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!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Cinemasochism: REVOLT (1986)

I’ve said it on here before, but it is worth repeating. Nothing is better than being a Video Junkie and having friends with the same habits.  Just when you think you have seen it all, someone will throw a film at you that you’ve never heard of.  Case in point: REVOLT! Just over a week ago my buddy Richard sent me a message asking if I had seen this ‘80s action film streaming exclusively on Netflix.  Seen it?  I’d never even heard of it.  He said it was crazy (always a good sign) and later said, “I might need to revisit it, just to remind myself of what I saw.”  If you can’t trust your friends, who can you trust? I look it up and see it was directed by one J. Shaybany and written by someone named Shield.  Yes, this person is credited solely as Shield.  Sold!

The film opens with a nearly 7 minute segment about the dangers of drugs with some narration that sounds like it was culled from a 1950s educational short.  Shocking revelations include that drug dealers like to sell where young people converge (Bryan Singer’s pad?) and that “they couldn’t care less about you.”  All of this is a preamble for our story proper that takes place in an unnamed small town.  Local dope kingpin Mr. Macintosh is having trouble with his drug car driver Curtis, who is refusing to drive over a shipment from Mexico and getting a beating for his insubordination.  Macintosh’s right hand man Lee suggests they use George, whose “brother and sister run that Persian restaurant.” I’m not sure why that fact is mentioned (unless they specifically want relatives of restaurant owners), but George happily accepts and really, really wants to prove he can do a good job.

Meanwhile, Curtis, who is being led to his “retirement” in the woods, escapes his captors but gets shot in the process. When he goes to the hospital, the doctor is none other than the Iranian father-in-law of Steve Brown (Rand Martin), husband to the doc’s daughter Mina and George’s brother. Are you still with me?  Curtis tells the doctor that George is in trouble and the doc calls Steve, who in turn calls the Sheriff Dukes.  Are you really still with me?  Anyway, Dukes somehow knows the exact road George and Lee are barreling down (not to mention the time they will arrive) and gives chase.  Steve also shows up just in time for a pursuit through the woods.  In the chaos, Lee shows his true colors and shoots new hire George dead.  Naturally, Steve sees this go down.  At the funeral (where the doctor tells a priest “the children these days just don’t seem to know what this drug scene is doing to their lives”), Steve is upfront with the sheriff and tells him he will seek his revenge against Mr. Macintosh.  The Sheriff is like, “Eh.”

Somehow our lead crook gets wind of this plan for vengeance and decides to send some of his goons to harass Steve and his family at the post-funeral gathering at their restaurant. Jeez, news travels fast in this town.  Lead thug Tom (if there is a more evil bad guy name, I can’t think of one) assails them with threats like, “What the hell is going on here? This is America, not Iran. Can I get a menu?” before punching out the comic sidekick cook.

After Steve subdues him in a dry river bed behind the restaurant (?), Tom admits that Macintosh sent him.  Steve speeds on over to his ranch (oddly, Tom beat him back there and changed shirts), beats up a few bodyguards and then says, “I may not be able to get all you sons a bitches, but I’m going to bring you down…hard.” Yeah, that’ll show him. Steve somehow gets it into his head that the only way to bring Macintosh down is to have Curtis testify against him. Curtis is in hiding with his pregnant girlfriend Nancy but apparently a bartender named Tiny knows his location.  Both baddie Tom and hero Steve make it to Tiny’s within minutes of each other, resulting a big ol’ brawl in the alley behind the bar.  The Sheriff shows up to arrest Macintosh’s men, but warns Steve, “I’ll arrest you as I would anyone else for breaking the law, disturbing the peace and breaking the law.”  As if the feuding stakes couldn’t get any higher, Macintosh is suddenly incensed by the Iranian hostage crisis and this leads to – I kid you not – Steve’s son Jeremy being picked on at school and run over and killed by a car!  With only ten minutes left on the running time, I guess it is time to REVOLT as Steve and new BFF Curtis, whose girlfriend was also killed, head to the ranch with guns a blazing.

Running a scant 72 minutes, REVOLT is the kind of brain dead action cinema we love to see here at Video Junkie.  It has the perfect blend of cheapness, bad dialogue, overwrought drama and explosions.  Here is a perfect sampling with some dialogue when Uncle George drops Jeremy off at school.

Another great example is the final showdown when Macintosh sees the good guys coming.  He shouts at his two henchmen, “Lee, get your gun. You, get your gun.”  Because having him say, “Get your guns” is just too complex.  Of course, this is from a director who has the drug kingpin give the town a church (!) and still has his wife working at the local grade school.  What?  Director Shaybany is just as cheap when it comes to his onscreen action as his script.  For the finale, he has Macintosh grab a random car rather than the Mercedes he drove up in.  Why?  We ain’t throwing no Mercedes off a cliff, son.  Also, for some odd reason, Macintosh gets into the car by himself, but when he is shown being chased on the highway he magically has his wife and son with him.  Drama! Even better, when the car goes off the cliff in a spectacular explosion, the young boy is thrown from the car and is safe.  Well, except for now being an orphan.  Sheibany doesn't have time for the after, just the right now.  Oh wait, Steve lost his son so he can now just adopt this kid.  Problem solved.

