All posts in Tough Guys

‘Defiance’ (John Flynn, 1980)

Fans of the Sergio Leone epic Spaghetti Western “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” will immediately recognise the following quote:
“There are two kind of people in this world my friend – those who like Blue Thunder, and those who like Airwolf”.

Growing up, I was an Airwolf child through and through. I used to run around the playground blowing cold breath out in front of me pretending I was Airwolf banking through the clouds at high speed.

I’ll begrudgingly concede that Blue Thunder was ok, but Airwolf had my vote (why was it called Airwolf and not ‘Airshark’? – the machine looks just like a shark from below). In fact, I don’t think I could knowingly have sexual relations with anyone who preferred Blue Thunder over Airwolf. (This is not an open invitation for Blue Thunder fans reading this to slip me a Rohypnol).

jmv_batThe success was in no small part to Jan Michael Vincent. Stringfellow Hawke was damn near the coolest man alive. I distinctly remember squinting my eyes to emulate his expression when conversing with my fellow prisoners at school.

As I grew older I checked out more of his back catalogue before his decent into alcoholism robbed him (and us) of a further career. His collaborations with Charles Bronson and Burt Reynolds are the standouts (and worth film session entries) – ‘The Mechanic’ and “Hooper’ respectively. ‘Big Wednesday’ deserves a mention for being both a superb film and a great performance.

Jan Michael Vincent had entered the Vigilante sub-genre before, with ‘Vigilante Force’ in 1976 – but he went back for more in 1980 with “Defiance”. It’s the story of a merchant seaman (you can tell he is a sailor because he has an anchor-shaped hatstand and paints pictures of boats), named Tommy Gamble, who is suspended from duty and must wait ashore until he gets permission to go back to sea. A local bartender gives him details of a cheap rental building in New York he can rest up in until he gets his call. Once in the neighbourhood, he quickly realises the locals are living under the control of a gang called the “Souls”, ruling the neighbourhood through fear.

Tommy is just trying to keep his head low and not get involved, but the gang have infiltrated daily life in the community and prove unavoidable.

churchWhist watching the film, I was reminded strongly of “Death Wish 3” – another ‘community under attack’ vigilante film. It comes close in terms of the cartoonish nature of it – the gang are helpfully made up of a Benetton-advert cast of races and creeds – the main bad guy dresses like Zorro, and they all seem to live in a big dirty commune (as with Death Wish 3’s gang). There seems to be about 20+ members – and they are not messing about: they gladly stab and shoot people when they feel like it, but their ambitions are a little low – at one point the whole gang descends on a Church hall Bingo session to steal the takings. You’ve got over 20 members with guns and getaway cars, and you decide to rob Bingo in probably the poorest neighbourhood in New York? You need a new leader. Preferably one who doesn’t wear frilly billowing red shirts and 1920’s villain make-up.

Under better leadership, I think a few of the gang would be feeling the heat come appraisal time – at a pivotal stage in the film, they break into Jan Michael Vincent’s apartment to wreak havoc while he is out. Well, I thought that was the plan – but as the door breaks inwards and gang members stream in – the only slightly criminal activity I witnessed was one flamboyant individual grabbing a sofa cushion and running into the other room with it, whilst his nearest compatriot skipped in behind him spraying shaving cream onto the carpet and a little bit of the living room wall. I couldn’t see what the others were doing, but I expect it was something equally heinous like switching dry roasted for salty in Jan’s nut stash.

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They do manage to get it together for long enough to beat the crap out Tommy in a subway toilet., in revenge for cutting one of their numbers’ ponytail off (since when has that been a bad thing? Even Michael Bolton eventually came round). They leave him for dead, not before stealing the watercolour paint set he had just purchased. Inexplicably, they leave the selection of acrylics on the ground, choosing one painting medium over another in the heat of battle. I just can’t understand the criminal mind sometimes.

The most interesting part of the film for me is the realisation that Jan Michael Vincent’s character ‘Tommy’ is a bit of an arsehole. Not in any kind of overt way, just that he really doesn’t give a toss about anyone. On his first day in the flat, his attractive female neighbour invites herself in for a chat (walks straight in off the fire escape despite the pair never meeting). As she recounts her life story, Tommy quietly goes into his bedroom and shuts the door. It’s quite a surprising moment. All Tommy wants is to get back on a ship and get off land. The vigilante always tends to keep his head down at first, but the difference here is he just doesn’t give two shits about anyone or their stories. Maybe this is the most realistic portrayal of the ‘everyman’ yet – as I can understand that point of view easily. If you had written this article, I wouldn’t be reading it, you can be sure of that. I’m an everyman.

His obsession with landing a new boat makes for a few surprising moments that may stir you from a 3am film session slumber – mostly due to Jan Michael Vincent’s inability to pronounce ‘ship’ properly. So you’ll regularly witness pedestrian dialogue scenes punctuated suddenly with such exclamations as “I need a shit Marsha”, “I’m waiting for a shit” and “I’m leaving, I gotta shit”. (If you can put 2 and 2 together I’ve just dropped a spoiler on you).

