Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Retro Review: NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE (1986)

(US - 1986)

Directed by Gil Bettman. Written by Steven Paul and Anton Fritz (Tony Foutz). Cast: John Stamos, Vanity, Gene Simmons, George Lazenby, Robert Englund, John Anderson, Ed Brock, Peter Kwong, Tara Buckman, Tim Colceri, Randy Hall, Branscombe Richmond, Patrick Wright. (R, 96 mins)

A demented mash-up of GYMKATA, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, and Andy Sidaris that was demanded by no one, NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE has a minor cult following but isn't nearly the gut-buster it should be considering its individually insane ingredients. It never takes itself seriously, but it doesn't quite demonstrate the cleverness or the panache required to be the kind of self-conscious, winking 007 parody that its fan base claims it to be. Making his big-screen debut, John Stamos, then best known for his stint as Blackie Parrish on GENERAL HOSPITAL and still a year away from the premiere of FULL HOUSE, is Lance Stargrove, a star gymnast at a posh private school. He's estranged from his father, CIA agent Drew Stargrove (George Lazenby, the one-and-done 007 of 1969's ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE), who's killed trying to thwart the evil schemes of performance artist and hermaphrodite supervillain Velvet Von Ragnar (Gene Simmons). The elder Stargrove infiltrated the Ragnar compound to steal the key component of his nefarious master plan: a disc encrypted with data containing codes Ragnar needs to dump tons of radioactive waste into the city's water supply and decimate it for decades to come...that is, unless of course he's paid a hefty ransom. The disc ends up in Lance's possession as Ragnar's goons come after him, prompting him to team up with his dad's sultry partner Danja Deering (Vanity) to secure the disc and stop Ragner's reign of toxic terror...if they don't kill each other first!

The brainchild of producer/screenwriter Steven Paul (A MILLION TO JUAN, BABY GENIUSES, KARATE DOG), who's still active in the business (he's one of the producers of the recent GHOST IN THE SHELL), NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE was intended to be a more serious action movie in its earliest stages. But Paul's script went through numerous overhauls, with the only other credited writer being "Anton Fritz," a pseudonym for Tony Foutz, who was a minor figure in the Rolling Stones' inner circle back in the late '60s. At one point, Foutz was planning a HELP!-style dystopian sci-fi musical for the Stones that never happened. Instead, he took that idea and turned it into SATURATION 70, which ended up starring Gram Parsons, Michelle Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas, and Brian Jones' young son. Foutz started shooting the film in 1969 but funding dried up and he never finished it. Foutz worked as a production assistant on a few Italian films and was a member of the Gene Corman/Monte Hellman-led team of fixers brought in to salvage 1979's AVALANCHE EXPRESS after star Robert Shaw and director Mark Robson both died during production. Foutz also had a brief career as a screenwriter in the '80s, though that seemed to be the result of a friendship with Ben Gazzara, as Foutz's only writing credits under his real name are three Italian films that starred the future Jackie Treehorn: Marco Ferreri's TALES OF ORDINARY MADNESS (1983), the obscure Gazzara-directed vanity project BEYOND THE OCEAN (1990), and FOREVER (1991), which doesn't appear to have ever been released. It's unclear how Foutz ended up on NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE, but his and Paul's work was later rewritten by director Gil Bettman (whose claim to fame was directing the video for Sammy Hagar's 1984 hit "I Can't Drive 55") and Lorenzo Semple Jr., one of the key architects of the 1960s BATMAN TV series and a top journeyman screenwriter of the 1970s on films like THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974), THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975), THE DROWNING POOL (1975), KING KONG (1976), FLASH GORDON (1980), and NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN (1983). According to "pop culture historian" Russell Dyball's commentary on the just-released NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE Blu-ray (which includes a bonus option to view the film in a blurry VHS transfer), Bettman and Semple are the ones who steered the script into the level of high camp reflected in the finished film, despite Paul's wish to keep it more straight-faced. Neither Bettman nor Semple receive credit for their script contributions, and it's telling that only one of the film's four writers wanted his name on it. 

Bettman also directed the Tawny Kitaen/Lee Curreri rock romance CRYSTAL HEART around the same time, but mainly settled into a sporadic TV career, with his only other feature being the 1997 straight-to-video Fred Williamson/Cynthia Rothrock thriller NIGHT VISION. His direction on NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE is largely undistinguished, with inept, clumsily-edited action sequences (several editors are credited, including Paul Seydor, who would later become a reputable Sam Peckinpah biographer) and an uneven tone that results from an inability to commit to being a legitimate action movie or a campy comedy, ulltimately succeeding at neither (STEELE JUSTICE, another '80s action obscurity recently resurrected on Blu-ray, achieves this balance much more successfully). Ragnar and his dune buggy-driving creeps look like they wandered in off the set of an Italian post-nuke (check out Ed Brock as "Pyramid"), and a gloriously-mulleted Stamos is never believable as an action hero, not even when he's beating the shit out of the venerable Branscombe Richmond as one of Ragnar's henchmen and especially not when he's trading would-be 007 witticisms with Ragnar. You won't mistake Stamos for Sean Connery (or George Lazenby for that matter) when he smirks "You're half of each, but I'm a whole man...and I don't have time for this. I gotta save the world!" Vanity never looked better than she did here, exhibiting a convincingly icy badassery that would've excelled in a better film--watch her in NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE and you can see she would've made a terrific Bond girl.

NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE was barely released in theaters before finding its ultimate destination: gathering dust on video store shelves. The real reason anyone remembers it today isn't Stamos, it isn't Vanity, it isn't a cackling Robert Englund, taking a break between NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films as Ragnar's weaselly computer nerd sidekick, it's not the fact that Danja's CIA boss is obviously someone wearing what appears to be the world's least convincing Chuck Norris disguise, and it's not the anthemic "Stargrove" theme song. It's rock icon Simmons' flamboyantly over-the-top performance as Ragnar. Simmons was trying to launch a career as an actor during this period, and did some solid work as the villain in the underrated 1984 Tom Selleck sci-fi thriller RUNAWAY. He also appeared in a 1985 MIAMI VICE episode, the 1986 cult classic TRICK OR TREAT and he played a terrorist pursued by Rutger Hauer in 1987's WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE, but it's Ragnar that will ultimately go down as his crowning achievement (?) on the big screen. Putting more effort into this than he did any of Kiss' generally lackluster studio albums from the period, Simmons is having a blast here, vamping and strutting across the screen like a freakish fusion of Mae West and Chyna, rolling his eyes back, showing off his legendary tongue, performing at a drag bar called "The Incinerator," and finally, being defeated by young Stargrove's gymnastic prowess, falling off a dam to his death after Lance unveils his ultimate power move: ripping open the homicidal hermaphrodite's shirt and biting him/her on the tit. John Stamos was in the news and on the talk show circuit recently, sharing memories of his friend Don Rickles after the comedian's passing. They were close for a number of years, with Stamos and FULL HOUSE co-star Bob Saget regularly taking the comedy legend out to dinner, which usually consisted of listening to endless insults being hurled their way. Let's hope Mr. Warmth saw NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE and never let Stamos hear the end of it.

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