REVOLT is initially a very had film to pin down in terms of when it was actually shot. Shaybany doesn’t have time for credits or that nonsense.  It just ends with “THE END” and that’s it.  No names, no dates, no nothing!  Honestly, the fashions and minutia are all over the place.  One minute it reads early ‘80s, the next a dude is wearing a ‘70s outfit that would make Porter Wagoner stop in his tracks and gawk. There is a lengthy scene that shows news footage of the Iranian hostage crisis so it has to have been after November 1979.  Eagle-eyed Tom (our VJ leader, not the main henchman) spotted a Q-105 bumper sticker, which is apparently standard ‘70s SoCal.  However, several people sport Members Only jackets, which were introduced in the US in 1980 but became big in 1983.  Variety’s lone listing for the film is a mention in March 1985. The establishing of it being shot in the early ‘80s was finally revealed when I spotted a kid with a little league 1983-84 jacket on and with this simple nameless henchman’s t-shirt (prepare yourself for a level of geekiness previously unseen on this blog).

In the same mold as Amir Shervan (HOLLYWOOD COP, SAMURAI COP), director Jamshid Sheibani (billed here as J. Shaybany) was born in Iran and came to the United States to make movies. Believe it or not, Sheibani’s earliest listing in the US copyright database is a song from the Cary Grant film DREAM WIFE (1953) that he co-wrote.  According to his obituary, he returned to his native Iran and began making a name for himself as a singer and in their cinema in the 1960s/70s as a producer and director. Variety listed Sheibani as being a recipient of a grant from the Ministry of Culture in May 1976 and 1978.  His Iranian work (as far as the IMDb is concerned) ceased in 1976, so we can only assume something happened (the Iranian Revolution, maybe?) that sent him back to the United States.  We’re thankful for it, whatever it was. REVOLT is a trash classic that should be honored.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Cinemasochism: BEYOND FEAR (1993)

Quite possibly one of the worst movies I have ever seen. No, really.

Yeah, sure there are all these people running around talking about how they are "bad movie experts" and cite examples such as THE DEVIL'S RAIN (1975) and BRAIN DAMAGE (1988), at which point I send them e-mailed threats of kicking their asses in an organized boxing match at the location of their choosing. They lump great movies in with stuff like AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS (1997) and HOUSE OF THE DEAD (2003). Yes, those last two are terrible movies, but they at least sport a level of editing and cinematography that is professionally competent and when it comes down to it, the script is really the only thing that irredeemably wretched. These schmucks truly don't know what a "bad" movie is.

Mimi Lesseos started her career in martial arts (kickboxing and judo) at the age of 16. Starting in 1980 she trained under Fabulous Moolah as a professional wrestler and spent the next 14 years in the AWA and the LPWA under the name "Magnificent Mimi". Lesseos then became an International Full Contact Martial Arts champion. In addition, she is easy enough on the eyes to be featured in the December 1989 issue of Playboy. If that isn't colossal potential for a badass film-career, I don't know what is.

Unfortunately Lesseos decided to take her talents and instead of putting them in someone else's hands, she would start her own production company. I commend her for the initiative, but clearly she would have been better off working for Godfrey Ho.

Lesseos plays Tipper Taylor, a mountain-climbing tour guide (a guide for tourists) who works with an older black man named... uhhh... Sammy (Verrel Reed). They don't go so far as to have him eat watermelon, but they do bust out the old negro wisdom shtick that I was pretty sure died in the '60s. Piling into the tour bus we have a wimpy guy (Robert Axelrod) with a video camera in bickering relationship with his obese wife who stuffs her face with twinkies when she gets mad; the newlyweds who have a falling out after the wife finds out that her cracker husband slept with two hookers during his bachelor party (says the husband about why the wife is mad: "it's a Korean thing"); and a few other losers that are just there as killer fodder. Ha! Fools! None of them get killed, they presumably live out their annoyingly mundane lives for perpetuity.

After arriving at their cabins (which looks like a cheap motel in Los Angeles), Vince decides to go out at night and peep in everybody's windows with his video camera. One of the rooms he peeps into is two ex-cons, Boar (Wayne Bower) and Jack (Brogan Young) trying to get it on with a hooker who is very annoyed that two guys want to do it with her at once. I'm no expert on the subject, but it's surprising to me that this would be an issue, but it is. She keeps pushing Jack away saying "one at a time!" until Jack finally snaps and beats her to death. This may sound shocking, but it is completely laughable. There is no nudity and the "beating" is basically the girl getting thrown against a wall where she pulls the old wrasllin' move where she slaps the wall with her hands and pretends to hit her head. Unfortunately the camera angles are so poorly chosen in this film, it is blatantly obvious that her head didn't even come six inches near the wall.

