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!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Strano Italia: HOTEL INFERNO (2013)

Experimental films by their very nature are exercises in ideas with little benefit of cashflow. Studio films are made by people who have a lot of cashflow, but very little in the way of original ideas. Art is inspired by art, but sometimes in the modern film industry the term "inspired" is used very loosely.

Necrostorm is a small digital movie production unit, based in Italy, who has made a small following based on their experimental movies over the past five years. Headed up by Giulio De Santi, their first outing was the mindblowingly insane horror/gore/surreal epic ADAM CHAPLIN (2010). CHAPLIN was made by Giulio's brother Emanuele De Santi, and when I say "made" I mean, directed, produced, written, starred, and pretty much everything else. This production brilliantly fused practical and CGI effects in a way that not only made sense logically, but looked incredible on the screen. Made for clearly very little money, it was the next stage in evolution of the shot-on-video horror movies that started back in the early '80s and evolved into back-yard shot-on-video gore flicks such as the infamous German VIOLENT SHIT (1987) series from Andreas Schnaas. While Schnass has struggled for the past 20 years to figure out how to keep up with the times, the De Santi brothers have picked up the ball and taken it places that would make Schnaas weep with envy.

While Necrostorm's second outing TAETER CITY (2012) found Emanuele De Santi absent, it firmly cemented the company's focus of pushing new ground in the near-dead SOV splatter video arena. Following TAETER CITY, is HOTEL INFERNO. This also lacks Emanuele's involvement and like TAETER CITY, it suffers from it, but it still sets precedence.

Shot entirely from a first person perspective, the movie is a video game hommage about a contract killer, Frank Zimosa (Rayner Bourton)  who is hired by an unseen (but frequently heard) client to go to a lavish resort hotel and kill a man and a woman who are accused of being notorious serial killers. The client is offering a ridiculous sum of money for this assignment, but has some stipulations that Zimosa must follow. The first is that he must wear a pair of computer glasses (clearly inspired by the disastrous Google Glass) that will not only give him HUD information but also will allow the client to record all of his movements and provide proof of the second stipulation. The second catch is that Zimosa must use only the weapons provided in his hotel room to carry out his contract.

Once arriving at the hotel Zimosa discovers that the weapons are what appear to be an ancient stone mallet and a knife and he is instructed to use them to smash open their heads and gut them, removing the contents of each. Zimosa thinks this a bit odd, but hey he's being paid a mess of money, so why not a messy kill? Zimosa quickly smashes the woman's head open and discovers that in addition to all of the blood and brains is a green liquid. He starts to freak out and runs into the bathroom to discover the male target alive in a bathtub of blood and quickly decomposing. When Zimosa starts screaming questions, the man gives him rambling barely coherent answers saying that they are just like him and he doesn't know what is going on. At this point Zimosa says "fuck you" to his client (this will happen quite a bit over the course of the movie) and tries to escape the hotel. Naturally his prolonged attempt to escape (the bulk of the movie) is hampered by the fact that the hotel is loaded with his client's strangely degenerating minions.

HOTEL INFERNO is very much a mixed bag. The use of the first person gimmick is not only original, but at times extremely effective. You could compare it to a "found footage" type of film but with the found footage movies, you know that everyone in the footage met their ultimate end, thus effectively killing any suspense. Will they live? Well, no. We already know that. Here it is much easier to suspend disbelief and a few sequences in the beginning of the movie are down-right sphincter-clenching. Also there are a few moments of inspired genius where Zimosa must improvise to overcome an attacker. The best bit comes when he rips the wires out of a light fixture, tapes the loose ends to a pair of pliers and jams them in the head of his attacker causing half of his face to literally explode off of his skull. It's a shame that there aren't more moments like that because it is one of the many bits that make the movie fun.

There is also a story that slowly unfolds which is pretty great, but unfortunately De Santi chooses to do the final exposition in two scenes in which the audience is expected to watch a guy light a bunch of candles while the plot is explained by the disembodied voice of the client. It almost feels like he couldn't figure out how to explain it during the action and just settled for two big lumps of non-action in the final act when the insanity level should be at its peak. Oddly, some of the effects seem rushed and not up to the usual reasonably high standard that has been set by previous outings. One scene in particular has Zimosa taking a chainsaw away from a subterranean gangbanger and sawing his face off. Here De Santi uses simple CG to erase the chainsaw blade, add blood and then quickly cut away. Normally we would expect De Santi to show off his mad digital skills by combining footage of the actor and a prosthetic head being sawn in half and then use CG to blend the two together to make a virtually seamless effect. Matter of fact, there are many parts of the movie that feel a little rushed, which is odd since Necrostorm is their own distributor, so they certainly don't have any deadlines to meet.

