Friday, September 30, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: SACRIFICE (2016); EQUALS (2016); and VIRAL (2016)

(US/Ireland/Germany - 2016)

SACRIFICE is one of those "outsider lured to a small town that has a deep, dark secret and everyone's in on it" suspense/horror movies that won't offer any surprises to anyone who's seen THE WICKER MAN or even HOT FUZZ. Hell, the giveaway's right there in the title. It's not really similar to THE WICKER MAN in terms of its story, but it hits the same points. Pregnant Manhattan obstetrician Dr. Tora Hamilton (Radha Mitchell) is devastated after suffering a miscarriage on the job. Looking for a healing change of scenery, Tora and her Scottish-born husband Duncan Guthrie (late '80s Merchant Ivory fixture Rupert Graves) leave NYC and relocate to the small village in the Shetland Islands where his family still resides. Tora's father-in-law Richard (DOWNTON ABBEY's David Robb) pulls some strings to get her on the staff at the local hospital, and all is going well until a woman's decayed corpse is found buried on Tora's and Duncan's property. Strange runic symbols have been carved into the victim's flesh and her heart has been carved out of her chest. Overstepping her bounds at the hospital, Tora also finds evidence that the woman gave birth a week to ten days before her murder. Hospital head McKie (GAME OF THRONES' Ian McElhinney) dismisses her concerns and after digging further, Tora uncovers an epidemic of ovarian cancer deaths among women in the village going back decades. When she brings this up, everyone seems mildly irritable and starts giving her the side-eyed sneer, making it painfully obvious that she's stumbled onto something that she's not meant to know. Of course, she's pursued by a gloved killer at the hospital while working late one night. Of course, Tulloch (Joanne Crawford), the one sympathetic local cop who thinks Tora might be on to something, turns up dead. And of course, Tora catches Duncan having a secret meeting with all of the village powers-that-be who are telling her to shut up and mind her own business.

Tora isn't pregnant again but it's obvious Duncan is pulling some sort of a Guy Woodhouse gaslighting on her and the abundance of ovarian cancer deaths don't seem to alarm any of the men running the village. Duncan's character arc doesn't go quite where you expect it to, and there's an interesting patriarchy element that's hinted at but largely abandoned by writer/director Peter A. Dowling, who's best known for co-writing the 2005 Jodie Foster thriller FLIGHTPLAN. The village has an inherent contempt for women, and they don't quite know how to handle someone as assertive as Tora. Being American, she's already an outsider, plus she's a career woman, and she kept her maiden name after marrying Duncan. Duncan's father expresses some sneering disdain at the way his son doesn't treat his wife as a subordinate, but Dowling doesn't do much with these themes. Other than a De Palma split diopter shot that seems more show-offy than anything, Dowling's direction is workmanlike at best, rushing through the exposition and assembling the film as such that it plays like it should be a pilot to a TV series with Mitchell as a snooping, mystery-solving obstetrician.  Even the opening credits look like a TV show and the abrupt ending feels like it's only missing an "On the next SACRIFICE, Tora discovers..." Mitchell does what she can with the material, but SACRIFICE is the kind of forgettable, frivolous trifle that instantly evapor      (Unrated, 91 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(US/South Korea - 2016)

Drab, mopey, and predictable, EQUALS is another all too familiar futuristic sci-fi saga set in a chilly dystopia where emotion is forbidden and two outcasts commit the unpardonable sin of falling in love. It's all here--the towering cityscapes, the cold, expansive, antiseptic interiors, and everyone wearing the latest in THX-1138 fashions. In this particular dystopia, all illness has been eradicated but a new disease called S.O.S., or "Switched On Syndrome," is gaining ground. It's blamed on "problem genes" that cause "behavioral defects" that lead to "coupling." In other words, people's emotions are kicking in and they're experiencing things like love and desire. Violators are sent to "the Den," or a "Defective Emotional Neuropathy" facility for treatment. Like cancer, it's graded in stages, with stage 1 having a good chance for recovery if discovered early, and beyond-hope stage 3 sufferers encouraged to commit suicide. Silas (Nicholas Hoult) works in a high-tech printing facility and has just been diagnosed as Stage 1 S.O.S. This gets the attention of co-worker Nia (Kristen Stewart), a self-diagnosed stage 1 who's managed to keep her symptoms hidden from everyone at the office. It isn't long before their S.O.S. gets the best of them and they "couple," with Silas getting some help from an underground group of anarchic S.O.S. patients, including stage 2-diagnosed Jonas (Guy Pearce) and Bess (Jacki Weaver), to plan an escape from the city and go on the run with Nia. Of course, that plan hits a snag when the Big Brother-like government rolls out a just-approved S.O.S. cure, making vaccination mandatory and getting everyone back to "Equal" status. Blandly directed by Drake Doremus (LIKE CRAZY), EQUALS gets the look down with occasionally striking location work in some Tokyo and Singapore office districts, but the script by Nathan Parker (who wrote the much better MOON) cribs from too many other influences and just feels like stale leftovers. The pace is excruciatingly slow and it limps along to a tired, not quite Tangerine Dream electronic score by Sascha Ring and Dustin O'Hallorann. Ridley Scott was one of 22 producers, but even his involvement didn't get this on any more than 92 screens in the US. (PG-13, 102 mins)

(US - 2016)

CATFISH masterminds Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman went on to direct the third and fourth PARANORMAL ACTIVITY entries before making this thankfully not found-footage Blumhouse zombie parasite outbreak horror film that spent enough time on the shelf that it ended up being released the same weekend as the duo's next film, NERVE. While NERVE got a nationwide release by Lionsgate and became a modest hit, VIRAL was buried by the Weinstein Company, debuting in a handful of theaters and on VOD. It's pretty by the numbers, with a parasitic outbreak quickly working its way across the country as President Obama (seen in footage taken from Ebola-related press conferences in 2014) declares nationwide martial law in an attempt at quarantining the virus. While the horror elements are pretty much working off a checklist--yes, the infected once again sprint around 28 DAYS LATER-style--much of VIRAL's focus is on the bond between two sisters who have had their share of family upheaval of late. Shy and introverted Emma (THE NIGHT OF murder victim Sofia Black-D'Elia) lives in the shadow of her outgoing, hellraising older sibling Stacy (Analeigh Tipton). Their mom is absent for reasons that are revealed later in the film, but they've just moved to a new suburb with their dad (Michael Kelly), who's been let go from his university job and is now teaching biology at their high school. An infected classmate sends everyone home from school, and it isn't long before the government steps in, with Dad unable to get home and the girls left on their own. Of course, Stacy doesn't listen to Dad's orders and decides to go to a party, pressuring Emma to go along. And of course, someone at the party is infected, as the parasite burrows through its host, feeding off of it and absorbing it, causing it to attack anyone in its vicinity. Stacy is exposed to it at the party, and Emma and Evan (Travis Tope), the sensitive nice guy who lives across the street, barricade her in the bathroom, Emma determined to keep her big sis alive.

The relationship between Emma and Stacy is where VIRAL attempts to differentiate itself from so much of its type, but it's not enough to get the film to the next level. Joost, Schulman, and their PARANORMAL ACTIVITY writer Christopher Landon spend too much time on the same old zombie apocalypse mayhem, with the added bonus of CGI worms burrowing out of peoples' orifices. This is another horror film that depends too much on its characters doing idiotic things to advance the plot, like Emma and Evan chasing an escaped Stacy into an abandoned house where, of course, at least a dozen infected appear out of nowhere. Had the girls just stayed home instead of going to a party, none of this would've happened to them. This is also one of those teen-centered films where parents (other than the sisters' dad and Evan's asshole stepdad) are nowhere to be seen, thus enabling horny kids played by actors in their mid-to-late 20s to disregard police and government orders and orchestrate a kegger. And if it takes everyone else who's exposed about four seconds to turn, why does it take Stacy half the movie? There's no logic in the tired horror elements of VIRAL, but it does get a big boost from the convincing chemistry between Black-D'Elia and Tipton, and a scene where Emma sticks her hand into an opening in the bathroom door to make physical contact with an infected, practically rabid Stacy in an attempt to remind her of her human side ("I know you'll never hurt me!") is genuinely tense, emotional, and well-played by the two stars. Black-D'Elia and Tipton aren't able to completely salvage VIRAL from being a genre afterthought, but they're good enough that you'd probably rather see them working together in something other than a dumb horror movie you've seen a hundred times already. (R, 86 mins)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


(US - 2016)

Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Written by Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk. Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Peter Sarsgaard, Haley Bennett, Luke Grimes, Matt Bomer, Cam Gigandet, Jonathan Joss, Sean Bridgers, William Lee Scott, Griff Furst. (PG-13, 133 mins)

As unnecessary as almost any remake nowadays, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN brings some revisionist multi-culturalism to the table but little else, instead choosing to coast by on the strength of its cast. And when that cast is headed by the always excellent Denzel Washington, it's enough to get the job done, even if it has zero chance of escaping the shadow of either John Sturges' 1960 original or that film's inspiration, Akira Kurosawa's immortal 1954 masterpiece SEVEN SAMURAI (and, lest we forget, the Roger Corman-produced STAR WARS-inspired variant BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS and Bruno Mattei's 1984 sword-and-sandal take THE SEVEN MAGNIFICENT GLADIATORS). Washington is reunited with his TRAINING DAY and THE EQUALIZER director Antoine Fuqua and his TRAINING DAY co-star Ethan Hawke (also in Fuqua's BROOKLYN'S FINEST), who also brought along his BFF Vincent D'Onofrio (also with Hawke in THE NEWTON BOYS, STATEN ISLAND, BROOKLYN'S FINEST, and SINISTER and a star of the Hawke-directed CHELSEA WALLS), who was in JURASSIC WORLD with Chris Pratt, giving MAGNIFICENT '16 the feeling that everyone involved is having a good time with old friends. That helps, because the story itself is as standard and formulaic as it gets, adding an unnecessary revenge element in the late-going that veers from the sense of selfless altruism and sacrifice that was key to the heart and soul of SEVEN SAMURAI and MAGNIFICENT '60. It undermines it to a point where you feel that Washington's character has essentially lured these other six saps on a suicide mission, but that's probably putting more thought into this than Fuqua and co-writers Nic Pizzolatto (TRUE DETECTIVE) and Richard Wenk (THE EXPENDABLES 2 and, yes, THE EQUALIZER) had in mind. MAGNIFICENT '16 isn't likely to be mistaken for a great western, but it's entertaining, fast-moving, and the cast--most of it, anyway--is solid enough to help gloss over the bumps along the way.

