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Cole Justice (1989)
Cole Justice was a pleasant surprise.
Beginning in 1953, Coleman "Cole" Justice (Bartholomew) is out on a date with his best girl, Betsy, taking in a viewing of Shane. After the movie, they're walking home and Betsy realizes she dropped her locket. Cole runs back to the theater to pick it up, and it's then when a gang of ne'er-do-well punks assault Betsy and rape her. (Now might be the appropriate time to mention that the actress playing Betsy is named Amy Raper. Could this possibly be a coincidence?). When Cole finds out what happens, he is destroyed and vows revenge.
Cut to 1989 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Cole Justice is now Professor Justice, teaching a class in Western Cinema to his enthusiastic students. It seems like after the night he viewed Shane with Betsy, something stuck in his head about that and he can't move beyond it. He's obsessed with Westerns, becoming an encyclopedia of facts and quotes about them, and even his home is decorated in a Western motif. Professor Justice, who is a dead ringer for Inside the Actor's Studio's James Lipton, is irresistible to the ladies. When one of his students, Michelle Fresnay (Amy Gruebel) - who has a crush, naturally, on him - is found dead after a bad dose of crack (yes, it was going around even in the suburbs of Oklahoma at the time), something reignites in Cole Justice. Dressed in full cowboy regalia, he hits the streets to find out who is responsible, and deal with it - in true Western style.
Because he's righting wrongs all over town, the media dubs him "The Cowboy Killer". At the top of the baddie food chain are Jack Keeter (Willard Clark), a man who looks exactly like Barney Miller's Hal Linden, and Wes Santee (Mike Wiles). (Not only is there a Western from 1973 with Glenn Ford named Santee, it's also Dolph Lundgren's name in Army of One). As if Cole Justice didn't have his hands full enough, he still finds time for love, deal with family issues, and he even gets involved with the forced retirement of Security Guard and buddy Pop (Nick Zickefoose) by the evil Dean of the college, Lindsay (Noel Fairbrothers). Will Cole live up to his name and truly get JUSTICE?
Cole Justice was a pleasant surprise. You can easily tell it was a passion project for director/co-writer/co-editor/star Carl Bartholomew, and the heart he and the rest of the cast and crew bring to the movie is apparent and infectious. Fighting mightily against the tide of its rock-bottom budget and novice actors and crew, Bartholomew and his posse managed to rustle up a winner.
One of the main reasons for this is that Cole Justice is a likable character. So many movies, both low and high budget, don't have likable characters. Cole Justice - the movie - has multiple people the audience really warms to. Not just Cole, in fact, but also Pop and Cole's students such as Chris Lomac (Keith Andrews). Bartholomew has a great broadcaster's voice and I'd like to hope he did radio or voice-over work in Oklahoma during his life (he sadly passed away in 2009). Lomac and his classmates hang out at a restaurant with a giant animatronic chicken. Like all college students.
There is not just footage, but repeated footage of the aforementioned Shane, as well as Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Justice goes to a place called "The Cinema" to watch them. While it predated all the revival theaters that are currently hot today, it doesn't get many points for originality when it comes to the name.
Of course, there are plenty of Middle-Aged Punks (MAP's) in the movie, and why not? Rae Don video specialized in them. Many of their releases, such as Provoked (1989), Rescue Force (1990), and Punk Vacation (1990) feature them. Could this also be a coincidence? But, in all seriousness, perhaps the reason more people haven't seen Cole Justice is because Rae Don didn't have a huge reach back during the video store era.
We should also mention that Cole Justice also has a lovable dog named Frisco, and we're treated to this credit at the end of the movie - "Frisco the Dog - Frisco". So now we know that Cole's dog has approximately the same acting range as Mike "Cobra" Cole.
Not to be confused with Mike Justus, COLE JUSTICE was released in the golden video store year of 1989, and is an interesting and worthwhile find, if you can indeed find it.
The Glimmer Man (1996)
Despite the best efforts of Wayans and perhaps a few others, The Glimmer Man is pretty middling.
Jack Cole (Seagal) is a New York cop and snappy dresser who transfers to L.A. when a serial killer begins terrorizing the city. Known as "The Family Man" because he slaughters the whole family, and does so also with a religious subtext, the stakes are high for Cole and his new partner Campbell (Wayans) to crack the case. The heat really ratchets up when Jack's ex-wife becomes a victim, and our two heroes discover that the Russian mafia is involved in all this somehow, as they usually are in these instances. As it turns out, Jack's CIA past comes to light as his former boss and now bad guy Mr. Smith (Cox) has joined forces with another local baddie named Deverell (Gunton). Things may seem complicated for the seemingly-mismatched pair of Cole and Campbell, but the Buddhist monk and the wisecracking cop are the only hope of rescuing the citizens of Los Angeles. Will they succeed despite all the obstacles in their way?
Prepare to soak up the awesome power of glimmering men as Seagal eats his way through L.A. like a pudgy Pac-Man. It seems pretty clear that the filmmakers were trying to replicate the magic of The Last Boy Scout (1991), even throwing a Wayans brother into the deal. But without the stellar writing of Shane Black, or a comparative budget, or the charisma of Bruce Willis, you're left with a Seagal on the decline...this is where his laziness started to become really apparent, with face-palmingly obvious stand-ins, other actors overdubbing his voice, his whispering when he does have to talk, and the predominance of his paddy-cake slap-fu during the non-gun-related fight scenes. Oh well, at least this is before he became a sadistic torturer, as he did in his later DTV movies.
Keenen Ivory Wayans not only shined with his great comic timing and snappy one-liners, we also appreciated the fact that his character, Campbell, was a classic movie fan. He even got to do some impressive Keenen Ivory-Fu, which was much appreciated. Not only did Wayans pull his own weight in this production, he pulled most of Seagal's as well. Without Wayans adding the brightness, this would have been a total slog. Brian Cox was perfectly fine as the baddie, but it was very reminiscent of Noble Willingham in Boy Scout. When Cox and Seagal are talking in the Italian restaurant, it's a battle of the whispers. You definitely need the subtitles on the DVD.
So while we do see the triumph of Seagal's so-called "sissy beads", the movie remains just on the edge of a breakthrough of quality and value. It's entertaining enough, but it's also easy to see why it was one of Seagal's last movies to hit theater screens. Speaking of edges, you haven't seen the proper use of a credit card until you've seen Seagal brandish his plastic. I hear he earns double airline miles for every dead gangster.
Once again, Seagal was also heavily involved in the music, teaming up with the prolific Todd Smallwood on two bluesy rockers for Taj Mahal and The Jeff Healey Band. Music aside, the plot is nothing you wouldn't see on an episode of Criminal Minds, and it's plain to see Seagal's torpor setting in. Taking all this into consideration, The Glimmer Man might bring back some fond memories of perusing the shelves at your local video store...but seen from today's perspective you can see the ill omens that would predict the course of Seagal's later career. Despite the best efforts of Wayans and perhaps a few others, The Glimmer Man is pretty middling.
The Black Ninja (2003)
Imagine Batman meets Daredevil meets RZA's Bobby Digital meets Zorro shot on a home movie camera.
Malik Ali (Prince) is a Johnnie Cochran-esque defense lawyer who specializes in charging his criminal clients an arm and a leg to get them off the legal hook. That's his day job, mind you. At night, he's the avenging superhero called THE BLACK NINJA. He even goes after the baddies he formerly defended in order to get street justice. At a speaking event, Ali meets Tracey Allen (Brothers), an attractive psychiatrist, and the chemistry is immediate. The only roadblock to their blossoming relationship is the fact that she's a witness in the upcoming trial of mobster Tony Fanelli (DeMatteo), and Fanelli commands his goons to have her rubbed out. So Ali/The Black Ninja is going to have to protect her with all he's got. Compounding Ali's already-complicated situation is the fact that Hagiwara (Matsuzaki), a red ninja, has reappeared in Ali's life after heinously killing his wife and children years before. Now burning for revenge, Ali has to look after Tracey as well. Will the streets ever be safe?
Watch out, Troy Nikolo Ashford, there's a new auteur in town. While we know The Black Ninja was written by Clayton Prince, and stars Clayton Prince, the credits of the movie inform us that it was directed by "Me". Who is Me? It truly is an existential question. It could be anyone, but we're going to go with the working theory that it is Clayton Prince.
Like the aforementioned Ashford, Prince was able to make a full-length feature film with an apparent budget of zero, shoot it on video, and not only get it into stores nationally, but internationally as well. Let's all keep that in mind and applaud Mr. Prince. Now, that being said, this is about as far down the ladder of DTV as you can get, production-wise. It has every technical flaw known to filmmaking, it's incredibly cheap-looking, and it's all astoundingly silly. But that's all part of the charm. You have to watch this with other people to get the full effect.
Imagine Batman meets Daredevil meets RZA's Bobby Digital meets Zorro shot on a home movie camera. The Black Ninja's "command center" consists of a desk with two computer monitors, the guy who played the mobster baddie, Fanelli, was probably hired because he has a passing resemblance to John Gotti, and The Black Ninja's main mode of transportation is a black Kawasaki Ninja. Seems appropriate. There's even an unexplained fight scene at a Funcoland in front of a Sega Dreamcast display. However, just like The Protector (1999) and others, he does have a talking computer, which all true heroes should have.
The movie starts with a bang, and ends with a bang, but there are some stretches in the middle where it starts to sag. The opening credits look like they were created with Mario Paint and there's a quasi-animated Black Ninja figure. The fight scenes are almost too ridiculous for words (much like the rest of the proceedings) - forget punches and kicks looking like they may connect someday, but whenever TBN (as we call him) executes one of his trademark moves, Prince employs this laughably stupid tripling editing effect. During the non-fight scenes, Ali talks to his dead wife (Hunter), and there is an extended scene of unfortunate bathroom humor. Det. Howell (Chance) livens things up with his attitude and his heckling, however. Matsuzaki as the main baddie is very over the top - and incomprehensible, with minimal English skills. It makes for an interesting combination.
Featuring an extremely catchy title song which seems to hearken back to 70's Blaxploitation (most of the music was done by The BeatBrokerz and Clayton Prince himself worked on some of it as well), The Black Ninja might not be near the top of the most technically well-made productions of all time, but it pretty much defines the term "cheap and cheerful". Seen in the proper context, it's pretty enjoyable. Gather some of your fellow film fans, make sure the brewski's are flowing, and it just may be the underdog crowd pleaser of the year.
Terror in Beverly Hills (1989)
Terror in Beverly Hills is a ton of silly and absurd fun!
