Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Cult Classics Revisited: STRIKE COMMANDO (1987) with bonus movie STRIKE COMMANDO 2 (1988)

(Italy - 1987)

Directed by Vincent Dawn (Bruno Mattei).  Written by Clyde Anderson (Claudio Fragasso).  Cast: Reb Brown, Christopher Connelly, Alex Vitale, Loes Kamma (Louise Kamsteeg), Alan Collins (Luciano Pigozzi), Mike Monty, Edison Navarro, Rene Abadeza.  (Unrated, 89 mins)

When FIRST BLOOD hit theaters in 1982, it was a relatively low-budget indie that became a surprise hit for Sylvester Stallone, but fell a bit short of achieving ROCKY-level box office.  However, it found an even bigger audience on video and cable, and by the time the bigger-budgeted 1985 sequel RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II came out, Stallone's John Rambo, initially a withdrawn, shell-shocked, battle-scarred loner more in line with "crazed Vietnam vet" subgenre protagonists like Robert De Niro in TAXI DRIVER (1976), William Devane in ROLLING THUNDER (1977), and Robert Ginty in THE EXTERMINATOR (1980), became a Rocky-sized American hero and full-fledged cartoon killing machine draped in the American flag.  RAMBO, coupled with the Gene Hackman actioner UNCOMMON VALOR (1983), and the Chuck Norris breakout smash MISSING IN ACTION (1984), was a key film in spawning a series of "the war's not over till the last man comes home" Namsploitation flicks, a few of which were domestically-made (1986's P.O.W.: THE ESCAPE with David Carradine, and Norris' two MISSING IN ACTION follow-ups), but most of these titles that flooded video stores came from Italy and particularly the Philippines.  Roger Corman associate and Filipino exploitation icon Cirio H. Santiago even had his own direct-to-video Namsploitation franchise with 1987's EYE OF THE EAGLE, which spawned two sequels of its own in addition to a supporting character played by a then-unknown Robert Patrick (four years before TERMINATOR 2) getting his own spinoff film BEHIND ENEMY LINES (1988).  Cartoonish fantasies like MISSING IN ACTION and RAMBO and serious films like PLATOON (1986) and FULL METAL JACKET (1987) among many others, kept Namsploitation a very in-demand and financially successful subgenre in the world of video rental well into the 1990s.

Of course, in those days, wherever a popular American film or genre was being ripped off, you can bet there was a crew of Italians working without permits nearby.  Fabrizio De Angelis, using his reliable "Larry Ludman" pseudonym, gave us the first notable Italian FIRST BLOOD ripoff with 1983's THUNDER WARRIOR, featuring 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS' Mark Gregory as Thunder, a Native American war vet being run out of town by an asshole sheriff (Bo Svenson).  Gregory returned for two sequels, 1986's THUNDER WARRIOR II, which finds Thunder promoted to deputy sheriff with Svenson returning as a different asshole sheriff, and 1988's imaginatively-titled THUNDER WARRIOR III (with John Phillip Law stepping in as the asshole sheriff), but De Angelis never put the Thunder character back in combat, instead choosing to confine his ass-kicking to the surrounding areas of Page, AZ, where the Italian exploitation industry set up shop and made a number of action films in the mid-1980s (busy Italian actor Claudio Cassinelli was killed in a helicopter crash at the Navajo Bridge outside Page in the summer of 1985 while shooting Sergio Martino's cyborg arm-wrestling classic HANDS OF STEEL).  De Angelis's 1985 film COBRA MISSION (released in the US in 1987 as OPERATION NAM) had four bored and disgruntled vets heading back to 'Nam to free POWs.  Elsewhere, the ever-reliable Antonio Margheriti, who helmed the 1980 APOCALYPSE NOW ripoff THE LAST HUNTER, continued his Namsploitation contributions with TORNADO (1983), but there's one Italian Namsploitation RAMBO ripoff that stands apart from the rest.  Yes, I'm talking about Bruno Mattei's ridiculous 1987 trash classic STRIKE COMMANDO.