In the years following the Civil War, the small frontier town of Rose Creek is under siege by malevolent robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who couldn't be any more predestined for villainy if he was named Snidely Whiplash. Bogue wants to commandeer a nearby gold mine and offers the citizens either $20 each for their parcel of land, or death, giving them three weeks to decide. When Bogue and his henchman murder several of the town's men in cold blood, including rancher Matthew Cullen (Matt Bomer), Cullen's widow Emma (Jennifer Lawrence lookalike Haley Bennett) ventures to the next town to hire bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Washington), offering him every penny Rose Creek has to take on Bogue and his goons. Chisolm recruits local gambler and wiseass Josh Faraday (Pratt) and they in turn bring in others--sharpshooter and Civil War PTSD case Goodnight Robichaux (Hawke), his knife-throwing Asian pal Bobby Rocks (Byung Hun-Lee), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), eccentric tracker Jack Horne (D'Onofrio), and (noir/hard-boiled guy Pizzolato really showing some Dashiell Hammett love here) Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), a lone Comanche cast out by his tribe. They arrive in Rose Creek and send a message to Bogue by killing all of his regulators charged with keeping an eye on things. Together with Emma and her husband's friend Teddy Q (Luke Grimes), these seven warriors establish a bonding camaraderie as they fortify Rose Creek, training the terrified residents to defend themselves, knowing the nefarious Bogue is on his way with a few hundred men to level it and massacre everyone.

It's a story that's been told so many times that there's nothing in the way of surprises, and the new additions don't really fly, whether it's the incongruity of the melting pot make-up of this post-Civil War motley crew or the late addition of a Chisolm revenge subplot that makes his reasons for doing this personal. The actors are generally good, with Pratt brought on to be Chris Pratt and Washington being the fearsome and intense badass that he always is in Fuqua films. Looking thin and frail, Hawke's Goodnight Robichaux seems to be going for a Val Kilmer-in-TOMBSTONE riff that never materializes, and Lee, Garcia-Rulfo, and Sensmeier don't really get any defining characteristics other than being Asian, Mexican, and Native American, respectively. A madman-bearded and typically mannered D'Onofrio, who too often overacts rather than acts these days, turns in a grating performance, using a high-pitched, wheezing squeal that seems to be his idea of an insane Andy Devine. A sweaty, twitchy Sarsgaard is gifted with a great western bad guy name in Bartholomew Bogue, but is otherwise pretty one-dimensional, coming off like a stock western baddie version of Gary Oldman's crazed DEA agent in THE PROFESSIONAL. It also doesn't make any sense that, after losing about 150 guys in the attack on Rose Creek to gunfire and explosive booby-traps lined along the town's perimeter, only then does Bogue order his few remaining toadies to bring him the Gatling gun to mow down dozens of Rose Creek citizens. Why wouldn't he just use that in the first place? MAGNIFICENT '16 also ends on a sour note that reeks of studio meddling, with a completely needless coda featuring voiceover by Bennett's Emma, culminating in the dumbest invocation of a movie's title since I AM LEGEND faded to black with Alice Braga narration declaring "This is his legend." MAGNIFICENT '16 works just fine as empty calorie, junk-food cinema, and Washington's gritty persona carries it far enough that you can't imagine the sense of sheer mediocrity the entire project would convey without him.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Retro Review: MURPHY'S LAW (1986)

(US - 1986)

Directed by J. Lee Thompson. Written by Gail Morgan Hickman. Cast: Charles Bronson, Carrie Snodgress, Kathleen Wilhoite, Robert F. Lyons, Richard Romanus, Angel Tompkins, Bill Henderson, Lawrence Tierney, James Luisi, Janet MacLachlan, Jerome Thor, Robert Axelrod, Randall Carver. (R, 100 mins)

Charles Bronson's career in the 1980s was defined by his association with Cannon's Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. Starting with 1982's DEATH WISH II and ending with 1989's KINJITE: FORBIDDEN SUBJECTS, Bronson starred in eight Cannon productions, with the only outliers during that period being 1984's grisly THE EVIL THAT MEN DO (released by Tri-Star) and 1986's ACT OF VENGEANCE for HBO. DEATH WISH II provided Bronson with his first hit after a string of flops like LOVE AND BULLETS (1979), CABO BLANCO (1980), BORDERLINE (1980), and DEATH HUNT (1981), successfully reigniting his career and setting the tone for the Bronson formula that, with rare exception, would typify his work for the remainder of the decade. Critics were rarely kind to Bronson's '80s vehicles, but he enjoyed a few years as a reliable box office draw, with 10 TO MIDNIGHT (1983), the aforementioned THE EVIL THAT MEN DO, and DEATH WISH 3 (1985) all doing big business. DEATH WISH 3 opened the same day as William Friedkin's TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. and the sequel A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY'S REVENGE, and landed in the #1 spot. Nearly 25 years before Liam Neeson made geriatric tough guys a box office trend, 64-year-old Charles Bronson was so popular in the fall of 1985 that he emerged the victor in a box office battle with Freddy Krueger.

Much of 1986's MURPHY'S LAW is typical of Bronson/Cannon product of the period: as in 10 TO MIDNIGHT and the later KINJITE, he's playing a cop whose tendency to take the law (and sex toys) into his own hands and play by his own rules gets him in hot water with the department; he's tangling with a villain who has an axe to grind against his embittered cop; and he's directed by veteran journeyman J. Lee Thompson (THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, CAPE FEAR), who would become not only a go-to Cannon guy (KING SOLOMON'S MINES, FIREWALKER), but also Bronson's favorite director as the decade went on. Thompson directed five of Bronson's eight Cannon titles, and the pair collaborated several times prior to the Golan-Globus phase of their careers, all the way back to 1976's ST. IVES. A stoical man known for keeping to himself and being standoffish until he got to know someone, Bronson was a man who didn't let just anyone into his inner circle, so he obviously felt a personal and professional connection with Thompson.

But MURPHY'S LAW also allows a bit of a departure for Bronson, which he may have wanted after the cartoonish excesses of the previous year's DEATH WISH 3, directed by Michael Winner. Now a beloved cult classic with its ridiculous plot, over-the-top characters (The Giggler!), and quotable dialogue ("It's MY CAR!"), DEATH WISH 3 is the funniest Bronson movie ever, even if that's not the intention. MURPHY'S LAW gives Bronson some room to act a little as burned-out, alcoholic L.A. cop Jack Murphy. Starting the day with a belt of booze and carrying a flask with him on the job, Murphy is pretty much a walking dumpster fire. Heartbroken over being abandoned by his cheating wife (Angel Tompkins), Murphy regularly tortures himself by going to the trashy strip club where she dances, disgusted by her and her job but still longing for her, unable to look away. A constantly hungover Murphy can barely get himself out of bed, and observing his morning routine play out is actually difficult to watch. Bronson looks like hell throughout MURPHY'S LAW, never more so than in the opening credits, where he seems to be in physical pain waking up, dragging himself to the bathroom, gargling Listerine, grunting, resting his head against the mirror, and looking like he's just about ready to give up on life. Considered a washed-up drunk by most of his colleagues (who mercilessly razz him about his ex's job), except for his only friend, horndog partner Art Penney (DEATH WISH II and 10 TO MIDNIGHT's Robert F. Lyons, another Bronson inner circler with whom the actor liked working), Murphy isn't about to get any sympathy when his ex-wife and her new boyfriend--the sleazy strip club manager--are killed with his gun. Murphy insists he's being framed by pissed-off L.A. mobster Frank Vincenzo (Richard Romanus) as revenge after Murphy kills Vincenzo's idiot younger brother in a hostage situation, but nobody cares. They're just happy to see Murphy crash and burn.

Of course he's being framed--not by Vincenzo but by Joan Freeman (Carrie Snodgress), a psycho killer who's just been paroled and is obsessed with vengeance after being put away by Murphy and his now-retired partner Wilcove (Ben Henderson) a decade earlier. Freeman follows Murphy, learns his routine, hides in his car, knocks him over the head before using his gun to kill the ex and the boyfriend while he's unconscious, and drives him home, with Murphy out cold the whole time. Assuming he blacked out in his car after a night at the bar, Murphy doesn't think much of it when he wakes up and finds himself parked outside his own house. But after he's arrested and realizes none of his fellow officers are going to help him, he orchestrates an escape, taking with him an unlikely partner-in-crime in Araballa McGee (Kathleen Wilhoite), a homeless, potty-mouthed street criminal who stole Murphy's car at the beginning of the movie. As Freeman continues a killing spree that implicates him, a now-fugitive Murphy is on the run with Arabella, now considered an accomplice, the pair determined to prove their innocence...if they don't kill each other first!

Pairing Bronson with a younger co-star was a good idea and the actor seems to be legitimately enjoying himself...or at least as much as Bronson could enjoy himself. If Golan and Globus had their way, Arabella would've been played by Madonna, who was offered the role but wanted more money than Golan was willing to spend. According to Bronson historian Paul Talbot in his book Bronson's Loose Again, Joan Jett auditioned and PURPLE RAIN's Apollonia Kotero and Prince protegee Vanity were also courted (Vanity would co-star in Cannon's 52 PICK-UP that same year) before the role went to the less expensive relative newcomer Wilhoite, a 22-year-old actress/singer who got an "Introducing" credit even though she already logged appearances in several films and TV shows. Best known to horror fans as the eccentric psychic in 1986's WITCHBOARD ("Psychic humor!") and to TV viewers as Sherry Stringfield's irresponsible older sister on ER and as Liz Danes on GILMORE GIRLS, Wilhoite has a likable presence despite some of the incredibly stupid insults she's required to spew. On the commentary track for Twilight Time's new Blu-ray release of MURPHY's LAW, Wilhoite says that the script by Gail Morgan Hickman (THE ENFORCER, NUMBER ONE WITH A BULLET) was originally filled with some really foul and offensive lines for her that were softened to abrasive but silly-sounding zingers like "jizzum breath," "snotbutt," "dinosaur dork," "toejam," "Ya snot-lickin' donkey fart!" and "Kiss my pantyhose, sperm bank!" In spite of being tasked with playing a grating character, Wilhoite, who also sings the closing credits theme song, manages to win you over as Arabella. She does a solid job of playing off of Bronson's cranky persona, and Bronson has some legitimately heartfelt moments late in the film after Murphy finds himself reluctantly bonding with the obnoxious, troubled young woman who, of course, has a heart of gold.

