Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Action/Adventure - John D'Amico ""

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Underrated Action/Adventure - John D'Amico

John D'Amico is a New York City based filmmaker and theorist who
writes for and On Twitter @jodamico1.

He did a list of underrated westerns for my previous series which you should have a peek at:


Beach Red (1967)
Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey is one of the four or five most influential action/adventure movies ever made. Everything from Jeremiah Johnson to Apocalypto to Gravity is in its shadow. Wilde followed that classic up with the grim WWII vehicle Beach Red, which is for my money just as innovative but seems to have slipped completely through the cracks. It opens with a beach assault that anticipates the relentless onslaught of Saving Private Ryan’s first scene, then unfolds into a series of long lingering voiceovers that call to mind The Thin Red Line. Between those two films you have the full gamut of possibilities for shooting war, so to see both styles interwoven here a full 31 years earlier speaks a great deal to Wilde’s under-appreciated ambition, creativity, and remarkable foresight.

China (1943)
Hard to find wartime propaganda quickie directed by John Farrow, whose Two Years Before the Mast and Five Came Back could both fit in on this list. It’s about a gunrunner whose heart goes soft after witnessing the Japanese occupation of China. Alan Ladd, who is dressed exactly precisely like Indiana Jones, puts in a typical complex and magnetic performance, and the criminally underused William Bendix gets to stretch his legs a bit playing a particularly captivating sidekick. Lots of great atmosphere and an ending that still packs a punch. 

Fury of Achilles (1962)
I shouldn’t be surprised that this film is as intelligent as it is, since Greek filmmakers have a long tradition of taking care of their cultural myths. All the same, I’ve never seen another sword and sandals film quite like it. The first half is sort of an imagined preamble to The Iliad and the second half a condensed version of it. What’s added is valuable contextualization and the purely Homeric stuff is handled with grace and dignity. It's really well-paced, with fine craftsmanship and a good handling of the many overlapping conflicts at play. Hell of an achievement for an underbudgeted and overstuffed genre on the wane.

G.I Samurai (1979)
A Japanese Self-Defense Force squad slips back in time and tries to take over the world. It’s a can’t miss premise taken to the next level by a thunderous central performance by the great Sonny Chiba. The filmmakers waste no time laboring over the premise, there’s an immediate descent into megalomaniac violence. Best of all, the film never cheats to create honest even stakes — the soldiers of the past use guerrilla tactics against lumbering tanks and helicopters and, in the film’s tremendous finale, sheer numbers play a hand in the fighting. Stunning oversized action scenes. It walks a fine line of seriousness in the face of surreality, without falling prey to either too much somberness or silliness. This one is a cult classic still waiting for its cult.

The Hunters (1958)
The story of a few US pilots in the Korean War. To date the only adaptation of a James Salter novel, it’s practically unrecognizable when held against the master’s novel, which is permeated on every page with gut-wrenching fear of failure. None of that’s here, instead there’s a lot of two-fisted punchin' and embarrassing Anglo-centrism, and it's a shame because they threw away a lot of good stuff to juvenilize the story. So why do I include it? Because in the midst of all the wretched character drama is a treasure trove of simply extraordinary, beautiful, and deeply exciting arial photography, the caliber of which I have never seen matched. Glimmering F-86s, which barely ever show up in movies, streak across magnificent panoramas. It’s an essential flying film, despite being a pretty ho-hum drama.

Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)
The modern movie fist fight was invented by Republic serials, when efficiency-craving directors began to borrow Busby Berkeley's method for shooting dances by breaking them into beats. This is my favorite of that whole strange, fun, no-budget chapter of our film heritage. Co-directed by legendary stunt coordinator Yakima Cannut, the man who doubled for John Wayne jumping onto the horse team at the end of Stagecoach, Manhunt of Mystery Island is a breakneck delight, sort of an Indiana Jones-does-Scooby Doo combination of cheesy haunted house atmosphere and old school drag-out brawls. The preferred method of staging a fight back then was to fill a room with breakable props, a technique that reaches its zenith in the one fight scene in which a man systematically throws every single handheld object in a room at another, all in one unbroken take. The take is the only thing left unbroken.

Message from Space (1978)
An unabashed Star Wars knock-off elevated by Kinji Fukasaku's energetic yakuza-film directing and Vic Morrow's fun lead performance. It gleefully goes surreal, emphasizing the fantasy film undercurrent of Star Wars — we have masted sailing spaceships and towering magicians mixing in among the lasers and robots. There are some visual elements like latticed windows and oversized holograms that Lucas himself borrowed for The Empire Strikes Back.

Prehistoric Beast (1985)
Special effects pioneer Phil Tippet’s ten minute demonstration of his go-motion technique is a simply wonderful dinosaur film in the vein of King Kong’s Skull Island stuff. Unusually for a tech demo, the camerawork is strong and ahead of its time. There’s a lot of quick, frantic faux-handheld stuff during the fight which feels pretty fresh even today. Tippet’s next shot behind the director’s chair was the virtually unwatchable Starship Troopers 2.

Snow Trail (1947)
The year before Drunken Angel would define Akira Kurosawa’s directorial style, he wrote this brisk tale of three bank robbers hiding out on a snowy mountain. The film was directed by Senkichi Taniguchi, but it belongs unambiguously to Kurosawa. His constant collaborator Takashi Shimura stars, so does a never-before-seen intense young man named Toshiro Mifune, who Kurosawa insisted they cast against the producer’s wishes. It’s a haunting and low-key work, the Japanese answer to the American noirs and heist films. An amazing early work for many soon-to-be stars and a great film in its own right.

Suspense (1913)
Very probably the first action film directed by a woman, Lois Weber’s 10 minute vignette about a prowler still packs a visual wallop a hundred years later. D.W. Griffith’s very similar A Burglar’s Dilemma was just a year earlier, but this film’s innovative split screens, cross-cutting, and tight framing feel decades ahead of the competition. 

Swashbuckler (1976)
Pirates Robert Shaw and James Earl Jones fight evil governor Peter Boyle in a long black wig. Genevive Bujold and Beau Bridges round out an improbably good cast. There’s some witty writing and finely crafted if a little shopworn action scenes. It’s one of those movies that seems really excited to be on screen, a genuinely uncynical throwback to a genre it loves - sort of like the next year’s Star Wars. That film casts a pall over this one, because it makes you realize how desperately Swashbuckler needs a strong score to push it into the top tier. As it stands it’s fun and lightweight, buoyed by a totally magnetic Robert Shaw at the top of his game having the time of his life. It’s like a victory lap for him after Jaws.

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