Commando tells the story of young Chandu, who’s name changes in the subtitles to Chander about halfway through the movie. Either way, I’m simply calling him Commando, in honor of his arch nemesis being named Ninja. The movie begins when Commando is but a boy, and his father is the commando of the family, prone to taking his young son out on early morning workouts that involve singing, at least half a dozen different track suits, running, judo, horsing around on the playground, karate, riding horses on the beach, riding bikes, shooting rifles, getting punched repeatedly in the face by his father, and doing push-ups that look less like push-ups and more like a little kid making sweet, sweet love to the ground. Perhaps this is an allegory for young Chandu’s love for Mother India, but I don’t think it’s a proper way for a boy to behave toward his mother. So let’s just chalk it up to appalling push-up form and leave it at that.
OK, let’s talk some Dungeons & Dragons before we dig into the film review proper. It’ll help you understand the background which makes it possible for me to so love a film like Fire and Ice as much as I do. It’s also one of those inevitable subjects, and it’s best we get it out of the way now. Geeks and nerds will always bring it up. For us, D&D is sort of like heroin is to skinny rock stars. You go through a period of brief flirtation, end up heavily addicted to the point where it destroys your social life, and you sit around, all high on your drug, saying things that seem deep and philosophical to you but are really just idiotic, like, “Man, what if you put a Portable Hole inside a Bag of Holding?” or, “Man, wouldn’t it be cool if Gary Gygax was here right now?”
Then you go through a period of recovery, followed by a relapse, then finally get clean and spend the next thirty years talking about how you “used to do heroin” or “used to play D&D” to whoever has the misfortune of being in a position to have to listen to you. Possibly the only thing worse than people telling you stories about when they were stoned and stared at a wall for seven hours, or people reading you their erotic vampire fanfic, is crusty old farts telling you about how they used to roll the twenty-sided die — and yeah, try sidling up to someone in a bar one night and asking them if they’d “like to roll the twenty-sided die.” You’ll be lucky if your potential mate-date doesn’t yell, “Blee yark!” in your face and take you back to their keep on the borderlands to show you their collection of smoky crystalline dice that they store in a leather pouch they bought at last year’s medieval festival.
Speaking of which, when did it become acceptable to show up to medieval fairs dressed as an elf? Since when did that become an acceptable historic recreation of the times? I mean, a sprite or a kobold I could understand, but an elf? For that matter, when did camouflage pants and combat boots become acceptable attire? For God’s sake, man, where’re your jerkins??? I think if you’re going to dress up for a medieval fair, you should have to meet some minimum standard of historical accuracy. At the very least, you shouldn’t be able to wear a long Fruit of the Loom t-shirt with a belt cinched around it. It should be like dining at a fancy restaurant. You don’t have proper attire? Well, sir, please don this complimentary King Henry VIII robe. OK, hoi polloi I can excuse, but the people who actively take part in the festival events? It just doesn’t seem fair to me that some guy went out and forged his own full suit of plate mail armor, and then the guy next to him bought two rolls of Reynolds Wrap and a sheet of poster board.
But this is just one of those things, like how Paganism makes me mad because it’s all fruity sweetness and light hippies flitting about and saying “Blessed be!” and “Goddess bless you,” instead of doing what it was Pagans were busy doing before the sixties ruined it all, which was hitting people in the chest with giant battle axes then drinking blood from the cleaved skulls of their enemies. We didn’t “drum circle” the Romans out of Scotland, people.
I’m just saying that if you are dressing up for the Renaissance Festival, at the very least you should have to invest in a pair of those tan rawhide Robin Hood boots that were popular with the pickup-driving guys when I was a kid.
Still, I suppose it could be worse. Anime fandom seems to have been overrun by fat guys dressed as cats, where all they do is draw whiskers on their face and throw on some cardboard ears and a pipe cleaner tail. You know what that outfit is, buddy? That’s what the loser kid throws together for Halloween. Some people spend hours and hours crafted outrageously complex and detailed costumes to showcase their nerdiness. I think those people should be allowed to kick the ass of anyone who shows up dressed as a cat person, wearing normal clothes but with a cheap tail and ears taped to themselves. Likewise, the guy who makes his own authentic armor should be able to use his Morning Star of Clobberin’ +3 on anyone who show sup to a medieval fair wearing their normal clothes, but with a cape thrown on.
I mean, this is why Civil War reinactors don’t give you guys no respect, man.
So where was I? Sorry, I can get pretty worked up when a topic is this important. So yeah, like many other nerds, I dabbled in the black art of D&D. Funny, in retrospect, how hysterical people were over the evil of the game. If you remember, D&D was going to either turn us all into devil worshipers (also fond of just throwing cheap cloaks over their street clothes instead of going all the way and putting on red Danksin unitards) or it was going to cause the youth of America to become so lost in this amazing world of make-believe and fantasy that all concept of the real world would disintegrate, leaving us with a society full of people wearing fake elf ears and cheap cloaks. Hmm. I guess they were right, after all.
My flirtation with this world full of dungeons and dragons began at an early age thanks to the fact that an old boyfriend of my mother’s happened to be one of the early employees at TSR, so he funneled me a steady stream of the old basic and advanced box sets that came in the red and aquamarine boxes respectively. I guess I was in fourth grade when we put together our geeky little campaign, though back then D&D was considered less dorky and more dangerous, sort of like how video games were dangerous, then became dorky, and now are back to the point where thug kids host video-game related public access cable shows about them. For the most part, we’d gather at a friend’s house, cheat on our character sheets for a while, consult various charts, then play the game for half an hour (usually Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, because we liked to equip our characters with lasers and such) or so before retiring to play outside or watch a movie.
Four times out of five, the movie would be a barbarian movie not entirely dissimilar to the game of D&D we’d just abandoned in mid-campaign. Actually, there was a 97% chance that the movie would be Beastmaster. But we’ve covered that territory before, so if you need to hear jokes about Beastmaster and watching barbarian movies, go back and read one of our previous sword and sorcery movie reviews.
Somehow, the animated Ralph Bakshi feature Fire and Ice managed to slip through the cracks, though I can’t imagine it didn’t make the early 1980s cable TV rounds. It’s perfect late-night HBO fare. If I’d seen it back then, I would have embraced it whole-heartedly and probably proclaimed it the best thing I’d ever seen. Or something to that effect. Alas, it was never to be, and although Heavy Metal was inescapable at the time, Fire and Ice remained unseen by me until the recent DVD release allowed me to go back and see how Bakshi’s sword and sorcery cartoon had aged over the years.
In brief, Fire and Ice is the animated feature film equivalent of trying to buy saucy fantasy comic magazine Heavy Metal at age thirteen, praying that the B. Dalton check-out clerk doesn’t realize that the magazine is a veritable horn o’ plenty of naked chicks riding dragons around acid-trip landscapes that look like something the guy down the street would have airbrushed onto the side of his custom van. And then, if you do manage to score, you have to forever hide the torrid tome amongst your copies of Dragon magazine for fear that the big-breasted zebra-striped woman on the cover might otherwise arouse parental suspicion, resulting in them just happening to randomly open the magazine to one of the naughtier Guido Crepax stories.
Ralph Bakshi is a director and artist who was at the forefront of a lot of innovative new ideas, but he was always at the forefront in a way that would only facilitate his ambitions crashing and burning, only to have someone else basically hatch the same idea a few years later with great success. Bakshi first made headlines by directing a raunchy cartoon for adults named Fritz the Cat, forever destined to be picked up by accident by aging vaudeville fans who mistake it for Felix the Cat. At the time of the film’s release, the concept of cartoon movies for adults, packed full of cursing, drug use, and sex, was pretty alien, and it’s likely that more than a few ill-informed parents took their screaming, crying broods out for a fun day at the cartoon movie only to discover after the lights went down that they were in a grindhouse theater full of guys in raincoats jerking off to anthropomorphic cat women (if you’ve been to an anime convention lately, you’ve seen that some things never change).
Soon thereafter, Bakshi decided that what he wanted to do with his time was make an animated adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. To realize his vision, Bakshi would rely on a technique called rotoscoping — that is, filming live actors, then tracing the artwork over them. Bakshi’s ambition was admirable, but it was a fair leap across the chasm from ambition to realization, and The Lord of the Rings failed to make the jump. The film is an uncomfortable mish-mash of questionable character design (ugly gap-toothed hobbits, Boromir the Viking, Aragorn the Navajo), impressive animation, and shocking lapses in the quality of rotoscoping that results in frequent shifts from animation to live-action actors who look nothing like their animated counterparts horsing around against heavily tinted backgrounds. It also didn’t help that funding was a major stumbling block, and Bakshi ran out of time and money two books into the three-book adventure.
Undeterred, Bakshi forged boldly forward, sticking to the fantasy formula for Fire and Ice, which was released in the immediate wake of Conan the Barbarian’s success and the launching of the sword and sorcery trend that delighted us for so many hours when we’d grown tired of using our imaginations to slay trolls and other beasts lurking in the pages of the Monster Manual and beloved Fiend Folio. Where Lord of the Rings held the promise of Bakshi merging his adult-oriented artwork with the world of Tolkien, the hook for Fire and Ice was that it was an artistic collaboration between Bakshi and one of the most famous pulp artists of all time, Frank Frazetta.
Frazetta rose to prominence as one of the most in-demand artists of the heyday of pulp fiction, gaining particular notoriety for his illustration of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, and while you can’t exactly claim that he invented fantasy artwork, he certainly defined it for quite some time, up until the point when Haji Sorayama started drawing hot, naked robot chicks and Boris Vallejo picked up the fantasy art gauntlet. But Frazetta was The Man for decades, creating a style that showcased beefy, axe-wielding barbarians in furry loincloths and big-breasted, big-booty women in tiny, tiny magical bikinis. It would seem, at least in the early 1980s, that his artwork would be a good match for Ralph Bakshi’s animation style. Something more adult-oriented, full of gibbering goblins, bare-chested barbarians, and buxom babes. Working from Frazetta character designs and the basic template of a fantasy tale as defined by decades of pulp fiction, and plagued as always by budget short-comings and a general lack of interest from audiences, Bakshi gave us Fire and Ice.
Fire and Ice involves a clash of two cultures. First, there is the evil, skinny blue guy Nekron, who would be played by David Bowie if this was a big-budget, live-action film. Nekron lives in a land of ice and glaciers and dreams of making the rest of the world as dismal and bleak as his North Dakota-esque ice kingdom. Standing in his way is the king of Fire Keep, who has harnessed the power of the volcanoes that surround his kingdom. Nekron’s scheming mother devises a plan to kidnap Teegra, the hot big-booty daughter of the king of Fire Keep, and thus force him to negotiate a surrender. But being evil, Nekron’s minions are mostly sub-human goblins who don’t seem to be very good at much of anything other than riding atop advancing glaciers while hooting and waving clubs. Teegra escapes (using the ever-effective “look at my nipples while I writhe about in the water” method of escape), gets captured, escapes, get captured, so on and so forth.
Meanwhile, a hunky barbarian named Larn survives Nekron’s attack on his village and takes to wandering the land, killing goblins whenever he happens to come across them. He and Teegra eventually hook up, and then a dude named Darkwolf, in a big wolfhead hood, shows up to do some damage as well. The whole thing ends with a wild assault-by-dragon on Nekron’s icy fortress.
It is by no accounts a perfect film. Bakshi relies once again on the technique of rotoscoping, realized here in infinitely better fashion than in the awkward Lord of the Rings. Although this is once again a film made by first filming live-action actors on a soundstage, then animating over the top of them, there are no points at which we just get tinted footage of the live-action actors. The actual animated look is consistent, and the rotoscoping provides for very fluid and realistic movement of the characters. Unfortunately, Frazetta relies heavily on moody shading and lighting, and in that sense, Bakshi’s animation falls flat — literally. There’s no real attempt, save for one or two scenes, at creating a sense of depth or lighting. Bakshi just doesn’t have the time and resources to achieve such detail, and thus Frazetta’s characters look less like Frazetta creations and more like Bakshi’s character designs from Lord of the Rings, but better looking. There’s also a funny part in one of the DVD extras where Frazetta explains that he always assumed that somewhere out there were women who looked like the women he drew, at least up until the process of rotoscoping, and thus needing to find a real woman to serve as the actress base of his design for Teegra, the booty-shaking daughter of the good king of Fire Keep.
Although it fails to capture the nuance of Frazetta’s original artwork, Fire and Ice still boasts pretty good if standard artwork. It reminds me of how much I miss the look of hand-drawn animation. Computer-assisted artwork results in really smooth, really slick lines and shading. By comparison, something like Fire and Ice — which was really a stylistic throwback even upon its initial release — looks likes a series of animated sketches, with bolder outlines, rougher around the edges. But I really like that raw look, though I have nothing against the more refined lines of modern animation. The backgrounds are also highly stylized, almost impressionist, which means they look cool and were easier to draw. With more time and better technology, Bakshi might have been able to realize a more fully developed style of animation for this film, with more inventive lighting and shading, resulting in something that looks less like a bigger budget version of The Herculoids. But he didn’t have those things, and the end results are still enough fun for me to forgive him.
In fact, the entire film was completed by just a tiny handful of artists working from Frazetta’s character designs and Bakshi’s live-action stars, which makes the TV cartoon quality moments excusable and the more richly realized moments truly impressive. One of the artists was none other than Peter Chung, who animated the dragonhawk finale and would go on to create his own scantily-clad, impossibly-proportioned heroine some years later when he wrote and animated a little show called Aeon Flux.
The acting is, at best, workmanlike, but it suits the style of the film. None of the live-action actors were anyone especially accomplished, unless you count an appearance on Glen Larson’s Buck Rogers to be an accomplishment. Steve Sandor, who provides the voice of Darkwolf, is probably the most experienced actor of the bunch, having logged countless hours working on pretty much every television show that was made from Star Trek on. Luckily, the dialogue doesn’t demand much of anyone, so they all glide by pretty easily and without anything really sticking as a particularly bad acting job, though a few huffs and puffs during running scenes are looped in a little too loudly.
The script by Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas (the duo also worked on the script for Conan the Destroyer, and both together and separately, worked on a number of famous cartoon TV shows, including The Transformers and GI Joe) is pretty paint by numbers pulp fantasy. It doesn’t do anything you don’t expect it to do, and each of the characters depends on you recognizing a familiar pulp archetype. There is no back story for anyone. We have no idea who any of these people really are, or why they’re doing what they do. We don’t know who Nekron really is. We have no idea why Darkwolf shows up and joins forces with Larn. The extras tell us that an original draft of the movie explained that he was Nekron’s father, but that never shows up — nor is it even hinted at — in the finished product. The thing is, none of the characters really need a complicated (or even simple) back story, because the dependence on the target audience’s familiarity with stock pulp characters gets the job done. Nekron does the things he does because he’s bad. Larn is good. Darkwolf is cool and mysterious. Teegra is scantily clad (even for a fantasy film princess) in a thong and flimsy bikini top and has jiggling boobs and booty cheeks. If you need any more information than that, then you’ve missed the point of this type of throwback story, which is to show guys in loincloths beating up goblins, intercut with leering shots of Teegra’s ass as she crawls through the swamp.
I would imagine a movie like Fire and Ice appeals to a very select population of people. It was a failure upon its initial release, though like most Bakshi films it built up a cult following after the fact. Measured against modern fantasy films that take advantage of cutting edge computer animation (Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy being the benchmark), something as modest as Fire and Ice can’t really measure up, but you’re sort of making a mistake if you pit a small-budget pulp fantasy movie from 1983 against something of that stature. Older fantasy fans, however, will probably find a lot in Fire and Ice that appeals to them, especially if they favor old-style pulp storytelling and artwork. I thoroughly enjoy Fire and Ice, beginning to end, and find it consistently entertaining and fascinating, not to mention beautifully realized despite the typical Bakshi-project budget constraints. It’s a lot more enjoyable and successful as a piece of animated filmmaking than Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings, and the influence of Frazetta, while not completely realized, adds even further to the old-fashioned pulp novel feel of the movie.
It’s difficult to grapple with actually getting one’s head around a movie of this nature, which seems to have been made under the premise that if you took the combined gaudiness and sparkle of Saturday Night Fever, Xanadu, and that movie where Jeff Goldblum runs the disco and Marv “the Leatherman” Gomez dances in the parking lot, then all that would be missing was, you know, an extra little dash of sparkle and over-the-top camp value. And kungfu fights. Leave it to Bollywood to not only make a tacky, eye-searing, completely delirious disco film, but to feel like they need to jack it up on steroids, complete with the overwrought melodrama and breakneck shifting of genres that one comes to expect from a Bollywood production.
