Von Ryan’s Express
Two of the best action subgenres of the 1950s & '60s were the POW escape films (Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape) and train adventure flicks (Narrow Margin, The Train, Dark of The Sun). So what would happen if you combine the two? You get a really fun, utterly ridiculous, totally memorable movie from ’65: Von Ryan’s Express. Besides being a train adventure, what sets this one apart from other POW flicks is the adversary. While the prisoners of Stalag 17 and The Great Escape were housed in German camps and Kwai had Japanese overlords, the captives of Von Ryan’s Express are stuck in an Italian camp. And whether based on any kind of truth or not, Italian guards just don’t feel as cruel or deadly as their other Axis Powers partners. Based on a novel by David Westheimer (who also penned the novelization of Days of Wine and Roses), with the solid journeyman director Mark Robson (Earthquake, Valley of the Dolls) at the helm, this was made in the heyday of Frank Sinatra vanity projects and as usual he often feels miscast as an actual human being. On paper his role seems better suited for a more obviously physical presence, like a Lee Marvin. After all, Sinatra looks like he would be more comfortable with a martini in his hand than a machine gun, but his skinny frame in a wrinkled military outfit only lends to the absurdity and the fun.
A depressed group of mainly British prisoners in an Italian camp get a load of energy into their squalid existence when American Colonel Ryan (Sinatra) shows up, having been shot down in Italy. The highest ranking officer before him showing up was the very English Major Fincham (the always watchable Trevor Howard, in the more hammy late phase of his impressive career), who doesn’t like being pushed around by the runty Yank. When Ryan sees the poor condition of the health of the men, he rats out the tunnels they’ve been digging, in order to get the medicine the wacky Italians have been holding from them. But Ryan slowly earns the Brit’s respect by getting them new clothes and taking his punishment in the “sweat box.” Later, when it appears the war is coming to an end, the Italian guards flee giving the POWs free reign. They take off through Italy but are eventually caught again and put on a train headed for Rome, which is now overseen by nasty Germans who kill all the sick men. This is where the more original action setpieces start, as Sinatra and the boys take over the train and then have to ride it out of Italy while posing as Germans. In maybe the most bizarre scene, a British doctor (Edward Mulhare) who speaks some German poses as a Nazi high command to get the clearance for the train trip to continue and the two fifty-somethings, Howard and Sinatra, dress up like Nazi soldiers to accompany him. They must be the two oldest looking privates in the German army and actually resemble the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow when they dress up as flying monkey soldiers in The Wizard of Oz. What a sight for sore eyes!Continue Reading
Important in the evolution (or devolution) of Sylvester Stallone is Nighthawks. From ‘81, it falls in that post-Rocky burst when Sly was still considered a legitimate actor. Though Paradise Alley, F.I.S.T or Rocky II didn’t threaten Hoffman or De Niro’s place as America’s top actor-laureates, Sly hadn’t yet become the steroidy, sequely crap machine he would come to be known as (of course with some quality films like Rocky III, First Blood to come and later Cop Land, but with mostly junk between). Today Nighthawks feels like a gritty '70s cop film. (It was originally developed to be French Connection 3.) It’s taut, strong but not overly muscular, and moves at a fast pace that you don’t notice till it’s over. Frankly, one of the most interesting aspects here is that Stallone in Serpico mode (bearded with longish hair) often wears glasses (big, clear disco-era glasses), which is something rarely seen in an action hero and symbolizes how the film was a leftover from the more character-driven film days (the glorious '70s) before guys like Schwarzenegger (and Sly) made them into total cartoons. Sly’s cop even pines for his ex-wife (played by TV’s Bionic Woman, Lindsay Wagner). The guy is vulnerable, not always successful and flawed. Nighthawks represents the end of an era, not just for Stallone but for the realistic action hero.
