Thursday, March 2, 2017

Retro Review: COCAINE WARS (1985)

(US/Argentina - 1985)

Directed by Hector Olivera. Written by Steven M. Krauzer. Cast: John Schneider, Kathryn Witt, Royal Dano, Federico Luppi, Rodolfo Ranni, John Vitaly (Juan Vitali), Heidi Paddle (Haydee Padilla), Ivan Grey, Edgard Moore (Edgardo Moreira), Richard Hamlin (Ricardo Hamlin), Armand Capo, Mark Woinski (Marcos Woinsky). (R, 83 mins)

John Schneider was only 19 when THE DUKES OF HAZZARD became a breakout hit for CBS in 1979, and when its seven-season run came to an end in early 1985, he probably thought he'd have bigger big-screen opportunities waiting for him than the Roger Corman-produced COCAINE WARS. Schneider already had a minor hit during a DUKES break with 1983's EDDIE MACON'S RUN, which paired him with screen legend Kirk Douglas, but it failed to jump-start his movie career. And a salary-dispute holdout with DUKES co-star Tom Wopat to protest the lack of money they were seeing from DUKES-licensed products bearing their Bo & Luke Duke likenesses--an acrimonious battle that saw the two stars being replaced for most of the show's fifth season by Byron Cherry and Christopher Mayer as Duke cousins Coy & Vance--didn't go over well with fans. Schneider's big-screen career never took off with supporting roles in the 1987 Italian horror film THE CURSE and the 1989 CANNONBALL RUN semi-sequel SPEED ZONE, in addition to starring as a vigilante priest in the 1989's MINISTRY OF VENGEANCE. Nevertheless, in the 30-plus years since DUKES OF HAZZARD came to an end, the now-56-year-old Schneider has never stopped working, with regular gigs on TV shows like DR. QUINN: MEDICINE WOMAN, SMALLVILLE (as Pa Kent), and THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN TEENAGER, plus guest spots on tons of others. He's also done Syfy movies like LAKE PLACID 2 and SHARK SWARM and faithsploitation outings like OCTOBER BABY. In recent years, he's also directed some low-budget films like 2016's C-lister horror summit SMOTHERED and other no-budgeters that usually debut in the new release section at Walmart. He also enjoyed some success as a country music artist, releasing several albums in the 1980s, with 1985's A Memory Like You topping the Billboard Country Charts in April of that year with the hit single "What's a Memory Like You (Doing in a Love Like This)."

Schneider released more music over the years, including a 2014 Christmas album with Tom Wopat, but his 1985 just went downhill after his hit album. One of the films in Corman's partnership with Argentina's Aries Films (others included THE WARRIOR AND THE SORCERESS and BARBARIAN QUEEN), COCAINE WARS sent Schneider to Buenos Aires to play Cliff Adams, an undercover DEA agent posing as a pilot to run drugs for South American coke lord Gonzalo Reyes (Federico Luppi, the future Guillermo Del Toro favorite who would later star in CRONOS). Cliff can only think of vengeance when his partner Rikki (Edgardo Moreira) is killed by Reyes' German henchman Wilhelm (Ricardo Hamlin), a dweeb in Coke-bottle specs obviously modeled on Ronald Lacey's Toht in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Cliff is further enraged when Reyes offers him $200,000 to kill crusading politician Marcello Villalba (Juan Vitali). Instead, Cliff teams up with Villalba and American reporter Janet Meade (Kathryn Witt) to expose Reyes' drug trafficking operation to the world. Everything goes to shit when Janet's editor leaks the plan, outing the long off-the-grid Cliff as a DEA agent and sending both him and Janet on the run with Reyes and his goons in pursuit.

Recently released on Blu-ray (!) by Code Red, COCAINE WARS may sound like a timely action movie for its period but it's not exactly a ripped-from-the-headlines expose of drug cartels. Schneider is a little more gritty than you might expect for a 25-year-old playing a veteran DEA hardass, and there's some seething intensity in his scenes with Luppi, who looks a lot like David Strathairn here. He has little chemistry with the bland Witt, not helped by one of the most hilariously unerotic sex scenes you're likely to see. A decade older than Schneider, Witt had been around for a while, starring with Connie Sellecca and Pat Klous in CBS' short-lived, 1978-79 CHARLIE'S ANGELS ripoff FLYING HIGH and she had supporting roles in films like 1981's LOOKER and 1983's STAR 80. Her career never really caught fire, and she was just about to throw in the towel by the time COCAINE WARS came around. After that sojourn to Argentina, Corman sent her to the Philippines to star in Cirio H. Santiago's DEMON OF PARADISE, but since then, her only film credit is a small role in 1993's PHILADELPHIA, followed by appearances in a pair of Stephen King miniseries, THE DIARY OF ELLEN RIMBAUER and KINGDOM HOSPITAL. COCAINE WARS is low-rent and cheap-looking even by Roger Corman standards, with Argentine director Hector Olivera not really demonstrating much skill in the handling of some frequently choppy and clumsily-assembled action scenes, many of which aren't even up to the standards of a guy like Santiago on an off-day. Perhaps getting it right wasn't as much of a priority as getting it done, as COCAINE WARS was one of three Corman/Argentina co-productions Olivera directed in 1985, along with BARBARIAN QUEEN and WIZARDS OF THE LOST KINGDOM. COCAINE WARS opened in November 1985, just a month after the Arnold Schwarzenegger hit COMMANDO, which was still plenty of time to allow Schneider to straight-up swipe the classic "I lied" quip after he promises to not kill one of Reyes' men but does so anyway. Old-timer character actor Royal Dano has a minor supporting role as Bailey, a crusty old expat coot who more or less serves as an Uncle Jesse surrogate if you want to imagine Cliff as a more grizzled, embittered Bo Duke. COCAINE WARS isn't very good (it probably would've been a lot better in the Philippines with Santiago directing), but Schneider handles himself pretty well and does a couple of his own hair-raising stunts, plus it's tough to dismiss any movie that offers the sight of Royal Dano snorting blow.

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