Monday, August 31, 2015

The Marine 4: Moving Target

Congratulations to Mike “The Miz” Mizanin, the first WWE wrestler to star in two consecutive MARINE movies. John Cena starred in the entertaining throwback THE MARINE, which garnered a short theatrical release through 20th Century Fox. Ted DiBiase Jr. took over the title role in the direct-to-video sequel THE MARINE II with Mizanin starring in THE MARINE 3: HOMEFRONT. To beef up the star power, WWE films gave The Miz a popular co-star, Danielle Moinet, better known to wrestling fans as diva Summer Rae.

Alan McElroy, a veteran of the HALLOWEEN and WRONG TURN franchises, took inspiration from the original MARINE and delivered another story about well-armed bad guys and a Marine chasing each other through the woods (though, finally, a MARINE movie neglects to take the hero’s loved one hostage). Jake Carter (The Miz) is one of several bodyguards assigned to protect Olivia Tanis (LEPRECHAUN: ORIGINS’ Melissa Roxburgh), a whistleblower reluctantly willing to testify against a defense contractor that built faulty body armor for American troops. Their convoy is ambushed by the defense contractor’s hired mercenaries, including leader Simon Vogel (Josh Blacker) and badass sniper Rachel Dawes (Rae), leaving only Carter and Olivia alive.

The attack happens thirteen minutes in, and everything after is pretty much one long chase and gun battle. While that may be enough to keep undiscerning action fans happy, THE MARINE 4 has little else to distinguish it. Mizanin is a poor actor, and he’s playing someone who’s kinda dumb. Roxburgh’s character is also kinda dumb and kinda mean too. While that could make for an interesting relationship — the hero who has to protect somebody he doesn’t like — McElroy and director William Kaufman (ONE IN THE CHAMBER) aren’t interested in having anybody think too much.

As for Rae, her role is minor and not proportional with her billing on the Blu-ray packaging. She has almost no dialogue and no screen presence. Kaufman’s direction is sloppy. When Vogel’s men loudly shoot up a police station with automatic weapons, cops in the next room are taken by surprise. Maybe their hearing aids were turned off. CGI explosions and muzzle fire and bullet hits are distracting, as is unconvincing day-for-night photography. Shooting a zillion bullets at a speeding pickup truck results in only a few bullet hits. The devil is in the details, William.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Martial Law II: Undercover

Jeff Wincott (LAST MAN STANDING) is the new Martial Law in the sequel to MARTIAL LAW, which brings back Cynthia Rothrock (GUARDIAN ANGEL) as his former partner, Billie Blake. Directed by Kurt Anderson, making his debut after producing pictures like PARTY LINE, THE BANKER, and MARTIAL LAW (Steve Cohen, the latter film’s director, serves as producer on the sequel), MARTIAL LAW II: UNDERCOVER finds Sean “Martial Law” Thompson (Wincott) promoted to detective and transferred to a new division.

Almost immediately, Thompson is embroiled in controversy and corruption. He believes a colleague’s drunk-driving death was no accident and that Spencer Hamilton (Paul Johansson, the director and star of ATLAS SHRUGGED, PART I), a wealthy nightclub owner, is involved. Recruiting Billie to poke around Hamilton’s club in the guise of a bartender, Thompson finds a steady stream of karate-happy ambushers between him and the truth. To no one’s surprise, none are left standing by the time the finale rolls around at the good old tried-and-true power station. Because he’s Martial Law.

Both Rothrock and Wincott were among the DTV action genre’s most dependable stars in the 1990s, and MARTIAL LAW II is a terrific example of why. Both are able to perform complex and exciting martial arts moves without quick cutting or substituting fight doubles. The martial arts scenes are fairly fast and violent for an American direct-to-video movie, boasting some nifty choreography by Jeff Pruitt, who did an even better job staging the action in Wincott’s next film, the excellent MISSION OF JUSTICE.

