Action Adventure movies

by Jonathan Lewis

  CAPTAIN AMERICA II: DEATH TOO SOON. Made for TV movie. CBS/Universal Television, 23-24 November 1979. Reb Brown, Connie Sellecca, Len Birman, Christopher Lee, Katherine Justice, Christopher Cary,William Lucking, Stanley Kamel, Ken Swofford, Lana Wood. Based on characters created by Jack Kirby & Joe Simon (uncredited). Director: Ivan Nagy.

   If you want to know why CBS never was able to get a Captain America live-action television show off the ground, look no further than Captain America II: Death Too Soon. This 1979 made-for-TV movie was originally shown in two parts and stars Reb Brown as Steve Rogers/Captain America.

   It’s unevenly paced, clunky, and generally poorly acted. But once you get beyond all that, it’s actually an amusingly cheesy, mindless superhero movie that, whatever its faults, doesn’t rely on CGI for action sequences.

   In perhaps the most unintentional act of subversion ever on the part of a major studio, the character you end up liking the most isn’t Captain America. Patriotism flies out the window, much like Captain America’s motorcycle in the air, for it’s the diabolical criminal mastermind/international terrorist/general badass “Miguel” portrayed by Christopher Lee who’s the star here. (After his portrayal of Scaramanga in 1974’s The Man With the Golden Gun, casting Lee in this role was quite a coup.)

   Miguel, loosely based on Carlos the Jackal, has a plot that defies both credulity and nature. He’s acquired a biological agent that rapidly advances the aging process and he’s going to use it on American cities unless he gets some cold hard cash.

   I can’t honestly tell you Captain America II: Death Too Soon is a good movie or that it’s even worth seeking out. Consider it a curiosity, a quirky obscurity, something that really shouldn’t have been made, a “what in the world were they thinking” in the studio moment. Even so, my seeing criminal mastermind Miguel (Lee) driving a station wagon while fleeing Captain America was enough to put a smile on my face and overlook the whole absurdity of this pleasantly idiotic attempt at bringing Captain America to American living rooms.

by Jonathan Lewis

   With Christopher Lee’s recent passing, I thought it would be worthwhile to seek out some of the veteran actor’s more obscure, or at least lesser discussed, films. Lee was in many films, over 250 according to IMDb, in fact. Some were great, some were good, and others were downright forgettable. All except for one thing: Lee was in them. And that’s one thing that made Christopher Lee so special. No matter how silly, campy, or mediocre the film, Lee’s singular presence, coupled with his distinct bass voice, shined through.

THE TERROR OF THE TONGS. Hammer Films, UK, 1961; Columbia, US, 1961. Christopher Lee, Yvonne Monlaur, Geoffrey Toone, Marne Maitland, Brian Worth, Ewen Solon, Roger Delgado, Richard Leech. Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster. Director: Anthony Bushell.

   Such was the case in The Terror of the Tongs, a considerably dated movie about the Red Dragon Tong, a secret, violent Chinese criminal gang terrorizing the residents of British Hong Kong. Set in 1910, the story is nominally about a British man, Captain Jackson Sale (Geoffrey Toone) who seeks to avenge the death of his sixteen year old daughter at the hands of the Tongs. It’s sort of like Death Wish or Taken before these movies were even thought of by their respective writers.

   But who’s kidding whom?

   With laughably clumsy dialogue and borderline incompetent direction, the movie really is worth watching for one reason and one reason only.

   It’s to see Christopher Lee in his portrayal of Chung King, the leader of the Hong Kong branch of the Red Dragon Tong. Although many contemporary viewers might bristle at the sight of tall Englishman of Italian heritage portraying a Chinese criminal mastermind, it’s worth noting that Lee’s performance in The Terror of the Tongs really transcends ethnicity. He’s just a villain and a captivating one at that. (Thankfully, he doesn’t speak in a faux “Chinese” accent, if you know what I mean.)

