Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

One of the great American westerns, one chosen for preservation by the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, and just a crackling good yarn with a strong cast, exciting action sequences, and an iconic Oscar-nominated score by Elmer Bernstein (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD). Much of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN’s lasting success is due to its cast, many of whom became international movie stars, but at the time were familiar, solid character actors in television and movies. Steve McQueen was still on WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE when THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN came out and was just two years removed from THE BLOB. Likewise, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn were very busy in episodic television, though Vaughn had been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for THE YOUNG PHILADELPHIANS a year earlier.

Of course, Yul Brynner was a major movie star with THE KING AND I, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, SOLOMON AND SHEBA, and many other Hollywood productions on his resume, though THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN was his first western. Bald, Russian, and not a tall man, Brynner would seem an unusual cowboy, but he carries the picture on both shoulders and later sent up his MAGNIFICENT SEVEN role as a robot gunslinger in WESTWORLD. Though Brynner and McQueen shared an uneasy alliance on the set, each threatening to upstage the other, their rivalry translated into a tight chemistry that serves the picture well, particularly in a standout suspense scene in which their characters agree to transport an Indian corpse to a cemetery against the wishes of bigoted townspeople.

The screenplay by CAT BALLOU’s Walter Newman and THE DONNA REED SHOW creator William Roberts is, of course, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI. A tiny Mexican village is terrorized by bandits led by the colorful Calvera (the not exactly perfectly cast Eli Wallach), who threatens to return. Unable to defend themselves, the town recruits gunfighter Brynner to help. Brynner, in return, recruits six other gunmen — McQueen, Bronson, Coburn, Vaughn, Brad Dexter (HOUSE OF BAMBOO), and young Horst Buchholz (ONE, TWO, THREE) — to fight Calvera’s army against depressing odds.

At 128 minutes, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN allows time for each actor to breathe and expand their characters. Memorable are Bronson’s bonding with the Mexican children, as well as his amusing recruitment while chopping wood, Vaughn’s re-occurring PTSD, and Coburn’s withering knife fight against heavy Bob Wilke, in which you learn everything you need to know about Coburn’s character, even though the actor doesn’t utter a word.

Director John Sturges (BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK) handled the expensive production with a sprawling, macho cast and complicated action scenes so well that executive producer Walter Mirisch and United Artists asked him to make THE GREAT ESCAPE for them three years later (McQueen, Bronson, and Coburn were in that one too). Three sequels followed (Brynner returned for the first one, RETURN OF THE SEVEN), as well as a CBS television series and an MGM remake starring Denzel Washington (GLORY).

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Living Daylights

Shakespearean actor Timothy Dalton (WUTHERING HEIGHTS) replaced Roger Moore as James Bond in this sprawling adventure filmed in Austria, Morocco, Gibraltar, Italy, England, and the United States. He’s tough, suave, rugged — a very good James Bond, if a little too serious. In addition to a makeover, 007 received a change in his promiscuous lifestyle, sleeping with only one woman in the first post-AIDS James Bond movie.

Bond veterans Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson, along with John Glen, directing his fourth consecutive Bond flick, engineer THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS like true craftsmen. Bond is assigned to rescue Russian defector Koskov (Jeroen Krabbe), and uncovers a Soviet plot to buy high-tech weapons from American arms dealer Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker, who returned to the Bond fold as a good guy in two Pierce Brosnan movies).

Robert Brown, who played M four times in the interim between Bernard Lee and Judi Dench, is back, as well as Desmond Llewelyn’s Q, Geoffrey Keen’s Ministry of Defence, and Walter Gotell’s General Gogol. The age-appropriate Caroline Bliss replaced Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny, and John Terry (FULL METAL JACKET) is a dull Felix Leiter.

While the plot is something of a snoozer and Baker (WALKING TALL) is a weak villain — one never believes he’s clever or powerful enough to beat Bond — THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS offers two of the Bond series’ most entertaining action setpieces. Bond and a beautiful cellist (the vapid Maryam d’Abo) elude Russian soldiers in a tricked-out Aston Martin that becomes an outrigger (!) and then escape Czechoslovakia into Austria by sliding down a snowy mountain atop a cello case. Later, Bond fights a henchman while grasping netting dangling from the rear of a cargo plane in a breathtaking stunt sequence.

