Action Adventure movies

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

RACE WITH THE DEVIL. 20th Century Fox, 1975. Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Loretta Swit, Lara Parker, R. G. Armstrong, Clay Tanner. Director: Jack Starrett.

   Imagine it’s the mid-1970s. You’re not a hippie or a rebel, though you like your motorcycles and a drink or two. You’re planning the most kick ass vacation possible. You’ve got your wife, your best friend, his wife, her cute little dog all comfortably ensconced in a souped–up RV and you’re ready to hit the wide open American road. Freedom is in the air.

   What could possibly go wrong?

   In Race With The Devil, the answer is everything. But not in a comedic National Lampoon’s Vacation manner. There’s no John Hughes comedic sensibility in this suspenseful, disturbing, but compulsively watchable, thriller about two couples on the run from a horde of bloodthirsty Satanists.

   A nightmarish journey into fear and paranoia, Race With The Devil stars Warren Oates and Peter Fonda as two buddies who, along with their wives, run afoul of a mysterious cult. Both men, actors whose work I greatly admire, are naturals here. Their distinct personalities shine through, giving life to their upper middle class characters. They are men caught between their bourgeois, consumerist lifestyle and their visceral desire to protect their women and to fight back.

   Directed by Jack Starrett, the movie has two strong leads, some bang up car chases, and a cynical eye toward both authority figures and the counterculture. The plot strains credulity, but it’s easily forgivable. After all, this isn’t high art. It’s an exploitation film about normally dressed Satanists chasing two middle class American couples through West Texas, shattering their planned ski vacation in Aspen. It’s a hell of a ride, spiraling ever downward into a neo-noir landscape where you have no idea whom you can trust.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

VIBES. Columbia Pictures, 1988. Cyndi Lauper, Jeff Goldblum, Peter Falk, Julian Sands, Googy Gress, Elizabeth Peña. Director: Ken Kwapis.

   Vibes is the cult classic that could have been. A quirky quasi-ensemble cast (check); a mash-up of genres, ranging from romantic comedy to adventure film and fantasy and back again (check); and quite a few memorable, downright repeatedly quotable, moments (check). And for a while, Vibes manages to feel like a hangout film, a movie where you just feel like you’re there, or you’d like to be there, just hanging out, shooting the breeze, with the main characters.

   But it wasn’t to be. Indeed, Vibes really doesn’t seem to have all that much of a critical reputation or a cult following. Which is somewhat of a shame, because it really is a daring, albeit wildly uneven, little comedy-adventure film that is worth watching, if only once. It benefits greatly from the screen presence of both Jeff Goldblum and Peter Falk, as well as 1980s pop singer, Cyndi Lauper, in a film role.

   The plot centers around two New York psychics, Nick Deezy (Goldblum) and Sylvia Pickel (Lauper) who travel to Ecuador at the behest of con artist/criminal/man of mystery, Harry Buscofusco (Falk) to allegedly search for a missing man. A search that turns into a hunt for Inca gold. Which transforms into an encounter with a relic from an ancient alien civilization and a source of psychic power. (Try selling that script today: “So tell me what your screenplay’s about.”). There’s also a budding romance between Deezy and Pickel.

   It’s a difficult plot to pull off successfully and, at times, the movie just falls painfully flat. The ending, in particular, is a serious let down. But the journey to the ending, literally and metaphorically, is half the fun. And the cast, particularly Goldblum, seems to be in on the joke. It’s no classic, cult or otherwise, but it’s an enjoyable enough movie to watch, the later into the night the better. And it’s definitely a product of the 1980s, like for sure.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

THE BLACK CASTLE. Universal, 1952. Richard Greene, Boris Karloff, Stephen McNally, Rita Corday, Lon Chaney Jr., Michael Pate, Henry Corden. Written by Jerry Sackheim. Directed by Nathan Juran.

   You watch this and that trite old praise-phrase “for kids of all ages” comes irresistibly to mind. Black Castle is packaged as a horror flick, but it looks more like a swashbuckling adventure film, with sword fights, suave villainy, chases through the eponymous castle and a last minute “save” that presages The Princess Bride.

   The story is an appropriately simple affair: Richard Greene, the definitive Robin Hood of my youth, is an 18th-Century British nobleman who travels to Austria incognito to find out what became of two old war buddies who disappeared after visiting the estate of Count Karl Von Bruno. (German villains had not yet gone out of fashion in ’52, and this one is played by Stephen McNally.) It seems that Green and his vanished comrades apparently had some sort of run-in with McNally years ago in Africa, but the script is vague on this point, and for plot purposes they have never actually met.

