEEP (again), the filmmakers simply borrow Hammet and Chandler's themes and the style of their characters and drop them down into modern day Los Angeles, San Francisco or... Bondi Beach? Yep, the world-famous Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia is the setting for this gritty noir outing based on the novel by Peter Corris, starring Bryan Brown as hard-bitten gumshoe Cliff Hardy. After being hired by a widow (Anna Maria Monticelli) to investigate some evidence that her wealthy husband may have faked his apparent suicide, Hardy discovers that the husband was something of a small crime lord whose competitors are also members of the wealthy elite. Things start to get ugly when Hardy discovers that there are some missing audio tapes that nobody wants to talk about, but some are willing to kill for. Brown turns in a fine performance as a terse, steely-eyed, PI who always seems to find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. This movie has many great things going for it outside of the traditionally obtuse plot (not that there is anything wrong with that).
While the atmosphere is thick with gritty old-school noir, TV director Chris Thomson gives it a thin verneer of mild '80s trappings, such as neon titles, retro autos and a moody synth-sax score. While it may seem that these two styles might clash, they somehow mesh into something more than the sum of their parts. Plus the writers manage to emulate the dry sense of humor found in Hammet and Chandler's works; when Hardy meets up with his high-brow client he asks "who recommended me?" to which he gets the reply, "the phone book," to which he replies "oh". As if that weren't enough, the cast is a virtual directory of Aussie film and TV veterans including the ubiquitous Ray Barrett as a sleazy crime boss whose mistress is an illiterate teenage junkie. Still unreleased in the US and never released on DVD, even in Australia, this is something of an overlooked gem that really should be getting a nice widescreen treatment.

AS TIME GOES BY (1988): Utterly odd final film from non-conformist, low-budget Aussie filmmaker Barry Peaks with a lousy title, only made worse by some European releases which were titled THE AUSTRALIEN. A bean-pole surf bum, Mike (Nique Needles), is dumped in the middle of the outback by his two annoying female friends. According to a note he received as a child, Mike has an appointment to meet someone at a bar named Joe Bogart's some 50 miles outside of the tiny town of Dingo. Dingo, populated by some seriously odd people including a whiskey-swilling bone collector, a dry-goods proprietor who is obsessed with the eradication of dust, an insane land baron (Ray Barrett) who is determined to replace sheep with cattle after converting the outback to green land via the ozone layer, and is obsessed with aliens too. Actually a lot of people are after alien lifeforms when a meteor crashes near Dingo including a wing-nut alien chaser who manages to drive the shopkeeper off the deep end by pointing out that his magnified photograph of dust, is actually a louse. Also in the mix is the hard-bitten local cop (Bruno Lawrence) who is trying to find out who is killing all of the local sheep, while avoiding the bullets of two inbred brothers. There is so much going on in this movie it is almost impossible to synopsize (I love how the one phone booth in town is seen in the background with the same man screaming about how his "S.T.O.W.V. - stove!" is broken). It's got moments of fantastic spaghetti western-influenced atmosphere mixed with a dash of REPO MAN surreality, but it's really not like anything else you've ever seen. The only time the film falters is during some of the comedy elements which in one aspect go a little over the top, clashing with some really well-crafted outback atmosphere, otherwise it's a really enjoyable example of oddball Aussie filmmaking that would never get a green light in the US.

DARK HOUSE (2009): To say I know next to nothing about daily life in Poland is an understatement. I haven't seen very many Polish films either, so I figure, I should probably fix that, right? This highly praised movie was probably not a good starting point. Shot on video, the movie intercuts between two timelines each with a completely different tone. The first is a serious drama set in 1978 in which petty criminal Edward Srodon (Arkadiusz Jakubik), who loses his job after his wife suddenly drops dead, and decides to move to a state work farm. While travelling, he stumbles across a farmhouse and ingratiates himself with a father and daughter. There is a lot of alcohol consumed, a lot of loose talk, a lot of petty nastiness (the father beats the daughter in a drunken rage) and finally things take a bloody turn. The other plot line is an angry clown-act in modern day where an entire squad of police officers, a prosecutor and a couple of civilians are trying to piece together that same 1978 crime, but spend more time being overtly moronic, drunken, abusive, petty, violent and childish. There's some effort of biting criticism of Eastern Bloc politics, and it appears that director Wojciech Smarzowski was trying for a dark satire of the polish police force, but ends up with an amaturish, mean-spirited version of POLICE ACADEMY instead of the Polish FARGO that it is trying to be.
Occasionally the film drifts into self-indulgence, particularly with a scene of a character sitting on a bed, staring at the camera, motionless for several minutes, then cutting to a black and white close-up of his face, staring and motionless, for several more minutes. This comes from it's schizophrenic script in which it's desperately trying to be this intense drama and a hateful, but allegedly comic re-working of the Keystone Kops with the police being drunk, getting into fistfights, delivering babies, vomiting, talking trash, losing evidence, falling in the snow, beating the witness and so on. In one of the many fragments of character development, the pregnant officer (who slugs down vodka with the rest) is beaten by her husband who suspects that his commanding officer is responsible for the pregnancy, ultimately causing a premature delivery right in the crime scene. All in good fun! Apparently I am one of the few that felt like I was robbed of 90 minutes of my life as the IMDb can prove with its solitary negative review: "9 out of 50 people found the following review useful: I'd stay away from this movie unless you like watching drunken people on screen acting like tards". Why didn't I just say that in the first place? Interestingly the trailer tries to play the film off as a gritty police/crime thriller and doesn't even hint at the attempted comedy.