Of course this is what makes it an experimental film. Or more accurately the new film HARDCORE (2015) really defines HOTEL INFERNO as an experimental film as it is a blatant rip-off, taking the entire concept and throwing a bunch of money at it, in addition to lifting from films such as ROBOCOP (1987) and possibly even CRANK (2006). While HARDCORE (or at least its trailer) is being triumphed as the first of its kind, it's not and if for no other reason, this makes HOTEL INFERNO something of a milestone in experimental film-making and should be lauded for that.

Following Necrostorm's newly released splatter-crime epic INFIDUS (2015), Giulio De Santi has started production on a sequel titled HOTEL INFERNO: CATHEDRAL OF PAIN. Like TAETER CITY, HOTEL INFERNO has plenty of good ideas that get somewhat lost in the chaos, and it should be really interesting to see if De Santi can take those good ideas and refine them into a superior sequel.


After some discussion, Will did a little research and found that HARDCORE director Ilya Naishuller's video for Biting Elbow's song Bad Motherfucker actually preceded the release of HOTEL INFERNO. Bad Motherfucker was released in January of 2013 while HOTEL INFERNO was released in December of 2013. This raises the question of whether Giulio De Santi may have borrowed the first person gimmick from Naishuller, but the fact remains that HOTEL is the first feature to use it. Also, there are a few moments in HOTEL that appear to have directly influenced HARDCORE, at least judging by the trailer. We may never know whether two people had the same idea at the same time, it has happened before, but regardless HOTEL wins the "first FPS movie" badge and De Santi again has raised the bar for back-yard Euro-splatter.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Deadly Farce: TERROR SQUAD (1988)

International terrorism with a conservative dash of middle East flavor was a popular subject for action movies throughout the '80s, but none really approached the subject matter with the gravitas it deserved until Joe Zito's INVASION U.S.A. (1985). In the same year, the harrowing plight of the school detention hall was essayed in THE BREAKFAST CLUB (1985). Due to the weighty issues that these two films discussed, they became very successful and success breeds only one thing.

Peter Maris, writer-director of the infamous thriller DELIRIUM (1979) clearly walked away from 1985 thinking that INVASION U.S.A. and THE BREAKFAST CLUB were the greatest movies ever, but how to capitalize on that? Taking advantage of Indiana's generous tax credits, Maris decided to do a mashup long before that sort of thing was co-opted by hipsters.

A group of obnoxious and diverse teens are assigned detention after school along with their hopelessly frustrated and ineffectual teacher Mr. Nero (Budge Threlkeld). While trying to secretly watch female aerobics on his handheld TV, nerdy Norman (Dennis Moynahan) gets his broadcast interrupted by a news report that terrorists have taken Indiana's nuclear power plant. I'm not sure why this is such a big deal as the plant was never finished and officially mothballed in 1984, but whatever, there are terrorists are attacking it!

In addition to Norman, his classmates include a jock, a preppie girl, a punk girl and Johnny (Bill Calvert) a leather-jacketed guitar player who has jam sessions with the old black janitor Gus (Baggie Hardiman). In spite of showing electric guitars (that aren't plugged in), their jams sound like a Casiotone keyboard on guitar synth mode. After presumably fleeing from howling dogs, Johnny tells Gus "you were heaven out there." I'm not sure what that means, but I do know that it's kind of creepy.

You'd think that the Libian terrorists would sneak in under the cover of darkness, plant a few bombs and bail, but our rag-tag group of homegrown militants will have none of that. Instead they simply use a rocket launcher to clear the heavily guarded gate, and in broad day-light, send one schmuck in a van to drive a bomb into the reactor building. They even get into an argument about who gets to go in. I guess after sitting around in a cave with a bunch of hairy, sweaty men, that old saw about the seventy-two virgins starts to sound totally plausible. For some reason they are surprised when their plan is an epic failure, as the van is shot to pieces and blown up before getting to the employee parking lot.