Doing a quick survey of Yahoo, Google, and the external reviews linked to from the Internet Movie Database will turn up a body of reviews almost unanimous in their disdain for this movie. Yor, The Hunter from the Future certainly isn’t an unknown movie, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a single person out there, even among aficionados of bad movies, who doesn’t feel that it probably should be an unknown movie. Sometimes it seems like the lone voice in post-apocalyptic wilderness is the guy who writes for www.antoniomargheriti.com, though even the film’s own director has publicly stated that the film is awful. Given that I am apparently one of the two members of the Yor fanclub, it behooves me to write a decent defense and review of this maligned slice of early eighties Italian exploitation.
The words “favorite” and “Yor” have, to my knowledge, never been uttered together before, not even on the internet where all things perverse and profane flourish. In a medium where you can probably find a website with pictures of people masturbating with donkey hoofs while a Nazi shoves live eels up their butt, you can’t find many people who will say anything positive about Yor, The Hunter from the Future. But unlike almost every other critic and film fan in the world, I come not to bury Yor, but to praise him — at least mildly. My initiation into the strange and exclusive cult of Yor came in the eighties, when a film like this would actually get released to theaters with a considerable degree of fanfare. Conan the Barbarian had just stormed on to screens, and the Italians apparently possess a magical ability to forecast which movies will ignite remarkable trends, then rush out scores of imitations mere days after the original inspiration is released. I suppose it has a little something to do with business acumen, and a lot to do with the fact that most of these movies had production schedules that closely resembled the gestation period of a fruit fly.
These were heady days for young men with very little sense of decency in their cinematic taste. In a drunken run that began more or less with the release of The Black Hole and TRON, youngsters of the era were subjected to a seemingly endless parade of generally delightful genre films that was only made all the more intoxicating the day a friend got cable television. Whenever people bemoan the sad state of modern movies and complain about how much junk is getting dumped on the market, I feel I should recommend they take a step back and re-examine previous years. The problem with movie hindsight is that it is terribly myopic. Decades removed from any given year, we tend to only remember the exceptionally good (and in a few rare instances, exceptionally atrocious) films, thus giving that year an inflated position. Living in a year, however, we’re exposed to every piece of crap that rolls out of the factory, and so the poor quality of our current time is much fresher and more evident than that of years past. It’s the same phenomenon that makes it look like foreign countries make better movies than we do. Since we’re only exposed to a select few foreign films every year, we tend to get the cream of the crop. But as anyone who lives in one of these countries can tell you, they manage to make just as many wretched offerings as we do. We just get filtered content.
The big difference between now and then is the budget. It used to be that rotten films were confined to the ghetto of low-budget quickie productions, while films with a larger budget invested in them had shown some degree of merit. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, and just because a studio and critics thought a big-budget film might be good doesn’t mean it actually was. Things reversed sometime in the nineties though, and most of the good films had smaller budgets while the big-budget movies reeked of bloat, excess, and slapdash craftsmanship. Now we live in an era where people dump millions into films that previously would have been made on a shoestring. To tie this all together into a poorly wrapped package, the grandfather of providing A-list financing for B-list concepts was Dino De Laurentiis. It started for him in the sixties, working as a producer for cheap “sword and sandal” peplum films. Although Dino’s films probably weren’t budgeted any higher than their contemporaries, most of the ones that bear his name look and play much better than the rest of the pack. In 1968, he lavished French director Roger Vadim with a sizeable budget for the piece of psychedelic cheesecake sci-fi pop art known as Barbarella, and thus began the producer’s long love affair with throwing tons of money at silly concepts.
Now, what ties this in with Yor, The Hunter from the Future is the fact that De Laurentiis produced Conan the Barbarian. So yes, Italian moviemakers have a knack for latching onto a big trend and draining it mercilessly of its precious lifeblood. At the same time, most of the trends upon which they hop — Westerns, peplum, zombies — also have significant ties to Italy in the first place. A Fistful of Dollars may have starred Clint Eastwood, but it was an Italian film. Ditto Steve Reeves and Hercules. George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead sparked the glut of Italian zombie films that shambled through the eighties, but it was made possible by the financial graces of Italian director/producer Dario Argento. And Conan was the fevered brainchild of Oliver Stone, John Milius, and a whole bunch of pot (one assumes), but an Italian made it happen. So in some twisted way, the Italians deserve to be able to rip these films off. Or, you know, something like that.
Anyway, none of us kids got to see Conan in the theaters, though there were few who didn’t catch it on cable in between showings of Beastmaster. But we did get to see various, more family-friendly knock-offs, back in a time when family-friendly films didn’t have to include spunky children but could include cannibalistic mummies and loincloth-clad women. Among those was Yor, The Hunter from the Future. Undoubtedly still reeling from the time she took us to the drive-in to see Treasure of the Four Crowns, my mom wasn’t up for the challenge of taking a carload of kids to see Yor. I don’t remember whose mom got suckered into Yor duty, but I’m sure she curses us to this day, assuming she hasn’t completely blocked the memory. You know what, though? We loved it. We loved it more than modern kids love Harry Potter and Catch that Kid. You may have those movies, but we got to watch shit like Yor and Treasure of the Four Crowns, where people flew around on giant bats and had melting faces. Of course, we also had to endure our parents taking us to more acceptable kid-friendly movies, like that one where the kid from E.T. uses his BMX bike to evade trained KBG agents while soliciting cloak and dagger advice from Dabny Coleman. What was that movie called? Oh yeah, Cloak and Dagger. Actually, that was pretty good, I think.
Yor, the Hunter from the Future is by far the most ambitious, and thus goofy, of all the Conan knock-offs. It’s the only one with the audacity to rip off its shock revelation from Planet of the Apes while also ripping off the inferior Apes sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes, with just as dash of Conquerors of Atlantis and Star Wars thrown in for good measure. You got a hero in a loin cloth, some technologically advanced mutant humans hiding away from the primitives, and a surprise ending (well, midway point anyway) in which we learn that the ancient land of cavemen and dinosaurs we’re seeing is not the ancient past or another planet, but is in fact a post-nuke Earth. Not surprisingly, star Reb Brown is no Charlton Heston and Yor, The Hunter from the Future is no Planet of the Apes. It’s barely even Goin’ Ape.
Yor begins as every movie should begin: with a peroxide blonde caveman bounding across a rocky terrain while synth-heavy prog rock screams madly in the background. Imagine how much better every movie would be with this opening. Kate and Leopold? Why not start it with a barbarian and thunderous prog rock, then move into the thing about the guy from Napoleonic times romancing Meg Ryan on the eve of her officially becoming a has-been? All those quirky indy romance movies films? Sure they’re cute, but who can argue the fact that these shoegazing coming-of-age soap operas would be more palatable to everyone if they included a couple shots of a oily barbarian with Flash Gordon hair fighting dinosaurs while unintelligible prog-rock anthems roared on gloriously in the background? The whole movie doesn’t have to be about that, because we already have that movie and it’s called Yor, the Hunter from the Future. But maybe they could do something where, say, Amy Adams is sitting in a malt shop (kids still go to malt shops, right?) or a quaint upper west side coffee shop talking about relationships, and then she goes, “Well, will you look at that?” And then we cut to a few minutes of a caveman using a giant bat as a hang glider or something, and then we can go back to the plot about finding romance and meaning in today’s hurried modern world.
I think it would fit thematically, because it illustrates how in earlier, more barbarous times, life had so much more significance because times were so tough. We had to live full and hearty lives filled with adventure and passion and synth-rock orchestration, because we never knew when a monkey-man mummy was going to leap down from a perch in the woods and hit us in the face with a rough-hewn stone axe. Removed from that sort of immediacy, Amy Adams’ life is less vital, less passionate, and thus she has a hard time forging a meaningful relationship with modern men who are too wrapped up in banking or computer programming to ever take time out of their busy schedule to love a woman or shoot arrows into a rampaging dinosaur’s eye. But as the cavewoman Ka-Laa notices as she watches Yor bound mightily from boulder to boulder one fine, sunny day, Yor is not like other men.
Yor lives in “Barbarian Times,” and comes from “the high mountains.” I have a feeling Antonio Margheriti was pretty high in the mountains himself when he co-wrote this script. Yor spends his days scrambling over rocks and saving some cockeyed Jack Elam looking guy named Pag (Luciano Pigozii) and sexy cavewoman Ka-Laa from screaming, roaring, huffing, house-size dinosaurs that somehow manage to sneak up behind people in the woods. Most people can’t sneak up behind other people in the woods without at least stepping on a twig, but what do I know? I’ve never been stalked by a dinosaur. Thankful for blond, loincloth-clad Yor’s randomly showing up and saving them from a dinosaur (shades of Fire Monster Against the Son of Hercules), Pag and Ka-Laa invite Yor back to their village to eat “the choice meats” and watch women drape themselves in cargo nets and spin around. The difference between Yor and the rest of the inhabitants of this primal world is immediately evident. He has mastered hair bleaching and body-waxing; they possess tangled brown hair. He is clean-shaven while the rest of the men sport scraggly Mujahadeen beards. Only Ka-Laa’s grooming prowess and hair teasing ability rivals Yor’s. It is obvious he is “not like the others.”
Unfortunately for Yor’s new friends, everyone is a musical theater critic, and a neighboring, even more primitive tribe of hairy blue cavemen pillage the village and put an end to the twilrling rope dress dance, fulfilling the basic requirement of any sword and sorcery film that someone’s village get pillaged, preferably fairly early in the film. It’s likely that Pag’s tribe was slaughtered on account of their phenomenally stupid “twirling rope dress” dance, but even if not, there’s no arguing with the notion that the world was better off minus a tribe full of people who were continuously sneaked up on by snorting, stomping, bellowing dinosaurs.
Only Yor, Pag, and Ka-Laa survive the slaughter. Yor decides he wants to find out the origin of the strange metal medallion he wears, and thus discover the mystery of his own past. Pag and his big-haired daughter join Yor on his quest. What else are they going to do? Their village was just destroyed. Along the way, they’ll fight more dinosaurs, some monkey men, and Yor will grab a giant hairy bat-monster and use it to hang glide through a cave while the prog rock music screams out in joyous ovation to his heroics. Whenever Yor does something especially heroic, like hang onto a giant bat, we’re treated to a thunderous explosion of prog rock glory that would be very much at home on Rick Wakeman’s Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the ice ballet for which was considerably less corny than Yor.
Yor eventually discovers a blonde woman living amongst the diseased primitives of the wasteland, and he is shocked to see that she possesses the same funky medallion as him. In her cave are other people, frozen in ice, and more clues to Yor’s origins. As they quest about the prehistoric future, they slowly unravel the mystery of the disco medallion Yor wears, and they discover a group of advanced humans living in a space-age facility on an island. What mystery is this? As Yor draws closer to the truth, your mouth will be agape at the final, shocking revelation. These aren’t prehistoric times at all! This is…the future! But who are these strange men in Ming the Merciless cloaks, and what manner of magic weapon do they possess that can issue forth a slow-moving neon pink dollop of light that can kill a man? Gods, such sorcery! It turns out these are the last remaining survivors of a once-proud and technologically advanced civilization that was destroyed by nuclear war. All the pieces fall into place when Yor’s medallion is revealed to be a recording of his family history. Why is Yor not like the other men? Because he is the child of one of the advanced survivors, a group of rebels who sought to overthrow the “Overlord” and were victims of a spaceship crash that left young Yor and that other blonde woman stranded in the post-apocalyptic wasteland. But Yor survived yet, and grew strong and heroic, and where his father failed, Yor shall lead another band of advanced survivor rebels in another bid to overthrow the Darth Vaderish Overlord, who seeks to obliterate all life and replace it with a new race — half-android, half-Yor.
If you think a mad scheme like that is going to cause Yor to have to do all sorts of crazy shit that demands prog-rock synth ovations, then you’ve been paying closer attention to this movie than most people. Amid it all, various people get on the space-age facilitiy’s loudspeaker and wax philosophic at great lengths on assorted points pertaining to topics such as the folly of man, the worth of man, the future of man, and overloading the atomic reactor. Yor’s “message” is, needless to say, half-baked and completely ludicrous, but heck. How many other sword and sorcery movies from the time even made an attempt at having a message, however cliche it may have been? You know, I was all for nuclear proliferation, brinksmanship, and the whole arms race until Yor, The Hunter from the Future opened my eyes and really made me think about how man harbors a tendency to abuse power he doesn’t fully comprehend.
Athough Yor isn’t a time-traveling barbarian movie in the strictest sense of how the intellectuals and academics of the world define “time-traveling barbarian,” it’s close enough to lump it in with the little sub-genre that erupted in its wake. Hard to believe that Yor could start a trend within a trend, but as one of the early entries in the sword and sorcery genre, it gets the dubious credit of having inspired the other time-warp barbarians like Beastmaster II and the dreary Time Barbarians. Ancient warriors traversing the fold of the space-time continuum in much the same way Conan trod the sands of the earth beneath his sandaled feet may be historically questionable (it’s more historically viable to have barbarians traveling into space, like in the Gor movies or the second Lou Ferrigno Hercules movie. Or was it the first one? Whichever one where he goes to the moon), but it made good financial sense. Most of the cheap barbarian movies that came out in the 1980s required little more than some fake swords, fake armor, and only a couple locations: usually, a forest, a rocky desert, and at least one castle chamber that could probably be rented cheap from Roger Corman. But you could save even more money by sending your barbarian forward in time, almost exclusively to modern-day Los Angeles. Then you only needed a few barbarian outfits and probably only one or two forest shots before you could throw a goofy “time portal” effect up on screen and spend the remainder of the film simply following your muscleman around the parking garages of LA.
And there in lies the truly admirable — and I use that term loosely — thing about Yor. It isn’t happy living within its means. Time Barbarians was cheap, and they knew better than to do much other than have some barbarians in the woods and then stage a fight in a rented warehouse. Yor, on the other hand, has dinosaurs, monkey monsters, bat hang-gliding, a city of tomorrow, mutants, messages about the folly of man, the twirling rope dress dance, laser battles, a robot army — basically, enough stuff for the entire Star Wars series, all crammed into one cut-rate Italian fantasy/sci-fi action film. Almost none of these things are realized well. The dinosaurs are OK so long as they don’t have to do much beyond swing their head back and forth. The fight choreography is sluggish and seems designed to maximize the number of times Reb Brown is shot from a low angle, jumping through the air to allow his loincloth to flap up and give the world a cheeky show. The city of the future (actually the past, I suppose) is about on par with the cut-rate “future city of the past” from the cheapskate Battle for the Planet of the Apes, which means there’s some matte paintings, and then the whole thing was filmed in a pump factory somewhere, with some red and blue blinking lights attached to the pipes and metal railing. And don’t even mention the laser effects, which result in an animated beam that moves about as fast as someone walking across a room.
But that doesn’t stop Yor, which was based on a comic strip I assume looked a lot like a comic out of Heavy Metal magazine, from pulling out all stops and attempting to serve up a visual extravaganza that is far beyond its hope of ever successfully achieving. It’s a naive movie on many levels. Though Margheriti obviously knew he was making something bad (the original version of Yor is a four-part mini-series that rarely, if ever, aired), the film itself doesn’t seem aware of this, and it never seems to think it’s doing anything other than telling one of the most important stories of all time. The lack of wink-and-nudge self-awareness is refreshing from today’s standpoint, seeing as how we’re buried under an avalanche of self-referential “ironic” movies that think they’re the first ones to ever be so clever. But Yor plods along with a blissful earnestness that makes it charming in a weird way. It’s also naive in that it really is fairly kid-friendly. There is no nudity, unless you count the disturbingly frequent Reb Brown buffalo shots (I am not a man who is afraid of male nudity, but that angle just isn’t appealing no matter how buff you are). There’s a lot of killing but very little bloodshed. And Yor is a decidedly classical hero — well, respective to the standards set by this film. Let’s just say he’s a nice guy who does the right thing, as opposed to the grittier, lustier anti-heroes that populated saltier barbarian fare.