SEXMISSION (1988): Now we're talking! Highly entertaining Polish sci-fi / comedy / T&A flick about a scientist and an average schlub who sign-up to be cryogenically frozen for a period of three years as part of an experiment by a nobel-prize winning uber-scientist. Unfortunately for them, they are defrosted over 50 years later after the earth has been devestated by war and men have become extinct. The women who revive them have formed a society without men and regard them to be the embodiment of evil, re-writing history to suit their own view of the world, and creating new (female) citizens via test-tubes. The women now have to decide what to do with these two freaks, meanwhile the guys find that escape is the only option, though it is a little more than frustrating to be surrounded by thousands of virgin women who all hate them. Man, did I make it sound bleak! It's actually great fun with humor ranging from dry wit to slapstick, plus we get cool sci-fi miniatures and sets... oh and did I mention boobs? Yep, since they are all girls in the complex they have communal bathing pools, sporting events that culminate with the exchanging of the jersey's and ventillation breakdowns that require... yes, more shirts to come off! If it didn't have themes of communist oppression and Teutonic invasions, it would be an '80s teen T&A flick ala Cinemax. If it didn't have all the T&A and comedy, it would be a '60s science fiction epic. As it sits, it's fun, funny and presents a razor-sharp criticism of life under communist rule. Like all great science fiction, the social commentary is there if you want it, and invisible if you don't. Either way you want to take it, it's a great movie.

LAKE OF THE DEAD (1958): Another film I had to track down after reading about it thanks to Fred at Ninja Dixon. The Nord's have never been much for horror films, but this little gem is quite the exception. Stop me if you've heard this one... A group of friends heads up to a remote cabin in the woods to look for a friend of theirs who hasn't been heard of in several days. Once there, they realize that it is a cabin with a gruesome legend about a one-legged ghost who possesses those who enter his home and then sends them down to the water where they drown themselves. This is in 1958! Could this be the original "cabin in the woods" film? I'm not sure about that, but it's the earliest one I am aware of. Filmed in stark black and white, with wide, scope lenses, director Kåre Bergstrøm makes the most of his meager budget (there are literally only four shooting locations) deviling some genuinely creepy atmosphere in spite of the almost stage-play approach. In addition to the plot elements of supernatural possession in a cabin in the woods, we also get some POV camera work travelling through the foliage. It's all awfully reminiscent of... well, you know. The interesting thing about it is that since the Scandinavians love their detective mysteries, the script tries to satisfy that quotient too by one of the characters being a police detective and another a wannabe "Sherlock Holmes". A fine entry in a tiny genre. Well worth tracking down.

NEW KIDS TURBO (2010): Man, what is it with Dutch comedy? The Dutch are seem to be in a war with the Japanese over who can make the loudest, shrillest and most abrasive comedy films. If a line is funny, it's twice as funny if it's shouted as loud as possible with a mouthfull of food. Based on the Dutch Comedy Central show about a group of white euro-trash kids (mullets, little mustaches, and tracksuits) who lose their jobs, blame it on the economic crisis and ultimately go to war with the state. If it's funny to hit someone with a truck, it'll be even funnier the 10th time around. Pissing, fighting, drinking, killing, stealing and blatantly ripping off WAYNE'S WORLD can be funny, but this is so extremely forced that it's hard to find anything to laugh at. This seems to be popular with the teen crowd, so maybe I'm not exactly the target demographic, but at the same time, I do remember going to highschool with one of these guys. There's always one.