The cons realize that Vince was peeping on them with a camcorder, but he gives them the slip, meaning that they will have to follow the tour van in the morning to get the tape and silence Vince. You'd think this would lead to a game of cat and mouse on dangerous grounds in the mountains, but instead we get a massive amount of padding. Instead of action we get lots of rock climbing (of heights of up to 14 inches!), lots of couples discussing their relationship problems, a long scene of everyone slowly crossing a stream, people walking and walking, some of the most boring dialogue ever committed to film, and worst of all no real choreography or rehearsals. There are a couple of quick fights and if you think you hate the bad editing of hand-held shots in Hollywood movies, you ain't seen nothing! There is a scene where Lesseos runs up from behind a bad guy and does a flying dropkick right into the middle of his back. It looks pretty good, but the camera is placed so that the action crops Lesseo off the screen a bit. Even worse (or better, depending on your point of view), that shot is cut in right after we see the fat girl running through the woods dressed in a similar plaid shirt. This creates the impression the it was the fat girl doing the flying drop kick. No offense to plus sized ladies, but this is utterly hilarious. I should point out that this is during the only big fight scene which is at the 76 minute mark of the 83 minute film!

So careless and budget strapped is the production that they shoot scenes after completely losing the light making the screen a mess of dark smudges. They also shoot scenes covered in dense fog that limits visibility so much that the only way we know they didn't shoot it on a soundstage in front of a grey panel is that everyone is having a really bad hair day. It looks like it was shot on 16mm, but the sides of the image are so badly cropped that in many scenes the only reason you know the person isn't talking to himself is because there is a brim of a hat or the tip of a nose on the edge of the screen. Then again everything about it is so poorly done that it may have actually been framed that way!

Better send the kids
out of the room for this one!
In another example of pointless filmmaking, they decide they need some nudity (presumably to help sell the title). So they have Lessos take off her shirt in a tent, except it looks like a body double, her side is to the camera, it's shot through mosquito netting and it's at night! Seriously why even bother? Perhaps it's just one of the many attempts to pad the film out to feature length. In addition to all the walking and "climbing" we have long scenes of mundane things such as Taylor slowly calling out names and handing out keys to every member of the tour, one at a time. Don't miss the exciting scene in which there is some discussion about who will load the luggage on the van and then we have to watch everyone load their fucking luggage on the van! Not convinced? How about a riveting scene in which Sammy mumbles incoherently to himself while assembling a pile of leaves that he will use as a bed. Of course once settled in his futon of frond, he realizes that he forgot to put on his knit hat and we have to watch him dig it out, put it on his head, move it around till it's just right then lay back down. I don't know how I'm going to explain the claw marks on my living room walls to my landlord.

This is Lesseo's fourth film and it's shocking just how amateur it is. Of course, it's not really her fault as veteran actor Robert F. Lyons uses this as his second directorial effort and this is Michael Matzdorff's first time out as an editor. Though Lyons only got one more directing gig after this, Matzdorff went on to have a career as an editor and honestly I can't imagine why. It is said that good editing is unnoticeable to the audience. Here the editing is so noticeable that I feel wracked with guilt over comments I have made in the past about Nick Millard's ham-fisted "style". Every camera angle is wrong, cuts are jarring, continuity is an afterthought. Granted entire scenes are made in the editing room and that can only be blamed on the director. For instance, there is a scene where they are going to have the bad guy throw a girl off of a cliff and she's supposed to catch hold of a ledge on the way down. So they show the guy swinging her to the edge of the cliff, cut to a close up of him letting go of her jacket and then cutting to a close up of her face next to some rocks with her arms over her head. Then cut to the cast standing near the cliff screaming "hang on"! In this very same scene we are supposed to have Lesseos fighting the bad guy, then suddenly she stops fighting him and is inserted into the scene standing in front of a rock wall shouting lines. Obviously the director fucked up and they had to reshoot some footage of Lesseos shouting after the production had wrapped. I mean, they couldn't have done this intentionally... they couldn't have.

In spite of this being one of the worst films ever made, I'll have to give Lesseos another shot. She did work with Joseph Merhi at the helm on several occasions and even if they are not good films, I know that at the very least, Merhi will not be screwing up when it comes to camera angles and editing.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Cyber Monday: EXPECT NO MERCY (1995)

The late ‘80s and early ‘90s were a fascinating time for action fans.  While the big screen was dominated by the Fearsome Four (Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Seagal, and Jean-Claude Van Damme), the video market was a Wild West free-for-all when producers realized the market was healthy enough to sustain direct-to-video action product.  If you could throw a kick in real life, chances were high you could get a 3-picture deal somewhere. This resulted in a rise of new action stars well versed in martial arts including Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Cynthia Rothrock, Loren Avedon, Gary Daniels, Olivier Gruner, and Jeff Wincott.

