Thursday, 20 March 2014

Three the Hard Way (Gordon Parks Jr, 1974)

Three the Hard Way is a barnstorming blaxploitation action-fest that features iconic actors shooting and punching their way to foiling an evil villains awesomely absurd plan.

The film opens a little low-key, with an unknown character escaping from a grim prison camp. We are offered no explanation of who he is or what he is running from before the opening credits start. The credits themselves are also fairly subdued, as a romantic soul song plays over a montage of Jimmy, played by Jim Brown, talking a lovely walk with his love interest. It is when the escapee interrupts their romancing that things get interesting.

It transpires that an evil white supremacist group is developing a formula that when introduced to the water will kill all black people who drink it. Rather than go to the police or government Jimmy instead relies on his own skill set as a music producer to avert this genocide. I was unaware that the skill set of a music producer included access to and expert use of a range of firearms. I should probably stop fucking with music producers.

He then enlists the help of Jagger Daniels and Mister Keyes (Mister is actually his first name), played by Fred Williamson and Jim Kelly respectively. Their occupations are never really clarified and we are just left to assume they are professional ass-kickers. What follows is an exquisite rampage of violence. Allow me to throw some light on some of the best parts.

The action is excitingly efficient. It is fast, brutal and clumsy. This is best characterised in the amusement arcade shoot-out. Shotguns and pistols flare with sound effects that are crisp, crunchy and satisfyingly raw cutting down endless henchmen amongst showers of squib projected corn syrup and bits of exploding pinball machine. Nothing is clean nor does it appear choreographed yet it matches its messiness with fury. A second shoot-out in a car wash is equally vicious and entertaining.
This is helped by the stunt-work as provided by the legendary Hal Neeham. Although mostly small-scale stuff including falling through windows, diving from explosions and the occasional high fall, there are a couple of stand out set pieces. One stunt features two flaming cars driving off the top of a building.

The film is not afraid of absurdity either. Wanting to question a suspect for information on this secret organisation, Jagger calls in the help of some experts. They arrive in the form of a trio of female interrogators. Each has their own coloured motorcycle with matching leathers and look like Power Rangers (in a good way).

They also like to interrogate topless. This is by no means sexy, not is it shot or played as such. In fact, I am unable to explain exactly why this scene exists. It does however, make for a gloriously ludicrous moment when the film needs one the most.

Even if the film did sag a little in the middle we wouldn't have to wade in it for long as the film rattles along at a significant pace. Aside from the slow opening there is never a moment on screen that isn't fun to watch. Even when there are no fights, car chases or topless torturers the charisma of the leads are enough to entertain even without any characterisation.

The villain is also fun. Monroe Feather may be evil, but he looks like a member of local government. He is small, conservative and dressed in grey and even though he controls an army of swastika-ish wearing soldiers he still comes across as non-threatening. What I love about the this guy, though, is how he completely looses his shit when things get bad. When our heroic threesome attacks his compound at the climax of the film he just panics and runs around wailing "why is this happening?" like a spoilt child who's had his toys taken away. A racist, right-wing official who is all mouth an no balls? For all the liberties the film takes with realism Feather actually represents one of the most likely bad guys I've seen on screen for some time.

The final battle not only has our bad guy running away crying but also has all of the films qualities on show. The action is as well staged as it has been all throughout the film but on a far greater scale. Jimmy wields a small sub-machine gun that fires seemingly magic bullets. When they strike a human body they wound in a normal way, yet when they strike a wall they explode like dynamite.
This must be another skill unique to music producers. Jimmy is not all powerful, though, as during one prolonged shot actor Jim Brown completely stacks it over a table. It looks like it would have hurt too but the trooper carries on until the end of the shot. This battle all takes place in an expensive looking mansion location and is just one of the varied and interesting backdrops the movie plays out against. Aside from the ones already mentioned we also get a mountainside water treatment plant, a martial arts school and some grungey streets.

Curiously we spend very little time on the streets. In fact our trio all seem well off, well dressed and tend to hang out in really nice places. When we first meet Keyes he's being framed for possession by presumably racist cops but he hands them all their arses without consequence. And yes, black people being dragged off the streets and experimented on hardly raises aspirations, but it is Bond level villainy rather than socio-real issues. My experience of blaxploitation is limited to a few movies, but all the ones I have seen take place in derelict buildings, on littered streets and involve low-level crime. It was therefore refreshing to see black characters who seem to be doing alright for themselves.