SHIN KAMEN RIDER (1992): This is the one that pisses off the purists and for that reason, seems to be totally under appreciated. It's a damn shame too, because this is one wild ride, mashing together genres with great results. Apparently the author of the comic, Shôtarô Ishinomori's, original concept was that Shocker's creations were actually mutants. Hybridized humans who have been genetically merged with an animal or insect DNA. Apparently someone along the way managed to change this concept into the more user-friendly (or kid-friendly) concept of cyborgs. This movie is a return to that original concept and brings it home with all the flair of a 1980s drive-in monster movie. Imagine if David Cronenberg and Rob Bottin were Japanese and made a Kamen Rider film in the '80s and you'll kind of get the idea. A rash of bloody murders are plaguing the city while at the same time a scientist is conducting experiments introducing insect cells into human DNA. As it turns out that human DNA happens to be his son Shin (Kohisa Ishikawa), his last and only living human experiment. Even worse, the experiments, seemingly being done by an independent bio company turns out to be for an evil organization (presumably Shocker, but only referred to as The Organization). While one of the scientists performs dangerous experiments on himself in his bizarre EVILSPEAK-inspired lab a group of super-commando types are attempting to take down the organization and put a stop to their experiments. Maybe a little slow to get rolling, this outing sports some seriously eye-popping latex effects including full-blown latex sculpted animatronic mutants, graphic gore and a Kamen Rider transformation scene that tips it's hat directly at AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. If you've only seen the recent stuff that's been shot on video with cheap POWER RANGERS-looking outfits and highschool kids with tricked-out cell phones, this one will be a real... ummmm... Shocker!

Sub-Zero Wins... Fatality!

ULTRAMAN COSMOS - THE FIRST ENCOUNTER (2001): Sweet jeezus on a friggin' stick, what did I get myself into? I was a big Ultraman fan when I was a kid. I watched that show probably more than any other and recently I rediscovered the old series. It was like a crack-filled dreamsicle. Sweet, addictive nostalgia. So I figure, hey, I should check out what has happened with the guy since I was a kid. Well, aparently I wasn't the only one who loved that show. No less than 36 spin-off shows and 21 movies comprise the Ultraman library, give or take. I figured I got some catching up to do! Unfortunately, where the original series boasted some really quirky and interesting episodes that went well above the call of duty, this is a total modern kiddie flick. Adults are bumbling (and therefore "funny"), the music is sappy as hell and there’s no Ultraman until the end, so instead we get the science team using robotic arms with boxing gloves extending from their ships to beat up the monster (not even kidding), represented on their HUD as an old school Nintendo game and – and... in the next battle they have all of the children sing the monster to sleep. I. CAN’T. MAKE. THIS. UP.
The main monster is Baltan, my favorite monster from my childhood, that’s a plus, but he doesn’t do half of his cool powers and after browsing the internet I find out he’s everybody's childhood favorite. Ok, I can live with that but in the end after a mostly cheap CGI fight with Ultraman…. Ready for this? This is where I run naked into the street screaming obscenities and brandishing a firearm. Well, in my case, a squirtgun, which is probably even more frightening. Ok, ready? He starts crying and kills himself. No, really – all he wanted was to live in peace with the children of Earth. I am totally fucking serious. Thank you to whoever decided to hire Toshihiro Iijima, who hadn't directed a film since the infantile, poop-obsessed DAIGARO VS. GOLIATH (1971), for killing my Ultrabuzz.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Gweilo Dojo: FORCE: FIVE (1981)

If you are a martial arts fan, you probably heard the news that Joe Lewis passed away yesterday at the age of 68 due to a brain tumor.  Lewis was one of the martial arts trailblazers in U.S. during the 1960s and 70s.  He trained with everyone (including Bruce Lee) and fought some of the top guys in competition including Bob Wall and Chuck Norris.  Naturally, Hollywood, hungry for anyone who could throw a kick, called and Lewis had a rather inauspicious cinema debut with the action flick JAGUAR LIVES! (1979). Surrounded by an all-star cast (Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasence, Barbara Bach, Capucine, John Huston, Woody Strode), Lewis got to show the stuff that made him a legend in the martial arts world onscreen.  Unfortunately, this James Bond-with-kicks flick didn’t really take with audiences, despite Lewis being a better actor than the wooden Chuck Norris at the time.  Hollywood decided to give him another shot and for his sophomore feature, he found himself in the capable hands of director Robert Clouse in the powerfully alliterative FORCE: FIVE.  