   Von Bruno’s castle is filled with all sorts of kiddie-delights: crashing gates, alligator pit(!) murky dungeon and a host of sinister players, chiefly Boris Karloff as the Royal Sawbones, Lon Chaney Jr. as the Castle Goon, and Michael Pate as a fawning toady. There’s also Rita Corday (not to be confused with Mara Corday, another Universal starlet of that era) as the requisite Damsel, but writer Jerry Sackheim keeps her in distress, so the story doesn’t get slowed down by mushy stuff.

   And soon enough we’re running through all the thrills I enumerated earlier, handled very stylishly indeed. Black Castle was produced by William Alland, who was responsible for a series of above average 50s sci-fi flicks, but will always be remembered as the half-seen reporter in Citizen Kane.

   Cinematographer Irving Glassberg (The Web, Bend of the River, The Tarnished Angels, etc.) underlines the mood with appropriately bizarre lighting, and director Nathan Juran….. Well, Juran was never considered much of a stylist, but with cult films like Seventh Son of Sinbad and Attack of the 50-Foot Woman to his credit, you can’t write him off completely.

   And then there’s the cast: Stephen McNally was one of those actors who should have gone all the way to the top and I can’t figure why-the-hell he didn’t. Or maybe it was his performance here; don’t get me wrong, it’s marvelously full-blooded and perfectly suited to this movie. But it’s not the sort of thing that gets you noticed at Awards time.

   Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. don’t have any scenes together and in fact aren’t in the film all that much. Henry Corden gets more screen time than they do, and if you don’t know who Henry Corden is, shame on you. Still it’s nice to see them headlining a horror film once again, particularly since most of the music here is cribbed from House of Frankenstein — their only other co-starring film.

   In all, a truly enjoyable waste of time, and one I recommend heartily.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:          

NONE BUT THE BRAVE. Golden Harvest Company, Hong Kong, 1973. Original title: Tie wa. Cinemation Industries, US, 1974. Also known as Kung Fu Girl. Pei-pei Cheng, Wei Ou, James Tien, Wei Lo, Chen Yuen Lung (Jackie Chan). Screenplay and director: Wei Lo.

   If one were to fully appreciate None But The Brave (aka Kung Fu Girl), it’d probably help to know a bit about early twentieth-century Chinese-Japanese diplomatic relations. The film, which stars Chinese actress Pei-Pei Cheng (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon), takes place during a tenuous time for China’s future, when the leadership in Beijing is in the process of making concessions to Japan.

   The movie is filled with both martial arts action sequences and a healthy dose of political intrigue. Pei-Pei Cheng portrays a girl who pretends to be the long-lost sister of a Chinese military official in Beijing. Her ultimate goal is to manipulate him so as to free one of the revolutionary party leaders opposed to selling China out to the Japanese.

   Along the way, she has to contend with a Japanese official who takes a fancy to her, as well as a member of his entourage (portrayed by a young Jackie Chan) who wants to fight her.

   Sometimes the plot isn’t the easiest to follow, but it all sort of comes together by the end. There is some absolutely great cinematography present here; this isn’t some cheap, shoddy grindhouse kung fu film. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) Pei-Pei Cheng is wonderfully electric. Her smile and energy are infectious. Even if you’re not the biggest fan of martial arts films, this one takes some patience, but is well worth a look, if only to catch a glimpse of one of Hong Kong’s best-known female action stars in her prime.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:          

GORDON’S WAR. 20th Century Fox, 1973. Paul Winfield, Carl Lee, David Downing, Tony King, Gilbert Lewis, Carl Gordon, Nathan C. Heard, Grace Jones. Director: Ossie Davis.

   I’m pretty sure Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) was the first time I saw the prolific actor/voice actor Paul Winfield in a movie. If you recall that particular installment of Star Trek film franchise, Winfield portrayed Captain Clark Terrell, a Starfleet officer who fell under the spell of Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban).

   Truthfully, “fell under the spell” is sanitizing it a bit. In a grotesquely memorable scene, Khan inserts an eel-like creature, one with the mind control powers no less, into Terrell’s ear. The slug in the brain transforms Terrell (Winfield) into a zombie-like puppet under Khan’s control.

   Anyway, that subplot made some sort of impression on me. (I also remember spilling soda on myself in the theater when the slug, and some blood as well, finally emerged from Winfield’s head.)

   So I suppose I’ll never forget Winfield’s distinct voice, nor his singular presence as a character actor. Indeed, the same thing happened to me when I saw James Cameron’s Terminator (1984), in which Winfield portrayed a cynical, world-weary Los Angeles police lieutenant.

