Action Adventure movies

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

CALL OF THE SAVAGE. Universal, 1935. Serial: 12 episodes. Noah Beery Jr., Dorothy Short, H. L. Woods, Bryant Washburn, Walter Miller, Fred MacKaye. Based on the novel by Otis Adelbert Kline. Director: Louis Friedlander (aka Lew Landers).

   One of the other things I do every year is watch an old-time time movie serial. One year not too long ago it was Call of the Savage, a competent and quite enjoyable trifle from folks who knew how to properly do a trifle. The writers — whose names would mean nothing to you — were all seasoned serial hacks, who based the story around Otis Aldelbert Kline’s classic Jan of the Jungle, though how faithfully I cannot say.

   Call was directed by Lew Landers, a director who knew enough to keep this thing moving before anyone looked too closely at it. Landers serves up all the improbable thrills — lions, tigers, shipwreck, stampede and volcano — mismatched stock footage and laughable back-projection with a commendably straight face, even dragging in sets and props from Bride of Frankenstein for the obligatory Lost City with nary a giggle.

   And then there’s the thespians. Harry Woods, normally a baddie in Westerns, gets to play a mysterious good guy for a change, his type-cast history lending a certain ambiguity to the character, and Dorothy Short, who spent her life in B-movies, looks quite fetching in a leopard skin.

   But best of all is Noah Beery Jr. as the Jungle Man. That’s right. Noah Beery Jr, the loveable sidekick of a dozen westerns, James Garner’s dad in The Rockford Files. Yep, he plays a cut-rate Tarzan here, and he plays it as a likeable half-wit, not so much Noble Savage, but more like Old Mose in The Searchers. And somehow the incongruity just adds to the dopey charm of a movie I liked in spite of itself.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

KUNG FU ZOMBIE. Eternal Film Co., Hong Kong, 1981. Original title: Wu long tian shi zhao ji gui. Billy Chong, Lau Chan, Kang-Yeh Cheng, Kei Ying Cheung, Wei Hu. Screenplay and director: Yi-Jung Hua.

   Imagine you are in the process of filming a hybrid action-horror movie today. The powers that be would likely encourage you to utilize the most up-to-date CGI special effects, to procure the highest quality makeup available, and to score a memorable soundtrack. Maybe even a scene with some dark, brooding industrial dance music.

   Then imagine how exceptionally polished and sleek the final product might look.

   Because that’s definitely not what Kung Fu Zombie looks like. Not in the least.

   Directed by Yi-Jung Hua, Kung Fu Zombie stars Indonesian-born martial arts star Billy Chong as a man caught between his domineering father, a reincarnated zombie criminal, and a kung fu kicking vampire.

   It’s an absolutely silly, heaping mess of a movie, no question.

   But that’s what it’s intended to be. The martial arts movie relies on slapstick comedy, bawdy humor, and (intentionally?) comical special effects to achieve something that far too many overly produced, overly computerized action films fail to do: thrill and entertain, with a tongue firmly in cheek throughout the proceedings.

   I’ll confess that I have nostalgia for these types of films. You know, the ones where people fight for the sake of fighting. Where the symphony of martial arts mayhem plays on. Where villains announce their intention to kill the hero before the fighting begins.

   The general public, if they ever knew him much at all, has largely forgotten Billy Chong. That’s a shame, because with his boyish charm, impish handsome looks, and quick action moves, he’s the real deal. I watched this particular Billy Chong movie on DVD, but it’s probably even better on a grainy VHS rental tape, if you know what I mean.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

TREASURE OF THE AZTECS. CCC Filmkunst, West Germany, 1965. Originally released as Der Schatz der Azteken. Lex Barker, Gérard Barray, Rik Battaglia, Michèle Girardon, Alessandra Panaro, Theresa Lorca, Ralf Wolter, Jeff Corey. Based on a novel by Karl May. Director: Robert Siodmak.

PYRAMID OF THE SUN GOD. Originally released as Die Pyramide des Sonnengottes. Essentially the same credits as above. This is a single film released in two parts because of the length the way Fritz Lang did The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb in 1958. At heart it’s a serial with part one ending in a cliffhanger. But it isn’t two separate films, just one divided into two parts.