When an evil gang of middle-eastern terrorists led by the sinister Abdul (Vossoughi) comes to Beverly Hills, well, terror ensues. Their main target is Margaret (Heslov), daughter of The President (no actual name for The President is ever said) (Smith). They kidnap her while she's shopping and spirit her away to "the old bean factory". While LAPD Captain Stills (Cam) is crankily and dyspeptically working his way through the situation, it becomes evident to all concerned that only one man can rescue Margaret, take down the terrorists, and restore law and order to Beverly Hills: HACK STONE (Stallone). (Hack Stone is not an anagram for Frank Stallone; we checked). Will the fantastically-named Hack Stone, who is a former Special Forces soldier and now Karate instructor, be able to complete his mission? Or will terror reign at the old bean factory...er, I mean, BEVERLY HILLS? Find out today...
Here's a movie that delivers what it promises - terrorists come to Beverly Hills. It also gets sillier and sillier as it goes along. It starts out fairly seriously, with comments about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the threat of terrorism in our time, which actually makes 'Terror fairly topical even today. Well, about as much so as Terror Squad (1988), Hostage (1987), or Scorpion (1986). VERY quickly, however, we are launched headlong into a highly-entertaining morass of ridiculousness that we as viewers do not return from.
Thanks to its rock-bottom budget, we get some classic nonsensical dubbing/dialogue, wonderfully stupid chase/shooting scenes, and the whole outing has that vibe of absurdity that fans of fun movies will recognize immediately. It's almost like a cousin of Provoked (1989), and there's even a McKeiver Jones III-like character. And that's the key to Terror in Beverly Hills - its characters. Even with all the preposterous goings-on, what stands out are the characters, no matter how small they are in the overall scheme of things.
Of course, we have the aforementioned Cam Mitchell, who puts in a performance that enlivens the proceedings. Then we have the great William Smith, perfectly cast as The President. Unfortunately, like most of the other characters, his voice was dubbed, so his trademark gravel is not heard. Naturally, there's Hack Stone, AKA Frank Stallone, who ties it all together. The main difference between Stone and Stills is that Stone drinks regular Pepsi (with a very prominent place on his desk) but Stills prominently drinks Diet Pepsi. Have the Pepsi people ever seen this movie? But the smaller parts, the incidental roles, are what really make 'Terror a gem. There's Crystal, the 911 dispatcher who really cares about her job and has terrific typing skills, there's Brian Leonard as Tony Motta, the enthusiastic and pushy TV news anchor, and there's Captain Leonard (the McKeiver guy), who really shines as an LAPD detective. But the show is well and truly stolen by the charming interplay between Bruce and Gandhi, two locals.
All that isn't surprising, as director Myhers was primarily known as an actor himself, but he did direct one movie per decade in the 60's, 70's, and 80's. Obviously this was his 80's entry, released in the golden year of 1989. Myhers passed away shortly thereafter in 1992. Evidently the old bean factory that is so central to the story was a real place, as in the end credits, the California Bean Growers Association are thanked. You don't see that every day.
In the end, Terror in Beverly Hills is a ton of silly and absurd fun, and despite its limited resources, it is vastly better than The Taking of Beverly Hills (1991). If you only see one movie where something bad happens to Beverly Hills, see this one.
Code Name Vengeance (1987)
It's easy to love Ginty and Code Name Vengeance
In Africa, an evil terrorist named Musseem Tabrak (Ryan) seems to be gaining political influence in his region. In order to further his nefarious ends, he kidnaps the wife and son of one of his rivals. That's when the ambassador, Harry Applegate (Gordon), calls in the only solution to this geopolitical problem: Monroe Bieler (Ginty). Bieler is a warrior who was imprisoned by Tabrak for twelve years and is burning with the desire for revenge. Applegate teams him up with a guy from the U.S. consulate named Chuck Hawley (Brophy), but things really start to heat up when Bieler re-connects with old warhorse Dutch Busselmeyer (Cam). Along with love interest/reluctant compatriot Sam (Tweed), the four unlikely heroes proceed to shoot, blast, and blow up the minions of Tabrak - but who is the true mastermind? Will Applegate wrap himself in the flag...and will Monroe Bieler live to machine-gun-shoot another day?
Fan favorite Robert Ginty saves the day in CODE NAME VENGEANCE, an entertaining shoot-em-up/blow-em-up that you pretty much have to love. It's a non-AIP outing from director David Winters, which may explain why the movie looks more professional than usual. His production company this time around was The Killmasters Company, and when you see that that is the first credit on the screen, you know you're in for a good time.
As we've noted before, there are many types of dumb. Thankfully, Code Name Vengeance is the fun kind of dumb. Lots of very stupid things happen, but you can't help but smile. The movie has that 80's charm mixed with the type of charm that comes from clunky editing and ridiculously-staged action scenes. The viewer can get by on this combination of dumbness and charm any day of the week. It is also satisfying to see black-robed terrorists getting killed by the good guys. There are many instances where all this comes together. For example, in one scene, there are some terrorists in an abandoned warehouse. Ginty somehow hooks a bunch of grenades onto a very, very slow-moving forklift and sends it towards them. The baddies see this coming and have ample time to run away. Instead, they just sit there for a long time, yelling. Then they blow up. Thank goodness.
When we first see Ginty, he's embroiled in a prison-yard fight and he looks a lot like Chuck Norris. Then we see Gordon as Applegate and he looks a lot like John Saxon. We went on Cam watch and he eventually shows up 43 minutes in. He adds a lot of energy and even gets into the shooting action with the younger cast members. He would shortly re-team with James Ryan in another South Africa-shot David Winters movie, Rage To Kill (1988).
All the other characters, but especially Hawley, say Bieler's name many, many times. Almost every sentence they say ends with the word "Bieler". "I don't think so, Bieler", "Not a good idea, Bieler", etc. It's not even that cool of a name. By contrast, James Ryan's name in Rage To Kill was Blaine Striker. Now that's a name worth repeating. Bieler is dangerously close to Bieber. Obviously they must have known that in 1988 and should have acted accordingly.
The music, by Steve McClintock along with Mark Mancina and Tim James, is terrific and McClintock contributes yet another excellent song, "Is It Really Love?" This just goes to further prove that McClintock was one of the most underrated musical talents of the 80's.
All the ingredients are here: the Winters direction, the McClintock music, the conspiracy that goes all the way to the top, the terrorists getting blown up, the silliness, the combination of Cam Mitchell, Shannon Tweed, and Robert Ginty, and it was the 80's. Consequently, it's easy to love Code Name Vengeance. We say give it a watch.
Invasion Force (1990)
It's blue-collar, homespun filmmaking all the way and therein lies the charm.
A film crew - an AIP film crew, no less - is shooting their latest action movie in the woods around Mobile, Alabama. Sure, there are some of the typical squabbles that go on, but jokes are being told and pranks are being played in the crew's off hours, so all seems to be going as normal. That is until a paramilitary organization led by Michael Cooper (Lynch) parachutes into the area with his goons. This INVASION FORCE plans to take over a city (presumably Mobile) as part of their dastardly plans. They take the director, Ben Adams (Cox) hostage and begin shooting people with machine guns. The film crew only has their prop guns, explosions, and tanks to fend them off, so they're going to have to use their wits to foil the plans of the baddies. Thankfully, Joni Marshall (Cline), the lead actress, and Douglas Harter (presumably playing himself), the weapons expert, have some tricks up their sleeves. In this battle of film crew versus the bad guys, who will come out victorious? And will there be a final twist to this AIP movie-within-an-AIP movie?
A lone, shirtless meathead stalks the forest. He begins shooting two machine guns at the same time and blowing up various huts. It's a promising start. Soon enough, the director calls cut and lead star Troy (Fralick) whines that the aforementioned Joni stepped on his foot. What AIP mastermind and writer/director David A. Prior seems to be implying is that these action stars might not be so tough after all. Prior goes on to postulate what might happen if one of his small film crews, who normally are so expert in rigging up explosions and providing actors with ammunition, came up against the real thing in real life. How would they handle it? Interestingly, this same ground was covered in Contra Conspiracy (1990) that same year. It would be an interesting double feature of low-budget meta mayhem.
While certainly not a behind-the-scenes documentary of AIP, Invasion Force might be as close as you'll get. The movie takes the time to show everyone in the crew, from the chef on down, interacting with each other. AIP mainstays like Doug Harter and Sean Holton (as Joey) are engaging and very likable. The director, Ben, bears a strong resemblance to - and should have been played by - Brian Benben. Coincidence? There's a crew member who looks exactly like Andy Richter who has to help fight the baddies as well. Lower-tier fan favorite and Frank Zagarino competitor David "Shark" Fralick has some fantastic outfits and is well cast as the musclebound hero. While most of the men in the movie have mullets, we think the bandanna he wears is to cover up his thinning hair in the front of his head. But it's just a theory. Of course, Richard Lynch is the "Lynch-pin" that holds it all together. (Heh heh). But it's true.
Could Invasion Force be one ego trip for Prior and his band of AIP stalwarts? The idea that they could fight against a paramilitary group with real guns and ammo in real firefights? Maybe, maybe not, but it's a good idea for an 83-minute direct-to-video action movie. Even still, Prior and the gang managed to fashion something modest, yet entertaining, on a rock-bottom budget, which is impressive. Imagine Red Dawn (1984) meets Invasion USA (1985) meets Mankillers (1987). And they even thank the Piggly Wiggly, among other chain stores like Krispy Kreme and Home Depot, in the closing credits. It's blue-collar, homespun filmmaking all the way and therein lies the charm.
Lock 'n' Load (1990)
If you like that classic AIP style, give it a chance. It's a little bit different from the rest.
Paul McMillan (Vogel) is a Vietnam veteran living in Colorado. After having some very strange nightmares, he begins to notice that the members of Delta Company - his outfit in 'Nam - all begin committing suicide. First they go on some sort of crime spree, and then they off themselves. Because this is happening so systematically, McMillan deduces that something nefarious is going on behind the scenes and he begins his investigation into the bizarre happenings. Teaming up with the wife of one of his former compatriots, Claire Hamilton (Cline), and Detective Bach (Hathaway-Clark), McMillan demands answers. But it's not going to be easy to unravel the mystery. What is "King's Pawn"? And what is the secret behind the phrase "Lock and Load"?
Lock 'n' Load is one of the more somber and subdued AIP movies out there. If you liked AIP's Night Wars (1988), surely you will like this one as well, as it deals with similar subject matter. The whole outing has a certain rough-hewn charm and the emphasis here seems to be on drama and intrigue, rather than shooting, blow-ups, and silliness. Sure, some of that is here, and there is a classic drug deal gone wrong, but it's all pretty serious-minded. Thankfully, it's done well and makes for a nice change of pace.