I’ll do you a favour and let you know right now that Jan Michael Vincent is not playing the Ambassador to Peurto Rico. The next door neighbour kid calls him ‘Ambassador’ all the time, as Vincent claimed to hold that role when quizzed why he was repeating lines of Spanish. I was lucky enough to catch this fact. Sleepy watchers may miss it and think the film is more “Coming To America” then “Death Wish”.

One mystery I can’t help you with is who this kid belongs to. He hangs around with an old Italian ex-boxer  (played by Luca Brassi from ‘The Godfather’)- slightly slow presumably due to his former career. My eyes narrowed during a scene when the boxer is lying in bed listening to a fight on the wireless, the camera pulls back to reveal the child sitting next to him on the bed in his underpants. Hmmm. Luca Brassi sleeps with the fishes, and underage street urchins too it seems.

The music is foul. It’s soft-rocking disco tracks – which almost reach Frank Stallone-levels of awfulness. I don’t want to comment further on this. I feel dirty.

It’s not a bad film, it just feels very forced. The neighbourhood doesn’t seem particularly marooned like the one in Death Wish 3 does – it’s in the heart of the city where the police just wouldn’t put up with that shit. The story is incredibly predictable, offering no surprises. And the only co-star of interest is Danny Aiello. And I’m stretching a bit saying he is ‘of interest’. The director is John Flynn, who has quite a few decent films under his belt – “The Outfit”, “Rolling Thunder”, “Out for Justice”. He shows little of the class on show in “Rolling Thunder” here.

Worth a watch, but put it a little further down your list than the likes of “Walking Tall” and “Vigilante”.

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Legends of the 24hr Film Session: Franco Nero

Sling a poison-tipped dart into a dung pile of seventies Italian ephemera and you’re guaranteed it’ll plonk itself into either one of Franco Nero’s handsome buttock cheeks, but don’t mistake his prolificacy for being a disposable background name.

franco1A well-built man’s man with piercing blue eyes and pubic hair spilling out from his underwear like angry ants carrying whips, Nero is a solid lead in many films; both tough and vulnerable, romantic, comic, violent and suave. His career is long and varied, but here we’ll be concentrating on the films which are fully deserving of a place in any 24hr film session.

In 1966 he lucked into the lead in Sergio Corbucci’s ‘Django’. In a way this proved to be the template for most of his coming performances – a loner seeking revenge. But prior to this would be his dalliance with Hollywood in major studio films such as ‘The Bible’  (John Huston, 1966) and ‘Camelot’ (Joshua Logan, 1967).

But we don’t care about that stuff because we’re cinematic rogues on a dirty and mysterious path; we have little or no time for Hollywood and its painted cows.

So let us skip forward a little to 1971 and Luigi Bazzoni’s spiralling (the pun’s wasted on you if you’ve not seen the film) giallo ‘The Fifth Cord’. Here Nero’s masculinity is proven as he butches around the franco2place with the character name of Andrea.  It’s a beautiful film, sumptuously shot with a confident plot which succeeds in spite of its absurdities, much like any good giallo. Andrea’s duality is clearly relished by Nero as he plays an investigative reporter looking into a killer who only kills on Tuesdays. That in itself is mysterious. If I were to kill people I’d do it on a Friday so as to maximise the impact on their family’s lives by ruining a weekend, or on a Sunday to emphasise the ungodliness of my act.

A few years later though and we get a film which impacts enormously on Nero’s future career. In 1974 he made his first film with writer/director Enzo G Castellari in ‘Il cittadino si ribella’, or to you and I: ‘Street Law. In fact from now on I shall refer to it as ‘Street Law’ simply so this doesn’t appear too obnoxious or “filmy”. In this ‘Death Wish’ inspired vigilante thriller (though Castellari insists both were in production at the same time) Nero plays a man pushed to the edge by hoodlums and ne’er-do-wells.  While Nero’s made better films, I don’t think he’s bettered this performance. From the start as he surreptitiously tries to secrete his cash in the bank during a robbery he plays a complete fish-out-of-water. This single act leads him to be kidnapped, beaten some more and generally exposed to a pretty shitty time of it. What’s great about Castellari’s film is that in fact his first act at vigilantism actually sees him getting the shit kicked out of him. It goes stupidly wrong. This in turn allows Nero’s Caro Antonelli to come back harder than ever before, and this time with a plan. He manages to overthrow the dirty crime gang and win the day, albeit with substantial blood loss. It’s clear throughout that here we have a director and actor working perfectly in tandem, no less obvious than in the scenes where Antonelli is repeatedly knocked down by a car and then driven over the edge of a cliff. That’s not a stuntman, my friend. That’s Franco Nero.