Not wasting any time cashing in on the Jim Jones tragedy, FORCE: FIVE centers on a religious guru named Reverend Rhee (Bong Soo Han), whose island compound has proven a retreat for affluent children everywhere. We’re told in no uncertain cinematic terms he is evil because he makes everyone shout “Love! Love! Love!”  Well, that and the fact that he has his henchmen torture a failed assassin by shoving acupuncture needles into his nerves.  Seems someone named Stark (Michael Prince) wants to get rid of Rhee real bad.  Back in the good ol’ U.S.A., Stark hires special agent Jim Martin (Lewis) to finish the job.  Seems a girl named Cindy (Amanda Wyss), a Senator’s wayward daughter, is living on the compound and daddy wants her back.  Also, they suspect Rhee’s religious principles – which are oddly centered on a bull – might include the rare 11th Commandment of “Thou shalt support terrorists with illegal guns and cocaine profits.”

Martin agrees to the job, but says he needs five top folks to accompany him to the island to get the job done.  Hey, including him, wouldn’t that make them Force: Six?  Anyway, we then get the requisite character intros.  Billy (Benny “The Jet” Urquidez) is shown selling ponchos (!) to tourists before he gets the call; Lockjaw (Sonny Barnes) is on the run from a motorcycle gang that he eventually beats up; Ezekiel (Richard Norton) wins a game of pool and then roughs up the losers when they object to paying up; and Laurie (Pam Huntington) roughs up Martin when he shows up blindfolded and dressed in a tux.  Hey, that is only four people.  Martin informs the team they are also getting Willard (Ron Hayden).  Oh no, not Willard!  That crazy sumbitch?  Yup, and the team gets their first mini-mission by heading down to break him out of a prison in Ecuador.  Things go smoothly as the team rescues him (naturally, he lives in luxury in jail) and they prepare to head to the island.  The ruse is they are assistants and helicopter pilots for Senator Forrester (Peter MacLean), who is coming down to check out the religious compound.

Once on the island, the team gets to work uncovering what is really going on.  You know something is up as Rhee is overly welcoming, despite his muscle bound henchman Carl (Bob Schott) giving the pilots faking a helicopter repair grief every ten seconds.  The Senator proves to be easily swayed as he is blown away by a performance of Rhee’s disciples singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” while confetti chokes the air. Seriously, I’ve never seen confetti so thick.  Obviously this is where Jim Jones screwed up as pageantry gets ‘em every time.  Anyway, also on the island is John (Dennis Mancini), an undercover New York Times reporter, who soon finds out why Rhee is so into bulls.  Seems he has one in an underground maze and it mauls John to death.  Now ain’t that some bullshit? Meanwhile, Martin is sneaking around and discovers the cache of drugs and guns, while Laurie tries to convince Cindy that things aren’t what they seem and she shouldn’t sign her trust fund over to Rhee.  After all, should you really trust any organization that allows Tom Villard to be a part of it?  It is all setting up for a finale where martial artists Martin and Rhee must kick, er, face off.

It seems Lewis really got no favors for his second flick as director Robert Clouse is intent on ripping off his biggest hit, ENTER THE DRAGON (1973).  The set ups for both films are nearly identical with the island fortress.  The only difference is these people practice love rather than karate (although they do oddly have a great command of hand-to-hand combat when it comes down to it).  The production did at least try to surround Lewis with some capable co-stars. Urquidez and Norton are both accomplished martial artists in their own right and both men get moments to shine.  Norton’s highlight, however, is when he throws a circular saw blade into a man (something later ripped off in Schwarzenegger’s COMMANDO) and then quips in his thick Australian accent, “Thank God for Black and Deck-aaaaaaaaahhhhhh.”  To save the curious viewer 95 minutes, here I present to you the film's three biggest highlights:

The other problem with this film is it very flat, almost seeming like a TV movie that somehow got unleashed in theaters. It definitely lacks the big budget style of ENTER or Clouse’s previous Jackie Chan vehicle THE BIG BRAWL (1980) or even GOLDEN NEEDLES (1974).  The script also does the film no favors with the out-of-left-field end confrontation between Martin and Rhee.  Obviously trying to ape ENTER’s famous mirror scene, they have the men search for each other in the smoke filled maze.  Oh, did I forget to mention that Rhee has the ability to disappear at will?  This head scratching ability (it is never mentioned at all) kind of shows you where the film is it.  Basically, they don't give a damn.  It is one of those films where the characters take off at the end and the image freezes on the airborne helicopter as the credits roll, as if to say, “C’mon, let’s get out of here and head to the bar.” If anything, FORCE: FIVE’s legacy will be having provided the makers of ZOMBI 3 (1988) some artwork “inspiration.”  Seriously, compare this poster with the one above.

