W is War

This movie features an army of well-armed, leather clad Filipinas with shaved heads. If you know me, you know that alone qualifies this as one of the greatest movies of this or any generation. Everyone is all crowing about Citizen Kane all the time, but to those people I ask 1) have you ever even seen Citizen Kane; and 2) did it feature even a single well-armed, leather clad Filipina with a shaved head? It didn’t, did it? So stop calling it the greatest film of all time. And since W is War is Filipino trash cinema, it’s not satisfied with just cute women with shaved heads, even though that was enough for me. W is War is the sort of movie that just keeps giving and giving. Cartoonish villains in capes, dune buggies, motorcycles shaped like sharks, massive shootouts, dudes in leather pants, exploding huts, sloppy kungfu fights, scenes shot from between the legs of hairy men wearing yellow Speedos — truly W is War is the movie that has something for everyone, and plenty of it.

The best I can do in a nutshell is to that this movie is like Intrepidos Punks got in a custom trike wreck with Fantasy Mission Force after someone went on a shopping spree at both International Male and Malcom McClaren’s Sex. Although the look of the bad guys is distinctly post-apocalypse Road Warrior punk/fetish fashion, everyone else pretty much dresses like it’s the eighties in South Asia, which means lots of guys in Members Only jackets without shirts and lots of skintight white jeans. And since this is The Philippines, everyone is sporting a sweet mustache. The glut of post-apocalypse movies that followed in the wake of Road Warrior inspired many uninspired rip-offs, mostly from Italy, but The Philippines took a keen interest in the genre as well. Their entries are particularly bizarre, and while W is War‘s credentials as a true post-apocalypse movie may be suspect, it certainly channels the batshit spirit of full-fledged apocalypse films like Warriors of the Apocalypse, even if fashion-wise it can’t match the extravagant majesty of that film’s shoulderpad content.

This movie served as my introduction to Filipino b-movie…ehh…would you call him a legend? Superstar? I don’t know. Let’s just call him Anthony Alonzo, last seen here in a supporting role in the trashy Namsploitation film Intrusion: Cambodia. Alonzo was a fixture in Filipino film for years, parlaying his on-screen success into a political position when he became councilor of Quezon City — which means in my private Utopia, the city of the future is lorded over by a triumvirate of cult film stars turned politician: Anthony Alonzo, India’s Amitabh Bachchan, and Italian porno star and former parliamentary member Anna Ilona “La Cicciolina” Staller. Ha. Remember when that was a thing? Who would have thought that eventually an Italian prime minister would make look prudish the elected official best known for giving topless press conferences and appearing in movies featuring pee fetishism and bestiality?

Alonzo got his start in the 1970s in a series of “ripped from the headlines” style thrillers similar to the gritty cop and crook movies being made in the US, Italy, and Japan. In the 1980s, he specialized in low budget actioners and war movies, and W is War is, remarkably, only the second weirdest film in which he appeared during that most fecund of decades — the weirdest by far actually being W is War‘s semi-sequel, Clash of Warlords. W is War sees Alonzo and his pencil-thin mustache starring as Sergeant Wally Lucas — code name W2, out of respect no doubt for the man’s love of tax forms — head of a special task force of cops in leather jackets and cowboy boots who deal with Manila’s most outrageous criminals.

No sooner do we meet W2 than we also meet a gang of post-apocalyptic, leather-clad skinhead drug and gun runners with the requisite affinity for trikes and dune buggies. They’ve shown up outside what looks like lobby of a modest but clean motel to loiter and aggressively play the acoustic guitar, an act W2 knows will eventually lead to drum circles and fire dancing and so must be nipped in the bud. In the ensuing confrontation, one of the punked out gang members is shot and killed, leading to W2 being temporarily suspended from the force while also landing him on the shit list of Nosfero (Den Montero), the gang’s primary enforcer and, coincidentally, brother of the guy who was killed. If the gang is a shining example of the post Road Warrior fixation for ultra punked out crazies, Nosfero takes it to a whole other level, resplendent as he is with his Fu Manchu mustache, single pigtail sprouting out the side of his head, and of course, a dramatic cape. He’s like a South Asian pirate crossed with a leather daddy cosplaying as Dr. Strange.

After giving the standard cop on the edge “my methods get results!” speech, W2 decides to blow off some steam by marrying his long-time girlfriend, Vera (Anna Marie Gutierrez, For Y’ur Height Only). Unfortunately for the happy couple, Nosfero gets wind of their plans and follows them, eventually ordering his goons to pounce on W2 on the honeymoon night. Vera is, of course, raped — standard issue for trashy movies of this nature. But for once, a film isn’t satisfied to have sexual violence committed against just the woman. In something of a shocking turn of events, virile and manly W2 is beaten and, ultimately, castrated by the villains — a violation of the male action hero that wouldn’t be matched until Enzo Castellari, in the same year, had his male lead raped by the crazed George Eastman in the post-apocalyptic action film New Barbarians. Must have been something in the water in 1983.