The acting is pretty bad, and there’s a reason that Reb Brown never became a household name like Sam Jones. Still, it’s not as if Reb is a total unknown, at least among the sorts of people who who would refer to Sam Jones as a household name. I mean, Reb Brown may not be Sam Jones, but at least he’s not Dack Rambo. Reb starred in such direct-to-the-bargain-bin favorites as Strike Commando (yes, I own it), Roboforce (yes, I own it), and Space Mutiny (yes, I…oh, never mind). He appeared in another perennial sword and sorcery hit, Sword and the Sorcerer, though not in the lead. His brush with respectability came with an appearance in the film Uncommon Valor. He’s probably “best known” for his turns in a couple abysmal made-for-TV Captain America movies and the film Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf, which, oddly enough, I don’t own even though it’s one of my favorite awful movies. His first film was, I believe, Sssss (give or take an “s”), and to tie this all in with Conan once again, he was in Conan director John Milius’ 1970s surfing movie, Big Wednesday. What’s really scary is that I am writing all this from memory, with no help from the imdb or any other source. So yes, with that amount of information, I believe I qualify as a Reb Brown biographer.
Reb has the sort of good looks you expect from a guy who isn’t too bright (whether or not he’s actually bright, I don’t know, but he has managed to sustain a career). He’s the good-hearted football player who falls for the cute, brainy girl with glasses and tries to impress her by making an earnest attempt to understand poetry (also an apt description of Yor the movie). He might never understand Longfellow, but he’ll valiantly defend the brainy girl’s honor against her nemesis, the mean football player with the catty cheerleader girlfriend. Since I mentioned the movie in passing earlier, allow me to once again make a connection only I would make: he’s a lot like fellow bleach-blond superior caveman Reg Lewis, star of the sixties caveman/Hercules peplum adventure Fire Monster Against the Son of Hercules. There’s a good-natured, everyman goofiness about him that takes the edge off the muscles.
He’s not an especially good actor, but he’s not required to do much more here than look muscular (but not bodybuilder muscular) and hang-glide on a giant bat, so that’s fine. His main squeeze Ka-Laa is played by one-time Bond girl Corrine Clery, who has a massive list of Italian film and television credits to her name (those, unlike Reb’s, I had to look up) but is best-known for her turn in Moonraker as “that woman who flies James Bond around in a helicopter then gets killed.” “Artful erotica” fans might remember seeing her naked in the title role of The Story of O, and less artful erotica fans might remember her from Lucio Fulci’s Devil’s Honey. It’s hard to judge her acting here since she’s dubbed, but she goes through most of the movie with a slightly dazed look, for which you can’t really blame her.
Completing the core cast is Luciano Pigozzi as Pag. For years, I thought this role was played by Jack Elam. Looking back, I realize that Pigozzi is more like Jack Elam crossed with Lucio Fulci. Whatever, he has more Italian genre credits than a sane man can count, including countless appearances in many of Margheriti’s other films, often under his Americanized name Alan Collins. Margheriti himself was rechristened Anthony Dawson whenever his films came to America. As if anyone cared whether or not the director of Yor was Italian. Pigozzi has his “stooped old man” bit down pretty good, but like everyone else, he’s dubbed and has pretty inane lines anyway, so judging acting is moot. At least he has more facial expressions than Reb and Corinne. Everyone else in the movie is either a caveman or a future man, and they’re primarily there to die, be menaced by dinosaurs, get shot by slow lasers, or make monotone speeches about the aforementioned folly of man.
The movie was made on location in Turkey, so there are quite a few Turkish performers sprinkled into the mix, including recognizable names like Aytekin Akkaya, who appeared in the beloved Turkish sci-fi kungfu extravaganza The Man Who Saved the World (aka “The Turkish Star Wars”) alongside Turkish matinee superstar Cuynet Arkin, as well as playing Captain America (just like Reb Brown!) in the curious 3 Dev Adam, in which Captain America and Santo the masked Mexican wrestler team up to defeat the murderous, chain-smoking Spider-Man, who likes to shove women’s faces into outboard boat motors (which is much better than what happened in Reb Brown’s own Captain America movies). Akkaya also worked with Margheriti again on the decent Indiana Jones cash-in Ark of the Sun God, starring David Warbeck. So really, when you think about it, Yor is an amazing multi-national nexus point of exploitation movie talent.
Margheriti was one of the most prolific directors working in the Italian exploitation genres, and amid all the movies made so he could pay his bills, there are actually quite a few gems. Some are simply delightfully bad, while others are genuinely good. And his moody, atmospheric Gothic film Castle of Terror is a bona fide horror classic. His specialty eventually ended up being action, though like any Italian exploitation director, he’s worked in pretty much every genre and scored a memorable (if not always good) film in each one, including science fiction (Wild Wild Planet), peplum (Hercules, Prisoner of Evil), Eurospy (Lightning Bolt), western (And God Said to Cain), and giallo ( Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye), but his specialty became cheap action films in the 1980s, often working with David Warbeck to knock off Vietnam war movies or Indiana Jones adventures. Even in his worst films, Margheriti infuses the proceedings with energy, and while his statements betray the fact that he really has no love for Yor (I think No Love for Yor might be the title of his autobiography), the movie still benefits from his touch. Special effects are bad, acting is bad, and the script is daft, but Margheriti is still professional enough to make sure he turns in a technically competent directorial job (decent lighting, no boom mics in the shot, etc).
As for that theme song — I loved it when I was young, and I think it’s still thoroughly rousing and utterly absurd, boasting all the theatrical bombast of Queen’s work for Sam Jones’ Flash Gordon movie (a Dino De Laurentiis production!), but relying less on guitars and more on synthesizers. Years later and farther down the road of no return, I’m a little more familiar with the stable of guys who wrote music for Italian genre films. My first guess, given the vocals and the over-the-top synths, was that this was probably the work of Guido and Maurizio DeAngelis, one of the most prolific score writing teams in the Italian film industry. They always relied pretty heavily on synths. A quick check of the credits revealed that, yes indeed, the DeAngelis duo was responsible. This correct guess coupled with my disturbingly exhaustive knowledge of Reb Brown’s filmography should really make me worry. Anyway, beyond the theme song, the rest of the score is pretty standard “future synth” stuff. They didn’t have the money to try and mimic Conan’s even more bombastic “barbarian brass” orchestration. Guido and Maurizio DeAngelis have written some spectacular scores for some spectacular films. This isn’t one of them, but man! That theme song!
Most people list Yor among the worst movies of all time. It may have even won some awards to that effect. All I can say is that if this is the worst movie you’ve ever seen, then you haven’t seen enough movies. I admit I have a soft spot for the hunk of junk, the same “saw it in the theaters” soft spot that makes me crack a warm smile even for a film like Treasure of the Four Crowns, and I still find myself enjoying Yor far more than I should. The revelation about the past being the future is not exactly as stunning as that first time you see Chuck Heston stumble upon the Statue of Liberty, but I don’t figure anyone goes into Yor expecting stunning revelations. You go in because you want to watch cavemen do somersaults and have laser battles with robots.
Release Year: 1983 | Country: Italy | Starring: Reb Brown, Corinne Clery, John Steiner, Carole Andre, Luciano Pigozzi, Ayshe Gul, Aytekin Akkaya, Marina Rocchi, Sergio Nicolai | Writer: Robert Bailey and Antonio Magheriti | Director: Antonio Magheriti | Cinematographer: Marcello Masciocchi
Music: Guido and Maurizio De Angelis | Producer: Michele Marsala | Original Title: Il Mondo di Yor
Many people will list Plan Nine from Outer Space as the undisputed king of movies considered so awful they’re wonderful, and I’ll give the devil his due. That’s a damn fine film. But if I were to update things a bit, I wouldn’t hesitate to install Zombie 3 as the new reigning king of bad film. Mere words fail to capture just how truly entertaining this horrid piece of tripe is. For those who don’t know the story, Lucio Fulci raked in the big bucks with his tropical island romp Zombie, and like any decent director taking orders from a greedy producer figured why not cash in on the success and do a sequel. The proposed Zombie 3 was troubled from the get-go.
Fulci was entering a particularly cranky stage in his life, a frame of mind that was only exasperated by his failing health. The script for Zombie 3 was thin, even by Fulci’s standards, little more than a vague treatment which Fulci expected to hash out and make up on the spot. When it became apparent that Fulci’s increasingly bad health and cantankerousness were going to conspire to make sure that wasn’t going to happen, screenwriter Claudio Fragasso and director Bruno Mattei were called in to patch things up, which is sort of like calling in the Three Stooges to fix your leaky plumbing.
Fulci turned in a film that was well under the minimum requirement for a feature-length presentation, but he insisted that this was the complete film. Exactly what he shot and how much of it remains in what was eventually released is a source of constant contention. Some sources attribute as much as two-thirds of the film to Fulci while others claim scarcely more than fifteen minutes of his material was used in the final cut. In interviews, Fragasso has attempted to tidy up the record and give credit where credit is due, dissecting which scenes were written and filmed by Fulci and which were dreamed up by he and Mattei. In the end, it seems more of the film belongs to Fulci than was originally thought, but in terms of his commitment to the vision and the overall feel of the film, this is a Fragasso/Mattei affair.
“A Fragasso/Mattei affair” is probably the scariest thing about this movie. Both men are notorious and celebrated for working fast and cheap, churning out lowest common denominator grindhouse fodder with complete disregard for just about anything but getting the job done. Fulci, at least, had his artistic vision, however cracked it may have been. The directorial work of Bruno Mattei, on the other hand, lacks any distinguishable characteristic unless you count “intolerably awful.” And while Fulci’s films often sacrificed narrative cohesion and logic in favor of surreal spectacle, Claudio Fragasso’s scripts lack the same qualities but simply because he was in a hurry. However misguided you may thing Fulci’s artistic direction was, if indeed you think it was misguided at all, you can at least recognize that he had a vision when compared to someone like Fragasso, who was simply sloppy and inattentive. Not that that translates into his scripts, daft as they may be, being any less fun. He is Fulci stripped of artistic pretense and charged instead with giddy don’t-give-a-damn pulp sensibilities.
Being a patchwork film from three different people, it’s no surprise that Zombie 3 has very little to hold it together. At times, it seems to switch from one film to an entirely different film as it wavers between the “soldiers running amok” action scenes shot by Fragasso and Mattei and the moody “pokin’ around in the decay” scenes presumably shot by Fulci. Technically, it has nothing to tie it officially to Zombie other than Fulci’s involvement, but it’s not so hard to draw the films together. In Zombie, it was suspected that voodoo was the cause of all the living dead troubles, but Menard dismisses that as superstition and indeed we’re really never given any reason to believe that there’s not some natural or man-made reason for all the restless corpses. In Zombie 3 it’s stated obviously in a hammy prologue full of helicopters and shouting and running about that all the zombie action is being caused by a biological weapon that was accidentally unleashed when a terrorist attempted to steal it. Personally, I’ve never quite understood the whole “zombie-ism as a weapon” thing even though it’s been used as a way to explain where the zombies come from in countless films. What kind of weapon is a zombie or zombie virus? Sure you’ll decimate your enemy’s population, but then it will spread to the next country, and the next, et cetera. You can’t control the zombies, and just because you drop them off in Iraq doesn’t mean they’ll stop at the Turkish border. There just seem like better ways of going about conquering people.
The film starts off on a tropical island, much like Zombie, although this is a different tropical island with more people. Some scientists are carting around a super deadly biological warfare canister Does it get stolen by a terrorist? But of course. And naturally, the terrorist drops it and it opens up, because all biohazard material is transported in thin glass vials. You ever notice these canisters of biotoxins and plagues seem to pop open easier than your average bottle of aspirin? Someone should teach the military about the virtues of “To open, push down and twist.”
Before too long, the terrorist — who flees to a high-profile luxury inn rather than trying to actually hide out or catch the first boat out of town — is infecting people with the virus, which turns them into flesh-eating zombies. Yep, always with the flesh-eating, aren’t they? The military moves in to contain the outbreak but bungles the job. They burn the infected bodies, which releases the toxin into the air. Didn’t these guys see Return of the Living Dead? The heat also makes the virus more powerful, much to the surprise of the scientists involved. Now, granted I haven’t had a chemistry class since high school, and even back then I didn’t do so hot, but it seems to be that of all the tests you can run on a substance, seeing what heat does to it is one of the most basic things you’d do. Wouldn’t that be like the first test you run? Well, not these scientists. Pretty much everything surprises them, and like all horror movie scientists they spend the entire film yelling, “We need more time to find an antidote!”
The zombie plague gets out, and soon enough, you got zombies all over the place. A group of soldiers on leave team up with some sexy ladies in an RV and get attacked by infected birds. I guess this is one of the only films where something other than people gets affected by zombie-ism, and maybe it explains what might happen to that shark in the first film, although it still doesn’t answer the question of if zombie humans only eat other humans, do zombie sharks only eat other sharks. Anyway, they load up their wounded, proclaim their need for immediate medical attention, and go to an abandoned hotel. Because when you think emergency medical attention, you think abandoned hotel. They take it one step further by leaving the wounded at the hotel and sending some healthy guy to get the doctor. Wouldn’t it make more sense to put the wounded in the plush RV and drive them to the doctor instead of going to the hospital and bringing the doctor back?
Never mind. People are getting wounded all over the place, and all the wounds fester and bubble the way we like it, causing one of our heroes to utter, “That’s not pus. It’s something much worse.” While poking around the abandoned hotel, they find a crate of machine guns and flame throwers. Now this may seem silly until you remember that down in the tropics they are always having revolutions and coups, so I figure most places have a cache of automatic weapons. Finding the weapons makes one of the guys utter the line, “Good! We’ll need those!” even though at this point they have absolutely no idea anything at all is going wrong other than some birds got ticked off at them. They have seen no zombies, and no one’s even threatened them. But they still strut around wielding their newfound toys, and well, so would I.
And then the zombies come. Some of the zombies do the slow zombie shuffle we’ve come to expect. Some of them haul ass and use machetes. There’s really no consistency among the living dead. Some of them moan and creep about, and others are able to hold down jobs as popular morning DJs. This is one of the only films where you’ll see a zombie just haul off and kick someone’s ass. None of that mindless groping and grasping. No, this guy assumes a boxing stance and whips out the right hooks and some aikido submission holds. You’re a piss poor fighter if a zombie makes you tap out. Some of the other zombies hide in closets and on top of pillars. It makes for a dramatic entrance, but you gotta wonder what the hell these zombies were thinking. Was that zombie perched up on top of the pillar for hours and hours in hopes that someone might happen by so he could jump down on them? Did the zombie crawl in the kitchen cabinet of an old abandoned hut out in the jungle just giggling about that one day when someone might come and stand next to it? I won’t even talk about the zombie hiding under the pregnant woman in the hospital.
Oh sure I will. So they go to the hospital, and everyone has been evacuated except for one perfectly alive pregnant woman. For some reason, they left her behind. I guess no one wants to deliver a baby while running from zombies. That’s just too television sit-com. And for some other reason, the zombies don’t eat her. They just sort of hide around her, waiting for someone else to come in. That way, they can burst through her stomach for a big shock. Of course, it would be easier for the zombie to just get out from under the table or something, but what the hell? What fun is a zombie rolling around on the floor when he could pop up through a pregnant woman’s stomach? I like to imagine him and his zombie chums laughing and going, “This is going to be so cool!” as they all squat down in their hiding places and wait for someone to happen along.
What else have we got? Why would you pull into an abandoned gas station, where rags are hanging from the sign and all the windows and doors are boarded up, then wander around inside, amid all the rubble and cobwebs, going “Is anybody here? Hello? We need help!” I mean, the place was boarded up! What about a boarded up building covered in trash and cobwebs makes you think someone might be in there hiding, refusing to acknowledge you until you recount to them your entire story up to that moment? When I see abandoned, boarded-up buildings, the first thing that pops into my mind isn’t “Why I bet a helpful person is in there waiting to lend a hand to someone with a story like mine!”
And then there’s the flying zombie head in the refrigerator. No scene in any movie has ever made me lose my lunch, but I lost it during this scene. Not because it’s gory; just because, well, a zombie head was sitting in the refrigerator and comes shooting out when someone opens it, and then it goes flying all over the damn place. I thought things like that only happened in Hong Kong horror films! Ironically, a number of Fulci fans have pointed to the sheer lunacy of that scene as proof that Fulci himself had very little to do with the film. After all, why would the maestro of moody gore put in such a ludicrous gag? It turns out that in interviews, Fulci himself claims responsibility for the flying zombie head, and not only does he claim responsibility for it, he’s damn proud of it and seems to think it one of the best things he’d ever come up with. So it’s not so much proof of his lack of complicity as it is proof of the fact that he was really out of his gourd when making this movie.