Speaking of pace, it is a little slow, but there's nothing wrong with that per se. Vogel/McMillan really, genuinely seems to care about what's going on. McMillan is a good hero - he's cool, but he's not an outrageous caricature. Vogel had been in other AIP movies such as Hell On The Battleground (1988) and Order of the Eagle (1989), and even served in a behind the scenes capacity on Maximum Breakout (1991). But this is truly his "Breakout" role. As for his co-star Renee Cline, she was no stranger to AIP and David Prior productions - she was in Future Zone, Invasion Force, The Final Sanction, and Lock 'n' Load all in the same year - 1990. Talk about a banner year! Fitting with the overall tone of the movie, her performance is a total 180 from Invasion Force and she goes for a more melancholy and sedate style.
Unfortunately, Lock 'n' Load is the only screen credit for one William Hathaway-Clark, who played the mustachioed Detective Bach. We liked him and we thought he added to the movie. Also, if you look carefully at McMillan's legal pad where he has his list of Delta Company veterans who are behaving strangely, you see the name David Prior. If you blink, you'll miss it, but it was a nice in-joke.
Lock 'n' Load doesn't seem to be one of the more well-known AIP movies, but if you like that classic AIP style, give it a chance. It's a little bit different from the rest (well, with the possible exception of the aforementioned Night Wars) and the muted style may appeal to you.
The Death Merchant (1991)
The Death Merchant is a no-sale.
"History has shown us that death merchants have always attempted to close the "ultimate deal". Let us hope that their evil endeavors continue to fail." - Closing words of The Death Merchant
Ivan Yates (Tierney) is some sort of death merchant. What is a death merchant, you ask? Well, in the case of Yates, the answer appears to be an elderly and ailing black marketer who wants a special microchip so he can control the world's nuclear arsenal. In addition to that, he wants a priceless urn containing the ashes of the ancient Egyptian Shohamen. Also he talks to his pet fish named Seymour.
When an archaeologist, Dr. Farraday (Rado), and his daughter Amanda (Schnarre, of Peacekeeper fame) get tangled in the web of Ivan Yates, only one man can help them out of their predicament: one David McKinley (Singleton), from the Cultural Affairs Department of the U.S. Government. Realizing he needs more power because he is somewhat of a nerd, McKinley turns to 1991-era coolguy Jason Cardwell (Viharo). So now McKinley, Cardwell, Farraday and Amanda have to come up against the conniving and duplicitous Death Merchant, who also has as backup baddie-esses Martina (Castle) and Natasha (Munyon). Who will come out victorious in the battle between the Death Merchant and the entire U.S. Navy?
James Winburn is known primarily as a stuntman, but he has directed three movies in his career: One is The Death Merchant, another is Evil Altar (1988) starring Robert Z'Dar, and the final movie in his trifecta is Miami Beach Cops (1992). While, taken together, that is impressive, if you must see one Winburn movie, see Miami Beach Cops. The Death Merchant appears to suffer from some technical problems, as the sound is horrendously shoddy, and the picture isn't so hot either. The fact that the movie has audio issues is especially egregious because the movie stars the late, great Lawrence Tierney. Tierney's inimitable voice CARRIES this movie. If it wasn't for Tierney and his voice, this movie would be nothing.
We were worried that, though the movie features Tierney, it would be a mere sit-down role. Thankfully, it's not. Tierney gets a lot of great screen time, and in not all of it is he sitting. Winburn used the man to his full potential, as far as rock-bottom budget AIP movies shot towards the end of his life would allow. Tierney is truly "America's Angry Grandpa" as he barks and growls his way through the muddy and muddled proceedings. This 'Merchant must think it's "Of Venice" because of all the highfalutin and pseudo-Shakespearean dialogue. It's a clumsily written film, and the lines are delivered awkwardly by a cast of inexperienced actors (except Tierney and Rado, of course).
Our main "hero", McKinley, is played by Andrew Singleton, and, oddly, this is his one and only movie role to date. He has a penchant for skinny ties and he has a curly mullet. So, obviously he's the hero. Martina, on the other side of the Death Merchant/anti-Death Merchant divide, was last seen in Total Exposure (1991), released the same year as 'Merchant. What a year it must have been for her.
There's a car blow-up and some very weak gun-shooting, but despite its release on ACTION International Pictures, there's not really any action here to speak of. Most of what we see is a lot of nonsensical "intrigue" that the limited means of the production didn't really have the wherewithal to support. Perhaps that is best evidenced by the fact that the opening of the film is the exactly the same as the climax. Literally it's the same footage we already saw. Granted, there's some McKinley footage spliced in during the second go-around, but come on. In general, though, we give the filmmakers points for trying, and Tierney is fantastic, but The Death Merchant is a no-sale.
Fatal Skies (1990)
Sure, it's pretty dumb but one there's one thing you can certainly say about Fatal Skies: it's unique.
In the small town of Beauville, California, something nefarious is afoot. A no-goodnik named Buddy Boyle (Leary) is dumping hazardous waste into the pristine countryside, and he's using the local goons to help him out. When a group of skydiving-mad teens inadvertently stumble onto what Buddy is doing, they at first try the local authorities, but of course they're on Buddy's payroll, so, led by girlfriend-boyfriend team Toni and Duane (Carothers and Esposito, respectively), and Toni's Uncle Jack (Burke), the pilot of their beloved plane, the group attempt to foil Boyle. But it's not going to be a Freestyle Formation in the sky for this group, especially now that we're dealing with FATAL SKIES (though to be fair, the skies are perfectly fine. Boyle is polluting the ground. But who's counting?)
There is an art to casting your movie or TV show. It's a delicate balance that you don't want to get wrong, and it can make all the difference in your project. If you cast someone who is inappropriate for the part, it can ruin your movie, but if you cast the perfect person, it can tip the scales in your favor and can propel your movie to new heights of success. The Casting Society of America even has its own awards, honoring the best in the field, called the Artios Awards. Or you could just say, "screw it, we're getting Timothy Leary".
The sheer insanity of casting the then-69-year-old Leary as the main baddie in your movie - who did indeed have an acting resume to fall back on, despite the fact that he was mainly known as a Harvard professor and LSD proponent - is, well...pretty insane. But it's all part of the magic of the video store era that never-to-be-replicated casts can be assembled. Not since Art Garfunkel had a Short Fuse or Steve Guttenberg went Airborne have we seen such an inspired casting decision. Mr. Leary is backed up with some great people as well, so he doesn't steal the show - Tim Burke as Uncle Jack is likable and comes off as a cross between James Doohan and Mike Ditka. Geoff Meed is a classic meathead, Melissa Moore has a very small part as one of the teens, Maureen Shannon is downright weird as Willy, and one Vernon Buckwald as the Don Knotts-like Sheriff Horne leaves a pretty strong impression. He even reappears after the end credits.
But the main star of the show is, let's face it, Veronica Carothers as Toni. She started off her career as the production secretary on Deadly Prey (1987) and parlayed that into a pretty successful career as a so-called "scream queen". She can be seen in Mankillers (1987) and She-Wolves of the Wasteland (1988) as well. Her beauty is downright mesmerizing and the movie can be enjoyed just for her presence in it. She even pioneers a new slang word - not since Conflict of Interest (1993) and "Jerk Beef" and Bulletproof (1988) with "Butthorn" have we seen such creative use of language. At one point she calls Duane, and we quote, a "Dweezel". Not to be confused with the fine musician Dweezil Zappa, we assume. That was what was so great about the 80's and early 90's and DTV - there were no rules and lots of creativity, even when it came to the words people said and/or invented. You don't get that today.
There is a lot of bizarre and silly dialogue like that. At times, it almost seems like the script was written in a foreign language and then translated by a computer, then presented to the actors. Even still, it seems like Steven Seagal - or, at least, On Deadly Ground-era Steven Seagal - would appreciate its environmentally-minded message. Maybe because it's the only directing or writing credit for one Thomas E. Dugan to date, but it's hard to tell the tone of this movie. One minute it seems like it's tongue in cheek, or possibly trying to be funny, but then the next minute it's serious-minded. There's no consistency there.
There are shootings, stabbings, chases, blow-ups, and the like. And, once again proving DTV product is way ahead of its Hollywood counterparts, the whole thing predated Extreme Ops (2002) by a whopping twelve years! Honestly, you had us at "Skydiving Teens Foil Pollution Plot by Timothy Leary". Only in the video store era, we tell you. Only in the video store era.
Sure, it's pretty dumb and all over the place, but one there's one thing you can certainly say about Fatal Skies: it's unique. So let's keep on the bright side and look at it that way.
The Last Ride (1991)
Just video store shelf-filler unfortunately
A man named Michael Smith (Ranger) finally gets out of jail after eight years. He seems like a nice enough guy, and he claims he was innocent. After saying a heartfelt goodbye to his long-time cellmate Adams (Jarrett), Smith hits the road to soak up his newfound freedom. Unfortunately, Smith's life on the outside takes a dark turn when a psychotic trucker named Phil Holtman (Hilow) picks him up while hitching. You'll understand the reason for the italics momentarily. Meanwhile, our old buddy Phil is off acting crazy and killing people. Local waitress Debbie (Nohavic) is at risk. While initially a suspect, Smith ends up working with the authorities in the area, Sheriff Bolt (Winship) and policeman of the year Bart (Dietrick). Will Michael Smith get out of this jam? Or will this be his LAST RIDE?
The Last Ride is AIP's take on The Hitcher (1986). The plot, the structure, and even individual scenes are, let's say, HIGHLY influenced by it. Because it's all done in that inimitable AIP style, imagine a cross between The Hitcher and Maximum Breakout (1991). If you ever watched The Hitcher and thought its one impediment is that its budget was too high, this is the movie for you.
Dan Ranger has an awesome name. We wish we were Dan Ranger, or even had his name, We would be sitting pretty. The original Dan Ranger, or Daniel P. Ranger as he is credited here, never seems to have capitalized on his fantastic name. He was only in this movie and Cop Out (1991) the same year. What a year that must have been for Mr. Ranger. Of course, during the filming of Cop Out he had to contend with David Buff, who challenged his supremacy in the awesome name sweepstakes. Ranger must have felt humiliated and left the movie industry forever. Ranger looks a lot like Jan-Michael Vincent and he does his best.