W2 awakes with horror in the hospital to discover what’s been done to him and has a hard time dealing with it. When he catches his wife pleasuring herself in the shower — perish the thought — he sinks into a deep depression and runs off, only to stumble right onto Nosfero’s gang sitting around on their trikes waiting to hijack a shipment of opium. You’d think at this point maybe W2 would extract some manner of revenge for the mutilation he suffered at the hands of these spiked leather ne’r-do-wells, but then you;d be underestimating the near bottomless well of mean-spirited sadism into which W is War taps. No, instead, Nosfero gets the better of W2 yet again, torturing the man even further by chaining him up, spread-eagle, suspended off the ground. Things are looking pretty grim for W2 until disillusioned female gang member Pratings (Ada Alberto) frees him. It turns out she was pressed into the gang at a young age after Nosfero raped her, and she’s finally beginning to break free of his messianic hold over his flock. In W2, she hopes to find a man who can finally take Nosfero down, or at the very least, buy her a nice white vinyl jacket and put her up in a no-frills motel room.

Just when you think maybe W2 has caught a break, the film’s hatred for its lead character rears its head yet again. Worried about the disappearance of their suspended but still star agent, the police force assigns special agent V1 (Bing Davao) to try and find him. Unfortunately for W2, V1’s primary style of investigation seems to be to strip down to banana yellow Speedos and bang W2’s lonely and abandoned wife — which is the precise moment W2 choses to walk in all ready to tell a story about how he was kidnapped and tortured but finally managed to escape. Oh W2, will you ever win? Just as the former colleagues are about to through down, the ever sensible Pratings steps in to remind them that there’s a campy leather daddy with delusions of godhood about to receive opium shipment and maybe the cops should be concentrating on that. For once, W2 manages to do something correctly, and Nosfero’s nefarious plans are ruined. This draws the ire of bespectacled leather bear Harry Praxis (Paul Vance, Ninja Warriors and Jungle Rats), who is sort of the Grand Moff Tarkin to Nosfero’s Darth Vader. Nosfero responds to the setback by planning to torture W2 even more, while the more level-headed by no less campy Praxis thinks that maybe Nosfero is just a tad too preoccupied with torturing the emasculated policeman.

W is War is relentless in the abuse it piles upon its lead character, ostensibly one assumes so that it will be that much more awesome when he finally reaches his breaking point and goes ape shit on the bad guys. But the cruelty seems pointless, since you don’t really need that much emotional investment to enjoy a finale in which a castrated cop and his skinhead girl sidekick don homemade armor, steel plate a muscle car, and rip through crowds of murderous punk rockers while firing off rocket launchers and sawed off shotguns. At times, W is War seems to be playing a game of “batshit crazy” brinksmanship with itself, striving with each scene to top whatever lunacy it came up with just a few minutes earlier. And by and large, it succeeds. The film rarely pauses to catch its breath, and even the slow, quiet moment sare infused with kooky strangeness. This means that it doesn’t really pull off holding the plot together in any coherent fashion, but it also means that there’s scant time for you to notice that everything fell apart. By the time that happens, you’ll be basking in the glow of the explosion-happy madness of the finale.

Director Willie Milan was last seen here directing the two-exploitations-for-one (ninjas and ‘Nam) film Ultimax Force. This one is considerably more insane than that one but has similar pacing — which is to say, it keeps everything moving pretty quickly. Obviously, W is War has to rachet up the insanity, since that’s sort of the trademark of Filipino post-apocalypse films. And I know, I know. Technically, this isn’t a post-apocalypse film. Like Mad Max, it’s set in a transitional time when things are going to hell but haven’t quite devolved into the full-blown collapse of Road Warrior — although the motley post-collapse punk aesthetic of that film certainly imposes itself on this one and gives it enough of the post-apocalypse cliches that I think it just manages to slip into the genre despite the otherwise normal looking swimming pools and motel rooms. Further cementing its setting — and making this one of the most closely reflective of the Mad Max cash-ins — is the fact that it’s follow-up, Clash of the Warlords, is undeniably a full-blown post-nuke sci-fi film. Also, it has a light saber battle, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

So too does the flirtation with gender bending and sexual identity that was present in both Mad Max and Road Warrior show up here. There’s some not-so-subtle hinting, I think, in Mad Max that bleach blond biker thug Bubba Zinetti is gay, and while it’s never stated outright, it’s even more explicit that Road Warrior‘s post-apocalypse poster boy Wez is gay. On the one hand, both of those films play into the “evil gay villain” stereotype. On the other hand, Bubba and Wez are the two coolest characters in the series, so I guess it’s a mixed message. Whether intentionally or simply by virtue of mimicry, that same sexual dynamic manifests itself in the villains of W is War, most notably in the fey Praxis and the androgynous Pratings. More intentional is the fact that the hero gets castrated, is shunned by his wife, and finds solace in the company of the tomboyish Pratings. Where as the homosexual villains in Castellari’s New Barbarians are explicitly evil, the sexual orientation and gender bending of W is War seems both less malicious and less focused, as if the entire concept of sexual identity was simply thrown into a blender with little regard for what resulted.