Actor Rutger Hauer made a name for himself on the international circuit from his work with director Paul Verhoeven in Turkish Delight, Soldier of Orange, Katie Tippel and Spetters. Nighthawks would be his first American film, though not his first English language one. (Earlier he had appeared in the British flick The Wilby Conspiracy.) Word from the set is that he and Stallone clashed. (More reason to love him!) Here the Dutchman plays a Euro terrorist known as Wulfgar who, after wearing out his welcome abroad, heads for the States. Meanwhile, New York street detectives Deke DaSilva (Stallone) and his partner Matthew Fox (Billy Dee Williams, fresh from The Empire Strikes Back introducing him to audiences outside of black '70s cinema, where he was already a superstar leading man) are being transferred from their play-by-their-own-rules undercover decoy work to a terrorist unit, which is already on the lookout for Wulfgar. Knowing he’s a sucker for foxy dancing queens, in a subtly intense scene, the eagle-eyed Deke manages to spot Wulfgar through the crowd at a discotheque, despite him getting face-changing plastic surgery, which leads to an exciting Friedkin-esque foot chase through lower Manhattan. Wulfgar manages to finally escape with a nasty knife slash to Fox’s face, making things personal now for Deke. And the cock-blocking Deke pulled makes things equally personal for Wulfgar. The one-upmanship eventually leads to an exciting highjacking showdown on the Roosevelt Island Tram and a crazy cross-dressing twist ending.Continue Reading
On a first peek the Golan/Globus produced Runaway Train looks like it could be a standard prison-break action flick, but further along the viewer realizes it’s much more.Though it has slam-bang action and some spectacular stunt work, it’s actually some kind of thought-provoking, oddly foreign feeling (meaning perhaps, intellectual) character study. Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus' company Cannon Films made its name in the '80s with loud action movies like the Missing in Action flicks, the Sly Stallone steroidy Cobra, Breakin’ (and its sequel Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo) and the unwarranted sequels to Death Wish (including the so-bad-it’s-good Death Wish 3). On paper Runaway Train should have been just more adrenaline-sploitation, but the back story alone led it in a direction that made it totally unique. It's based on a screenplay by Japanese filmmaking legend Akira Kurosawa (and his long time collaborators Hideo Oguni and Ryuzo Kikushima), who had been hoping to make it back in the late '60s. Instead veteran Russian director Andrey Konchalovskiy took it over, while Kurosawa got a “based on a screenplay by” credit and the final script credits went to the odd threesome of Djordje Milicevic (a Serb), Paul Zindel (famous for writing the play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds) and the very interesting Edward Bunker, who turned his own criminal life into a successful writing and acting career. (Books he wrote were adapted into the underrated movies Straight Time and Animal Factory, and as an actor he appeared in many films including Runaway Train. Most famously he played Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs. What a long strange trip it’s been, indeed.)
In a nasty, damp Alaskan prison, superstar criminal bank robber (Jon Voight) has won his state appeal. Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan) is forced to remove him from solitary confinement, where his cell was welded shut. He's a legendary badass and the prisoners are excited to have him back in the population, especially his brother, Jonah (Bunker) and a young boxer, Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts) who's in on a statutory rape conviction and who takes hero worship to a new level. Manny wants to escape with his bro but when Ranken sends a killer after Manny, Jonah ends up getting messed up bad. So by default Manny hooks up with the annoying Buck instead. The two escape through a drain pipe and then make an impossible trek through a freezing Alaskan wasteland and eventually hop a freight train...home free. Somehow the train conductor dies and the train becomes a runaway, barreling through another train and making a deadly derailment the only possible option for the befuddled group of train dispatchers (C.K Carter, Kenneth McMillan and Kyle T. Heffner, the nerd from Flashdance). It turns out the train does have another passenger, a railroad worker named Sara (Rebecca De Mornay, a few years after her breakthrough in Risky Business, still looking for the role that should have taken her to the next level--something that unfortunately never quite happened for this talented actress).Continue Reading
After his great little run of action films from 1975 - 1982 that included The Driver, The Warriors, Southern Comfort and 48 Hrs, gritty director Walter Hill wandered in the wrong direction with the action musical Streets of Fire and the unfunny Richard Pryor comedy Brewster’s Millions. Even though he would go on to have a big hit with the Schwarzenegger muscle bore Red Heat, most of his flicks had potential but oddly fell short (Johnny Handsome, Wild Bill). He did do an underrated urban thriller, Trespass, but otherwise nothing reached that earlier high.