In addition to allowing Bronson some unexpected character depth, MURPHY'S LAW also gives Bronson a different kind of villain in Snodgress' Joan Freeman. Like an angrier and completely deranged version of Sondra Locke's SUDDEN IMPACT vigilante, Snodgress, a Best Actress Oscar nominee for 1970's DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE, makes a memorably maniacal villain without ever going overboard into over-the-top histrionics. The film also makes terrific use of some iconic L.A. locations, from a chase scene through the Grand Central Market and the climax--where Murphy is forced to take on Vincenzo's goons and a crossbow-wielding Freeman--inside the legendary Bradbury Building, so memorably featured as the gloomy home of William Sanderson's J.F. Sebastian in 1982's BLADE RUNNER. By this point in his career, Bronson seemed hesitant to approach departure projects like he did post-DEATH WISH in the 1970s with films like the romantic FROM NOON TILL THREE (1976) and the bizarre THE WHITE BUFFALO. But 1986 saw him tackle the seemingly familiar but surprisingly complex Jack Murphy in MURPHY'S LAW as well as starring in the HBO biographical film ACT OF VENGEANCE, where he played Jock Yablonski, the doomed United Mine Workers president whose 1969 murder was orchestrated by his chief rival Tony Boyle, played in the film by Wilford Brimley.

MURPHY'S LAW opened the same day as the Tom Cruise/Ridley Scott fantasy LEGEND, landing in second place for the weekend. After that, the big-screen fortunes of both Bronson and Cannon began to wane: two 1987 releases, ASSASSINATION (where he was reunited with DEATH HUNT director Peter Hunt), and DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN (directed by Thompson) didn't even debut in the top five at the box office, and his next two films, 1988's low-key MESSENGER OF DEATH (Bronson doesn't even kill anyone!) and 1989's KINJITE: FORBIDDEN SUBJECTS (both directed by Thompson) only received limited theatrical releases before heading to video stores. It can't be a coincidence that Bronson's declining box office clout came at just the time huge and over-the-top Joel Silver-produced extravaganzas like 1987's LETHAL WEAPON and 1988's DIE HARD were reinventing the action genre. The comparatively low-budget Cannon productions couldn't compete, and even an unstoppable force like Clint Eastwood found himself losing audiences with underperformers like THE DEAD POOL (1988) and PINK CADILLAC (1989). Eastwood tried to fashion his own Joel Silver-esque buddy actioner, pairing himself with Charlie Sheen in 1990's THE ROOKIE, but nobody cared. It was out with the old (Bronson, Eastwood, and Chuck Norris) and in with the new (Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger). Eastwood was 62 when he managed to finally establish himself as a serious filmmaker in the eyes of the critics with 1992's Oscar-winning UNFORGIVEN, but by the time KINJITE immediately vanished from a few theaters in 1989, it was clear that, regardless of their entertainment value (KINJITE is great!), there wasn't a place at the multiplex for action movies starring a 68-year-old Bronson being directed by a 75-year-old Thompson.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Retro Review: EVILS OF THE NIGHT (1985)

(US - 1985)

Directed by Mardi Rustam. Written by Mardi Rustam and Phillip D. Connors. Cast: Neville Brand, Aldo Ray, Julie Newmar, John Carradine, Tina Louise, Karrie Emerson, Tony O'Dell, Bridgett Holloman, David Hawk, G.T. Taylor, Kelly Parsons, Bonnie J. Karlyle (Dawn Wildsmith), Amber Lynn, Paul Siederman (Jerry Butler), Shone Taylor, Jody Swafford, Lisa Stanyo (Crystal Breeze), Traci Escobar. (R, 85 mins)

Though they've made a name for themselves with their restorations of classic 1970s and early 1980s hardcore porn films, Vinegar Syndrome has also become a devoted curator of some of the worst genre films of the 1980s. After giving new life to forgotten batshit Z-listers like THE EXECUTIONER PART II (1984) and NIGHTMARE WEEKEND (1986), among others, Vinegar Syndrome has just released the 1985 sci-fi/alien/slasher/T&A hybrid EVILS OF THE NIGHT in a new Blu-ray set that includes the 85-minute theatrical cut and an extensively re-edited 93-minute TV version. A legitimate contender for the PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE of its decade, EVILS OF THE NIGHT has an inane plot that takes forever to get going, primarily because director/co-writer Mardi Rustam spends an inordinate amount of time on several softcore sex scenes involving minor, extraneous characters played by moonlighting porn stars like Amber Lynn, Jerry Butler, and Crystal Breeze (these actors are completely cut from the TV version). That's not necessarily a bad thing, but by the time everything is finally set in motion, it looks like Rustam is hastily piecing together three or four different movies and hoping it all works itself out. That's actually perfectly fitting, as Rustam got his start producing haphazardly-assembled Al Adamson stitch jobs like the legendarily awful DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971).

There's the extended Skinemax-style sexcapades of the porn actors. There's some camping teenagers (among them Karrie Emerson and HEAD OF THE CLASS' Tony O'Dell, both on their way to the next year's CHOPPING MALL) who appear to have wandered in from a FRIDAY THE 13TH ripoff. There's a team of alien doctors--John Carradine in a silver spacesuit as Dr. Kozmar, Julie "Catwoman" Newmar in a low-cut dress as Dr. Zarma, and GILLIGAN'S ISLAND's Tina Louise looking frumpy as Cora...yep, just Cora--who have arrived and commandeered an abandoned rural hospital where they're harvesting the blood and plasma of abducted teenagers in an effort to keep their species eternally young (one look at 79-year-old Carradine and his arthritic hands and you'll conclude that their efforts are failing). Then there's Kurt (Neville Brand) and Fred (Aldo Ray), a pair of dipshit mechanics being paid in some kind of alien space tokens (unconvincingly portrayed by a handful of quarters) to abduct the teenagers and keep them captive at their garage until Kozmar needs them. This hardly cuts into their workload, since every time we see them, Kurt is sweeping the same spot or thumbing through a Playboy, while Fred paints the same wall red, all of this despite having several cars in the garage that are waiting to be repaired. EVILS OF THE NIGHT is that kind of movie. Nothing makes sense and no one seems to be on the same page. Watch the scene where Emerson's character is fleeing for her life from Ray's crazed Fred, but can't really convey the urgency of the situation because the most she bothers mustering is a leisurely jog to elude him.

Rustam was better known as an exploitation producer, with Ray Danton's PSYCHIC KILLER (1975) and Tobe Hooper's EATEN ALIVE (1976) being his most noteworthy productions. Distributed to the drive-in circuit in the fall of 1985 by Terry Levene's Aquarius Releasing, EVILS OF THE NIGHT was Rustam's first released attempt at directing a movie himself, as his EVIL TOWN was shot mostly in 1977 but unreleased until 1987. Still going strong at 85--he's interviewed on the EVILS Blu--Rustam's third and last film to date as a director is the Casper Van Dien-starring 1997 biopic JAMES DEAN: LIVE FAST, DIE YOUNG, which is only notable for being the final film appearance of the legendary Robert Mitchum. Even in his early days with Adamson, Rustam always managed to corral enough cash to get some slumming name actors in his productions, but EVILS OF THE NIGHT goes a bit further by mixing up old Hollywood vets like Carradine, Brand, and Ray (the latter two probably crocked) and veteran porn stars who probably saw this cheap project as their ticket to legit cinema or, at the very least, a SAG card. That extends to Rustam co-writing the script with veteran XXX writer Phillip D. Connors, whose credits include such titles as ORAL MAJORITY 2: THE BIG GULP, DEEP THROAT III, and BACKDOOR SUMMER II.

Carradine, Newmar, and Louise visibly hold the material in contempt while carrying themselves like pros, but Brand and Ray are a pretty sorry sight. Ray was used to junk like this and had even taken a supporting role in the hardcore porno western SWEET SAVAGE a few years earlier. Brand (1920-1992), one of the most decorated American soldiers in WWII and a long way from his days as Al Capone opposite Robert Stack's Eliot Ness on the classic ABC series THE UNTOUCHABLES, was no stranger to Rustam productions (his sustained level of amped hysteria in Hooper's EATEN ALIVE must be seen to be believed, and both he and Ray were in PSYCHIC KILLER). but seeing him here, thumbing through nudie mags, gorily drill-killing a scantily-clad young woman, and grunting "Sure would like to hump one of 'em" after stringing up his latest female victim for the aliens is a little depressing. Brand's career had been declining for years (though he had a solid supporting role in William Peter Blatty's 1980 cult classic THE NINTH CONFIGURATION), but this was hitting bottom, and that includes his jerking-off scene in Bert I. Gordon's insane THE MAD BOMBER. Though it would be another seven years until his death from emphysema in 1992, Brand retired from acting following EVILS OF THE NIGHT, making it a particularly demeaning swan song for the veteran character actor. Also featuring laser beams, future Fred Olen Ray regular Dawn Wildsmith, and some songs by none other than Eddie Mekka (Carmine on TV's LAVERNE & SHIRLEY), EVILS OF THE NIGHT isn't quite on the level of jawdropping insanity as THE EXECUTIONER PART II and NIGHTMARE WEEKEND, though it comes close in the final third, right down to a surprisingly clever and funny climactic callback to Kurt's too-long shoelaces becoming his undoing that's almost proto-Larry David in its timing and execution. EVILS OF THE NIGHT is a total piece of shit, but the bit about the shoelaces shows that at least some thought went into it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

In Theaters: SNOWDEN (2016)

(US/France/Germany - 2016)

Directed by Oliver Stone. Written by Kieran Fitzgerald and Oliver Stone. Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Nicolas Cage, Rhys Ifans, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Ben Schnetzer, Lakeith Lee Stanfield, Joely Richardson, Ben Chaplin, Nicholas Rowe, Basker Patel, Edward Snowden. (R, 134 mins)

It would be nice if Oscar-winning filmmaker and tinfoil-hat fashionista Oliver Stone was back in provocateur mode with SNOWDEN, but the message is lost in the auteur's didactic execution. Told with myopic tunnelvision and with nothing but gushing admiration for its subject, SNOWDEN lumbers along with little in the way of nuance or subtlety, and nothing in the way of questioning the ex-CIA/NSA whistleblower. It's canonizing hagiography of the most one-sided order, with Edward Snowden the sole voice of morality in a world of evil big government surveillance that exists only to piss on the freedoms of Americans and can't possibly have any positive purpose whatsoever. This should be a nailbiting thriller but Stone is so distracted by his Snowden man-crush that it never has a chance to reach the heights of his in-his-prime conspiracy/paranoia triumphs like JFK or NIXON. It's more in line with the hokey, neutered simplicity of something like WORLD TRADE CENTER. Snowden is a complex, complicated figure, but you wouldn't know it by watching SNOWDEN. Stone isn't interesting in getting in Snowden's head, so you're better off checking out Laura Poitras' Oscar-winning 2014 Snowden documentary CITIZENFOUR instead.

