Friday, February 3, 2017

Retro Review: BLASTFIGHTER (1984)

(Italy - 1984; US release 1985)

Directed by John Old Jr (Lamberto Bava). Written by Max von Ryt (Massimo De Rita) and Luca von Ryt (Luca De Rita). Cast: Michael Sopkiw, Valerie Blake (Valentina Forte), George Eastman (Luigi Montefiori), Mike Miller (Stefano Mingardo), Richard Raymond (Ottaviano Dell'Acqua), Patrick O'Neil Jr (Massimo Vanni), Elizabeth Forbes, Carl Savage, Michael Saroyan (Michele Soavi), George Williams, Giancarlo Prati, Billy Redden. (Unrated, 90 mins)

An Italian FIRST BLOOD knockoff that also works in elements of DELIVERANCE and SOUTHERN COMFORT, BLASTFIGHTER was originally conceived as a yet another post-nuke ROAD WARRIOR ripoff until a new script was commissioned and the filmmakers just kept the same title. BLASTFIGHTER probably refers to a state-of-the-art experimental combat shotgun that's used by the hero, but it can just as easily describe the hero himself. Jake "Tiger" Sharp (2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK's Michael Sopkiw) is a disgraced Atlanta ex-cop just paroled after serving eight years for blowing away the creep (Giancarlo Prati) who murdered his partner (Massimo Vanni, billed as "Patrick O'Neil Jr") and then killed his wife. Tiger's cop buddy gives him an off-the-books SPAS shotgun to off the corrupt D.A. who repeatedly shielded the creep and sent Tiger to prison, but he can't bring himself to pull the trigger. Instead, he heads to Clayton, the small town where he grew up, intent on living a quiet, solitary life in the Sharp family cabin.

Of course, the rowdy, redneck townies won't allow that to happen. Tiger repeatedly clashes with bullying Wally Hanson (RAIDERS OF ATLANTIS' Stefano Mingardo, billed as "Mike Miller") and his buddies (including Eurocult regular Ottaviano Dell'Acqua, billed as "Richard Raymond"), who hassle him at the market and kill a helpless fawn he's adopted. Tiger runs into his childhood buddy and local sawmill owner Tom (George Eastman)--who's also Wally's older brother--and learns that Wally and his doofus pals are poaching wildlife and selling the carcasses to a black market herbal medicinist from Hong Kong who's set up shop in the area. Tiger busts up that operation, sending the Hong Kong guy and that entire subplot packing, but now he's pissed off Wally. Arriving just in time for the backwoods mayhem is Tiger's estranged daughter Connie (Valentina Forte, billed as "Valerie Blake"), who's nearly gang-raped by Wally and his goons after they kill Tiger's visiting cop buddy as well as Connie's boyfriend Pete (Michele Soavi, billed as "Michael Saroyan"). Despite Tom intervening to keep his stupid brother from letting things escalate (the Clayton depicted here has possibly the most absent sheriff in film history), that's exactly what happens, with Wally gathering up all the yahoos from town to hunt down Tiger in the woods before a final confrontation that will pit two lifelong friends against one another.

Most Italian exploitation fare from this period was made with the intent of passing itself off in the most American way possible. This often involved a certain amount of location work being done in the States, mixed with interiors being shot in Rome. In the mid '80s, however, the US location work became significantly more extensive, with states like Georgia, Nevada, Florida, and especially Arizona welcoming Italian crews for numerous films. With almost everyone in the cast and crew hiding behind Americanized pseudonyms, BLASTFIGHTER, directed by Lamberto Bava (credited as "John Old Jr" as a tribute to his legendary father Mario Bava, who went by "John M. Old" on a couple of movies), puts forth a lot of effort to look as American as possible, shot almost entirely on location in Atlanta and Clayton, GA, the latter being the same general vicinity where much of DELIVERANCE was shot. Also contributing to the "See, this isn't Italian...it's American!" ruse is the recurring use of the Bee Gees-penned "The Evening Star," a big hit for Kenny Rogers the same year of BLASTFIGHTER's release, but represented instead by a cover version by someone named Tommie Baby. The production even found Clayton resident Billy Redden, best known as the "Dueling Banjos" kid in DELIVERANCE, handed him another banjo, and had him stand with it in the downtown Clayton market with some other confused locals watching the Italian crew hard at work (which begs the question, why is everyone just standing in the tiny market watching Billy Redden play a single half-assed banjo lick before Tiger walks in?). There's some interior work obviously done in Rome, but most of BLASTFIGHTER takes place out in the elements of Clayton and the surrounding rural area, which lends much grittiness and authenticity to the action, as well as the surreal appeal of things just being slightly off because no matter how much effort they put into the illusion, these Italian knockoffs never quite fully succeeded at passing themselves off as totally American. Even in the hick environs of rural Clayon, the local boys don't yell "Yee-haah!" as much as Wally and his buddies do.

