Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Action/Adventure - Mike Flynn ""

Friday, July 11, 2014

Underrated Action/Adventure - Mike Flynn

Mike Flynn is a journeyman of sorts. Writer, salesman, son, brother, film lover, karaoke wildman—he has quite the variety of talents. Holding a B.A. in Communication Arts with a writing focus from Ramapo College of New Jersey, he spends many a night watching awful action movies, some barely released theatrically or not at all. Above all, he is a smart, well-spoken man. He has many projects in the pipeline, but his most accessible at the moment is The Pleasuredome, a new blog where he writes not only about film but about the entire spectrum of pop culture. You can subscribe to him on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/theflynnferno, or follow his Twitter feeds, @MikeDrewFlynn and @ElPleasuredome.
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Caliber 9 (1972, dir. Fernando Di Leo)
Poliziotteschi films are a niche in of themselves. Theynever had the commercial appeal of European Westerns because not only did they lack a marquee name or face like Eastwood, they’re relentlessly bleak, violent films with little regard for humanity and political correctness. So is the case of Fernando Di Leo’s Caliber 9, a nasty, badass revenge thriller that makes Parker’s exploits look civilizedand scrubbed clean of bright-red blood. Gastone Moschin plays a bald ex-con trying to stay one step ahead of the cops, the American Mafia, and a sadistic gangster named Rocco, played by Mario Adorf, who may be one of cinema’s most amusing-looking character actors—think Bruce Campbell if he was a real-life Dick Tracy villain. Every scene this man is in, he is so bug-eyed and unkempt you’d have thought he was a mobster who got cast off the street.

Di Leo’s Italy is the kind of portrait that would hurt tourism. It consistently eschews glamor and, in turn, the sex and violence all feels real and uncomfortable, pornographic even, with a view into the underworld that skews psychedelic as in films like Point Blank and Performance.If you need a starting place for poliziotteschi, this is one of your best entry points.

Nighthawks (1981, dir. Bruce Malmuth)
Ruthless. That’s probably the best word I can use to describe Nighthawks. Written by David Shamber, Walter Hill’s colleague on The WarriorsNighthawks is the first full-fledged action movie Sylvester Stallone ever made, and barring Cop Land and his first outings as Rocky and Rambo, it’s his best and the most uncompromising of his catalog. Terrorism was starting to become a global issue when it came out Giuliani was more than a decade away from cleaning up the streets. New York? 1981? That’s hell on Earth, man.

There’s several narrative turns the film takes that are quite jarring, and the motivations of the antagonists echo the route that Heath Ledger took as the Joker many years later. Wulfgar (a brilliant Rutger Hauer) and Shakka (Persis Khambatta) aren’t trying to preach a message like Al-Qaeda, they’re pleasure-seekers trying to live on their own, twisted American Dream.

Bruce Malmuth’s vision is in the same ballpark that Friedkin and Lumet played in so many times to an overwhelming success. Though Stallone has been on record that it was an arduous shoot, the action sequences are exquisitely tense and he fully encapsulates the spirit ofthat by-gone era for New York City. Sly got favorable comparisons to Pacino and De Niro when he first broke out, and though he’s more iconic as an action hero, Sly was more poised as an actor in that vein; he’s brilliant here. Deke DaSilva is different from a lot of Sly’s other cop personas in that he’s much more on the edge and tends to go by the books in his activities, even in the face of the Interpol agent with a no-holds-barred, kill-them-all ideology—something that just about all the big action names of the 80’s lived and die by. Billy Dee Williams also shines as Matthew Fox (not the actor), Deke’s partner.

How it isn’t widely thought of as something of a minor masterpiece or at least one of the more famous Stallone outings is tragic. And over 30 years later, it’s still as frighteningly relevant as ever.

The Challenge (1982, dir. John Frankenheimer)
Most people think The YakuzaBlack Rain or The Hunted for their “American in Japan” action fix, but this still lacks a DVD release or a worthwhile following. Ex-boxer Scott Glenn is hired to transport a rare samurai sword from Los Angeles, only to find out it’s a decoy and getting embroiled in a decades-long feud that aligns him with Toshirō Mifune!More dignified but no less violent than the rash of ninja movies that Cannon cooked up in the era, Frankenheimer rarely ever gives the audience a break from the blade-slashing, bone-crunching action that The Challenge provides, anchored by the fight choreography that a pre-fame Steven Seagal (credited as “Steve”) laid out for the film. John Sayles—who cut his teeth on B-movie bliss with Piranha and Alligator—co-wrote the script, which carefully examines the culture clash between Glenn and his Japanese co-stars in a way Kurosawa would have approved of.