A vast improvement over Moore’s last two Bonds, thanks in part to a vibrant, younger star more convincing in action scenes, THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS opened at #1 at the U.S. box office, as Bond films tend to. It was not a long-term financial success, however, nor was Dalton’s next Bond film, LICENSE TO KILL. John Barry delivered his last 007 score, which effectively mixes orchestral and electronic music, and collaborated uncomfortably with a-ha on the mediocre title song.

Doctor Mordrid

Somehow dodging a mountain of injunctions from attorneys for Marvel Comics, Full Moon Entertainment created a film about a sorcerer superhero that couldn’t be a bigger ripoff of Doctor Strange if Stan Lee had written it.

Created by artist Steve Ditko independent of Lee for a 1962 issue of STRANGE TALES, Doctor (Stephen) Strange is a caped practitioner of the mystical arts who lives in a Manhattan brownstone and battles the forces of evil using magical spells. Laughably “based on an original idea by Charles Band,” as the main titles state, Doctor Mordrid (RE-ANIMATOR’s Jeffrey Combs) is a caped practitioner of the mystical arts who owns a Manhattan apartment building with bickering Jewish neighbors.

Another tenant is Samantha Hunt (Yvette Nipar, saddled with an unflattering wardrobe), the NYPD’s resident occult consultant (!), who suspects something weird about Mordrid, who has been protecting New York City from evil for over a century. The sorcerer’s nemesis is Kabul (COBRA villain Brian Thompson), whose goal is the illegal collection of elements, including the Philosopher’s Stone, which he plans to use to release his followers from Hell and take over the world. Like Strange, Mordrid has the ability to project his astral form to the Metropolitan Museum for the final showdown with Kabul.

As was often the case with Full Moon productions, DOCTOR MORDRID seems conflicted about its target audience. It’s too juvenile and cheaply produced to appeal to adults, yet its R-rated profanity and sexual content make it inaccessible to children who might enjoy the fantastic story. Combs is quite good and believable, anchoring the film’s inherent silliness, though the supporting actors seem to have been cast for their reasonable day rates instead of talent. Fans of old-fashioned stop-motion effects will dig the dinosaur battle created by David Allen (ROBOT JOX). Father/son team Albert and Charles Band are credited with direction, though only one was on the set at any given time. The direction doesn’t match the opulence demanded by the subject matter, nor does the mostly setbound production. Despite the promise implied by the final scene, DOCTOR MORDRID II never happened.

Hawaii Five-0 #2, "Terror In The Sun"

Kudos to the rear-cover copywriter who praised the "sensational long-running CBS-TV series" for his prescience, as TERROR IN THE SUN, the second paperback tie-in novel, was published in September 1969 -- just as HAWAII FIVE-0 was beginning its second season. Of course, the series ran ten more for a total of 12 seasons on CBS, which was then the longest-running crime drama ever.

HAWAII FIVE-0 was a pretty great show for most of its run, combining Hawaii's naturally sun-kissed scenery with gritty crime plots and occasional doses of espionage. The first American television series to film entirely on location in Hawaii, FIVE-0 wasn't shy about shooting in grimy alleys and Honolulu slums, which other shows produced in the state refused to emulate. Jack Lord starred as Steve McGarrett, the straight-laced, uptight leader of a special state police force that reported only to the governor (Richard Denning). In 1969, when TERROR IN THE SUN was published, Lord's co-stars were James MacArthur as McGarrett's number two man, Danny Williams (affectionately called "Danno"), Kam Fong as Chinese detective Chin Ho Kelly, and Hawaiian native Zulu as Kono.

However, a major fault of Michael Avallone's FIVE-0 novel is the lack of teamwork so essential to the series. Danno, Chin Ho, and Kono are taken out of the story very early, making TERROR IN THE SUN virtually a McGarrett solo story. Avallone likely didn't see FIVE-0 during its first season, as he doesn't quite have the McGarrett character down. Though the character was still finding its way during its first season, it was well established that McGarrett didn't drink ("I don't use alcohol," he stated in one episode), didn't smoke, and didn't much fool around with women, particularly not the daughter of a man involved in an investigation and not during a case. All of which Avallone's McGarrett does, unconvincingly.

