Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Retro Review: SEVEN (1979)

(US - 1979)

Directed by Andy Sidaris. Written by William Driskill and Robert Baird. Cast: William Smith, Barbara Leigh, Guich Koock, Christipher Joy, Martin Kove, Art Metrano, Ed Parker, Richard LePore, Lenny Montana, Reggie Nalder, Seth Sakai, Kwan Hi Lim, Tino Tuiolosega, Henry Ayau, Peter Knecht, Susan Kiger, Robert Relyea, Terry Kiser, John Alderman, Nick Georgiade, Little Egypt, Charles Picerni, Sandra Bernadou, Tadashi Yamashita, Russell Howell, Carol Needham. (R, 101 mins)

Mention Andy Sidaris to any well-traveled B-movie fan of a certain age and you'll probably get a snicker of acknowledgment over the T&A action auteur's esteemed contributions to the video store glory days. Best known for his "Bullets, Bombs and Babes" series of Hawaii-shot, scantily-clad "L.E.T.H.A.L. Ladies" actioners featuring Playboy Playmates and Penthouse Pets that ran from 1985's MALIBU EXPRESS to 1998's RETURN TO SAVAGE BEACH, Sidaris' spot in exploitation history is secure. But before embarking on his movie career, he was already a highly-regarded, Emmy-winning sports director for ABC going back to the 1960s, known for his work on the network's coverage of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City as well as the long-running WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS. He also ran the control booth in the early years of ABC's MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL, pioneering what's known in the TV sports industry as the "honey shot"--close-ups of cheerleaders on the sideline--and his expertise in directing live sports action led to him being called upon by Robert Altman to serve as a technical adviser on the legendary football sequence in his 1970 classic MASH. Bitten by the filmmaking bug after spending time on the set with Altman, Sidaris made his feature directing debut with 1973's Roger Corman-financed actioner STACEY. It was a minor hit on the drive-in circuit, and Sidaris had enough clout with the networks to get some TV gigs, directing episodes of KOJAK and THE HARDY BOYS/NANCY DREW MYSTERIES. It would be six years before Sidaris made his second film with SEVEN, which effectively set the template and tone for the singularly unique Sidaris style seen over the next two decades.

Released in the fall of 1979 by American International in their waning days on life support just before being acquired by Filmways (LOVE AT FIRST BITE, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and MAD MAX would be their final hits amidst bombs like C.H.O.M.P.S. and GORP), SEVEN was produced by shopping mall magnate Melvin Simon. Simon's time in the movies only lasted from the late '70s to the early '80s but yielded some big hits (LOVE AT FIRST BITE, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, and the PORKY'S series), an acclaimed Oscar nominee (THE STUNT MAN), and a few stinkers (SCAVENGER HUNT, CHU CHU AND THE PHILLY FLASH). SEVEN came fairly early in Simon's brief run as a Hollywood mover and shaker, but in hindsight, considering how Sidaris' later, self-produced indies turned out, he obviously left the director alone to make the film he wanted to make. Sidaris films are way more convoluted and character-heavy than they need to be, and SEVEN is no exception. The needlessly and almost comically labyrinthine plot has a US government assignment being handed down to covert ops agent Drew Sevano (William Smith, in a role intended for Burt Reynolds in Sidaris' wildest dreams): kill six dangerous criminal figures in the employ of a seventh, The Kahuna (Lenny Montana, best known as Luca Brasi in THE GODFATHER), a nefarious Hawaii-based mastermind of a plot to eliminate key political and law enforcement figures and engineer a hostile takeover of the state for their own illegal interests. Sevano would rather spend his downtime with buxom Sybil (Carol Needham), but with the promise of $7 million and the ability to assemble his own motley crew of assassins, Sevano and his "Seven" take action.

Barbara Leigh and Susan Kiger in a scene
absolutely essential to the plot of SEVEN.
There's sultry Alexa (Barbara Leigh), good ol' boy Cowboy (the great Guich Koock), drag racer and all-around man of action T.K. (Christipher Joy), terrible stand-up comic Kincella (Art Metrano), lecherous gadget man "The Professor" (Richard LePore), and black belt karate instructor Ed Hunter (played in a real stretch by black belt karate instructor Ed Hunter, whose client roster once included Elvis Presley). They're joined by masseuse sidekick and soon-to-be Cowboy squeeze Jenny (former Playmate Susan Kiger, having an amazing 1979 at the drive-in between SEVEN, H.O.T.S, and ANGELS' BRIGADE), as Sevano lays out the mission, which is set to take place during a 30-minute period, with all of their targets eliminated before any of them have a chance to alert the others that they're being wiped out. The targets: crime lord The Hermit (Reggie Nalder, the same year he played the vampire Barlow in SALEM'S LOT), heroin dealer Butterfly (Henry Ayau), gunrunner and human trafficker Mr. Chin (Kwan Hi Lim), improbably-named money launderer Keoki McDowell (Seth Sakai), black market art dealer Mr. Lee (Tino Tuoilosega), and Hawaii's most lethal hit man, Kimo Maderos (Peter Knecht), with the ultimate prize, The Kahuna himself, reserved for Sevano.