The main baddie, Phil, is more annoying than scary. And the doctor who comes to save the day, Dr. Jim Rouchet (Renn Richards, in, amazingly, his only screen role to date) looks like a mustachioed Dick Clark. It appears all his dialogue was post-dubbed, and by a stage-trained master thespian with a lot of gravitas. Speaking of master thespians, that brings us to George Dietrick as Bart, one of the police officers. At one crucial point in the story, he realizes this is his "Streetcar Named Desire" moment and he gives it his all. We commend him for that.
The usual AIP mainstays are here, of course - the movie was written by Ted Prior and co-produced by David A. Prior, and it was shot in and around Fall City, Washington. It retains that regional vibe, and the whole thing is 75 minutes long, not including the world's slowest end credits crawl. Despite its brief length, it feels longer because this is not one of AIP's more creative or energetic outings. It feels almost like it's going through the motions. Sure, there are a handful of standout moments, but that's all they are - moments. Sadly, director Krogstad and most of the rest of his cast never developed their talents beyond this initial venture. It would have been interesting to see that evolution, but here we just get a taste of what could have been.
In the competitive world of DTV in the early 90's, you had to be on your game, and it seems The Last Ride just didn't have what it takes to survive. Thus it became, unfortunately, just more video store shelf-filler. It didn't have to be that way, but more twists, surprises, verve, or originality might have helped.
Blood on the Badge (1992)
it is just entertaining enough to satisfy VHS junkies who are familiar with this type of material.
When a Libyan terrorist group called the Hand of God are running around killing politicians, detectives Neil Farrow (Harrod) and Bill Marshall (Everett) are on the case. Captain Burton (Estevez) is constantly demanding answers from them, and after Marshall ends up in a coma, Farrow goes rogue - and also goes to Texas - to find the perpetrators. While somewhat of a fish out of water in the small town of Morgan County, Texas, Farrow has a spirit guide - his comatose partner Marshall himself! Dressed in a white T-shirt and bathed in white light even though he's not dead, he gives Farrow cryptic clues as to what to do next. Doubtlessly it's because of this intervention that Farrow comes across local powermad good ol' boy Milo Truscott (Patterson) and his gang of nogoodniks. After traveling to the local "survival camp" and being mercilessly mocked and ridiculed by the local doomsday preppers, Farrow decides enough is enough and takes the law into his own hands to unravel the mystery. But will there be BLOOD ON THE BADGE?
Shot the same year as Armed For Action (1992) and featuring almost the exact same cast and crew, Blood On The Badge is more low-budget, Texas-set, Joe Estevez-infused DTV wonderment. Out of the two, we prefer Armed For Action, mainly because that has a higher mullet-and-Gatling-gun ratio, but it's probably a matter of taste.
David Harrod returns as the hunky Himbo hero. His favorite outfit is what appears to be a homemade New York Yankees T-shirt tucked into acid washed jeans with a black belt. When he's not wearing that, he likes to lounge around in a towel, showing off his ultra-manly Woody Woodpecker tattoo. He's so much of a Himbo, he makes Dan Cortese look like William F. Buckley. Naturally, the ladies can't get enough of him, and that includes Monique Detraz of The Dangerous (1995) fame. While the movie as a whole suffers from pacing issues, Joe Estevez appears right on time.
Rocky Patterson also returns, along with everyone else, from Armed For Action. In that outing he strongly resembled Joe Piscopo. In this movie, he strongly resembles Greg Kinnear. The man is a true chameleon. While his name here is Truscott, it sounds like everyone is calling him "Triscuit". Thankfully, this movie isn't quite as dry as his namesake cracker. Speaking of which, Truscott is a racist bigot who spews racial slurs constantly. That and the sax on the soundtrack are the hallmarks of a type of film which is not made anymore. While in many respects, Blood on the Badge is a relic of its day, it is actually quite ahead of its time. The plot revolves around Islamic terrorists, and there is a subplot that involves the Israeli ambassador. They should re-release this back into theaters today.
While there are a healthy amount of funny lines and silly situations, the plot is slow going. There is a machine gun shootout in a warehouse, and even an exploding helicopter, so in that respect it's pure AIP. It all ends on a classic freeze frame and under the closing credits are wedding pictures. You've gotta hand it to director McCormick and his band of regulars. It may be rough around the edges, but, darn it, he made these movies and released them into video stores. You can tell plenty of effort was put into making them as good as possible under very, very limiting circumstances. It's probably important to keep that in mind while watching.
In the end, if you liked Armed For Action, or even One Man War (1990), and you appreciate that down-home style, you'll more than likely enjoy Blood On the Badge. If not, you probably won't, though it is just entertaining enough to satisfy VHS junkies who are familiar with this type of material.
Armed for Action (1992)
Armed For Action represents a filmmaking era that is almost quaint by today's standards.
Alex (Guy) and his cousin Jake (Boldin) are two fun-loving cousins who are just livin' their lives in the sleepy, rural town of Poolville, Texas. Because most of the town has vacated because it's hunting season, the two good ol' boys can feel free to indulge their passions of drinking, skirt-chasing, and gun collecting. The latter is going to come in very handy, however, as trouble comes to town in the form of a man named West (Estevez). West brings his underlings to Poolville because that's where a mafia hitman named David Montel (Patterson) will be. He's a prisoner being transported cross-country by a cop-with-an-attitude named Sgt. Phil Towers (Harrod). Once West and his goons start their onslaught in pursuit of Montel, the unlikely allies of Alex, Jake, Montel, Towers, and local barmaid Sarah (Murphy) all have to team up to fight them in a firefight to the finish. Luckily, they're ARMED FOR ACTION...but so are the baddies! Who will be the saviors of Poolville, Texas?
Both Alex and Jake have awesome hair. They have to be cousins because awesome hair must run in their bloodline. Alex's overgrown curly mullet is extremely impressive, though Phil Towers, the Zack Morris-esque policeman has great hair too, and he's not related to the boys, as far as we know. Jake rivals him with his Cody-era Sasha Mitchell look.
Okay, now that that's out of our system, let's proceed. Armed For Action seems to be something of a "forgotten" movie, and one of the least-talked about AIP releases. Hopefully, this review will help to change that, as not only is it a more-than-respectable outing, it's actually quite impressive what director McCormick and the gang were able to do with such a low budget. Despite some of the almost-prerequisite dumb moments and low-budget pitfalls, this tale of innocent locals caught in a city-versus-country crossfire is the type of movie Hollywood used to make - and still makes today but with an exponentially higher budget, if we just look at The Last Stand (2013). Even David Heavener tried his hand with something similar, Prime Target (1991). While we appreciated the movie's lineage - it's essentially an old-style Western - we could have done without the bathroom humor (a pet peeve of ours).
When you watch Armed For Action, you enter a rural world where the hometown bar appears to be someone's house, the Sheriff (Gould) is the only law enforcement in town and he operates out of the General Store, and at the local restaurant you can get something called a smoked bologna sandwich. Strange as it is to say, 1992 was a simpler time, and when Joe Estevez (who puts in a pretty wild-eyed performance) and his goons show up, you care what happens to the townsfolk. AFA (as we call it) actually takes the time for character development, which we applaud wholeheartedly. So many movies of this type just skip that. For that reason alone, this small, modest movie is worth checking out.
And because Montel looks like Joe Piscopo. That would be our mafia hitman, not Montel Williams. Speaking of lookalikes, West's main two goons look like Gary Busey and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. There are a lot of other funny-looking goons as well, but those were our personal favorites. Would that the real guys appeared in an AIP movie together. Well, this is as close as we'll get. We'll take it. According to the credits, the weapons were by Weaponmasters, and the stunts were by Stuntmasters. Could they be the same people? The soundtrack was not done by the Beatmasters, but it was done by one Ron Di Iulio, who contributes some catchy countryfied guitar licks to the ensuing action odyssey.
Even though many people get shot and\blown up, Armed For Action represents a filmmaking era that is almost quaint by today's standards. Efforts- and they truly were efforts- like this should be recognized. Thanks to AIP and now Amazon Prime, they can be.
The cast, the silliness, and the 90's nostalgia make this train coast for the first 80 minutes or so, but then it starts to run out of steam.
Casey Ryback (Seagal) is (ry)back in this sequel where the ex-Navy SEAL chef has to save the day again. In the last outing, it was a ship. Now it's a train. When Ryback and his niece Sarah (Heigl) board a train heading from Denver to L.A., they naturally think they're going to take in the sights and relax. Unfortunately, a psychopathic techie named Travis Dane (Bogosian) and his cadre of goons has commandeered the train. They're using it as a mobile command station so they can hijack a satellite named Grazer, and ask for a billion dollars or else the Pentagon, and perhaps the whole east coast, will be obliterated. But the baddies didn't count on one thing: the guy who's "just a cook", Casey Ryback. Teaming up with one of the train's porters, Bobby Zachs (Chestnut), the two unlikely allies then proceed to take down the goons, slowly making their way to Dane. But will they save the hostages, Ryback's niece, and a large swath of America itself? Find out, as you relive the ultimate Kitchen Nightmare!
Much like how a young Kevin McCallister must have felt in Home Alone 2 (1992), Casey Ryback must have thought, "I'm under siege...again? What are the odds?" Or maybe he's under siege all the time and these are just the two instances we know about. Maybe he's tired of being under siege all the time. While we could go further into a discussion comparing Macaulay Culkin and Steven Seagal and all their surprising similarities, just think about how Speed (1994) was on a bus, and Speed 2 (1997) was on a ship. As hijacked train movies go, the good news is that Under Siege 2 is better than Derailed (2002). The bad news is that no movie can hope to compare with the majesty that is Hostage Train (1997).
Seagal is backed up with a nice ensemble cast - Bogosian gets to ham it up as the diabolical baddie with the sweet typing skills, a young Katherine Heigl looks a lot like a young Candace Cameron (it was the heyday of Full House, after all, although to our knowledge DJ never threw a grenade at anybody), and Morris Chestnut puts energy into his sidekick role. Other B-movie names that you know and love, such as Peter Greene, Kurtwood Smith, Nick Mancuso, Brenda Bakke, and Patrick Kilpatrick fill out the supporting cast well, and it was especially welcome to see a pre-Breaking Bad Jonathan Banks in there. But only Seagal gets a triumphant musical swell when he first shows up on screen.