Casting the perennially strange Billy Drago (DELTA FORCE 2) in a straight role as Wincott’s boss seems like an odd call on the surface. The karate studio of Jun Chong, star of the memorably bad L.A. STREETFIGHTERS, is a location. Anderson and Wincott also made, in addition to MISSION OF JUSTICE, MARTIAL OUTLAW, which sounds as if it should have been another sequel, but isn’t.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Martial Law

You’ve probably forgotten, but Chad McQueen — son of actor Steve McQueen — was a star in direct-to-video movies in the 1990s. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Even his producers knew he couldn’t carry even a minor film like MARTIAL LAW, which is why he was usually teamed up with another top-of-the-bill action star. Here it’s Cynthia Rothrock (CHINA O’BRIEN) as his partner and David Carradine (DEATH RACE 2000) as the heavy to relieve McQueen’s load.

McQueen plays Sean Thompson, a badass Los Angeles cop with the badass nickname of “Martial Law.” Even though he’s a uniformed cop in a squad car, Thompson is the guy the bosses call when they need a badass job performed like busting a punk in a crowded nightclub. It wouldn’t do for Martial Law to have a lady friend who wasn’t badass, so he partners on and off the job with Billie Blake (Rothrock), a badass cop who works double shifts to pay rent.

Thompson is investigating a hot car ring led by sinister suit-wearing Dalton Rhodes (Carradine), whose badass credentials are firmly established when he kills Professor Toru Tanaka with a five point palm exploding heart technique. It isn’t just a case for Martial Law, no sir. It’s personal, because his younger brother Michael (Andy McCutcheon) is a member of Dalton’s gang.

Steve Cohen was a second assistant director on several films and television series before producer Kurt Anderson (PARTY LINE) promoted him to director. With help from stunt coordinator Philip Tan, Cohen does a steady job helming a procession of good chases and fights, including one between Rothrock and Benny “The Jet” Urquidez. Carradine had a habit of occasionally walking through pictures like this, but he was such an interesting actor, he could usually get away with it. Here he has a visibly good time being David Carradine, and it was probably good for McQueen that the two don’t share much dialogue. I shouldn’t be so hard on Chad. He’s kinda short and dumpy, but he’s handsome enough and he can throw a convincing punch. He and Rothrock are convincing as a caring couple too.

MARTIAL LAW is a standard DTV action movie, but an entertaining one. The climax pits McQueen against Carradine and Rothrock against Tan, and it’s exciting. Cohen sets an earlier suspense scene at the Griffith Park observatory at night, and McQueen shows up at a crime scene with a paper airplane. Watching the diminutive Rothrock do her stuff against guys twice her size is always a good time. After headlining two CHINA O’BRIEN films, she was too good an action star to be backing up Chad McQueen, and it’s curious why Cohen and Anderson didn’t see the potential in the two stars switching roles. Rothrock returned for the superior MARTIAL LAW II: UNDERCOVER, but with Jeff Wincott (MISSION OF JUSTICE) starring as Martial Law and Anderson making his directorial debut.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Blood And Lace

It’s been called the “sickest PG (sic) movie ever made,” and while this low-low-budget AIP shocker does contain elements of pedophilia, necrophilia, incest, torture, rape, blackmail, arson, murder, and child abuse, it’s not entirely inconsistent with other PG rulings of the era (think BILLY JACK or JAWS). “Not yet 21” Ellie (Melody Patterson, just four years after F TROOP and dubbed in some scenes by June Foray) is sent to an orphanage run by Mrs. Deere (Oscar winner Gloria Grahame) after her prostie mother is murdered in bed by a hammer-wielding maniac.

Independent and a little messed up by her mother’s killing, during which the assailant also burned down the house, Ellie immediately locks horns with the ultra-strict Mrs. Deere, who talks to her husband’s corpse and orders her drunken handyman Tom (Len Lesser, later SEINFELD’s Uncle Leo) to hunt down and murder kids who attempt to run away. They freeze the corpses in the cellar and bring them up to the “infirmary” whenever social worker Mullins (Milton Selzer) drops by to count heads.

Also in the mix is middle-aged bachelor Calvin Carruthers (Vic “Mel Sharples” Tayback), the town’s only police detective who’s working Ellie’s mom’s murder case and may have more than a professional feeling toward Ellie. A mystery man in flannel and an old-man mask wanders the grounds, and the hilariously overwrought canned music sounds ripped from a Republic serial.