   Rewind a decade or so from Star Trek II and Terminator and you’ll find Winfield in an earlier role, playing a former Army officer in Gordon’s War, an unusually serious, albeit commercially unsuccessful, Blaxploitation action film.

   Directed by Ossie Davis, the movie features Winfield in a lead role. He portrays Gordon Hudson, a Vietnam Vet who returns home to Harlem only to find his wife, and his neighborhood, a victim of the heroin trade. In a straightforward plot, one unfortunately bereft of nuance, Gordon enlists his old Army buddies to wage a small guerrilla war against the pimps and pushers that have infested his home turf.

   There are some outstanding fight scenes and a great car-meets-motorcycle chase scene toward the end of the movie. Winfield is great. But, overall, the film feels just a bit too predictable, too formulaic. No big surprise: the head honcho of the drug trade is a wealthy white guy. It’s a vigilante movie without much depth.

   But if you like films set in gritty Manhattan, in those decades before hyper-gentrification took hold and there was a bank and a yogurt shop on every corner, Gordon’s War is worth checking out. I watched the movie on a DVD released by Shout! Factory. It’s not the greatest print in the world, but it’s perfectly acceptable. Still, I think this is the type of movie that needs to be seen in 35 mm, in a theater with an audience that can collectively cheer on Gordon’s war against the criminal element.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:          

TUAREG: THE DESERT WARRIOR. Aspa Producciones Cinematográficas, Italy, 1984. Original title: Tuareg – Il guerriero del deserto. Mark Harmon, Luis Prendes, Ritza Brown, Paolo Malco, Aldo Sambrell, Ennio Girolami, Antonio Sabato. Based on the novel Tuareg by Alberto Vázquez Figueroa. Director: Enzo G. Castellari.

   Tuareg: The Desert Warrior is a movie about lines, literal and metaphorical, in the sand. Directed by Enzo G. Castellari (Keoma), the action-adventure film stars Mark Harmon (NCIS) as Gacel Sayah. He’s a North African nomadic tribesman steadfastly clinging to a pre-modern code of honor in the modern age. The viewer is expected to empathize with Sayah, all the while cognizant of the disastrous results that inevitably follow from his stubbornness and refusal to bow to the conventions of the post-colonial era.

   The movie benefits from good pacing and a quite good performance by Harmon, who seems to be taking the role seriously. Tuareg: The Desert Warrior doesn’t play it light; in many ways, it’s a quite bleak, often times graphically violent film. And if you can get over the fact that the future Jethro Gibbs is portraying an Arab tribesman, it’s a pretty darn good action flic with some seriously great “Rambo moments,” if you know what I mean.

   The action begins when two bedraggled men stumble into Sayah’s desert encampment. Sayah doesn’t much care who they are or where they came from. Believing deeply that hospitality is a cardinal virtue in the scorching hot desert, he considers these men to be his guests and hence, under his protection. So it’s not surprising that he refuses to turn these men over to the Arab soldiers when they show up in his camp.

   Sayah is, in his heart and mind, beholden to the law of the desert, where hospitality demands certain actions be taken by a host to protect his guests. When the soldiers kill one of the men and haul away another as a prisoner, Sayah is determined to uphold the law of hospitality, no matter the tragic consequences to him and to his family.

   As it turns out, his former guest, the man who he seeks to free from imprisonment in a desert fortress, is no ordinary man. He is the deposed president of the newly independent North African nation in which Sayah lives. Of course, desert nomad that he is, Sayah doesn’t really believe in those types of lines in the sand.

   An Italian-Spanish (and Israeli?) co-production, Tuareg: The Desert Warrior is replete with political subtexts. The issues of national unification, colonialism and independence, and political corruption are very much present. Sayah tells one of the Arab soldiers sent to capture him: “I do not understand a government that breaks the law, and then wants to punish me for it. It is stupid!” Contemporary Italian audiences may have appreciated that line quite a bit, but I have a feeling that a lot of people might appreciate it even more today.

   There’s something quite anarchic, even subversive, about Harmon’s character. Sayah is a man truly apart, often completely ignorant about the ways of the world. And as the stunning – shocking, really – ending demonstrates, sometimes being true to one’s code of honor has a way of backfiring.

