Sunday, January 5, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: HANDS OF STEEL (1986)

(Italy - 1986)

Directed by Martin Dolman (Sergio Martino).  Written by Elisabeth Parker, Jr., (Elisa Livia Briganti), Martin Dolman (Sergio Martino), Saul Saska (Dardano Sacchetti), John Crowther and Lewis E. Ciannelli.  Cast: Daniel Greene, Janet Agren, John Saxon, Claudio Cassinelli, George Eastman (Luigi Montefiori), Amy Werba, Darwyn Swalve, Robert Ben (Roberto Bisucci), Pat Monti, Donald O'Brien, Frank Walden (Franco Fantasia), Sergio Testori, Bruno Bilotta, Alex Vitale.  (R, 93 mins)

Arguably the silver screen's ultimate arm-wrestling cyborg movie, Sergio Martino's HANDS OF STEEL is a desert-set Italian TERMINATOR ripoff with elements of BLADE RUNNER and the yet-to-be-released OVER THE TOP.  It was released in Europe in early 1986 and was acquired for US distribution by '80s exploitation outfit Almi Pictures (INVASION OF THE FLESH HUNTERS, THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY), by then running on fumes with HANDS OF STEEL its only 1986 theatrical release and also its penultimate one:  Almi folded after 1987's Richard Ramirez-inspired slasher film THE NIGHT STALKER.  Despite its severe budgetary limitations, troubled production, and spotty release by a company that was on life support, HANDS OF STEEL found an audience during the VHS glory days to become one of the more revered Italian exploitation films of the era, and one of its last highlights as the golden era of Eurotrash was beginning to wind down. 

In the future of 1997, America is a polluted, destitute, overpopulated wasteland with dangerous acid rain zones.  Blind politician Rev. Arthur Mosley (Franco Fantasia) has a plan to revitalize the country and turn its fortunes around, so of course, there's an attempt on his life by assassin Paco Queruak (Daniel Greene).  Paco merely ruptures the Reverend's spleen and makes an escape through an underground "electrical conduit," with Inspector Banky (the actor is uncredited, and he's terrible) and FBI psychologist Dr. Peckinpah (Amy Werba) in pursuit that could charitably be called "barely lukewarm."  Paco makes his way to a middle-of-nowhere town on the outskirts of Page, AZ (actually Arcosanti, just outside of Page), the location of choice for numerous mid '80s Italian productions, where he takes a handyman job at a bar/truck-stop/no-tell-motel run by Linda (Janet Agren).  For a while, Paco manages to keep his true nature a secret:  he's 70% cyborg, reconstructed and programmed by a nefarious, big-money organization called the Turner Foundation, run by Francis Turner (John Saxon), a ruthless one-percenter who doesn't have time for Mosley's altruistic bullshit.  The human Paco was "a veteran of the 1987 Guatemala Conflict," who was killed in an accident before being rebuilt by Prof. Olster (Donald O'Brien), who was employed by the Turner Foundation until he realized the extent of his boss' unscrupulousness.  Paco was programmed by Turner hatchet man Cooper (Roberto Bisucci) but emotions still linger in the 30% of him that's still human (and Linda gets part of that 30%, if you catch my drift), which is why he couldn't bring himself to kill Mosley.  Fearing his robo-experiment will get out of control, Turner has anyone with knowledge of Paco killed and hires "infallible European hit man" Peter Hallow (Claudio Cassinelli) to track him down.

Meanwhile, back near Page, Paco makes a name for himself at Linda's place by dealing with asshole trucker Raoul (Luigi Montefiori/"George Eastman") and his posse of sub-literate rednecks, and taking the crown from local arm-wrestling champ Blanco (Darwyn Swalve), but earning his gratitude by saving him from a lethal snake. With Hallow and another Turner flunky (Sergio Testori) unable to pin down the head-crushing Paco, an impatient Turner sends in a female cyborg in no way modeled on Daryl Hannah's Pris from BLADE RUNNER and then decides to take matters into his own hands, and if loving the idea of John Saxon hoisting an over-the-shoulder laser bazooka is wrong, then I don't want to be right.

