Superargo and the Faceless Giants

The Mexico of the lucha libre sci-fi adventure films is just about as close to our version of the Promised Land as you can get. I’d gladly turn in our world of turmoil, suffering, and nouveau French cuisine for a good chimichanga and a world where the biggest news comes when pro wrestlers have to thwart the diabolical scheme of some mummy. Oh sure, no one is going to be crazy about a world full of mummies all walking around with their dusty heads full of diabolical schemes, but once you get over the shock of “Hey, look! A mummy! Is that a midget in a cape next to him?” things really are not so bad. The mummy might kidnap a sexy chica in a flimsy negligee so he can carry her around a bit, and he might injure some old pipe-smoking man by knocking him out with the patented “chop to the shoulders” blow that seems to comprise the mummy’s only real offense, but that’s about it. In the end, you know the mummy poses only a minor threat to the world as a whole, and Santo or Mil Mascaras will be around eventually to bodyslam the mummy and burn down an old castle. Compared to what we have to deal with in the real world, I’d much prefer luchadores duking it out with mummies.

Wrestling heroes were not limited to Mexico however, though that’s certainly where the best of them hung out. America got in on the scene with a handful of rather lame wrestling films that were little more than juvenile delinquency films, completely lacking all the outlandish imagination and supernatural trappings of their south of the border compadres. Too content was America to have a wrestler show up to teach some kids in a reform school the value of self respect while, at the same time, dealing with some low-rent thugs trying to fix a match. A fixed pro wrestling match? For shame! What’s really for shame, though, is that it was all JDs and punks and never any space aliens or vampires, at least until we got Suburban Commando, and I guess then we all learned a valuable lesson about letting Mexico do what Mexico does. Sometimes, you just ave to admit that you are out of your league and just leave the ring. Closer to the Mexican mark were the few notable European entries into the heroic wrestler genre. Germany had a couple entries into the scene if I recall, but Europe’s big winner was Superargo, a Spanish-Italian co-production

Superargo and his European compatriots were not, however, simply stealing the Mexican formula and plopping it down in the middle of the BeNeLux powers. While Mexican wrestling movies mixed grappling action with science fiction and horror (and the occasional gangster or ninja storyline), European wrestling superhero films generally selected from different genres, mixing their costumed crime fighters with the equally popular Eurospy films that came in the wake of James Bond’s success. Superargo is equal parts Santo film and swank Eurospy adventure, with more than a little influence being drawn from American superhero shows like Batman and Green Hornet. The result is a film that is heavy on elements from each genre but ultimately lacking the psychotronic atmosphere achieved in the better Mexican films. More Umberto Lenzi, less Mario Bava in feel. Since Eurospy films often incorporated elements of science fiction into their espionage storylines, you get plenty of that here — including zombielike robots, a mad scientist, Indian mysticism, and assorted ray guns — but there’s something not quite there about it, a failure to conjure up the gothic, otherworldly feel of the Santo films. Not that what Superargo has going on is bad. It’s just a different approach.

Superargo got his start in the film Superargo vs. Diabolikus, where we met the superhero secret agent who retires from the ring after accidentally killing an opponent, only to return to action when his special powers — like telekinesis, levitation, and “fast coagulating blood” that allows him to accelerate the healing process — cause the secret service to enlist his aid in a case. Since his Superargo mask and tights brought him luck in the ring, he insists on wearing them on the case as well, no doubt causing no small amount of embarrassment to the men who hired him.

Superargo returns in this sequel, Superargo vs. The Faceless Giants, a curious title since the opponents Superargo must overcome are neither faceless nor especially gigantic. Sure, some of them are big, but none of them are Andre the Giant size, and all of them not only have faces, but many of them have very large faces. A psychedelic credit sequence clues you into the fact that this isn’t going to be business as usual. I wonder why it is that European and Mexican wrestling movies were so far-out while American wrestling movies were so mundane. I guess part of it was the more colorful nature of Mexican wrestlers. Clad in masks and capes, drawing on a rich history of masked warriors, the Mexicans looked like superheroes right out of the gate. All it took was Santo beating up some Martians, and the wrestlers found themselves occupying the same territory as other costumed crime fighters. Lou Thesz was an incredible in-ring performer, but by contrast, no one would accuse the man of being especially flashy. Besides, American already had plenty of comic book heroes running around in garish, skin-tight outfits. Still, you’d think if someone was going to go through all the trouble of making a wrestling movie, they’d at least through a wolfman into it.