Mattei (1931-2007), who usually directed under the name "Vincent Dawn," was one of the busiest and least competent of the Italian schlock artists, with 1980's HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD (released in the US in 1983 as NIGHT OF THE ZOMBIES) and the sleazy women-in-prison gems CAGED WOMEN (1984) and WOMEN'S PRISON MASSACRE (1985) to his credit.  Mattei's films have their bad movie charms, though it's obvious that his top priority was getting it in the can.  Mattei was perhaps Italy's most flagrant ripoff artist.  His 1988 film ROBOWAR is an almost scene-for-scene copy of PREDATOR, while 1990's SHOCKING DARK is a blatant ALIENS clone.  Towards the end of his life, Mattei was making really cheap films and couldn't even be bothered to shoot imitation scenes and instead opted to just openly steal footage from other movies.  One of his last films, 2006's unwatchable THE TOMB, not only rips off the Brendan Fraser-headlined THE MUMMY, but uses footage from it, in addition to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (!).  His last film, 2007's ZOMBIES: THE BEGINNING, somehow manages to work in footage pilfered from 1995's CRIMSON TIDE.  In short, Mattei was a real character, and the Philippines-shot STRIKE COMMANDO is one of the all-time great examples of Italian exploitation at its most ludicrous, blatantly copying the plot of RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II and, with a straight face, restaging scenes from it.

Instead of Stallone as John Rambo, we get the great Reb Brown as Mike Ransom.  Brown, who actually co-starred in the previously mentioned UNCOMMON VALOR and whose contributions to world cinema have been documented on this blog time and again, opts to not go for the stoical Stallone approach, but instead plays Ransom as if he's constantly having a spaz attack.  Brown's signature battle cry, heard in many of his films, is front and center throughout most of STRIKE COMMANDO, which finds Brown's Ransom on a mission to destroy a VC stronghold with the elite Strike Commando unit in Vietnam.  Despite the protests of his commander Major Harriman (Filipino B-movie fixture Mike Monty as Richard Crenna), Ransom and his men are left behind to die when overzealous Col. Radek (Christopher Connelly) decides to blow the place up before all the Strike Commandos are out.  The last Strike Commando standing, Ransom is nursed back to health by a village of refugees cared for by Frenchman LeDue (Brown's YOR co-star Luciano Pigozzi, using his usual "Alan Collins" pseudonym), who tells Ransom that Russian military officials have been patrolling the area.  Back at the base, the traitor Radek (not to be confused with Charles Napier's Murdock from RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II) orders all evidence of the Strike Commando unit to be erased, but Harriman stages a rescue of Ransom, who immediately goes back to the village to rescue the refugees only to find they've been slaughtered by Jakoda (Alex Vitale), a psychotic, hulking Commie killing machine with no tolerance for "Americanskis."  Ransom is captured and tortured by Jakoda, eventually escaping and launching a one-man assault on the VC, the Soviets, and other "lousy bastards" that get in his way, as Radek repeatedly ignores Harriman's warnings that Ransom can't be stopped and "There's no one who can touch him in your whole damned army!"

Brown's overwrought, shrieking acting style (as any fans of MST3K's skewering of SPACE MUTINY will recall: "Big McLargehuge!") is the main reason for STRIKE COMMANDO's cult appeal, but don't underestimate the general stupidity of the script by Claudio Fragasso (MONSTER DOG, TROLL 2) and Mattei's inept direction.  The dubbing crew also had a field day on this one, especially whomever dubbed Vitale, whose grunting of "Americanski!" reaches ridiculous proportions by the end.  There's also some questionable attempts at humor in the opening scene where Ransom and his men are cutting their way through a fence and an African-American Strike Commando remarks "When I was stealin' watermelon back home in Alabama, we had to climb fences, not cut 'em!"  What?!  There's also Ransom's friendship with mushmouthed young refugee Lao (Edison Navarro), who's always asking Ransom to tell him about Disneyland ("There's popcorn and ice cream growing on trees!").  Of course, Lao is killed by Jakoda, which leads to one of STRIKE COMMANDO's most mocked scenes:

Once Jakoda is introduced, the hilarity is almost non-stop.  I love how LeDue tosses a grenade at some VC soldiers and quips "Bonjour!" Wouldn't it be "Au revoir!"?  There's a great scene with Ransom taking out some officers on a boat and rigging it with grenades, shouting "Our Father who art in Heaven!" as he jumps off the boat.  There's a cut to a long shot as the boat explodes, and it looks a lot like a toy floating around in Mattei's bathtub.  And the endless scenes stolen from RAMBO!  The torture scenes, the shot of a VC officer in the foreground with Ransom camouflaged in the background (of course, Mattei is too clumsy to pull this off without piecing two shots together, which really dampens the effect), and the way Ransom arrives at Radek's office and shoots everything up while screaming "RADDDDEEEEKKKKKK!"  Also hilarious is the first of two climactic brawls between Ransom and Jakoda, which is livened up by the surprise appearance of a huge waterfall.