   I didn’t see the ending coming. Which is perhaps one reason why I’d recommend you take a look at this movie. It’s not the greatest 1980s action film. Not by a long shot, but for what it is, it is pretty good celluloid escapism. But you’re going to have to get used to seeing Mark Harmon dressed as a desert nomad.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

BLUE THUNDER. Columbia Pictures, 1983. Roy Scheider, Warren Oates, Candy Clark, Daniel Stern, Paul Roebling, David Sheiner, Joe Santos, Malcolm McDowell. Director:
John Badham.

MIRACLE MILE. Hemdale Film, 1988. Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham, John Agar, Lou Hancock, Mykel T. Williamson, Kelly Jo Minter. Screenwriter & Director: Steve De Jarnatt.

   On the surface, at least, Blue Thunder and Miracle Mile don’t have all that much in common, at least in terms of plot. But, dig a bit deeper, and you’ll realize that they actually do share some remarkable similarities, including a helicopter.

   Most obviously, though, they are both 1980s films set in Los Angeles in which the city itself becomes a character. More poignantly, both films tap into the public’s latent fears. While in Blue Thunder, the fear of both street crime and the extreme measures that law enforcement might employ to combat serves as the basis for the plot, in Miracle Mile, the fear of nuclear annihilation and the subsequent inability to escape a densely populated urban corridor pervades the movie’s dark, claustrophobic atmosphere.

   Blue Thunder is, however, the far better of the two films. Directed by John Badham (War Games), the movie stars Roy Scheider (Jaws) as Frank Murphy, a LAPD helicopter pilot struggling with PTSD from his Vietnam years. Murphy and his partner, portrayed by Daniel Stern, are assigned to operate a super high-tech chopper, the eponymous Blue Thunder.

   Not only does the bird have offensive weaponry, it also has ridiculously intrusive surveillance equipment. The apparent goal of the LAPD, in conjunction with the military brass, is to have Blue Thunder on hand in preparation for any possible disturbances associated with the forthcoming 1984 Summer Olympics.

   All is not what it seems however. That’s even more the case when Murphy’s ex-Vietnam colleague, Colonel F.E. Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell), shows up with his scheming grin and trademark hand gesture (you’re just going to have to watch it). He’s a reptile in a flight suit, that one.

   As it turns out, there is a scheme – a conspiracy – to stir up urban violence in Los Angeles as a means of selling the LAPD and maybe even other city police departments, on the necessity of having their own Blue Thunder’s. It’s all brooding, dark paranoia on full display here, worsened by Murphy’s repeated flashbacks.

   Unfortunately, the somewhat formulaic plot doesn’t gel as much as the visuals, some of which are truly stunning. The city of Los Angeles, as seen from above, is on full display here and it’s a beautiful vista, particularly at night. The scenes of Blue Thunder flying above Century City are breathtaking, as some of the helicopter fight scenes.

   There’s one other strong point worth mentioning, and that is the presence of actor Warren Oates, who portrays Captain Jack Braddock, Murphy’s cynical, tough-as-nails superior. Oates was just perfectly cast here, reminding me a bit of Lee Van Cleef’s unforgettable role in John Carpenter’s Escape From New York. Scheider’s not bad, either. Not by a long shot. But I don’t think many would consider Blue Thunder to have been one of his best roles.

   Miracle Mile is a significantly weaker film. Like Blue Thunder, however, it has some great on location shots of Los Angeles, specifically the Miracle Mile shopping district on Wilshire Boulevard that stretches past Johnnie’s Coffee Shop toward the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the La Brea Tar Pits.

   The film unfolds like a Cornell Woolrich story or an Alfred Hitchcock film. Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards) is a somewhat mild-mannered jazz musician visiting the City of Angels. He’s apparently never really found true love. All that changes when he meets Julie Peters (Mare Winningham), a waitress who lives with her grandmother at the Park La Brea apartments.

   After oversleeping and missing their date, Washello heads out to the diner where Julie works, hoping to catch up with her or at least find a way of contacting her at home. While outside of the diner, he hears the telephone in the phone booth ringing.

   So he picks it up.

   Wrong number.

   Turns out that the guy on the other end of the line works at a missile silo in North Dakota and is trying to phone his father in Orange County to give him heads up about a pending nuclear missile attack. By pending, I mean within an hour or so.

   It’s a wonderfully suspenseful premise that just isn’t executed very well, making the movie far less thrilling than it could have been. The rest of the film revolves around Washello’s attempts to make people believe he isn’t lying, to woo Julie, and to escape from Los Angeles. By helicopter no less.

   Although Miracle Mile isn’t a particularly great movie, it does benefit from one of the boldest and most daring endings I’ve seen in a film from that era. It turns out the anonymous caller was right. There is a nuclear war afoot.

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