Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Cannon Files: THE VIOLENT BREED (1984)

(Italy - 1984)

Directed by Fernando Di Leo. Written by Nino Marino and Fernando Di Leo. Cast: Henry Silva, Harrison Muller, Woody Strode, Carole Andre, Debora Keith, Danika, Hector Wells, Loris Bartock, Serge Doran, Adrian Jeffries. (R, 91 mins)

In recent years, there's been a resurgence of interest in poliziotteschi--Italian crime films of the 1970s, the subject of the recent documentary EUROCRIME!--and in particular the work of Fernando Di Leo (1932-2003), one of the most prominent figures in the movement. Di Leo began his career as a screenwriter on spaghetti westerns like NAVAJO JOE (1966), HATE FOR HATE (1967), and BEYOND THE LAW (1968), but it was the politically-charged crime thrillers that he wrote and directed in the 1970s that have cemented his place in genre history. Four of his best-known films were collected in Raro USA's acclaimed 2011 DVD and Blu-ray box set FERNANDO DI LEO: THE ITALIAN CRIME COLLECTION. Compiling Di Leo's essential "Milieu Trilogy" of CALIBER 9 (1972), THE ITALIAN CONNECTION (1973), and THE BOSS, aka WIPEOUT! (1973) with the bonus film RULERS OF THE CITY, aka MISTER SCARFACE (1976), the first Di Leo set made an airtight case that the filmmaker, with his recurrent themes of nihilism, corruption, and Italy in chaos, his ability to stage an exciting action sequence, and his expert use of actors (so long as you don't count the impossibly Irish Cyril Cusack as a NYC Mafia don in THE ITALIAN CONNECTION), was deserving of respect and serious study.

Raro released a second volume of Di Leo crime films in 2013, featuring the excellent SHOOT FIRST, DIE LATER (1974), which has since had a couple of airings on Turner Classic Movies, the decent but unspectacular KIDNAP SYNDICATE (1975), and the disappointing NAKED VIOLENCE (1969), a controversial film in Italy in its day that's interesting for Di Leo completists, but is more of a giallo and really has no business in a set representing Di Leo's crime films. Di Leo's cynicism and his view of society and humanity as inherently and irredeemably evil reached its apex in 1978's TO BE TWENTY, which spends about 85 minutes being a fluffy, lighthearted sex comedy about the wild and wacky misadventures of two nubile teenage girls...who end up getting viciously gang-raped and slaughtered in the final five minutes when Di Leo smacks the viewer upside the head by abruptly turning it into THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (the film was also released in a differently-edited version that completely eliminated Di Leo's intended shock ending). Di Leo scripted Ruggero Deodato's excellent polizia LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN (1976), but after TO BE TWENTY, his career more or less fizzled. He explored some more LAST HOUSE-type territory in 1980's MADNESS and did a couple of hired-gun TV gigs, but by the middle of the decade, he would eventually retire from filmmaking altogether after the little-seen 1985 actioner KILLER VS. KILLERS, aka DEATH COMMANDO. He gave interviews for some Italian DVD releases before his death in 2003, some of which made their way to the later US-released Raro sets. Though he was largely a typically genre-hopping journeyman, the polizia explosion in the early-to-mid 1970s helped Di Leo carve a niche for himself, very much the same way that Lucio Fulci found his true calling with the cinematic zombie outbreak in the early 1980s.

