Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Retro Review: NAM ANGELS (1989)

(US/Philippines - 1989)

Directed by Cirio H. Santiago. Written by Dan Gagliasso. Cast: Brad Johnson, Vernon Wells, Kevin Duffis, Rick Dean, Mark Venturini, Jeff Griffith, Romy Diaz, Ken Metcalfe, Archie Adamos, Eric Hahn, Tonichi Fructuoso, Frederick Bailey, Leah Navarro. (R, 93 mins)

Filipino exploitation auteur Cirio H. Santiago (1936-2008) dabbled in nearly every genre over the course of his long career, specializing in blaxploitation knockoffs in the mid '70s and post-nukes in the early '80s, but as B-movie trends went, so went Santiago. By the late '80s, after the success of macho MIA rescue fantasies like UNCOMMON VALOR, MISSING IN ACTION and RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, and more serious films like the Oscar-winning PLATOON and Stanley Kubrick's FULL METAL JACKET, Namsploitation became one of the most profitable genres for the burgeoning home video market. Ripoffs flooded New Release shelves at video stores nationwide, whether it was Santiago's Philippines-shot actioners or Italian knockoffs like Fabrizio De Angelis' THUNDER WARRIOR series and OPERATION NAM, and Bruno Mattei's legendarily craptacular STRIKE COMMANDO. Even Australia got into the act with Brian Trenchard-Smith's cult classic THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA. Usually working in conjunction with Roger Corman, Santiago cranked out a ton of Namsploitationers from 1984 to 1993, including FINAL MISSION (1984), THE DEVASTATOR (1986), EYE OF THE EAGLE (1987), BEHIND ENEMY LINES (1988), THE EXPENDABLES (1988), EYE OF THE EAGLE III (1989), FIELD OF FIRE (1991), BEYOND THE CALL OF DUTY (1992), FIREHAWK (1993), and KILL ZONE (1993) before demand died down and he moved on to a string of kickboxing movies.

EYE OF THE EAGLE III is probably Santiago's best Namsploitation outing (he sat out 1988's EYE OF THE EAGLE II), but a close second is 1989's NAM ANGELS, a loose remake of the 1970 Jack Starrett drive-in hit THE LOSERS mixed with a little KELLY'S HEROES. Just out on Blu-ray from Code Red in further defiance of the "Physical media is dead" myth (and introduced by Code Red head Bill Olsen in his inane "Banana Man" get-up, referring to Cirio Santiago as "Sollio Sariago"), NAM ANGELS opens at the height of the Vietnam War as Army Lt. Vance Calhoun (a debuting Brad Johnson) loses most of his men in a skirmish while the rest are taken prisoner by Chard (Vernon Wells, best known as Wez in THE ROAD WARRIOR), a "round eye" mercenary with ties to both the CIA and the North Vietnamese, who has set up shop as a despotic ruler, out there operating without any decent restraint, beyond the...oh wait, that's Col. Kurtz. Back at the base, Calhoun can't convince Gen. Donipha (Ken Metcalfe) to send in a rescue team, so he organizes his own--an off-the-books op where he recruits a quartet of incarcerated Hell's Angels who were nabbed trying to smuggle drugs out of Cambodia back to the States. Calhoun gets them out and convinces them they're on a mission to recover $10 million in VC gold that his men found in a cave on the outskirts of Chard's camp. Calhoun and Army mechanic Hickman (Kevin Duffis) butt heads with the biker gang leader Larger (Rick Dean) and the rest of the Angels--Bonelli (Mark Venturini), Carmody (Jeff Griffith), and Turko (Romy Diaz), especially when Larger finds out the primary reason for the journey--but before long, they set aside their differences and find common ground, realizing they have to work together to make it out alive...if they don't kill each other first!

NAM ANGELS is one of Santiago's fastest-paced programmers. The director drops the ball when it comes to period detail, best represented by Santiago capturing the exact and very brief window in time in 1989 when Chard's rather ahead-of-its-time and decidedly un-1969 combination mullet/tiny ponytail would be even remotely socially acceptable, and he has the chutzpah to close the film with a John Milton quote ("Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven"), but NAM ANGELS is a lot of fun. The action, explosions, and motorcycle stunts are almost non-stop, and there's some attempt at making a serious statement ("Even your own people don't care about you!" Chard yells when Calhoun realizes no one's coming to rescue them), and while none of these guys are any great shakes as actors, there's enough of a developing camaraderie over the course of the film that it turns into a better-than-expected men-on-a-mission outing.

The film marked the big-screen debut of Johnson, a professional rodeo cowboy who served a three-year stint as the Marlboro Man before turning to modeling and eventually acting. Like many before him, Johnson got his start in the world of Roger Corman (and Santiago put Johnson's lassoing skills to use throughout NAM ANGELS) but it wasn't long before he was declared a Next Big Thing. Later in 1989, still a virtual unknown and given an "Introducing" credit despite already starring in NAM ANGELS, he was picked by Steven Spielberg to co-star with Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, and the legendary Audrey Hepburn in the director's ALWAYS. He next starred with Danny Glover and Willem Dafoe in John Milius' 1991 military actioner FLIGHT OF THE INTRUDER, and...that was it. With the big studios deciding they already had one actor to fill their Tom Berenger needs, Johnson's time on the A-list was short-lived, rivaled in its brevity only by Patrick Bergin, another Next Big Thing from that same period who flamed out in record time. Like Bergin, Johnson became a fixture in the world of straight-to-video and/or cable, with films like 1993's THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT 2, 1994's THE BIRDS II, and 1995's LONE JUSTICE 2, along with several TV gigs and the syndicated series SOLDIER OF FORTUNE, INC, with fellow straight-to-video mainstay Tim Abell. Johnson's career got a second wind with the faithsploitation crowd when he co-starred as pilot Rayford Steele in the Kirk Cameron-headlined LEFT BEHIND trilogy, but with the exception of a one-off comeback in the barely-seen church-funded indie NAIL 32 in 2015, the devoutly religious Johnson's been retired from acting since 2008. Now 56 and the father of ten with his wife of 30 years, Johnson appears to have left Hollywood behind and now owns a real estate and property development company.

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