Christopher Connelly (1941-1988)
Brown would go on working in low-budget Italian and South African action films (including reteaming with Mattei for ROBOWAR) before retiring from acting in the late 1990s.  He recently started hitting the convention circuit and, in 2012, shot a still-unreleased horror film titled NIGHT CLAWS.  Vitale appeared in a few more Italian exploitation films, most notably BEYOND THE DOOR III (1989), and a pair of late-period post-nuke Z-listers: URBAN WARRIORS (1988) and the hilarious THE BRONX EXECUTIONER (1989).  Sadly, Connelly, a veteran American TV actor (PEYTON PLACE) who was reduced to appearing in some really shoddy Italian fare by the end of his career (STRIKE COMMANDO is so sloppy that his last name is misspelled "Connely" in the credits), was already ill with lung cancer while shooting STRIKE COMMANDO, and he's visibly uncomfortable in the obviously hot and humid shooting conditions in Manila (everyone is sweating, but Connelly is completely drenched).  He doesn't look well and there's a couple of scenes where you can see his hand shaking, seemingly involuntary.  He died the next year at just 47 years of age.

STRIKE COMMANDO went straight to American video stores in late 1987 courtesy of International Video Entertainment, formerly U.S.A. Home Video and later Live Entertainment.  It was apparently successful enough in the rest of the world to spawn a Reb Brown-less sequel a year later...

(Italy - 1988)

Directed by Vincent Dawn (Bruno Mattei).  Written by Claudio Fragasso.  Cast: Brent Huff, Mary Stavin, Richard Harris, Vic Diaz, Richard Raymond (Ottaviano Dell'Acqua), Alex McBride (Massimo Vanni), Mel Davidson. (Unrated, 96 mins)

STRIKE COMMANDO 2 may lack the vein-popping histrionics of its predecessor, but in its own way, it's just as insane.  Reb Brown is out, replaced by Brent Huff, an American model who was trying to get an action career off the ground.  He co-starred with Tawny Kitaen in the cable favorite THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE IN THE LAND OF THE YIK YAK  (1984) and did a few other movies and TV shows, and though he never really got his big break, he remains busy today (his most significant recent credit is guest-starring on a 2010 episode of MAD MEN).  Huff essays the Ransom role as more of a cynical smartass as opposed to Brown's testosterone-fueled, pants-shitting 'roid rage portrayal.  It doesn't even really feel like a sequel, with the RAMBO elements dropped fairly early on in favor of becoming more of a lighthearted RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK/ROMANCING THE STONE knockoff, complete with the Mattei trademark of scenes restaged in their entirety.

But nevermind all that.  The elephant in the room with STRIKE COMMANDO 2 is the mother of cinematic WTF?! surprise guest stars with the presence of a seriously slumming Richard Harris as Jenkins, Ransom's old commander in Vietnam.  It's doubtful that even magical wizardry of Albus Dumbledore could reveal the actor's true motivation for taking third-billing in a Bruno Mattei film, but the fact remains:  he's there, he's in the movie, and it's not a "one day on the set, Henry Fonda in TENTACLES" driveby, either.  Harris is in most of the movie and even takes part in some of the action scenes.  And on top of that, he seems to actually be trying.  With his career in the toilet by the time of STRIKE COMMANDO 2, it's very possible that this was his best offer at the time, or maybe, for whatever reason, he just wanted to visit Manila.  Maybe he was blackmailed.  Maybe he and Mattei had a mutual friend and he felt like doing the hapless director a favor.  Maybe he saw STRIKE COMMANDO and found it a powerful analysis of America's involvement in Vietnam.  Who knows?  Harris went through the 1980s without a box-office hit, and his most notable film of the decade was the 1981 Bo Derek train wreck TARZAN, THE APE MAN.  When Harris got an Oscar nomination for his comeback role in 1990's THE FIELD, he claimed to have been retired for several years.  This was in the pre-IMDb days but a look at his credits now shows that he never stopped working and STRIKE COMMANDO 2 was simply the shittiest in a series of shit jobs in shit movies that he probably hoped nobody would ever see.  Fortunately for Harris, THE FIELD led to his career getting a second wind that carried him through character roles in A-list fare (including UNFORGIVEN, GLADIATOR, and the first two HARRY POTTER films) until his death in 2002.  Harris' mere presence gives STRIKE COMMANDO 2 an element of class exhibited by no other Mattei film, and Huff--not a gifted actor--seems to step up his game a bit in his scenes with him.  Of course Richard Harris would have that effect on a co-star.  He's Richard Harris.