As for the story, an important British diplomat, Rogers Endore, has arrived on Oahu, and the governor orders Five-0 to bodyguard him. Despite McGarrett's protestations, the governor refuses to provide the cop with any information about Endore's stay -- why he's here or why he needs protecting. What we, the reader, know is that a notorious assassin named the Undertaker has been hired by bad forces in Vietnam to murder Endore. To make his job easier, the Undertaker has recruited six assassins, all from different countries, to take out McGarrett and his Five-0 team, leaving Endore unprotected. Unfortunately, a bigger band of screwups you've never seen, as every assassin bungles his assignment to some extent.

An easy read at 125 pages, TERROR IN THE SUN is amiable enough, so long as you don't let its latitudes with the television series bother you much. As a huge HAWAII FIVE-0 fan since high school, I found the differences annoying, particularly Avallone throwing "The Process" out the window by sidelining the sidekicks and giving the hero all the heavy lifting.

Friday, September 16, 2016

McQ

It’s surprising it took John Wayne until 1974 to play a cop. After BULLITT, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, and DIRTY HARRY, urban crime dramas were the rage in Hollywood, but the Duke looked a lot more comfortable on horseback than he does squeezed behind the wheel of a ’73 Trans Am.

Wayne plays Lon McQ (McHugh?), a Seattle police detective looking for his partner’s killer. What he doesn’t know, but we do (in an aces prologue set during the opening titles), is that his partner, Stan Boyle (William Bryant), was dirty, so McQ starts harassing Manuel Santiago (the very Italian Al Lettieri of MR. MAJESTYK), a drug kingpin he and Boyle have been investigating.

The original screenplay by Lawrence Roman (SLAUGHTER ON TENTH AVENUE) is surprisingly cynical for a John Wayne film and portrays most of the Seattle Police Department as either corrupt or incompetent. Except for McQ, of course, who gives up his badge to flinty superior Eddie Albert (THE LONGEST YARD) after he’s taken off the case.

The direction by John Sturges (THE GREAT ESCAPE) is a little flabby and could have used some post-production tightening by editor William Ziegler (THE OMEGA MAN). However, his staging of the action sequences is darned good, the highlight being a climactic shootout and chase along a Moclips, Washington beach that includes an amazing Gary McLarty car roll.

Wayne is backed up by a solid supporting cast, including David Huddleston (THE BIG LEBOWSKI), James Watkins, Roger E. Mosley (MAGNUM, P.I.), Joe Tornatore, Richard Kelton, and Julie Adams (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON). Elmer Bernstein’s jazzy score works, but sure sounds a helluva lot like David Shire’s memorable THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (which came out after MCQ).

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Metalstorm: The Destruction Of Jared-Syn

“I’m getting too old for this stuff,” says Han Solo clone Rhodes (Tim Thomerson). Happily, the same doesn’t go for me. Producer/director Charles Band convinced Universal to pick up the tab for this ridiculous post-apocalypse saga released theatrically in 3D. The story by producer Alan J. Adler (who also worked on Band’s previous 3D movie, PARASITE) is incomprehensible, the visual effects shoddy, Mac Ahlberg’s cinematography murky, and the climax more anti- than climactic. Doesn’t mean I don’t have a blast watching METALSTORM: THE DESTRUCTION OF JARED-SYN, which easily makes any list of top film titles of all time.

Dogen, who dresses like Max Rockatansky and is played by Jeffrey Byron (THE DUNGEONMASTER), an actor whose emoting is as plastic as his features, is a future cop on the trail of evil cult leader Jared-Syn (Mike Preston, who was actually in THE ROAD WARRIOR). He meets up with the hot but equally synthetic Dhyana (pre-fame Kelly Preston), whose prospector father (Larry Pennell) was murdered by Jared-Syn’s monstrous cyborg son Baal (R. David Smith). Byron and Preston are awful performers and a perfectly matched screen couple tossed into a ludicrous romance.

I’m not getting into METALSTORM’s story, because, frankly, I don’t understand it. Baal shoots green acid from his robot claw arm that causes its victims to hallucinate or slip into a dream state or alternative universe or something. Jared-Syn uses some mental powers to kidnap Dhyana and transport an electric monster to fight Dogen in a cave. Some futuristic Jeeps chase Dogen around the desert. Most of them blow up. NIGHT COURT’s Richard Moll plays a one-eyed nomad. Jared-Syn mumbles about lifeforces. Usually, the shots are in focus, but sometimes not.