90's fans will especially appreciate the fact that people smoke indoors, even the most high-tech government computers look like someone using Mario Paint, and Seagal is armed only with an Apple Newton. Well, that and several guns, knives, grenades, and his fists and feet. But the Newton does play an important role in the plot, and this was back when most people didn't hold Apple in very high esteem. Of course, all this great 90's nostalgia has a flipside. If it's possible, the movie has gotten stupider over time. What you remember fondly from back then may have soured in the intervening years. The dialogue is so repetitive, you could start watching at any point because the characters are constantly recapping what went on before, or restating what's happening at that moment. And never mind the fact that a group of baddies take time out of their busy hijacking schedules to shoot a bunch of luggage with their machine guns. Why they felt the need to do this remains puzzling.
Under Siege 2 was notoriously cut to ribbons in the UK, so make sure to never buy any UK DVDs of the film. Watching a Seagal movie with the violent bits taken out is a bit like eating unflavored mush. Although it must be noted that while we are against the censorship, the BBFC director at the time was quite prescient and perspicacious when he commented that he didn't like the "sadism" of Seagal's violence. We're impressed that he picked up on Seagal's sadism so early on. We can only wonder what he would have thought of out-and-out sadistic crud like Kill Switch (2008).
Seagal n' Smallwood only contribute one song this time around (usually they do at least two), "After the Train Has Gone", and they even managed to rope in Gregg Allman for it. As for the movie itself, it remains watchable, but darn stupid. But, then again, if you wanted to watch something that wasn't stupid, you wouldn't be watching Under Siege 2: Dark Territory. The cast, the silliness, and the 90's nostalgia make this train coast for the first 80 minutes or so, but then it starts to run out of steam.
Under Siege (1992)
One of the main reasons Under Siege stays afloat is the cast
When a team of baddies led by the diabolical William Strannix (Jones) takes over a battleship, the USS Missouri, with the goal of stealing the Tomahawk missiles contained onboard, things don't look good for the crew of the ship or the stateside higher-ups. When a helicopter carrying SEAL Team 5 sent to save the ship doesn't make it, Strannix appears to be on the verge of accomplishing his mission. He just didn't count on one thing: Casey Ryback (Seagal). Ryback is the self-described "lowly, lowly cook" on the vessel, but the truth is that he's a highly-trained SEAL himself with more than enough know-how to singlehandedly bring down the evil plans of the bad guys. Tagging along with Ryback is Jordan Tate (Eleniak), Playboy's "Miss July '89" (which Eleniak was in real life as well). Hey, if you fall asleep in a giant cake you're supposed to pop out of, strange things happen. Will Ryback stop Strannix and his plans for world domination? You probably already know the answer...
Under Siege is mainstream Hollywood action that even people who are not typically action movie fans have seen. It was wildly popular at the time, despite the fact that it's the first Seagal movie to break with the "Three Word Title" tradition. Seagal re-teamed with Above the Law (1988) director Davis - who also directed Chuck Norris in Code of Silence (1985) - and the results have that glossy, professional Hollywood sheen to it that even action movie "noobs" will find palatable. The fact that Davis's next film was The Fugitive (1993) makes sense; it's a natural extension of the groundwork laid down with Under Siege.
Most of the street-level grit found in the early clutch of Seagal titles such as Out For Justice (1991) is missing here, presumably in a bid to garner a larger audience. It seems to have worked, even though Seagal's viewing public was already pretty darn huge at the time. While the movie does lose a bit of steam towards the end because it doesn't have to be as long as it is, all in all Under Siege is solid. It's nothing to go wild about, but it's like the USS Missouri itself: big, solidly built, steady, and professionally cared-for. To Under Siege's eternal credit, it's not a submarine slog, bogey slog, ship slog, or any other kind of slog, which it easily could have been. It's simply what we call a "DieHardInA" movie, which were everywhere in the 90's. It seemed every time you turned around, terrorist bad guys were taking over buildings, ships, nuclear plants, water treatment facilities, PathMarks, Waldenbookses, CompUSA's or any other kind of structure that holds human beings. For a more in-depth look at the 90's DieHardInA trend, please see our review of Sudden Death. In that case it was a hockey rink, in case anyone needed reminding.
One of the main reasons Under Siege stays afloat (sorry) is the cast. First off, we have our old buddy Seagal, who is actually pretty likable here and you do root for him. He's backed up by the spunky Eleniak as his sidekick, and on the baddie side we have Tommy Lee Jones, who of course is excellent as the evil Strannix, and he has Gary Busey as his sidekick. Now that's a power-team if there ever was one. Colm Meaney as another bad guy adds color, as do other incidental characters played by familiar faces such as Bernie Casey, George Cheung, Nick Mancuso, Andy Romano, and Dale Dye, among many others. Interestingly, Tommy Lee Jones gets into a knife fight with Seagal in the climactic battle, and Jones also played a knife expert in The Hunted (2003), and those to date are the only two TLJ movies on Comeuppance. Overall, by our standards at least, the violence is relatively toned-down. Sure, Seagal tears somebody's throat out and shoves another guy into a circular saw, but somehow it all feels more muted than usual.
Under Siege was perhaps the peak of Seagal's Hollywood career and is not bad by any means. It's a bit mainstream for our personal taste but if you're trying to get a non-action fan into action movies, this is a good and easy way to break them in to the genre.
Marked for Death (1990)
Marked For Death is prime early-90's video store action!
John Hatcher (Seagal) is a retired DEA agent and now police "troubleshooter" who doesn't like the fact that a ruthless Jamaican gang is now selling drugs to children at the local schools and getting into violent turf wars. (We're helpfully informed that these gangs are called "posses"). Deciding to clean up the streets, he teams up with old buddy Max (David) and a Jamaican cop named Charles (Wright). But a psychotic, violent, pure evil baddie named Screwface (Wallace) is the head of the snake, as it were. It seems that these Jamaicans are not irie. Not irie at all. When members of Screwface's gang - sorry, posse - target Hatcher's sister and her young daughter, Hatcher gets really mad and decides to eliminate the posse for good. He even gets to travel to Jamaica, which seems like a delightful perk during your vengeance-obsessed rampage. Will Hatcher and the gang get Screwface...or will the fact that he's MARKED FOR DEATH get in his way? Find out today!
Ah, to go back to those golden years when action movies were violent, bone-crunching affairs that delivered the goods with a nice, simple revenge plot, some nudity, a few car chases, shootouts, Martial Arts scenes, and a minimum of dilly-dallying; when Seagal movies had quality, the good guys were good and the bad guys were evil. This is exactly what Marked For Death encompasses, and we couldn't be happier about it. The initial Seagal "three-word title" era was clearly the best time in his career, and here is a prime example from those glory years. It seems he actually cares, and all he wants to do is take drugs off the streets - WAY off. If that means some baddies have a rough time of it, so be it. Comes with the territory.
Because Seagal was embraced by Hollywood at the time, it has good production values and is shot well. Perhaps one of the all-time best Seagal action sequences is in Marked For Death - the car chase/mall fight. It's truly excellent and Seagal at his best. Teaming him up with Keith David so they can go bust some heads was the right choice and pays off well. Opposite them is a tour-de-force performance by Basil Wallace as Screwface - Wallace goes "all in" as a truly scary and unhinged bad guy. Action movies need a bad baddie, as we always say, and here you get a doozy. It would have been nice to see more of Joanna Pacula, but something had to give, because this movie really moves - great pacing is another plus here. There's really not much fat to speak of. That would come in later Seagal vehicles.
Right before Hatcher and Max go on their final "revenge vacation" to Jamaica, there's a nice "making the weapons" montage that we always love to see. These guys don't do off-the-rack bullets. They take the time to craft their own. If Seagal's career as a Lawman ever ends (we hope it doesn't), he could always move back to Brooklyn - where he was in Out For Justice - and sell artisanal ammunition. That even has a nice ring to it. And, in what is perhaps the opposite of Burt Reynolds in Malone (1987), everybody already knows Hatcher. From the local hoodlums to the police higher-ups, it seems everybody is always saying something like, "oh, it's you, Hatcher" - everyone in Chicago has had prior experience with the guy. Someone else that knows Hatcher (well, Seagal, really)? Jimmy Cliff. Seagal insisted he perform in the movie, and he even does so with the musical backing of Seagal himself. He also co-wrote the song "John Crow", which makes sense as it directly mentions the name Screwface in the lyrics. You never see movies nowadays that reference the characters in song. It's really a shame we've lost that.
Marked For Death represents the middle of an action-movie trifecta for director Dwight Little. Previous to this, he directed Getting Even (1986) of "Kenderson!!!!" fame, and after it he came up with another winner - Rapid Fire (1992). Clearly the guy knows his stuff, which would explain why Marked For Death delivers the goods. Too bad he had to go into TV work because Hollywood sucks so much now. He should have continued making enjoyable action movies like the three mentioned above - imagine what he could have done had he continued on that path? Well, let's be thankful for what we've got.
Perhaps not wanting to seem insensitive to the Jamaican community, there is a credit at the end of the movie that informs us that - and I'm paraphrasing here - "bad Jamaicans" represent less than one percent of the total Jamaican population in the U.S., and that the evils of posses were blown out of proportion for entertainment purposes only. I'm sure immigrant communities that saw Marked For Death and then waited until the end of the end credits appreciated this. In other words, relax, people, Screwface isn't going to be coming to a community near you. However, due to the popularity of then-current In Living Color sketch "Hey Mon!" and its hardworking ethos, this may have been rendered unnecessary. But we digress. Sometimes pretty far.
Marked For Death is prime early-90's video store action, prime Seagal, and a darn fine time in front of your TV screen. Crack open a cold one and enjoy.
Out for Justice (1991)
Out for Justice remains a highlight of Seagal's career and 90's action as a whole
Detective Gino Felino (Seagal) is Brooklyn born and bred, and Brooklyn to the bone. While he and some of his buddies from the old neighborhood such as Bobby Lupo (Spataro) became cops, others became wiseguys and took up the Italian gangster lifestyle. When psychotic, drug-abusing thug Richie Madano (Forsythe) guns down Lupo in broad daylight and in front of his family, Gino, to use Brooklyn slang...isn't happy. (Keep in mind we're not from Brooklyn). Having disappeared, Gino is certain Richie is still somewhere in Brooklyn and won't leave its confines, so he turns the borough upside down looking for him. Gino has his foot in two worlds, as he utilizes police compatriots such as Captain Donziger (Orbach), as well as gangsters such as Joey Dogs (Corello) in order to find him. Throughout his search, he encounters many characters, everyone from Richie's sister Patti (Gershon) to gangster Bochi (Lasardo), but is anyone safe as Gino goes....OUT FOR JUSTICE?
