Monday, March 05, 2018

Game Of Death (1978)

GAME OF DEATH is exploitation at either its cheekiest or most tasteless. A personal project of Bruce Lee, GAME OF DEATH was left unfinished when director/writer/producer/star Lee died after making ENTER THE DRAGON. Out of either a tribute to the action footage Lee had already directed or a desperate effort to continue making money off the dead legend (take yer pick), Golden Harvest and ENTER THE DRAGON director Robert Clouse decided to fashion a new martial arts film around Lee’s fight scenes. Considering Clouse included news footage of Lee’s corpse inside his coffin in a scene of Lee’s character faking his death, it’s safe to believe respecting the icon’s dignity was not a top priority.

Actors Yuen Biao (WHEELS ON MEALS) and Kim Tai-jong (who played Lee’s ghost in NO RESPECT, NO SURRENDER) fake-Shemp Lee in the new footage shot by Clouse. Neither resembles Lee in the slightest, so Clouse films them from behind, in disguise, wearing sunglasses, or, in the film’s most ludicrous shot, in front of a mirror with a photo of Lee’s face taped to it!

Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who fights Lee in perhaps the most memorable scene, refused to participate in Clouse’s film, so even he — at 7 feet 2 inches tall — is unconvincingly doubled. So, yes, basically, GAME OF DEATH is a ridiculous mess — Clouse even recycles the Lee/Chuck Norris fight from WAY OF THE DRAGON — but not an unwatchable one.

Though only ten minutes or so of the 100-minute running time features the actual Bruce Lee (not including occasional cutaways taken from some other movie), they are a terrific ten minutes with Lee, clad in that iconic yellow track suit, choreographing exciting fight scenes with Abdul-Jabbar and Dan Inosanto (BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA). Bob Wall and Sammo Hung fight each other for no other reason than to eat running time. Objectively, GAME OF DEATH is terrible, but it’s also hilarious if you’re in that mood (and there is no shame in openly mocking a cash grab this cynical). The last half hour, beginning with the motorcycle chase in the warehouse, is fun.

A Bondian John Barry (THUNDERBALL) score and opening title sequence (with a gambling theme, even though no gambling is in the movie) give Clouse’s film some respectability. So does the name supporting cast, including a drunk Gig Young (THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY), who killed himself before this ever got into American theaters; stolid Hugh O’Brien (KILLER FORCE), who laughably kicks “Bruce”’s ass; Colleen Camp (APOCALYPSE NOW) in the girlfriend role; and Dean Jagger (VANISHING POINT) as the world’s most avuncular Mafia don.

Kill Or Be Killed

“The Greatest Hollywood Martial-Arts Movie Ever Made!” Actually a South African action picture lensed in South Africa in 1977, KILL OR BE KILLED was imported to America and given a successful ($30 million box office!) domestic release by Film Ventures International in 1980. By the end of that year, it was playing double bills with BREAKER! BREAKER!, Chuck Norris’ leading man debut.

Taking a cue from the Bond pictures and perhaps the men’s sweat magazines of the 1960s, KILL OR BE KILLED’s screenplay by C.F. Beyers-Boshoff involves Nazis, always an excellent screen antagonist. Karate master Steve Hunt (Ryan) is invited to participate in a martial arts tournament by a former Nazi general, Baron von Rudloff (Norman Coombes). The Baron’s opponent is a team led by wealthy Japanese benefactor Miyagi (Raymond Ho-Tong, the Asian Wally Cox), who defeated von Rudloff in a similar tournament forty years earlier, which led to the Nazi being humilated, stripped of his ran, and exiled.

Set mainly within von Rudloff’s desert compound (represented by an unconvincing miniature castle), the plot teams Hunt with cute karate colleague Olga (Charlotte Michelle, who has wonderful chemistry with Ryan), who becomes a convenient hostage when Hunt escapes from von Rudloff and is eventually coerced into throwing the championship match.

Though flagging in pace somewhat while von Rudloff’s midget sidekick Chico (Daniel DuPlessis) travels the world seeking fighters in various “humorous” asides, KILL OR BE KILLED is the real thing if you’re seeking authentic karate action. The actors are actual members of the Japan Karate Association (the South African branch), and the fight scenes were choreographed by well-known karate master Stan Schmidt. Instead of gymnastics and acrobatics, the fighting is mainly (except for Ryan’s signature back-flips) straight, no-frills karate, which may appeal to purists.