Director Gilbert apparently never made another movie, but he had talent. He handles the sleazy and weird (why are 20-year-olds living in an orphanage?) screenplay by Gil Lasky (MAMA’S DIRTY GIRLS, also starring Grahame) with style, despite little money. The striking opening scene, filmed from the killer’s point of view and surprisingly graphic for a GP, prefigures HALLOWEEN. Character actors extraordinare Lesser and Tayback played comic heavies on THE MONKEES, among zillions of anonymous episodic TV guest star parts, and probably enjoyed receiving their own title cards on a feature. Making his film debut is Dennis Christopher, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for starring in BREAKING AWAY.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Scalpel aka False Face

Robert Lansing’s outstanding performance as a mad plastic surgeon anchors this sick chiller filmed in Georgia. Lansing, who starred in the television series 87TH PRECINCT, 12 O’CLOCK HIGH, and THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS, as well as dozens of episodic guest turns, plays Dr. Phillip Reynolds, whose daughter Heather (Judith Chapman, another busy TV actor who found long-running success on THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS) ran away a year earlier after she saw him drowning her boyfriend in the family pool (out of jealousy?).

Reynolds drowned Heather’s mother too. That death was chalked off as an accident by the authorities, but not by Heather’s grandfather. He dies and leaves his entire $5 million fortune to Heather, who isn’t around to collect. Reynolds wants that money. What is an unscrupulous, greedy plastic surgeon to do?

How about inviting a topless stripper, whom he finds laying in the street near death with her face beaten to a bloody pulp, back to his place with a scheme to reconstruct her features to resemble Heather. That way “Jane Doe” can collect the $5 million, sharing half with him, of course. What could go wrong? How about the real Heather returning to the Reynolds mansion and discovering her father in a sexual relationship with a woman who looks just like her!

Considering its broad portrayals of greed, murder, and incest, SCALPEL (which also saw release as FALSE FACE) is not quite as sleazy as it could have been. Or maybe should have been. Not a lot happens in terms of story turns, but what does happen is pretty entertaining, thanks mostly to the leads. Lansing played few film or television roles with as much range as the murderous Svengali Phillip Reynolds, and you can almost taste the glee he brings to the part. Chapman is also effective, even though director John Grissmer (BLOOD RAGE) and co-writer/producer/editor Joseph Weintraub don’t allow her to cut loose the way Lansing does.

One of SCALPEL’s failings as that it doesn’t provide much difference between Heather and her double — Chapman, as good as she is, plays them almost identically. However, any demerits earlier in the film are more than balanced out by Grissmer’s final reel, which throws in as many bizarre twists as the director and the writer can think of, including an insane ending perhaps more appropriate to a caper film, but entirely satisfying and laughable.

Arlen Dean Snyder (HEARTBREAK RIDGE) plays Lansing’s suspicious brother-in-law. DARK SHADOWS composer Robert Cobert provides the effective string-laden score. Originally released by tiny United International Pictures, which specialized in dubbed kung fu and sex films, SCALPEL also saw theatrical release by Avco Embassy and a VHS release by Charter Entertainment.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Tattoo

TATTOO is a forgotten film, partially because of its general inaccessibility in the United States, partially because it isn’t very good. And although it wasn’t a hit, TATTOO received enormous press coverage at the time of its release because of star Bruce Dern’s claim that he and co-star Maud Adams (OCTOPUSSY) actually had intercourse on the set in front of director Bob Brooks’ camera — a claim he later repeated in his autobiography. Adams has always consistently denied it. A lot of Dern’s memoirs is bullshit, so I’m inclined to take Maud’s side.

As an American serviceman photographing a Japanese ritual, Karl Kinsky (Dern) became fascinated with the participants’ tattoos and became a tattoo artist in Hoboken. Brooks effectively delivers this backstory in about a minute; you just know a contemporary remake would spend forty minutes uselessly setting up Kinsky’s “origin.” Karl, whose childhood artistic pretensions were stifled by his family, who still disapprove of his occupation, is rather unbelievably hired by a high-fashion magazine to paint temporary tattoos on models for a big summer issue shoot.