Out for Justice is Seagal at his absolute best and has proven itself over time to be a classic of 90's action. Lest you think we're a bunch of Seagal haters, we're not; we're just disappointed by the way his career trajectory went in later years. If he had maintained the high quality put forth here, we'd be some of his biggest cheerleaders. It's a mainstream Hollywood production, so everything is lit and shot well, and all the technical aspects are very professional, as you might expect. Anyone only familiar with Seagal's output from the latter third of his career will be shocked by what they see here: he's actually ACTING, i.e., playing a character other than himself. And he does a fine job as Gino, even speaking Italian in many scenes. He gets a nice intro to his character as befits an action star, and it's all just a modern updating of the time-honored "some kids from the neighborhood became cops and some became gangsters" plot we've seen since the early days of Hollywood. But it's done well, with verve and excitement.
John Flynn is one of the most underrated and underappreciated directors of his era, having consistently turned in tough movies such as this, Nails (1992), and the all-time classic Rolling Thunder (1977). As our society became more and more wussified, the style of directors like Flynn fell out of favor in Hollywood, and that may explain why his name isn't mentioned more often. According to our research, Warner Brothers insisted this movie have a three-word title, and the formula held true - Out for Justice was Seagal's third straight number one at the box office. Needless to say, in the late 80's/early 90's Seagal was hot property, and this is the result of that clout - a well-produced tough-guy movie with a lot of beatings and shootings, that isn't overlong and moves at a nice clip. The whole package works.
Seagal is backed up with a great cast as well - Jerry Orbach plays a character identical to the beloved Lenny on Law & Order, so this is the closest we'll get to seeing Seagal as a cast member. Fan favorite William Forsythe plays the baddie with a deranged strength, making him sort of a 1991 version of James Cagney as Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949). Gershon puts in an energetic performance, and all the cops, gangsters, and family members help to complete the picture. Future Skinemax stars Shannon Whirry Athena Massey, and Julie Strain also make brief appearances. It's also fascinating to see the Brooklyn of 1991 compared with the Brooklyn of today. Back then it was gritty, unpretentious and unglamorous, a perfect setting for an action movie. It's hard to imagine Seagal and Forsythe battling their way through young hipsters with skintight jeans and tattoos wandering around playing Pokemon GO on their iPhones. It's no wonder we continually retreat back to the age when Seagal was cracking heads with pool balls and throwing people out of windows.
As for the music, Seagal co-wrote two of the songs on the soundtrack, "Bad Side of Town" and "Don't Stand in My Way", along with Todd Smallwood. Smallwood did some of the other songs without Seagal, which may have led to his working on the soundtrack of Street Knight (1993) with Jeff Speakman. It must be a nice life, being an action movie song composer. In the end, Out for Justice remains a highlight of Seagal's career and 90's action as a whole.
Above the Law (1988)
Above the Law is the one and only 80's Seagal, so we might as well bask in the glory of that moment.
Nico Toscani (Seagal) is a Martial Arts expert who travels to Japan from his native Chicago to further hone his skills. While there, he's recruited by the CIA and sent to Vietnam to work Special Ops. While in 'Nam, he crosses paths with a sadistic torturer named Kurt Zagon (Silva). Nico becomes disillusioned with CIA life and returns to Chicago and becomes a cop. Back on his home turf, he has some very important women in his life - his wife Sara (Stone), his partner Delores "Jacks" Jackson (Grier), and also his mother and young daughter. Nico and Jacks get embroiled in a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top when a simple drug investigation becomes a high-level FBI and CIA cover-up...and that necessitates the sinister return of Zagon. When Nico is forced to turn in his badge and gun, in order to get to the truth he's forced to go ABOVE THE LAW.
Above the Law is the one and only 80's Seagal, so we might as well bask in the glory of that moment. The sax on the soundtrack, classic computers, giant cars, and general lack of political correctness all help to add 80's flair to this fine cop drama. Seagal made an impressive debut as Nico - he had serious fighting moves, he was in great shape, and he even was an actor back then. Having co-written the story and co-produced the film with director Andrew Davis, with whom he'd later re-team for Under Siege (1992), the whole outing is serious-minded, professional, and delivers the Martial Arts/action goods. It was the 80's, after all, and things were just better. This includes Seagal movies.
Another Andrew Davis regular also appeared here and is worth noting - Joseph Kosala as Lt. Fred Strozah. He was a Chicago cop in real life, and you can absolutely tell. His authenticity stands out, as does his thick Chicago accent (you think at any moment George Wendt is going to show up and they're going to have an in-depth discussion about "Da Bears"). He worked as a technical advisor as well, and we wanted to shine a spotlight on him. Sadly, he passed away in 2015, but his work on screen preserves his legacy. In other cast news, we have fan favorite Pam Grier as Nico's parter, which was an inspired casting choice. Thalmus Rasulala - Blacula himself - plays a small role as well, bringing back memories of 70's Blaxploitation actioners such as Truck Turner (1974). Sharon Stone's role is small, and fan favorite Michael Rooker has a blink-and-you'll-miss-him role as "Man in Bar", but it all adds to the fun.
Of course, the great Henry Silva is the main baddie, just as he was in previous Davis film Code of Silence (1985) - both Above the Law and Code of Silence have other things in common as well, plotwise - though it must be said his final exit in the film The Hard Way (1989) might be impossible to top. In all, Above the Law takes us back to a time when Seagal had a bright future ahead of him, action movies were beloved by all and went to the movie theater, cop dramas were tough, and movies weren't wussy and/or tinted blue or green like they are today. You'll surely be entertained by this classic of Seagal Cinema.
Back to Back (1996)
Michael Rooker at his best
Bob Malone (Rooker) is an L.A. ex-cop who is having a very bad day. First his daughter mouths off to him, then some guy blocks in his car, and after that he gets into a battle with his local ATM. His Loan Officer (that's his name, evidently) (Willard) won't even give him any more time. To make matters worse, two Japanese gangsters named Koji and Hideo (Ishibashi and Takasugi, respectively) show up in town brandishing a mysterious suitcase. It seems they're in the midst of a gang war with the Italian mafia, and thanks to the inadvertent intervention of a psychotic man named...well, Psycho (Goldthwait), the unlikely pair of Bob and Koji end up teaming up in the name of some sort of justice. But will Bob repair his relationship with his sassy daughter? And is there corruption that goes all the way to the top? The only way to find out is for Bob and Koji to get BACK TO BACK results!
Possibly one of the earliest of what we call "Tarantino Slogs", that's somewhat of a misnomer here as Back to Back may be quite Tarantino-esque with the constant jawing of its characters in a crime comedy/drama scenario, but there's nothing sloggy about it. One of the best aspects of the movie is its brisk and peppy pace, and the whole thing is quite freewheeling. And because it was the 90's, back when movies were well-lit, you can actually see what's going on. On the one hand, you have violent action scenes with plenty of gun-shooting and such. On the other hand, you have comedians such as Bobcat Goldthwait, Fred Willard, and Jake Johannsen making appearances, and the mix of the two is uneasy, let's say. The two worlds collide in scenes where Bobcat is shooting cops with a machine gun. You won't see that anywhere else, that's for sure. Whether that's a good thing or not is ultimately up to you.
Interestingly, this was touted as a sequel or semi-sequel to American Yakuza (1993), and indeed it is known as American Yakuza 2 in many territories around the world. Apparently calling it that didn't have much cache in the U.S., where it garnered the rather lackluster title it has here. As far as we can tell, the only cast or crew member that made it over from American Yakuza 1 was actor Ryo Ishibashi, though he plays a different character in this one. His star power overseas must be big, as that's a pretty tenuous thread to tie the two movies together. He has been in some things that have gotten some play over here, such as Miike's Audition (1999) and Beat Takeshi's Brother (2000), but he's just one of many cast members on show here, competing for screen time with the likes of Fred Willard, Vincent Schiavelli, Tim Thomerson, Stephen Furst, and others.
Fan favorite Michael Rooker gets not only a rare starring role, but an equally rare chance to show off his comedic chops. He also does action scenes well, so a lot was demanded of him here. His daughter, played by Danielle Harris, is almost the same character she played in the great The Last Boy Scout (1991). While that also was an action movie with humor, it had the power of Shane Black behind it. Back to Back, while entertaining, doesn't have the depth, power, or quality writing of Boy Scout. But certainly fans of it would probably enjoy Back to Back as well, as they are cut from the same cloth.
So, if you like spotting B-movie stars as they come and go in small roles, and you like your action with a heapin' helping of laffs, by all means check out Back to Back. If you keep your expectations low - and don't mind the whole Tarantino-esque thing - you will find some enjoyment here.
Point of No Return (1993)
Some additional edge would have been nice, but it's ideal for a rainy Sunday afternoon.
When a wild, untamed woman named Maggie (Fonda) gets on the wrong side of the law due to her criminal activities and is going to be executed, a mysterious man known only as "Bob" (Byrne) steps in and stays the execution. He takes her to a secret training camp to be schooled in the ways of assassination. She learns everything from marksmanship to how to use a computer mouse. After being sent on various missions after graduating from the school, she meets J.P. (Mulroney), her building's manager, and the two strike up a romantic relationship. However, her secret life as a killer still beckons, and she has to choose what type of life she wants to lead. Does Maggie have the ability to pick another path in life, or has she reached the POINT OF NO RETURN?
Point of No Return, as we all know, is a remake of Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita (1990), which had only come out three years earlier. PONR is slick, Hollywood action all the way, and the 109-minute running time does signal that this is a mainstream release that went to movie theaters. The sort of Hollywoodized action on show here is what director John Badham has come to be known for, and this is a good example of that style, if that's what you're looking for. Besides the technical aspects, which are of a high standard, probably the best thing about PONR is the cast.
Bridget Fonda shows she can be an action lead, and has versatility in a role that demands her to do a variety of different things. She's basically the Eliza Doolittle in a situation where Pygmalion/My Fair Lady meets shooting and blow-ups. During her "assassin training" her room is decorated with Pantera and Red Hot Chili Peppers posters and she watches at least one Headbangers Ball-style music video. When she goes food shopping it's reminiscent of the classic game show Supermarket Sweep, and she gets to show off a bit of humor as well. Gabriel Byrne as her handler and Dermot Mulroney as the love interest are there to support her, though it's easy to confuse the latter with Dylan McDermott. Or perhaps Costas or Louis Mandylor. Miguel Ferrer and Anne Bancroft provide further support, though it would've been nice to see Bancroft shooting people. Sadly, she doesn't do any action scenes. She just teaches Maggie to act "like a lady". What a missed opportunity. Harvey Keitel doesn't show up until 88 minutes into the movie - a point when a lot of other movies would've been over already - and is gone by 98 minutes in. That's right, just ten minutes, and he's not even in every scene in those minutes.