Here’s a magnificent compilation from said film:

nero3Any discussion of Nero can’t avoid the magnificent ‘Keoma’ (Enzo G Castellari, 1976). Again something of a vigilante film, but with a slightly more supernatural edge. It’s clear that Nero and Castellari were just peas and carrots. Nero has to carry the entire film as pretty much everything is told from Keoma’s point of view. He’s in every scene.

These films will all be covered individually later on this blog and in the book as there’s so much to say about each one. But Franco Nero was and always will be a cinematic legend. He even turned up in ‘Letters to Juliet’ (Gary Winick, 2010) with his wife Vanessa Redgrave. A film I was dying in front of, but his lively performance perked me up no end.

Franco Nero: We salute you.

“Uncommon Valor” (Ted Kotcheff, 1983)

Fans of early-eighties “bring the POWs back from Vietnam” type-films are very well served – in the space of three years, a trio of near-identical films were produced. “Uncommon Valor” (1983), “Missing In Action” (1984) and “Rambo: First Blood Part II” (1985).

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Uncommon Valor is the first, but most definitely the least of this series. Having never seen it, I was intrigued by the promise of a performer of Gene Hackman’s standing appearing in a knee-jerk right-wing fantasy, the likes of which sprung up repeatedly during the 80’s (It’s no surprise to see gun-nut and famous right-winger John Millius’ receive a producer credit). Hackman seems to have a wild hair in his bum about this kind of film – he’s made variations of it two more times – “Bat 21” (1988), “Behind Enemy Lines” (2001).

But ultimately it comes across no better than a cheap Canon knock-off. The locations are quite dull – the way they are captured is incredibly bland, and technically it is very shoddy in places. All of the Bangkok-set scenes seem to use very poorly implemented looping. Examples abound of forced editing decisions to fill gaps that remind the viewer of 80’s TV – where footage was repeated, slowed down and reversed, to fill gaps, or hide jarring shot clashes. Hackman looks thoroughly bored, and is certainly wasted. He only gets to show emotion once in the film, the rest of the time he is like a apathetic version of Lee Marvin in “The Dirty Dozen“.

Plus points? The supporting cast is quite spicy – Fred Ward, Tim Thomerson, Patrick Swayze, Randall Tex-Cobb; and Robert Stack in an enticing denim onesie. These are the ragtag team of Vietnam Vets brought together by Hackman to rescue his POW son who’s been MIA for ten years. They gel wonderfully in a shower scene (stay with me) where Tim Thomerson decides they should all dance together in various states of undress. Verdict? Thomerson dances like he is repeatedly killing the same ant – stepping back periodically to check out it’s guts, and Ward probably hasn’t seen a nightclub in his life (or much sun, he’s lily-white compared to the others).
swayzeOne marvellous scene has Swayze witnessing just a bit too much pointless death and destruction for his liking, rushing out of his sniper spot waving his gun around screaming “I’m gonna kill all you motherfuckers!”, before abruptly stopping on the spot and firing a thousand rounds into a nearby bush. It’s quite an existential moment – the character coming to the correct conclusion that some higher power is ultimately to blame, so why not take it out on His plants. The same theme Terrence Malick was reaching for with “The Thin Red Line” but fell short.

The soundtrack is by James Horner – which means you’re either going to get one of two scores – “Conan The Barbarian” or “Predator“. This time it’s “Predator” (Although I noticed a variation on the famous countdown theme from the ‘nuke from orbit’ scene in “Aliens“.)

So why would we want to put this in our film session line up? Well, Fred Ward and Tim Thomerson are reason enough. But the real beacon that drew us  was the director Ted Kotcheff. Famous for making “First Blood“, he went on to make one of the most oft-repeated fixtures of the 24 hour film session – “Weekend At Bernies“.

If you can only choose one ‘Bring those POWs back’ film today, then go for “Missing In Action“. It’s more fun, and has more elements of exploitation that this kind of film benefits from. Hackman really did make any old shit in the 80’s didn’t he?

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Busting (Peter Hyams, 1974)

Fans of ‘Freebie And The Bean’ would do well to check out 1974’s “Busting”, with Elliot Gould and Robert Blake.

Directed by cinema’s ultimate ‘Metteur en Scene’ – Peter Hyams – it’s a bleak buddy-cop movie set in the seedy streets of Los Angeles.

Have to report that it was an engrossing watch, with an unpredictable script. One of those films you feel like you are peering in on, rather than it being made for your benefit. The stand-out reason for watching is it’s unrelenting pessimism.

Nothing eerily prescient in Blake’s performance that would foreshadow the details of his later murder conviction. Although he does have an unlit cigarette on his lip throughout this film, so if he committed his heinous crime with an unlit cigarette on his lip (I can’t be bothered to look into this), then it is eerily prescient.

Genre fans will note the appearance of Antonio Fargas and Sid Haig in a couple of scenes.

 

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