   So, while it might seem odd to begin a tribute to Lee with this otherwise forgettable film, I did so to prove a point. That there are a lot of films out there, some rarely written about or discussed anymore, where Lee towers over, both figuratively and literally, the whole production. He will be missed.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE MONGOLS. France Cinéma Productions, Italy-France, 1961. Original title: I mongoli. Jack Palance, Anita Ekberg, Antonella Lualdi, Franco Silva, Gianni Garko, Roldano Lupi, Gabriella Pallotta, Gabriele Antonini. Directors: André De Toth, Leopoldo Savona, Riccardo Freda (the latter uncredited).

   They don’t make them like this anymore, or not at least without CGI. Call it what you will: costumer, sword-and-sandal, or an historical adventure pic. But know whatever you call it, know that The Mongols appears as if designed to resemble a big picture, epic in scope, with a cast of hundreds, if not thousands.

   Directed by Andre De Toth, The Mongols features Jack Palance as the warlike Ogatai, son of Genghis Khan, who is determined to conquer Poland. At his side is Swedish model-actress, Anita Ekberg, who portrays Hulina, a woman perfectly capable of matching him in deviousness and treachery.

   The story follows the Mongols, lead by Ogatai, as they attempt to conquer the Polish stronghold of Cracow. The Poles, wary of the approaching Mongols, send Stefan of Cracow (Franco Silva) to negotiate a peace arrangement with Genghis Khan. But Ogatai, lustful for blood and territory, isn’t about to let that happen.

   There’s a B-story in here too. Stefan of Cracow enters into a love-hate relationship with a Polish village girl, who ends up believing – falsely, it turns out – that Stefan murdered her would-be betrothed.

   But really, The Mongols isn’t a love story. It’s about wide shots of men on horseback ready to do battle and the final, epic showdown between the Mongols and the Poles. Palance is at his menacing best here, although truthfully, he really doesn’t do all that much in this picture.

   In many respects, Ekberg’s character has significantly more depth than his, and this makes her a more compelling screen presence. But at the end of the day, this film really isn’t about the characters as much as it is about the spectacle. And while it is no Spartacus, The Mongols is no cheapie, either. While it’s perfectly entertaining, it gives the viewer little to think about once it’s all over. And in this case that’s not necessarily such a bad thing.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

CORTO MALTESE AND THE GILDED HOUSE OF SAMARKAND. StudioCanal, France, animated film, 2002. Original title: Corto Maltese: La maison dorée de Samarkand. Based on the graphic novel by Hugo Pratt. Richard Berry as Corto Maltese (voice), Patrick Bouchitey as Raspoutine (voice), Catherine Jacob as Marianne (voice). Directors: Richard Danto & Liam Saury.

   Native: Ever since you whites came nothing has gone right for my people.

   Corto Maltese: Every race has its specialty. That’s what we do best.

— “The Ballad of the Salt Sea”

   Hugo Pratt is the Italian comic book industry, one of the most recognized and respected figures in Europe, and increasingly recognized here. He began his career with the super hero, the Ace of Spades and is best known for his long running western, Sgt. Kirk, about a white soldier living with the Indians and for Pyle, a war comic taken from the writings of Ernie Pyle. He is at once the Jack Kirby, Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond, and Harold Foster of the Italian comics.

   Like many comic book artists and writers around the world, his greatest influence was Milton Caniff, his Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon. You can see the artistic influence in his drawing style and brushwork, but also in his storytelling techniques, at once cinematic and picaresque. This is truest of his greatest creation, the soldier (or should that be sailor) of fortune and Seven League booted protagonist of his most famous works, Corto Maltese.

   But where Pat Ryan, Steve Canyon, Scorchy Smith, Smilin’ Jack, or even Frank Godwin’s Connie were straight shooting all-American heroes out of Hollywood central casting Corto Maltese is not.

   In Corto Maltese, Pratt combined his interest in history, exotic but realistic locations, and adventure with his mordant humor, deep suspicions about the West and his own country’s Imperial past in colonization (this runs deep in Italian popular literature predating Mussolini’s ambitions, dating at least to Emilio Salagari’s tales of Malay pirate and anti imperialist Sandokan), and a protagonist out of Joseph Conrad as much as Terry and the Pirates. Corto would be more comfortable in the company of Lord Jim, Nostromo, or Conrad’s Captain Marlow than Pat Ryan, Connie, or Flip Cochran, though he would not be misplaced with the Dragon Lady or Burma, or for that matter the Spirit’s Sand Saref and P’Gell. He trips over more femme fatales than Philip Marlowe.

