Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Retro Review: THE MESSENGER (1987)

(Italy - 1987)

Directed by Fred Williamson. Written by Brian Johnson, Conchita Lee and Anthony Wisdom. Cast: Fred Williamson, Christopher Connelly, Cameron Mitchell, Joe Spinell, Val Avery, Jasmine Maimone, Micheal Dante, Sandy Cummings, Peter Brown, Stack Pierce, Suzanne von Schaack, Umberto Raho, Riccardo Parisio, Maurizio Bonuglia, James Spinks, Cyrus Elias, Stelio Candelli, Frank Pesce, Chris Conte, Vince Townsend. (R, 97 mins)

During his eight-season career in pro football with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Oakland Raiders, and the Kansas City Chiefs, DB Fred Williamson earned the nickname "The Hammer," and upon his retirement in 1968, he parlayed his tough gridiron persona into a TV and movie career. He landed a recurring role as Diahann Carroll's love interest on the NBC series JULIA and made his big-screen debut as Spearchucker Jones in Robert Altman's 1970 classic MASH. Williamson followed that with a supporting role in Otto Preminger's 1970 Liza Minnelli vehicle TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME, JUNIE MOON before finding his niche as one of the top blaxploitation stars of the 1970s. Williamson enjoyed one drive-in and grindhouse success after another, with HAMMER and THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY in 1972, and no less than four films in 1973, with the sequel THE SOUL OF NIGGER CHARLEY, BLACK CAESAR and its sequel HELL UP IN HARLEM, and the 007-inspired THAT MAN BOLT. Williamson worked relentlessly throughout the decade, often teaming with fellow football legend Jim Brown in films like 1974's THREE THE HARD WAY and 1975's TAKE A HARD RIDE, but by the mid '70s, Williamson grew restless and wanted to start making his own independent movies through his own Po' Boy Productions. He made his directing debut with 1976's MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS and managed to talk some celebrity friends into co-starring, including MASH buddy Elliott Gould in a cameo as a bum, and Roddy McDowall ludicrously cast as a Mafioso. Williamson directed and starred in three more films in 1976: the western ADIOS AMIGO with Richard Pryor, followed by NO WAY BACK and its immediate sequel DEATH JOURNEY, the first two of four films where he'd play private eye Jesse Crowder. With Enzo G. Castellari's 1978 cult classic THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS, Williamson began a second career in Italy, even directing the Italian-made MR. MEAN during his BASTARDS downtime. Though he made some American films in the '80s, most notably 1983's THE BIG SCORE and the same year's VIGILANTE, Williamson spent most of that decade in Italy, starring in Castellari's 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS (1983) as well as the director's post-nuke WARRIORS OF THE WASTELAND (1983) and Lucio Fulci's post-nuke THE NEW GLADIATORS (1984). 1985 also saw him as a pitchman in a series of King Cobra malt liquor commercials, and the same year, he took a break from Italian genre fare to co-star in the short-lived Joe Pesci NBC series HALF NELSON.

But by the mid '80s, Williamson was getting lazy. He made a pair of almost interchangeable back-to-back thrillers with 1986's FOXTRAP and 1987's THE MESSENGER, both vanity projects (well, every Williamson movie is a vanity project to some extent) that co-starred Williamson BFF Christopher Connelly and were little more than an excuse to get Italian production company Realta Cinematografica to send him on paid vacations throughout Europe and the US. THE MESSENGER is especially bad, with Williamson demonstrating a level of carelessness that borders on audience contempt, whether it's staging inept action sequences, putting himself in an overlong love scene where he has the camera pan down so we see his co-star Sandy Cummings' hands caressing his gyrating ass, or padding the running time with absurdly long establishing shots like following two actors on a golf course for over a minute or planting the camera inside a cab and giving us an impromptu, MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE-style travelogue every time his character arrives in a different city. We get a two-minute look at Vegas, up and down the strip, past the casinos and hotels, and even going blocks away, taking the audience on a captivating drive past the local Woolworth. There's also a scene where Michael Dante, as a Hollywood mobster, is shown pulling into his driveway, turning his car around in the driveway, then backing into the garage, pulling back out and then maneuvering the car back into the garage again so he can straighten it out. Then Williamson keeps the camera right where it's at while Dante gets out of the car and leisurely walks into what I presume is the actor's own home. It's at least a solid minute and a half of static screen time devoted to watching Dante dick around in his driveway.