Superargo‘s action begins where it always should — in the ring. A tan, shaven man (thus the good guy) is pounding the tar out of a hairy, pasty dude (thus a bad guy). The good guy’s post-match celebration is cut short when a gang of saggy-faced (but not faceless) guys in black leather body suits and huge, unwieldy silver helmets rush him. Well, they don’t actually rush him. They sort of stagger very slowly toward him in that style of walking that is meant to signify to the viewers that the people doing the walking are, in fact, robots or zombies. No matter how slow they walk, the robot zombies are still able to surround our hero, who is overwhelmed by the sheer number of exceptionally slow moving lunkheads wandering to and fro and emanating an extremely annoying electronic “bing” noise.

The robots kidnap the wrestler, and unfortunately for him, Macho Man Randy Savage isn’t there to make the save by jumping on top of the van while wearing a big-ass lime green foam cowboy hat. The wrestler’s sister, Claire, does manage to escape by walking slowly away from rather than towards the assailants. It is a technique that could have saved a lot of people a lot of trouble if only it had been employed on a more consistent basis. No matter how many times it happens, and no matter how well I know that it’s just one of those things, I can’t help but ask why people are always being overtaken by lumbering, slow-moving lugs. A child walking at a brisk pace could outdistance these things and have time to stop and buy a Rocketpop from a pot-smoking ice cream man. Yet in movies, as we all know, even the very fit are unable to outmaneuver or outrun villainous assailants who exhibit all the fleet-footed dexterity of Manny Yarborough. Part of the reason I always appreciated Tom Savini’s remake of Night of the Living Dead is because Patricia Tallman as Barbara takes a look at the zombies and surmises that she and her cohorts could escape simply by walking in a speedy and orderly fashion away from the ghouls. Then later on, she does just that. Problem solved. Alas, she is one of the few in horror film history who has proven able to outpace attackers possessing a quarter of her speed.

The police are baffled by the case of the loud robots. You know, there is a lot that is good about Europe: European women, ancient buildings and castles, fine food and spirits, Bjork kicking the shit out of reporters. There’s plenty of good stuff about Europe, but if Eurospy and superhero films are to be believed, one can never offer too few compliments to the police force of any European nation. Not only do the British insist on wearing outdated, goofy hats, but every single time we see the police force, even those geniuses at Scotland Yard, they’re baffled and at a dead end. Even the most trifling of cases has some mustache-sporting inspector throwing his arms into the air and whining, “That’s it! We’re stumped!” These guys can’t issue a parking ticket without having to first phone up some womanizing globetrotter named Super Dragon or some guy who insists on conducting official police business while wearing a red body stocking and a black leather mask. The only police officer that was more useless than the police in a Eurospy film was that guy Mahoney who hung around Commissioner Gordon in the old Batman TV show. How the hell did that guy even keep his job? Maybe they would have depended on Batman less if they fired Mahoney’s sorry ass and got someone more competent, like McCloud.

With no leads and no hope of solving this bizarre case, even though slow-moving robots with giant metal headgear aren’t exactly capable of blending seamlessly into society, the government decides to once again call upon the services of Superargo. To put this in context, try to imagine the confidence you would have instilled in you if the police and FBI had been unable to solve a mailbox pipe bomb case, and their solution to the problem had been to call a press conference and announce to the country that, “I think La Parka might have some insight into the situation.”

Oh sure, it works in a comic book, but the whole concept of costumed crusaders doesn’t stand up too well to real-world analysis. Of course, the real world is also where we pay taxes and have to get the timing belt replaced on our car, so it’s not as if I’m totally married to everything having to be just like it is in the real world. No one wants to see a movie about someone getting their timing belt replaced, or at least I don’t want to see that movie — not unless while the mechanic is working on the car, the garage is besieged by a Frankenstein monster. Still, it’s amusing to think about the idea of comic book superheroism being applied to the real world. Can you imagine if, during the hellish civil war between Tutsi and Hutus in Africa, a guy in a purple leotard and mask came riding out of the jungle and yelled, “The Phantom commands you to stop this madness!” Or for a less sinister example: anyone remember that talk show where they had the guy on who really thought he was Batman? He would skulk around the city all night long in his homemade Adam West duds just looking for crimes to fight.