The surviving terrorists realize that they might be meeting their seven virgins faster than they had planned, high tail it out in their suped-up getaway car... a, uhh. '78 Ford LTD. Who funded this attack? Their grandmothers? With the cops in hot pursuit, they race to downtown Kokomo to spread terror by firing automatic weapons and LAW rockets at anything that moves. Including, horror of horrors, the local bastion of capitalist pigdogs, the local comicbook shop. Meanwhile Chief Rawlings (Chuck Connors) is forced to set aside a burger, much to his chagrin, in order to chase the terrorists.

This allows for what is essentially a 30 minute car-chase that boasts some great stunt work (including a car flying out of the top-floor window of a factory) and even a helicopter with men shooting M16s at the perps. That must have been one hell of a tax incentive! In addition to shooting and blowing up most of downtown Kokomo, the heartless terrorists run down an old man with a cane and a bag of groceries while crossing the street. While he lies bleeding in the street, Chief Rawlings whips around the corner, running over the old man while only registering slight annoyance. At least he can handle the pressures of the job.

The two surviving terrorists stumble across Hoosier High and somehow manage to find the only classroom that is occupied. Yep, our ham-filled Breakfast Club are now hostages to Yassir (Kavi Raz) and Gamal (veteran writer-producer Joseph Nasser who played yet another terrorist in 1987s WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE). Fortunately for the terrorists, Chief Rawlings is on the scene with Deputy Brown (Ken Foree). When the SWAT commander asks Rawlings what the situation is with the men in the building, Chief Rawlings casually replies "ran over some old man down there". Err, actually chief that is the one thing they didn't do. The SWAT commander insists that the best plan of action is to send in his men, but Rawlings holds him back because he isn't even sure if the terrorists are in the school! "We need to find out what we're dealing with first". Good thing you dragged the entire Indiana police force out to a location where you aren't even sure anyone, terrorist or otherwise, is located.

Of course with Rawlings on the job that can mean only one thing. The kids are going to have to take the situation into their own hands.

Fresno resident Peter Maris is not keen on the details, for instance the cops in pursuit are completely stymied by a truck that has spilled hay bales on the side of the road. Obviously the truck was supposed to be in the middle of the road, but you'd have to reset and shoot the sequence again to get it right and apparently the tax incentive is good, but it's not quite that good. Also, it doesn't take much perception to notice that in the big school bus stunt sequence at the end, the rear-engined long bus suddenly turns into a front-engined short bus! On the other hand, Maris puts his sweat equity into plenty of great action sequences. I'd love to see the budget that he had to set aside just for gasoline explosions.

I can't seem to find any information on the screenwriter,Chuck Rose, but his script is based on a story ("let's rip off INVASION USA and THE BREAKFAST CLUB!") by comic book and genre movie writer Mark Verheiden. The whole thing is absolutely ridiculous, but in the best possible way. When we are introduced to Cheif Rawlings, he is having a burger delivered to his car. When the fast food employee says "thank you" he cheerfully replies "you're welcome!" It is completely unclear why Rawlings is portrayed as a complete idiot, but perhaps the intent was to make him a Midwest yokel. If that is the case, Chuck Connors (in his usual Brooklyn-logo attire referencing his days as a Brooklyn Dodgers first baseman) is completely the wrong casting choice, but from an entertainment standpoint, he is the perfect casting choice. Another Chuck involved in the film is Chuck Cirino who provides another excellent score that raises the film well above its station. I just hope Cirino was not the man responsible for the "guitar" sounds in the beginning of the film.

While this certainly won't get top marks from a site like Rotten Tomatoes, I'm amazed that this doesn't have more of a cult following. Sure, it's no SAMURAI COP (1989), but it beats the hell out of the pre-fab "cult" direct-to-video fodder that is all too common these days.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Newsploitation: AMERICAN NINJA (1985) turns 30!

August 1985 was one hell of a month for movie fans. Released in those 31 days thirty years ago were tons of titles still fondly remembered today including FRIGHT NIGHT, WEIRD SCIENCE, PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, REAL GENIUS, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE YEAR OF THE DRAGON, and TEEN WOLF. Naturally the boys at Cannon had to squeeze something in there and they offered up another film in their “ninja” sub-genre. What is surprising about this film is that despite featuring no big actors it still managed to be a modest box office hit for the company. Not only that, but it gave the company two new stars.

