Billy Jack was a minor cultural phenomenon back in 1971. Written, directed, produced by, and starring Tom Laughlin, he probably made the set coffee in the morning as well. A vanity project, to say the least, but one that entertains and works as a document to the issues of the day, though the themes and ideas are incredibly muddled, which makes it all the more fascinating. Laughlin plays Billy Jack, a decorated Vietnam vet ("who turned his back on the war") and karate expert, he’s a "half-breed," hip to the philosophy and ways of the Native Americans. Billy rides around in his Jeep (and motorcycle and on horseback) toting a rifle - he uses violence for peace. Billy Jack, the film, has a lot of hippie mantra spoken, but underneath the grooviness it's actually a perfectly crafted, good, old fashion, revenge-driven, exploitation flick.
The character of Billy Jack first showed up with his badass black cowboy hat in Laughlin's earlier film, The Born Losers. In that one, Billy used his karate and his shotgun to protect a small town from a pack of scumbag bikers. Now he is protecting "The School," a different kind of educational institute, deep in the mountains of a hostile small Southwestern town. This is a place for hippies and pregnant girls and minority kids to learn chanting, ride horses, sing songs, and do groovy improv, questioning the man (led by Howard Hesseman, then of the far-out improv group, The Committee). The School is run by Jean and she is also Billy's girlfriend, or at least his biggest booster, though she digs his Indian mysticism she doesn't cotton to the violence. Laughlin’s real life old lady, Delores Taylor, plays Jean. She also co-wrote the script (under the pseudonym Teresa Christina), as well as its two unwatchable sequels, Billy Jack Goes To Washington and The Trial of Billy Jack. Taylor may know how to type pages but as an actress she is utterly uncomfortable in front of the camera, as if egged on by her boyfriend. Mercifully she has never appeared in any films outside the Laughlin canon.Continue Reading
The Poseidon Adventure
After the phenomenal success in 1970 of Airport (“Grand Hotel on a Airplane”), disaster films became all the rage of '70s pop cinema. The formula consisted of a melodramatic, soapy script with a handful of Oscar winners slumming, stuck in some kind of disastrous situation ranging from earthquakes to meteors. The best of the genre was The Poseidon Adventure, about a luxury liner that gets toppled by a tidal wave and the group of passengers trying to escape (by reaching the bottom of the boat). Besides excellent special effects and a great cast, what makes The Poseidon Adventure especially unusual is the underlying religious subtext; in some ways it’s also an allegory about the story of Jesus Christ and his followers.
On its final voyage across the Atlantic, passengers celebrate New Year's Eve on the SS Poseidon. We are introduced to a cross section of archetypes that will become the group we will stick with as they are all invited to sit at the captain’s dinner table (played with a straight face by Leslie Nielsen). A teenage girl (Pamela Sue Martin) and her obnoxious little brother (Eric Shea) travel without their parents; a brash New York cop (Ernest Borgnine) and his ex-hooker wife (Stella Stevens), on their way to meet their grandson in Israel (via Greece?); a sweet, old retired Jewish couple (Shelley Winters and Jack Albertson) play to the appropriate clichÃ©s; a lonely, soft-spoken bachelor (Red Buttons); and, most importantly, an outspoken renegade priest, Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman). Eventually, after being forced to fall in love with the cast, a massive tidal wave strikes the ship, flipping the boat upside down; a great scene of destructive mayhem follows, with some amazing stunt work.Continue Reading
Dark Of The Sun
As of writing, the tough as nails action flick Dark Of The Sun is still not available in the U.S. on DVD. To see it at home you have to endure an old pan n’ scan VHS edition, which is reportedly edited (for violence) from the original cut that graced cinemas in the late '60s. Also known as The Mercenaries, even with the low quality options, it’s worth watching. Filled with spectacular African locations, cool action, solid performances, and, most importantly, a wildly inventive score by the French composer Jacques Loussier, Dark of The Sun is a lost gem that deserves to be rediscovered.
Less preachy in its mission than more recent films like Blood Diamond, the social statements about race and economic exploitation of Africa are there, but Dark Of The Sun is more concerned with action. Ultra-cool Rod Taylor (The Birds) plays Captain Bruce Curry, a mercenary in the Congo. He is hired to retrieve a load of diamonds deep in the mountains and, while there, rescue a group of white company workers about to be attacked by rebel soldiers (Simbas). Aided by his top man, Sergeant Ruffo (American football star Jim Brown), and a drunken British doctor Wreid (Kenneth More), they put together a team of Congolese soldiers led by a nasty German Nazi officer, Henlein (Peter Carsten). Along the way they pick up a saucy Belgian care worker, Claire, who has some obvious chemistry with Curry (Yvette Mimieux, Taylor’s love interest a decade earlier in The Time Machine) and fight though UN roadblocks, rebel soldiers, and airplanes.Continue Reading
Walter Hill’s long directing resume had a number of interesting genre movies early in his career (Southern Comfort, The Warriors, The Driver, The Long Riders) but 48 Hrs. stands out not only as a gritty piece of cop pulp, but as the slam bang debut of the then edgy 21-year old Eddie Murphy, transforming the usually dour Hill formula into a funny, action comedy and one of the best films of both Hill and Murphy’s career. And frankly neither has ever lived up to the promise 48 Hrs. showed for both of them. Murphy has enjoyed some massive mainstream success but for the most part, both he and Hill most have spent the last couple decades treading between mediocre, dull, and lame.