Rated PG with minimal sex and bloodshed, KILL OR BE KILLED was a breakthrough for South African star James Ryan, who reunited with director Ivan Hall for the slicker sequel KILL AND KILL AGAIN. Later Ryan action pictures include RAGE TO KILL and the notorious SPACE MUTINY, but none were better than the Hall films.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Kill And Kill Again

South African action star James Ryan returns in this humorous PG sequel to KILL OR BE KILLED as karate champion Steve Chase. Though the title has more kills than the film does, KILL AND KILL AGAIN is very well shot by returning director Ivan Hall and cinematographer Tai Krige, who spice up the action with inventive camera placements, unusual angles, and even a “bullet time” sequence decades before THE MATRIX.

In Sun City to compete in a martial arts tournament, Chase is recruited (for $5 million) by gorgeous blond Kandy Kane (Annaline Kriel) to rescue her father from the clutches of evil megalomaniac Marduk (Michael Mayer, stuck with one of cinema’s worst fake beards on his face), whose plan include extracting fuel from potatoes. Dr. Horatio Kane (John Ramsbottom), Kandy’s kidnapped father, has stumbled upon a mind-control drug, which Marduk uses to create an army of kung fu zombies ready to follow his commands in a bid to conquer the world.

Chase can’t tackle the kung fu zombies alone, so he contacts his buddies—former pro wrestler Gorilla (Ken Gampu), levitating Zen master Fly (Stan Schmidt), taciturn Gypsy Billy (Norman Robinson), and wacky Hotdog (Bill Flynn)—for help smashing Marduk’s stronghold. Cue a great assembling-the-squad sequence with Chase showing up just in time to see one of his buddies stumble into a skills-establishing kung fu fight.

Fast-moving chopsocky with a Bondian men’s adventure plot by John Crowther (THE EVIL THAT MEN DO) that doesn’t take itself seriously, KILL AND KILL AGAIN clearly inspired THE A-TEAM, right down to a huge black guy who hates flying and a wacky white dude who wears funny hats. Ryan, a handsome fellow who hates to button his shirt, is perfectly cast as a four-time world karate champion and leader of men, and it seems as though he and director Hall worked hard to make the fight scenes both exciting and realistic. Of course, Marduk delays killing Chase in order to describe his evil plan and show off his army of paunchy, balding kung fu warriors.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Hangman (2017)

One could have fun, I suppose, debating whether HANGMAN, RIGHTEOUS KILL, or 88 MINUTES is the worst serial killer movie of Al Pacino’s career. No question playing that game would be more fun than watching HANGMAN, which is an unbelievable police procedural about a serial killer who — but why not? — uses the game of Hangman (remember from grade school?) to leave clues to his murders.

Pacino, 76 years old at the time of production and an embarrassing mess with his ludicrous hair plugs and lazy Southern accent swiped from the worst works of Steven Seagal, is a retired police detective lured back into duty when homicide dick Karl Urban (McCoy in the STAR TREK movies) discovers their badge numbers left behind at the scene of a murder (the numbers could mean anything, but go along with it). Teamed with an unconvincing Brittany Snow (from the PITCH PERFECT series) as a Pulitzer Prize-nominated reporter (snicker), Pacino and Urban plod through the muddled plot as if they had never seen SE7EN.

They’re at the mercy of clumsy writing that not only makes them inept detectives (a suspect is able to attempt suicide because of their carelessness), they don’t even bother to solve the puzzle that the killer generously leaves behind. Half the time, Snow deciphers the clues and hands the solution to the professional detectives. At least the actors are brazen enough to telegraph their embarrassment. Pacino has one eye on his paycheck and the other on his AFI Life Achievement Award in fear someone will take it away.

If you don’t want to play the Pacino serial killer game, you can have some fun playing But How. But how did a train smash into a car without leaving any debris? But how did the killer summon a convenient truck to T-bone the cops pursuing him? But how did the cop, obsessed with finding his wife’s murderer, never notice the giant V carved into her chest? See? Fun!

Friday, February 23, 2018

Hero And The Terror

Chuck Norris attempted to stretch a bit in his seventh starring vehicle for Cannon, playing a sensitive Los Angeles cop who freaks out during his daughter’s birth and suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome following his capture of a hulking serial killer nicknamed The Terror.

Don’t worry, fans: he’s no wimp. Chuck still ignores his partner’s suggestion to call for backup and beats the heck out of drug pushers at the docks. It was an admirable decision for Norris to play someone more vulnerable, and he bounces cleanly off Brynn Thayer (MATLOCK) as his pregnant girlfriend in their dramatic and romantic scenes together. It ain’t Ibsen, but Norris doesn’t embarrass himself either.