The first mention of this continuation of the NINJA series came at the American Film Market in 1984 when Golan and Globus promised a NINJA IV alongside other sequels PREPPIES II and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE II. NINJA 3: THE DOMINATION (1983) had come out the previous September and done only so-so, but the GoGo Boys were determined to keep wringing the last drop out of that shinobi shozoku. A few months later at Cannes, the company debuted the AMERICAN NINJA title. A this point it was a wildly different film. Director Sam Firstenberg was back, but the lead was Cannon’s Golden Bearded Boy, Chuck Norris. The tagline promised “Assassination! Random Murder! Terrorism! Only One Power Can Stop It…” and the screenplay was credited to James Silke. Come the October MIFED film convention and the film had changed significantly again - the script was now written by Norris and James Bruner and Joseph Zito was credited as director. Given those particulars, it is easy to see this Norris project morphed from AMERICAN NINJA to INVASION U.S.A., his 1985 vehicle.

Never ones to let a good title escape them, Cannon regrouped in the new year and announced in January 1985 that AMERICAN NINJA was scheduled to come out in September 1985. Firstenberg was back on the project and a script was now attributed to Paul De Mielche and the story was credited to Gideon Amir and Avi Kleinberger. At the 1985 AFM the producers announced that filming would take place in the Philippines beginning in April 1985. The two-page ad offered a traditional ninja leaping through the air with the tagline: “He was trained in Japan to kill a thousand ways. Now he’s home and will face his deadliest challenge.” By the time of the Cannes festival the following May, Cannon had found their American Ninja and - as part of their “The Year of Cannon” ad campaign - announced the new star, Michael Dudikoff, in a gorgeous color poster of what would become the iconic AMERICAN NINJA pic of Dudikoff bringing down his sword on a ninja.

The California-born Dudikoff had been acting since the late ‘70s in smaller roles and he had just started to breakout to bigger roles, such as being one of Tom Hanks’ buddies in BACHELOR PARTY (1984) and the co-lead in Cannon’s wild Albert Pyun post-apocalyptic-comedy-action-musical RADIOACTIVE DREAMS (1985). According to the recent Cannon documentary ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, Dudikoff was selected by Menahem Golan due to his slight resemblance to James Dean. It was a true star-making turn for the young actor and one that firmly established him in Cannon’s ranks. Rewatching the film recently, you can really tell that the thirty-year-old Dudikoff gave his all for the role, as he is doing tons of leaping, diving and fighting.

Also launched as an action star in this film was the fantastic Steve James. Like his co-star, James had been around in film since the late ‘70s, perhaps best known for his role as Robert Ginty’s pal in THE EXTERMINATOR (1980). By far the biggest revelation on my recent revisit is just how much damn charisma James has. It leaps off the screen in his role as Armstrong’s nemesis-turned-ally Curtis Jackson. His natural presence is also the perfect balance to the quiet cool Firstenberg has Dudikoff going for. The duo has a great onscreen rapport, so it is no surprise they did a trio of films together. Also notable is the presence of Tadashi Yamashita. NINJA series staple Sho Kosugi’s contract with Cannon had ended and he went on to do his own thing so the co-star of THE OCTAGON (1980) was brought in to play the “Black Star Ninja.”

Cannon ended up getting AMERICAN NINJA into theaters just a few days earlier than their September 1985 release date (imagine the insanity of shooting a film in April and having it in theaters just a few months later). The film debuted nationwide on August 30, 1985 and was the highest grossing new release that weekend with a haul of $3,234,837 for a fourth place finish. It is worth noting that Cannon only got this into 672 theaters, the lowest theater count in the top five (for reference, the no. 1 and 2 films, BACK TO THE FUTURE and TEEN WOLF, had over 1,500 and 1,400 screens, respectively; damn, Michael J. Fox was kicking ass at the box office). AMERICAN NINJA ended its haul with $10,499,694, which was more than NINJA 3 had made the previous year. The series proved popular enough on home video and cable that four sequels were produced over the next six years.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Gweilo Dojo: FURIOUS (1984)

It seems every other genre flick nowadays wants to be a prefab cult classic. But 99.9% of the time the folks aiming for cult status by making an intentionally bad movie miss the mark. In most cases, cult film status is like fine wine and has to ferment over time. Seeing as how it has been thirty plus years since FURIOUS came out, I think it is safe to anoint this one with cult movie status label. Not only that, but I will declare that FURIOUS is the weirdest martial arts film I’ve ever seen. If you know the genre well enough, you know that is a bold statement.