Sadly, this marked the end of Lewis’ leading man career.  Despite having good looks and decent acting chops, he didn’t do another film until the HK cheapie DEATH CAGE (1988) with Robin Shou.  He also had a small supporting role in the loopy-as-hell kung fu serial killer flick BLOODMOON (1997) starring Gary Daniels.  Both films get the Video Junkie Seal of Approval.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Cine M.I.A. #5: OPERATION LAS VEGAS (1988)

Although we haven’t fully had a chance to show it yet, we’re huge fans of Richard Harrison here at Video Junkie.  If the man had a theme song it would be “Travelin’ Man” by Ricky Nelson as he is one of the few American actors who traveled the globe in search of the next production to star in.  Harrison got his start in Hollywood in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  He quickly jetted off to Rome, Italy because the sword and sandal craze was in full swing and Harrison, an early body building enthusiast, fit the Herculean mold perfectly. From there his good looks easily allowed him to transition to Spaghetti Westerns, where he famously turned down A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS but told director Sergio Leone to cast his friend, Clint something-or-other.  The 1970s proved even more prolific and no subgenre was untouched by the man. Bondsploitation, Bruceploitation, Poliziotteschi, Naziplotiation, Voodoo flicks – you name it and he was in it.

The early-to-mid 1980s increased Harrison’s cinematic legend even more with a series of action films made in the Philippines and the infamous Godfrey Ho ninja films in Hong Kong. According to Harrison, he signed on for a few ninja films, but the footage he shot was later used to pad out dozens of releases with titles like NINJA HOLOCAUST and COBRA VS. NINJA.   By the end of the decade, Harrison had returned to the United States and hooked up with several filmmakers for a series of low budget action films (like Fred Olen Ray’s TERMINAL FORCE).  During this period, he did a stint in Las Vegas where he starred in Charles Nizet’s RESCUE FORCE and the subject of our latest CineM.I.A., OPERATION LAS VEGAS.  Directed by the notorious N.G. Mount (aka Norbert Moutier), this action epic is truly a dream for fans of “so bad, it’s good” cinema.

Richard Harrison acting like
he's never seen a ninja before!
OPERATION LAS VEGAS opens with a guy putting some plans into a briefcase and handcuffing it to his wrist.  Obviously they are important as a hitman named Peralta (Pierre Agostino, hiding behind the pseudonym Peter Gold) chops off the poor dude’s hand and scurries away with the plans. What’s in these plans?  We’re never told.  But they must be important as the White House has given C.I.A. man Parker (John Van Dreelen) just 24 hours to get them back.  Maybe it was Ronald Reagan’s plans to get a remake of BEDTIME FOR BONZO going?  Anyway, this job calls for only one man and that is Jefferson (Richard Harrison), who is, naturally, on vacation.  Jefferson gets right back into the thick of things as ninjas attack him the second he gets the phone call from Parker.  He disposes of them with little flair (no screams of “ninjjjjjjja” or puffs of smoke; did Harrison not learn anything from Godfrey Ho?) and heads to Las Vegas to meet up with his superiors.

Once in Las Vegas, Jefferson quickly picks up a “babe” at the airport in Britta (Brigitte Borghese) and offers her a ride to her hotel (in a hilarious bit, he offers her a ride in his limousine and they walk to a Ford Taurus station wagon). Coincidentally, Jefferson and Britta are both booked at the same hotel Whiskey Pete’s (is the Government holding out on him or what?).   Jefferson meets with Parker and hilariously gets brought up to speed on the situation by his old buddy Nick (Derek A. Smith).  


The No-so-Wild Bunch
What no one knows is that G-man Gordon (Walter G. Zeri) has been double crossing the agency and sets up a meeting with Peralta to get the plans.  In one of the films odder scenes, Peralta is captured in the desert, flown to another part of the desert, and then killed. Hmmmm, seems like Gordon is not only a duplicitous type, but he also is an airplane fuel hog.  So now Gordon has the plans and heads to meet up with the terrorists and their leader, Rachid (Mark Kusmuk).  He leads a rather pathetic group of about 7 folks who live out in the desert and they literally put the “rag” in ragtag.  Apparently Gordon didn’t really think this through as Rachid informs him, “You know no one is allowed to leave here alive.”  D’oh!  But that is okay as Gordon will get to check out the arrival of the terrorists’ new leader.  This person is so strong and rules with an iron fist.  Only one person can whip this group into shape and it is none other than – dramatic pause – Britta!  This news officially makes Jefferson the least perceptive C.I.A. agent alive.  Anyway, Britta has a super duper plan where she will kidnap jet pilot Maria Swenson (Maria Francesce, Richard Harrison’s wife) and replace her with a double at a local air show so she can get a hold of a nuclear warhead. Because we all know that local air shows use live nuclear weapons during their stunt shows. It adds an extra thrill for the audience.  With this device, she plans to extort the U.S. Government for $1 billion dollars or she will blow up Hoover Dam.  So Jefferson, Nick and a team of elite soldiers suit up to take the terrorists out.  Hey, whatever happened to those plans?  Your guess is as good as mine.