Slow start aside the only thing that left me cold was the music. It is by no means bad, but not the badass score I was expecting. That minor point aside I had a tremendous amount of fun with this film and it is one I think I'll find myself revisiting many times. Plus, the outfit Jim Brown wears in the end has to be seen to be believed.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Hercules in the Haunted World (Mario Bava, Franco Prosperi 1961)

Hercules has always fascinated me as a character. Since violence rarely solves anything in real life (stops things yes, but stopping is not solving) there is pleasure in seeing a character solve issues with nothing but brute strength, especially when that character is one of the good guys. If Hercules faces an issue he either punches it or picks it up and throws it with absolutely no process of thought required. If only life and its problems where that simple…

To be fair the problem that Hercules has to face in this fun little fantasy flick is hardly simple. Returning home Hercules discovers the love of his life has grown distant and that her long-term sanity is at risk. Hercules must travel to Hades to retrieve a magical stone that will restore her unaware that Christopher Lee's King Lico is manipulating them both to fulfil his own devious agenda.

Hercules attacks this quest with his usual brute strength and with the help of two companions; Theseus and Telemachus. Theseus is a mucky bugger and is perpetually rolling in the hay with a woman he has seduced. Telemachus is the comic relief and is an awful blight on an otherwise wonderful film. His grating presence is thankfully minimal and he provides very little help to the heroes and even less to the narrative.

These characters are generally there to give Hercules someone to converse with as the main bulk of the film is taken up with his own brand of problem solving. To this end he fights off raiders by throwing a wagon at them, pulls four horses by hand, creates a slingshot out of a boulder and rope and single-handedly holds a closing walls trap at bay. When his friend his attacked by an awesome rock monster with S&M tendencies Herc simply picks him up and throws him into another pile of rocks. even his final confrontation with Lico is resolved in a satisfyingly efficient way rather than with any careful strategising.

The fantasy of brute strength solving all is not actually the movies main draw. Since it was co-directed by the amazing Mario Bava its main selling point is that it is packed pull of atmosphere, production design and clever special effects. The external locations are lush and vast, with every inch filled with detail while internal sets are sparse yet make use of rich lighting. Hades in particular looks spectacular.

Bava is no stranger to horror and it is no surprise that Hercules in the Haunted World features some fairly eerie moments. There is a scene involving mud that, although not an idea that is inherently scary, creates an image that would have terrified me as a child. It is the finale, however, that features the most overt use of horror imagery. As Herc finally tracks down Lico he is set upon by flying zombies. This may sound absurd, and it is, yet the way they crawl from their coffins is extremely creepy and even the presence of clearly visible strings doesn't stop the images of them hurtling out of the mist from being powerful.

The ending promotes a slightly odd morality. Hercules and his love are re-untied on a lovely beach. Unfortunately it appears Telemachus has survived the quest too. Rather than assault us with his own brand of comedy/terrorism, though, he reveals he is to be married. Before we have time to pity his fiancée Theseus arrives, promptly steals her and runs off, presumably to touch her up behind a bush or something. Telemachus lies on the floor humiliated and betrayed while Hercules laughs heartily and says "As long as Theseus steals other mens girls I have nothing to worry about!" That is the final line of the movie. In any other context this would ask me to question whether these characters are quite as heroic as they are made out to be. Since the victim is Telemachus, however, I can't say it bothered me that much. In fact I'd have been happier if they'd kicked him a little bit before the credits rolled.

Hercules and the Haunted World is a wonderful little film. It looks gorgeous, is rich with imagination and zooms by at a perfect pace. I can't recommend it enough.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Atlantis Interceptors (Ruggero Deodato, 1983)

Atlantis Interceptors is a mix of genres that alone seem conventional but when put together become a little more unusual. When examined at surface level the film appears very similar to your average low budget Rambo knock-off as a tough american mercenary tears up the Philippines with a large assault rifle. Yet when it throws in post-apocolyptic vehicles, natural disasters and the lost civilisation of Atlantis it gets a little harder to explain. Allow me to try valiantly.

In the far future (well, 1994) a top secret research platform has unearthed some odd treasures from the bottom of the sea. The submarine being used to extract these artefacts is nuclear powered and this has an unfortunate effect on the mysterious sunken civilisation from whence the artefacts came. As Atlantis begins to rise from the depths a spectrum of phenomena is caused including storms, tidal waves and arrows to the neck.
You see all this time a cult called the Interceptors have been living secretly amongst the normal human population waiting for this moment to arrive. Now seeing their spiritual world returned to them they decide to dress in S&M gear, customise their vehicles with machine guns and spikes and rip the living shit out of a nearby island.