Streets of Fire (1984, dir. Walter Hill)
Because no matter how much stronger its cult has grown (and honestly, in this space, it doesn’t require much explanation of its presence), it remains my favorite Walter Hill for how he manages to merge the slick romanticism of MTV with his laconic, two-fisted and explosive action style. How big of a Streets of Fire fan am I? I’ve got a poster, a VHS, the soundtrack in digital and cassette form, and the HD DVD signed by Michael Paré, who is one of the only celebrities I’ve ever been truly star-struck by. Diane Lane looking immaculately beautiful. Rick Moranis gives an effective against-type performance that led to one of the earliest documented Joel Silver caricatures on SCTV. Amy Madigan is so hardassed in this that she almost murders Bill Paxton with her bare hands. A woefully unreleased Ry Cooder score. Everybody blamed Temple of Doom andGremlins for starting the PG-13, but this one got a PG the same summer and has torrid sex, cage dancers, sledgehammer fights and exploding motorcycles that needed to be reevaluated by the MPAA to get the kids in.

The “Another time, another place” universe is oblique but infinitely arresting as a visual and musical experience. Forget being a cult favorite: Streets of Fire should have been the Rocky Horror of the 80’s.

Dangerously Close (1986, dir. Albert Pyun)
This should have gone on my Underrated Detective/Mystery list, and shame on me for not doing so. Albert Pyun has been called a modern Ed Wood, a purveyor of cheap genre cinema with shoestring budgets unable to realize the full potential of his visionary science fiction tomes. Have fun with Cyborg and The Sword and the Sorcerer—I’ll stick with this rarely seen, unavailable-on-DVD gem.

From Cannon comes this action/noir/thriller for the MTV set (the killer soundtrack boasts Robert Palmer, The Smithereens, Fine Young Cannibals and many more) that functions as the corroded flipside of John Hughes. If the Breakfast Club snorted cocaine on glass tables and then decided to go on a nihilistic killing spree under a full moon, that’s the kind of 1980’s atmosphere Dangerously Close plays in.

At Vista Verde High, a band of elitist, racist Young Republicans (led by co-writer John Stockwell and whose cronies all look like the beautiful men described in Bret Easton Ellis novels) known as the Sentinels function as a principal-sanctioned Guardian Angels-esque faction that protects the school by day and hunts down undesirable poor or ethnic youth by night. When they accidentally kill someone, yearbook editor Danny Lennox (J. Eddie Peck, currently lost in soap operas and triple-microbudget films) uncovers the plot and falls for Julie (Carey Lowell at the height of her ravishing sex appeal), the leader’s girlfriend.

Campy acting is a dime a dozen, and Pyun puts so much effort into the atmosphere of the film—he aims for De Palma or Mann but achieves the look of Ferdinando Scarfiotti designing one of those old Michelob commercials where Genesis or Eric Clapton are singing in empty bars. It’d look silly coming from a “better” director, but the B-movie charm of Pyun sells the maximum value of the look, which falls hand in hand with the rather cynical outcome of the film, which is the reason why only one generation barely remembers it.

Quiet Cool (1986, dir. Clay Borris)
New Line Cinema had always been the genre-indie strongarm of the 80’s with the Nightmare on Elm Street(the first one plays on a star-crossed TV during an action sequence in this entry) and Critters series and The Hidden, a film I’d argue stands as one of the best sci-fi films of the era.

No one, however, remembers 1986’s Quiet Cool, the decade’s one attempt to make James Remar a leading man—and it succeeds! He’s Joe Dylanne, a Cobra/Dirty Harry-type New York ball-breaker who gets summoned to the Pacific Northwest by an old flame to find her kid brother  (Adam Coleman Howard)No, he hasn’t entered the Black Lodge—he’s gone vigilante against homicidal marijuana farmers, led by an evil mulleted Nick Cassavetes. His lackeys: Chris Mulkey, Katey Sagal’s brother and Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter’s Ted White!