All this reminds me of a story once relayed to me, I think by my friend Pat, though I could be wrong. Anyway, he knew a guy who was making a movie or a Halloween costume based on the Stainless Steel Rat character. The guy had crafted this whole sheet-metal get-up and was trying it on one night when a burglar, unaware of the fact that anyone was in the isolated work room, broke into the house. Upon hearing the noise, the guy grabbed a bat or a crowbar or something and, in full Stainless Steel Rat armor, rushed the burglar, who was suitably freaked out by seeing a big-ass armored rat charging at him. Apparently as he was being arrested, the criminal kept babbling about the freak in the rat suit, not unlike people in the comic books do about Batman. So I don’t know. Maybe there’s more validity to costumed crime fighting than we think. I think the same guy went on to build a suit of armor with flamethrowers built into the gloves.

Whatever the case, I wouldn’t have made it very far in life if I was the sort of person who sat around whining about how Spider-Man wasn’t realistic because he wears a silly costume. I mean, the dude can crawl up walls and make wavy black lines emanate from his head when danger is near! Who am I to judge his fashion sense? Complaining about the inherent nuttiness of costumed superheroes is like complaining that Star Wars is unrealistic because you shouldn’t be able to hear all that sound in space.

We first meet Superargo as he’s practicing his levitation skills with his personal swami and sidekick, Kamir. When the police arrive, Superargo proves his power to them by doing the whole “I knew you were going to come here” thing, meaning that so far, Superargo has proven himself at least as capable as Mistress Cleo. When the secret service rep seems less than enthused about employing a pro wrestler (perhaps he was familiar with the cinematic body of work attributed to one Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea), Superargo further impresses all parties by concentrating for thirty seconds in order to crack a vase using nothing but his astounding mental powers. Never mind that he could have just walked over and kicked the thing in a lot less time than it took him to whip up his mental abilities. I’m not saying that if I could break priceless ceramic antiques using just my mind that I wouldn’t do it, but in a pinch, if it came down to focusing the sum total of my chi powers for thirty seconds versus just slapping someone, I’d go with the slap. I know it’s not very metaphysical of me, but that’s the kind of guy I am.

The government is still hesitant to entrust the fate of the country to Superargo and Kamir, at least until the robotic zombies strike again, this time robbing a bank. For some reason, the police run right by the van parked on the sidewalk in front of the bank, with its back door open. You’d think they would at least take a passing notice to such a prominent getaway vehicle. They might also at least pretend to be interested in the guy sitting in the black sedan next to the van with the big blinking control box in his lap. But what do I know about police work? In classic dumb movie cop form, they realize the robots are impervious to bullets and respond to this revelation by shooting even more bullets.

Superargo soon surmises that someone is kidnapping the world’s best athletes and turning them into slow-moving robotic zombie minions. Exactly why you would take the time to kidnap the worlds best and brightest athletes, the fastest and strongest people in the world, then turn them into shuffling buffoons is beyond me. Seems like you could really be kidnapping any old slob and getting the same ultimate results. Superargo also figures that Claire, being an acclaimed swimmer, is still a target since nothing is handier to your sluggish robot army than having one of them who might be a decent swimmer were it not for the pounds and pounds of electronic equipment strapped to its head.

Superargo devises a genius plot involving Claire hiding in one room while he waits in the other for the robot men to come after her. His plan works wonderfully. She stands in one room, and he’s in the other getting his ass handed to him by the robotic thugs. For some reason, one of them is carrying a medieval mace. What the heck is his deal? If Superargo’s plan included getting beat up and allowing Claire to be successfully kidnapped, then it all worked out pretty well for him. Superargo gives chase in his keen little sports car, the kind that all spies and heroic wrestlers seem to own. Fat lot of good having a fast car does him, because the Faceless Giants with big faces manage to shake him.

