Monday, March 26, 2012

The Cannon Files: MERCENARY FIGHTERS (1988)

(US - 1988)

Directed by Riki Shelach.  Written by Bud Schaetzle, Dean Tschetter, Andrew Deutsch, Terry Asbury.  Cast: Peter Fonda, Reb Brown, Ron O'Neal, James Mitchum, Robert DoQui, Henry Cele, Joanna Weinberg.  (R, 93 mins)

Reckless stuntwork and dubious ethics aside, the barely-released MERCENARY FIGHTERS is an entertaining, explosion-filled exploitationer that has a serious message at its core, but doesn't do the greatest job of conveying it.  This was one of Cannon's several late '80s South African-shot films, made during the apartheid era when it was highly frowned-upon to be working there and Cannon repeatedly denied that they had a production facility in Johannesburg.  They certainly weren't the only company doing it, but they probably attracted the most attention, and were singled out by the L.A. Times and mentioned in an expose from the long-defunct magazine Premiere in a piece that focused on the troubled South African shoot of the Jack Abramoff-produced Dolph Lundgren actioner RED SCORPION.  It was a bad time to be shooting in that region, and while Cannon could attract A-list talent, you can bet none of them were willing to work in South Africa in the late '80s.

MERCENARY FIGHTERS deals with the titular crew, headed by the ruthless, Swisher Sweet-sucking Virelli (Peter Fonda, pretty much on the skids a decade before his ULEE'S GOLD comeback), hired to do the dirty work of wiping out rebels opposed to the building of a dam in the fictional Central African country of Shinkasa.  Top military man Kjemba (Robert DoQui, who's actually really good in this) is acting under the genocidal orders of the Shinkasa president, who doesn't want the heinous activity to be traced back to him or his office.  Virelli and his team--among them Cliff (Ron O'Neal), Wilson (James Mitchum), and new recruit T.J. Christian (Reb Brown!)--get the job done, but T.J. starts to have second thoughts after witnessing atrocities committed by Kjemba and his men, who are after in-hiding rebel leader Jaunde (SHAKA ZULU's Henry Cele).  Tensions mount as T.J., realizing he's been working for the wrong side, wants to do the right thing and stop the mission, while the openly racist Virelli only sees the money.  Also complicating matters is T.J.'s falling for an American nurse (Joanna Weinberg)--referred to by the endlessly charming Virelli as "the gash"--doing humanitarian work with the Shinkasa rebels.

Crazy Larry and Crunch Buttsteak are...
The script actually pays lip service to serious issues and director Riki Shelach does a nice job of incorporating local color, but all that gets tossed aside when the Shinkasa rebels have given up all hope and realize that only T.J....yes, Reb Brown...can lead them in their fight.  Those issues aside, MERCENARY FIGHTERS is a well-made actioner that's never dull, and with its endless explosions, some surprisingly hair-raising stunt sequences (including a shot of a little girl in the path of a speeding Jeep that's clearly not faked) and Reb Brown yelling, it actually feels more like one of the countless 1980s Philippines-shot Italian junglesploitation works of Antonio Margheriti or Bruno Mattei than a late '80s Cannon production.  Not a bad B movie at all, even though I'm sure most involved probably aren't proud of it.  I get the feeling that when Fonda's Virelli says "Fuck this. I'm gonna find out if this job's over.  I got a house payment to make," it's entirely possible that Fonda was talking to a co-star and didn't know the camera was rolling.  Working actors have to work, and iconic but past-their-prime figures like Fonda and O'Neal (a long way from SUPERFLY and with his name misspelled "O'Neil" in the credits) went where the work was.  Brown, right on the heels of Bruno Mattei's legendary STRIKE COMMANDO (1987), did a few more D-movies in South Africa, including the MST3K favorite SPACE MUTINY.  And yes, MERCENARY FIGHTERS does find an opportunity for Brown to do his signature battle cry.

One of the more obscure films in the Cannon canon, MERCENARY FIGHTERS was recently made available as part of MGM's manufactured-on-demand "Limited Edition Collection" (available via numerous online vendors as well as Warner Archive) in a surprisingly nice-looking 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review! Love Reb and his classic screams. Sold! Will be buying this real soon.