This is all a pleasant climax to a scene in which a couple people leave the group to go look for food. Because you know, when you are in an abandoned hotel in the middle of the jungle, you never know when they might have some Vienna Sausages they forgot to take with them. So they get attacked by the zombie head, which reminded me of an episode of The Three Stooges where a skull falls on an owl and the owl goes flying all around, so there’s this skull with little wings sticking out the ear holes fluttering all about and messing with Shemp. It really did crack me up back in the day. Anyway, six hours after they leave, no one ever bothers to question what might have become of the people who stepped into the next room, nor what all that shrieking and shooting might have been about.
Meanwhile, this one dude is still driving to the hospital. This island must be the size of South America. He leaves in broad daylight, and by dawn, the idiot is still driving to the hospital. Amid all this, some other soldiers are marching around in those biohazard suits, shooting anything and everything that moves. If nothing else, there is plenty of shooting. To Zombie 3‘s credit, it is action-packed. No scenes of people thinking about stuff or contemplating the end of the world. Nope, they’re just out there shooting at the living dead and getting eaten. Zombie 3 is both one of the worst zombie films I’ve ever seen and one of my favorites. Rarely do the elements of incompetence come together so beautifully as they do in this gory masterpiece of ineptness. It may not make your top ten list, but I guarantee that you’ll have one hell of a time watching it, that you’ll watch it again, and that you’ll make all your friends watch it.
The zombies and make-up effects are a real let-down after de Rossi set the bar incredibly high with his still-unmatched work in Zombie. Even Tom Savini’s creations for Day of the Dead pale in comparison to Zombie‘s shambling mounds of flesh. Zombie 3, on the other hand, tends to go more with the “slap some red paint and oatmeal on them” style of effects, which fall dramatically short of being satisfactory, even by Z-grade film standards. The same goes for the acting, the dreary score, and just about everything else. There are a few scenes of moody interest, but they’re quickly undercut by the stupidity of the script, which is, coincidentally, the only real thing this film has going for it.
When Lucio Fulci came back from the hospital and saw what happened to the film, he screamed, tried to make them take his name off it, and then died a few years later. I don’t know if that last one is actually related to this film, but I’m sure Zombie 3 didn’t help. Personally, I don’t see why Fulci would hate it so much. It’s not much worse than some of that crap he made. I mean, dude, you made Murder Rock! Zombie 3 makes no sense, has bland characters, cheap zombies, lots of gore, and a plot that seems to have been assembled by third graders on crystal meth. I would think Fulci would have liked it.
Release Year: 1988 | Country: Italy | Starring: Deran Sarafian, Beatrice Ring, Ottaviano Dell’Acqua, Massimo Vanni, Ulli Reinthaler, Marina Loi, Deborah Bergamini, Mike Monty, Rene Abadeza, Mari Catotiengo, Roberto Dell’Acqua, Claudio Fragasso, Robert Marius, Bruno Mattei | Screenplay: Lucio Fulci, Claudio Fragasso | Director: Lucio Fulci, Claudio Fragasso, Bruno Mattei | Cinematography: Riccardo Grassetti | Music: Stefano Mainetti | Producer: Franco Gaudenzi
All the films that fall into that general category of “cool when I was in elementary school” have this common peculiarity. I, as well as most of the people with whom I saw them, remember one or two particular scenes from each movie, and not much more up until we start watching again, at which time the floodgates of memories both shameful and grand are thrown open. With Sword and the Sorcerer, for example, everyone remembered the slimy wizard making the witch’s chest explode, and everyone remembered the steamy bathhouse scene, but not much else. In the case of Beastmaster, another classic from a bygone era, we each remembered some green guys who wrapped their leathery wings around people and dissolved them, and we remembered Tanya Roberts bathing nude under a waterfall. In Revenge of the Ninja it was a tremendous spray of blood as Sho Kosugi kills the villain at the end, and two naked people getting killed in the middle of having sex in a hot tub.
There may be a pattern here. I’m not sure.
In the case of the oft-forgotten Indiana Jones rip-off, Treasure of the Four Crowns, all anyone could remember was “something about a lot of flaming rocks swinging around on really obvious wires.” There’s a good reason this is the thing we all remember. We remember it because nothing else really happens in the whole damn film. Sure, it claims to be action-packed, in the tradition of course of the recent hit Raiders of the Lost Ark, but unless you count among the action sequences the scenes in which a middle aged man struggles to grab hold of a floating key that makes electronica music play, then the truth is that action scenes are few and far between. Specifically, there is one at the beginning of the film, one at the end, and neither are really worth a damn for anything beyond the sheer hilarious incompetence on display.
Although few people seem to remember this little gem of a film, and by gem I mean small chunk of gravel, it caused a minor stir upon its initial release, and I have fond memories of the day we all loaded up for our friend Jason Morgan’s birthday party (I think it was his) after school and went to see this film, which aside from promising us nonstop action both bigger and better than what we’d so recently enjoyed in Raiders of the Lost Ark, was also shot in glorious 3D! Back in the 1980s, let me tell ya, we knew how to live. Sure our music sucked and we all wore those tan Bass dress shoes with the backs squashed down for no real reason. Sure, we made stars out of Nu Shuz and Rockwell, but we also braved bold, new paths forever etched in the annals of history. One of the biggest was probably the flight of the first space shuttle, but only slightly below that in terms of global impact was the explosion in the popularity of 3D movies that failed miserably to be good movies or look very 3D.
I can’t remember if the trend started on television or the movie houses, but my first 3D memory was the groundbreaking broadcast of Creature from the Black Lagoon in dramatic 3D. You had to go down to the local Convenient food mart (now called something else, I think) where you could get a free pair of the red and blue cardboard glasses that sawed into your ears. Then you, your family, and your friends could all huddle around the television and watch this historic event. It’s weird in this day of twenty-four hour media saturation, to think of anything on television being a national event, but these were simpler times. When a miniseries like The Day After promised to blow our minds, the nation ground to a halt in order to watch. It’s a curious thing I don’t think could be recreated today. Sure, there were lots of people excited about the final episode of Seinfeld, but it just wasn’t the same.
The biggest thing I remember about that night spent watching Creature from the Black Lagoon in dimension-bending 3D was how amazingly un-3D it looked. For starters, it aired on local channel WDRB-TV 41. This was a time before cable, so we all had to struggle with the rabbit ear antennae as best we could. The end result was that there was no such thing as a clear picture, at least not on a local independent channel like 41. Thus much of the potential 3D effect was no doubt watered down by the snow and occasionally weak and wavy signal. Plus, the 3D technology just sort of sucked. But it was still sort of cool, so they did it again a little while later with that movie about the gorilla that escapes and spends a lot of time reaching at the camera. Now, I know many of you out there are younger than me and can’t clearly remember a time when gorillas were terrifying beyond the scope of mere words. But for those of you as old as or older than me, you remember – if you dare. Rampaging gorillas were a huge deal back then, though not as much so as they had been in the 1940s when every other movie featured the Bowery Boys and Bela Lugosi being chased by a gorilla and every other television show was another episode of The Little Rascals in which Spanky and the gang try to scare Buckwheat with a fake gorilla, only a real gorilla escapes and causes all sorts of hilarious escapades. If it wasn’t that episode, then it would be another one where they have to defend their fort from other kids by dressing up like pirates and flinging Limburger cheese at them.
I know it’s a level of sophistication to which many of you young kids can’t fully relate, and I pity you that the world has become so dumbed-down that it no longer appreciates the subtle humor of black guy whose afro stands up or a scene in which a drunk guy sees a gorilla run by him in downtown New York, causing him to look at his bottle of ripple, look at the gorilla, look at the ripple, then throw the bottle away as he proclaims, “I gotta lay off this stuff!” I weep for a generation that cannot see the humor in Ruth Buzzi’s strained-voice, purse-swinging, crazy woman character.
Okay, so I crossed the codger line there. Even I didn’t find Ruth Buzzi funny. I don’t think anyone did, with the possible exception of the people on the Dean Martin Celebrity Roast, and they were all plastered anyway. Existing parallel to the 3D rage on the television was a growing revival of 3D movies on the big screen. In the span of a few short years, or possibly even months, we were hit head-on with films like Spacehunter, Friday the 13th Part III, Weird Al Yancovich’s ground-breaking In 3D album, and of course the film we’re here to discuss today, Treasure of the Four Crowns. The main problem uniting all these movies was that, while every producer knew he wanted to cash in on the trend, no one really had much imagination when it came to taking full advantage of the potential of 3D effects. Thus you get scene after scene of a guy reaching toward the camera or pointing a speargun at the screen (I think that was done in all three films I mentioned). In the case of Friday the 13th Part III, it was especially sad how little they came up with. I mean, it’s a movie about a crazed invincible killer, and besides being the movie that introduces the hockey mask (I think), the best 3D effects they could come up with were the chilling “here comes some popcorn!” scene or the shocking “Watch out! I’m doing yoyo tricks!” scene. Not exactly what fans wanted.
Pretty much every other scene in the action-adventure disaster that is Treasure of the Four Crowns involves a guy sticking something toward the camera in an exaggerated manner and for an unrealistically long time. Pretty much anything that isn’t bolted down gets picked up and waved into the camera. Keys, sticks, guns, fingers, bottles of booze, skeleton arms, spears, dangling bits of string, even a squirrel. You name it, and someone held it in front of the camera in a very unnatural looking way. It is, in many ways, the least ludicrous thing about this movie.
The movie opens with Star Wars like scrolling words on a space background. They explain to us that some things, like this movie, simply cannot be understood. These things include, aside from the movie Treasure of the Four Crowns, the actual four crowns, which contain gems that, when united by a man in a windbreaker, can either usher in an era of peace of prosperity or unleash a world where good is forever entangled in battle with evil, which I guess would be, well, the current world. I’ve never quite understood how a couple little gems or amulets or anything could usher in an era of anything. Just because you can shoot some animated beams out doesn’t really translate into changing the world. Sure, both Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Lord of the Rings featured magic items with the power to change the world, but that was only if they were used as weapons by a guy who already had a pretty big army beforehand. If Sauron had just been some lonely wizard living in a cave, it’s unlikely the One Ring would have changed much of anything, and if Hitler didn’t already have his army in place, he wouldn’t even be able to lift the Ark of the Covenant. But, for the sake of this movie, let’s assume that these jewels do have unspeakable powers. The opening narration then goes on to tell us that, even as we are reading this, a soldier of fortune is seeking out artifacts that will unlock the power of the crowns. That soldier of fortune, that man, is JT Striker.
JT Striker sounds like one of those TGI Fridays rip-off restaurants where you are served potato skins by an overzealous waitstaff all named Josh or Justin or Megan. In a way, this image is not so far off from the image we see of JT Striker, a rugged man of the world, an adventurer, rogue, international soldier of fortune who has come to raid an ancient castle while wearing a Members’ Only jacket and a pair of Haggar slacks. I was immediately reminded of the “greatest athletes in the world” from Gymkata, most of whom were very pasty, doughy middle-aged guys in jogging suits who looked more like used car salesmen than they did the greatest athletes ever known to man. I would find, as Treasure of the Four Crowns progressed, that it in fact had far more in common with Gymkata than it did with Raiders of the Lost Ark. Sadly, in my twisted, sick universe, this is not necessarily a bad thing.
Anyway, JT Striker, exuding all the manly ruggedness of a guy who puts on a nylon warm-up suit and power-walks through the mall for exercise during his lunch break, is busy attempting to pick his way through a jungle cave filled with booby traps that result in a lame 3D effect at every step. Spears, vines, JT’s ass and crotch, and at one point something resembling a squirrel, or possibly a woodchuck, gets thrust toward the camera to provide thrill-a-minute action. JT, of course, being one of the greatest soldiers of fortune ever to step out from behind the counter of a Rexall Drugstore, manages to evade even the deadly spring-loaded squirrel and soon finds himself shoving his crotch into the camera as he shimmies down a space-age looking corridor while weird Forbidden Planet type music plays. What the hell???
At the bottom of the shaft, he lands inside what looks to be the basement of one of those King Henry’s Feast type themed restaurant where all the community theater people go on the rare days when a Renaissance Festival isn’t within driving distance of their homes. I thought he was in a jungle just a second ago, but whatever. I suppose there could be castles full of medieval artifacts in the middle of the Amazon. Can you prove otherwise? Have you ever been on a treasure hunting expedition to the Amazon? Well, JT Striker has, and he didn’t even have to buy safari clothes. He just wore some slacks and a red warm-up jacket. He didn’t even bring a burro or treacherous Hispanic sidekick. Heck, he didn’t even bring a sack or a backpack or anything.
The aim of his edge-of-your-seat adventuring is to retrieve a magic key that has a tendency to make electronic “whoo whee woo” music play as it levitates around aimlessly, causing things to blow up. Picking up the key triggers about a million booby traps, each one deftly foiled by Striker using the method known in the business as “dumb luck.” Most of the booby traps cause something to fly toward the camera. Now, “seeing the string” is a staple of any bad movie filled with even worse special effects. We all know that there are multitudinous sci-fi films in which you can spy the wires holding planets and spaceships in place. Treasure of the Four Crowns takes this to a bold new level however by refusing to include even a single shot where you can’t see the string that the various items wobble around on. You might be saying to yourself, “Yeah, but I bet it was less noticeable in 3D,” and I would then have to laugh at you. Even as a ten year old who could be dazzled by something as obviously shoddy as Thundarr the Barbarian, seeing the historically incompetent effects in this movie truly astounded me. I mean, how many decades have they been doing the levitating shtick in movies? And they can’t even get that right? Hell, I was able to do a better job in high school video productions we made for English and history classes. It also causes a crossbow to levitate through the air, or at least to wobble precariously on the end of a wire. Striker chooses to stand motionless, directly in front of the crossbow, waiting until it begins to fire bolts at him before he dives to safety in the nick of time, providing us with much tension and rousing action, or at least an excuse to ask the question, “Why would anyone stand motionless, directly in front of a levitating crossbow?”
All sorts of stuff starts to explode while ghost noises tease us that the moldy old skeletons lining the walls will spring to live and deliver some serious undead action. Sadly, that is beyond the scope of the budget, so some of them just sort of fall over a little. Striker escapes out a nearby window, which begs the question why didn’t he just come in that way to begin with instead of dealing with that out-of-place jungle cave full of traps? As he runs, or lumbers I suppose, over the lawn in dramatic slow motion, things blow up for no reason and showers of sparks rain down from strategically placed flashpots. If there was any doubt that this movie would not live up to the promise of out-adventuring Indiana Jones, I think we had them addressed during that riveting opening action sequence, and I use the term “action” in the sense that it means a middle age man in Members’ Only jacket running in slow motion through a field of exploding flashpots. Some people call that action. I call it a Billy Squires concert.
Back in civilization, which begs the question of just where the hell this castle was in the first place, Striker sells the key to the nutty Professor Montgomery, who does what all professors do in movies like this, which is rant incoherently about a relic possessed of unspeakable power. Basically, he recites that bit of scrolling text from the beginning of the film. You know, I may not have gone to Harvard or Oxford or Cumberland Community College, but I did go to college, where I took several anthropology and ancient history classes. At no point in my entire five years (switched majors a year from graduation), did I ever have a teacher who, on the side, quested after ancient relics of unspeakable power. In fact, they didn’t even hire people to quest for relics, and with all due respect to Indiana Jones, I tend to doubt the existence of these adventuring professors who have magic amulets and scepters lying about in their office. Like I said, maybe I just went to the wrong university, because never did I have a class with a nutcase professor with some cockamamie theory about the lost Amulet of Zag-nalthriglil that would allow the possessor to conquer the world. I did, however, have a film theory teacher who used to jump up on the table during class and do suggestive interpretational dances to film noir music.