   The closest thing I can find to compare this too would be Alvaro Mutis’s books Maqrol and The Adventures of Maqrol. There is no one in American or European comics or animation quite like Corto Maltese. He gives new meaning to unique.

   The stories take place in the early Twentieth Century between the turn of the century and the 1920‘s encompassing the First World War, the Russo Japanese War, the massacre at Musa Dagh, the Irish troubles and countless other adventures in Southern Europe, Arabia, Africa, Russia, Manchuria, Ireland, and all points exotic, often told in relation to a search for treasure (Alexander’s gold, El Dorado, …).

   Along the way Corto meets historical figures like T. E. Lawrence, Jack London, Mustapha Kemal, Enver Pasha, and his mad friend, Rasputin. Not to mention mysterious women ranging from orphans to seers from witches to murderous actresses to the queen of fairyland — as well as her husband Oberon, Puck, Merlin, and a talking raven. Things can easily get dreamlike and surreal in Corto’s fevered backwaters and he is always meeting mysterious women who don’t seem to be entirely of this world, however earthy their attractions.

   He also runs into a wide range of natives, some good, some noble, some evil, some angry, in short, humans, not stereotypes.

   Tall and dark in a peaked cap with Elvis side burns, and wearing the uniform of a ships captain of the era and with an earring in one ear, Maltese’s adventures are best read in the rich detailed color editions with Pratt’s otherworldly water colors. Not that the black and white isn’t just as startling. The animated series follows the rich water color look of Pratt’s work with extremely effective beauty. It is easily the most beautiful animated series I have ever seen.

   The animated series has so far stayed close to Pratt in style and color scheme, and while the animation is limited, it is also rich and eye catching. I’m not sure I have seen anything quite like it outside of a feature film.

   The Gilded House in Samarkand refers to a Turkish prison in Samarkand where Corto’s friend Rasputin is held. Gilded, because the only escape is through the Golden Dreams of opium enhanced sleep, well, for anyone but Rasp (Corto’s nickname for Rasputin).

   And yes, Corto Maltese is the type of hero whose best friend is Rasputin, the mad monk.

   You should know dreams play a great role in Corto Maltese’s adventures, fevered, drugged, from concussions, mushrooms; the mystery of the series tropical and other exotic locations are always part of the story.

   T. E. Lawrence’s “Beware of those who dream in the daytime, for they will make their dreams come true,” might almost be an epigraph for all of Corto Maltese’s adventures.

   In Samarkand, Corto is in Rhodes on the trail of the lost treasure of Alexander, stolen from Persia and Cyrus the Great. He is already in trouble as the story begins, mistaken for the traitorous Turk Chevet who is part of the Turkish schemes of Kemal and Enver Pasha to re unite Turkey after its collapse following allying itself with Germany in the first war. Not only do the Turks think he is Chevet, so do the Armenians seeking revenge against Chevet and Enver Pasha who was responsible for the Turkish genocide against the Armenians.

   After stealing a map and evading both sides and the police Corto sails east for Samarkand to free his friend Rasputin and seek the treasure, but not before a seeress named Cassandra predicts a curious and enigmatic future for him.

   Along the way he picks up an odd lot including a murderous sexually precocious actress who he rescues from the Turks in Tarsus, and is paid to escort a young Armenian girl. He will have a fevered opium dream he shares with his mad murderous friend Rasputin across great distances, hide out with whirling dervishes, get caught between the Russians and Turks at war in Samarkand, witness the death of Enver Pasha, dance in the streets with Rasputin, and in the cold heights of Kafiristan reach the cave where the treasure allegedly waits haven see the treacherous Chevet fall to the Russians like his master.

   If you get the idea this is not a Saturday morning animated series and Corto Maltese is neither Terry and the Pirates or Indiana Jones, you are right.

   Rasputin (having just escaped death with Corto at the hands of Chevet and Enver Pasha and dancing in the streets of Samarkand): Are we mad?

   Corto: No, just happy, I think.