   Likely you have never heard of this combined three hour epic western unless you are a fan of former Tarzan Lex Barker, German writer Karl May, noir director Robert Siodmak, screenwriter Ladislas Fodor, or German Westerns. Even then you may not have seen it because the only copies I know of are in German on YouTube.

   Likely it is available in Region 2 format in German. My German is very bad, but this isn’t the type film with a great many long speeches or clever puns in it. I got by. You could get along pretty well with the sound turned off though you would miss the good score.

   That’s not a knock, this one is actually quite a bit of fun if you accept it for what it is — a Technicolor wide screen serial anticipating Star Wars.

   For those who don’t know, Karl May was a beloved German writer whose life included blindness, crime, and a redemption that led him to pen some of the most beloved works in German literature. He is best known for his works featuring noble Mescalero Apache chief Winnetou and his friend Old Surehand (aka Shatterhand and Firehand). Winnetou inspired so-called Indian clubs (like the Boy Scouts) all over Europe and May was the favorite writer of Albert Einstein, Albert Switzer, Herman Hesse, and sad to say Adolph Hitler. May’s books are adventure stories but with a strong moral and Christian message, his most philosophical work being the allegorical novel Ardistan and Djinnistan.

   That one featured May’s other great hero, Kara Ben Nemsi, an adventurer in the Middle East, who features in five novels, beginning with In The Desert, that recount a journey to unveil a criminal conspiracy at the heart of the Ottoman Empire that starts with Kara Ben Nemsi finding a murdered man in the desert. Kara Ben Nemsi is his own Winnetou though he has a comic Arab side kick, Halef, and the comical English adventurer Sir David Lindsey in most adventures. Kara Ben Nemsi came to the screen as far back as 1920 and again in the 1950‘s. It was the early sixties before Winnetou made the leap to the big screen.

   There have been several Winnitou films in the last decade, the most recent an animated version in 2009, Winnetoon (I don’t come up with them, I just report them). Kara Ben Nemsi has featured in at least two mini -series on German television.

   May’s name in much of Europe was the equivalent of Jules Verne in terms of popularity and recognition. Other than Winnetou, whose cinematic adventures were often released in English with Pierre Brice in the title role and Rod Cameron, Stewart Granger, or Lex Barker as Old Surehand, it was the seventies before some of his other books came out in English here and Bantam attempted to do another Doc Savage with May’s work issuing uniform editions in paperback of Winnetou, Ardistan and Djinnistan, and In the Desert. One blurb described Kara Ben Nemsi as a cross between Superman, James Bond, and Jesus. (I thought it a bit tasteless too, but it is accurate.)

   Even some May scholars aren’t sure if Old Sure Hand and Kara Ben Nemsi aren’t the same person with different names in different parts of the world. They might as well have been in the late 1960‘s because both, and Dr. Karl Sternau, the hero of these films, were being played by Lex Barker in big budget full color wide screen films. Online you can find Winnetou and In The Desert in e-book form rewritten with Old Surehand and Kara Ben Nemsi renamed Jack Hilyard in an attempt to fool American audiences. It didn’t work.

   Sternau, the hero of this film is the physician to Otto von Bismark, who spent many years in Mexico and has many friends there. In the United States it is 1864, the Civil War is in full bloom, and diplomat Stenau is invited to visit the White House and President Lincoln (Jeff Corey the familiar American character actor and famed dialect coach).

   Lincoln wishes to send a message of support to Mexican President Benito Juarez who is battling the French occupation of Mexico by the Emperor Maximilian backed by Louis Napoleon the Emperor of France and the French army (including the Foreign Legion though it is seldom mentioned in movies).

   This much is true, Lincoln did support and sympathize with Juarez and did want the French off of this continent. Lincoln can offer Juarez nothing more than moral support because of the Civil War, but remarks to Dr. Stenau that it would aide the cause if Juarez supporters should unearth the lost treasure of the Aztecs.

   Hold on, because it gets complicated from here.