That said, Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a terrific job of capturing Snowden's voice and mannerisms with uncanny accuracy. The film opens in 2013 as an on-the-run Snowden is holed up in a Hong Kong hotel preparing to leak secret CIA and NSA files to documentary filmmaker Poitras (Melissa Leo) and Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson). Jumping back and forth from 2004 to 2013, we follow Snowden through a short stint in the Army, where his goal of joining the Special Forces is stalled by brittle bones and a pair of fragile legs that get him a discharge. Told by his doctor that there's other ways to serve his country, the conservative, Ayn Rand-admiring Snowden is admitted into The Hill, the CIA training facility in Virginia where he becomes the top prospect of (fictional) instructor Corbin O'Brian (a vampiric Rhys Ifans). He also falls in love with liberal Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), who joins him when his new CIA job takes him to places like Switzerland and Japan, where his focus is cybersecurity and designing programs that are ostensibly used to monitor post-9/11 terrorist activities. He leaves the CIA but works for them on a contractual basis later on, and is disturbed to find that much of the US government's surveillance focus is spying on its own citizens and that one of his programs is used for drone strikes in the Middle East. Growing increasingly concerned about the nature of his work and how far the surveillance goes (he's informed at one point that his suspicions about Lindsay having an affair are unfounded, proof that the omnipresent They are watching her and monitoring her computer and phone activity), he decides to blow the whistle, stealing thousands of secret files and fleeing the country before reaching out to activist filmmaker Poitras.

How heavy-handed is SNOWDEN? The surveillance program is called "Prism," and when invoking it, Stone feels the need to frame shots with a prism effect that's also used when epileptic Snowden has seizures. It actually caused snickering in the audience about the 10th or 12th time it's used. How unsubtle is SNOWDEN? Ifans has been directed to play O'Brian in the most ominously sinister fashion possible, making it difficult to tell if he's a top CIA official or the Antichrist. Watch when he's shown speaking with Snowden in a conference room, Snowden physically there, but O'Brian on a giant, theater-sized screen as Ifans' looming, side-eyed visage takes up the entire display, just in case the whole "Big Brother is watching" concept wasn't already clear. The performances are generally solid, though Nicolas Cage is squandered in an intriguing but tiny role as a benched analyst curating antiquated espionage equipment, his sole purpose being to unknowingly supply the Rubik's Cube that Snowden will use years later to stash the SD card with all the files. But it's Ifans' bizarre portrayal that really sticks out, bringing to mind what might happen if PHANTASM's The Tall Man worked for the CIA. There's a nerve-shredding, Alan J. Pakula-type paranoia thriller to made about Snowden's exploits, and less preachy filmmakers could've done wonders with the subject. Remember that incredible Donald Sutherland exposition drop in JFK? That Oliver Stone could've done something with SNOWDEN. So could Michael Mann in INSIDER mode or David Fincher channeling ZODIAC. There's also a nice Mann vibe in some of Anthony Dod Mantle's digital cinematography in locations all over the world that recalls last year's criminally underrated hacker thriller BLACKHAT. Unfortunately, Stone the filmmaker defers to Dr. Stone the lecturing activist with an agenda. The film completely flies off the rails in a catastrophic climax that recalls Professor Steven Seagal's speech at the end of ON DEADLY GROUND, as Gordon-Levitt actually exits the film and Snowden takes over, playing himself being interviewed via internet from Russia, basking in the standing ovation he gets at a TEDTalk event. This drawn-out finale--more like a tacked-on Snowden infomercial--concludes with an inspirational, manipulative score crescendoing as a pensive Snowden finishes the interview, closes his laptop and turns away, in profile, triumphantly staring out the window of his Russian apartment and smiling, looking like he's waiting for Stone to cue up Foo Fighters' "My Hero" for the closing credits.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

In Theaters: BLAIR WITCH (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Adam Wingard. Written by Simon Barrett. Cast: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott, Valorie Curry, Corbin Reid, Wes Robinson. (R, 89 mins)

Shot in secrecy as THE WOODS, complete with a trailer and promotional materials under that title until it was revealed to be a sequel to/reboot of 1999's THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT at this past summer's Comic Con, BLAIR WITCH goes the route of the third EXORCIST and HIGHLANDER installments and pretends the second film, 2000's much-maligned BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2, never happened. You'll be just as eager to pretend BLAIR WITCH never happened by the time it's all over, as the cult/horror team of director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett pretty much faceplant despite their significant cred as "genre remixers" with the terrific YOU'RE NEXT (2013) and THE GUEST (2014). BLAIR WITCH '16 adds some modern elements not possible in Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's trailblazing original (they get courtesy executive producer credits here), like earpiece cameras with GPS tracking and a camera drone capable of flying over the woods and surveying the area, but once the cast is stranded in the forest, the GPS is useless and the camera drone becomes a non-factor after it gets stuck in a tree. "Stuck" would be a way to describe Wingard and Barrett here, as the pair are unable to do much with the story that wasn't already accomplished 17 years ago. There's jump scares and some unsettling imagery, but by the film's midpoint, it seems the only option left is to turn it into a de facto remake of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT.

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, which established and mainstreamed the "found footage" genre 20 years after Ruggero Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and a decade before PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, still holds up nearly 20 years after becoming a cultural phenomenon, though subsequent viewings never quite pack the punch of the first experience. BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2, directed by PARADISE LOST documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger, was an ambitious but rushed and compromised mess that abandoned the found footage angle and alienated fans of the first film, taking a meta approach with a group of BLAIR WITCH PROJECT superfans experiencing first-hand the kind of supernatural terror that they thought was fiction. Wingard and Barrett completely ignore the second film and center on James (James Allen McCune), who was four years old when his sister Heather (Heather Donahue in the 1999 film) vanished in the Black Hills Forest in Burkittsville, MD 20 years earlier, the discovered footage of her and two colleagues becoming the "documentary" THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Wanting closure to his sister's disappearance, James and his filmmaker friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) arrange a road trip to the Black Hills Forest after James finds some footage on YouTube of a figure in the abandoned Rustin Parr house (where the climax of PROJECT took place) that he believes is Heather, still out there after all this time. With his buddy Peter (Brandon Scott) and Peter's girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid) tagging along, James and Lisa head to Burkittsville and meet up with Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), the Blair Witch enthusiasts who posted the footage after finding some DV tapes buried in the Black Hills Forest. With Lane and Talia as guides, the group makes their way into the forest but the trip quickly unravels when the guides turn out to be charlatans, concocting the footage and also trying to scare the quartet by placing the ominous stick figures around the camp while everyone is sleeping. Angrily sending Lane and Talia on their way, James and the others soon experience everything that happened to the trio in the first film: strange sounds, violent gusts of wind attacking their tents, more stick figures and rock piles, and, in a perfect auto-critiquing metaphor, traveling an entire day and ending up circling back at the same place. You'll feel their pain.

The technological advances had some possibilities, but they aren't very well-utilized, and attempts to add new plot twists only result in confusion and a complete collapse of the story. Apparently, the Blair Witch can now control time and space, with the Black Hills Forest seemingly on another plane of existence where one person's six days can just be a few hours to another. With double the characters of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, that just means more names to yell out when people inevitably and stupidly wander off into the darkness alone to find firewood, investigate a strange sound, or to take a leak.  It feels like half of the film's running time is devoted to people shouting "JAMES! PETER! LANE! LISA!" over and over and over again. And speaking of dumb decisions, these people know what happened to Heather, yet they act surprised when the same things start happening to them. And when Lane and Talia speak ominously of the Black Hills Forest, why are James and Peter snickering like assholes and derisively mocking the local yokels? They saw Heather's footage from 20 years ago, didn't they?  Isn't that the reason James has dragged everyone out here? All roads lead to the abandoned Parr residence, where James plays a game of DON'T LOOK NOW with a diminutive figure running around the ramshackle hell house and Wingard and Barrett feel the need to supply an explanation as to why all of the Blair Witch victims stand in the corner and face the wall (spoiler alert: it's dumb). Was anyone really demanding another BLAIR WITCH sequel? Perhaps the filmmakers approached it with the noblest intentions of really shaking things up and putting their own unique stamp on it (YOU'RE NEXT and THE GUEST are really, really good movies that put original and enthusiastic spins on shopworn genre fare). But what's onscreen just looks like Wingard and Barrett simply gave up after introducing some potentially interesting ideas (like James' almost fatalistic, VANISHING-type need to know what happened to Heather) and doing nothing with them. I'm not saying it's on the bottom-feeding level of the pointless Eli Roth-produced 2016 remake of Eli Roth's 2003 debut CABIN FEVER, but BLAIR WITCH '16's second half is so slavishly devoted to recycling the events of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT that it ends up looking like a lazy, cynical, bigger-budgeted cash grab. It has a nicely eerie, ambient score by Wingard himself, but ultimately, its biggest accomplishment may be establishing some retroactive appreciation for what Joe Berlinger was trying to do with BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2. Somehow, I'm guessing that's not what Wingard and Barrett had in mind.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Retro Review: MISSION: KILL (1987)

(US - 1987)