Hill started out as a writer and one of his first credited screenplays was for Sam Peckinpah’s mean spirited thriller, The Getaway. So Hill’s 1987 Tex-Mex action flick Extreme Prejudice, though completely ignored by audiences in its day, now plays as a perfect homage to his one-time boss, Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs), the master of masculine violence who had burned out and died a few years earlier. With about as good a cast of tough guy character actors you could find in 1987 (including Nick Nolte, Powers Boothe, Michael Ironside, Rip Torn, Clancy Brown and William Forsythe), time has been kind to Extreme Prejudice. Though it’s set in modern day, it’s now starting to look like one of the better “Westerns” made in 1980s.Continue Reading
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot
Clint Eastwood hit the big time with his trio of Sergio Leone-directed genre-bending spaghetti westerns and then propelled to superstardom with the vigilante-cop Dirty Harry flicks. But even while playing the mega-star in commercial fare he still managed to make a number of unusual flicks you wouldn’t expect from an actor riding such a glorious wave. Films like the gothic, civil war, teen lust thriller The Beguiled or playing a sociopathic rapist gunmen in the western High Plains Drifter (both great flicks) matched by what could only be called a homoerotic, action, road, buddy-dramady called Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, it’s like Midnight Cowboy but with fast cars and guns. The other thing that makes the movie so unique in Eastwood’s filmography; it was the only time in the era that he was paired with a co-star with so much measurable talent. In his best performance after his debate in The Last Picture Show, Jeff Bridges gives a fascinating performance and shows why he would also eventually reach iconic status (he also got well-deserved Oscar nominations for both films). Thunderbolt and Lightfoot provides Eastwood fans with the expected muscle, but also an odd dose of heart.
After the syrupy theme song by Paul Williams called “Where Do I Go From Here?” Eastwood first appears on screen as a minister giving a sermon in a church. When an assassin tries to shoot him, clearing the church, he takes off on foot and is saved when an ecc...
At one point Sylvester Stallone was considered a real actor, bursting into superstardom with the original Rocky flick, becoming a household name and even winning an Oscar for his original screenplay. He would continue to stay popular with its first two sequels, as well as some interesting (though less popular) movies like the quasi Hoffa bio F.I.S.T and the underrated terrorism thriller Nighthawks. He would hit box office gold again in 1982 with an intelligent action flick, First Blood, and though he would go on to become a global brand, First Blood would be more or less the last time he would push himself as an actor (though about once a decade he has managed to pop up in thoughtful, quality non ‘roid roles like Cop Land in ’97 and Rocky Balboa in ’06). Though some of his roles from the '80s have become almost camp classics of bad (Cobra, Tango & Cash), First Blood was about the last time he was able to combine both muscle and a quality script to perfectly suit his oversized ego and release a flick that still holds up today.
Ted Kotcheff was a television director in the '60s, but by the next decade he hit the big screen with a string of fairly popular flicks (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Fun with Dick and Jane and North Dallas Forty). In ’82 he made the little seen but admirable cult deprograming drama Split Image as well as First Blood. It would be his peak both commercially and critically before slowly moving back to TV assignments. Still it's an interesting filmography and important to explain why First Blood works so well. Kotcheff was a character driven director, not an action hack.
Death Wish 3
The first three Death Wish films can easily be categorized as the good, the bad, and the ugly. The first one was a good, quality piece of exploitation pulp. The second is bad because it was dull and boring. The third is the ugly and isn’t ugly usually more interesting? In this case, it is. Death Wish 3 could be called bad because it’s so ridiculous and over the top but that’s also what makes it so good—it’s ridiculous and over the top. And any resemblance to the realism of the first film has been totally thrown out the window and now plays like a cartoon spoof of the vigilante genre. And forget the later Death Wish flicks to come; still starring Grandpa Charles Bronson, Death Wish 4: the Crackdown and Death Wish 5: the Face of Death, they are utterly forgettable and worse, unwatchable. But the middle child, Death Wish 3, is something special in a lovably ugly dog way.
In the first flick, Death Wish back in ’74, Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) was a respectable NY architect, but when his wife was murdered by some savage street brutes he became a stone cold vigilante, knocking them off. While less credibly in Death Wish II, Bronson was in LA and got all killy again to avenge the memory of his maid. By the time 3 begins he seems to be a guy who just casually kills goons at will. Hoping to take a relaxing vacation in the projects of Brooklyn by visiting his old war buddy, he arrives to find his friend dying, having just been beaten to a pulp by the local street creeps. The cops arrest him for the murder; after giving him a working over, Chief Shriker (the great B-movie actor, Ed Lauter of The Longest Yard) cuts a deal with him, letting him go if he will go knock off some of the ‘hood rats (a multi-racial gang of central casting punkers, biker types, and “Beat It” dancers).