   Sternau travels to Mexico where he runs afoul of one of Juarez captains, a rogue Lazaro Verdoja (Rik Battaglia in a full blooded performance as the treacherous and lecherous villain). He is saved by Lt. Potaka (Gustavo Rojo) who takes him to Juarez (Fausto Tozzi). As a favor to Juarez Stenau agrees to visit wealthy ranchero owner Don Pedro Arbelez (Hans Neilson) and his daughter Rosita (Alessandro Panaro) and her companion and adopted sister, Karja (Theresa Lorca), unknown to everyone the true princess of the Aztecs and guardian of Montezuma’s treasure hidden in a live volcano as revealed to her by an ancient medicine man and the last true Aztec.

   Along the way Sternau is aided by and ends up accompanied by Andreas Hassenfeffer (Rolf Walter) a traveling cuckoo salesman and the film’s comic relief (and you will need relief from him at times since his chief comic attribute is to talk incessantly) and joined by his friend American gunfighter Frank Wilson (Kelo Henderson) who falls quickly for Rosita when he saves her and Karja from hostile Indians (they don’t miss much in this one). Wilson plays with those guns to the point you may want to send him to Austria for a few sessions with Freud. He seems to find shooting at people’s feet amusing, though they do not seem to be laughing about it.

   Onto the hacienda where Peroja makes a fool of himself with Rosita eventually trying to rape her and getting beaten up by Sternau just as Juarez arrives to banish him. But before that Sternau travels to Mexico City to meet Count Don Rodrigo de Rodriganda y Sevilla (Francis von Ledbedur — the real life count who played Queequeg in John Huston’s Moby Dick) and his playboy son Alfonso (Gerard Barray) fiancee of Karja.

   Alfonso gets involved in a duel over a gambling debt, but his lover Josefa (Michele Giradon), an agent of French secret police leader Marshal Bazaine (Jean-Roger Caussimon), arranges for him to miss the duel and his father to go instead where he is fatally wounded.

   The idea was for Alfonso to inherit the money and keep it from Juarez, but seeing what a useless playboy his son is the dying Count rewrites his will leaving the money to Juarez cause through Dr. Stenau.

   We are still in part one. Still with me? I’m leaving out some minor actions scenes thrown in more to keep the film moving rather than move the plot along.

   There are quite a few serial-like setbacks, advances, and adventures. Verdoja develops a hate for Sternau and Wilson, wants to to get the beautiful Rosita even more and turns mercenary for Bazaine and lover of Josefa. Alfonso betrays Sternau to Bazaine, but Hassenfeffer and Wilson save him, the little cuckoo clock salesman proving to be an excellent strategist — and in this film it is needed.

   Eventually Sternau and Peroja struggle on the edge of the volcano, Sternau falls and is found by Karja and the medicine man who guides her. She insists the wounded man be taken in the treasure chamber where he briefly awakens, and she has to stop her mentor from killing him, asserting her true royal will. Instead a mystic smoke takes away his memory and heals him, and he is left to be found by Lt. Potaka as she chants her prayers to the towering gold statue of Montezuma (nothing phallic there).

   End of part one and of the first book.

   Pyramids of the Sun Gods starts with an impressive ten minute recap that somehow manages to hit the high points, and picks up with Sternau’s recovery as Potaka finds his body wrapped in a blanket among the bubbling fountains and flaming vents of the volcanic floor.

   Verdoja has allied with the hostile Indians who also want Montezuma’s treasure and is having an affair with Josefa who has met her match. Meanwhile she introduces Alfonso to her scheming untrustworthy father so that just about everyone is lying to and cheating everyone else on that side of things including Verdoja and the chief of the Indians.

   You won’t be able to watch this without thinking of Wagner in terms of plot and the plethora of treacherous characters all trying to stab each other in the back to the point it’s a wonder they don’t stab themselves in the back. The knife concession with this group could make you rich.

   Meanwhile naive Karja tells Alfonso about Montezuma’s gold and he schemes to find it. Karja’s mentor punishes her when he learns of her mistake, but by now Alfonso has her medallion that shows the entrance to the treasure room. By now he has also double crossed Josefa’s father, who was busy double crossing her. He breaks into the volcanic hideaway and kills Karja, but not before she kills him. (It’s German, you have to expect this Wagnerian nonsense.)