Andy Sidaris (1931-2007), seen here having another
 shitty day at work at Malibu Bay Films headquarters
If you've seen any of Sidaris' later works under his banner of Malibu Bay Films, the company he formed with his wife and producing partner Arlene, the set-up and execution of SEVEN will sound very familiar. It may not officially be part of the extended Sidaris universe (though LePore did reprise a similar "Professor" role in 1988's PICASSO TRIGGER, and Sidaris would recycle the skateboarding henchman and the gag involving the inflatable sex doll in later films), but it's a de facto pilot film for the "Bullets, Bombs and Babes" series. Sidaris gets a bit more squibby and splattery here than he would once he established his formula (Hawaii, explosions, teams of assassins, hot tubs, saunas) with the likes of 1987's HARD TICKET TO HAWAII and 1989's SAVAGE BEACH, but SEVEN's got plenty of action, gratuitous nudity, and enough intentional humor (Ed Hunter's character having his own name, Savano staring right at Sybil's breasts and deadpanning "I think you need a nose job") that it's obvious Sidaris never took himself too seriously, not even when he was fairly new to movies. Sidaris kept going throughout the '90s, briefly stepping back and letting his son Christian Drew Sidaris direct a couple of "Bullets, Bombs and Babes" installments with 1993's ENEMY GOLD and 1994's THE DALLAS CONNECTION. But when he returned from that sabbatical with 1996's DAY OF THE WARRIOR, the formula was growing tired. The films looked cheaper, he wasn't getting recognizable names like MALIBU EXPRESS' Sybil Danning, GUNS' Eric Estrada, or DO OR DIE's Pat Morita, and the new group of L.E.T.H.A.L. Ladies didn't have the charm or even the talent level of Hope Marie Carlton or Dona Speir from the early entries. RETURN TO SAVAGE BEACH marked the end of the series and Sidaris subsequently retired from directing. Under the subtle pseudonym "Dick Bigdickian," Sidaris appeared in Jim Wynorski's trilogy of Skinemax-ready BLAIR WITCH PROJECT spoofs with 2000's THE BARE WENCH PROJECT, 2002's THE BARE WENCH PROJECT 2: SCARED TOPLESS, and 2003's THE BARE WENCH PROJECT: NYMPHS OF MYSTERY MOUNTAIN. Sidaris succumbed to throat cancer in 2007 at the age of 76.

In addition to vets like Montana and Nalder onboard, SEVEN features small supporting turns for future familiar faces like Martin Kove (THE KARATE KID) as a Kahuna flunky and Terry Kiser (Bernie in WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S) as a Hawaii senator offed in the opening scene. But Smith is the big name here (unless you count blatant product plugs for Orange Julius and Subaru), and he makes for a solid tough guy hero. He might not have had any Oscars in his future, but he was well-known for early '70s biker movies like ANGELS DIE HARD and CHROME AND HOT LEATHER and exploitation hits like INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS, would regularly turn up in supporting roles in respectable films, and was having a bit of a moment in 1979 on the heels of his acclaimed turn as Falconetti in the gargantuan mini-series RICH MAN, POOR MAN and its followup RICH MAN, POOR MAN BOOK II and joining the cast of HAWAII FIVE-0 in its 12th and final season as a replacement for James MacArthur. After SEVEN, Smith would co-star as Clint Eastwood's bare-knuckle nemesis in ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN and would have his best-known '80s role a few years later as the leader of the Soviet invasion of small-town America in RED DAWN. Now 85, Smith's IMDb page over the last 20 years is cluttered with dismal, Z-grade DTV fare that no one's heard of, his last notable credit being a guest spot on a 1999 episode of WALKER, TEXAS RANGER. Smith wasn't exactly Sir Laurence Olivier with his acting ability, but relative to the later likes of Sidaris male leads like Steve Bond and Bruce Penhall, he was established and accomplished, though even with Melvin Simon backing him, it's hard to believe Sidaris ever seriously entertained the absurd notion of getting an in-his-prime Burt Reynolds to star in this thing. Though it was released on video in the '80s, the enjoyably ridiculous SEVEN has been difficult to see for a number of years, a problem rectified with Kino Lorber's recent Blu-ray release, because physical media is dead.

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