For his next plan, Superargo decides to stage a dramatic comeback in the world of wrestling, figuring that this will make whoever is behind the kidnapping want to kidnap him too. At Superargo’s request, the German secret service sets up a match. I didn’t know that among the police force’s many duties were booking and promoting pro wrestling matches, nor that these matches would be nationally celebrated affairs reported in all the papers.

Despite the blatant transparency of his ruse, a plot so feeble and obvious that there is no way the mysterious villains couldn’t recognize it as a trap, it still works. The Faceless Giants show up and kidnap Superargo — except that it’s not Superargo at all! It’s an impostor, and Superargo is following close behind in his inconspicuous sports car. It might be easier if he had allowed himself to get captured, but that’s just my stupid plan. I do know that by this time, all Superargo has managed to do is break a vase and get two innocent people kidnapped. By this point in the movie, El Santo would have wrestled three matches, judged a beauty contest, and punched Frankenstein in the face.

Kamir and Superargo begin wandering aimlessly around in the woods in the general vicinity of where they last saw the robots. Superargo’s bright red body stocking aids him in blending into the dull brown background of the woods. Kamir sees one of the kidnapped athletes making a run for it, and this athlete was obviously not a track star. He moves like Rerun from What’s Happenin’, with arms flailing wildly in little circles at his side. What was this guy’s sport? Maybe rowing? Or curling? Unable to help for some reason, possibly laziness, Kamir and Superargo regroup back at the road, only to be discovered by a sultry beauty in a car every bit as sporty as Superargo’s own ride. She seems especially unimpressed that a pro wrestler and his swami sidekick are wandering around in the woods, like that sort of thing happens all the time. I know I’d be pretty shocked to see Honkytonk Man and Mr. Fuji in the city, let alone loitering along the side of a dirt road out in the middle of nowhere.

We soon learn that the woman works for the man creating the robot army, and that man is none other than famed iconoclastic rock star Elvis Costello, or at least someone strikingly similar in appearance. Superargo and Kamir get attacked in the woods, and once again one of the robots is lugging around one of those spiky morning star things. What the hell? You have the technology to turn the world’s greatest athletes into awkward, clumsy robotic minions, yet the best you can do for arming them is some Renaissance Festival surplus? Look, I know Europe has a rich medieval history and all, but give your guys some guns or something. Who robs a bank or fights heroic costumed superheroes with a mace?

Superargo, in turn, throws trees at the robots. So I guess on top of mental powers and fast-coagulating blood and levitation, he also has super-strength. Doesn’t that sort of make his in-ring career even more of a sham? I mean, how heroic is it for a guy with supernatural strength and mental powers to pick on lugs whose only real power is a mean hammerlock? Meanwhile, for all his metaphysical mumbo jumbo, Kamir’s only power seems to be to yell “Superargo! Help me!” really loud when he is getting choked by robots. He does this in pretty much every scuffle the duo gets into, making you wonder why Superargo even brings the guy along. Sure, he may be an ace at helping you develop your telekinetic abilities, but that obviously doesn’t translate into him being a good fighter. Chun from the Remo Williams books this guy is not.

Superargo does manage to kill and capture one of the Faceless Giants. After struggling to get the thing into the tiny back seat of his European sports car (I bet Superargo wishes he’d bought something a little more sensible now), he takes it back to HQ where it is operated on by Jeffery Combs and Will Farrell, or at least two striking lookalikes. They don’t tell him much except for what he already knows, but it does cause him to remember some crazy old scientist who had been doing robotics research before going totally insane. While Superargo and Kamir visit the mad scientist in a building labeled “Asylum for the Criminally Insane” (would they really advertise that so prominently?), the diabolical Dr. Wond hypnotizes Claire into trying to kill Superargo.

The remainder of the movie involves a lot of running around in the woods and Kamir screaming, “Superargo! Help me!” before everyone ends up in Wond’s underground lair for the big final showdown. Wond could have avoided a lot of trouble if he just killed Superargo with a knife or a gun or something instead of some goofy mad scientist way (gas chamber). To his credit, at least Wond does try and kill Superargo instead of pulling that “I want you alive so you can see the fruition of my mad scheme” nonsense that most mad movie scientists pull. Dr. Wond comes across as a bit of a weak villain, though. Sure, he has a keen underground lair full of random scientific equipment, and he has the beautiful female assistant who isn’t as evil as she thinks, but where the heck are his midget henchmen?