The film opens with some spectacular (for the low budget) aerial shots of a young Asian woman being chased up a mountain by a trio of goons dressed like extras from JEREMIAH JOHNSON (1972). She has a magical tusk that is leading her to some treasure but before she can get to it she is killed and the tusk stolen. Meanwhile, her brother Simon (Simon Rhee) is totally depressed in his little hut as he lights candles next to a photograph of her. A photograph? This isn’t a period piece? Nope, just an early indicator the filmmakers are working on a different level. Simon lives in a village apparently populated only by little kids (“My dream!” says Jared from Subway) and they want want him out of his funk. To do this they invite him out to beat a punching bag and he pounds the hell out of it until it falls off the chain. This depresses Simon even more. By the way, all of these events have unfolded without a single piece of dialogue.

Mongo like tusk:

Anyway, Simon gets a knock at his door and it is one of the mountain goons, who hands him a card written in Chinese. Hell if the audience knows what it says. It leads Simon to a high tech building to meet his mentor, Master Chan (Phillip Rhee). We finally get the first, word of dialogue over 12 minutes in when Chan watches some fighters and says, “Alright.” Turns out Chan knows how to avenge the death of Simon’s sister. It involves a symbol on a series of medallions. Immediately upon leaving the building, Simon meets three old trustworthy friends. I say they are trustworthy because they are white and one dude recognizes the symbol from a local Chinese restaurant. They go there, but the location is closed. However, a group of delivery men carrying chickens show up and a brawl ensues. Only Simon makes it out alive and he heads into the woods to fight the mountain goon.

Okay, so far, so standard for a kung fu movie. Well, hold onto your hats because now it is about to get weird. Simon returns to the restaurant, which is open this time. It is your typical Chinese restaurant in that there is a topless guy vigorously showcasing his weapons skills in the main dining room for two old ladies eating drum sticks. Also, there is a guy in a mask performing magic tricks for a young kid. Simon is brought a big dish and under the lid are the severed heads of two of his friends. But then they zap into roasted chickens. This means war! Simon goes nuts and a full on brawl erupts with Simon throwing bowls of rice at people. Master Chan shows up to help him and they kick ass. It is at this point that I begin to perk up (and wonder if someone slipped something in my drink). After such a taxing battle, Simon and Chan walk on the beach and Chan tells Simon to go home. He doesn’t just tell him, he repeats it over and over, like Simon is a dog or something. “Go home...go home...go home...GO HOME!”

Gives new meaning to the term head cheese:

Simon decides now is the best time to meditate and he goes to a random Buddha statue by a stream in the woods. The thing starts talking to him (!) and offers such advice as “beware of Chan...Chan is eeeeeeevil” and “traveling in the spiritual void can be dangerous.” Honestly, who doesn’t remember having that talk with their parents about the dangers of the spiritual void? So Simon sneaks back to Chan’s headquarters to snoop around. Before he sneaks past the two Devo-looking guards, he sees guys walk out one-by-one carrying a single chicken under their arms. Inside he spies Chan talking to his right-hand man about how Simon is a threat. Oh, he also sees him zap underperforming underlings into chickens. What!? Simon gets spotted and an army of Chan’s men (including a new wave band that is randomly practicing) chase him into - where else? - the woods for a big fight on a wooden bridge. Simon prevails and figures the best way to stop Chan is to recruit all of the young kids from his village. Yes, the man’s first and only plan is to endanger the lives of a dozen children. I like the way you think, Simon. Once back inside, Simon takes on the right-hand man, who shoots fireballs that turn into chickens (!!!) at Simon. Then his nemesis suddenly turns into...wait for it...a pig. WHAT!? Simon kicks the pig in the face and the little ham spills his guts about Chan’s evil plan (done by it appears smearing peanut butter in the pig’s mouth to make it look like he is talking). Simon comforts the dying pig and then confronts Master Chan. It seems Chan’s plan was to have Simon “consecrate each medallion with the aura of death” so he could go to the forbidden Mongolian caves and release the key to the universe. Blah, blah, blah, like everyone hasn’t done that. The two men then fly (!!!?) to the mountain and battle it out.