Montgomery uses the key to unlock one of the three sacred crowns. I know, I know. There are four sacred crowns. There’s actually only three. One apparently got destroyed a long time ago, which would seem to render the whole threat of uniting the crowns somewhat moot. Inside the crown is a slip of paper. That’s about it. Oh yeah, the key makes some stuff pop and fly at the camera because it’s been a few minutes since anything was flung at us through the miracle of 3D technology. The professor and his little buddy, an incredibly grating smarmy guy, want to hire Striker to obtain the other two crowns, which are in the possession of a really lame religious cult. Montgomery promises that those two crowns have treasures in them slightly more interesting than a scrap of old paper. Personally, I’m thinking the whole treasure of the crowns thing is going to be as anti-climatic as the safe of the Andrea Doria or Al Capone’s secret vault. Striker is apparently on my side, as he delivers the “bunch of superstitious mumbo jumbo speech” and combines it with the “I’ve got better things to do than get killed,” though apparently he doesn’t since when we first met him he was braving the menaces of a dead squirrel and a persistent buzzard. Some more swinging the key about on a string and the promise of a lot of money eventually convince Striker not to return to his job as manager of the Airway men’s department just yet. And I say Airway because they didn’t have Target back then.
To pull off this task, Striker insists on assembling his team of seasoned adventurers. First there is Rick, the alcoholic mountain climber. Here the movie really misses a golden opportunity to exploit the “drunken double take” joke of which I spoke earlier. Just as Striker is about to give up on the drunken Rick, the key starts doing that flying around thing. This scene goes on for what must be ten minutes, and it would have been a perfect opportunity to have Rick do the thing where he looks at the bottle then throws it away. Instead, Striker manages the awesome feat of eventually catching the slowly drifting key after a lot of stuff explodes, and Rick, figuring that this asshole just let a little magic key blow up his whole cabin, decides he’s game for some adventure. Next up is Socrates, who is working a shameful gig as a clown in some back alley vaudeville show. Like Rick, Socrates is initially hesitant to risk his life and give up all the prestige and public adoration that comes from being a clown in a failed vaudeville show. But he’ll come along so long as Striker agrees to also put Socrates’ dearest Liz in mortal peril as well. Liz, aside from being something of a knockout, is a trapeze artist.
So, the world is going to be saved from the clutches of an evil cult by a guy in a Members’ Only jacket, a vaudeville clown, a trapeze artist, a drunk, and a grating yuppie. Oh, do I ever wanna get my hands on the guy who decided to entrust my fate to a washed-up clown!
This whole sequence has gone on for a very long time, and most of it has been comprised of scene after scene of the key flying around and making glass and steam fly toward the camera. The movie is well over halfway finished at this point, and we’ve had one dull action sequence, an abbreviated clown act, some goofing off on a trapeze, and a bunch of exposition and shots of a key levitating to and fro. Maybe the people who were going to out-adventure Indiana Jones missed the part where, by the halfway point, they’d had about a dozen fist fights, shoot-outs, car chases, sword fights, funny monkeys who do the Seig Hiel salute, explosions, a froggy looking guy named Toht, and we’ve been to America, Nepal, and Egypt. Somehow, Treasure of the Four Crowns’ procession of scenes involving Striker attempting to convince a clown to help him raid this fortress aren’t quite the same. Indiana Jones gets Sallah, a barrel-chested hero of a sidekick with a booming voice, while Striker has a guy who, on a good day, reminds you of some sleazy coke-snorting disco yuppie who drives a Corvette.
I mean, even Gymkata had a bunch of fight and chase scenes by this point. Sure they were lame beyond mortal comprehension, but at least they were there. Treasure of the Four Crowns is only a step above what real archeology would be like, which is sitting in a room reading books for two years before you go out to the Gobi Desert to brush rocks with a cotton swab. But hey, now that we have the impressive action team assembled, I’m sure the pace will pick up. No wait, first they have to spend some time going over the various traps and security devices that pepper the cult’s compound. The crowns are in a room protected by dozens of those laser beam security devices, a big metal cage, and a floor that causes a piercing alarm to go off if you so much as drop a feather on it. And then the statue upon which the crowns themselves rest is packed with assorted booby traps as well. Since they can’t get in through the front door, so to speak, their only option is to use a series of ropes, pulleys, and trapeze contraptions to crawl across the ceiling! And luckily, Striker just happen to assemble a team containing a mountain climber and a trapeze artist. I’m not sure exactly where the aging clown with a heart condition comes in. Then there’s one of those scenes where the magic key flies around for about nine hours as everyone grimaces in slow motion as stuff explodes and flies into the camera. Apparently, this is how the movie defines scintillating action, but I guess I’ve been spoiled to the point where watching someone whiz a key around on the end of a string simply fails to impress me anymore.
While the leader of the cult holds one of those, “I shall heal this sickly woman” meetings to impress new recruits, Striker and his team go into action, or as much into action as this leisurely paced film will allow. It occurs to me that this cult doesn’t seem especially interested in using the power of the crowns so much as they just like having them locked away in the big secure room for no real reason. It’s not like they were actively trying to use the crowns for evil, nor were they actively pursuing the key that would unlock their allegedly awesome power. In fact, if Professor Montgomery wouldn’t have started this whole mess up, it’s probable that this cult would never to anything more dastardly than shanghai the occasional homeless guy and indoctrinate him to love “the master” as he wears a burlap sack and picks potatoes for the Rapture.
Tension builds to a fever pitch, or at least a slightly warmer pitch than it had been watching the key fly around, as Striker and his band evade the ninja guards in novelty masks and proceed to crawl very slowly across the ceiling, stopping occasionally to nearly fall or trigger an alarm so we get scenes of incredible nail-biting suspense, or at least a lot of scenes featuring middle aged guys hanging upside down and making “hyngg!” noises. They also scream a lot when they fall, which seems not so wise to do when a ninja in a funny mask is right outside the door feeling pissed that, while he does get to wear the cool ninja soldier outfit, he has to ruin it all because the cult leader insists on the stupid big-nose masks. After about eleven hours of crawling around, Striker is finally in position to get the crowns. Then the old clown has a heart attack, which frankly serves Striker right for ever thinking that an old clown would be a good adventurer, and the drunken Rick is impaled by a bunch of spears that shoot up out of the altar in front of the crowns. Then some steam blows on Striker, and the alarm finally goes off after all this screaming and triggering of booby traps. The yuppie guy triggers yet another trap and is either bitten by a fake snake or impaled by a spear. Since whatever it is, is shooting directly at the camera in glorious 3D, it’s difficult to tell. Then he gets crushed too! Man, that guy just had no luck. As the ninjas and their leader close in, Striker unlocks the crowns and grabs the jewels, which causes lights to go off while his head spins round and round in a scene that literally had me falling off the couch with unbridled laughter. And from here on out, it only gets better. As I describe the finale, you will probably write me off as having dropped acid or had one too many warm cans of Michelob, but I assure you my sobriety was intact even if my sanity was not by the film’s end.
The jewels flash various colors, and suddenly Striker turns into a hideously deformed mutant with gel oozing out of the side of his face. As he growls without opening his mouth so as to avoid dislodging the shoddy latex they slapped on his face, the jewels begin spewing flame! The ninjas try to mow the mutant Striker down with machine gun fire, but it has no effect, as he swings the flame around and cooks everyone. Then he makes giant flaming rocks fly around the room on cables so obvious they might as well be glow-in-the-dark. I mean, they didn’t even attempt to hide the wires! As Striker’s supernatural wrath mounts, it unleashes a spinning rod covered with sparklers, which swings back and forth from more ridiculously visible wires. Then the cult leader melts in a blaze of special effects work not quite as impressive as when all those Nazis melted in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Just as the possessed monster Striker is about to shoot the flames at Liz, who has been crouching up on a ceiling beam this whole time, she calls out his name and, of course, he manages to regain control of himself just in time to hug her. Yeah, you think I’m joking, but I’m actually making it less absurd than it actually is. Professor Montgomery arrives in a helicopter to spirit them away through a nearby window. Just to make sure everything ends as stupidly as possible, Striker does his best to convey “the pain of sacrifice, and for what?” as he throws one of the jewels into the fire, presumably for one of the surviving ninjas to find and use as a relic of unspeakable power. Apparently the whole part about the jewels being able to end disease and hunger just wasn’t payment enough for the valiant sacrifice of a drunk mountain climber and a washed up vaudeville clown.
With the lunkheaded script, the pathetic “action,” and special effects that would even embarrass Ed Wood Jr., it’s easy to say Treasure of the Four Crowns is one of the worst movies ever made. It’s easy to say it because it’s pretty much true. I mean, this movie is bad. Really bad. Even when I was a kid I recognized how mind-bogglingly cheap and incompetent this movie was. Few and far between are the movies that showcase so little respect for and so much contempt for their audience. They didn’t even make a half-hearted attempt to conceal all the wires, figuring I suppose that we’d be so wowed by the endless scenes of keys and woodchucks and Striker’s ass comin’ at us in 3D that we wouldn’t mind a few short-comings in the other effects. This is the movie that you need to see if you’d ever wondered if a film could make you say, “Well, it wasn’t near as good as Gymkata.” This movie sets it’s sights on Indiana Jones but fails even to match the pommel horse fury of John Cabot. At it’s highest point, this movie almost manages to attain the same level as the lowest points in Gymkata. And as you might suspect, I thoroughly enjoyed the entire mess.
Let’s face it, they don’t make movies this bad anymore. Sure, they make plenty of bad movies, but those movies are slick, high-tech, well-produced bores. They’re not the kind of movies where the fate of the world rests on the shoulders of a clown, even if the clown is named Socrates. I guarantee you Treasure of the Four Crowns, with its three crowns in the movie, will be one of the most awful films you have ever seen, and I also guarantee you that you’d be hard pressed to have a more enjoyable time witnessing such garbage. It’d be different if they’d tried to make a comedy or a spoof, but their intention was to make one of the greatest adventure films the world had ever seen. Who are “they,” you ask? What fool of a producer could possibly think this movie was more action-packed and exciting than Raiders of the Lost Ark when, in reality, it wasn’t even as good as a lesser episode of Tales of the Golden Monkey? What man could be so collossally stupid as to think this movie was anything but complete and utter crap?
Golan and Globus, my friends. Golan and Globus.
Depending on who you are and what sort of movies you like, Menahem Golan and his partner in crime Yoram Globus are either geniuses who have littered the world with some of most laughable yet enjoyably lame movies ever made, or they are simply farts straight from the bowels of Lucifer himself. Under the banner of their Studio, Cannon Films, these two seem to have the career goal of making Dino DeLaurentus look like a producer of classy films. The Cannon filmography stretches back into the 1960s and includes such ground-breaking cinematic bottom-feeders as Lady Chatterly’s Lovers, The Barbarians, Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, those Lou Ferrigno Hercules movies where the gods all live on the Moon, Breakin’ II: Electric Boogaloo, and more Chuck Norris films than you want to know about. They gave us Bo Derek in Bolero, Sylvia Kristel in Mata Hari, and Mathilda May strutting around naked and making Patrick Stewart explode in Lifeforce. They gave us Rappin’ starring a young Mario Van Peebles, and King Solomon’s Mines starring a not so young Richard Chamberlain. They gave us Hot Resort as well as Hot Chili. From their horn of plenty sprung not just Cobra starring Sylvester Stallone, but also Over the Top.
I could list the films that benefited from Cannon’s Midas Touch, but it would take days. Suffice it to say that any fan of the worst film has to offer owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Golan and Globus and their complete and total lack of shame. It is with considerable disappointment in myself that I look back at the films that defined my years of pre-pubescent enlightenment and realize just how many of them came from the hallowed halls of Cannon. Scary as it is, I can safely say that without their steady and relentless stream of complete garbage, sleaze, and worthless junk throughout the 1980s, I would not be the man I am today. What really elevates these guys, what really makes them special, isn’t just that they produced films like Cyborg and Delta Force. No, what really sets them apart from the pack is that not only did they produce those films, but they also produced exploitive rip-offs of their own products, resulting in films like American Cyborg and Delta Force One. It’s one thing to exploit a trend, but it’s operating on a whole new plane when you manage to exploit your own exploitation of a trend.
Treasure of the Four Crowns is just another jewel in their own eerie collection of crowns with the power to destroy – or heal – the world. It all depends on who wields the power of a mystic gem like Alien from LA or Goin’ Bananas, not to be confused with Goin’ Ape featuring Tony Danza. No, that gem was produced by the far more respectable Robert Rosen, who also gave us the gift of Revenge. Within the greater cinematic landscape, Treasure of the Four Crowns is an hilariously pathetic attempt at filmmaking that falls so incredibly short of the goals it sets for itself and the promotional bragging that it did that you can’t help but love it. It’s like those D&D hopeless characters with an ability score of three for everything. But the character, as weak and worthless as he may be, is still lovable, and possesses at least one really cool magic item. In the case of Treasure of the Four Crowns, the magic item is the outlandish but comptentent score by Ennio Morricone, who must have owed Golan or Globus a big favor. Within the confines of Cannon fodder, if you will, it’s pretty much par for the course. As a kid, I found it amazingly stupid yet hilariously enjoyable. As an adult, I find once again that I have not advanced much beyond the level of maturity I had attained by age ten.
Release Year: 1983 | Country: United States, Spain, Italy | Starring: Tony Anthony, Ana Obregon, Gene Quintano, Jerry Lazarus, Francisco Rabal, Emiliano Redondo, Francisco Villena, Kate Levan, Lewis Gordon | Screenplay: Lloyd Battista, Jim Bryce | Director: Ferdinando Baldi | Cinematography: Marcello Masciocchi, Giuseppe Ruzzolini | Music: Ennio Morricone | Producer: Yoram Globus, Menahem Golan
For better or for worse Chuck Norris and his big bushy 1970s mustache will forever be the face of the American martial arts film. It’s not because his films were any good so much as it is the simple fact that he was there and he never went away. Guys like Jim Kelly and Don Knotts simply faded into the background, while Van Damme and Steven Seagal were relegated to the rows of direct-to-video fare when audiences finally caught on that there was no real reason to be watching On Deadly Ground when you could watch Jackie Chan instead. By all means, Norris should have joined one of these two groups by now, but like an agile cat, he manages to bend and twist and avoid the arrows, keeping himself just above the ranks of the fallen.
He got his start in movies thanks to Bruce Lee’s many contacts in Hollywood, namely Dean Martin. Martin used Norris as a stunt extra for one of the Matt Helm movies before Norris really made an impact as the boss bad guy in Bruce Lee’s classic Way of the Dragon. Their confrontation during the film’s finale in the Roman Coliseum is one of the top screen fights in kungfu film history. Bruce wanted to work with Chuck Norris because, unlike most martial arts stars, he was adamant about casting real-life martial artists to fight n his film. Most filmmakers were happy with dancers, gymnasts, or people who could just wave their arms wildly at the camera and tumble around.
When Lee got a chance to direct a film, one of the first things he did was set about hiring the best martial artists he could afford. For the film’s biggest fight, he turned to Chuck Norris. After making such an impact in that film, where audiences around the globe were wowed by his intense fighting style and abundance of body hair, it was no surprise that people started thinking about casting him in larger roles. His first was as the head heavy in Yellow Faced Tiger, released in the United States as Slaughter in San Francisco. What that role had in common with his role in Way of the Dragon was that it was a Hong Kong film that didn’t really require more from Chuck than kicking some ass. His lines can be summed up pretty much as the following: “Hmmm,” “Arrrr,” and of course, “Ha ha ha ha ha!”
When Chuck finally got to start speaking his own language (or any language at all beyond primal grunts and evil laughter), people found that he wasn’t really that great an actor. What did they expect? It’s not like he was actor. How good at karate are your average actors? Luckily, scripts rarely demanded more from Chuck than his poor man’s Clint Eastwood, and when they did, he was wooden but certainly not the worst performer in the world. Not that it mattered. People weren’t lining up to see Force of One in hopes of catching some really heart-wrenching scenes of Chuck Norris emoting all over the place. They were, however, hoping for heart-wrenching scenes in the most literal sense. In that category, Norris always delivered. Throughout the 1970s, Norris’ fame and onscreen body count grew rapidly. His specialty was the “man of peace driven to extreme measures by evil people,” his days as a cackling villain long behind him. Norris’ characters were always noble, humble, and generally fond of cowboy garb.