HANDS OF STEEL is ludicrous and often unintentionally hilarious, from the cheap sets and special effects (Cooper starts destroying Olster's lab--which consists of randomly-placed aluminum dryer tubing--as Olster yells "Stop!  You'll ruin everything!"; an FBI press conference updating Mosley's condition looks like it's taking place in a high-school classroom with about ten reporters in attendance; and yes, there's the obligatory scene with Paco tweaking his mechanized arm) to the stilted dialogue (Paco to Raoul: "You're a loser!"), but once you get past the clunky exposition and the action shifts to the desert town, it picks up quite a bit.  As long as Martino (using his American-sounding "Martin Dolman" pseudonym) and his committee of screenwriters, including Italian genre vets Dardano Sacchetti (as "Saul Saska") and Elisa Livia Briganti (as "Elizabeth Parker, Jr") and an uncredited Ernesto Gastaldi, plus Lewis E. Ciannelli and American John Crowther (who also wrote such actioners as KILL AND KILL AGAIN, THE EVIL THAT MEN DO, and MISSING IN ACTION) stay focused on Paco and the yahoos at Linda's house of ill repute and Hallow's perpetually one-step-behind pursuit,  HANDS OF STEEL is highly entertaining.  The scenes with Werba and the guy playing the detective (who, again, is a terrible actor) are filled with clumsy dialogue that explains the obvious ("It's possible that Turner developed a bionic killer to get to Mosley!") and only serves to slow down the action.  Most of the interiors were probably shot in Rome, though Martino does make use of some Arcosanti locals in some scenes and most of the exteriors are definitely shot in the Colorado River area, with a climactic action sequence taking place on the Navajo Bridge over Marble Canyon, which marks the beginning of the Grand Canyon.

Claudio Cassinelli (1938-1985)
As fun as HANDS OF STEEL is, it's impossible to discuss without mentioning the dark cloud that still looms over the whole project:  veteran Italian actor Cassinelli and a pilot were killed in a helicopter crash during production on July 12, 1985.  Don Nasca, a local pilot hired by the producers, was flying the chopper as Cassinelli was being filmed firing out of the side at some actors on the Navajo Bridge.  Nasca flew under the bridge, lost control of the helicopter, and crashed into the steel arch underneath.  The chopper was destroyed on impact, killing both men instantly, with the pieces falling 470 feet into the Colorado River below.  Nasca's body washed away and was never recovered and the current was so strong that it took rescue workers two days to find Cassinelli, whose body was still strapped to his seat.  The actor was 46 years old, and left behind a wife and three children.

Martino and the cast decided to finish the movie, but it took some extensive rewriting to get Cassinelli's character out of the film. The Arizona scenes were shot first, with the Rome interiors to follow, and after Cassinelli was killed during the first half of production, Bisucci was hired to play Cooper, a new character whose consistent screw-ups result in his termination and the subsequent hiring of Cassinelli's Hallow. Cooper and Hallow were originally supposed to be one character, Hallow. Also, for most of the film, Saxon's Turner is seated at his desk barking "Find Paco Queruak!" into his phone and interacting with his co-stars as little as possible.  But he eventually joins the pursuit of Paco and Linda when he grows frustrated with Hallow's lack of progress.  Turner shows up with some goons and one of them shoots "Cassinelli" and kills him (there's a cloud of smoke and you can't see his face), and all we see is Hallow lying face down in the dirt.  Obviously, this was shot after Cassinelli's death to give his character a hasty exit.  Considering that the film seems to be building up to a Paco/Hallow showdown, it seems odd--if you don't know the circumstances--why Turner would suddenly show up when he doesn't seem like the kind of guy who wants to get his hands dirty.  It's entirely plausible that Saxon's guest appearance was expanded after Cassinelli's death, since Cassinelli was obviously intended to be part of the climax on the Navajo Bridge.  Now there's a sequence with Linda escaping with Blanco intercut with close-ups of Saxon firing at them before he gets off the helicopter and has the laser bazooka showdown with Paco at the same abandoned Rome factory that's in nearly everyone of these Italian post-apocalypse dystopia movies, resulting in Turner learning one of life's harshest lessons as Paco informs him "You don't own a man until you control his heart."