Watching Remar’s streetwise cop clash with Howard’s Tarzan Rambo makes for a quirky buddy-cop adventure, as Dylanne is forced to get rural in his attack plan and deal with the suddenness of “California Dreamin’” getting stuck in his headHe also carries over his sick motorcycle skills pretty seamlessly into Marijuanaville, U.S.A. I first saw this on IFC in 2009. I never heard of it, saw Remar was the lead and had to see it. At 80 minutes, the action is so brisk that the setup is nearly lost in translation, but Remar’s magnetizing intensity and the efficiency of how Borris plays the drug war through the shootouts and fights—plus the unexpected events and tacked-on double crosses in the climax—make for a splendidly clockwork B-movie.

Extreme Prejudice (1987, dir. Walter Hill)
Attempting to turn this list into “Every Movie Besides The Warriors and 48 Hrs. Walter Hill Has Ever Made” is tempting. He’s one of my favorite directors—I appeared on an episode of The Director’s Club Podcast discussing him—and while his two most famous films are in the top of my list, it’s these two that I find myself having to preach the virtues of every second I can.

Then there’s Extreme Prejudice, a supremely ass-kicking film with enough testosterone and all-American male character actors to rival any Expendables movie: Nick Nolte, Powers Boothe, Michael Ironside, Clancy Brown, William Forsythe and Rip Torn, not to mention John Milius had a hand in the story. In concept alone, it should have breath that reeks of Cubans and Jack Daniel’s. Nolte takes out six or seven guys with a shotgun in the span of 30 seconds. It’s one of the coolest revisionist Westerns of all time, complete with a worn hero in a white hat and drug lords are the new cattle barons. Historically, it’s 1987, but thematically and geographically, it may as well be 1887.

Its blood-soaked finale pays strong homage to The Wild Bunch, but the reality of this modern Western is that it serves as a grizzled, teeth-gritting eulogy for Sam Peckinpah. The complex relationship between Texas Ranger Jack Benteen (Nolte) and drug lord Cash Bailey (Boothe) is atypical for the action genre, a hero and a villain with a personal connection whose conflict is based around allegiance rather than action, with Ironside’s CIA-backed mercenaries serving as a dual-purpose threat to their respective agendas.

Hill has always said all of his films are Westerns andExtreme Prejudice is perhaps his hardest and most successful proof of that concept in a contemporary setting.

Cold Steel (1987, dir. Dorothy Ann Puzo)
Calling this movie “good” or “underrated” is a king-size stretch, but that’s not going to stop me from commanding you to drop what you’re doing and watch this as soon as humanly possible.

Mario Puzo’s daughter was the director and co-writer of this inept, virtually direct-to-video sleazefest from B-movie purveyors Cinetel Films (the fine folks who brought you the Relentless series and the David Carradine/Lee Van Cleef non-classic Armed Response). From the opening scene, it proves the Godfather maestro’s apple flew a hundred miles away from the tree, not knowing whether it wants to be a hardassed action movie, moody detective thriller or, for whatever reason, a laugh-a-minute comedy so preposterous that a pass or two at the script could have transformed it into a Naked Gun sequel.

Brad Davis plays Johnny Modine, an overly intense cop whose father is killed on Christmas Eve (his response is a Shatnerian “Jesus… Christ). The killers are a tracheotomy-afflicted ex-colleague (Jonathan Banks!)straight out of a giallo film and his sneering Britishhenchman/lover (Adam Ant), who Modine stops at any price to avenge his late father. Oh, and did I mention Sharon Stone plays the love interest, once again, straight out of a Michelob ad?

For my money, this may be the mother of all terrible and clichéd cop movies that ever existed. Puzo is trying to do gritty neo-noir, but those attempts get blocked by eccentric moments of levity such as a subplot involving Modine’s partner’s struggles with vending machines and a car chase through a demolition derby that suggests the Hanna-Barbera version of To Live and Die in L.A. In another scene, Ant lustfully shoots up Banks with heroin, then motor-boats a mountain of cocaine and remarks, “You know what? I think I’m gonna like it here in L.A.,” only for “here in L.A.” to echo three times. The soundtrack is a triumphant mix of power ballads and Cinemax After Dark sax.