It’s difficult to extract any real meaning from the phenomena without knowing more about the personal politics of both director Milan and star Alonzo, but there are a few things the film does that I quite like. First and foremost, I like that the bald, boyish Pratings remains bald and androgynous. At no point does she “learn to be a woman” or anything ridiculous like that. The film seems perfectly happy to leave her as the cute, complex cueball that she is. Second, the most heinous of Nosfero’s sundry crimes is rape. Well, the most heinous alongside taking an entire elementary school hostage and actually blowing away little kids. But the point is, while Nosfero may gussy himself up in all manner of studded leather finery like he just came from a show in the West Village, his evil is heterosexual in nature. Again, I don’t know that W is War actually has anything to say about sex and gender, at least nothing to say that can be untangled without knowing more about the makers of the film, but it’s still an interesting peculiarity.

Or maybe I’m just prattling on because I like women with short — or no — hair, and I was happy to have a film full of buzz-cut gals in fetish wear riding around on trikes. Speaking of which — what’s the deal with trikes in these movies? Intrepidos Punks loved them, and the villains in this movie certainly bought their fair share as well. I seem to recall the punker gang in Never Too Young to Die also owned a trike or two. I guess trikes are good because they make it easy to have a couple people standing up in the back, whooping and hollering and spinning chains over their head. As far as I’m concerned, these trike gangs just further cement the lack of vision that infested Teleport City’s first foray into trike-related gang warfare, the dreary shot-on-video opus Redneck Revenge — though in a rare defense of that film, I will say that most of the people I’ve seen in real life who own trikes look a lot more like the fat old rednecks in that movie than they do the dayglo punkers of Intrepidos Punks and the Filipino skinhead army of W is War.

Predictably, the only person winning any sort of acting award in this outing is Den Montero as the over-the-top, scenery chewing Nosfero. That man throws himself into the role with all the maniacal gusto demanded by a character in leather jodhpurs and a cape. Although Alonzo isn’t a bad actor per se, he can’t help but look somewhat somnambulistic when measured against the blinding fury of Montero’s performance. It’s a shame that I can find out almost nothing about Den Montero beyond his role in this. The only person who comes close to matching his intensity is the guy playing his right hand man — what do you call a right hand man’s right hand man, anyway? Whatever the case, in India that guy would have been played by Bob Christo, and he seems to genuinely enjoy his role, limited as it may be to grinning and throwing Alonzo around on a beach.

I also can’t find much of anything about Ada Alberto, other than the fact that she is also known as Ada Hubert. She appeared in at least a few other films, and while her performance here is nothing of note, she gets a huge amount of kudos for actually shaving her head instead of going to ol’ lumpy bald cap route. In fact, all of the women here look like they were game to shave their heads. While this means we don’t get the candy-colored coiffeur masterpieces of Intrepidos Punks, we still get plenty of deliriously misguided attempts at bringing the punk look to the screen, as imagined by people who’s primary exposure to punk looks to have been seeing Road Warrior. This is years before Geraldo Rivera stoked the world’s fear of skinheads by having a chair thrown at him, so points to W is War for its prescience. While the costuming is impressive indeed, make no mistake — this is nowhere near the same level of blinding glory as we got in Intrepidos Punks, but that’s a pretty impossible goal for which to strive.

This time around, the interpretation of punk is less punk/new wave and more punk with a dash of skinhead and a bit of just the sort of general “let’s dress some guys up in leather” that defined what the 1980s thought everyone in the future — or for that matter, in the distant sword and sorcery past — would be wearing. However, the one thing these guys and the punks of Intrepidos Punks have in common is their devotion to mustaches. There’s some pretty grand ones on display. And while I wouldn’t necessarily claim that W is War was an influence on manga creators Buronson and Tetsuo Hara, it’s hard to deny that Nosfero’s flamboyant get-ups possess an uncanny resemblance to the dandy marching band outfits it was assumed by Fist of the North Star so many villains would elect to wear after the collapse of society.

W is War gave me my money’s worth. Granted, I only paid a dollar for it on VHS, but still. Although more people know about Italian Road Warrior rip-offs than they do Filipino ones — provided you remember that we exist in a world where such things are common knowledge — for my money, the Filipino films always deliver, packing themselves with eye-popping absurdity and an unbridled desire to exploit and entertain were their Italian counterparts often only greet viewers with a prolonged bout of tedium. W is War certainly matches the battiest of South Asian action films blow for blow, perhaps even being so majestic as to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Indonesian trash cinema. It’s willingness to throw every possibly thing it can at you — from post-apocalyptic bikers to cops ont he edge to soap opera melodrama that hearkens back to Anthony Alonzo’s days as a performer in those types of shows on TV — is admirable. About the only thing it’s missing is a band of little people, but I guess even in The Philippines you can’t have everything. The two hairy, feral cavemen who ride around on a trike with Nosfero might almost count. What was up with those dudes?

Release Year: 1983 | Country: Philippines | Starring: Anthony Alonzo, Paul Vance, Joonee Gamboa, Alicia Alonzo, Ada Hubert, Anna Marie Gutierrez, Bing Davao, Richard Jones, Den Montero | Screenplay: Willy Milan | Director: Willy Milan | Cinematography: Apolinario Cuenco | Music: Ernani Cuenco | Producer: Tarhata M. Directo