"Hmmm, I think these directors might be crazy."

FURIOUS came from the (shared?) brain of filmmakers Tim Everitt and Tom Sartori. It was the first writing and directing effort for both men (they are co-credited in each role) and you have to admire the just plain crazy attitude they have. It is never apparent if this is supposed to be serious or an inside joke and when your film has people turning into pigs and chickens, that is quite a master feat. I mean, at one point a brawl breaks out outside of a restaurant and a chef runs out to join in. But not just any chef, but one sporting a foot high chef’s hat. They also have created almost a dream-like world that exists between ancient and modern times. Perhaps they just said screw it and didn’t want to keep it a period piece halfway through, but I can appreciate the randomness. The film was also the first starring roles for the Simon and Phillip Rhee. The Korean-American brothers had studied martial arts since they were kids, with both becoming black belts in Tae Kwon Do and Hap Ki Do. Both men had been background players in the “A Fistful of Yen” segment in KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE (1977) and they would go on to co-star/co-create the BEST OF THE BEST series. In between they did this gem. Older brother Simon also did the fight choreography on FURIOUS and he does a rheemarkable job (all complaints about that line should be sent to Tom). I’m not being facetious here - there are some decent fights in this (especially the end showdown with the brothers). It is kind of cool to see their cinematic progression. As it stands, FURIOUS is one of the strangest films I’ve seen all year and that is recommendation enough.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Two-Fisted TV: NIGHTMAN (1997)

Such is the power of Glenn A. Larson, TV producer extraordinaire, who returned from defeat after CHAMELEONS (1989) flopped, with this syndicated, loose adaptation of the Malibu Comics' "The Night Man". Malibu was a small outfit out of Calabasas, California who attempted to create their own little universe of superheroes, including "Men in Black" and "The Night Man," which performed well enough to be picked up by Marvel until it went out of business in '97.  Stan Lee and company liked The Night Man and his stable of strange super-villains so much that they even crossed him over into Marvel's universes, where he was frequently at odds with The X-Men.

"The Night Man" was created and written by Steve Englehart (of "Doctor Strange" fame) and featured a hero who was... wait for it... a jazz saxophonist in San Francisco! Yeah, take that Daredevil, with your cushy job as a mere lawyer in Hell's Kitchen! Our hero, Johnny Domino, was on a cable-car that was hit by a lightning bolt, that turned out to be a moon-ray with some other folks, all of whom develop super powers. These survivors were called "Ultras" (leading to Malibu's "Ultraverse") and while other folks got all mutated, The Night Man's only power was his ability to hear the thoughts of evil doers. He used his martial arts skills, fashioned his own high-tech costume and fought off werewolves, serial killers and a guy held together with metal braces. He also runs a pirate radio station in which he would broadcast his night's work to the city. Got all that? Good, now forget it.

Larson, must have figured that the moderately successful Englehart character was a great vehicle for his own ideas, many of which he carried over from CHAMELEONS. In the two-part NIGHT MAN pilot we meet a '97 Plymouth Prowler driving sax-blower Johnny Domino (Matt McColm) who is invited to play for a VIP tour of SF on a cable car. This attempt at San Francisco-ism is ruined by the fact that it was shot in British Columbia and San Diego, and features a cable car that looks nothing like the iconic cable cars of SF - not even one of the faux cable car tour buses! But I digress. After the cable car is struck by lightning, and Domino can suddenly see visions of evil (instead of hearing evil thoughts as in the comic). His first vision is that a bomb has been placed on the "cable" car in an attempt to kill the Secretary of Defense (James Karen). Domino grabs the bomb and flings it out of the alleged cable car into an old Victorian causing it to explode in a massive CG fireball. Lauded as a hero for saving the Secretary's life, no mention is made of the destruction of a landmark building or whether anyone was home at the time.

Fortunately for Johnny, while he is recovering in the hospital, his doctor calls for a leading psychic researcher (Patrick MacNee) to come in and give Domino some grandfatherly words of encouragement.