I sound like this is just a description, but this is one that just needs to be seen. At one point in the film, Banks, Ant and Sy Richardson rob a gun store. A police cruiser pulls up, prompting Banks to fire a grenade at it. Before the car explodes, the grenade actually bounces off of the car like a Nerf ball, leading to “Nerf Grenade” becoming a frequent in-joke among friends.

Licence to Kill (1989, dir. John Glen)
You can have your Goldfinger, your On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, your Skyfall—I’ll be sitting right here screaming at people that this is my favorite James Bond movie. I recently discussed this one on a podcast about the summer of 1989 on The Erix Antoine Network and it just reinforced how deeply I love it.

We wouldn’t have a Daniel Craig without Timothy Dalton’s James Bond, and on all accounts, Dalton is the most dangerous Bond that ever lived. He’s suave, a ladykiller, all that—but if MI6 hadn’t come calling, he would have embarked on a lucrative career in contract killing. Licence to Kill plays entirely on that psychology. It has one of the lowest-tech, least convoluted Bond plots of all time: drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) mutilates Felix Leiter and killed his new wife. Bond gets so bloodthirsty that he quits his job to get revenge.

I think Licence to Kill is flawless, from the sea of corruption that surrounds Bond on his vengeance spree to the no-holds-barred truck battle in the climax. Bond strays closer to the kind of realistic hero that Lethal Weapon and Die Hard had spearheaded, complete with a Michael Kamen score, strictly-business villains and, most importantly, a wild-tempered badass who gives just enough thought to a problem that killing the bad guy is the best solution. Even the Bond girls come with a serious degree of ruthlessness. Carey Lowell’s Pam Bouvier is introduced as an equal to Bond in her unwavering work ethic and equally homicidal temperament, while Talisa Soto’s Lupe Lamora—the “villainous” Bond girl—isn’t even that. She’s Sanchez’s battered mistress, born of broken dreams and finding Bond’s infiltration a blessing to her allegiance issues rather than an excuse to deceive him.

When Wayne Newton shows up as a Jim Bakker-esque televangelist and it doesn’t play off as some kind of goofy lost Roger Moore-era plot point, the movie has done its job. In a franchise easily corrupted by camp and insipid ideas, perhaps it was a blessing that Licence to Kill didn’t connect with audiences. Dalton only got two movies, but from my view, he got the best, darkest one.

Black Rain (1989, dir. Ridley Scott)
Mentioned it on my last list, mentioned it earlier, might as well give it a shout-out. An absolutely breathtaking film with a great lead performance by Michael Douglas. The commentary on Japan’s influence over the world at the time isn’t exactly sly or satirical, but its reverence in depicting the country nearly half a century after World War II is mesmerizing. Ridley’s direction coupled with Jan de Bont’s cinematography make Osaka look like the Los Angeles of Blade Runner actually existed. Hans Zimmer’s score remains one of his best works.

The Rookie (1990, dir. Clint Eastwood)
There's gotta be a hundred reasons why I don't blow you away. Right now, I can’t think of one.”

Before Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s career at Warner Bros. hadn’t exactly been carte blanche. For every passion project, there’d be a Dirty Harry sequel, Firefox, a Philo Beddoe movie or (God help us all) Pink Cadillac. Such was the case, presumably, that in order to get his hurtfully unloved White Hunter, Black Heart financed by Warner, Eastwood took on what was essentially a sixthDirty Harry movie.

Written by the odd couple of Boaz Yakin (Dolph Lundgren’s Punisher, Jason Statham’s Safe) and Scott Spiegel (Evil Dead IIIntruder), it bombed at the box office as Home Alone gobbled up the 1990 holiday season’s money, but The Rookie remains one of the most cleanly entertaining action efforts of his career. Malpaso has always had its distinct style, but The Rookie is Callahan gone Tony Scott: loud, self-important and delightfullyexcessive.