Two more examples of this phenomenon can be found in Billy Blanks and Jalal Merhi, the two leads of today’s film.  The launch of Blanks – a marital artist turned bodyguard turned actor – to a leading action man took many by surprise. One year he was a henchmen or villain (BLOODFIST [1989] and THE KING OF THE KICKBOXERS [1991]) and the next year he is suddenly cast as the hero (TALONS OF THE EAGLE [1992]).  If Blanks’ good guy turn and direct-to-video ascent was unexpected, the arrival of his co-star was positively startling.  Jalal Merhi didn’t ease into the action business as much as he just appeared.  One day you just suddenly found yourself staring at a video box with Merhi – a Lebanese jewelry dealer from Canada turned martial artist turned actor – on the cover, declaring him to be an action star.  Hey, it worked for David Heavener.  And besides, Merhi could throw a kick so all was good.

Concurrent to the rise of the direct-to-video action star was another one of Hollywood’s flavor of the month obsessions: virtual reality.  Sure, films like TRON (1982) and BRAINSTORM (1983) had introduced computer controlled worlds to the mainstream audiences, but the sickness didn’t really grab a hold until the first half of the 1990s.  In addition to pissing Stephen King off, Brett Leonard’s THE LAWNMOWER MAN (1992) proved that computer created environs were feasible enough for audiences.  Soon the market was flooded with VR titles like ARCADE (1993), GHOST IN THE MACHINE (1993), BRAINSCAN (1994), JOHNNY MNEMONIC (1994), Leonard’s VIRTUOSITY (1995), HACKERS (1995), STRANGE DAYS (1995), and the mainstream nadir DISCLOSURE (1994), which virtually (haha) killed the genre by featuring a virtual Demi Moore stalking Michael Douglas.  Don’t believe me?  Have a look:

As you can see, that is about as technically relevant today as my laserdisc collection. Anyway, the point of all this is you just knew these two ideas – direct-to-video action and virtual reality – were going to eventually bump into each other. Sure enough, they did in EXPECT NO MERCY (1995).

The film opens with a group of commandoes decked out in hi-tech gear performing a hit with military like precision. Okay, so the filmmakers also watched UNIVERSAL SOLDIER (1992).  Their target is a mafioso looking dude, whose evil is established by him having a naked girl swimming in his pool (“That’s one smooth dude,” coos one of his bodyguards).  Watching all of this unfold safely behind a computer screen is Warbeck (Wolf Larsen), who runs the Virtual Arts Academy.  Under the guise of developing able bodied fighters, the school is actually a front where Warbeck trains his highly skilled assassins to take out high priced murder contracts.  The Feds are onto his scheme, but Warbeck is onto them as evidenced by them fishing out a female undercover agent from the local swamp.  Sensing they need a man’s man for the job, the government contacts agent Justin Vanier (Blanks) and sends him undercover to the academy.  Posing as a fitness instructor (real life foreshadowing!), Vanier is told his contact on the inside is a guy named Eric (Merhi).  Yes, this character is so underwritten that he isn’t even given a last name.

Vanier heads to school and he keeps his cover by – I kid you not – unzipping his jacket and turning his hat backwards.  You’ve fooled them all!  Vanier takes to the VR training really fast, advancing at a rate that will give him 20 years of fighting experience in 2 years.  Of course, I’m not quite sure how shadowboxing imaginary adversaries will prepare you for real life fights.  It would be like Tom saying, “I can beat anybody up because I had the highest score on Mortal Kombat.”  After meeting up with Eric and new ally Vicki (Laurie Holden), Vanier gets a computer document of the illegal activities. Naturally, they get caught and Warbeck has them both put into the virtual reality world to get their asses whooped (“When the computer has their moves, you can dispose of them,” he says). Somehow the greatest fighters in this simulation include a boxer, a ninja, a samurai, a dominatrix and…an evil clown?  Yeah, just go with it.  The men get saved by Vicki just before having their brains fried.  This is also good timing because Warbeck has just sent his men out to assassinate Goldberg, a stoolie he’s been hired to kill who is being protected by the same Federal agents who hired Vanier (I guess the budget only had enough for two speaking agents).  They save the day, but Vicki ends up getting kidnapped so it is back to the Virtual Arts Academy, where everyone must face off and, as expected, Vanier takes on Warbeck in the virtual world (“Expect no mercy,” Warbeck cries).