   That pretty much does away with the budding interest Potaka showed in her, but she never had eyes for anyone but Alfonso. Aztec princesses love a bad boy.

   Back at the pyramids Verdoja and Josefa and the Indians are planning mischief and raid the hacienda killing Rosita’s father and capturing everyone else including her.

   So let’s see. Lt. Potaka leads an attack on the pyramids; Verdoja threatens Rosita with a bed beneath descending spikes (I said this was serial-like) if she does not submit; a jealous Josefa comes upon them and dies under the spikes at Verdoja’s hand; the Indians who followed Alonzo return and Verdoja and the Indians leave his men in the lurch battling Potaka to steal the treasure; and Sternau, Hassenfeffer, and Wilson escape along with Josefa’s treacherous father who tells them of the treasure and where it is — he dies of course before it does him any good, it’s getting to the end and too many villains are still around to be picky — a bit like the last act of Hamlet.

   Verdoja and the Indians find the treasure but as they gloat over the gold and begin to fight each other the old Indian lets loose the lava held back by a dam built by the Aztecs and it buries Verdoja alive with his gold as Sternau and the others, rather calmly all things considered, watch the volcano erupt taking its dead princess and the old medicine man and the secret of Montezuma’s gold.

   I think I might have made a strategic retreat since it is entirely possible to look at the end of the film and think they are all blown to smithereens even though you know that was not the film makers’ intention.

   At least I don’t think it was. Remember my German is sketchy at best.

   Juarez would have to wait until 1867 to drive the French out and execute Maximilian, but he never did find the gold as you can tell by Mexico’s economic state in the years that have followed.

   It’s just as well it ends here. Rik Battlagia’s Captain Verdoja was the most interesting and vital character, a brutal, nasty, and still rather attractive rogue compared to Barker’s stoic Dr. Sternau. I kept thinking what a good Doc Savage Barker would have made, Doc doesn’t show emotion either. He’s good in this, but his range of emotion is at best limited.

   Okay, by limited I mean he smiles and frowns in the right places.

   To be fair I think that was all they wanted him to do.

   You’ll pardon me if I take a breath here.

   I fully admit this is disjointed and confused as it sounds at times. The scenes don’t always flow smoothly, and the logic is very much like the silent German serials such as Joe May’s The Indian Tomb that inspired it. But Spain and Yugoslavia make a surprisingly good Mexico, the cinematography is first rate, the actors attractive, Barker a steadfast hero, Walter sometimes good comic relief, Lorca a busty but still young and nubile Indian princess, Giradon and Panaro attractive and good in their roles, and just about everyone acting as if they know exactly how much this was costing to make. Barker got $120,000 for the Winnetou movie The Treasure of Silver Lake, so I assume he got twice that for these two about the same time.

   No wonder Barker stayed in Europe. Even as Tarzan he was never the star here he was there, and anyway he was fluent in five languages and brought up rich and sophisticated. Besides he had to pay alimony for Lana Turner and Arlene Dahl somehow along with one other, a current one, and there was one who died. Whether Jane and Cheetah got anything or not his biography doesn’t say.

   I’ve had a bit a fun at the expense of this, but its a big good-natured film, and like the shaggy dog it resembles its impossible not to want to scratch it behind the ears. It’s entertaining is the best you can say for it, but that ought to be more than enough and there was no time in the movie when I smiled or laughed that I felt I was being snarky about it — I was just participating and reacting the way the film makers wanted.

   If you are expecting the Robert Siodmak of Phantom Lady or The Killers you won’t find him, instead this harkens back to his early days in German cinema when he, Lang, Wilder, and others were learning their way. I would be surprised to find he or anyone involved didn’t at least enjoy the concept. It also goes back to the silent epics when Lang and others made their films epic length because if more than one film played at the same theater the take at the box-office had to be shared.

   I know this being in German will put many of you off, and if you don’t understand a little of the language it will be even more daunting, but everything you really need to enjoy this is in this review or the synopsis at IMBd. It’s not a thinking mans picture with a great deal of sub text or ur-text. I can’t imagine the screenplay for the three hour film was more than ninety pages at most. Like a Republic serial or B Western, fight scenes, good ones, take up a good deal of the running time.