Directed by David Winters. Written by Maria Dante and David Winters. Cast: Robert Ginty, Merete Van Kamp, Cameron Mitchell, Olivia d'Abo, Sandy Baron, Henry Darrow, Brooke Bundy, Eduardo Lopez Rojas, David Kaufman, Clement St. George (Clement von Franckenstein), Miguel Angel Fuentes. (R, 96 mins)

After cementing his place in cult movie history as the title vigilante in 1980's THE EXTERMINATOR, Robert Ginty (1948-2009) stayed busy in B and usually C-grade exploitation fare throughout the '80s before drifting into directing in the '90s. Prior to THE EXTERMINATOR, Ginty first gained notice on a two-season stint on the NBC WWII series BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP, starring Robert Conrad, and from his co-starring gig on the first season of CBS' THE PAPER CHASE. He also had a supporting role in 1978's COMING HOME, but it was THE EXTERMINATOR that set the course for Ginty's career. He would still log time on TV with guest spots on shows like DIFF'RENT STROKES, SIMON & SIMON, QUINCY M.E., and KNIGHT RIDER, and even had his own short-lived ABC series HAWAIIAN HEAT in 1984, but he was also a regular presence at drive-ins and on video store shelves in the burgeoning '80s home video explosion. In addition to the Cannon-produced sequel EXTERMINATOR 2 (1984), Ginty also starred in films like the Thai actioner GOLD RAIDERS (1982), the Italian ROAD WARRIOR ripoff WARRIOR OF THE LOST WORLD (1983), the Spanish horror film SCARAB (1983), the Sig Shore political thriller THE ACT (1984), the French emeralds-and-chainsaws adventure WHITE FIRE (1985), and the long-shelved Empire horror film THE ALCHEMIST, shot in 1981 but unreleased until 1985, and directed by Charles Band under the pseudonym "James Amante." 1987 was Ginty's most prolific year as a B-movie headliner, with the TERMINATOR ripoff PROGRAMMED TO KILL, where he pursued cyborg Sandahl Bergman (it also featured a 14-year-old Paul Walker); the French-made Eurocine horror film MANIAC KILLER from BURIAL GROUND director Andrea Bianchi, co-starring a slumming Chuck Connors and Bo Svenson; the little-seen and even less-loved Cannon actioner THREE KINDS OF HEAT; and MISSION: KILL, a fixture in every video store in America in the late '80s that's just been rescued from oblivion with a new Blu-ray from Code Red.

Released in 1987, but sporting a 1985 copyright (and, if a calendar on a kitchen wall in one scene is any indication, shot in 1984), the shot-in-Mexico MISSION: KILL (onscreen title: THE MISSION...KILL) is a mostly standard explosion-filled action movie with some ambition beyond its paltry budget. Ginty is J.F. Cooper, an ex-Marine and demolitions expert who's just arrived in Arizona to visit his old Vietnam buddy Harry (Cameron Mitchell). Harry is jumpy and preoccupied, and his younger wife (Brooke Bundy) and teenage son (David Kaufman) are concerned. A trucker by day, Harry has a side gig running guns through Mexico to deliver to freedom fighters in the fictional Central American country of Santa Maria. The rebels are waging war on despotic El Presidente Ariban (Eduardo Lopez Rojas) and Harry talks Cooper into going on a delivery run with him. Of course, they're ambushed and Harry is killed (Mitchell exits the film and heads to the hotel bar around the 20-minute mark), prompting an enraged Cooper to take out the Ariban soldiers responsible. This leads to him assuming the identity of a dead British mercenary/gunrunner named Ian Kennedy (Clement von Franckenstein, under the less distracting pseudonym "Clement St. George") and becoming a significant figure in the revolution against Aliban, with the help of some glowing hype in the press from cynical reporter Bingo Thomas (Sandy Baron, later to play SEINFELD's Jack Klompus). Naturally, a furious Ariban and his chief lackey and supporter, wealthy aristocrat Borghini (Henry Darrow, smirking as if to say "I'm almost Robert Vaughn") use everything at their disposal to stop Cooper/"Kennedy" and quash the rebellion.

Directed and co-written by David Winters, MISSION: KILL plays like a low-budget knockoff of Oliver Stone's SALVADOR (which hadn't been made yet), with generous helpings of Michelangelo Antonioni's THE PASSENGER (outsider assuming the identity of a dead gunrunner) and LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (the hero getting endless press hype from an ambitious reporter who sees him as his ticket to the big time). Of course, any other comparisons to such higher brow material are absurd, but MISSION: KILL has a little more on its mind than most of its contemporary mid '80s Robert Ginty vehicles. The British-born Winters got his start directing episodes of THE MONKEES as well as TV variety show specials for Ann-Margret and Raquel Welch as well as Alice Cooper's 1975 concert film WELCOME TO MY NIGHTMARE. He drifted into feature films with the 1979 Bert Convy SHAMPOO ripoff RACQUET, but really made his mark with 1984's underrated meta horror film THE LAST HORROR FILM, with MANIAC stars Joe Spinell and Caroline Munro. Shoddily-made but demonstrating some clever ideas and genre deconstruction before such things were cool, THE LAST HORROR FILM displays an ambition that's carried over into MISSION: KILL. Winters isn't exactly making Oliver Stone statements, but he's also not making a mindless, jingoistic, "America! Fuck Yeah!" shoot 'em up, either. Alas, neither Winters nor co-writer Maria Dante possess quite the chops required to pull off the Thinking Man's Action Movie for which they're aiming (they would later seemingly give up on seriousness altogether with their next collaboration, the MST3K favorite SPACE MUTINY). Any time MISSION: KILL takes a step forward, it's immediately followed by two steps back, whether it's the mismatched and clumsily-integrated stock footage of explosions or Olivia d'Abo's embarrassing performance as one of the freedom fighters, saddled with a laughable wig and using an even worse accent ("Jew take care of deese peeg!"). Though it's a middling, forgettable action movie at the end of the day, MISSION: KILL has moments where it's really trying to be something more but just doesn't have the money or behind-the-scenes talent to pull it off.

Robert Ginty (1948-2009)
Winters and Mitchell would work together again on the South Africa-shot SPACE MUTINY and RAGE TO KILL (both 1988) and both would reunite with Ginty for 1989's CODE NAME: VENGEANCE, co-starring Shannon Tweed. Winters would later oversee the 1990s straight-to-video company Action International Pictures, producing such Blockbuster shelf mainstays as RAW NERVE (1991), CENTER OF THE WEB (1992), DOUBLE THREAT (1993), RAW JUSTICE (1994), and others, almost all of them directed by David A. Prior. Ginty continued to star in things like Umberto Lenzi's Miami-shot Italian cop thriller COP TARGET (1990) but also managed to land some supporting roles in major-studio releases. He played a young Patrick Dempsey's befuddled dad in the gigolo pizza delivery comedy LOVERBOY (1989), was one of the houseguests from Hell in the John Larroquette/Kirstie Alley-starring MADHOUSE (1990), and got some laughs as a chatty chopper pilot helping Mickey Rourke and Don Johnson in HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN (1991). Ginty directed himself in a pair of low-budget action films, THE BOUNTY HUNTER (1990), and VIETNAM, TEXAS (1991) before shifting his focus to directing throughout the 1990s. His efforts behind-the-camera included the Bo Derek erotic thriller WOMAN OF DESIRE (1994), along with episodes of TV shows like EVENING SHADE, DREAM ON, NASH BRIDGES, LOIS & CLARK, XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, and CHARMED. Ginty acted very sporadically during the '90s, and his final onscreen appearance came with Dennis Hopper in 2001's THE PROPHET'S GAME, a SE7EN ripoff from his WARRIOR OF THE LOST WORLD director David Worth. Ginty spent his final years directing theater productions in Los Angeles before succumbing to cancer in 2009 at the age of 60. Though most of his career was spent making undistinguished and forgettable movies that are most likely to be found today only if you spend time scouring through battered, dusty, and musty boxes of VHS tapes at antique malls and flea markets, he was a solid pro who loved what he did and never stopped working. And even if he accomplished nothing else, he'll always be THE EXTERMINATOR.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE ONES BELOW (2016) and URGE (2016)

(UK - 2016)

Opening with a lullaby-like la-la-la theme that recalls the late '60s classics ROSEMARY'S BABY and THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and immediately sets an ominous mood, THE ONES BELOW instead aims to be a throwback '90s thriller with the Neighbors from Hell, but it never really catches fire. The chief problem is that it thinks it's the first movie to ever present such a scenario, and as a result, you'll see the twists and reveals coming long before its heroine ever does. Expectant parents Kate (Clemence Poesy) and Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore) have had their London flat to themselves for some time since the passing of the elderly downstairs neighbor. That changes when another expectant couple, Jon (David Morrissey) and his Finnish wife Theresa (Laura Birn) move in. Kate and Theresa become fast friends, but a dinner discussion about children gets uncomfortable when Jon and Theresa seem offended that Kate and Justin have been married for ten years and are only now having a child because weren't sure they wanted one. The night ends in rage and grief when the downstairs neighbors go to leave and Theresa trips over Kate's cat in the hallway, taking a nasty tumble down the stairs and losing the baby. Jon and Theresa blame Justin and Kate because the light bulb at the top of the stairs was out, while Kate is quick to point out that Theresa was sneaking glasses of wine behind Jon's back and seemed a little tipsy. With Justin and Kate's baby due to arrive shortly, Jon and Theresa go away to get over their loss and when they return, baby Billy has arrived, apologies are exchanged all around and the neighbors decide to start fresh.