Knowing that one of the stars was killed during filming, the seams are very apparent but HANDS OF STEEL makes a valiant effort to hide the stitching, even with the cumbersome way Cassinelli's character is taken out of the film.  Cassinelli and Martino were long-time friends and colleagues--Martino directed him in several films, including 1975's THE SUSPICIOUS DEATH OF A MINOR, 1978's MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD, 1979's ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN and THE GREAT ALLIGATOR, and 1982's THE SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS, and to the best of my knowledge, Martino hasn't discussed this tragedy in any interviews I've seen or read.  Perhaps it's not a custom in Italian cinema the way it is in Hollywood movies, but considering their long working relationship and that he died making the film, the absence of a dedication to Cassinelli in the closing credits feels odd.

Agren, Eastman, O'Brien, and Fantasia are no strangers to Eurocult fanatics, plus Bruno Bilotta/"Karl Landgren" and STRIKE COMMANDO's immortal Alex Vitale can be seen as Mosley security guards.  The voices of dubbing regulars Ted Rusoff, Ed Mannix, Susan Spafford, and Frank Von Kuegelgen can be heard, and Claudio Simonetti composes a catchy score that recycles at least one major cue from his soundtrack for Ruggero Deodato's CUT AND RUN (1985).  This was the first in a string of Italian B-movies for American TV actor Greene, a GENERAL HOSPITAL vet who had appeared in T&A comedies like THE ROSEBUD BEACH HOTEL (1984), STITCHES (1985), and WEEKEND WARRIORS (1986) and was just coming off a two-year run on the CBS series FALCON CREST (oddly, a show in which Saxon was just beginning a two-year stint around this time).  After HANDS OF STEEL, Greene would go on to star in four more Martino films:  THE OPPONENT (1987), AMERICAN TIGER (1990), BEYOND KILIMANJARO (1990), and AFTER THE CONDOR (1991), as well as Enzo G. Castellari's HAMMERHEAD (1987) and Pierluigi Ciriaci's SOLDIER OF FORTUNE (1990), in addition to playing Elvira's love interest in 1988's ELVIRA: MISTRESS OF THE DARK.  After his sojourn in Italy, Greene continued in TV and various bit parts but acts very sparingly these days, usually only in Farrelly Brothers comedies.  The Farrellys--perhaps closet HANDS OF STEEL superfans?--have cast Greene in small parts in KINGPIN (1996), where he appeared as Woody Harrelson's dad, ME, MYSELF & IRENE (2000), SHALLOW HAL (2001), STUCK ON YOU (2003), FEVER PITCH (2005), and HALL PASS (2011).  By no means an actor who had an Oscar in his future, Greene was beefy enough that he made a competent action hero, and even if tiny roles in Farrelly Brothers movies are what's keeping a roof over his head, he'll always be Paco Queruak for HANDS OF STEEL fans and disciples of classic '80s Italian Eurotrash ripoffs.

UPDATE: In February 2017, Code Red released a special edition Blu-ray of HANDS OF STEEL that features interviews with Greene, Saxon, Eastman, Martino, and Bisucci. Of the interviews, Saxon's is the least essential, basically a four-minute series of random recollections about working in the Italian film industry that have nothing specific to do with HANDS OF STEEL (Saxon on JOE KIDD co-star Clint Eastwood, who he's known since their 1950s Universal contract days: "Clint's done very well for himself"). Everyone else talks at length about the production, the location shooting, and Cassinelli's death, with Greene--a soft-spoken and immensely likable guy--describing witnessing the crash, calling it "one of the worst days of my life," and sharing fond recollections of working with Cassinelli and socializing with him off-set. Martino states "Ultimately, I'm responsible. Claudio was like a big kid and he wanted to fly in the helicopter so he could tell his son about it. He asked me if he could ride in it for the shot, and I should've told him no." Eastman's comments are a bit more extreme, calling the pilot an "asshole," a "hothead," and a "fanatic," painting him as an unstable Vietnam vet who was trying to show off, doing a U-turn inside the gorge, where a downdraft caused him to lose control and crash into the bridge. Eastman blames the entire production for Cassinelli's death, saying no one knew he was even on the helicopter except himself and an assistant director. When the crash happened, Eastman says he screamed "Claudio is inside!" and his entire account contradicts Greene's and Martino's recollections that Cassinelli was excited about the opportunity to ride in the helicopter.

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