Friday, 17 May 2013

Icons of the Overlooked #7: Fred Ward

Fred Ward is an actor many will know by face only.  Although occasionally popping up in more widely released works he is a regular in B, TV and straight to VHS movies.  I’ve been planning to write an article on this guy for some time but have found it very difficult to characterise why I think he should have gotten more exposure.  In fact I’ve struggled with what I could write at all. I just can’t seem to encapsulate what makes him so special.  My original thoughts amounted to the following:

  •          Blue-collar everyman
  •         Less threatening Charles Bronsan, but in a good way
  •         If Die Hard where based on a true story what I’d imagine the real John McClane to be like
  •        Reliable.

Hardly revelatory but all true.  Yet it is the last one that really stuck with me.  You see his presence has been felt here at Total Cults for some time. Miami Blues, Uncommon Valour, Tremors and Timerider have all been name-checked in articles or podcasts, yet his role in those films never really focussed upon.  It appears to be very easy to overlook this guy. Why?  Well, he never showboats, never steals the limelight and with a few exceptions always sticks to supporting roles.  Even if he is in a lead role, Remo: Unarmed and Dangerous AKA Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (Guy Hamilton, 1985) for example, his performance is never overpowering.  He is always serving the story, the character, the moment, rather than himself.

Reliable, then, is too small a word; he is the support.  Whatever role he takes is there to give the film someone to lean on, to help carry it across the finish line.  He is a selfless performer, always allowing the headliners the bedrock on which to build their attention-grabbing performances.  To talk about him and him alone would not be in the spirit that he approaches his work.  So I’m going to let his work, or at least some of my favourite examples, do the talking.

Uncommon Valor (Ted Kotcheff, 1983)

One of my favourite men-on-a-mission movies and one I take any opportunity to talk about (as I did when celebrating Reb Brown here).  Gene Hackman leads a group of Vietnam vets back into the warzone to rescue his still captured son.  Ward again falls into the background allowing actors like Brown, Patrick Swayze, Tim Thomerson and Rex Cobb to shine.  He’s a quiet, stealthy black-ops kinda guy, who uses his finely tuned skills to bring the rest of the team back up to scratch.  This plays out in a fun training montage where Ward leaps out from various hiding places to hang “you’re dead” signs on his unsuspecting, and subsequently bewildered, team-mates.  He is also responsible for teaching me how to properly kill a man with a knife.  His method might be movie nonsense but when he tells me to “scramble the brain” I believe every word.  The film has great chemistry, action and actually makes you give a shit about these characters and the latter is all down to the brilliant casting. 

Miami Blues (George Armitage, 1990)

When Reservoir Dogs hit big I went out looking for more smart, funny and violent crime dramas.  This was one of the few I found that scratched the itch that Dogs caused.  Ward plays Hoke Mosely, a gruff Miami detective who is a little past his prime.  He crosses paths with Alec Baldwin’s career criminal who mugs Mosely and steals his badge and gun.  Using this badge Baldwin’s character shakes down the entire city for his own benefit with Mosely struggling to keep up.  If you think Baldwin is at his best while being both intense and funny then this performance is right up there with his work in Glengarry Glen Ross and 30 Rock.  Supported by Jennifer Jason Lee as a sweet and na├»ve prostitute and some other walk-ons by instantly recognisable faces Baldwin eats up the screen.  But Ward’s grounded turn is the backbone of the piece giving the film pathos and heart.  You should all watch this as soon as possible.

Cast a Deadly Spell (Martin Campbell, 1991)

Cast a Deadly Spell is without doubt the jewel in Ward’s filmography.  The opening caption ("Los Angeles, 1948.  Everybody uses magic.") describes the concept better then I ever could, but don’t think I’m not going to try.  Ward plays H. Phillip Lovecraft, a private investigator hired to recover the Necronomicon from a local mobster.  The production value on display is great mixing convincing period detail with fun creature effects and all wrapped up in snappy script that drips wit.  Ward plays the lead again yet, since your classic noir (anti)hero is never in control and never guiding the story, the role plays to his strengths.  Here Ward is bounced around a devious plot by a great cast including Clancy Brown, David Warner and an early turn from Julianne Moore as an effective femme fatale.  Ward sits back and lets these scenery-chewers go about their work while interjecting his world-weary look and the occasional zinger.  It is clear from this film he was born for noir.  I pretty much fell in love with this movie minutes after it had began and cannot recommend it enough.

Of course I don’t know the guy.  He could be a bitter shell of an actor, once desperate for the limelight now cursing having been pushed into supporting roles.  I can only go with what is up on the screen and in that respect I have confidence in calling Ward the ultimate cinematic wingman.  The kind of actor whereby adding him to your cast list automatically increases your confidence that the role in question will be inhabited by someone who is tough by sympathetic, likeable but intimidating, kind and mean but most of all: selfless. 

Fred Ward is the back up, and more people should have called him in.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Future Hunters (Cirio H. Santiago, 1986)

Since the human brain first developed the capacity for curiosity an almost incalculable number of questions have been asked by it.  The answers to these questions can sometimes be obvious, playfully shy or often downright illusive.  Some answers, however, are found in the most unlikely places.  Future Hunters, a low-budget 80's adventure starring Robert Patrick, is the custodian of an answer to a question that has perplexed man's developing mind since it first dared to ask it:

What if, like The Terminator, a soldier was sent back in time to avert a nuclear war caused by killer cyborgs but instead of a soldier it's Mad Max and instead of killer cyborgs it's nazis?