I don’t normally take review requests, but this one came to me from a kind soul in Canada named Keith.  He used to run an amazing Bruceploitation review site, but that was before this poor child was struck down with a crippling case of Lazyitus. Anyway, he wrote to me telling me how EXPECT NO MERCY was the best film he had ever seen and that I should review it.  The saddest part about this whole thing?  I had a VHS copy sitting on my “too be watched” pile.  Truth be told, if I had watched this back in 1995 I probably would have hated it.  I was stuck in a worship of Hong Kong cinema back then and if it didn’t have Jackie Chan doing death-defying stunts, I wasn’t down.  Watching this today, I enjoyed the picture for what it is.  In addition to being physically fit, Blanks is a very solid martial artist.  His moves are done a bit of a disservice in the virtual reality world but he does get in two good fights at the end, including one against his brother Michael Blanks.  Merhi also gets to show his moves and, as a Tae Kwon Do guy, he fares well onscreen.  Now if only they had given his character a last name. Also decent is German actor Wolf Larsen as the villain.  Well, in the fighting department at least as he is pretty over the top as the villain.  Director Zale Dalen also stages some nice shoot outs and knows that bigger is better when it comes to explosions (watch for one bit where Merhi’s double gets singed as he is engulfed in flames while jumping out of an exploding house).

The sci-fi angle is probably going to elicit laughs today.  Hell, it probably did back in the day when it was brand new.  Their concept for the virtual world is to have the fighters blown out on the white balance and facing off in front of computer generated worlds.  Now I personally love the simplistic look of these computer made maps (they take me back to the old days of playing flight simulator), but it still looks super cheap.  Also, the film commits the ultimate virtual reality sin by not having a point-of-view scene where the lead sneaks around in the virtual reality world.  Every VR related movie needs to have that bit where we get the POV of the character and then a big, clunky computer generated hand comes into the frame to grab something.  To have that missing is a big no-no.  I’m also not so sure about Dalen’s choices for what constitutes “scary” in the virtual reality world.  I can understand a ninja or samurai, but an evil clown? Even worse, it is accompanied by a bunch of horn honking sound effects that make it laughably bad.  It is the second goofiest VR creation I have seen after virtual Demi Moore.

All that said EXPECT NO MERCY is a fun way to kill 90 minutes.  It takes you back to a time when every action movie wasn’t so damn serious.  Damn, was 1995 really almost 20 years ago?  Anyway, now I’m in the mood for some more Billy Blanks sci-fi.  I guess I could watch TC 2000 (1993) if I had a copy…oh, there it is sitting right there.  Or I can watch VIRTUAL COMBAT (1995) with Don “The Dragon” Wilson since I have that too.  Thanks, Keith!

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Gweilo Dojo: BLADE BOXER (1997)

Tom hit us with two reviews this week so I guess I’ll have to contribute something.  He also had the nerve to actually cover things that actually played in – gasp! – movie theaters.  That just ain’t right.  So I’m looking to straighten the ship here at Video Junkie with a review of something that had the grace to go direct-to-video.  Hell, the closest this would get to a theatrical release is if you drove to the theater and threw the VHS tape at the screen.

We love our martial arts movie clich├ęs here at Video Junkie.  My personal favorite is the “wealthy white folks like to watch people fight to the death” rule.  Never has a stereotype been so wrong, yet felt so right.  No doubt born from the “wealthy guy holds martial arts tournament” plot found in classics such as ENTER THE DRAGON (1973), this subgenre took on an even deeper and twisted meaning in the wealthy excesses of the 1980s where the us-versus-them sentiment was translated into the ultimate symbolic cinematic form, a modern day version of the barbaric Roman coliseum audiences.  Films like THE OCTAGON (1980) and THE KARATE KID (1984) kept the tournament format alive in audiences’ heads, but it was probably Jean-Claude Van Damme’s BLOODSPORT (1988) that was responsible for fully establishing the “rich folks have bloodlust” scenario so perfectly in martial arts cinema.  No doubt it was possible because martial arts, both in film and practice, still had an air of mystery behind them (enough so that Frank Dux, the basis for that film, was able to con people with his “true” story).  Just what do those wealthy do behind closed doors for kicks? They must pine for the blood of the common man, right?

Rare photograph from the annual Bilderberg meeting:

Coupled with the debut of the UFC (dubbed “human cockfighting” by Senator John McCain at the time) in the early ‘90s, this subgenre exploded and soon every martial arts tournament flick had dudes decked out in tuxedos and ladies in their finest evening gowns thirsty for blood (convention required a woman to get splashed with blood during a fight…and enjoy it). Shelves were overflowing with evocative titles like the BLOODFIST (1989) series, Van Damme’s LIONHEART (1990), THE KING OF THE KICKBOXERS (1990), BLOODMATCH (1991), AMERICAN SAMUARI (1993), DEATH RING (1993), the SHOOTFIGHTER (1993) films, ENTER THE BLOOD RING (1995), FISTS OF IRON (1995), and KICK OF DEATH (1997). Trying to catch the wave late in the game was BLADE BOXER (1997).