Being around Billy helps Theresa and Jon cope with their loss and their wish to become parents again, but strange things start happening: Billy gets sick from Kate's breast milk, the family arrives home to find the stove left on and the flat filled with gas, their bathtub overflows, and during a dinner downstairs, which is delayed because Jon is running late, Kate swears she hears someone on the baby monitor in Billy's room while the infant is asleep. Kate regularly lets Theresa babysit, and discovers she's been breastfeeding Billy, then finds family pictures with Jon, Theresa, and Billy. She's convinced the downstairs neighbors are plotting to steal Billy to replace the baby they lost and, of course, every time she finds proof, it disappears and she looks insane. It's no secret that Jon and Theresa are gaslighting Kate and turning Justin against his wife, but writer/director David Farr (who scripted HANNA and wrote several episodes of the popular MI-5) doles out the twists in a fairly perfunctory fashion, not bringing much in the way of style or showing any noteworthy skill in generating suspense. This could've been a nail-biting, HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE-meets-ARLINGTON ROAD thriller, but it's so leisurely and predictable that you'll wonder exactly what the point is and why anyone even bothered. There's no momentum, no Polanski-esque sense of encroaching claustrophobia and helplessness as Kate starts going off the deep end to prove that she's not imagining things, that she didn't leave the stove on, that she didn't leave the bath water running. No, it just ambles along and when the big reveals come, you're shrugging because you saw them coming half an hour earlier. It doesn't help that Farr has Morrissey's Jon acting like an overly intense control freak from the moment he's introduced. THE ONES BELOW isn't terrible, but it displays no interest in doing anything out of the ordinary or with any urgency, feeling long even at a brief 86 minutes. It's shrugging ambivalence in feature film form. (R, 86 mins)

(US - 2016)

Obnoxious and unwatchable don't begin to describe this atrocious, straight-to-VOD party weekend-turned-zombie apocalypse retread. URGE is directed by Aaron Kaufman, a producing partner of Robert Rodriguez, and scripted by well-traveled journeyman Jerry Stahl, whose writing credits range from the 1982 porno CAFE FLESH and 2003's BAD BOYS II to TV shows THIRTYSOMETHING, ALF, CSI, and MARON, and whose battle with drug addiction was detailed in the grim memoir Permanent Midnight, which was turned into a 1998 movie with Ben Stiller. Stahl's first-hand knowledge of the horrors of drug abuse does nothing to enhance this vapid, empty film populated by the most insufferable douchebags you'll ever see. They're so loathsome that it's a relief when these Martin Shkrelis finally start dying off, because it means the movie's that much closer to being over. Dickhead tech billionaire brat Neil (Danny Masterson) invites some friends to a weekend retreat at a posh, exclusive island resort. Once there, Neil's pal Jason (Justin Chatwin) is taken to a backroom by a jester-suited halfwit known as The Red Bastard (Eric Davis), who introduces him to a vaping, Mephistophelian figure known only as The Man (Pierce Brosnan, who really should have better things to do). The Man presents to Jason a powerful new designer drug called Urge, which creates an incredible high and casts aside all inhibitions, leaving no residual side effects ("Imagine a key that unlocks that which is most hidden," The Man seductively promises), but comes with one caveat: you can only do it once in your lifetime (much like attempting to make it all the way through URGE). Of course, that rule is instantly disregarded, and while everyone else indulges and the weekend turns into a debauched, animalistic, EYES WIDE SHUT fuckfest, Jason remains strangely immune to the effects of Urge. Before long, everyone keeps doing more and more of the drug, resulting in increasingly aggro behavior that starts with longtime friends telling one another what they really think of them, to orgies and rough BDSM sex, brutal FIGHT CLUB throwdowns, and finally to an island full of Urge-addled dudebros and hotties going on a horrific, drug-induced, zombie-like rampage of bloodshed and slaughter.

URGE doesn't understand that it's hard to generate any suspense whatsoever when there isn't a single character in the film that you don't want to see die a violent, horrible death. It's pretty obvious that Brosnan's The Man is symbolic of the devil or temptation, but is this supposed to be cautionary tale about drug abuse? Or the dangers of living life as spoiled and entitled rich kids able to indulge any whim without consequence or accountability? Or what might happen to Daniel Craig once he's no longer James Bond?  A hammy Brosnan is the only reason to bother watching this half-assed synthetic drug redux of PONTYPOOL (unless you count brief bits to rope in any Jeff Fahey or Kevin Corrigan completists out there), but he's not in it enough to justify your suffering. By the time Jason and nice girl Joey (PITCH PERFECT's Alexis Knapp), who gives up Urge after it compels her to have a sexual encounter with a cake, realize they're the only ones not turned into raging-id zombies and try to flee the island, it's clear that Kaufman and Stahl are making this up as they go along and have no idea where to take it. After an abrupt non-ending, there's a stinger post-closing credits--which start at 81 minutes and go really slow to pad the running time--where a mother and her young son go into a NYC grocery store that's strangely dark and quiet, only to be attacked by a zombie horde, the drug virus spreading around the globe. It's supposed to be a shock ending, but the only shocking thing about it is that the mother is played by the once-promising Alison Lohman, who was supposed to be a Next Big Thing after 2002's WHITE OLEANDER and 2003's MATCHSTICK MEN. She appears to have put her career on hold after 2009's DRAG ME TO HELL to be a mom to her two kids with her husband, one-hit-wonder CRANK co-director Mark Neveldine, who's one of 32 credited producers here (along with someone named Kea Ho, who gives herself a prominent "introducing" credit for a tiny part as a stripper at The Man's club). The worst film of 2016 so far, URGE gets that most rare of Good Efficient Butchery assessments: fuck this movie. (R, 91 mins)

Monday, September 12, 2016

In Theaters: SULLY (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Todd Komarnicki. Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Mike O'Malley, Jamey Sheridan, Anna Gunn, Chris Bauer, Holt McCallany, Patch Darragh, Ann Cusack, Jane Gabbert, Molly Hagan, Michael Rapaport, Jeff Kober, Jerry Ferrara, Sam Huntington, Christopher Curry, Max Adler, Autumn Reeser, Jeffrey Nordling, Valerie Mahaffey, Delphi Harrington. (PG-13, 96 mins)

It may seem like a stretch to make a feature film out of a six-minute incident and with SULLY, that proves to be the case. In a sense, it's an unusual project for Clint Eastwood who, at 86, is showing no signs of slowing down, working at a Woody Allen pace that renders a lot of his films a blur (quick: when's the last time you thought of JERSEY BOYS, HEREAFTER, or CHANGELING?).  At just 96 minutes, SULLY is the shortest film he's ever directed, when one valid criticism that's been leveled at him over the years is his inability to keep a movie under two hours. But even 96 minutes seems too long for SULLY, which recreates the January 15, 2009 "Miracle on the Hudson" landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River no less than three times over the course of the film, along with a drawn-out climax that consists of characters at a National Transportation Safety Board hearing watching multiple real-time computer simulations. There's maybe a 70-minute movie here, but feature films don't run 70 minutes anymore. The short length aside, SULLY is very much a Clint Eastwood movie, with Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (played here by Tom Hanks) a classic Eastwood hero: a professional, morally upstanding man who's spent his entire life doing his job and doing the right thing. Sully is respected by his colleagues, loved by his family, a man who follows his gut instincts and gets the job done. He's got problems like everyone else--in his case, a money pit property that's been long vacant and causing some significant financial worry--but his performance on the job is never less than stellar. All of that comes into question in SULLY when, just after takeoff on a flight with 155 people onboard, a bird strike causes both engines to burn out and fail. Quick-thinking Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) run through the protocol and attempt to turn around to land at LaGuardia or at Teterboro in New Jersey. Unable to make it without the risk of a crash-landing in the city, Sully lands the plane on the frigid Hudson, and though some passengers were injured and flight attendant Doreen Welsh (Molly Hagan) suffered a severe laceration on her leg, everyone survived and Sully was hailed as an American hero.

It's a feelgood story for the ages, but Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki (PERFECT STRANGER) need a dramatic element. Sure, there's Sully's post-landing second-guessing of his decisions and a certain degree of PTSD suffered by the two pilots, but that's not enough. Shot entirely with IMAX cameras, SULLY does a convincing job of putting the audience right there with Sully and Skiles in a real-time recreation of the incident. Eastwood has a knack for getting into the nuts-and-bolts minutiae of a job down cold, whether it's here with the flight attendants ("BRACE! BRACE! BRACE! HEADS DOWN! STAY DOWN!") and the air traffic controllers or with the way he showed prison employees going about their preparation for an execution in 1999's TRUE CRIME. With the camera capturing every worried look on the faces of Sully and Skiles and with the skillful, precision-timed editing of Blu Murray, the depiction of the bird strike and the subsequent water landing is unquestionably the high point of SULLY. Outside of the plane, Eastwood wisely lets the film rest on the shoulders of Hanks, who continues to cement his status as the Jimmy Stewart "everyman" of his generation. The actor gets fine support by an understated Eckhart, whose Skiles is such a likable character (his film-ending closing line brings down the house) that he almost manages to steal the movie from Hanks.

But as with other Eastwood biographical works, SULLY plays a little too fast and loose with the facts. It isn't quite the borderline hagiography of Chris Kyle and Frankie Valli that were AMERICAN SNIPER and JERSEY BOYS, respectively, nor is it filled with the hokey simplicity of INVICTUS, probably his worst film as a director. The "Miracle on the Hudson" is a story where the closest thing to a villain is a flock of birds that were flying in the wrong place at the wrong time. To counter that, Eastwood and Komarnicki turn the NTSB investigators into the de facto bad guys, going through the list of standard protocol questions but with a tone that starts out incredulous and rapidly escalates to accusatory and prosecutorial. All of the NTSB computer simulations re-enacted by experienced pilots indicate Sully could've made it to LaGuardia. Sully and Skiles both disagree, but Sully's career and pension are on the line if he's wrong, with the head of the inquiry, Charles Porter (Mike O'Malley), glaring at Sully with a seething contempt that borders on snarling hostility by the end. The names of the NTSB investigators were changed for the movie (at Sullenberger's request, according to Hanks, as Sully himself felt that the script's depiction of them was inaccurate). O'Malley's "Charles Porter" doesn't exist, but Robert Benzon, the actual head of the investigation, has spoken out against the film's presentation of the NTSB officials as hatchet men bent on taking Sully down. The investigation was cordial and without such incident, never as inflammatory and antagonistic as SULLY suggests, but it fits into Eastwood's recurring motif of working men in the field and on the frontlines always suffering at the hands of bureaucrats, desk jockeys, and pencil pushers, and ever-hobbled by an over-reliance on technology when the old ways are still the best.