Folks liked Chuck Norris movies because they identified with him. He was just this normal looking guy: not all that handsome, not all that muscular, but possessed of intense inner strength matched by fists that could shatter brick and bone. He was always the moralist, always the straight guy, always the hero at a time when antiheroes were all the rage. Sure, he butted heads with the higher-ups and rattled a few cages, but that’s because there was so much corruption around him. He was just as likely to put cowboy boot to ass on a corrupt politician or police chief as he was coke dealer or robber-baron. While there was no shortage of tough-as-nails heroes for the urban crowd, Norris was one of the few guys out there dealing double-fisted beat-downs in the name of all the rural, small-town guys who talked softly and wore bootcut jeans. He was Billy Jack without the endless scenes of improvisational theater and explanations of the alternative hippie school.
The one problem aside from his limited acting range was the limited writing range of whoever was dreaming up those movies. Pretty much every one of them entails Chuck beating up a bunch of small-town thugs or international drug lords employing small-town thugs. Rarely did he face off against other martial artists, which I guess is realistic (how many fights have you seen that bust out into fully choreographed kungfu fights?) but not all that interesting to watch. Uneven pacing and cliché scripts only helped to muddy the waters, keeping most of Chuck’s films in the “not good but still enjoyable” range until the 1990s, when he dropped the “but still enjoyable” aspect of his work.
In 1980, Chuck Norris made a film that used what was then a little-known but increasingly popular martial arts legend. The legend was the Ninja, and the movie was The Octagon. The ninja trend would really start rolling a year later with the release of Cannon Films’ Enter the Ninja, but Norris beat everyone to the spinning punch when he incorporated the mask-wearing shadow warriors into this not altogether bad little martial arts adventure. Norris plays Scott James – an action hero who has a normal name instead of being named something like “Derek Ice” or “Maximilian Scorpio, Esquire.” Scott’s just your average Southwestern dude who happens to have a secret Ninja past and a Ninja brother who wants to kill him some day. Scott also has a tendency to allow his thoughts to be broadcast as echoing whispers throughout the entire movie, which gets pretty annoying after about, oh let’s say the first time it happens. Call it personal preference, but I really hate the whole “echoing voice-over” thought-bubble thing. It just seems goofy to me, and I can’t stand that they always have to make it a whisper. Scott never thinks in a normal voice, just like all those people in Dune thought to themselves in whispers. I tend to think to myself in Patrick Stewart’s voice, all booming and commanding.
Scott gets tangled up with a militia that trains potential terrorists using Ninja techniques. Watching these would-be thugs get their ninja training reminded me of the year Phillip Holder moved to Gainesville and amused us all with his self-aggrandizing fliers stapled up all over town. Anyone who has ever picked up a copy of Inside Kungfu is no doubt familiar not only with Chuck Norris brand karate jeans (with increased stretchability for when you need to kick a trucker in the head while still lookin’ good and not ripping the seat of your pants), but also with (self-proclaimed) Grand Master Phillip Holder, who peppered the magazine with ads hocking his instructional videos. When he moved his global training center to Gainesville, Florida, he put signs up everywhere looking for students who wanted to be trained by “the world’s third deadliest man.” No one ever explained that title to me. I guess there is some international governing body that hands out “deadliest man” rankings, but that still doesn’t explain the exact nature of Holder’s claim. Is he the third man to hold the title “world’s deadliest man,” or is that in the race to be the world’s deadliest man, there are two men in the world deadlier than Phillip Holder?
Anyway, he crossed over into Octagon territory when he opened a summer camp for “Bodyguard and Ninjitsu Training.” I have no doubt that Phillip Holder could hand me my ass on a silver platter, just as I have no doubt that the few beer-swilling, Joe Don Baker looking good ol’ boys who attended the Grand Master’s ninja summer camp could kick my ass in less time than it would take them to down a can of Red Dog, but let’s face it: being able to kick my ass doesn’t exactly qualify you for Grand Master status or serve as a major stepping stone on your way to becoming a ninja. I’m guessing that alumnus of the Phillip Holder Ninja Camp (or “Kamp” if you are funny) were about the same as the people graduating from this Octagon thing, meaning they’re the type of gang who would get their ass kicked by a single well-trained individual.
But Norris is a man of peace, and he doesn’t just haul off and kick someone’s ass without dragging the decision out for the first two-thirds of the film. Luckily, people keep trying to kill him for no real reason, so he does get to fight a lot in between echoing voice-over thought whispers of him going, “Sakura, could it be you?” as he contemplates the possibility that his old ninja brother is the man behind the terrorist ninja camp. Speaking of terrorist camps, here’s a question I’ve had on my mind since I first saw all that footage of Al Quaeda training facilities with the guys scrambling over ramps and stuff: why do terrorists need to know how to perform well on gymborees? Honestly, I think whenever Osama bin Laden couldn’t think of anything more destructive for his thugs to do, he’d just send them out to jump over the bars and swing on the ropes. Are they planning on taking down America by challenging us to a footrace through an obstacle course? Or are they training to win that Gymkata game?
One of the women at the terrorist training camp decides this is all a little much, and makes a hasty retreat, eventually coming into contact with Scott (Norris), who has been busy playing games with some rich chick while his best friend grumbles and Lee Van Cleef drifts in and out of the film in an attempt to spur Chuck’s character to action or possibly just collect a paycheck. You’d say that Van Cleef was slumming it in b-movie action realm if his filmography wasn’t so full of shame. Given that he would later go on to star in the abysmal Master Ninja television series, it’s safe to say that this movie is the pinnacle of all things Lee Van Cleef has done involving ninjas. Eventually, the reformed terrorist chick shows her boobs to Chuck Norris and he finally gets off his peace-lovin’ ass track down Sakura’s ninja camp. The terrorist chick shoots stuff, Lee Van Cleef gets to blow things up, and Chuck Norris has to fight his way through a maze filled with ninja henchmen before facing off against the final ninja henchman (who insists on wearing an elaborate get-up and metal mask even though the training facility is in the middle of the desert in Mexico) and, ultimately, his estranged blood brother.
The Octagon takes a lot of flack for “looking dated,” which has never hit me as an especially meaningful criticism. It’s what people say who can’t remember back more than three years. It’s not Chuck’s fault that fashion in the late 1970s was so abysmal. Luckily for him, cowboy fashion has been the same pretty much since the 1800′s, so at least he isn’t strutting around in all those plaid flares Sonny Chiba had a tendency to don. That a film looks dated really doesn’t bother me or register, most likely because I’ve been watching film so closely for so long now that I’ve simply learned to disregard certain trivial things that other people seem to get hung up on. Besides, there’s plenty of stuff to complain about in The Octagon without having to dwell on the khaki pantsuits and things like that.
First, of course, there’s that damn whispering. I go to bed at night, and I hear Chuck Norris whispering in the wind. I’m thinking of recording all his weird echoing whispers and playing them at random intervals during subway rides around town. That would at least afford me some small amount of satisfaction for having to hear ol’ Chuck’s whisper-thought so much. It seems weird to have to yell “Shut up!” at a guy who isn’t actually saying anything. Watching The Octagon is a simulation of what it must feel like to have ESP.
Coming out when it did, The Octagon is basically a 1970s action film with a 1980 release date. As such, it suffers from many of that era’s shortcomings, which are actually many of the same things that endeared the movies to me. It’s needlessly arty in some places, amateurishly crude in others. Flashbacks have a freaky tint to them, and many of the nighttime scenes are poorly lit (or at least poorly transferred from the original negatives). The pacing is also pretty uneven. When there’s action a-brewin’, it’s generally pretty good, but when it comes down to scenes of Chuck Norris engaging in witty banter with Lee Van Cleef or the rich lady, things just grind to a halt. Luckily, the final third of the film dispenses with the dialogue altogether save for the occasional shout of “Sakura!!!” and just makes with the martial arts mayhem.
I also don’t begrudge Chuck Norris the chance to have a cute girl get naked for him during the film’s one short love scene. Given the chance, I’m sure most of us would write ourselves a script that involved some attractive young gal rubbing her boobs against us, or some strapping young cabana boy giving us a cocoa butter rub-down. But understandable or not, I’m not so into seeing Chuck Norris’ carpetlike chest stroked lovingly like someone might pet a furry dog or a sasquatch. I mean, you slide your fingers into that jungle, and there’s a chance some of them won’t come back out.
Action, of course, is what we’re here for, and when the movie shuts up long enough, it delivers some solid martial arts fun. Sure, we’re not talking Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, but as far as American martial arts films go, The Octagon has better than average fight scenes. Norris is in good form and this movie has the wisdom to pit him against other martial artists rather than fist-swinging country lugs. While the choreography isn’t mind-blowing, it’s definitely solid and even believable for the most part. Sakura is played by Japanese karate movie mainstay Tadashi Yamashita, and Richard Norton shows up as a thug, so this movie isn’t devoid of martial arts talent. For the most part, fights are well done. I’m sure fans of the wild wire-fu and undercranked nonsense will find the fights sluggish, but since I enjoy the old school even if it’s slower and doesn’t fly through the treetops, I thought The Octagon’s martial arts were pretty enjoyable.
As for the ninjas, I’m not quite sure what their deal was. I know that ninja popularity was on the rise as this film was being completed, but none of the ninjas in the movie do anything particularly ninjalike. Sure, they sneak into houses and try to strangle Chuck Norris, but there’s no real reason to do masks and cloaks for that. Well, masks maybe, but you don’t exactly blend in with the surroundings running around your average Southwestern city in a ninja uniform and cloak. They don’t seem to be teaching their students very much, either. Sakura and his sai-wielding ninja right hand man kick dirt at people and do that thing where you teach them a lesson by beating them up, but none of their pupils seems especially accomplished at any point. I wonder if Sakura and his masked pal didn’t go back home after a day of watching the recruits screw up and bemoan the sorry state of ninjitsu students these days. Additionally, if the entire idea behind the art of ninjitsu is that you blend in to your surroundings, why would a bunch of Japanese ninjas build their camp in Mexico then strut around the local barrio in their ninja outfits? Mexico is a pretty laid back place, but even the most stereotypical Mexican peasant would be stirred from his siesta by a troupe of ninjas marching down the street. Maybe Sakura just passes his men off as some Cirque du Soliel type of thing.
On the acting front – well, you get what you pay for. That Chuck Norris has never been nominated for a “Best Actor” Oscar is no travesty of justice, and he proves that here. He’s not bad, per se, but he is stiff. He gives it the ol’ college try, and he’s better than a lot of the other actors in the genre. Lee Van Cleef is there to pay some bills, but he turns in a decent performance, though half the time exactly what he’s even doing is a bit unclear. Yamashida is all action, few words, as is Norton. The rest of the cast – well, let’s leave it at the fact that there’s a good reason you’ve probably never heard of most of them before or after this film.
Problems aside, The Octagon really isn’t such a bad film. It was the first out of the ninja gate, even if Enter the Ninja was more popular, so it gets points for being historically important in that regard (or however historically important low-budget B-movie action films can be). It’s certainly better than vast many ninja films that would be released throughout the 1980s, sitting at the top of the heap alongside the likes of Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, and Pray for Death. Granted, that’s not an especially tall heap, but it’s better than nothing. If you’re looking for wild ninja action and people disappearing into puffs of purple smoke, your better off with a film like Ninja Hunters. If, however, you appreciate decent low-budget 1970s action films, The Octagon has a lot of fun to offer despite the stop and go pacing and low production values. I’m much happier with a low key film like this than I am overblown, special effects laden crap like we see today. Call me a cranky old redneck with no taste, but I’d much rather see Chuck Norris beating up ninjas in some sandy courtyard than I would ever watch Jet Li do cgi-fu and “bullet time” effects.
The Cold War produced a lot of great films, or at least a lot of enjoyable ones. It also produced some godawful dreck, though even some of that dreck was at least entertaining. Cold War paranoia films took on many forms. In the 1950s, there were a lot of those “realistic” atomic war movies that consisted mainly of a group of people sitting around in a bar discussing matters until an atom bomb fell and blew everyone up. The more creative films let giant red ants or some such creature stand in for the commies. Some of the more outlandish entries even had secret plots by the Chinese to tunnel under the Pacific Ocean and pop out in California ready for an invasion. During the 1960s, the Cold War sci-fi film gave way to straight-up espionage thrillers inspired by the success of the James Bond films that always involved the Reds trying to steal some terrible device we never should have invented in the first place. Luckily, there’s always a square-jawed G-Man on the case, ready to dish out some beat-downs and bed some Eastern Bloc babes. The best Cold War films of the 1960s were most definitely coming from Italy, Spain, and Germany. The Eurospy film was born, and it was probably one of the greatest achievements of the Cold War era.
When the 1980s came, Ronald Reagan rekindled the Cold War with a fire in his eye he’d not had since the days he was gleefully ratting out his co-stars in Hollywood and accusing them of being Commies during the Senate Un-American Activities Committee. Reagan made the escalation of the Cold War the primary focus of his eight-year administration, allowing education to falter and the economy to languish in disrepair. On the one hand, his crackpot brinksmanship seemed like it just might be the end of us all. On the other hand, he did bankrupt the Soviet Union and cause the downfall of European communism, thus ending the Cold War it seemed he was so likely to heat up. History is funny like that. In the midst of the rhetorical sparring between Reagan and his Russian counterparts, Cold War paranoia films enjoyed renewed popularity. This time we were often blowing up the whole world then driving around in dune buggies after the dust settled.
Although post-apocalypse films were the most noticeable and flamboyant, more than a few cloak and dagger thrillers slinked onto the screen as well. Unfortunately, a lot of those were geared toward kids and always featured a plucky young protagonist furiously pedaling his BMX bike away from pursuing Russian agents. I may be a lot of things, but a fan of insipid kiddy action films is not one of them. Even when I was a young tot, if I was watching an action film, I wanted blood and explosions, and if possible, ninjas and boobs. It was generally unlikely that I would get my requirements fulfilled by a movie starring Corey Haim or Henry Thomas riding their bikes to freedom. Luckily, a few films emerged that satisfied my appetite for movies far more adult than I probably should have been watching. I remember very vividly the night I first got to watch James Glickenhaus’ The Soldier. My friend Dan (then known as Danny) had this older brother named Dave who liked to do typical big brother stuff like hide out in the woods and howl like a werewolf (or a regular wolf, I suppose) to get us scared. It rarely worked, and it was odd that he’d go to such extreme and goofy measures to spook us since we were far more afraid of him simply delivering a good-natured pounding to us.
When he wasn’t teaching us important things like how to endure an Indian burn or a red belly, he was a pretty cool older brother (or maybe it just seemed that way since I could always go home; Dan had to stay there and pray for the day his brother would have to go back to college). He was the one who let us hang out and watch The Soldier. While I remember the whole night with rather bizarre clarity, about the only thing I could remember from the movie itself was a scene where some guy sneaks into an apartment and tries to strangle some other guy with a wire. The other guy blocks it with his arm, but the wire still cuts through his sweater and causes a decent amount of blood to flow. I have no idea why that scene is the one I remember, but there ya go.
Since everyone my age builds their live around reclaiming their childhood and indulging themselves by purchasing every toy they were never able to get when they were ten, I figured it might be a good idea to track down a copy of The Soldier and give it another go-round. I mean, I remember that it was bloody and full of spies. That’s enough to warrant at least one more look. Not too long ago, I would have gone into this film with some degree of trepidation. Would it still seem as cool to me now as it did nineteen years ago? However, after watching countless films from my youth that I should have grown out of, I discovered that my tastes have, for better or worse, changed very little since then. I still like the most godawful juvenile crap, and that part of the brain that makes you outgrow cheap barbarian movies and corny sci-fi remains as undeveloped as the part that should have me buying a house and starting a family instead of worrying about completing my Michael Caine spy thriller collection and tracking down a Fidel Castro action figure. So given my short-comings when it comes to taste, I abandoned any misgivings a sane person may have harbored and dove headlong into the heart of this Cold War actioner. I wasn’t really disappointed either, but I rarely am. I mean, if Space Hunter and Death Stalker aren’t going to disappoint me, a film has to really be bad for me to regret wasting my time with it.
The Soldier stars Ken Wahl – fresh off his turn in 1981′s Fort Apache, The Bronx (but better known here for his role in The Taking of Beverly Hills) — as The Soldier, a CIA operative who is so tip top secret that only the director of the CIA (and maybe the President) knows he even exists. As you expect from such a movie, The Soldier is the guy you call when all other options fail, when the task at hand is impossible, so on and so forth. Maybe if they trained all their operatives this well, we wouldn’t need those “final option” guys, because the first option guys could actually get the job done. Maybe if the CIA stopped relying on twelve-year-old kids on bikes to outwit Russian spies, there’d be less need for The Soldier.