The film opens with undercover cop Rick Morgan (Kevin King, who also produced) infiltrating a cockfighting ring.  How do we know he is undercover?  Because he has a beard!  Rick is wise to the dealings of crime kingpin Jonathan Carter (Todd McKee, one John Sayles lookin’ mofo) as he just knows this operation is just “something small to hide something big.” Sure enough, like all rich people, Carter is evil and having his henchmen kidnap cops off the street in broad daylight so that he can use them in his Blade Boxer tournaments that he holds in an empty warehouse for his wealthy clientele. Here they fight…dramatic pause…to the death!  The champ is undefeated Mahietzo (Del Pollard), a pudgy guy who sports a Freddy Kruger-style glove on each hand in his fights.  Helping Morgan out are his partner Joe (Cass Magda, who also did the fight choreography) and his girlfriend Rita (Dana Plato; yes, that Dana Plato), who Morgan thinks so highly of that he makes her pose as a prostitute in Carter’s empire to help him out.  During one of their many arguments, Rita actually says, “I’d be better off if I was a hooker.”  Ouch.

After busting a cockfighting organization (“A lot of dead cocks, but no cocksuckers,” Rick comments) and finding some dead police officers sliced up, Morgan decides something needs to be done but his boss isn’t having it.  Why?  It turns out the Chief of Police along with the Mayor of Los Angeles are also on Carter’s payroll.  You see, these 1 percenters have to stick together.  Carter already killed Morgan’s wife a few years back, but feels he still needs to send a message so, naturally, Joe the Partner gets killed (in a scene where eight fighters calmly come at Joe one-by-one so he can show off his quasi-Seagal skills).  Morgan gets his revenge rather quickly as he kills Mahietzo (“He killed my cash cow,” Carter screams later) and then decides he must make extreme changes to elude this circle of affluence out to get him.  What does he do?  He shaves!  Not just his beard, but his chest and arms (all shown in detail in a King-loving montage).  Holy crap, this dude is deadly serious.  Not only that, but he dyes his hair and applies some tan-in-a-bottle.  These drastic measures are because he is going undercover to try and get into the to-the-death tournament.  So, yeah, our undercover guy is going undercover again.  Under-undercover, if you will.

You hear that sound?  It isn’t one of the blade weapons from BLADE BOXER slicing against human bone it is the sound of the bottom of the barrel being scrapped.  How cheap is this film?  It got a VHS release in the US from Dead Alive Productions, the company that built its foundation releasing the vile TRACES OF DEATH mondo series. It seems only fitting that such a cheap production would end up in bed with folks like that.  Director Bruce Reisman obviously had a low budget to work with.  This results in our delighted rich folk watching the bloody fights while seated on bails of hay.  And some stuff can’t be forgiven as just lack of budget as there are some hilarious continuity errors.  For example, Morgan gets some gnarly scars during his fight with Mahietzo.  They even make a point of showing them later.  So what happens when he goes under-undercover?  They magically disappear!  He must have some amazing shaving cream.  Later, in the final fight, they make a big deal of Rick getting his midsection sliced open (they do an insert shot of his abs being bloodied) only to have the next shot have no blood on him at all.  Of course, this is a film so dumb that a character deduces that Morgan couldn’t have shot the Mayor because “how would a man who kicks ass stoop down to firing a bullet point blank?”  That will surely hold up in court.

To show how inept the filmmakers are look at how poorly they fail to exploit the film’s biggest asset.  Of course, the hot selling point here is the appearance of Dana Plato.  Not to be confused with the Greek philosopher, this Plato was indeed the former child star from DIFF’RENT STROKES who was having a very hard time transitioning to features after that show went off the air.  The grown up Plato leaves no breast implant unturned here as he does a full body nude scene. Despite having a former child star showing all in their feature, they don’t play up her presence on the cover at all outside of a tiny credit in the world’s smallest font.  This film was shot in 1994/5 so it put it just a few short years after Plato was nude in Playboy. How do you not capitalize on that? The cover should read “starring DIFF’RENT STROKES actress and Playboy model Dana Plato.”  Instead, the only bare flesh on the box belongs to the male lead.  The film was also made a few years after Plato had been arrested in Las Vegas for robbing a video store.  Had that crime happened post-BLADE BOXER’s release, I would have clearly known her motive.  It is kind of sad to see really when you realize how down and out she was at the time.  Honestly, if she had stayed clean, I could have easily seen her having a healthy career in direct-to-video T&A fare.  Sadly, that was not to be and she passed away in 1999 from a drug overdose.

Amazingly, Reisman and King announced a BLADE BOXER II: SUDDEN DEATH (alternate title BLADE BOXER II: BLOOD MASTERS) in early 1995 in Variety, but it never came to fruition.  I’m sure the major stumbling block there was trying to decide what else Morgan could shave to go under-under-undercover.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Adrenaline Shot: DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR (1987)

After many years of bit parts on various TV shows, former L.A. Rams defender Fred Dryer met with a surprising amount of success as a stony, Los Angeles homicide detective in "Hunter" (1984). "Hunter" was a show that, for better or for worse, pretty much set the standard for TV programming for years to come. In the middle of the seven year run, Dryer attempted to use his new-found popularity to make the jump to feature films. This, his first starring theatrical film, didn't exactly kill his career, but it promptly kicked it right back to the small screen.