Of course, for fans of such things, that's all part of the charm and why movies like BLASTFIGHTER--a movie whose battered Vestron Video VHS tape was guaranteed to be found in every video store you walked into well into the 1990s--have remained such nostalgic cult items decades later. It helps that BLASTFIGHTER is a legitimately entertaining action movie, with American Sopkiw a credible genre star considering he only made four movies over a three-year period before quitting acting (and he's dubbed here by Larry Dolgin). Fresh off Sergio Martino's 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK--the pinnacle of the Italian post-nukes--Sopkiw, 29 at the time of filming, is miscast in BLASTFIGHTER as the father of a character played by Forte, who was around 17 or 18 at the time (and dating CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST director Ruggero Deodato, who cast her in the next year's CUT AND RUN). Some effort is made to make Sopkiw look a little older--with his stache, he actually resembles both Franco Nero and Maurizio Merli, which makes one wonder how badass one them would've been as Tiger--but he and Forte just don't really gel as father and daughter. Still, it's easy to look past it, as he's a solid action hero who handles a lot of his own stunts along with Forte.

Released in the US in late 1985 by Almi Pictures, BLASTFIGHTER has just resurfaced in a terrific-looking limited edition Blu-ray restoration by Code Red in another defiant example of the death of physical media being significantly exaggerated. There's interviews with Bava, Sopkiw, cinematographer Gianlorenzo Battaglia (credited on the film as "Lawrence Bannon"), and Eastman, who was clearly caught on a bad day, going full Howard Beale in one of the more scorched earth special features interviews of late, declaring "I never liked Lamberto Bava," going on to call him a "half-man" and "an idiot," and emphatically stating "Let's be honest, most of the movies I did are atrocious." Sopkiw is on hand for a commentary track with Mondo Digital's Nathaniel Thompson that has some interesting observations here and there, but despite Thompson's efforts to prod for more info, Sopkiw just isn't the best interview subject. He's foggy on a lot of details--understandable after 33 years--and won't talk about his other Bava film DEVIL-FISH (aka MONSTER SHARK) because "that's another contract," and "my contract said the interview was for this and AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK," (which Code Red is releasing later this year) and, worst of all, he comes off as dismissive of the film, his short-lived movie career, and the very idea that his movies have a cult following.

Sopkiw with Code Red's Bill Olsen,
still trying to make "Banana Man" a thing. 
Sopkiw says doing conventions isn't worth his time and that "only a half dozen people are interested in these movies anyway." He doesn't seem to like movies much at all (he's never seen THE GODFATHER, didn't realize BLASTFIGHTER was a FIRST BLOOD knockoff because he wasn't aware of FIRST BLOOD, didn't care for MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, and doesn't like watching movies in HD), he seems to go through several mood swings over the course of the commentary, and his reluctance or inability to go into any significant detail and his repeated shout-outs to Quentin Tarantino to give him a call get old after some time (Bava also mentions Tarantino in his interview--must Tarantino be invoked on every one of these?). It's a sharp contrast to how good-natured Sopkiw was on the disastrous commentary on Media Blasters' old DVD release of AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK, where he seemed enthused to be there until "post-nuke historian" Dolph Chiarino infamously hijacked the track to shit-talk and settle scores with message board scenesters, bloggers, and writers (the DVD was eventually recalled and reissued without the commentary). There was probably a better commentary to be had with Thompson and some other genre historian just discussing the movie and the creative personnel, but nevertheless, BLASTFIGHTER looks great on Blu-ray (once you get past an intro with Sopkiw and Code Red's Bill Olsen in his inane "Banana Man" costume that you can't bypass) and holds up quite well as one of the more entertaining Italian ripoffs of its day.

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