Thursday, March 31, 2016

Rage Of Honor

After starring in several entertaining action movies for Cannon, such as ENTER THE NINJA and REVENGE OF THE NINJA, Japanese martial artist Sho Kosugi jumped to Crown International to make the disappointing 9 DEATHS OF THE NINJA and then Trans World Entertainment for PRAY FOR DEATH and RAGE OF HONOR. Both Trans World pictures were directed by veteran Gordon Hessler, whose career began in television on ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. Hessler directed three episodes of the busy Kosugi’s NBC television series THE MASTER before helming the Trans World films.

Shiro Tanaka (Kosugi) is a federal narcotics agent working undercover in Buenos Aires to bring down a major drug operation run by the sadistic Havelock (the nonthreatening Lewis Van Bergen, who starred in ABC’s SABLE next). One night while Shiro is dining in a tuxedo at an elegant restaurant with his American girlfriend Jennifer (Robin Evans), his partner is tortured and murdered by Havelock. Enraged at not only Havelock, but also his by-the-book boss (Gerry Gibson) who pulls him off the case, Shiro quits the agency and bolts to Argentina, where Havelock has also kidnapped both Jennifer and his pal Dick (Chip Lucia), leading to a one-man assault on Havelock’s jungle retreat.

Although Kosugi doesn’t wear the traditional ninja garb from his Cannon movies, he’s still the same old Sho, mowing down dozens of foes with his vast armory of edged weapons. Spikes, spears, shurikens—stand in Sho’s way, and prepare for a blade in your gut. Or forehead. Or neck. And sometimes Kosugi tries killing the old-fashioned American way: with a good ol’ automatic pistol. Action fans may bemoan Hessler’s bloodless approach to the shooting and slicing, which may have been a reaction to PRAY FOR DEATH’s dismemberment by the MPAA.

RAGE OF HONOR is standard ‘80s action fare, lacking the outlandish absurdities of Kosugi’s more entertaining Cannon fare. It picks up in the second half when Kosugi begins his trail of vengeance, and the last half hour or so is basically one long chase and fight with Kosugi doubling as the film’s martial arts choreographer and weapons designer.

The film also contains less dialogue for its star, whose mangling of the English language is in direct proportion to his stiff performance, and unfortunately Hessler hasn’t recruited a supporting cast strong enough to counterbalance Kosugi’s shortcomings. Stelvio Cipriani composed the bland score. Filmed on location in Arizona and Argentina, RAGE OF HONOR was produced by Don Van Atta, whose background was TV sitcoms like MADAME’S PLACE and BOSOM BUDDIES.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Missing In Action

Before John J. Rambo did it, James R. Braddock, Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war, returned to Southeast Asia to rescue American soldiers nearly a decade after the fall of Saigon. Chuck Norris (LONE WOLF MCQUADE) plays Braddock, who escaped from a Vietnamese POW camp a year earlier and has returned to Ho Chi Minh City with a fatuous U.S. senator (David Tress) and some eye candy (perennial television guest star Lenore Kasdorf, gamely projecting intelligence despite a nothing role and gratuitous toplessness).

The delegation is supposed to be investigating rumors of other POWs, but the Vietnamese government, in the person of General Trau (James Hong), accuses Braddock of war crimes. Kicked out of Vietnam after killing Trau (though Kasdorf maintains his alibi), Braddock looks up old war buddy Tuck (M. Emmet Walsh) in Bangkok, rents Tuck’s boat, collects some ordnance, and sneaks back in country to rescue POWs.

Arthur Silver, Larry Levinson, and Steve Bing’s baffling credit for “Characters Created By” is explained easily enough. This film, directed by Joseph Zito (INVASION U.S.A.), was produced back-to-back with, but after, the film Cannon later released as MISSING IN ACTION 2: THE BEGINNING. This was supposed to be the sequel, but Cannon believed it was the better film, so the studio flipped the release dates, making MIA 2 one of Hollywood’s earliest “prequels.” It is a good film with an excellent score by Jay Chattaway (MANIAC COP). More importantly to Cannon, it was a successful film, opening at #1 at the U.S. box office and beating the debuting NIGHT OF THE COMET and JUST THE WAY YOU ARE.