All in all, Superargo is a pretty so-so little superhero film. Thanks to it being a European production from the 1960s, there’s a lot of trippy phantasmagoric stuff. His powers are okay, I guess. I mean, I wouldn’t complain if I could throw trees and levitate. Superargo is no Santo, and this isn’t nearly as cool as the better Santo films, but it’s still a fair enough adventure with a few twists and turns in the plot. Granted they’re very predictable twists and turns, but what do you want from a movie about a superhero wrestler battling robots? It delivers enough to keep a lowbrow chump like me satisfied. Although there are scenes of “deduction,” the movie generally eschews exposition in favor of more scenes involving Superargo having to pull Kamir out of quicksand. Can’t he just levitate out? Anyway, that’s a good example of the “show, don’t tell” rule, though when my composition teacher told us that, I don’t know if she had in mind red-tight-wearing superhero pro wrestlers pulling swamis out of quicksand.

Superargo manages to pull off a ludicrous costume fairly well, though I still don’t know how comfortable I’d be with Superargo being the last, best line of defense against the forces of evil. I guess he’s better than Hulk Hogan, but what I’d really like to see is a group of villains that have to contend with Abdullah the Butcher or Cactus Jack. Superargo’s wrestling outfit is no more outlandish than The Phantom’s sweet lavender tights — and that guy was in the jungle! — or Adam West’s pot belly-enhancing spandex. At least Superargo looks fit beneath his tights, a feat that is actually harder to pull off than you might think. Even big, muscular Henry Rollins type guys tend to look silly and skinny in long-sleeve bodystockings, which is probably why most of them opt for those bodybuilder tank tops with the foot-wide arm openings. When Rollins had on the Superman outfit for one of his videos, he looked like a scrawny goofball, yet weirdly enough, when the decidedly less muscular Christopher Reeve had the blue and red on, he looked okay. All things considered, I’d rather have Adam West looking goofy in tights than any of those absurd “built-in fake muscles” suits that have been so popular since the Tim Burton Batman movie. At least Adam West and Superargo can turn their heads. What the heck was Batman thinking when he made that costume? I hope Superargo kicks his ass some day.

Acting-wise, there isn’t much to gauge here since my copy of the movie is dubbed. Besides, when you don bright red jammies and a leather mask, those tend to do the acting for you. The rest of the cast is pretty stiff it seems, but honestly, are you watching Superargo and the Faceless Giants in hopes of spotting the next F. Murray Abraham? Or M. Emmet Walsh? The cops are there to huff and say, “Well old chap, I’m completely baffled.” The women are there to scream or say, “Superargo, you will protect me, won’t you?” The mad scientists are there to say, “Those fools will pay for laughing at my research!” And Superargo? He’s there to kick a little butt.

Although I would have appreciated a little more in-ring action from a wrestling superhero movie, the action when it arrives overall is pretty good. The fights are well-choreographed, with only a few of those horribly telegraphed stunt set-ups. I wonder why the only time Superargo uses his super strength is when he throws the tree at the robots. Maybe I’m wrong and that wasn’t a super power at all. Maybe it was one of those surges of adrenaline you read about in the papers. The rest of his powers are pretty useless. He gets to levitate once, but he misses the chance to really piss off Dr. Wond by using mental powers to shatter the madman’s assortment of antique vases.

Superargo was spoofed in the film Incredible Paris Incident, and while this movie isn’t nearly as goofy or as fun as that one, it’s still plenty goofy and sort of fun. With so many people attempting to make superheroes dark and serious and “adult” (or as adult as a costumed crime fighter can be), this campy, wacky throwback to a simpler time is positively delightful. Unless the success of the first Spider-Man movie reminds Hollywood executives that superhero movies can actually be fun rather than all somber and sour-faced, then at least we know we can look back to the golden age of the 1960s, when all you needed to save the world was a bulletproof bodystocking, a mask, some telekinetic powers, and a turban-wearing sidekick.

Hey, what ever happened to that guy who pretended to be Superargo in that one scene?