It's nice to see people skating around Venice Beach on day-glo rollerblades, and using classic Apple computers. However, the film takes its sweet time and there are long gaps in between action scenes. By the time we get to the love story between J.P. and Maggie we were starting to see why the movie was 109 minutes. To keep up the energy, there should have been at least a few more brief action scenes. Maybe Anne Bancroft could have been involved in them. Also, the great song of the same name by Nu Shooz should have been in the movie somewhere, perhaps during a training montage. Another missed opportunity.
In the end, Point of No Return is mainstream action fare - it certainly could have used some more streamlining, and some additional edge would have been nice, but it's ideal for a rainy Sunday afternoon.
The Substitute (1996)
The Substitute has attained "Video Store Classic" status
Shale (Berenger) is a Vietnam vet and mercenary. He has a team of mercenary buddies that he does missions with - Rem (Guzman), Wellman (Brooks), the reliable Joey (Cruz), and the unhinged Hollan (Forsythe). After having gone through hell and back during numerous wars and dangerous escapades, nothing can prepare them for the most threatening and perilous mission yet - high school!
When Shale's love interest Jane (Venora) is attacked in true Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding fashion, Shale does the only logical thing - he goes undercover as her substitute while she's out convalescing. Unfortunately for Shale, the school is a chaotic jungle of drugs, gangs, bad language and tardiness. Principal Claude Rolle (Hudson) seems to be doing his best, but a gang called the Kings of Destruction rule the school. KOD (not to be confused with "Youth of the Nation" band POD) is led by Juan Lacas (Anthony), so Shale, now teaming up with not just his merc buddies but also some teachers and a few of the better students, try to get to the bottom of all the criminality going on at that particular Miami high school. Will the baddies succeed, or will they graduate from SHALE University? Find out today...
The Substitute is a movie that was a popular enough rental on VHS that it spawned three sequels to date, and in our minds remains tied to the video store era. It almost feels like cheating for us to re-watch it on DVD (never mind Blu-Ray), but it's hard to resist the inexpensive DVD collection that compiles all four Substitute movies for one low price. It has a junkier, grainier look than we remembered from those golden days when we chose it from among the many options at our local video store. It's also significantly longer than we remembered - at almost two hours, it's unnecessarily lengthy. But, then again, it did play in theaters, and "theater movies" always think they have to be longer than they need to be. Needless to say, this would never make it to the theater today.
If you take all the "bad school" movies that have been with us for such a long time - everything from Blackboard Jungle (1955), to The Principal (1987), Class of 1984 (1982), Class of 1999 (1990), Dangerous Minds (1995), Detention (2003), and, of course Class of 1999 II: The Substitute (1994), not forgetting the parody of such films, High School High (1996), and amalgamate them, and add some "Mercenary Humor", you get The Substitute. One thing the aforementioned movies don't have, of course, are Tom Berenger's stunning purple shorts. Or Raymond Cruz's man bun. He was quite ahead of the current man bun trend. We think that's what The Substitute will really be remembered for.
Sure, there's a lot of silly dialogue, a couple of brain-numbing action scenes, and your typical 35-year-old teenagers, and that's all well and good, but sadly there's some bathroom humor, mostly typified by the character of Wolfson (De Young). Just why an overlong movie felt it had the time to include bathroom-humor scenes remains a frustrating question. That aside, the library scene is a winner, even though you have to wait almost an hour to get there. The presence of Marc Anthony as Lacas makes you understand why J. Lo fell so madly in love with him. One thing you have to give The Substitute is that the cast is really strong, with plenty of names/faces we all know and love. Although, not to be mean, Berenger looks a little chunky to be a mercenary in fighting-fit shape. Maybe that's why he didn't return for the sequels and the great Treat Williams took his place. Or perhaps we should say substituted for him. Sorry about that, but I guess we have substitutions on the brain, as this movie teaches us that the practice of substituting solves all of life's problems.
Finally, special mention should go out to one Willis Sparks as the character of John Janus. He was a competing mercenary who even had a truly awesome "mercenary demo reel", which was unquestionably a movie highlight. (It ought to be; Janus informed us that it was created by a guy who normally does "rock videos"). Janus's demo reel should have been this movie. Or it at least should have spun off into a movie of its own. It would have done in the 80's, but by this point we were firmly entrenched in the 90's, so, consequently there was no John Janus spinoff movie. Too bad.
At this point in our nation's history, The Substitute has attained "Video Store Classic" status, so anyone who remembers it from that time will appreciate it still, but to be honest it's not without some significant flaws. In other words, it's no Substitute 3: Winner Takes All (1999), that much we can tell you.
Fight to Win (1987)
George Chung turns in another winner
Ryan Kim (Chung) is an enthusiastic young Martial Artist that loves nothing more than training with his Sensei (Ochiai). One day after a tournament, the mysterious Armstrong (Norton) approaches them and offers Ryan the opportunity to fight Tankson (Superfoot). The reason for this is that Sensei has three ancient statues and the wealthy Armstrong wants them for his collection. When Tankson defeats Ryan, Sensei offers a "double or nothing" rematch, which the overconfident Armstrong can't refuse. When Sensei is hospitalized after a heart attack, a new trainer is brought in - a woman named Lauren (Rothrock). At first, the immature and perhaps sexist Ryan doesn't want to be trained by her. But after experiencing her brilliant skill, not only does he fall in line, he also falls in love. The stage is set for the ultimate showdown...and there's even a raid on Armstrong's compound that features Ryan's buddies Michael (Jeffreys), Jerry (Chapa), and Randy ("All-pro football star Ronnie Lott"). It's time for Ryan and the gang to FIGHT TO WIN!
From George Chung (not to be confused with one of the producers here, the prolific George Cheung), the mastermind behind Hawkeye (1988) and Kindergarten "Ninja" (1994), and director/fan favorite Leo Fong, comes Fight to Win, another wacky, screwball blend of Martial Arts, comedy, and an indefinable element that can only be found in the magical productions of the 80's. If you've seen either of the aforementioned Chung outings, here you get more of the same (thankfully) - a low budget, but plenty of energy and upbeat attitude, silly dialogue and situations, and highly-skilled Martial Arts. The dialogue isn't recorded very well so undoubtedly some of Chuck Jeffreys's bon mots are missing in the mix, but the sense of fun is infectious, and the whole movie is imbued with a - dare we say - feeling of childlike wonder and whimsy.
It's really impossible to dislike Fight to Win, and we feel sorry for anyone that does, as they probably have no heart or soul. The cast is killer: We have the aforementioned auteur George Chung, who gives his all here, Chuck Jeffreys, the Eddie Murphy of low-budget DTV Martial Arts movies, doing his usual stellar job, Troy Donahue in a blink-or-you'll-miss-him cameo, Bill "Superfoot" Wallace as Armstrong's tough-guy fighter, David Heavener lookalike Juan Chapa, Martial Arts legends Hidy Ochiai and Master Hee Il Cho, All-pro football star Ronnie Lott, and of course the teaming of Comeuppance hall of fame all-stars Cynthia Rothrock and Richard Norton, who do interact and have some fight scenes together. With Leo Fong as director, this cocktail can't possibly fail, and it doesn't. Rothrock is as charming as ever and Norton plays the baddie with aplomb. It's a joy to watch everyone's Martial Arts skill on display.
While there's plenty of extensive training which the presence of Rothrock as the trainer helps to make more enjoyable, and some casually-racist Middle-Aged Punks (classic MAP's), truly the showstopper is when the movie essentially stops so George Chung can have a one-man music video where he combines Martial Arts with razzle-dazzle dance moves. With this heady combination of Bruce Lee, Tae-Bo, Footloose, Flashdance, and Zumba, Chung - and thus the movie as a whole - truly shines. This dance element (which was foreshadowed earlier on during one of the tournament scenes) sets the movie apart and makes it stand out even more - and it was already a fairly odd duck to begin with. And we mean that in the best possible way, of course. Fight to Win is a delight from start to finish. Criminally, it never received a U.S. VHS release (and as of this writing has yet to receive a U.S. DVD or Blu-Ray release). The fact that just about everyone in America did NOT see this back in the day is painful to contemplate. Interestingly, it was released on video in Greece under the title "China O'Brian 3", even though it came out three years before the other two sequels! At least they got to see it, however.
Well, there you have it. George Chung turns in another winner. They truly don't make movies like this anymore, and in the self-serious modern era, Fight to Win just stands out that much more.
Eroi dell'inferno (1987)
Only die-hard fans of this type of movie are encouraged to seek it out.
Set in the jungles of 'Nam during the war, Hell's Heroes tells the tale of Sgt. Darkin (O'Keeffe), a badass soldier whose badassery is constantly hampered by bureaucratic red tape. Naturally, this causes Darkin to become disillusioned with the war. When Senator Morris (Connors) comes to visit the troops on some sort of a press junket, Darkin expresses his dissatisfaction with life and the TV cameras and radio microphones eagerly pick it up. When Senator Morris and the soldiers he's with are ambushed by some sneaky Viet Cong bad guys, Darkin is made the scapegoat even though he had nothing to do with it and was merely expressing his opinion. During his period of punishment, he meets up with other rebellious soldiers such as Feather (Fred), Trash (Green), and Bronx (Gori). Now a team with nothing to lose, will the men fight their way out of Vietnam when there are traps and gunfire everywhere? You just may find out...
Hell's Heroes is yet another mediocre jungle slog that even Miles O'Keeffe, Fred Williamson, and Chuck Connors could not enliven. That should tell you how dreary it can be. Granted, fan favorites Fred and Connors don't get a lot of time to shine here. That's one of the problems. The major issues are, as we've seen time and time again, a lack of lighting, and the fact that there's no one central villain. You'd think those would be no-brainer inclusions to an exploding-hutter like this, but no. The lights are off for about 60 percent of this movie's running time and truly no one is home.
Just some mindless machine gun shooting, helicopters flying around (none explode), and huts exploding - not to mention O'Keeffe doing his Clint Eastwood impression again - is not really enough to get this plodding mush off the ground. Having more Chuck Connors would have been an improvement, but it must be said that his exit is grand, as is befitting the great man. It is highly appropriate that O'Keeffe's character is named Darkin - we're certainly in the dark for the majority of the film. It's almost like they were thumbing their noses at us, the loyal audience. If that's the case, that's not cool, man. When a movie is so dark that the only light sources are muzzle flashes or explosions, that's not good. It all adds up to an Italian-made jungle slog that we really wanted to like, but the lack of lighting and too-brief appearances of the fan favorites made that difficult...actually, impossible.
