Action Adventure movies

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.

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.

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