   So enjoy.

   Of course you’ll need three hours to spare …

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE LAST OF THE VIKINGS. Tiberius Film, Italy, 1961. Medallion Pictures, US, 1962. Original title: L’ultimo dei Vikinghi. Also released as El último vikingo (Spain). Cameron Mitchell, Edmund Purdom, Isabelle Corey, Hélène Rémy, Andrea Aureli, Mario Feliciani. Director: Giacomo Gentilomo.

   Although I didn’t have the highest expectations when I started to watch it on DVD last night, The Last of the Vikings, is a surprisingly good “sword-and-sandal” movie. It’s not The Vikings (1958), but for what it is, namely a fairly entertaining escapist action film, it’s not all that bad.

   Directed by Giacomo Gentilomo, (Mario Bava is uncredited), this Italian Viking epic (how’s that for a sub-genre?) stars Cameron Mitchell as Harald, a Viking warrior determined to revenge the death of his father at the hands of the mad King Sveno (Edmund Purdom). Along the way, he both learns what love is, and subsequently falls in love with the beautiful Hilde (French actress-model Isabelle Corey). After numerous obstacles thrown in his path, our fearlessly determined protagonist eventually slays the sadistic Sveno and gets the girl.

   Unlike some other costumers and adventures flics from the same era, Last of the Vikings doesn’t play it light.

   Indeed, there is something very dramatic (in the Shakespearean sense) about the performances in this little-known film. Cameron Mitchell and Edmund Purdom are both very good actors, and it shows. Look in particular for the scene in which Harald (Mitchell) slays a traitor in his midst. Mitchell’s performance is nearly flawless in that moment; he just seems to be a natural actor for portraying leads in revenge dramas.

   Unfortunately, the version of the movie that I watched, a DVD released by Alpha Home Entertainment, has a visual quality that is, well, acceptable, but not much more than that. Since I don’t suppose that anyone will be restoring this movie anytime soon, that may be the best available copy for the foreseeable future.

   That’s a shame, because the actors did take their roles seriously and there is a really great – awesome, really – fight sequence at the end, one that far surpasses most, if not all, digitally manufactured CGI battle sequences.

   Who knows? Maybe there’s a 35mm copy out there somewhere, tucked away in an archive or a private collection, just begging to be watched on the big screen.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE BANDITS OF CORSICA. United Artists, 1953. Richard Greene, Paula Raymond, Raymond Burr, Dona Drake, Raymond Greenleaf, Lee Van Cleef. Director: Ray Nazarro.

   The story is kind of silly, the costumes aren’t the most spectacular, and at least one member of the cast seems as if she would have benefited tremendously from acting lessons. Even so, The Bandits of Corsica, a costumer/swashbuckler starring Richard Greene is nevertheless a fairly entertaining quasi-Western romp through Alexander Dumas’s fictionalized version of Corsican history.

   Greene, in a dual role, portrays Siamese twin brothers separated at birth. Mario Franchi, the “good one,” is a wealthy Corsican with a beautiful girl by his side. The other brother, Lucien, is a shell of a man long thought dead. But he’s not dead, of course. He’s living with amnesia under the name Carlos. But that’s not all. He’s camping out with Gypsies and, through an invisible psychic connection, can feel pain that his twin brother experiences. Did I mention that deep down he hates Mario?

   As far as the plot, it’s not all that elaborate. The two brothers reunite to fight the evil local tyrant, Baron Cesare Jonatto (Raymond Burr) and his nephew (Lee Van Cleef). Watching these two fine character actors portray would-be Napoleons is just a fun cinematic experience. In many ways, they’re more interesting to watch than is Greene in either of his two roles.

   All told, The Bandits of Corsica is a slightly better than average 1950s adventure film. It’s not the greatest film out there for its genre, but the last half hour has a distinct Gothic atmosphere, is quite well filmed, and contains just enough action to keep the viewer’s attention.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

MR. NICE GUY. A Raymond Chow/Golden Harvest Production, Hong Kong, 1997; first released as Yat goh ho yan. New Line Cinema, US, 1998 (dubbed). Jackie Chan, Richard Norton, Miki Lee, Karen McLymont, Gabrielle Fitzpatrick. Director: Sammo Kam-Bo Hung.