When we first meet The Soldier, he’s blowing away some terrorists in super slow-motion with ultra-wet bloody squibs. All while Tangerine Dream drones on in the background. So far, so good except for the fact that you can clearly see the squibs detonating and emitting a little puff of fire. Maybe they’re using some of those explosive-tip bullets. Of course, this scene has nothing at all to do with anything else in the movie. It just shows us that The Soldier is a bad-ass, and the movie has really over-filled its squibs – something of which I always approve. The actual plot kicks in when three terrorists – yep, three – hijack a shipment of weapons-grade plutonium that is being shipped on the back of an open-bed truck in a container clearly identifying it as weapons-grade plutonium, and with only one car (an Oldsmobile) to guard it. Oh, and a Southern cop somewhere else up in the hills. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never transported weapons-grade plutonium anywhere, as far as you know. Consumer grade for the kitchen, sure, but never weapons-grade. Nor have I ever been in the military in a position to be privy to the particulars of transporting such a cargo. Still, even with my ignorance fully fessed up to, I’m pretty sure they don’t do it in a clearly-marked open-bed truck with only two guys in an Olds to guard it. Surely they’d do something like hide it amid a convoy of heavily armed Piggly Wiggly trucks full of well-trained soldiers. And surely they wouldn’t stop for anything, even a topless woman hitchhiking or a broken down car. But the terrorists in The Soldier don’t even need the topless hitchhiker, because this truck will stop for dang near anybody.
When you only have a couple slow-witted guys guarding the deadliest substance on the planet, it’s no surprise that it only takes three terrorists to steal it. When the single cop finally shows up for support, he draws his gun and does the whole, “Freeze right there, mister!” routine. Now just as I’ve never been in the military, I’ve also never been a cop, but I’m pretty sure that even in today’s skittish anti-cop atmosphere it’s considered A-OK to come in with guns a-blazin’ when you’re approaching a group of men who you know gunned down two US soldiers, blew up a car, and are currently crawling around on top of the truck you know contains plutonium. No need to be diplomatic about things. Maurizio Merli would have immediately started kicking in teeth and bashing people’s heads with the hood of a car. Hell, he’d let you have it with both barrels blazing just for flipping off an old lady. Of course, I suppose I could be wrong. If anyone in the military would like to confirm that James Glickenhaus is correct, and we truck around nuclear weapons with an escort of two Plymouths (one of which disappears), then I’ll apologize, revise this review, and promptly move somewhere with a little more security when it comes to transporting the stuff that can blow up entire cities.
Now that they have the plutonium, the terrorists whip up an atom bomb and plant it somewhere in Saudi Arabia, demanding that Israel withdraw from the occupied West Bank. If Israel refuses, the terrorists will set off the bomb, thus contaminating over 50% of the world’s oil supply and thrusting civilization into a state of panic and anarchy. Israel refuses, which frankly seems sort of prickish. I mean, I know you’re all proud of holding onto a useless hunk of desert and all instead of just giving it to the people who live there, but this is the whole world we’re talking about. Couldn’t they just take it back later on? What’s so great about the West Bank anyway? Not wanting to see the world cast into chaos, the United States begins military preparations to force Israel out of the West Bank. Given our current relations with Israel in which we let them do pretty much anything no matter how adversely it affects us, this may seem sort of odd. Keep in mind, however, that the US and Israel were not always buddy-buddy. When Israel was carved out of the Middle East by European countries, it was populated almost entirely by refugees from Eastern Bloc nations. In other words, Communist nations. The US was supremely suspicious of Israel, which at the time seemed much closer to a Socialist nation than a democratic one. Anyway, what did we care? It was a problem for Europe and the Middle East to work out amongst themselves. It wasn’t until it dawned on the United States that Israel had a lot of strategic value as a base and as a place to test new weapons that we figured it might be worth buddying up with them. So now we have the mess we have today. If only we had a man like . . . The Soldier!
Not wanting to see the world torn asunder, nor wanting to see the US go to war with Israel, the CIA sends The Soldier in to do what he must do, however it must be done. Of course, if he gets caught, the US government will deny his existence, et cetera. You’d think after about the nine hundredth time someone heard that speech, they could just skip it. This isn’t his first mission. He knows the “deny any knowledge of you and your actions” spiel. If they just gave it to them the day they graduated from “super duper spy training” school and added, “And this applies to everything you do from here on out, starting . . .now!” they’d save everyone a lot of time. Meanwhile, over in Israel, a hot female Mossad agent is torturing Iceman. Seriously. Not Val Kilmer Iceman. I mean Iceman Iceman. Sure, it’s just a ruse to get someone to talk, but doesn’t anyone notice that the guy pretending to get tortured has simian-like features and a forehead that slopes like a Neanderthal in order to hide the blood packets the Mossad installed in it to make his interrogation and execution seem realistic? Palestinians may not be up on all the latest techniques from Stan Winston, but I think even the untrained eye can spot a guy with three inches of latex protruding from his forehead and making him look like some of your more involved Star Trek: The Next Generation aliens. About the only reason this sequence even exists is to introduce the chick, and the only reason she exists is so she can sleep with The Soldier later on for no real reason.
While The Soldier prepares for his mission by playing Konami light gun games, the terrorists pass the day eavesdropping on the CIA. After building a bomb out of a light bulb, the terrorist infiltrates CIA headquarters and plants the dastardly device in the office of the head of the CIA. Let me do this one more time: I’ve never been a member of the CIA, but I have been by their office in DC for a tour once a long time ago. I seem to remember them having security. You know, being the CIA and all. Yet this guy gets past all their security simply by throwing on a granny dress and a gray wig and pretending to be the cleaning woman. Wouldn’t security recognize the fact that she has man scruff and a wig that isn’t on properly? And wouldn’t they know who was and was not supposed to be cleaning the director’s office? Surely even the CIA wouldn’t fall for the old “the regular cleaning lady is sick, so I’m taking her place” bit. Actually, given what we’ve learned in recent months about how the CIA and FBI operate, I guess they could possibly fall for a trick involving a European terrorist masquerading as the lady from Mama’s Family.
Something I’ve always wondered is how terrorists always manage to get a job as part of the cleaning or maintenance crew at wherever they need to plant stuff for later on. Take Shiri, for instance. It’s one of my favorite action films, but how the heck did all the terrorists get jobs at the stadium they’d be attacking later on? Did they have a contingency plan in place just in case they were told that the stadium wasn’t hiring anyone? Why are there always just enough employment opportunities for the terrorists to sneak in however many people they need to do the job? Similarly, even if the guy from The Soldier had been masquerading as a cleaning lady long enough to bug the office, how did he get the job to begin with? I assume the CIA screens everyone heavily, even their janitorial staff. Didn’t they catch that this cleaning lady was actually a man who, until a few months ago, had been living in Poland or East Germany or something? It seems that no matter how screwed up the CIA may be, they’d at least catch that one.
So what I’m learning here is that The Soldier is slightly less believable and more bone-headed than even the most outlandish Eurospy films. I mean, I’m willing to accept a few plot contrivances to help move things along, but this movie is really pushing things. Luckily, it’s countering the colossally inept plotting with a lot of slow-motion shooting and blood-spurting bullet wounds. Just don’t mistake this for anything even remotely resembling intelligent regardless of how much the dreary Tangerine Dream music may make it sound like an arthouse experiment.
The Soldier eventually goes to meet up with Klaus Kinski at some ski resort for no real reason, at least not one I remember them telling us. If The Soldier had watched any movies before taking this assignment, he’d know that you can never trust Klaus Kinski. He’ll always betray you or crawl through the ductwork to watch you undress. Maybe The Soldier figured the guy did give the world Nastasia Kinski, so he’d give him the benefit of the doubt. How a guy as creepy looking as Klaus contributed to making Nastasia is as great a mystery as how a greasy little guy with a crappy haircut like Dario Argento could have had anything to do with the production of Asia Argento. Anyway, The Soldier and Klaus meet at a ski resort for no other reason than it’s a convenient place to have the ski chase and shoot-out that’s become required for all spy films since James Bond first popularized them. Seriously, how many spy films have ski chases and shoot-outs? Bond seems to have had one in almost every movie since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Heck, even next generation spy movies like XXX knew enough to have a ski chase. But at least they make some perfunctory attempt to justify it in the story. Here, they just go to the ski resort for no reason. And then Klaus Kinski immediately betrays The Soldier, whom he seemed to have been friends with up to about this point.
So they have a big ski chase, which is admittedly pretty cool. The Soldier even does a 720 while firing an Uzi. Unlike the real world, where this would be an incredibly idiotic thing to do that would result in you hitting no one while everyone was free to take potshots at you, in the world of poorly-conceived Cold War action films, you can do the same stunt in slow motion, allowing you to nail half a dozen fast-moving gunmen on skis while at the same time being able to completely dodge all their attempts to shoot you. Eventually, The Soldier is able to punch one of the gunmen, which causes him to confess the entire plot to The Soldier, revealing that it’s not terrorists at all who are behind the atom bomb threat. It’s the Russians!
Now wait just a minute here.
The Russians? Okay, I know it’s the Cold War, and the Russians are responsible for everything bad that happens, even the decline in ratings for Battle of the Network Stars, but come on! The Russians need oil, too. I know they have some of their own, but surely even Russia can’t benefit from casting the bulk of the world into a state of anarchy. I mean, it is going to affect them as well, like having unruly Eurotrash neighbors who smoke hasch and blast dull trance albums all night. This is silly even for Cold War Russians. And why are they putting on this whole stupid show with making Israel vacate the West Bank? Why do they give a rat’s ass? Are they pissed because so many Jews left Russia and moved to Israel? If Israel had agreed to pull out of the West Bank, would the Russians just go, “Well, we didn’t expect that. Guess we better go turn off that bomb like we promised.” What’s with the dog and pony show? Why don’t they just set the bomb off and be done with things? I’ve seen better plans hatched by the kids down the street who were trying to take over the Little Rascals fort, and all those plans involved dressing up like pirates and flinging Limburger cheese at each other.
In order to alert the CIA to the fact that it’s those dirty, no-good Commie pinkos behind the plot, The Soldier must break into a military base to use the phone. Why? Who knows. You’d think after all this time he’d have a better way to contact the one guy who knows who he is. For some reason, the head of the CIA is sitting in the dark in his office, and only turns on the lamp with the exploding bulb when it’s convenient to the plot. Now The Soldier is on his own, with no allies save for the crack team he assembles to help him pull off a scheme even stupider than the one dreamed up by the Russians. The first guy he recruits is “the black guy.” Since this movie was made before Ernie Hudson was a big star, the black guy is played Steve James, who played “the black guy” in every movie requiring a black guy before Ernie Hudson became the official black guy of Hollywood. Anyone who is a fan of crappy action films recognizes James, who’s probably best-known for his role as “Kungfu Joe” in I’m Gonna Get You, Sucka! or for carrying a load named Michael Dudikoff through some American Ninja films. James was almost always relegated to playing sidekick to some lead-footed white hero, which was ironic since James was a better fighter and actor than pretty much everyone to whom he was forced to play second fiddle. He was definitely one of the great fixtures of action cinema until his untimely death from pancreatic cancer in 1993.
He’d already worked with James Glickenhaus in 1980 on the “‘Nam vet gets revenge” flick The Exterminator. In The Soldier, he’s the guy who sneaks in and does that attempted wire assassination to Ken Wahl I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Of course, after some fighting, they just laugh and embrace, glossing over the fact that had The Soldier not reacted in time he would have been decapitated. And even though he did react in time, he still has an inch-deep gash in his forearm. Do people, even highly trained people, really do this “trying to kill my buddy as a good joke” thing? Rough housing is fine and all, but most people draw the line at attempted murder, even if it’s all in good fun. It’s like Kato constantly attacking Inspector Clouseau. Most people would just sneak up and give their buddy a wet willie or something, not try to slice their limbs off.
The Soldier assembles the exact same crack team that is assembled for every movie of this nature. There’s the black guy, the drunk, the chick, and the guy who doesn’t want to be there. Together, they hatch a scheme in which the rest of the team will commandeer a nuclear missile silo while The Soldier drives around Berlin in a Porsche for no discernable reason. The job of the guys in the silo is to threaten to nuke Moscow unless they drop this whole scheme with irradiating the Saudi oil fields. To show they mean business, The Soldier will drive fast and jump a sports car over the Berlin Wall. That’s their plan? First of all, taking over the missile silo is ridiculously easy. It must have been on the same base that ships nuclear materials in open-bed trucks with no armed escort. Or it’s the same base that can be infiltrated by a precocious bike-riding pre-teen who made his own clearance cards. Seriously, even though it’s adults doing the espionagin’, their plans are even more ridiculous than what any spy-thwarting youngster would have devised. I mean, we don’t want to lose the oil, so instead we’ll start World War III and destroy the whole world? At least the Russian plan could have resulted in Russia itself surviving and being a society where everyone wears burlap sacks and hoes the fields all day. I mean, they were pretty much there already. But The Soldier’s plan makes even the oil field scheme seem like a good idea. This is the kind of crap that probably sparked the events we saw in Red Dawn. I always wondered why the Russians would launch an unprovoked attack on the United States, and why they’d have a bunch of sun-loving tropical island boys from Cuba invade a small town in Colorado. Now we know they were pissed about the stupid crap The Soldier was trying to pull. The Cubans probably just wanted to see snow and shoot at C. Thomas Howell. Who doesn’t want to shoot at C. Thomas Howell?
Talk about a lunkheaded movie. When a stupid action film aspires to be nothing more than a stupid action film, it’s usually not bad. You know what you’re getting, after all. What’s far more entertaining, however, is when an action film tries hard to be smart and the effort just makes it ten times stupider than it would have been without the delusions of intelligence. Chimps could hatch better plots than Glickenhaus has concocted for this mess. Nothing makes any sense even by Cold War standards when lots of things countries did seemed to make no sense. Even Ronald Reagan, who damn sure had some fruitcake ideas, would have dismissed these schemes as a bunch of junk. Why would the Russians want to catapult the whole world into a state of total chaos? Oh sure, because they’re evil. Even Tom Clancy wouldn’t devise a plot that inane. And what about The Soldier’s plan to prevent it from happening? Why did he have to have his guys break in and take over the missile silo? All he does is meet up with The Russians in East Berlin and say, “We’re going to blow up Moscow if you blow up the oil,” and they take him at his word. They are terrified by the revelation that The Soldier now has a missile pointing at Moscow. Was it somehow a shock to the Soviets that we had missiles pointing at them all ready to go? Who did they think we were pointing them at? His whole plan is the brinksmanship equivalent of spending a million dollars to catch a guy who stole ten dollars. Rather than breathing a sigh of relief that the crisis has been averted, you just sort of sit there and go, “That’s it? Really? Man, I’m glad the Cold War’s over.”
The film isn’t helped by the plodding Tangerine Dream score, which seems totally out of place in an action film. Moody synthesized new age music hardly communicates a sense of urgency, so even at the points where the film is well-paced and action-packed, it seems slow-moving and dull. Sometimes a score that seems contradictory to the onscreen action can end up working quite well. This is not one of those times. And speaking of dull, it seems like Steve James is the only one doing any acting. The concept of having more than one facial expression or tone of voice seems lost on Wahl, who glides through his performance as The Soldier with somnambulistic dreariness. Was he even aware of the fact that he was making a movie? Klaus Kinski is fine, as he always is, but he’s only in the movie for a tiny bit, long enough to justify listing him on the movie poster to snare any of the types of people who might be snared by Klaus Kinski’s name on the marquee. Everyone else turns in performances that could be called “below average” had Ken Wahl not set the bar so low. Compared to him, the other actors seem as low-key as Cesar Romero playing The Joker. Not that the script gives them much to work with.
With so many things going against this film, it’s no surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a miserable failure as an intelligent espionage thriller, but as a crappy action film it succeeds marvelously. There’s a lot of shooting, and when people get shot the blood really gushes. Ken Wahl (or his stunt double) gets to have a ski hill shoot out. He also gets to jump an expensive sports car over the Berlin Wall — score one for capitalism, baby! A lot of things blow up, and there’s one of those scenes where a fight breaks out in a cowboy bar and the band just keeps on playing as if it’s nothing out of the ordinary (I think that joke was old even in 1982). Although I feel there’s too much poorly used slow-motion (made worse by Tangerine Dream’s meandering synth score), at least there’s a lot of action, and some of it is even fairly exciting.