MISSING IN ACTION was not just one of Cannon’s biggest hits, but it was the first of Norris’ films for the studio, kicking him onto Hollywood’s action-star “A-/B+ list” and freeing him from the chopsocky ghetto. In MISSING IN ACTION, Norris barely demonstrates his karate skills, preferring to dispatch the baddies with big guns and bigger guns.

Working from a screenplay by frequent Norris collaborator James Bruner (AN EYE FOR AN EYE), director Zito proves himself well-suited to the material. His eye for action is superb, always placing the camera in the right spot for maximum impact. Shots of Norris’ stunt double rappelling across a line stretched several stories above the street are beautifully framed and lit. Zito nails the more dramatic scenes as well, alternating a cool explosion in a Bangkok hotel with shots of seriously injured bystanders in the street, showing that violence has human consequences.

Norris not only “returned” as Braddock in MIA 2, though the prison camp seen in that film is different than the one he escapes from in MIA, but also in 1988’s BRADDOCK: MISSING IN ACTION III. An interesting note: Jean-Claude Van Damme is a credited stuntman on MISSING IN ACTION, though it’s unclear if he can be recognized.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Raise The Titanic

Though author Clive Cussler has sold millions of Dirk Pitt adventure novels since the character’s 1973 debut, only twice has Pitt starred on the big screen. Both films were considered big-budget flops: 2005’s SAHARA starring Matthew McConaughey and RAISE THE TITANIC, which found few fans upon its Summer 1980 release. Cussler wasn’t one of them, allegedly calling it “awful from beginning to end.” The experience soured him on moviemaking to the point where he refused to option any more of his books — at least until SAHARA.

LONESOME DOVE author Larry McMurtry claimed to be one of “around” 17 screenwriters on RAISE THE TITANIC, though only Eric Hughes (WHITE NIGHTS), who wrote the first draft, and Adam Kennedy (THE DOMINO PRINCIPLE), who penned the last, receive screen credit. In typical blockbuster fashion, the screenplay throws out most of Cussler’s story (which McMurtry hated anyway), but it’s hard to argue that executive producer Lew Grade (THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL) and producer William Frye (AIRPORT ‘77) replaced it with a more exciting one. At least the film’s basic premise, carried over from the 1976 novel, is compelling.

The United States needs 200 ounces of a rare mineral called byzanium to power a new missile defense system that will “make nuclear warfare obsolete.” The only place on Earth byzanium is known to be is the hold of the RMS Titanic, which sank more than two-and-a-half miles below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean in 1912. Since divers can’t go that deep, American spy Pitt (bearded Richard Jordan), scientist Gene Seagram (DARK SHADOWS’ David Selby), and government bigwig James Sandecker (Jason Robards) hatch a plan to raise the ship.

Let’s get the good stuff out of the way first. John Barry’s Bondian score is lush and expressive, evoking the mystery and awe of the deep sea. The special effects, anchored by John Richardson (ALIENS), Wally Veevers (DR. STRANGELOVE), and underwater expert Ricou Browning (THUNDERBALL), are believable and occasionally inspiring, the benefit of a cascading budget that sent production costs soaring as high as $36 million (reportedly). And the great Alec Guinness (THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI) raises emotions in a cameo as a Titanic survivor.

So what doesn’t work? Pretty much everything else. As if the concept of a salvage crew attempting to raise the Titanic isn’t thrilling enough, the film tries unsuccessfully to add tension through a superfluous love triangle involving Pitt, Seagram, and Dana Archibald (Anne Archer), a reporter who blows the whistle on Pitt’s top-secret operation. From the beginning, Pitt and Seagram are antagonistic toward one another for no apparent reason beyond the writers want them to.

Jerry Jameson, a television journeyman with occasional forays into features, presumably was hired as director because of his previous film, AIRPORT ‘77, a Universal disaster movie about the government’s attempt to rescue plane-crash survivors by raising the sunken airliner from the ocean floor. Though he provided jobs for his unofficial repertory company (Paul Carr, Charles Macauley, Stewart Moss, Michael Pataki), Jameson brings little storytelling or visual flair to the adventure, despite an ace cameraman in Matthew Leonetti (STRANGE DAYS).