Jump started by the success of the movie Airport in 1970, the “disaster movie” was a 1970’s cultural phenomenon, taking the soap-opera mold of Grand Hotel and putting a bunch of actors, ranging from big stars to has-beens all eager to cash their checks, into a dangerous situation with now cornball special effects. The best was The Poseidon Adventure and the biggest was The Towering Inferno (which inexplicably got a Best Picture Oscar nomination). But the most ambitiously awkward may’ve been Earthquake. The film was originally released extra loud in something called "Sensurround” and featured cameramen shaking cameras while Styrofoam bricks fell on extras. It was directed by Mark Robson (Valley of the Dolls) and written by Mario Puzo (yes, that’s right, Mario–the Godfather–Puzo, and he’s not the only major talent slumming here), though someone named George Fox also got a screenwriting credit as well, the only film for which he’s credited. Earthquake may not have been very good but as a cultural curiosity it’s fascinating, as a travelogue of mid-’70s Los Angeles it’s invaluable, and as a piece of ridiculous pop-junk it’s totally entertaining.
The goofball introduction to the characters goes something like this... hunky architect Stewart Graff (Charlton Heston) is in a dead marriage to Remy (Ava Gardner) and having a boring affair with a young struggling actress, Denise (Genevieve Bujold, a sorta less sexy ’70s version of Audrey Tautou), who is a single mom with an annoying son, Cory (the terrible actor but cool...
As frustrating as it is exciting, not to mention gorgeous to look at, The Untouchables succeeds in spite of its narrative inconsistencies and gaudy, oversaturated, and weirdly anachronistic film score. It shouldn’t work as well as it does but, for whatever reason, the story is compelling, the violence has a darkly operatic majesty, and, most amazing, we thrill to the actions of a bunch of prohibition enforcers. The combination of Brian De Palma’s “hard R” approach to classic Hollywood genre filmmaking and writer David Mamet’s nervy, sucker-punch dialogue are a beautiful match. The movie succeeds best as a series of excellent set pieces—the infamous baseball bat dinner party execution scene, a western-style Canadian border shootout, the ill-conceived-but-still-really-tense Battleship Potemkin-quoting Union Station scene— strung together without a true sense of narrative and thematic cohesion. Quibbles aside, though, it’s a highly entertaining gangster saga and, along with Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, one of the very best Chicago movies.
In the thick of Depression-era Chicago during the days of prohibition a federal agent named Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is appointed to head up a group to take on the Al Capone mob and its bootlegging operations. As he is in Chicago it’s immediately understood that the city was, is now, and probably always will be synonymous with civic corruption at every level. And heading a squad devoted to making it harder for people to get a drink doesn’t exactly endear him to his new colleagues. Suffice to say Ness has his work cut out for him. He sets about assembling a crew built to withstand the withering influence of institutionalized corruption. Soon Ness’s “Untouchables” are formed consisting of Sean Connery, playing a cynical Irish beat cop, Andy Garcia, as a rookie Italian cop, and Charles Martin Smith as a nerdy federal agent trying to take Capone down for income tax evasion. As they take the fight to Capone and his underlings the bodies pile up and Ness finds himself in an increasingly lonely position trying to finish what his group started.
Re-released in the U.S. as Honor Among Thieves, Farewell Friend is essentially a buddy flick masked in a slow-paced action movie. There’s the quintessential rift between two rogues, one extroverted and overly talkative and the other introverted and dependant on one-liners while desperately trying to keep the former at arm's length throughout the majority of the film. The introvert in this film is Dino Barran (Alain Delon), a military doctor who has just been discharged. Oddly enough, the extrovert is his cohort Franz Propp (Charles Bronson), a mercenary who has also been discharged and once worked with Barran in the French Foreign Legion.
Now that they’re free to go about their lives, Barran can’t wait to shed his uniform and avoid anyone and everyone from the past while Propp wants to be chummy with Barran and reminisce about old times. And as buddy films usually will have it, the two end up sharing a small slice of life regardless of their attitudes towards each other, only to realize towards the end that the other isn’t so bad. Think Planes, Trains & Automobiles with muscular soldiers who’ve been discharged and find themselves heading for the same turkey.