"Beyoooond the Thunderdome!"
With its cheapo production values, ridiculous plotting and equally ridiculous dubbing, it is easy to see why OPERATION LAS VEGAS is still M.I.A. on home video in the United States. At the same time, it is kind of ironic given the sheer volume of other lesser Harrison starrers that did make it to the U.S. shelves.  I mean, this has ninjas and explosions too so why did it get snubbed by U.S. distributors?  Yeah, I’ll say it out loud – it ain’t Harrison’s worst flick by far. With films like MIAMI CONNECTION getting a new lease on life due to its wacky presentation, there is no reason this shouldn’t also be ready for cult fans.  What is not to like?  You have Richard Harrison, ninjas, mercenaries, terrorists, wonky dialogue, and more.  Plus, the film features one of the strangest female villains in the history of cinema with actress Brigitte Borghese.  A veteran of French exploitation, Borghese gives her all as Britta (as in the water filter?).  Unfortunately, her all isn't that much.  Seeing her in her bouncing around in a ninja outfit is hilarious enough, but then you get scenes like this:


Just another day on the Vegas strip
You have to respect any movie with a scene like that.  Or a film that has a guy on roller skates wearing panty hose over his head kidnapping someone.  You just have to.  It is funny this was made the same time as the aforementioned Nizet feature RESCUE FORCE as they seem like companion pieces. Hell, Nizet even has a small role in this and helped make the explosions.  This is the kind of film that is so obscure that most of the actors have no idea if it ever even got released and get the shock of their life when a clip ends up on Youtube. That is exactly what happened to co-star Derek A. Smith.  A Las Vegas resident at the time with a background in martial arts and self defense training, Smith had been featured in several Hollywood productions that rolled the dice in the city of sin.  But he probably had no idea what he was signing up for with this French produced action flick.  Smith contacted me last year regarding the earlier shown clip showcasing him and Richard Harrison.  Labeled “Worst dubbing job EVER!!!” the clip provided Smith a glimpse at the heretofore unseen film.  Looking for a copy, I offered to send him one for a price – he must answer my questions about this obscure and still M.I.A. on home video movie.  A truly deadly price to pay, but he soldiered though and offered the following amusing replies.

Video Junkie: When exactly was the film shot (I've deduced probably the late 80s due to clothing)?

Derek Smith: I cannot remember exactly.  I was in Las Vegas from 1983-1992. (VJ note: Our super detective skills have narrowed the timeframe down to early 1988 due to Harrison reading the February 1988 issue of Penthouse at one point.)

VJ: How did you come to be cast in the film?

DS: I was with a casting agency.  I had been in a number of movies and TV shows in Las Vegas, primarily as an extra.  I received a call to try for this role. The liked me because I had a martial arts background even though I did not get to use it.

VJ: How long did you work on the film?

DS: I believe it was for a week.

Harrison likes Smith's style
VJ: Do you know what the budget was?

DS: No idea, but obviously not much, LOL.  Another thing, there was no wardrobe for me. The clothes I have on in the movie were the clothes I showed up in. They did provide the Army uniform though.

VJ: Do you know how exactly N.G. Mount (aka Norbert Moutier) and his production ended up in Las Vegas, Nevada of all places to shoot?

DS: No, I just got the call and showed up and went to work.  It was a little difficult because he spoke absolutely no English. The movie was supposed to be shot in English and dubbed in French.  I am so glad I finally got to see it.

VJ: What was Mount like?

DS: I remember him as a nice guy.  Of course, things were moving fast and there was a language barrier but he was nice.

VJ: Did the film have any sort of screening for locals?

DS: No, as far as I know they wrapped and went right back to France.  The crew was quite small.

VJ: What was your reaction to the final product?

DS: It sucked.  Just kidding! No I am not, it really sucked.  But I am happy to have it and to have been in a movie.  I wish they would have flown me to France for the premier though. After all I was the star’s best buddy in the film.

VJ: What was Richard Harrison like to work with?