Ultimately, neither the plodding story nor the cardboard characters are interesting. The brooding Jordan (THE MEAN SEASON) plays Dirk Pitt, a debonair superspy in the Cussler novels, as a non-man of action whose great interest is staring slack-jawed at the intricate miniatures. There’s precious little humanity in the other characters, and poor Anne Archer (FATAL ATTRACTION) flounders with no reason to be here. With a stronger cast, meatier characterization, and an emphasis on adventure, RAISE THE TITANIC could have sustained the sense of majesty inspired by its visual effects, but as it stands, the film is all wet.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016


Former Los Angeles Raider Howie Long kicked off a three-picture contract with 20th Century Fox with this dopey action movie set in the Wyoming forest, but filmed in Colorado.

Box office for FIRESTORM was dismal (Fox released it in January 1998, so they weren’t giving it much of a chance), and the other two films were never made. Long isn’t bad really, not that Chris Soth’s screenplay gives him much to do. He’s neither good nor bad enough to be interesting, but that isn’t to say he couldn’t have improved in further vehicles. He ended up co-hosting Fox’s NFL studio show for many years.

In FIRESTORM, Long plays Jesse, a “smokejumper:” a firefighter who parachutes into forests to help extinguish major blazes. Psycho prison escapee Randall Shaye (OUT FOR JUSTICE and EXTREME PREJUDICE psycho William Forsythe) engineers a forest fire to cover up his escape from the Wyoming State Penitentiary. Using the $37 million he swiped in an armored train heist four years earlier as bait, he and four fellow inmates disguise themselves as Canadian firemen, using comely birdwatcher Jennifer (Suzy Amis) as a hostage. On their trail is Jesse, who uses his firefighting expertise to prevent their escape.

Similar to Andrew Stone’s 1961 film RING OF FIRE, which starred David Janssen as a small-town cop held hostage in a forest fire by juvenile delinquents led by Frank Gorshin, FIRESTORM is a sumptuous-looking production—no shock there, considering it was the directorial debut of Oscar-winning cinematographer Dean Semler (DANCES WITH WOLVES). The visual effects are mostly good, and the action is decently paced. Fire stunts are always impressive, because of the danger involved, and Semler and his special effects team succeed in making the actors always look like they’re in the middle of it.

But there’s little in FIRESTORM that’s fresh. Forsythe has played this type of heavy too many times to count, and Semler sinks to stealing shots from better movies like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, PSYCHO, and THE RIGHT STUFF. He even casts Scott Glenn in more or less the same role he played in BACKDRAFT. Semler directed one more film, the DTV Steven Seagal vehicle THE PATRIOT, before returning to camerawork.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Under Siege 2: Dark Territory

Steven Seagal’s first sequel still stands as one of his best films and almost on par with the original UNDER SIEGE. Whereas the first film, directed by Andrew Davis (THE FUGITIVE), was DIE HARD on a Battleship, this one is DIE HARD on a Passenger Train. And like the original, UNDER SIEGE 2: DARK TERRITORY gives Seagal a strong villain to play off of in the hands of the glib Eric Bogosian (TALK RADIO).

“How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” asked Bruce Willis in DIE HARD 2, and director Geoff Murphy (YOUNG GUNS II) asks us to take the same leap of faith in UNDER SIEGE 2. Former Navy SEAL turned cook (“I’m just a cook.”) Casey Ryback (Seagal) now owns a Denver restaurant, but is still touched with bad luck. The train on which he happens to be traveling with his orphaned teenage niece Sarah (16-year-old Katherine Heigl, later on GREY’S ANATOMY and briefly a feature film star) is also the one hijacked by Bogosian’s Travis Dane, who needs a moving base from which to aim a weapons satellite at the Pentagon without being detected.

Like the ship from UNDER SIEGE, the barreling train allows Murphy to stage creative action sequences within confined spaces. Of course, much of it takes place outside the train, though the visual effects are iffy at best. It still allows Murphy to stage some nasty deaths, such as Seagal tossing one villain off the front of the train to get run over and another thug off the side of the train to smash painfully into a wooden shack.