   I don’t think it’s going out on a limb for me to state that one usually doesn’t watch Jackie Chan movies for the intricate plots and captivating dialogue. No. One watches them for their action sequences, superbly timed humor, and their extraordinarily well-choreographed martial arts moments.

   It’s also very difficult not to like Jackie Chan as both a performer and as a person. He seems, well, like a nice guy.

   In Mr. Nice Guy, Jackie trades on that persona and portrays a fictionalized version of himself as a Melbourne-based television cooking show host. But it doesn’t take too long into the film to realize that he’s agile both with the kitchen utensils and with his fists.

   The story follows Jackie’s chivalrous attempts to protect both a television newswoman and his girlfriend from a drug cartel and a street gang. In a somewhat ludicrous plot device, Jackie accidentally ends up with a videocassette that depicts a drug deal gone awry between the two aforementioned criminal elements. The tape falls into the hands of the grandchildren of his co-host. Oh, and guess what? His co-host’s son just happens to be a cop.

   You can see where this is heading.

   But as I said at the outset, one doesn’t watch movies like this for the plot.

   It’s all about the action, the fights, the stunts, and the sheer excitement of watching Jackie Chan punch, kick, and swing his way around Melbourne’s city streets, construction sites, and apartment blocks. It’s a great, thrilling ride from beginning to end. There are some particularly amazing stunt sequences, including a lengthy chase on an apartment building top and another in a half-constructed building.

   Mr. Nice Guy isn’t a movie you need to think a lot about. It’s just a lot of fun. Look for the cameo of the Hong Kong New Wave director, Sammo Hung, as a bicycle courier. It’s a great little scene in a great little action film.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

FLAME OF ARABY. Universal International, 1951. Maureen O’Hara, Jeff Chandler, Maxwell Reed, Lon Chaney Jr., Buddy Baer, Richard Egan, Royal Dano, Susan Cabot. Director: Charles Lamont.

   Imagine you’re pitching a movie project about a Bedouin tribesman in an obsessive pursuit of a wild black stallion. And that Bedouin happens to fall in love with a Tunisian princess threatened by her malevolent cousin.

   Now, ask yourself: whom would you want to see cast for the two leading roles?

   Perhaps you’d consider choosing a Brooklyn-born Jewish actor less than a decade out of U.S. military service and a redheaded Irish actress perhaps best known to the public for her starring role in Miracle on 34th Street. Then you’d think to yourself: nah, that couldn’t work. That wouldn’t work.

   But you’d be wrong.

   In Flame of Araby, an entertaining work of pure escapism, Jeff Chandler stars as Tamerlane, a Bedouin chief in hot pursuit of a wild black stallion in the North African desert. His pursuit is initially interrupted when he is forced to save the Tunisian Princess Tanya (Maureen O’Hara), from a horse stampede. The push and pull, loathing and attraction, between these two characters propel this adventure story forward.

   Joining these two major Hollywood stars on their wild gallop through an Arabesque fantasy world are Lon Chaney Jr. and Buddy Baer, who portray two Barbarossa brothers in competition for Princess Tanya’s hand in matrimony. Chaney definitely plays it to the hilt, making Borka Barbarossa a memorable, although not particularly evil, big screen villain. He seems to be having fun with this character, making him just a delight to watch.

   Now I’m not going to say that Flame of Araby is somehow a neglected classic or a gem hiding in plain sight. In many ways, it’s quite dated and doesn’t stand up to the test of time all that well. The costumes occasionally appear more silly than stylish. And some of the dialogue, including the overabundant usage of the term “wench,” while not particularly offensive, only detracts from the narrative and visual flow of the production.

   Still, there’s something to be said for a time when Hollywood studios were turning out innocently fun adventure tales that successfully transported the viewer to foreign, exotic locales, desert lands that never truly existed outside the imagination of poets and artists from long ago.

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