In case you’re getting the impression this is Norris’ BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, rest assured he is playing a cop and he is chasing a killer. His Danny O’Brien earned the nickname “Hero” after capturing the enormous sociopath Simon Moon (SUPERMAN II villain Jack O’Halloran). Several years later, Moon escapes from the mental hospital where he was sentenced and continues his killing of women, stashing the corpses in the attic of the historic Wiltern Theater (a real place on Wilshire Boulevard).

The action and procedural scenes are routinely scripted by Michael Blodgett (star of BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS!), who helped adapt his 1982 novel to the big screen, and Dennis Shryack (THE CAR). Norris and the supporting cast give the screenplay their all, though once again the charismatic Steve James (AVENGING FORCE) has much too little to do. Directing is William Tannen (FLASHPOINT), who gives the material his best shot. Like Norris’ SILENT RAGE, HERO plays at times like a horror film with Tannen milking the suspense.

HERO suffers from a lackluster Terror—Moon is a zero as a character—and a familiar story, but is worth a look-see for its domestic scenes and action sequences. Ron O’Neal (SUPERFLY), Jeffrey Kramer (JAWS), Joe Guzaldo (CODE OF SILENCE), and Billy Drago (DELTA FORCE 2), interestingly cast against type as a shrink, build up the supporting cast. HERO was a major flop, finishing 12th behind rot like STEALING HOME and HOT TO TROT its opening weekend. Chuck made a couple more Cannon flicks, but he was already done as a box office draw.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Frankenstein Island

Names like Ed Wood, Larry Buchanan, and Al Adamson are often bandied about in discussions of awful filmmakers (and justifiably so), but Jerry Warren may have them all beat. The man behind THE INCREDIBLE PETRIFIED WORLD, MAN BEAST, and THE WILD WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN finally hung up his viewfinder after FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND. Though produced around 1980, FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND looks and feels like one of Warren’s junkheaps from the 1950s, except it’s in color (his only color feature, come to think of it).

It’s basically a remake of his TEENAGE ZOMBIES from 1959 with a premise stolen from Jules Verne’s THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. It stars the usual gang of idiots often cast in trash films of the era — Cameron Mitchell, John Carradine, Katherine Victor, Robert Clarke, Steve Brodie — but it’s odd to see perennial authority figure Andrew Duggan (IN LIKE FLINT) in what is probably the worst film of his career. At least he has the decency to look embarrassed. It says something about the other actors that they all may well have been in worse films than FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND.

Four hot-air balloonists (one looks like Peter Brady) crashland (off screen!) on a remote island populated with sexy Amazons in leopard-skin bikinis (no leopards are seen on the island). Whenever one of the men mentions his hometown or home state, he feel an intense pain in their left are. This is explained as sort of like telepathy. The doctor played by Clarke (HIDEOUS SUN DEMON) tells the kid not to use his arm for awhile, but try to keep it working.

The Amazons prepare a feast that looks suspiciously like sub sandwiches from Blimpie and do bong hits out of skulls (“There’s no question they’re into witchcraft,” says Clarke, who is watching a different movie). They are eventually revealed as descendants of space aliens, not that it makes any difference to the plot. Nothing that happens makes any difference.

Also on the island is Brodie (OUT OF THE PAST) as Jocko, a one-eyed pirate who laughs a lot (probably because Brodie is sloshed); Mitchell (BLOOD AND BLACK LACE) as Jayson, a crazed ship’s captain who babbles about Edgar Allan Poe (I suspect his performance is a lot of poor improvisation); Warren regular George Mitchell (HOUSE OF THE BLACK DEATH) as Dr. von Helsing, a sickly 200-year-old scientist performing immortality experiments; and Victor (THE WILD WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN) as a descendant of Dr. Frankenstein. Also roaming about: a race of mutant zombies wearing ladies’ sunglasses, stocking caps, and black turtlenecks. Of course, the Asian one knows kung fu.

Occasionally, Carradine as the ghost of Dr. Frankenstein is superimposed over the action to shout nonsense about “The Power! The Power!” The laboratory “set” is just furniture on a soundstage without flats. An ammo box painted pink is set dressing. When our heroes return to the island with the military (the uniforms are hilarious) after the lamest “action” finale you’ve ever seen (yes, the Frankenstein Monster shows up), there is, of course, no sign that anyone was ever there.