   At times surreal, fevered, enigmatic, beautiful to look at, poetically written, maddening, and exciting, the Corto Maltese films are unlike any other animated series you have ever seen or likely will ever see. I’m not sure it is for everyone. It certainly isn’t Disney, but it isn’t Ralph Bakshi either. It is intelligent, intriguing, demanding, and enigmatic, like its laconic hero, and you may not be quite ready for animated characters with this much depth or animated stories this complex or ambiguous.

   There are episodes available on YouTube in English — only half hour episodes though. The original Italian episodes offer full stories, or there are French language episodes of complete titles in multiple parts with English subtitles. Unless your Italian is good I recommend the latter, though you might want to dip your toes in with the English language episodes. Among the full serials available are The Gilded House in Samarkand, The Ballad of the Salt Sea, The Celtics, Under the Capricorn Sign, and Corto in Siberia (each runs about eighty minutes total). Whether they are available on DVD or not I don’t know, but they are certainly worth the effort to at least get a taste.

   Saturday morning was never like this.

   For that matter, nothing on American television and few movies were ever like this.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

THE GOLDEN HORDE. Universal International, 1951. Ann Blyth, David Farrar, George Macready, Henry Brandon, Henry Petrie, Richard Egan, Marvin Miller, Poodles Hanneford, Peggy Castle. Screenplay Gerald Drayson Adams, based on a story by Harold Lamb (a two-part serial in Adventure, 15 May & June 1933). Directed by George Sherman.

   This handsome Technicolor outing from Universal has many virtues in terms of production value, cast, and credits, but none more important than the contribution of Harold Lamb whose bestselling non-fiction covering the Far and Middle East was preceded by decades of entertaining fiction often appearing in the legendary pulp Adventure, and inspiring young Robert E. Howard among others.

   Lamb also wrote numerous screenplays, often for the historical epics of Cecil B. de Mille. This is based on the story of the same name, the last Lamb published in Adventure, and features crusader Nial O’Gordon who here becomes a quite different Sir Guy of Devon. You may find this and the other O’Gordon story (“Keeper of the Gate”) reprinted in Bison Books Swords of the West edited by Howard Andrew Jones (whose Desert of Souls I reviewed here recently) and see how many liberties Lamb took with his own story.

   The time is the early 13th century, and a trio of Crusaders (David Farrar, Richard Egan, and Poodles Hanneford as Friar John) have arrived in Samarkand determined to stop the advance of the Golden Horde led by Genghis Khan (Marvin Miller) and run afoul of their own sexism when they conflict with Princess Shalimar (Ann Blyth) who has altogether more subtle plans to save her city than combat with the greatest warrior and the greatest army in history.

   Further complicating things are the envoys of the great Khan including his son Juchi (Henry Brandon) who are just as stupid and sexist as the Crusaders when it comes to Shalimar’s plan which seems unlikely to work even with the help of shaman Raven (George Macready) pouring oil on the waters. Being Hollywood it is only natural that Shalimar and Sir Guy of Devon (Farrar) are going to clash and fall in love. Complain if you choose about this old cliche, but you had to expect that one.

   There is more than enough action in this relatively short film, but the emphasis on the story of one wise sexy woman outwitting all the men around her, including Genghis Khan, which makes for an unusual plot for the period. And rather than force of arms, Genghis Khan is defeated by a prophecy that he will die if he sets foot in the city. He bypasses Samarkand and poor Shalimar is left with her brave but more than a little thick headed Crusader (maybe it was the helmets) hero for a no doubt rocky happily ever-after, at least until Temujin, aka Timur the Lame, aka Tammerlane, the Khan’s great grandson, shows up.

   This is quick, attractive, fun, and nowhere near as boneheaded as Sir Guy or Juchi, neither of whom can understand why the men of Samarkand would be led by a woman in the first place. The story is more complex and more interesting than the usual restoring the throne from the usurper uncle or whatever in most of these, thanks to Lamb, and Adams. For once the woman in the story is there far more than eye candy and rescue from a fate worse than death.

   It could easily be argued that Princess Shalimar rescues everyone from their own stupidity in this one.

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.

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