It’s all nonsense, but I honestly don’t care. Tim Thomerson co-stars as Dogen’s sidekick Rhodes in the first of many adventures he would take with Charles Band. Then a standup comedian and actor in light comic film and television roles (JEKYLL & HYDE...TOGETHER AGAIN), Thomerson jumped from METALSTORM to full-fledged action star in Band’s TRANCERS and its sequels. Thomerson is a champion scene-stealer, contributing the film’s (intentional) comic relief and coming through with fists flying in Band’s action sequences.

METALSTORM has cool futuristic truck stunts and explosions and lasers and monsters and fantasy sequences and mutants and arm-ripping and tapping into the master crystal and Bronson Canyon and a fantastic Richard Band score and Kelly Preston looking good and Tim Thomerson being The Man and…well, I have to justify my fondness for the film somehow. Take away the credits, and METALSTORM barely runs 75 minutes and manages to deliver a complete non-ending ending that promises a sequel that never came. There is no metalstorm, whatever that would be, and Jared-Syn is not destroyed.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Ground Control

24 couldn’t have come along at a better time if GROUND CONTROL is indicative of the projects Kiefer Sutherland found himself in before playing the lead in Fox’s innovative hit drama series. Filmed very cheaply by first-and-last-time director Richard Howard, whose idea of an air traffic tower is a completely black set with a couple of computer consoles, GROUND CONTROL is filled with good actors forced to utter technical gobbledygook in lieu of interesting dialogue.

Four years after a plane he was guiding crashed, killing everyone on board (it wasn’t his fault), air traffic controller Sutherland is recruited by his old boss Bruce McGill (ANIMAL HOUSE) to help out on an understaffed and overworked New Year’s Eve. After the accident, Sutherland became a burnt-out drunk, but a divorce, rehabilitation, and a new job designing computer software seems to have helped him overcome his guilt. But is he ready to jump back into the saddle during a night filled with power outages, poor weather, little support, and competition from a cocky younger controller (Robert Sean Leonard)?

You’d think a night among air traffic controllers would be more exciting than what Howard shows us, but he’s so bereft of ideas, he even throws in an unnecessary subplot involving a numbers-crunching safety inspector (FAMILY TIES dad Michael Gross) trying to fire a controller (Charles Fleischer) who freaks out under pressure. Sutherland’s quiet desperation seems like an audition for 24’s on-the-move Jack Bauer, but the best performance is by Henry Winkler (HAPPY DAYS) as an engineer forced to keep the power on under a tight budget. The only reason to watch GROUND CONTROL is to see the cast, including Kelly McGillis (WITNESS), Kristy Swanson (DEADLY FRIEND), and Margaret Cho (DROP DEAD DIVA), working together, although it’s too bad none of them had anything better to do.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Moonshine County Express

New World Pictures released this goodnatured PG-rated car chase picture, one of the better examples of “hicksploitation” dotting drive-ins in the wake of MACON COUNTY LINE and SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT. Producer Ed Carlin had an advantage — he had worked for New World in the studio’s sales department — and he and director Gus Trikonis (formerly married to Goldie Hawn) had made the successful THE SWINGING BARMAIDS and THE STUDENT BODY together. MOONSHINE COUNTY EXPRESS, which carried the title SHINE through production, was a bigger hit than both and led to them also making THE EVIL for New World.

John Saxon (ENTER THE DRAGON), in all likelihood a little mature for the role, is nonetheless charming as J.B. Johnson, a wiseass, cop-taunting racecar driver caught in a turf war between fat, evil Jack Starkey (William Conrad, shooting during a CANNON hiatus) and the sexy Hammer sisters: Dot (PETROCELLI wife Susan Howard), Betty (busy drive-in star Claudia Jennings), and Sissy (Brady girl Maureen McCormick), from oldest to youngest. You can guess which side J.B. takes.

Ya see, Starkey wants to be the county’s number-one bootlegger, so he sends his goons to wipe out his competition: the Hammer girls’ father Pap (Fred Foresman). Wisely, the old man left behind a secret stash of the finest shine around, and with J.B. behind the wheel delivering the stuff two steps ahead of dim sheriff Larkin (Albert Salmi, Howard’s PETROCELLI co-star) and Starkey’s main gunsel Sweetwater (Morgan Woodward), the Hammers have a leg up. But Starkey doesn’t accept defeat so easily.