Utter dreck and Warren is solely to blame as the director, screenwriter, co-producer, editor, production designer, and music supervisor. One of the actors invested $90,000 in this film. No way he ever got it back.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Prime Target (1991)

David Heavener was not much a filmmaker, but he sure had a knack for assembling a cast. Despite a budget approximately equal to a truckful of Hostess Fruit Pies, Heavener stocked PRIME TARGET with a guest star from every Stephen J. Cannell show you ever saw.

In addition to starring in the picture and directing it (and composing and singing some dreadful songs), Heavener also served as PRIME TARGET’s producer and screenwriter, hence the name of his badass cop character being John Bloodstone! With a name like John Bloodstone, you aren’t going to grow up to be a gay waiter. Heavener’s John Bloodstone is — say it along with me — a lone wolf detective who lives like a slob, drinks a ton of beer, breaks all the rules, but gets results.

After rescuing a group of hostages by setting the bad guys in fire (!), John Bloodstone is chewed out for violating the killers’ civil rights and suspended (natch) by his jerk boss, police commissioner Garth (Andrew Robinson, DIRTY HARRY’s Scorpio), who literally waves The Book at him. With urging from FBI agent Harrington (Brady dad Robert Reed in his last movie), Garth immediately unsuspends John Bloodstone to give him a new assignment: transport mobster Marietta Copella (Tony Curtis!) to his court date.

Of course, some people don’t want Copella to get there, and you already know who they are. Cue a series of rote chases, fights, and shootouts in between MIDNIGHT RUN-style bickering between Heavener and Curtis (who is actually pretty good, running on pure charm).

Isaac Hayes (TRUCK TURNER) plays the police captain who says to Heavener, who is wearing a cowboy hat, a gun belt with a six-shooter, and a flamethrower (!), “I got the car you asked for. I don’t know what you have in mind, but I sure as hell hope it works.” Don Stroud (COOGAN’S BLUFF) cameos as a terrorist whom Heavener shoots off the roof of a shed. Jenilee Harrison from THREE’S COMPANY goes topless as John Bloodstone’s wet-blanket wife. Hilariously, executive producer Gerald Milton gives himself a Special Appearance credit for his inept line readings as a banker ready to take John Bloodstone’s heavily mortgaged house. Heavener somehow got PRIME TARGET a theatrical release, so bully for him.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

So Fine

Ryan O’Neal jumped directly from the New York City set of SO FINE to the Los Angeles set of PARTNERS, and rarely as any leading man been stuck in two comedies this offensively unfunny back to back. SO FINE earned its notoriety for its outlandish story gimmick, which is a new line of blue jeans with clear plastic butt cheeks, and the controversial one-sheet Warner Brothers devised. The talented Andrew Bergman, who wrote the brilliant THE IN-LAWS and collaborated with Mel Brooks and others on the BLAZING SADDLES screenplay, both penned and made his directing debut on SO FINE, which was a flop that didn’t stay long in theaters (O’Neal refused to plug it on THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON).

The great Jack Warden (THE VERDICT) is wasted as a garment manufacturer on hard times and deep in debt to hulking gangster Richard Kiel (Jaws in the 007 movies). To get back the $1.5 million Warden owes him, Kiel kidnaps Warden’s son, an English professor played by O’Neal (THE MAIN EVENT), and forces him to run his dad’s company. Why he believes a complete neophyte can run a dress company is never addressed.

After starting an affair with Kiel’s wife (FLASH GORDON’s Mariangela Melato), O’Neal stumbles upon the idea that becomes the fashion industry’s new sensation, the assless jeans. The climax, much too leisurely paced for a farce, takes place at a cheap college production of OTELLO, which makes no logical sense in the film’s context and plays like an idea Bergman stuffed in a drawer years earlier. O’Neal is strangely sidelined during it, while Warden plays hero and Melato and Kiel discuss their failing marriage.

Whatever satire was present in Bergman’s screenplay is lost in his plodding direction, which translates to crass and unfunny (can you believe Richard Kiel in blackface?). Though O’Neal demonstrated wonderful comic chops in PAPER MOON and especially WHAT’S UP, DOC? (he’s recycling his milquetoast WASP persona here), he is lost in SO FINE’s desperate attempt at farce. Melato comes across as grotesque, rather than sexy, and Kiel was cast for his size, not his comic timing.

An occasional moment of wit slips through (“Moorish?”), such as the gloriously tacky So Fine television commercial (that no channel would ever run, but anyway). Mike Kellin (FREEBIE AND THE BEAN) has a great scene where he explains the deaths of his past wives, but Fred Gwynne (MY COUSIN EDDIE) fails to make a stuffy professor funny. The score is by spaghetti western stalwart Ennio Morricone, of all people.