Di Leo's penultimate film, THE VIOLENT BREED, finds him hitching a ride on the then in-vogue Namsploitation and commando explosion bandwagon that kept Antonio Margheriti busy throughout the '80s. A few elements of Di Leo's misanthropic worldview are on display--most notably an admittedly chilling and effective scene where the villain mows down some peasants after taking over their village--and the abrupt, ineptly-executed twist ending seems to be making some muddled statement about government corruption, but for the most part, THE VIOLENT BREED is probably Di Leo's worst film. If he was growing disillusioned enough to retire a year later, then THE VIOLENT BREED may very well be a significant reason why. Produced by busy '80s Italian schlock king Ettore Spagnuolo, the film was shot in the summer of 1983 in NYC, Rome, and Bangkok, and was acquired by Cannon, who released it in the US in 1984. It opens during the Vietnam War as a band of soldiers led by Kirk Cooper (Henry Silva) rescue some refugee children who all seem to be dressed in conspicuously early '80s attire. Cooper and fellow soldier Mike Martin (Harrison Muller) are shocked when their buddy Polo (Woody Strode) sends them on their way and tells them he's staying behind as he promptly deserts and vanishes in the jungle. Years later, Cooper is a big shot with the CIA and gets some intel that Polo is running a complicated drugs-weapons-prostitution empire centered in the fabled Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia. He's getting help from both the KGB and the Mafia, and Cooper sends top agent Martin into dangerous territory to eliminate Polo's operation and settle some old scores.

Di Leo just never gets things going with THE VIOLENT BREED. It has some enthusiastic blood and squib effects late in the game and some early NYC location shooting shows a theater with a ZABRISKIE POINT/BLOW-UP Antonioni retrospective, but overall, it's cheap-looking and Di Leo's disinterest is obvious. He never once gives this the gritty feel that his polizia classics displayed. Di Leo's direction is uncharacteristically lazy and corner-cutting: in the early Vietnam scenes, Polo sends Martin to "get some bandages," and all Muller does is walk out of frame and pop right back in with the bandages, probably handed to him just out of camera view by Di Leo. In another instance, one of Polo's stooges is keeping a sharp eye out for Martin, who just saunters into the frame and shoots him.  Wouldn't the guy see him coming? Maybe Sergio Leone can get away with a move like that, but it doesn't play here. The climax, which goes on forever, has Martin and one of Polo's captive prostitutes (Debora Keith) running from one yellow cabin to another in Polo's supposedly massive compound, but it's clear from the cutting that they're just running into the same cabin over and over again like an unintentional homage to a Hanna-Barbera wraparound background. The size of Polo's compound is never convincingly conveyed.  Instead, it looks like what it is: Muller and Keith repeatedly running into the same structure and Strode's Polo and his men driving their Jeeps around in circles. There's also an odd amount of long shots of people awkwardly standing around or walking into buildings, almost like it's second-unit footage that was supposed to have been whittled down to give it some semblance of pacing.

Silva, Di Leo, and Strode in better days, during the
THE VIOLENT BREED is badly-made and badly-edited, and the performances are terrible across the board. After the opening sequence, where he gets to indulge in some customary overacting while getting a bullet scooped out of his chest, Silva is seen only fleetingly, occasionally popping up to grit his teeth and look irritable at the CIA command center, which looks exactly like a conference room at the budget-priced hotel where Spagnuolo had the cast and crew booked. This is also where Cooper and some CIA officials keep tabs on Miller's progress, which realistically would take days or weeks, but Silva and the actors playing the CIA officials are always shown wearing the same clothes in these cutaways--a clear indicator that these shots were likely knocked out in a few hours and Di Leo failed to consider or simply didn't care enough to have them change clothes. Silva's looping of his dialogue sounds halting, groggy, and half-asleep, and it's doubtul that he put in more than a few days' work on this.