The threadbare vigilante/revenge plot requires location work in Rome, Chicago, Hollywood, and Las Vegas simply because Williamson was given enough money to do so. The Hammer is Jake Sebastian Turner, a Green Berets legend released from a Rome prison and reunited with his wife Sabrina (Cummings, in her first and thus far only film), who's turned into a junkie while he was locked up. She's killed in a drive-by shooting and Jake is informed by the improbably-named Italian mob boss Gielgud (Riccardo Parisio) that Sabrina got involved with Rome drug traffickers who were supplying Chicago gangster Paolo (Maurizio Bonuglia). The same people who killed Sabrina also murdered Gielgud's stepson, and he offers Jake $500,000 to go to Chicago and track down and kill those responsible. Arriving in Chicago, Jake kills Paolo with a ninja star only to find out that he was just a part of the machine and he'll need to head out west to find the real bosses behind the operation. His path of vengeance takes him to Hollywood (Schwarzenegger's RAW DEAL on a theater marquee!), where he finds Emerson (Dante), whose tool company is used as a money-laundering and narcotics distribution front for Vegas mob kingpin Rico (Joe Spinell) and his top flunkies Clark (John Cassavetes inner circler Val Avery) and Harris (Peter Brown). Meanwhile, loose-cannon, plays-by-his-own-rules FBI agent Parker (Connelly) develops a begrudging admiration for the so-called "Messenger of Death" who's wiping out syndicate goons, and butts heads with Chicago police captain Carter (Cameron Mitchell, hamming it up but still outacted by his garish eyeglasses that must be seen to be believed) and irate detective Leroy (Stack Pierce), who want this mystery vigilante off the streets.

THE MESSENGER is grossly incompetent but calling it "so bad it's good" is a stretch. Williamson's direction is unbelievably sloppy, from the half-assed action scenes to his direction of the actors, none of whom appear to be aware of what kind of movie they're in. As a director, his chief concern seems to be getting women to throw themselves at him and staging as many King Cobra product placements as possible (they even get a shout-out in the closing credits). Williamson and Connelly play it straight, Connelly especially enjoying himself as Parker, pointlessly doing a T.J. HOOKER shoulder-roll into Rico's mansion and throwing around the usual made-up insults that he used in a lot of his Italian films (RAIDERS OF ATLANTIS, OPERATION NAM, STRIKE COMMANDO). His favorite standby "suckfish" makes a required appearance (calling someone "suckfish" is Connelly's "John Cusack vaping"), along with "shitstick" and calling Spinell "butt-wipe." Mitchell just seems to be goofing off (did he borrow his mother-in-law's glasses for this role?), Dante does what he's required to do--be the guy you get when John Saxon, Henry Silva and Tony Lo Bianco turn you down--and Spinell plays it broad, turning Rico into a whiny, sniveling Joe Besser of a mob boss. The Rome scenes with Italian actors are shot with live sound, and it's pretty clear when you listen to Eurocult stalwarts like Stelio Candelli (DEMONS) and Umberto Raho (THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE) that their grasp of English is tenuous at best (bonus points if you can understand a single word Raho says as the warden who releases Jake from prison). Even the dialogue in the American scenes is often difficult to decipher, as the actors are constantly cut off or drowned out by William Stuckey's repetitious, flatulent synth score.

And whether it's a fault of the script--somehow the work of three people, two of whom did nothing else after while the other (Anthony Wisdom) went on to write 1990's THE RETURN OF SUPERFLY--or Williamson's slapdash direction, THE MESSENGER offers one of the all-time great continuity gaffes, one that involves Mitchell's pissed-off Capt. Carter. When introduced, he's bitching at Parker and refusing to cooperate with him after the Chicago hit on Paolo. When others turn up dead in Hollywood, Parker informs Carter that the Messenger must've left Chicago and made his way out west, with Parker announcing "I'm going to L.A." as Carter chomps on his cigar and seethes, adjusting his ill-fitting Estelle Getty glasses. Much later, in Hollywood, after Emerson is killed and his naive wife (Suzanne von Schaack) finds out he's a drug dealer and that's how he was providing for her and their children, she inexplicably turns up as a cokehead hooker in Vegas for no reason at all. She recognizes Jake at a casino, dials the operator and asks for the Los Angeles police department, specifically "Chief Carter," as we see Cameron Mitchell pick up the phone. Wait..,LAPD Chief Carter? Wasn't he just a precinct captain in Chicago a few scenes back, with a map of Illinois on the wall of his office? Sure enough, Carter rounds up the cops and Parker and they go straight to...Rico's mansion in Las Vegas?! Is Williamson even paying attention to his own movie?

Williamson campaigning for
Donald Trump in 2016. 
Williamson continued dividing his time between Italy and America, and by the 1990s was a C-lister relegated to straight-to-video status with films like 1991's THREE DAYS TO A KILL and 1992's SOUTH BEACH. He enjoyed a brief resurgence in 1996 with the all-star blaxploitation throwback ORIGINAL GANGSTAS and with longtime fans Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez giving him a showy supporting role in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, two years after turning down an offer from Tarantino to play crime boss Marcellus Wallace in PULP FICTION. Williamson passed on the part because of the scene where Wallace is raped by Zed in the Gimp dungeon in the pawn shop basement.. He got to demonstrate some slow-burn comedy skills, playing off Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson as the perpetually flustered Capt. Doby in 2004's STARSKY & HUTCH, but other than that, Williamson has done some sporadic TV guest spots and some Z-grade DTV swill you find in the New Release section at Walmart. He's also become a regular presence in low-budget faithsploitation dramas like 2015's LAST OUNCE OF FREEDOM, where he played a villain trying to stop a small rural town from celebrating Christmas. Now 79 and probably still able to kick your ass, Williamson most recently made the news in 2016 when he was spotted on the presidential campaign trail competing with Ben Carson for the coveted "Donald Trump's black friend" role.

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