We open as Matthew, played by the utterly awesome Richard Norton, races through a post-apocolyptic wasteland in his makeshift muscle car-cum-tank. He quickly despatches his pursuers with his massive super-gun and races to his destination. 

Charging towards the destroyed temple he's been looking for he continues to wipe out a variety of armed guards before reaching his goal; the very spear that pierced Jesus Chirst's side. Touching it, Matthew is flung back in time where he meets Slade, played by Robert Patrick, and his wannabe-archeologist but actual bar-owner girlfriend Michelle. Arriving just in time to stop her from being sexually assaulted by Hell's Angels he passes on the spearhead to Michelle telling her that it must be reconnected to the shaft in order to avert the nuclear disaster that caused his future. He then, very rudely, dies on them.

That's how you open a movie.

Returning to her bar Michelle tries to convince Slade to help her look for the shaft. It is here we get some much needed character crafting. Michelle is stoic and determined and obviously slumming it in the hospitality industry. Unfortunately you get the sense she is slumming it with Slade too. Utterly failing to defend her from the bikers in the opening moments of the film, Slade then refuses to believe there is anything odd about what just occurred, actually suggesting she hallucinated some of it.  He then arrives at the bar with the time-travelling Christ-spear beating news that he's got a job as an airline mechanic at a crop-dusting company. Michelle flat out ignores him, focussing on the spear and the mission ahead of her.  It is in these moments we clearly understand that Slade is a bit of a simple and ineffective dummy, while Michelle is determined, ambitious and righteous. This bittersweet scene is rudely interrupted by a guy who looks like Andre the Giant and Boss Hog got in Seth Brundle's machine together.

This albino-ish lunk and his henchmen are also after the spear and make it clear how serious they are by breaking a few of her glasses and throwing a chair on the floor before being scared off by some teenage customers who don't even come into the bar. Obviously terrified our heroic duo go to meet a friendly archeologist who tells them they need to go to China. So they do.

They are not there more than five minutes before Slade and his Chinese friend Liu, played by Bruce Lee boot-filler Bruce Le, are involved in an old-school kung-fu fight with a
traditionally long haired white-beardy martial arts master.  Meanwhile Michelle is busy having her breasts exposed by some Chinese thugs that have burst into her hotel room to find the spear. Luckily Liu and Slade make it back in time to save her. Acting on info gained from one of the thugs our duo ditch Liu and head off the jungles of Asia to find the shaft.

It is at this point we find that the kind archeologist that sent them to China and Andre the Brundlehog are actually nazis who want the spear and shaft to rule the world. This presumably means the Chinese thugs were also nazis.

The movie then shifts a further gear, going from post-apocalyptic time travel kung-fu movie and settling into a straight boys-own adventure. This is also the point where Slade, despite being utterly useless up until now, is suddenly able to out-shoot trained armed guards in machine gun battles, fly a variety of aircraft and converse with ancient non-English speaking tribes. Michelle, on the other hand, runs around in a nightie, narrowly avoids a third sexual assault, gets scared by snakes and generally watches Slade take care of business. Although to be fair, she does get a pretty awesome knife fight with an oriental amazonian (seriously) over a pit of crocodiles.

As you may have gathered from the above this film is a little schizophrenic yet a whole lot of fun. It is obviously made by people who either have a lot of love for the genre films of the time or believed that squishing as many rip-offs into one movie would result in it being a smash. Despite the obvious homages (ahem) to Mad Max, The Terminator and Shaw Brothers movies you get some Temple of Doom (including a Wille Scott snake encounter and a directly lifted rope bridge moment) and even some Return of the Jedi (the tribe Slade makes friends with are dwarves who dress as Jawas and act like Ewoks).

In addition the action is actually quite well staged. From the opening car battle to the numerous high adventure moments the film delivers. Even the martial arts sequence is choreographed and shot like a proper kung-fu movie.

But sometimes the jarring shifts can work against it. The frequent sexual threats Michelle has to endure are bad enough, but the nudity is not only entirely unnecessary it's also mean-spirited. Yet it's the characters that really suffer. If they'd have stuck with Michelle as the cool hero and Slade as the bumbling sidekick it would have been fine, but the role-reversal short changes Michelle and elevates Slade to something he doesn't deserve.  In the end you are left with nonone you either care for or even like.  Not only is the film missing some good heroes but also villains, as the nazi archeologist and his mutant Milky Bar kid are frankly as non-threatening as nazis can get (and I am including Allo' Allo' in that).

The Big Bad.
And so we have a barmy genre mash-up that despite some jarring attempted sex-assaults and weak characters is a whole lot of fun. Oh, if it were only that simple.

Like all truly perplexing riddles the answers throw up even more questions. A few months back I watched a film called Equalizer 2000.

This film features Richard Norton as a Max Rockatansky style character with a black car and a huge super-gun.  Sound familiar?  As the opening moments of Future Hunters unfolded I found myself wondering if this was just co-incidence. I checked IMDB and found that not only do the films share the same Director but were made only a year apart (Future Hunters is the former). More mind-blowing is the fact that in the latter film Norton's character is called Slade. Does Robert Patrick's character eventually become a post-apocalyptic warrior that travels back in time under the assumed name Matthew to send himself on a mission to save the world? Is it a lazy Director re-using old ideas or is it a greater attempt to build mythology?  Does the Director pick up any more threads to this time-spanning tapestry in his later works?  

I guess I'll just have to check out some more Cirio H. Santiago movies to find out. While I do that you can do a lot worse than checking out the utterly insane Future Hunters.