Washed onto this very same island are our band of heroes consisting of a few of the research team and two tough mercenaries named Mike and Washington. Mike and Wash are so tough they have no need to dress to intimidate, favouring instead tight white and/or pale blue clothes. Before long they clash with the Interceptors who are after one of the surviving research team, Dr Rollins, and the knowledge she gained by deciphering the aforementioned artefact. What this ultimately amounts to is a series of sieges until Rollins is captured. Mike then leads an assault to get her back.  Jesus that's a lot of set up for not much story.

As well as there being little actual story there is next to no characterisation. Apart from those I have already named I can't remember any other characters with real clarity. There is another scientist and a guy who looks just like him who I think was called Bill, if indeed they were two separate characters at all. Along the way they pick up other people who disappear just as quickly as they arrived. Of the three characters whose names I do remember there isn't much more to go on. Although it is inferred Mike and Wash have been working together for some time at no point did I believe they were friends. Although I think the writer was shooting for snappy banter, the two characters just end up being dicks to each other. Washington gets pissy over really petty things, like being asked the time when he is counting money. He also doesn't like being called Wash, preferring Mohammed due to a recent conversion to Islam. When he is happy he tends to shout things multiple times. Other than that I know nothing about this guy.

Mike and Rollins are set up as a romantic couple. This is established during the following red-hot exchange:

You wouldn't understand.

You think all sailors are like Popeye, we all just each spinach!

I like spinach too.

Well I tell you what, when we get back I'll take you out for a spinach dinner.

This erotically charged ritual is their first proper conversation. I would also argue it's their only proper conversation as she is kidnapped within twenty minutes and isn't in the film until the end. When she does re-appear she is all over him like they are Anthony and Cleopatra. Sure he saved her life a couple of times but she barely knows him. Plus he looks twice her age. Oh and you think that spinach conversation is a throwaway moment? Nope, first thing out of her mouth once she'd rescued is reminding him about it. She wants a spinach dinner, she gets one. That is essentially her narrative arch.

The guy on the left is Mike, the guy on the right is German, a criminal and… um… nope that's all I've got.
Away from Wash and Rollins Mike is a nonentity. He's basically grumpy, charisma-less and good at shooting people. Perhaps this is actually an intentional critique of Mike. Perhaps a life of violence has eaten away his soul until he is hollow and only basking in the company of others makes him fill with life again. Perhaps it is a comment on us all, for are we not all more complete in the company of others?  Perhaps if you stare at a blank wall long enough you start to see things that aren't there.

So what is actually there? Well despite its attempts to convince you otherwise some money has been spent on this film. There is some fun model work during the destruction of the research platform and locations are at times awesome. Usually post-apocolytpic films head for the desert but here we are treated to destroyed towns and cities in flames. It is still small scale, but every inch of the frame is filled with production value.

Atlantis itself is a fairly ordinary looking island, though some very attractive scenery has been chosen for the action to take place in. The bad guy has this cool transparent skull mask and even though he's pretty weedy looking still manages to menace.

The action is generally fun and thank god because there is a lot of it. It is for the most part bloodless, though there are some messier kills towards the end including a lovely spike trap. The film exists under a number of titles and cuts and the version I saw has evidence of the censors meddling all over it, most notably with a decapitation (uncut in the trailer above) being remarkably chaste. In spite of this the gunplay has an efficient abruptness to it that makes it still feel brutal. A standout sequence is a prolonged chase that involves people leaping from a helicopter onto a moving bus while being shot at. It is nowhere near as glorious as the final act of The Road Warrior but it is far more ambitious and exciting than expected from this level of production.

There are also lasers, a weird high pitched echo effect on all the bad guys screams and a cameo from my favourite Slash actor Mike "Barbara" Monti.

When the credits roll you'd be forgiven for feeling like you know less than when you started. There are some elements to the narrative that are left dangling. Elements such as the return of an earlier character but as a bad guy (is there brainwashing going on?), everything involving Rollins towards the end and why one part of the island is lovely and idyllic while the rest is a destroyed hell-hole. In fact it never really clears up where in the world this island is and whether the rest of the world has any idea this shit is going down. Yet none of these unresolved issues matter when you've got a guy dressed like Kiss driving an armoured motorbike into the sea.

Atlantis Interceptors is fairly unsuccessful in its attempts to stitch together these genres without the seams being weak and visible, yet you can do a lot worse than spend an hour and twenty-five minutes in the company of effective gun battles, car chases and cool kills. Despite its many flaws Atlantis Interceptors happens to be bloody good fun.