While Bogosian is no physical match for Seagal’s bone-breaking martial arts (the epitome of the “brains heavy”), Murphy and writers Matt Reeves (DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES) and Richard Hatem (GRIMM) create a formidable “action heavy” in Marcus Penn (TWIN PEAKS’ Everett McGill), who strikes an imposing figure in his Doc Savage haircut. He’s also smart enough to know that he may not be a match for the legendary Casey Ryback.

In a nod to continuity, Nick Mancuso (NIGHTWING), Dale Dye, and Andy Romano (THE PACKAGE) also return from UNDER SIEGE to fill out an impressive supporting cast that also includes Kurtwood Smith (ROBOCOP), Jonathan Banks (48 HRS), Brenda Bakke, Peter Greene, Patrick Kilpatrick, Phyllis Davis (SWEET SUGAR), and Morris Chestnut (HALF PAST DEAD) as the de rigueur black comic relief.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Trial And Error

Jonathan Lynn, the director of MY COUSIN VINNY, returns to a rustic courtroom milieu for TRIAL AND ERROR, another funny, smart farce with perfectly timed slapstick sequences.

The setting this time is a small Nevada desert town where big-city attorney Charlie Tuttle (Jeff Daniels) is assigned to defend his boss’ distant cousin Benny Gibbs (Rip Torn): a con man who sold “copper engravings” by mail for $17.99 and sent his victims a penny in return.

The night before the trial, Charlie is surprised by his best friend Richard (Michael Richards, at the height of his SEINFELD fame) and some guys from Richard’s acting class who take Charlie out for a bachelor party in the hotel’s bar (Charlie is to marry his boss’ daughter in a few days). Charlie awakens to a massive hangover the next morning. Richard pretends to be his friend for a day, hoping for a continuance. Instead, the trial is set for that afternoon, forcing Richard to continue his deception and Charlie to save his own rear by using notes, flash cards, and even tooting car horns to help Richard pull it off.

The courtroom scenes are terrific and outrageously performed by a nice supporting cast, but Lynn deserves credit for the film’s love story too. Charlie begins to fall for Billie (Charlize Theron), the hotel’s waitress, who wears a lot of midriff-baring outfits and seems way too smart and fresh for her rural surroundings. The relationship between a straight-laced conservative engaged to a spoiled rich girl he doesn’t love and a younger, more carefree college student is sweet and a nice counterbalance to the broader laughs inside the courtroom. Theron, just 22 years old and acting in her third motion picture, is equally wholesome and sexy and a great fit with Daniels.

Richards is basically doing Kramer, and Lynn provides plenty of opportunities to show off his flair for physical comedy—notably an audition scene where Richard plays the victim of a Mafia beating—think THE GODFATHER Meets THE INVISIBLE MAN. It isn’t a stretch for Richards’ first (and last) leading role, but it’s funny—very funny. The wolfish Torn fits in perfectly with a hilarious monologue on the witness stand, and Austin Pendleton, wonderful as a stuttering lawyer in MY COUSIN VINNY, has more nice moments as a harried judge.

Friday, March 04, 2016


A German co-production filmed in Arizona, Avco Embassy’s muddled thriller NIGHTKILL may more accurately be described as escaping to theaters, if it played anywhere at all. Mild profanity and graphic burn makeup indicate it was made for theatrical distribution, but it doesn’t appear to have received a rating from the MPAA and probably debuted on network television.

Jaclyn Smith’s first starring role in a motion picture casts her as Katherine Atwell, who’s trapped in a loveless marriage to nasty industrialist Wendell Atwell (Mike Connors, cast nicely against type), who treats his wife, the maid, and his corporate vice president, Steve Fulton (James Franciscus), worse than he does his pet monkeys.