With Saxon burnin’ rubber and breakin’ rules and tradin’ romantic banter with Howard, MOONSHINE COUNTY EXPRESS is good fun. Trikonis delivers plenty of action, and screenwriters Hugh Smith (whose BLACK OAK CONSPIRACY New World released the same month) and Daniel Ansley nicely imbue their characters with a bit of dimension beyond the usual B-movie stiffs, such as making the sheriff a neat freak or giving teenage Sissy a small crush on J.B. None of this is meant to be taken too seriously, but setting the blustery Conrad’s Starkey against three women carries a welcome feminist theme, while still allowing audiences to gawk at girls in tight shorts.

Speaking of, exploitation fan favorite Candice Rialson (HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD) appears in a supporting role, as do venerable character actors Dub Taylor, Len Lesser, and Jeff Corey as a corrupt preacher. Jennings, unfortunately, had only two more films in her future before dying prematurely in a Pacific Coast Highway crash two years later at the age of 30. MOONSHINE COUNTY EXPRESS also benefits from location shooting in Nevada County, California. One year after its 1977 theatrical release, CBS scored big ratings with MOONSHINE COUNTY EXPRESS in prime time and then ran it on THE CBS LATE MOVIE in 1979 and 1981.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Hard Target 2

Universal only waited 23 years to produce a sequel to HARD TARGET, an excellent Jean-Claude Van Damme film loosely based on Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game.” Not wanting to rock the boat too much, HARD TARGET 2 follows the same basic storyline, only set in Thailand, rather than New Orleans.

While director Roel Reine (DEATH RACE 2) is no John Woo, the Asian action specialist who directed the smashing first film, he’s one of the two or three best filmmakers working in the direct-to-DVD/VOD action genre today. And while Van Damme deservedly has his fans, HARD TARGET 2 star Scott Adkins (NINJA) is more than capable of filling his shoes.

Considering the talent and credentials of both Reine and Adkins, it comes as little surprise that HARD TARGET 2 is quite a fine action movie, which is mainly held back by its budget, reportedly under $5 million for a mere 20 shooting days. It’s difficult to film complicated action sequences on a 20-day shooting schedule, though Reine, aided by the lush Southeast Asian jungle, manages to make HARD TARGET 2 look good (he photographed the movie as well as directed it). Some fight scenes have a rushed look to them, including Adkins’ MMA bout, in which his opponent generously stands with his arms down long enough for Adkins to do a double spin while delivering a fatal kick. Reine’s weakness is a fondness for annoying speed-ramping, which has never enhanced an action scene and certainly doesn’t here.

Yes, Adkins is an MMA fighter named Wes Baylor in HARD TARGET 2. As all fighters/kickboxers do in this type of film, Wes accidentally kills an opponent, quits the MMA out of guilt, and retires to a debaucherous, pathetic life of booze and squalor in Bangkok, sometimes competing in underground bare knuckles brawls for whiskey money (so why quit the pro ranks?). Then rich asshole Jonah Aldrich (PRISON BREAK scumbag Robert Knepper) makes an offer Wes can’t refuse: $1 million for one big fight in Myanmar.

Psych! There ain’t no big fight in Myanmar. Instead, Wes is the latest game being pursued by Aldrich and his perverse hunters, who include Aldrich’s right-hand man (Temuera Morrison), a macho dad/wimp son combo (like SURVIVING THE GAME), and the leather-clad Sofia (Rhona Mitra), a sultry sureshot with a crossbow. Set loose in the jungle with a water bottle, a million bucks in rubies, and a two-minute lead on the seven psychopaths on his rear, Wes finds an ally in Tha (Ann Truong), a young native woman who helps him try to reach the border ahead of his pursuers.

Knepper, who looks and sounds like the heir apparent to Lance Henriksen, is pretty great playing the heavy. His job is to keep the movie interesting between the action scenes, and Knepper, who somehow managed to turn a degenerate child molester on PRISON BREAK into someone to root for, succeeds with an eccentric performance that almost makes you like the little monster. Certainly the glee he demonstrates when handing out rocket-launching motorcycles to his hunters is infectious. As for the rest of the supporting cast, only Mitra stands out (Peter Hardy’s stereotypical middle-aged Texan inexplicably has an Australian accent).