Despite making a number of action-oriented films, Glickenhaus just never got the hang of it. For his next movie, 1985′s The Protector, even Jackie Chan couldn’t help Glickenhaus figure out how to stage a compelling action set piece. That The Soldier has any action at all worth watching is a bit of a miracle, but it’s a welcome surprise. The ski chase is good, as are a number of bloody shootouts and car chases, though you’ll be left wondering what sort of lame Porsche is unable to outrun an Army jeep. The horrendously thought-out plot only adds to the charm. At least they tried to make something smart. They simply didn’t succeed. But they did make something that is more entertaining than it is disappointing. Better spy films have come and gone, but The Soldier has enough gratuitous violence and bad writing to keep it on the list of fond memories I’ve been able to relive. If you want your thrills delivered with brains and wit, you’d best look elsewhere. If you want them delivered with bloody squibs and asinine writing, then The Soldier just might be the man for the job.
Just when you thought America’s cities were getting safer (as our suburbs and rural towns get more dangerous), you leave the house to walk down to the corner bodego and catch sight of a bunch of cops fighting with a ninja. It’s more than likely that at some point the ninja throws down an eggshell grenade and disappears into a puff of red smoke. Or maybe you stumble upon a couple of ninjas all fighting each other in the middle of 2nd Avenue. It may sound weird to our late 1990s ears, but way back in the 1980s, this is how things were. America’s cities were infested with ninjas, usually wearing the traditional black ninja suit, but sometimes also wearing shiny gold, red, green, or purple outfits. The urban ninja is not above a fashion statement, after all. Statistics estimate that in the early- to mid-1980s, for every thousand cockroaches in a city, there were also five ninjas. Since every American city has a cockroach population numbering in the hundreds of millions, you can bet that’s quite a few ninjas along for the ride.
Of all the television shows that have come and gone, few had the personal fashion impact of Miami Vice. Its influence was unmatched up until the day all those girls started getting the “Friends haircut.” While I may like to labor under the delusion that I’ve always been a wildly diverse, counter-culture fringe dweller for all my life and started fighting The Man the minutes I was cut out of my mother’s belly (or even before, since I insisted The Man drag me into his world by force), the sad fact of the matter is that in seventh grade, I was still a year away from my revelation. Though hardly a “business as usual” kind of kid, Lord knows I owned a few audaciously colored Polo shirts, a pair of Duck Head khakis, and a pair of those weird tan, soft leather Bass shoes. Not the boat shoes, but those other ones. At least I wasn’t one of the guys who wore Tretorns. I owned a copy of Thriller, and yes, I owned a Miami Vice soundtrack cassette. So sue me. It was the 1980s, and it wouldn’t be until a year later that I would discover skateboarding and begin my evolution.
When reviewing Sword and the Sorcerer, I remarked on the hesitation I feel any time I chose to revisit things from my past, especially from the period of my past falling roughly between 1982 to 1985, a period in which I knew all the words to “Easy Lover.” What disturbs me even more, as eBay makes revisiting my favorite films of that era an easy to afford reality, is that I keep discovering that I still like those movies. By all accounts, The Beastmaster and Gymkata should not be good movies once you cross the threshold into adulthood, doubly so for an adult who spent much of his college career writing papers on “the influence of expressionism in early German silent films” or “the influence of World War One on cinematic art design, 1919-1936.” After watching and dissecting films consider by popular consensus to be among the very best ever made, I should not be sitting down with giddy anticipation to watch The Perils of Pauline, having gained nary an ounce of sophistication since the day I first watched it at a friend’s house on cable television decades ago.
Yet here I sit, constructing a website about the world of film in which Citizen Kane is little more than the punch line to a variety of jokes, where religiously-themed masterpiece movies like Beckett are known but Devil Nuns of Monza is more likely to be given an in-depth analysis.
Michael Mann, the producer who gave the world Miami Vice and helped rocket Phillip Michael Thomas into a lucrative career as a phone psychic spokesman, has come a long way since the days when the interior of police stations were all done up in neon, Edward James Olmos was a police chief with ninja training, and Don Johnson was looking for a heartbeat. Since those days, he’s given the world the critically acclaimed feature films Manhunter (the first movie to introduce the world to the character of Hannibal Lecter), and Heat starring Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, and a weird but unmentioned bulbous knob on Val Kilmer’s elbow. In 2001, Mann shook things up again with a highly anticipated biopic about Muhammad Ali with the controversial casting of Will Smith as Kentucky’s own and Mario Van Peebles as Malcom X.
So it is with no great surprise that we’ll be ignoring completely the respectable body of work Mann has given us in the past ten or fifteen years, and concentrating instead on the 1986 film Band of the Hand. Produced by Mann and directed by former Starsky and Hutch star Paul Michael Glaser (also a Miami Vice alumnus, though unlike Mann, he actually got less credible as his career progressed – if you call Kazaam progress), everything about Band of the Hand screams outdated 1980s chic. From the “cool” clothes to the frequent pink and blue neon, there’s certainly no mistaking the era in which this movie was produced. With all that dating going against it, not to mention the inevitable fate of being dismissed as “cheesy” by any feeble-minded simp who can’t get a grip on anything older than The Matrix, I was shocked upon viewing this film some fifteen years after I first thought it was pretty cool to find that it’s actually still pretty cool.
Not that it’s a forgotten classic or anything. There’s no real crime being committed by the bulk of humanity for not remembering this movie was ever made, but it’s still pretty fun, if not more than a little outlandish in its premise. We begin with a series of juvenile delinquents being rounded up for various crimes. To be honest, some of these juveniles look pretty old. I mean, is “international coke trafficker in a slick pastel blazer and sportscar” really something juvenile delinquents do? I figure, you know, knifing someone or stealing porno mags is what juvenile delinquents do, not setting up vast international drug rings. But that’s just what Ruben seems to be doing. He’s on the fast-track to success as a Cuban drug dealer until he gets busted.
Then there’s Moss and Carlos, the leaders of rival black and Puerto Rican street gangs. They get nabbed when a rumble between their respective posses turns into an all-out riot. Generic “pretty boy” Dorsey gets busted trying to sell drugs. Future cross-dressing sex symbol and Hedwig and the Angry Inch director/star John Cameron Mitchell rounds out our band of misfits as JL, a disturbed young punk rocker in the truest 1980s movie sense of the word, meaning they slap spikey orange hair, a pair of Oakleys, and some neon colored paint-splattered clothes on him. He gets arrested when he catches his abusive stepfather beating the shit out of his mom and decides that the old man deserves a little fatal justice for his actions.
But a funny thing happens on the way to jail.
Our five young trouble makers find themselves dropped off not at juvie, but instead in the middle of the swampy Everglades. The only other person around is a gruff dude named Joe who showcases early 1980s “mercenary” fashion by wearing nothing but black tank tops, black cargo pants tucked into his combat boots, and of course, accessorizing with the black bandana tied around his head. Joe informs them that he is about to use up the greater portion of the film’s “suspension of disbelief” allotment. The five rakehells have been drafted into a special rehabilitation program in which they are dropped into the middle of the swamp and forced to fend for themselves while Joe dispenses half-baked zen warrior wisdom, thus teaching them all the value of self-respect and team work, which will eventually prepare them to return to the means streets of Miami where they will defend the locals from a young Laurence Fishburne as a pimp and Ruben’s old drug kingpin boss.
There are, of course a couple problems with the plot. First of all, I don’t think, even in the Reagan era, you were allowed to shanghai young criminals and drop them in the swamp with Billy Jack. Sure, you could put a telephone book on their chest and hit it with a hammer, but dropping them in the swamp to eat bugs and slog through the murky, snake- and gator-invested waters of south Florida’s beautiful ecosystem was right out. Luckily, none of these guys seems to have any family, at least not any family that objects to their ne’r-do-well offspring being sent to the swamp to build bivouacs.
The second problem is that Joe doesn’t really seem to teach them very much, and their revelation about the value of sticking together and becoming friends is rushed through with very little development. I’m guessing they were out in the swamp for weeks, but the way the film is put together, it feels like a couple days. It becomes obvious very early on that the film treasures style over substance – not surprising with Michael Mann in the producer’s seat. The end result, also not surprising given Mann and Glaser were both primarily television guys at this point, is a movie that feels like a television show. Each of the boys plays a stereotyped character – -the two gang leaders, the suave drug dealer, the dumb pretty boy, and the quiet crazy guy, all of whom eventually discover the value of good. The story relies on you being familiar with those archetypes (and honestly, who isn’t at this point?), and never really does much to develop the characters beyond that.
Ruben is the one exception to the rule, as he’s the only character the movie spends any real time on. After he and the gang – the Band, if you will – successfully complete their program of Joe going off to eat hot wings while they wallow in the muck, Ruben’s first instinct is to bail on the ghetto squat they adopt as their home and headquarters and return to his posh life and position of power. Part of his motivation is his girlfriend, Nikki, played by a young Lauren Holly. She’s still caught up in “the life,” though she’s starting to fear for hers. When Ruben’s old boss declares war on “that bunch of young punks” who are cleaning up his most profitable ghetto, Ruben has to chose between the high life or street war alongside his new friends. Which way he goes is no big surprise, of course.
What is a big surprise, especially for a movie like this, is how good most of the young actors are. John Cameron Mitchell was years away from becoming a counter-culture darling, but he brings a quiet and believable intensity to the character of JL and actually softens the “smart, crazy dude” stereotype by playing it a little more subtle where most people would have hooted and hollered way over the top. The late Michael Carmine does a great job as Ruben, and the rest of the cast performs with workhorse-like competency within the limited roles assigned to them. Carlos is protrayed by Anthony Quinn’s son, though from the looks of him, he could just as easily be related to Antonio Sabata, Sr. James Remar, known in b-movie fandom as one of the greatest sleazy villains of all time (or alternately as “that guy who reminds me of Willem Dafoe”), turns in exactly the performance you expect: delightfulyl slimy. Lawrence Fishburne is mostly there to tool around in a pimpmobile and do that thing where you talk big and threaten some dude with a gun, then that guy disarms you in the blink of an eye and kicks your ass.
Where the movie fails the talents of the cast is in the writing, which as I said, suffers from shallowness and a certain degree of far-fetchedness, if there is such a word. It was the 1980s, though, and if Arnold could walk slowly across a lawn while three dozen guys with M-16s fail to shoot him, then a quintet of wacky young punks can train in the swamp to fight Miami drug dealers. At nearly two hours, though, they should have had time to do more with characters other than Ruben. Instead, it’s up to us to fill in the blanks. Joe spouts off idiotic “way of the peaceful warrior” philosophies that we have to accept as profound and deep because the movie calls for it. He’s wise, or so we’re told, but in reality, his wisdom comes off like the dime-store nonsense your finer high school football coaches spout off.
The scenario itself is rushed and undeveloped as well. It’s like we’re watching them bicker and fight with one another, then in the next scene there should be a bit of text saying, “And they fought long into the night, but by dawn, had learned to respect one another.” There’s no real sense of character development from the guys. We’re asked to simply accept at face value that somewhere out there in the swamp, they discover their humanity.
Where the first half of the film is a so-so Dirty Dozen type “misfits train to be the best of the best” type film, the second half sees the movie dive into a 1980s interpretation of all those “let’s clean up the ghetto” type films from the 1970s, with Joe being a link to the many “vets clean up the ghetto” type movies that became popular in the 1980s. You know the ones. A Vietnam vet returns to “The World” only to discover that the madness of war is nothing compared to the madness that has seized the streets of America. Where as the cats in the 1970s generally fought back with kungfu and various wacky schemes, in the Reagan Era, they decided to dispense with the shenanigans and simply start blowing people away and shooting them with flamethrowers.
The action is poured on pretty heavily in the second half of the film, and while it’s certainly not on par with what was going on in Hong Kong at the time, there were certainly worse atrocities committed in the name of American action choreography, many of them conveniently located in Ninja III: The Domination. With Mann’s guiding hand, and no neophyte to the world of action himself, Glaser directs the action sequences with style, energy, and a quick pace. The finale sees the Band unite to take out a major drug manufacturing plant in South Florida, disappointing hundreds if not thousands of Bret Easton Ellis characters and fans alike.
Stylewise, the movie is Miami Vice. Mann spared no Vice idiosyncrasy or element in this big-screen adaptation of his pastel, neon-drenched Miami. Had it been legally possible, they could have actually set this movie in the Miami Vice universe as a spin-off with Crockett and Tubbs cameos. No such cross-over, however, though the film looks exactly like its small-screen counterpart. Everyone dresses like a rock star. Everyone has cool cars. And of course, every light in Miami is neon pink. That last one actually isn’t so far from the truth. While it would have been nice to see Mann and Glaser concoct something a little different, you can’t really blame them for drawing from the Miami Vice well. That sort of style is inevitable for Mann. Even Heat, produced years later and set in Miami’s kindred spirit of a city, Los Angeles, still has certain scenes that are heavy on the Vice style. I wonder if Mann will apply the same glowing pink neon to the seedy world of boxing in Ali.
While the style of the film certainly dates it as a product of the 1980s, it doesn’t torpedo the film the way you might think. This could be because everyone these days apes John Woo, and some of Woo’s films, while certainly not mimicking Miami Vice possess that same “ultra suave” sense of style. Thus the Band of the Hand fashion isn’t as outlandish now as it probably should be.
The direction itself is solid if unspectacular. Like the plot, the direction relies primarily on the popularity of the Miami Vice sheen to carry the film, rising to the task only when the action scenes erupt and everyone starts jumping around with uzis, the gun of choice in pretty much every 1980s urban action film. Glaser keeps a solid pace throughout the film, even during the requisite dramatics between Ruben and Nikki. Plus, this sort of film always gets away with a false sense of tension since you know at least one character is going to die. As long as they aren’t all total jackasses, you’ll at least care somewhat about who it is. Once again, the charisma of the individual actors outshines the limitations of the script, making it easier to become more emotionally invested in everyone than the writing deserves. Not that we’re on the same level of Jimmy Cagney or Chow Yun-fat here, but considering the bulk of the characters populating the action films of the 1980s, the Band is certainly worth more of your time than the collected characters of Michael Dudikoff.
Music is important to the movie as well, and if you know a thing or two about Michael Mann, you know that he was one of the first people to really emphasize rock (or what passed for rock at the time), and if nothing else, he was very good at it. In fact, he’s better at using music to convey mood and emotion than the script is. While I won’t be searching eBay for copies of the Band of the Hand LP or cassette (CD? Whatever. Those things will never catch on), within the context of the film, it works remarkably well, though it also makes it feel even more like a Miami Vice spin-off than before.
So yeah, it’s not a great film, but it also doesn’t deserve to be dismissed as off-handedly as some people do. I regard any criticism that can’t get beyond, “Dude, it was so cheesy” and thus disregarding a film simply because it was made in a time and fashion period different from their own. I don’t think I give Band of the Hand the benefit of the doubt simply because it came from the 1980s, a time when I was, you know, discovering girls and growing hair on parts of my body where there hadn’t been any hair before (like the soles of my feet and my tongue). That’s not valid because, frankly, I hate the 1980s. Not as much as I hate the disco era, but if you want to get a groan out of me, simply force me to endure any number of “Retro Eighties” forms of entertainment. So it’s not like I have a soft spot for things that are distinctly 1980s.
What it boils down to, then, is the simple fact that I don’t think Band of the Hand is a particularly bad movie. Sure, it has some pretty obvious flaws, and in the end, it’s pretty silly. In the end, however, it does for Michael Mann what The Last Dragon did for Barry Gordy. Actually, “not much” would be what it did for them. But both, in my opinion, manage to rise above their obvious short-comings and deliver movies that are, if not perfect, at least fun. Compared to most of the action films from the 1980s, Band of the Hand is a damn work of art, but removed from those low standards, it remains a decent if not entirely successful action film with a goofy moral, lots of energy, and style to spare. I went into it expecting to laugh, and I discovered that despite the 1980s trappings, it was still an alright b-grade action film. It may not be The Killer, but at least it isn’t Panther Squad.