This same year, 1987, director Stelvio Massi again teamed up with Fred Williamson for the more entertaining Black Cobra. Perhaps he wanted to make amends for Hell's Heroes and use Fred in a more workable context. The naming of the incidental characters Bronx and Trash will immediately remind genre fans of Mark Gregory and 1990: The Bronx Warriors (1982) and Escape from the Bronx (1983), where he, of course, played Trash. Is this something we were supposed to pick up on? Because if so, then the character name of Darkin does indeed seem more like a nod to the fact that only the most minimal lights were used and nothing is seeable during the night scenes - and they knew it. Stelvio Massi is also known for his spate of Poliziotteschi movies in the 70's, so he knows how to make fast-paced action. Something must have gone awry in the jungle this time...a bungle, to paraphrase Jethro Tull.
In the end, Hell's Heroes is dull and not indicative of the talents of those involved. There's a reason it was included with the 4-movie set "Inglorious Bastards 2 Hell Heroes 4 Inglorious Film Collection", the title of which we've chastised before for being almost incomprehensible, and not released as a standalone disc. It's not worth that treatment, and only die-hard fans of this type of movie are encouraged to seek it out.
Final Reprisal (1988)
Fans of Gary Daniels have a winner on their hands with Final Reprisal.
In the heat of battle during the Vietnam War, Sgt. David Callahan (Daniels) along with old buddy and fellow soldier Charles Murphy (Gaines), among other members of an elite squad, stage a daring attack on the home of Vietnamese Captain Tran Van Phu (Dee). Things go horribly wrong when Van Phu's young daughter Mai (Herradura) is senselessly murdered during the raid. Vowing revenge, Van Phu gets his wish when, five years later and now working as a trainer for the Thai military, Callahan has a family of his own. When they are mercilessly slaughtered, Callahan gets really mad and teams back up with Murphy so he can, at long last, get his FINAL REPRISAL. However, it won't be all cut and dry, as some mysteries from the past begin to resurface...
Here we have some prime early Gary Daniels in only his second-ever film role - and it delivers the goods! Director Teddy Page rarely disappoints (here he's credited as Tedd Hemingway; note the second "d" in Tedd), and the Page-Daniels alliance - working in the great year of 1988 and in a prime location, the Philippines - is indeed a recipe for success. Daniels's skill and athleticism as a Martial Artist is on full display, and he's as likable as ever. This is remarkable as he maintained these qualities throughout his career. He's teamed up with Jim Gaines, who has had an amazing career of his own: Besides Final Reprisal, he was in Cop Game, Mannigan's Force, Strike Commando 2, Jungle Rats, Robowar, and the rare Daniels debut The Secret of King Mahis Island - and that was just 1988!
Daniels and Gaines have a definite Crockett and Tubbs thing going on here. Miami Vice was super-hot at the time, and the clothes the two of them wear are a dead giveaway. Interestingly, Daniels's first-ever screen credit was as "Male Stripper" in an episode of 'Vice called Walk-Alone in '86. Only two short years later, he was living the dream as a white-suited Crockett-esque lead. And while James "Sonny" Crockett was a Vietnam vet, Miami Vice didn't feature Crockett mowing down baddies with a machine gun, going through "revenge training", enduring the Prerequisite Torture as well as a torture montage. 'Reprisal also contains killer fight scenes, as well as the classic guard tower falls and exploding huts.
While our heroes are most definitely fighting the commies, Final Reprisal offers an unusually sympathetic look at the other side of the coin. You feel bad for Van Phu and his daughter. This gives the movie a dimension you don't often see. As a whole, Final Reprisal is a lot better and more entertaining than the much more well-known Missing in Action (1984). The whole outing starts with a bang and the viewer remains satisfied. It's hard to ask for much more than that. Plus, we get a lot of the silenced-gun "pew" sound effect. This is to be distinguished from the "pew pew!" laser effect. A short, curt "pew" indicates a shooting done on the sly. We get a feast of them here, if there are any fans of that out there.
Puzzlingly, Final Reprisal never received a U.S. VHS release (and, as of this writing, has no U.S. DVD or Blu-Ray editions). This is a real shame, as it could have been a video store-era classic, and it could have raised the name recognition of Gary Daniels back then. It would have been perfect for video store shelves of the day. Thankfully, it does exist, and fans of Gary Daniels and/or 80's action have a winner on their hands with Final Reprisal.
Kiss of the Dragon (2001)
Jet Li at his best!
Liu Jian (Jet Li) travels to Paris from his native China to stop a drug kingpin and get to the bottom of his illegal doings in France. A top cop in his home country, Liu utilizes his amazing Martial Arts abilities to bring the baddies to justice. But he meets his match in the super-evil Richard (Karyo), who commands an army of goons, who in turn keep a stable of his prostitutes - all the while leading a double life as the head of the Vice Squad in Paris. As Liu tries to keep his bearings while in this foreign land, fighting Richard's goons at every turn, he reluctantly teams up with one of his prostitutes, Jessica (Fonda) in the search for answers. It seems Richard is keeping Jessica's daughter locked in an orphanage as leverage so she won't spill the beans on his many, many illegal activities. His criminal empire seemed impenetrable...but he never had to contend with Liu Jian! Will justice be served, and will Jessica get her daughter back? Find out today...
Kiss of the Dragon is fast-paced fun, with a lot of the typically-excellent Martial Arts Jet Li is known for. It has a lot of lively, quick fights and is loaded with very impressive stunts. It's all very cool and slick. It has a nice, professional look and has tons of action - as well as a likable hero and a very evil baddie. Just those things alone put it head and shoulders above a lot of other movies of this kind. There is minimal CGI and wirework - it's mostly all-real fights (with a couple of exceptions, of course). We appreciated the idea of Liu's "acupuncture bracelet", and the fact that he has some knock-down, drag-out fights with guys that resemble Street Fighter characters Guile and Balrog. The Guile guy is even seen reading a "Where's Waldo?" book at one point. We know this came out in 2001, but if that's not 90's, we don't know what is.
Of course, all of this is highly reminiscent of The Replacement Killers (1998) of a few years previously. While that was a Hollywood vehicle for Chow Yun-Fat, this is for Jet Li. Instead of teaming up with Mira Sorvino, here it's Bridget Fonda, and instead of Jurgen Prochnow as the baddie, here it's Karyo. Needless to say, if you liked one, you will like the other. We also welcomed the fact that it was really Paris we were seeing, not Bulgaria masquerading as Paris, or some green-screen fakery. Nowhere was this more evident than on the boat fight scene, which is clearly on the Seine, and you cannot fake what they did. Maybe we've watched too many Seagal movies, but we loved the change of scenery.
As with Contract Killer (1998), Cradle 2 the Grave (2003), and Romeo Must Die (2000), the filmmakers have decided to pair Jet Li with rap beats. In this case we have not one, but TWO songs by Mystikal. While it certainly places the movie in a particular time period, we kind of wish it wasn't Mystikal. What, were Jadakiss and Silkk tha Shocker songs unavailable? Also, it should be noted that Richard, the bad guy, is so evil, he keeps a turtle in his desk drawer. Another thing we noticed was that in the scene where Liu and Jessica go to the orphanage, the floor and room number where the daughter can be found is "B13". District B13 (2004) is also a France-set Martial Arts extravaganza, and a Luc Besson production. This must have some significance to him. It was just a little thing we noticed.
Kiss of the Dragon is an entertaining ride that is well worth watching. The great Jet Li is in top form and a pleasant time will be had by all who view it.
Sabato Jr, vs a rollercoaster!
Jack Colson (Sabato Jr.) is a hardworking guy with a precocious young daughter named Alice (Sternbaum). Luckily for Jack, his sister Teresa (Kramer) is the owner of a local amusement park. However, when there is an offer to buy the park, a mysterious evildoer (don't worry, no spoilers here) starts causing havoc there. At first it's just a few rides malfunctioning - seemingly by accident - but then the baddie graduates to a bomb on the rollercoaster. The rollercoaster is named Thrill, by the way. Inevitably, it's up to Jack to save the park, save his daughter, and even find time for love with the fortune teller, Ann (Harnos). Will saving the amusement park be the ultimate THRILL? Stand by for the thrilling conclusion...
It's terror on the log floom as fan favorite Antonio Sabato Jr. snaps into action in this made-for-TV "thriller", originally aired on NBC. While the obvious play here for the filmmakers was to ape Speed (1994) - except make it a rollercoaster instead of a bus - and cross-pollinate that with Beverly Hills Cop III (1994), strangely, they really only opted for the former, and even then it's only the climax of the movie. No terrorists take over the park, and there are no amusement park goons for Sabato to fight. It's mainly just tourists wearing fanny packs and brightly-colored shirts walking around the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. It's not really a "whodunit", because we very swiftly know who "dunnit" too early on. It's mainly about a Fred Dryer-less Stepfanie Kramer sorting out the park's financial matters while Sabato takes care of his daughter and forges a relationship with the fortune teller. Occasionally he intercedes to help people off a runaway floom, but Thrill really is a textbook study in lost potential.
Really, think about all the ways Sabato could outsmart baddies and kill them in an amusement park. The possibilities are endless. Yet that's not the route they decided to go here. We realize it's a TV movie but they still could have done it that way. Part of the fact that the amusement park is a family business is that Jack lets his daughter - who is a classic young tot, as we call them - just walk around the park with the staff. That includes an older Black gentleman played by Bill Cobbs - not to be confused with another NBC star at the time Bill Cosby. Letting your daughter go off with him would be a colossally bad idea. But Norm (Cobbs) wears a bowtie and is harmless. Or is he? Regardless, he's a ride operator who uses what looks like an Apple IIGS to control the 'coaster. No wonder they're having problems.
There's also a Star Tours-like ride where patrons get in a windowless van and rock around while viewing CD-ROM technology. No wonder they're having problems. Of course, it all comes to a head during a death-defying fight on the Thrill coaster between Jack Colson and the baddie. Did you think it would end some other way?
For a TV movie that promises far more action than it delivers, Thrill is actually not that bad. Sabato and the daughter are likable, there is plenty of 90's fashion and tech on display, there's a rockin' intro with kids on skateboards aggro'ing it up around the park, and Sabato has a dream sequence involving the local mime. That right there might be worth investigation. Yes, we would have liked a more paramilitary-style Sabato crushing some heads in the tilt-a-whirl, but if we can't have that, Thrill - while actually far less than thrilling - delivers the next best thing.