This time, Ransom is visiting Manila after getting news that his war buddy Jenkins has died.  It turns out Jenkins, a deep-cover CIA agent, has faked his death and is in cahoots with Far East drug lord Huan To (Filipino B-movie icon Vic Diaz!), on some convoluted cocaine and diamond smuggling operation.  Ransom teams up with hardass tavern owner Rosanna Boom (Mary Stavin) after a complete re-enactment of Karen Allen's beer-drinking contest intro in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.  Ransom also tangles with a Huan To flunky (Mel Davidson) who's a combination of Paul Freeman's Belloq and Ronald Lacey's Toht in RAIDERS, and there's ninjas and a couple of destructive chases and painfully unfunny banter between Ransom and Rosanna.  Mattei finally lets loose with the explosions in the last 15 minutes and it finally starts to look like something that should be called STRIKE COMMANDO 2, especially when Ransom barges into Jenkins' coke lab and starts blasing away, bellowing...you guessed it..."JENNNNKKKKKKIIIIIINNNNS!"

Made when the Italian exploitation heyday was entering the life-support years, STRIKE COMMANDO 2 never got an official US release, neither theatrically nor on VHS or DVD.  It's been available on the bootleg and torrent circuit and there's even a 1.66:1 widescreen print on YouTube, but really, other than the morbid curiosity of seeing Richard Harris at his career low playing second fiddle to Vic Diaz, there's little reason to endure the dull STRIKE COMMANDO 2.  It's impossible to follow and it's entirely possible that Claudio Fragasso's script was reworked into English on the fly by the actors who could very well have made the story up as they went along.  There's a very (bad) improvisational feel to a lot of Huff's and Stavin's scenes together, and with the exception of two dubbed Italian supporting actors (the apparent package deal of Ottaviano Dell'Acqua and Massimo Vanni), all of the dialogue was recorded on-set and real voices used (Stavin, 1977's Miss World, tries to hide her Swedish accent in her earlier scenes, but gives up soon after and by the end, she's pointing a gun and screaming "Late me keel da fackin' base-turd!").

Mattei made STRIKE COMMANDO 2 right after doing producer Franco Gaudenzi a favor and stepping in to finish Lucio Fulci's troubled ZOMBI 3 (1988), which was also shot in Manila around the same time (it might've even been the same trip).  Fulci quit ZOMBI 3 early in the production and Mattei completed it without credit. After STRIKE COMMANDO 2, Mattei continued punching a clock and cranking out whatever trendy ripoffs came his way, even delving into post-BASIC INSTINCT erotic thrillers like 1993's DANGEROUS ATTRACTION. The films seemed to decrease in budget and quality with each passing year, with the belated 1995 JAWS ripoff CRUEL JAWS being particularly embarrassing, recycling footage from JAWS, JAWS 2, and even the 1982 JAWS ripoff GREAT WHITE, in addition to having a character say "We're gonna need a bigger helicopter!"  Mattei's career hit bottom late in his life with a string of no-budget, shot-on-video horror films that are actually painful to endure and make even CRUEL JAWS look good by comparison.  But for pure Mattei magic at its finest, there is no better place to start than the inspired insanity of the immortal STRIKE COMMANDO.

1 comment:

  1. Great write-ups!

    Strike Commando 1 is a Reb Brown classic! Jakotaaaaaa!

    Always wanted to see the sequel.