This idea has gone back to the police commissioner and the mayor never just letting Dirty Harry do his job and blow away some scumbags or how the young brainiacs at NASA need the old guys to bail them out in 2000's SPACE COWBOYS. This was evidenced in Eastwood's last film to date as an actor, 2012's TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE, where he was in his now-standard, post-GRAN TORINO "Get off my lawn!" mode as a cranky old baseball scout who has no use for "those damn computers" and young punk scouts who only look at numbers and don't feel the game in their hearts ("Anybody that uses computers doesn't know a damn thing about this game," he growls). Eastwood heroes have no use for that shit--they go with their guts and their instincts. Sully did that on January 15, 2009, but he also wasn't subsequently targeted by the NTSB. Fact-based films have always taken dramatic liberties. Even Paul Greengrass' CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, a film whose closing minutes feature arguably the finest acting Hanks has ever done, had to make you care about a guy who, by most accounts, was kind of an asshole and wasn't really well-liked by his peers. Things have to be depicted in different ways for dramatic purposes, but with SULLY, the shoehorning-in of the NTSB out to "get" Sully only serves to demonstrate just how little material is here for a feature-length film. SULLY can't even find anything for three-time Oscar-nominee Laura Linney to do as Mrs. Sully besides sit at home in her kitchen, sob into a phone and repeatedly ask "Is it almost over, Sully?"  To Eastwood's credit, he doesn't go full PATCH ADAMS and have all of the passengers walk into the inquiry and prompt the NTSB meanies to have change of heart and start slow-clapping until Sully gets a standing ovation from the entire room, but it doesn't seem out of the question, especially the borderline mic-drop of a way that Sully shuts down Porter (which never happened). Still, the entire room smiles and nods as if to say "You showed them, Sully!" The flight sequences and the excellent work by Hanks and Eckhart (and, briefly, Patch Darragh as Patrick Harten, the air traffic controller trying to talk Sully down to LaGuardia) make SULLY worthwhile viewing, but the rest suffers from forced and fabricated conflict that simply didn't exist.

Friday, September 9, 2016


(US - 1985)

Directed by Sam Firstenberg. Written by Paul De Mielche. Cast: Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, Judie Aronson, Guich Koock, Tadashi Yamashita, John Fujioka, Don Stewart, John LaMotta, Phil Brock, Berto Spoor, Nick Nicholson, Eric Hahn. (R, 96 mins)

A surprise hit for Cannon at the end of summer and into early fall 1985,  AMERICAN NINJA was originally conceived as a vehicle for Chuck Norris, who allegedly turned it down because he didn't want his face covered by a ninja mask. The title role ended up going to 31-year-old Michael Dudikoff, an actor who had been schlepping for gigs since the late '70s, whether it was small guest spots on DALLAS and HAPPY DAYS or bit parts in TRON and UNCOMMON VALOR. In 1982, he co-starred as Brian Dennehy's son in the short-lived ABC sitcom STAR OF THE FAMILY, and just prior to AMERICAN NINJA, he scored his biggest role to date as one of Tom Hanks' buddies in 1984's BACHELOR PARTY. Dudikoff was developing a persona as a second-string Willie Aames until Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus gave him his career-defining role as American ninja Joe Armstrong. Armstrong begins the first film as a loner misfit and troubled youth who was given a choice to enlist in the Army or go to jail. He chose the Army and while stationed in the Philippines, he ends up running afoul of a black market weapons smuggling operation run by the powerful Victor Ortega (Don Stewart). Ortega's got a ninja army--headed by the nefarious Black Star Ninja (Tadashi Yamashita)--to do his dirty work, plus military personnel on his payroll, including the reluctant base commander Col. Hickock (Guich Koock), whose daughter Patricia (Judie Aronson) is rescued during a ninja ambush of a supply convoy. Little does anyone know that orphaned, amnesia-stricken Armstrong was raised by Shinyuki (John Fujioka) and trained in the ways of the ninja.

The film was shot in the Philippines as AMERICAN WARRIOR, with the initial trailer going out under that title until it was changed to AMERICAN NINJA at the last minute. Armstrong wouldn't be the first American ninja in the Cannon universe, as we had the unlikely Franco Nero's Cole in 1981's ENTER THE NINJA, but in the Reagan era of patriotic ass-kickers draping themselves in the American flag (RED DAWN; Stallone in RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II and ROCKY IV; Chuck Norris in the MISSING IN ACTION films and INVASION U.S.A.), AMERICAN NINJA fit right in with the jingoistic trend. The boyish-looking Dudikoff isn't the most commanding actor, but he's likable enough and you can see him developing a rapport with his nemesis-turned-sidekick Curtis Jackson, played by Steve James. Dudikoff and James (who first gained notice as Robert Ginty's doomed best friend in 1980's THE EXTERMINATOR) would make three films together and the offscreen friendship that developed was apparent in their natural camaraderie onscreen. James' Jackson is sidelined for much of AMERICAN NINJA until it's he who gets to take out Ortega with a rocket launcher. Written by Paul De Mielche (STUNT ROCK) and directed by Cannon's go-to ninja and breakdancing stalwart Sam Firstenberg (REVENGE OF THE NINJA, NINJA III: THE DOMINATION, and BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO), AMERICAN NINJA is as formulaic as 1980s action gets, but it's still entertaining and a fine representation of the Cannon heyday.

Michael Dudikoff and director Sam Firstenberg
during a break in filming AMERICAN NINJA.

(US - 1987)

Directed by Sam Firstenberg. Written by Gary Conway and James Booth. Cast: Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, Larry Poindexter, Gary Conway, Jeff Weston, Michelle Botes, Mike Stone, Len Sparrowhawk, Jonathan Pienaar, Bill Curry, Ralph Draper, Elmo Fillis, John Fujioka. (R, 90 mins) 

After the success of AMERICAN NINJA, Cannon had Dudikoff, James, and Firstenberg reunite for 1986's AVENGING FORCE, originally intended for Chuck Norris as a sequel to INVASION U.S.A. Dudikoff played Norris' Matt Hunter role, but there's nothing else specifically linking it to INVASION U.S.A. It functions as a standalone film and it's also one of Cannon's crowning achievements, possibly the best serious action movie they released. The core trio of Dudikoff, James, and Firstenberg reconvened once again for 1987's deliriously entertaining AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION. Where AVENGING FORCE was a straight-faced actioner with a surprising-for-the-time left-wing slant, likely the reason Norris rejected the script (let's just say its chief villain would be a huge Trump supporter), AMERICAN NINJA 2 proudly stands alongside the likes of REVENGE OF THE NINJA and DEATH WISH 3 as the Cannon ethos represented at its most ridiculous. Here, Armstrong (Dudikoff) and Jackson (James) are US Army Rangers sent to a US military base in the Caribbean to investigate the disappearances of several Marines. They've been abducted by flunkies of The Lion (Gary Conway), a megalomaniacal drug lord plotting to create a race of super ninjas. On his Blackbeard Island stronghold, The Lion forces kidnapped Professor Sanborn (Ralph Draper), one of the world's leading cancer researchers, to alter the DNA of the kidnapped Marines to transform them into unkillable warriors in his quest to dominate the global heroin market.

Filmed, like many Cannon projects from this period, in South Africa when working there was strongly discouraged (and Cannon spent a lot of time denying they had a branch in Johannesburg), AMERICAN NINJA 2 marked the franchise's turn toward a Roger Moore-era 007 mentality, as the insane plots of megalomaniacal madmen would be the norm from here on out. There's some pretty daring stuntwork throughout, and now that the characters are established, Firstenberg can concentrate on some elaborate throwdowns every few minutes. James also gets much more to do, and even Dudikoff seems a lot more loose and comfortable as the star than he did in AMERICAN NINJA just two years earlier. Despite not doing nearly as well as its predecessor, AMERICAN NINJA 2 is the pinnacle of the franchise. This is due in large part to Conway, a TV and B-movie vet who had the title role in 1958's I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN and 1977's THE FARMER. Conway also dabbled in screenwriting, and he co-wrote AMERICAN NINJA 2 with British actor/screenwriter James Booth (ZULU, RAGE OF HONOR). Booth would go on to play the villain in 1991's AMERICAN NINJA 4: THE ANNIHILATION, but both and he and Conway seemed to get the goofy potential of the AMERICAN NINJA films better than anyone at Cannon. Conway the writer gives Conway the actor all the best lines ("American ninja, I presume?") and he has a blast with it. Everyone just seems to be having a fun time in AMERICAN NINJA 2, whether it's Conway's scenery chewing ("Kiss my ass!"); a comedic bar brawl straight out of an old-time western, with Armstrong, Jackson, and new sidekick Charlie (Larry Poindexter) taking on a bunch of roughnecks; Armstrong and Sanborn's headstrong, stubborn daughter Alicia (Michelle Botes) infiltrating The Lion's operation in full ninja garb, blending in and going completely undetected when they tag along on a tour of The Lion's top secret lab; and an infamous moment where Firstenberg did a bad job of hiding that Dudikoff was doubled in a quick shot of Armstrong exiting an office (the star was ill that day and went back to his hotel room after finishing his close-ups). Among Cannon's iconic ninja films, AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION is second only to the immortal REVENGE OF THE NINJA, and a DEATH WISH 3-style cult revival is long overdue. It also features an appearance by the pre-Appetite for Destruction Guns N' Roses song "Move to the City,"during that brief window in time when the band was just about to explode and were still within the Golan-Globus price range.

The infamous "Dudikoff double." 