As it turns out Mr. Secretary is in SF to try to plug up a leak in which some rogue government agents have stolen some super top-secret military prototypes and are attempting to have a super-secret evil duo sell them to the highest bidder. Interestingly all of the anti-American world powers are represented here, but the Chinese get to do most of the egregious mustache twirling. I seriously doubt that would fly today what with China being our number one foreign sales market for entertainment products. Chinese ambassador, Mr. Chang (Ric Young), is so evil that he not only attempts to kill the other bidders, but decides that the best way to deal with Johnny Domino is to plant a robotic tarantula in his apartment! Double tap to the back of the head? That is so Italian.

After saving Mr. Secretary, Domino becomes a target for the evil doers and hooks up with one of the good government agents (Derwin Jordan) who is trying to recover the hardware. That's got to be embarrassing when after all of your intensive para-military training, you need a San Francisco saxophonist to bail your ass out. In case you haven't guessed, the hardware is a super-soldier suit. Rigged up with a nightvision lens that also functions as a laser-beam, the set also includes a jet-pack belt, a hologram projector, a bulletproof suit, and a cape that makes the wearer invisible (Larson finally gets to use that concept in a successful series), the set is completed with a neutron rifle that will vaporize people leaving only a pile of clothes behind. Naturally only the look of the outfit and the nightvision are the only things that were actually part of the comic, but hey, it's a TV show and viewers want, nay, demand lasers! Of course the bad government agents are still going to bring them all down, even if they have to appropriate a gunship to intimidate them on the highway!

Speaking of things that aren't part of the comic. Veteran actor Earl Holliman plays Domino's father Frank Dominus, an ex-detective who was run off the force due to underhanded politics, which is quite the spin on "The Night Man" comic, in which Johnny's father Frank Dominguez, is a security guard at the ruins of the old San Francisco Playland amusement park (which, in reality, was torn down by a property developer in 1972). This gives Larson a team of characters with which to solve various capers. A young, blonde lead, a black techie, and an old flatfoot. Oh and our government techie hooks up with a radio station DJ who rigs her set up for Night Man's illegal radio reports.

While Matt McColm isn't much of a dynamic personality and the CG effects are occasionally painful, the series is pretty entertaining. It certainly doesn't feel like something made in '97 (references to the Millenium not withstanding), and could have easily been right at home on a network in '87. It was successful enough to last for two seasons and sported guest stars such as Patrick Macnee, Simon MacCorkindale, David Hasselhoff, Bif Naked, Taylor Dayne, Little Richard, and err, Donald Trump (as himself, of course).

Larson must have been satisfied that his invisible cape gimmick finally got put to good use, as he hasn't dabbled in the superhero genre since. That said, a reboot of MANIMAL is alleged to be in the works along with several other of Larson's projects, including the iconic MAGNUM PI. The less said about that, the better.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Cops and Rasslers: TAG TEAM (1991)

Being a (former) wrestling fan sucks. It seems like every other month you will hear about someone dying too young or a legend dying too soon. We got hit with this in the worst way in June and July as the squared circle bid farewell to Dusty Rhodes and Roddy Piper, respectively. I first got into wrestling in the summer of 1985. Seeing as we had just moved to the Mid-Atlantic area, it was only natural that I gravitate toward the N.W.A. (National Wrestling Alliance), the North Carolina-based promotion run by Jim Crockett.  While a big N.W.A. fan, my favorite wrestler was still Hulk Hogan so I watched WWF programming when I had the chance (we didn't have cable). And if there was any one fighter who could get under my skin, it was Piper. My blood used to boil when Piper would mock or attack someone on his Piper's Pit segment. Remember, this is when I still thought wrestling was real and the fact that Piper could tear my 10-year-old soul into pieces just with his words was a testament to how great an actor he really was. I lost the wrestling bug when we moved back overseas in 1987, but re-caught it in 1998. By then N.W.A. had become W.C.W. under Ted Turner and I still had a loyalty to this brand. I don't know, maybe because they had actual wrestling versus Vince McMahon's ego show. Anyway, one face I was happy to see back in the ring was Piper's.