A gruff, but warm-hearted Sgt. "Gunny" Burns (Dryer) is volunteered to help out the aging Col. Halloran (Brian Keith) who has orders to assist in the security detail for a US Embassy in the fictional middle eastern country of Jemal. Jemal is, naturally, in the middle of political upheaval. Though we never really find out what exactly has got up their thawb, it seems pretty clear that they don't care much for Israeli's, who seem to be really nice people. On the way to the embassy, these "revolutionary freedom fighters" led by a guy literally named "Jihad" (Rockne Tarkington!), ambush the ridiculously undefended US weapons transport, killing all the soldiers except one and now he's mad! Or rather he is simply annoyed, as we find out when Gunny tells a journalist (Joanna Pacula) who is aiding the fighters: "Do me a favor and tell your terrorist friends something: Don't make us mad! Excuse me!" Apparently, they would not like him when he's mad.

Of course, Halloran and a green marine are taken captive and subjected to beatings and torture via electric drill (just so you know that the Arabs are evil). Now Gunny needs to hunt down the sheet-wearing bad-guys and teach them some Uhmerican justice! It reminds me of a musical poem I once heard. It goes "America! Fuck yeah!" Let's see, the under-appreciated American soldier stomping around in the middle east where they aren't wanted for a government that is just playing politics. Damn, the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is actually surprisingly topical. Although if this film were made today, the film would be 2.5 hours long and half of it would be lengthy emotional dialogues and uncontrollable sobbing. The other half would be tactics and drawn out scenes of brutal torture. Compared to modern films, this movie is a light and breezy 90 minutes of right-wing idealistic death and destruction.

I think the thing that struck me the most was the fact that if it had been the same movie with a ninja instead of a soldier, the MPAA of 1987 would have censored the living crap out of it. There are rampant machine gun deaths (women and children included), blood-splatters, explosions with visible casualties and a multi-shot close-up of a drill-bit being run through Halloran's hand. A good ninja stabbing an evil mobster through the hand with a piece of wood, as in PRAY FOR DEATH (1985)? Oh hell no! An Arab terrorist pushing a power-drill into an American soldier's hand? That's cool.

Marines do it with any finger

The one and only film directed by veteran stuntman Terry Leonard, this movie benefits from a whole host of stuntwork including some excellent vehicular mayhem, such a scene in which (*minor spoiler alert*) Gunny drives his rag-top jeep over an embankment crashing squarely into the enemy van, completely obliterating it and the jeep, and then pops up with a small scratch and a slight limp. In addition to the John Wayne-inspired heroics, such as the scene in which another green marine takes a grenade to save Gunny, causing Gunny to shed a single, solitary tear before chasing after the bad guys, (as Will pointed out) this movie cribs pages from Clint Eastwood's HEARTBREAK RIDGE (1986), going so far as to use the 1983 bombing of the US Embassy in Beruit as inspiration for the action.

I remember seeing it back when it came out and thinking it was shockingly jingoistic trash, but somewhat enjoyable. I watch it now and think it is shockingly jingoistic trash, but somewhat enjoyable. It is definitely another volume in the Tea-Party Porn video library, much like JACK TILLMAN: THE SURVIVALIST (1987), but if you can divorce yourself from the feeble-minded politics and extreme xenophobia (much like the sequels to 1982s FIRST BLOOD), it's a lot of fun. Did I mention stuff gets blowed up real good? It does.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Medical Deviates: TERMINAL CHOICE (1985)

If you haven't guessed it by now, I spent an embarrassing amount of time renting movies with my misfit friends in my ill-spent youth. The way I would pick out a movie at the stores were to walk down the horror, sci-fi or action aisle, starting at either A or Z, and stop when I got to a movie that I hadn't seen. When one video store had been defoliated by my migratory grazing, I moved on to another.

Somehow after cherry-picking literally dozens of video stores in my area, I never ended up renting TERMINAL CHOICE. The video was in every store, the poster was everywhere, even in other movies (such Jeff Lieberman's 1988 outing REMOTE CONTROL)! Even with all of this advertising pressure, I didn't rent it. Why? The video poster sucked. Yep, I let myself get played by lame movies with awesome boxes like NAIL GUN MASSACRE (1985) and Tim Kincaid's BREEDERS (1986), but I passed over a damn fine film because of the lousy art. I feel shame.