DS: He was a very nice guy.  We had never met before and in my mind he was a big star, but he did not act like it.  He joked with me, was nice and patient and helped me quite a bit.  We got most of our scenes in one take though, so I was not a pain to him or the director.

VJ: Any funny anecdotes from the shoot?

DS: There was one for me.  If you watch the movie, when I get killed by the mine we walk up to it with no problem.  We see the mine and I go try to disarm it.  After I am killed everyone just walks on like there are no other mines.  So basically, I was killed by the only mine in the entire desert, LOL.

LOL indeed!  Here is the scene Smith mentions (he assures me that is not his real voice) and it truly shows he is the world’s unluckiest soldier to stumble upon that lone landmine in that expansive desert.  Nick’s bravery will not be forgotten.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


We may not be the kind of slackers who can sit around and watch kaiju all day, waxing lyrical about the subtle nuances between Toho's Baragon and Daiei's Barugon (a big set of ears, right Aaron?) and dreaming about who would win in a fight; Gamera or Godzilla. Ok, maybe we have thought about that last one, and one of us, I'm not going to name any names, may have shelled out a whopping $50 for an unsubtitled bootleg tape of a brandspanking new Godzilla movie at one time, but even though we are not kaiju-uber-nerds, that doesn't me we don't have some serious love for Japan's rubber-suited monster epics. No siree Boburu-san!

The pinnacle of the entire genre is, in my mind, Shusuke Kaneko's re-invention of the rather cheesy series about a flying, fire-breathing turtle that is a friend to children and enemy of inhabitable objects. Massive production values and an exceptional eye for detail that had been even the cheesiest of Godzilla films cannot lay a claw on. I mean seriously, did you ever seen Godzilla show a penchant for beating their rivals with rocks? Using a gymnastics bar? Fighting a giant albino werewolf? Yeah, ok, so that's one for Godzilla. To think a mere 15 years prior, Daiei had brought the world Akira Kurosawa's RASHOMON. As much as I love Gamera, there's got to be some Daiei employee out there who weeps over this fact.

If only George Lucas would rip-off Gamera...

After the first series of seven films ran their course, Daiei had intended to keep that train rolling with another sequel for release in 1972. Sadly Daiei had some serious mismanagement issues attributed to it's long-time president Masaichi Nagata and went bankrupt in '71 leaving the long unseen GAMERA VS. GARASHARP dead in early stages of production. In 1974 a multimedia publishing company, Tokuma Shoten, bought Daiei and decided to revive (ie: cash-in on) Gamera to go head to head in theaters with what turned out to be an unproduced Godzilla film (GODZILLA VS. BAGAN or THE RESURRECTION OF GODZILLA). For some unexplained reason, the executives at the new Daiei had so little faith in the resurrection of the Gamera, that they not only produced a cheap, cobbled together mess, but decided to kill him off at the same time! "Just give us yer money and shuddap, kids!" This seriously counter-intuitive thought process is what gave us SPACE MONSTER GAMERA: SUPER MONSTER, a complete trainwreck of hacked-up footage and impoverished, slap-dash production incorporating classic battles taken from the original series with a wtf-were-they-smokin' new plot line that flails about trying to exploit any recent hit that they could think of, from STAR WARS(1977) to SUPERMAN (1978), in order to get the kids into the theater. I can think of no better way to spend 90 minutes of my life.

Opening with an amazingly long-winded prologue about how the evil Zanon space ship (which happens to be flying over the camera in a way that reminds me of something, what could it be?) is headed to Earth to destroy it. Why? Zanon is evil. What more do you need to know? The Vogon-esque announcement broadcast over the earth helps a little. A disembodied voice announces that they will be taking over earth and they have monsters. So there you are. The Zanon decide to start with Japan since it is the location of three Space Women, led by Kilara (pro wrestler Mach Fumiake) who all are disguised as Earth chicks with jobs and apartments. Apparently their world was destroyed by the Zanon, who have an entire planet of monsters that they use to conquer other planets. The Space Women communicate with audio tones that come through their earrings, at which point they drop everything, do something that looks like the Macarena and transform into their red and white superhero tights. Oh, and instead of spending their evenings at their Earthling apartments, they shrink down to doll size so that they can spend the night in a pet carrier, inside of something that looks like a chintzy version of the Mystery Machine. Also, their vehicles are installed with a small Casio keyboard that they can use to play a tune that will turn their vehicles into a flying pubic censorship dot. Seriously, I can't make this stuff up:

In the same town lives a kid named Keiichi (Koichi Maeda) who will someday be candidate for an early parole. One of his favorite things to do is play "The Camptown Ladies" on his mom's organ. When his friends show up with a comic book the size of the Atlanta telephone directory, he gets way too excited about the Gamera story, in which Gamera is in the form of a normal turtle, doing tricks to the amazement of a local policeman (we never knew how good we had it with the old movie plots, I guess). So excited is he about potentially-mutatable super-turtles, that his friend Kilara gives him one from her pet shop. Keiichi picks one that he claims can speak to him and then composes a song in it's honor, while feeling a strong sense of sadness for the lonely life of a turtle. This kid has a long road ahead of him.