It is a generally supported truth that athletes make terrible actors. Seriously, watch 10 out of 10 performances by sports folks and 9.5 of them will be terrible (the .5 awarded solely because Brian Bosworth was in STONE COLD [1991]). The major exception was pro-wrestlers. Maybe because their sport required so much acting and interaction with fans that the transition was smoother. Now don't get me wrong, there are still some horrible pro-wrestling actors (Triple H, for example) but, hell, The Rock is one of the biggest box office draws for a reason (even if I don't like that reason). Now we won't be seeing a wrestler win an Academy Award any time soon, but I'd wager the terror that Abdullah the Butcher (see pic above) struck in me when I was a kid was ten times better than anything Anthony Hopkins did in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991).

Anyway, the point is a lot of wrestlers made the great transition to acting and did well. Two who saw success at the same time in the '80s were Piper and Jesse "The Body" Ventura. With both charismatic guys working in this new field, you knew it was only a matter of time before Hollywood threw them together. That happened in the early '90s with the TV pilot TAG TEAM (1991). Wrestling was going through a bit of a cool down phase at this time, but you can almost see some TV exec patting himself on the back as he exclaims, "Wrestling is popular, cop shows are popular. Why not make a cop show with wrestlers?" The ensuing project was independently produced, with co-production duties coming via Touchstone (yes, Disney) Television.

The story focuses on tag team partners Billy "The Body" Youngblood (Ventura) and "Tricky" Rick McDonald, who are introduced preparing for the biggest fight of their careers and they feel like they can beat the Samurai Brothers (played by the WWF tag team The Orient Express). Yes, the show was going with the idea that pro-wrestling matches were legit. Leona Lewis (Shannon Tweed, sporting one of the ugliest outfits I've ever seen), the wife of the boss man Marty, has other plans and tells the duo that if they win that under no uncertain terms they will be "barred for life." Threats ain't got nothing on pride and, after being beaten down via underhanded tactics, our duo rallies back and wins the match. (Side note: this footage was apparently shot at the Los Angeles Sports Arena on March 25, 1990.)  Now barred for life, Billy and Rick find themselves looking for jobs (oddly, they live together in a studio apartment decorated with pictures of themselves). After failing at piano movers and human attack dummies for a female defense group (!), they figure they've struck out and head to buy some groceries. And wouldn't you know it, the store is being held up by four robbers and our grapplers use their ring moves to stop them. When the cops arrive, one officer says these guys would make great cops and *ding* a light goes off. Now I'm not judging the intelligence of these characters, but apparently they didn't think very hard (just like the writers) when trying to come up with job ideas.

Before you can yell Steve Guttenberg, Billy and Rick are enrolled in the police academy in a special group singled out for going straight to undercover work. I'm not sure that is how the police system works, but it allows both men to retain their long hair. Chewing at their heels is Lt. Carol Steckler (Robin Curtis) and comedy relief rival Ray Tyler (Phill Lewis). Meanwhile, professional dog walker Rita Valentine (Jennifer Runyon) witnesses two corrupt detectives kill some narcs in an underground parking garage. She identifies the cops in a line up and is assigned around the clock police protection in the form of Hatch (Mike Genovese) and Harrigan (Raymond O'Connor). When Billy and Rick graduate, they find out that Steckler is now Captain Steckler and running the station they are assigned to. Again, I'm not sure that is how the police system works. Anyway, the first assignment of our two pro-wrestling heroes is to assist in the protection of Rita. This is bad news as the two corrupt cops have found her location and decided to off her before she can testify. Do you think these two rookies will save the day?

Originally scheduled for 13 episodes, TAG TEAM (written onscreen as TAGTEAM) might not be the most original idea, but it is a testament to the charisma of both Piper and Ventura. They have a great rapport with each other and both have their moments, both humorous and dramatic. Piper has always been an incredibly underrated actor and you just need to look at the scene where he is fretting about passing an upcoming police test to see how good he can be. The scenario is ripe for over-the-top histrionics and you could imagine how bad this would have been if someone like Hulk Hogan or Randy Savage ("You're under arrest...oh yeaaaaah!") were in either of the main roles. Both guys appear to be doing their own stunts and that is pretty impressive when you see them doing bumps on hard ground. The fight scenes incorporate their wrestling moves well (the supermarket showdown is a highlight), although it is a bit cheesy when emphasis is put on Piper "tagging in" in the final fight. Unfortunately this dynamic pairing was not to be. TAG TEAM got dumped with a one off showing in January 1991. To add insult to injury, it aired right around the time the Gulf War started so it got even less attention than normal. A shame as I totally would have watched the further adventures of Billy and Rick.