Strode (1914-1994) is actually in THE VIOLENT BREED quite a bit, though his voice was dubbed by the gruff Ed Mannix. And, at nearly 70 years of age, he's likely the oldest grunt in the entire Namsploitation subgenre. Prior to being an actor, Strode excelled in multiple sports, and was a noted college football star who made NFL history as one of the first four men to break the league's color barrier when he was signed by the Los Angeles Rams in 1946 after a 13-year ban on black players. He was also a symbol of stereotype-shattering progress in black Hollywood, as well as a Golden Globe nominee for Stanley Kubrick's SPARTACUS (1960), and a prominent member of John Ford's stock company. But by the 1980s, he was reduced to appearing in some truly terrible Italian D-movies, with the low point being his entire performance in the 1984 Italian post-nuke THE FINAL EXECUTIONER (where he's dubbed by gravelly-voiced Robert Spafford) being revoiced and recycled into 1989's very similar THE BRONX EXECUTIONER, probably without the actor's knowledge or financial benefit. Both Silva and Strode fared much better as a pair of NYC hit men hunting down an Italian mobster in Di Leo's THE ITALIAN CONNECTION, and they also worked with the director separately, with Silva starring in THE BOSS and KILLER VS. KILLERS, and Strode appearing in the lighthearted LOADED GUNS (1975). In the late '90s, Xenon Home Video, a company largely focused on "urban"-themed fare, tried to cash in on the burgeoning, I'M BOUT IT-inspired rapsploitation scene by re-releasing THE VIOLENT BREED under the absurd new title REAL SOULJA, with a now-top-billed Strode prominently displayed on the box art.

Little is known these days about American actor Muller. Born in 1955, his parents were post-Vaudeville entertainers in the 1940s and 1950s, with his father--also named Harrison Muller--a well-known dancer and an occasional guest on THE GEORGE BURNS AND GRACIE ALLEN SHOW. Like his older sister, actress Nadia Cassini (PULP, STARCRASH), Muller Jr.'s short-lived acting career was spent almost entirely in Italy, with only a bit part in the Christopher Reeve flop MONSIGNOR (1982) and a supporting role in the 1983 Pia Zadora bomb THE LONELY LADY allowing him the slightest whiff of a Hollywood breakthrough. Muller found a niche in low-grade Italian ripoffs like the post-nuke offerings 2020: TEXAS GLADIATORS (1982), WARRIOR OF THE LOST WORLD (1983), SHE (1985), and THE FINAL EXECUTIONER. He also co-starred in the 1983 CONAN ripoff THE THRONE OF FIRE, produced by Spagnuolo, who spent a good chunk of the 1980s unsuccessfully trying to turn Muller into an action star. Muller took a few years off after THE VIOLENT BREED and THE FINAL EXECUTIONER (though released in 1985, the insane SHE was shot in 1982), and returned in 1989 with pair of back-to-back Spagnuolo productions that teamed him with none other than SHAFT himself, Richard Roundtree. MIAMI COPS, directed by the legendarily incompetent Alfonso Brescia (Al Bradley) and released in the US by Cannon, tried very hard to be an Italian ripoff of MIAMI VICE, keeping its fingers crossed that however few viewers it mustered wouldn't notice that many of its exteriors were actually shot in the decidedly un-Miami-like Detroit. GETTING EVEN, directed by Leandro Lucchetti and released by Menahem Golan's doomed post-Cannon outfit 21st Century, had Roundtree and Muller going after a serial killing Vietnam buddy, trailing him from NYC to Thailand, which gave Spagnuolo the perfect excuse to recycle a long action sequence in Polo's compound from THE VIOLENT BREED, intercutting it with badly-integrated new footage of Roundtree standing by himself lobbing grenades. Spagnuolo even went so far as to cast Debora Keith in GETTING EVEN simply because she was in the footage he was borrowing from THE VIOLENT BREED (it's worth noting that these are Keith's only two film credits). After these last two action duds, Muller pulled a Mark Gregory and fell off the face of the planet, his legacy buried near the bottom of the VHS Glory Days scrap heap, his films remembered only by the most ardent devotees of the justifiably obscure and the deepest cuts in the bottomless back catalog of '80s Italian exploitation ripoffs.

In other words, he's gotta have some stories to tell. In the unlikely event you're reading this, Mr. Muller, I extend an open invitation for a career-spanning interview covering your adventures in the wild world of 1980s Eurotrash cinema.

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