Gyaos is destroying stuff! Yep, out of nowhere we get (stock footage of) Gyaos slicing stuff in half with his laser breath. At the same time we discover that the Zanon have their own Space Woman, Giruge (Keiko Kudo) except she's evil. You know this because her polyester super-suit is black and red. She's also armed with a wristwatch that lights up any time that the good Space Chicks use their space powers. As it turns out the Zanon (via disembodied voice) are afraid that the Pet Shop Girls will be able to defeat them, even though they have lots of monsters. Did I mention that they are in control of "The Planet Where Monsters Come From"? Well, they are. Perhaps there is an intergalactic treaty that states that potential planetary conquerors can only use one monster at a time, as it would seem much easier to unleash them all in a giant horde, rather than send one monster at a time, while your solitary agent tries to hunt down three girls in tights who sleep in a van. Then again, I guess I haven't had much success in conquering worlds, so what do I know? Gamera picks up the gauntlet, much to Keiichi's delight, and a ruckus ensues, as luck would have it, over an oil refinery. There go the gas prices... again!

So excited to see his favorite flying turtle is Keiichi, that he immediately composes a (or I should say the, because there is nothing else quite like it) "Gamera March" and subsequently plays it for the Space Woman in their human apartment, which may not be furnished with beds, but it does have a giant organ up against one wall. The organ is not only used for playing Keiichi's Gamera March, but it also functions as the television remote. Oh, I bet the neighbors love these girls. The Space Women draw inspiration from Keiichi's "Gamera March" and decide that the only way to deal with these alien invaders is to actively solicit Gamera's help! Never mind that he already seems to be doing that anyway. We are never shown how getting his help is actually accomplished, but it seems to involve the Space Girls being shot at by a lasers fired from the orbiting Zanon ship.

From here on out it is one monster after another invading Earth and Giruge's desperate hunt for the Space Women. Her boss is, understandably, pissed, firmly believing that if the Space Women are killed, then Gamera won't be worth squat and one of their monsters will kick his burnin' butt back into the ocean and they can take over what is left of Earth in peace. Eh, you know how bosses are. Zigra is next complete with Gamera's "rock" concert, then Viras (complete with another scene where it looks like they should get a room). After Viras is dispatched Jiger shows up, looking like he's ready for the after-party complete with a coke-tooter in each nostril. Guiron takes a turn, with everyone's favorite scenes included (kaiju gymastics). Finally Barugon, who must have struck terror into the hearts of little republicans everywhere by attacking and destroying a nations military defense arsenal with - a rainbow. Oh yeah, give that a minute to sink in. It all becomes clear now, doesn't it? All the while Kilara and company try to avoid being killed by Giruge's laser orbital air-strikes, teleportation tricks, disintegration car-bombs, mind-control saucers and seduction via what appears to be a meatless hamburger. Plus, we do get a pretty amusing fight scene between Giruge and Kilara, though for some inexplicable reason the producers felt this would be more exciting in street clothes rather than their super-suits. Maybe they were at the cleaners.

All of the monster battles are, of course, culled from the original series, with only about a minutes worth of new Gamera footage, which is essentially static shots, shot on video and composited over cheap miniatures, or more bizarrely, anime footage (WTF is SPACE CRUISER YAMATO doing in here?). All of these scenes are spliced in with less finesse than a Godfrey Ho outing and sometimes have no apparent connection to anything else in the movie. I can just see them in the editing room shouting "Hurry up and get it done! We just bought a bankrupt studio and need some cash!" That said, they obviously put some effort, no matter how misguided into the new footage, which is the bulk of the running time. During one battle the filmmakers cut in a (obviously) new shot of Gamera's tail knocking over a sandwich board advertising Godzilla. Ummm, pretty sure Gamera's superiority over Godzilla wasn't proven for another 15 years. Sloppy? Sure. Cheap? Definitely. Fun? Damn straight, and don't let the hipster, bedheads who read un-translated manga tell you otherwise.