One of the models is Maddy Summers (Adams, who must have been hired for her willingness to do nudity and not for her acting), with whom the sexually repressed Kinsky becomes unhealthily fixated. So he drugs her, kidnaps her, and tattoos her. He forces her to masturbate, but is unable to sleep with her until his masterpiece — a full body tattoo — is complete. In one of TATTOO’s many dumb moments, it’s revealed that Karl has also given himself one without answering how the hell he could tattoo an elaborate design on his own back and ass.

There’s very little stretch from Dern’s unhinged psycho mad scientist in THE INCREDIBLE 2-HEADED TRANSPLANT to his performance in TATTOO. Because he was typecast at the time — according to Dern, he took the TATTOO role only after the studio rejected him for Len Cariou’s part in FOUR SEASONS — Dern could play Karl Kinsky in his sleep. Even though he played the role with some thought — I like the way Karl, a former public telephone disinfector, holds a handkerchief over the phone receiver when he speaks into it — the leaden direction by the one-and-done Brooks (whose experience was basically British TV commercials and two SPACE: 1999 episodes) and the uncompromising yet heavy-handed screenplay by Joyce Buñuel (who was married to Luis Buñuel’s son) let Dern down.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Marine

THE MARINE marks the screen debut of WWE wrestler John Cena. Considering how flamboyant professional wrestling is, Cena seems like an unlikely selection for film stardom, as he comes across as dull and expressionless, no more than a slab with ridiculously huge muscles. He got better as an actor later, and was funny in 2015’s TRAINWRECK. In THE MARINE, Cena plays John Triton, a U.S. Marine who is drummed out of the Corps for killing nine terrorists and rescuing three fellow Marines singlehandedly. For disobeying a direct order by not sitting on his ass until backup could arrive, he accepts a premature discharge and returns home to his wife Kate (Kelly Carlson from NIP/TUCK and STARSHIP TROOPERS 2).

John and Kate decide to take a trip, but are waylaid at the gas station by psycho diamond thief Rome (a hammy Robert Patrick, the recipient of a TERMINATOR gag) and his gang, who kill some cops, blow the place up, and jet outta there with Kate as a hostage. Triton, who takes a ridiculous amount of physical punishment without showing more than slight scratches, jumps into the souped-up police cruiser, which looks like something out of BLADE RUNNER, and chases them. The laughs grow to a fever pitch when Triton loses control, flips the car into the air and upside down, and leaps out of it as it plunges over a cliff and into the water below. The punchline is that the bad guys continue shooting at the car, even though it's flying over their head, over a cliff, and on fire. How many times did they think they could kill that fucking car?

Triton, completely unscathed except for a half-inch red mark under his eye (you gotta see this crash to believe it), pursues the baddies into the "swamp." The rest of THE MARINE pretty much plays out exactly as you guess it will. The lame twist reveals that Rome's secret partner is the only other character in the film and the only person it could be. The whole story boils down to a fistfight between bodybuilder Cena and 50-year-old Patrick, so you can imagine how that plays out.

THE MARINE is simple and fast-paced. It’s kinda the poster child for Dumb B-Movie. It has some fun action sequences, terrible CGI, a couple of gorgeous women, and welcome humor (the often intense Patrick is pretty hilarious). The characters try to convey their treacherous conditions while traipsing through the “jungle,” but the landscape looks like a dead forest, and the "critters" like a snake and alligators are never seen in the same shot as the actors, kinda like a Jungle Jim programmer. The credits reveal that Australia substituted for "South Carolina," probably to save money, but the fakery doesn't work.

One benefit to filming in Australia was that debuting director John Bonito (his next movie was CARJACKED five years later) got David Eggby, MAD MAX's cinematographer, to shoot it, so it doesn't look too bad. Making Cena seem more human would have been an enormous improvement. He takes the brunt of several massive explosions, blows to the head, crashes...he even hangs onto the side of a semi-truck as it smashes through buildings. We're used to superheroics in our action movies, but even Indiana Jones felt pain. John Triton really is, as one character says, The Terminator.