(US - 1989)

Written and directed by Cedric Sundstrom. Cast: Steve James, David Bradley, Marjoe Gortner, Michele Chan, Calvin Jung, Yehuda Efroni, Evan J. Klisser, Adrienne Pearce, Grant Preston, Mike Huff. (R, 90 mins)

After a series of costly failures, slashed budgets, and too many dubious deals scrawled on cocktail napkins, Cannon's fortunes were waning by the time AMERICAN NINJA 3: BLOOD HUNT bowed on less than 150 screens in February 1989. Though the film was released by Cannon, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus farmed the production of this third entry in the series out to veteran dealmaker Harry Alan Towers. Towers, who produced the Christopher Lee FU MANCHU movies in the '60s and bankrolled the most commercial years of Jess Franco's career, was set up in apartheid-era South Africa during this period. Working in South Africa looked bad in the late '80s, but working actors went were the work was, so jobbing journeymen like Oliver Reed (GOR), Donald Pleasence (TEN LITTLE INDIANS), Herbert Lom (MASTER OF DRAGONARD HILL), Robert Vaughn (RIVER OF DEATH), Jack Palance (OUTLAW OF GOR), Dom DeLuise (GOING BANANAS), Peter Fonda (MERCENARY FIGHTERS), and others acted in a variety of Johannesburg-shot Cannon productions for both Golan-Globus and Towers. Michael Dudikoff decided to move on--it's said he didn't feel right working in South Africa, but he did AMERICAN NINJA 2, PLATOON LEADER and RIVER OF DEATH there for Cannon and.or Towers around this same time--prompting the search for a new American Ninja. 36-year-old David Bradley was hired to play a new character, martial arts champ Sean Davidson, who's teamed up with Joe Armstrong's BFF Curtis Jackson (a returning Steve James) in the post-BLOODSPORT "Karate World Championship," which looks as if it's being held in a gym in the ruins of a condemned high school. Yes, AMERICAN NINJA 3: BLOOD HUNT is working with a significantly lower budget that its predecessors, right down to recycling some of AMERICAN NINJA 2's plot. Again, we have a megalomaniacal madman, this time called The Cobra (Marjoe Gortner), and his plan to abduct Sean to turn him into a genetically altered super ninja, which is somehow vital to his big picture goal of germ warfare.

Steve James (1952-1993)
The film borrows so much from AMERICAN NINJA 2 that Gary Conway actually has a story credit, a consolation prize after South African director Cedric Sundstrom rewrote his screenplay. There's also a female kung-fu warrior (Michele Chan) who's a master of disguise, a new sidekick for the bromancing Sean and Jackson in Dex (Evan J. Klisser), and the matter being personal for Sean, as The Cobra's chief lackey General Andreas (badly-dubbed Cannon regular Yehuda Efroni) killed his father when Sean was a child. Sundstrom's direction is undistinguished, and he doesn't bring the kind of flair and enthusiasm that Sam Firstenberg brought to the two previous films and his other NINJA assignments. Dudikoff isn't the world's most gifted actor, but he's Daniel Day-Lewis next to the boring, charisma-deficient Bradley. The biggest mistake the filmmakers made with AMERICAN NINJA 3 was not handing the franchise over to Steve James, an immensely likable actor who should've been the next huge Hollywood action star. Instead, Cannon--and other producers--opted to continue relegating him to perpetual sidekick duty (THE DELTA FORCE, P.O.W.: THE ESCAPE, HERO AND THE TERROR), which was doled out to him once again with AMERICAN NINJA 3 despite his top billing. James, who died far too young in 1993 at just 41, shortly after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, was a rarity: a martial arts expert who was also a trained, schooled actor. A jobbing journeyman since the late '70s, picking up supporting roles and stunt gigs to keep busy (he can be spotted as a gang member in THE WARRIORS), James was a favorite of exploitation director James Glickenhaus (THE EXTERMINATOR, THE SOLDIER, MCBAIN) and also caught the attention of the legendary William Friedkin, who used him in TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. and his two C.A.T. SQUAD made-for-TV movies. He also got to display his comedic chops as Kung Fu Joe in Keenan Ivory Wayans' blaxploitation spoof I'M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA. James finally got a couple of leads with two non-Cannon action projects (1989's RIVERBEND and 1990's STREET HUNTER), but he died before he ever had a chance to generate any momentum as a headliner. He gets a lot to do in AMERICAN NINJA 3, howling and shrieking as he kicks asses and snaps necks, but how much better would this thing have been if it was James who became the new face of the franchise instead of the bland Bradley? Between the enjoyable presence of James and the hammy overacting of Gortner, there's some positives to be found with AMERICAN NINJA 3: BLOOD HUNT (you'll dig the closing credits tune "The Cobra Strikes"), but it's missing the engaging rapport of the Dudikoff-James duo and it's a big step down from the glorious triumphs of AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION.

"Special appearance by Marjoe Gortner as 'The Cobra'"

(US - 1991)

Directed by Cedric Sundstrom. Written by David Geeves (James Booth). Cast: Michael Dudikoff, David Bradley, James Booth, Dwayne Alexandre, Ken Gampu, Robin Stille, Franz Dobrowsky, Ron Smerczak, Kely McClung, Jody Abrahams, Ted Le Plat. (R, 100 mins)

Cannon's best days were behind them by 1989. The latest releases by the likes of Charles Bronson (MESSENGER OF DEATH, KINJITE: FORBIDDEN SUBJECTS) and Chuck Norris (BRADDOCK: MISSING IN ACTION III, HERO AND THE TERROR) tanked, and breakout action star Jean-Claude Van Damme was almost single-handedly keeping the company alive with 1988's BLOODSPORT and 1989's CYBORG being their only recent hits. 1990 saw the release of the global punchline LAMBADA, and by 1991, the company was on life support. Menahem Golan acrimoniously departed in 1989 to form the short-lived 21st Century, where his top priority appeared to bum-rushing the competing lambada film THE FORBIDDEN DANCE through production so it could be released to universal apathy on the same day as LAMBADA. Yoram Globus briefly ran things before the sinking operation was handed over to Italian schlock king Ovidio G. Assonitis (BEYOND THE DOOR, TENTACLES, THE VISITOR), who saw Cannon through its final, gasping breaths. The rechristened Cannon Pictures was still getting a few movies into theaters in 1991, with the Chuck Norris vehicle THE HITMAN being a minor hit in a slew of barely-released duds and straight-to-video obscurities. Despite the tepid response to AMERICAN NINJA 3, Globus and partner Christopher Pearce deemed another sequel necessary, so AMERICAN NINJA 4: THE ANNIHILATION happened. AMERICAN NINJA 3 star David Bradley and director Cedric Sundstrom were once again onboard, but the draw was the return of Michael Dudikoff as Joe Armstrong (perhaps to appease Dudikoff's wish to no longer work in South Africa, shooting took place in Lesotho, a sovereign nation within South Africa), the film pairing both titular American ninjas. Out of the equation was Steve James, much to the disappointment of Dudikoff and, as it turned out, the fans. While it's nice to have Dudikoff back, he doesn't even appear until 45 minutes into the movie, and that's only after Bradley's Sean Davidson has been kidnapped. In other words, they don't really work together and aren't really paired up. Each American Ninja gets about half the movie to themselves before they finally cross paths with ten minutes to go. A lot of this was due to Dudikoff and Bradley reportedly not getting along, but for those expecting an AMERICAN NINJA summit, the film is a letdown not unlike those 1940s Universal monster rallies where Glenn Strange's Frankenstein monster doesn't even get off the operating table until the last two minutes of the movie, where his only function is to stumble around and cause an explosion...The End.

Davidson and pal Carl Brackston (Dwayne Alexandre, a terrible actor) are CIA agents sent to rescue a kidnapped Delta Force unit that's being held for a $50 million ransom. The villains: embittered British military man-turned-terrorist Scoff Mulgrew (AMERICAN NINJA 2 screenwriter James Booth, who wrote this under the name "David Geeves"), who's in cahoots with Arab terrorist Sheik Ali Maksood (Ron Smerczak), who's hellbent on a detonating a nuclear device in NYC. Getting some help from Peace Corps volunteer Sarah (THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE's Robin Stille), Davidson and Brackston attempt to thwart Scoff Mulgrew (at one point, Alexandre, in what's likely a gaffe, refers to him as "Stark Mulgrew," and honestly, either name is just is awesome), but they're all taken hostage. The CIA reaches out to Armstrong, now a teacher in a tiny African village, to go in and save his old buddy Sean. Is this film even following its franchise's own internal backstory?  When were these two ever friends? When did they even meet? While it does prefigure THE EXPENDABLES 3 in the way that the new characters are kidnapped and the old one is recruited to save the day, that concept of "saving his old buddy Sean" would've made more sense had they given the franchise to James, and his Jackson had to be rescued by Armstrong. While it's nice to see Dudikoff back in his signature role, the biggest takeaway from AMERICAN NINJA 4 is that Steve James was the heart and soul of this franchise and his inexplicable absence is felt much more here than Dudikoff's was in the previous film, especially considering that the abysmal Alexandre is a pitiful substitution. The longest entry in the series at 100 minutes, AMERICAN NINJA 4 is sluggishly paced, and Bradley still can't act. There's some odd touches that are interesting, like the appearance of a marauding band of desert bikers straight out of THE ROAD WARRIOR, and the fact that an overacting Booth is having a lot more fun with this than either Bradley or Dudikoff. Like Gary Conway in AMERICAN NINJA 2, Booth writes himself a completely ridiculous character and gives himself the best lines ("Mecca is that way," he sneers at a praying Sheik Maksood). AMERICAN NINJA 4: THE ANNIHILATION opened on 170 screens in March of 1991 before making a quick turnaround to video stores. All four films have just been released on Blu-ray by Olive Films. There's bonus features on each title, the chief selling point being commentaries by Sam Firstenberg on the first two films.

Cannon's death rattle continued into the first week of 1994, when the Joe Lara-starring AMERICAN CYBORG: STEEL WARRIOR earned the distinction of being the last Cannon production to get a theatrical release. The company had ceased production on any films by that point, with long-shelved stragglers--including the Chuck Norris vs. Satan horror film HELLBOUND, which prefigured Arnold Schwarzenegger's similar END OF DAYS by several years--going straight-to-video beginning in 1994. The penultimate Cannon release was the Ovidio G. Assonitis-produced AMERICAN NINJA 5, shot as AMERICAN DRAGONS in 1992 and unreleased until it appeared on video store shelves in November 1995. It's a PG-13 affair aimed at younger audiences, with overtones of THE KARATE KID, right down to an appearance by Pat Morita. David Bradley has the lead, which obviously prompted the title change, even though he isn't playing Sean Davidson (it also features Tadashi Yamashita, the original's Black Star Ninja). It's no longer considered part of the official franchise and was not given the Blu-ray treatment by Olive (Warner owns the rights to it, anyway), and when it appears in semi-regular rotation on cable today, it's shown under its original AMERICAN DRAGONS title. The last Cannon production to be released was CHAIN OF COMMAND, appropriately starring Michael Dudikoff, shot in 1993 and released directly to video in January 1996. And with that, the legend that is Cannon was laid to rest, gone but never forgotten.