Writing the screenplay for tough guy director Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway in the early '70s got Hill going in the business. He got his start directing soon after with the Bronson/Coburn fight fest Hard Times. He would carry on the Peckinpah legacy with films about badass guys who live in a hard-boiled world under a certain violent code (with underwhelming women’s roles, usually as hookers). With The Warriors Hill would score a bonafide hit, though it’s dark and ugly it would turn away from the Peckinpah realism into comic book territory, a style Hill would take to the max with his 48 Hrs. follow up, the action rock ‘n roll musical dud Streets Of Fire. With 48 Hrs. Hill would go back to gritty realism but find some humor, mostly because of his intensely funny actor discovery.Continue Reading
As a follow-up to director Joe Carnahan’s crazy action indie Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane, he chose to write and direct one of the grittiest, low down cop flicks in recent years, if not ever, Narc. It’s the story of two cops (Ray Liotta and Jason Patric) investigating the death of one of their colleagues. The investigation leads them deep into the heart of Detroit’s brutal drug trade (though most of the film was actually shot in Toronto). Each has their own heavy cop baggage and demons that they must tote with them through the brutal streets.
Over the years Carnahan has been linked to a number of high profile projects that have either vanished or come to fruition with other directors at the helm (ranging from Mission Impossible III to adaptations of Killing Pablo and James Ellroy’s White Jazz with George Clooney). In recent years he made the overly hyper action comedy Smokin’ Aces and the decent but forgettable restaging of TV’s The A-Team. Narc has been the peak of Carnahan’s career; it’s the film that is still getting him attached to so many high profile projects. It showed so much potential; time will tell if he is ever able to match it in quality. He was able to bring an arresting visual style, emphasizing the cool blue streets of Detroit in winter (similar to the hues Steven Soderbergh shot Detroit with in Out of Sight). The city is made to feel frigid, not just in the air, but also in the hearts of the players on both sides of the law.Continue Reading
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.
Like Romeo & Juliet before it, the basic premise of Stone Cold has been recycled dozens of times since its release (Point Break, Good Cops Don’t Cry, The Fast and the Furious). Does this sound familiar? A maverick cop goes undercover into a dangerous criminal underworld and, under the spell of the bad guy’s charismatic leader, maybe gets in a little too deep. Skipping the Actors Studio or some other pansy thespian training, Brian “The Boz” Bosworth learned his acting ropes on the NFL field. At one time he was a big football star; with his way-out mullet dos and crazy sunglasses he was a sorta steroid version of David Lee Roth.
Joe Huff (Bosworth) is a loner cop who plays by his own rules. He’s stone cold, not just because he wears stonewash jeans, but also because underneath his long black dusters he’s fearless, with almost a death wish. After being blackmailed by a prick Fed (Sam McMurray), Huff is forced to infiltrate a tough, beer- drinking biker gang who've killed a judge and been involved in all kinds of naughty activity. No longer Huff, The Boz opts for the kickass undercover name Stone. To get to the big dog, Chains Cooper (Lance Henrikson), Huff has to get past his second-in-command, the psychotic Ice (William Forsythe). And as the formula goes, Chains, though a scary dude, starts to trust Huff, and even encourages his old lady, Nancy (Arabella Holzbog), to have a go at him, but his Lieutenant Ice smells a rat.
The French Connection
Besides still being the quintessential “cop vs. international drug traffickers” flick and winning a boatload of Oscars, The French Connection also helped to establish director William Friedkin and star Gene Hackman as major talents. Hackman would hold onto his status for decades while Friedkin’s career would continue to rise before a major fizzle out.
In still maybe his greatest role, Hackman plays the doggedly determined New York narcotics detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle. Even when off work having drinks (and like most movie cops he has lots of them) he’s putting a tail on potential dope-peddling mobster creeps. He plays his hunches, which have paid off before, but more often than not have gotten him in trouble or made him look foolish. He’s a new kind of film cop—he’s as hard-boiled as Bogart but less heroic and certainly less likable. With his overt racism and lack of ethics, he’s all about busting the bad guys at any cost. With his slightly more rational sidekick Russo (Roy Scheider, in the first of his many cop roles in the ‘70s), they have a natural inclination to fight their bosses as much as the criminals. (Interestingly this was the same year that Dirty Harry was released, another famous rebel-cop.)
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...