In a new, state of the art hospital run by brilliant surgeon Dr. Giles Dodson (David McCallum, showing up for his day plus one), all of the rooms are outfitted with computerized beds that are hooked into a central mainframe. The computer controls IV drips, dispensing drugs, regulating ventilators, and even, if necessary, delivering resuscitating shocks via a built in defibrillator. Modern technology! Surely nothing could go wrong.

To alleviate the tedium of having to take care of sick people, the staff has set up an under-the-table betting pool, centered around the patients and their particular maladies. A patient is picked out, seemingly at random, and bets are placed on the aspects of their condition, particulars of the treatment and the length of time it takes for their condition to change. This is all monitored surreptitiously via the HAL-esque computer system that is so advanced it can control what is seen on the video monitors that are connected to numerous cameras around the hospital.

A young female patient named Lylah Crane (Teri Austin), who is allowed to wear her own lingerie in her hospital bed for some reason, becomes the subject of a wager. The bets are placed and suddenly the computer administers a massive dose of an anticoagulant drug that causes extreme hemorrhaging, drenching the hospital bed in blood. The blame is quickly placed on Dr. Frank Holt (Joe Spano), a new transfer with a checkered past who has his own special brand of self-medication as prescribed by Dr. Smirnoff. When he is dragged out of bed with a hooker (Lynda Mason Green ) by the hospital, he angrily jumps in his AMC Gremlin, drives through his neighbor's trashcans while slugging down a bottle of hooch. If you have ever been in a hospital, this might be the scariest scene in the film. I say "might" because the film actually does have some genuinely horrifying moments and and even a few sucker-punches along the way.

After another patient dies on Holt's watch and his ex-wife, who is also the resident computer expert (Diane Venora), chews him a new asshole before having sex with him, he decides to pour all of his vodka in the sink and put on his gumshoe pants to find out what is going on. In spite of his being the laughing stock among the hospital staff, suddenly things start getting covered up and anyone who knows anything meets with a brutal fate. There's a lot more to it, but I don't want to throw out too much, because the movie is well worth the time and effort to track down and watch.

The U.S. video art, followed by alternate international art.

Interestingly, this Canadian thriller takes a pretty grim view of humanity and a downright misanthropic one when it comes to medical professionals. Every character in the film has some serious issues, particularly when it comes to relating to other human beings, alive or dead. The most likable person in the film is the pathologist (Ellen Barkin) who attempts to get a date with a new male nurse by brusquely demanding to know how long he's been at the hospital and why he hasn't called her yet. For some reason that doesn't work. It's a shame that screenwriter Neal Bell, who I believe to be a writer for the stage, only made this single feature film in his career. There are a few moments of levity that are pretty funny, but they are also a grim statement about casual attitude of hospital workers. One is when a prominent surgeon (Tom Harvey) has his expensive dinner with a bubble-headed blonde interrupted by the hospital, he angrily tells them that he's sick and can't make it in and cheerfully resumes his dish of escargot. In addition there are some interesting moments of even darker humor, such as a throw-away bit where a family is presenting a birthday cake, while singing, to a clearly comatose individual in a cylindrical Stryker bed frame.

TV director Sheldon Larry (who ironically went on to direct episodes of "Doogie Howser M.D." in 1989) has his camera prowl around the hospital, utilizing effective camera set-ups in a way that belies his small screen training. He also does an admirable job keeping the film feeling somewhat realistic, in spite of the same technophobic trappings as similar, more absurd fare, such as the infamous Dick Randall production THE URGE TO KILL (1989). I hate to say that the camerawork evokes Hitchcock (referenced by the first victim's name, you'll notice), but it does feel inspired by his style almost Richard Franklin-esque. In addition the eerie music and unusual sound-work feel like something from a gothic horror film. If you sit back and think about it, the plot is ridiculously far fetched, but taken for what it is, it manages to be a surprisingly solid thriller.

It's no secret that horror films and thrillers rely on the audience empathizing with someone who is in a vulnerable situation and presumably helpless. Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960) was probably the first , but undoubtedly the most important film to bluntly state that concept by having a woman (always perceived as more defenseless, even in today's liberated cinema) attacked while naked in the shower. The shower is a (usually) private place in which the most dangerous object to be found is a bar of soap. Hey, don't go there, I'm talking about a personal shower, not a prison one.

Showers may be a vulnerable place to get stuck when there is a homicidal maniac on the loose, but for my money it's a hospital. In a hospital you are in bad shape to begin with or you wouldn't be there in the first place. Add to that the fact that you are wearing a flimsy robe, no shoes, you have an IV in your arm (or worse, your hand) and you are pretty much reliant on the kindness of others. The idea of having to try to defend yourself from someone actually out to get you too is a pretty solid premise for a horror thriller. Plus, you can really never go wrong with the classic Luddite theme of technophobia. TERMINAL CHOICE is a movie that delivers a surprisingly gripping thriller, with interesting, deeply flawed characters and a little bit of enjoyable hokum, and is in desperate need of a special edition blu-ray release.