Steve finally has enough of fetching Wendell’s drinks and poisons him right in front of Kathy, his lover. She’s initially horrified, but begrudgingly agrees to Steve’s plan to hide the corpse in the deep freeze. While Steve flies to the East Coast to set up an alibi, Kathy is surprised the next morning by a visit from police detective Donner (Robert Mitchum), who’s investigating a missing persons report from Wendell’s secretary. And then the twists begin…

Avco Embassy’s decision to dump NIGHTKILL seems odd, considering a mystery film with this cast should have drawn at least a few eyeballs (Fritz Weaver and Sybil Danning are in it too as another unhappy married couple). Of course, NIGHTKILL isn’t very good. Aside from a not terribly exciting car chase, it consists of much talk and little action, which has the unfortunate side effect of asking Smith (CHARLIE’S ANGELS) to carry the film alone. She’s in nearly every scene, but is unable to make us root too hard for her.

Connors gets to ham it up in a big cowboy hat and Western accent, while Franciscus and Mitchum pick up paychecks. Some odd stylistic choices and the prominent placing of the producers’ names in the opening credits suggest post-production tampering with director Ted Post’s vision. Post previously directed BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES with Franciscus, who was making a lot of disaster and Italian horror movies during this period. He played JFK in 1981 with Smith as JACQUELINE BOUVIER KENNEDY.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

It Came From Hollywood

Paramount actually got IT CAME FROM HOLLYWOOD into theaters late in 1982, but umpteen times as many people saw it a year or so later when it was an HBO staple, showing several times per month (or so it seemed). It’s likely a lot of horror and science fiction fans got their first taste of films like PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE and ROBOT MONSTER from watching this.

Co-directors Andrew Solt and Malcolm Leo (THIS IS ELVIS) and producers Jeff Stein (MR. BELVEDERE) and Susan Strausberg brought in some of the era’s hippest comic minds to contribute a few wisecracks to this collection of clips, as well as act in introductory segments shot by Fred Koenekamp (BILLY JACK) on the Paramount lot (probably in a day) and presumably penned by credited screenwriter Dana Olsen (THE ‘BURBS).

In one, Dan Aykroyd, clad in a bra and angora sweater, rides up on a motorcycle to pick up John Candy in a parody of GLEN OR GLENDA. Outside of an occasional barb aimed at a film that truly deserves it (such as Gilda Radner’s pointing out the comical ineptness of a blond actress’ hapless attempt at pretending to play piano), the humor is lame.

Of course, most of the films spotlighted in IT CAME FROM HOLLYWOOD are today readily available on DVD, Blu-ray, or online streaming sites, but back then, you had to really bust your back to find films like MATANGO or MARS NEEDS WOMEN unspooling to unbelieving eyes on the late show. While some may find the comedians’ commentary intrusive, this film provided a real service to monster kids of the early ‘80s. And with Radner and Candy dying so young, any 35mm footage of them performing has value. The stars do appear to have some affection for the films, and there is novelty in seeing Cheech Marin, Tommy Chong, Candy, Aykroyd, and Radner together, even briefly.

A worse crime than mocking schlock movies (though many of the pictures featured are quite good indeed) is IT CAME FROM HOLLYWOOD’s failure to identify most of its clips. Anyone wowed by glimpses of half-nude Indian girls dancing like in a Busby Berkeley routine or a boggle-eyed monster smashing cardboard skyscrapers and desperate to track down the films they come from will receive little assistance. Don’t expect to see this movie on DVD anytime soon, since the several dozen different movies represented would be a nightmare to clear (an announced 2002 DVD had to be cancelled).

The films are broken down into categories, each hosted by a different act. Radner presents Gorillas (THE TIGER WOMAN), Musical Memories (MATANGO), and Monsters (THE BLOB). Aykroyd gets Aliens (I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE), Brains (THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS), and breaks out his Broderick Crawford impression for Troubled Teenagers (HIGH SCHOOL HELLCATS). Cheech and Chong mock Giants (THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN), Animals Gone Berserk (THE GIANT CLAW), and Marijuana Movies (REEFER MADNESS, natch). Candy salutes Technical Triumphs (KING OF THE ROCKETMEN), Trailers (BLACK BELT JONES), and Edward D. Wood, Jr. (PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE), not long after Harry & Michael Medved’s book THE GOLDEN TURKEY AWARDS brought Wood into the spotlight two years after the director’s death.