It’s also arguably the sleaziest movie he’s ever made. Pulovski and his renegade heir apparent David Ackerman (an engaged and crazy-eyed Charlie Sheen) are destructive, anarchic, even mean-spirited. They killanyone that gets in their way with scowled one-liners. Pulovski lets loose a foul-mouthed death threat on the local news. Ackerman burns down a bar trying to apprehend a suspect. Ackerman’s father (Tom Skerritt) is a scheming rich asshole who tries to bribe Pulovski to make sure he stays alive, to which the retort is—in classic Clint sneer—“If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster!” They aggravate the living hell out of Pepe Serna, who must have gotten good SAG health benefits from the laryngitis he probably developed from screaming every line he has in this.

As the villains, you get the Kiss of the Spider Womanreunion of Raul Julia and Sonia Braga as in-name-only Germans. Julia is horribly missed—no matter how hard that man tried, he never fully menaced because he was so busy being so charming. In one of the film’s oddest shows of force, Braga sexually forces herself onto Eastwood in a rare erotic mindfuck slipped into a studio action film.

The grand-theft-auto subject matter inspires a series of increasingly dangerous and rousing stunt work, especially a game of chicken with a car-shipping truck and an escape from an exploding parking garage that the trailers hyped up. High art it isn’t, and it might’ve been a career-killer had Unforgiven not revitalized his career, but Eastwood and Sheen are a ton of fun and when have you seen a buddy-cop movie get an Evil Dead connection?

Fun fact: an original double-sided poster hangs on my bedroom wall for this. The Streets poster was up alongside it in my college dorm.

Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991, dir. Simon Wincer)
Mickey Rourke and Don Johnson—need I say more? Often seen as a nadir in both actors’ careers, Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man is a weird, quirky action movie that plays off a kitchen sink of genres. It plays as not only a modern Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kidbut a low-tech sci-fi film, set during the Fourth of July in 1996, when a synthetic drug governs addicts in a rustic Los Angeles. Writer Don Michael Paul takes the awesome liberty of modeling his heroes after brand names without designing them as product shills. Rourke’s Harley is a leather-clad biker, Johnson is a rugged chain-smoker who isn’t peddling Marlboros on the back of magazines. The irony is furthered by their conflict, a bloody conflict between the drug’s manufacturer, an OCP-esque faction trying to buy out their hangout bar. Reviled upon its initial release, Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Mansomewhat found its calling in cable rotations, but its high-octane action is a rousing front for the corporate satire and its modernization of folk legends. It’s the sort of world where James Dean and Marilyn Monroe were immortals who never died young and Americana is an ideal worth fighting for. As Harley says, “It’s better to be dead and cool than alive and uncool.”

Quick Thoughts on Other Really Awesome (or Awesomely Bad) Action Movies You Should See:

Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man (1976, dir. Ruggero Deodato): It was between this and Caliber 9 for mypoliziotteschi entry but this one, wow. Arguably the nastiest entry of the genre, boasting proud police fascism, choice violence that Tarantino later elevated in Kill Bill: Vol.2 and some very weird, not-so-ambiguous homoerotic undertones.

Band of the Hand (1986, dir. Paul Michael Glaser): Produced by Michael Mann. 21 Jump Street before it was a thing. Stephen Lang in a lead role. Slimy, evil James Remar. John Cameron Mitchell as a heroic sociopath. Damsel in distress Lauren Holly. Music by Michel Rubini and the Reds of Manhunter fame. A theme song by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers—except instead of Tom Petty, it’s BOB DYLAN. And you can’t even get this movie in widescreen on DVD. Decadently fun on a near-criminal level.

Enemy Territory (1987, dir. Peter Manoogian): Also not available beyond VHS is this rare foray into action from Empire Pictures. Basically Assault on Precinct 13 but with more hip-hop, it has Ray Parker Jr. as an action hero and Gary Frank as one of the most ineffective leading men of all time. Case in point—when he kills someone, he cries! There’s also Tony Todd as the leader of a gang called “The Vampires” who dresses like Blade and acts like a John Carpenter version of Stringer Bell, horrible rap music, Jan-Michael Vincent as a Vietnam vet who fires knives from his wheelchair, and one-liners like “I don’t care if he’s black, white or fuckin’ fudge ripple!”

Die Hard 2 (1990, dir. Renny Harlin): This one was a huge hit, but a piece of me dies whenever somebody tries to put a later sequel over it. This is the last time Die Hardactually felt like Die Hard and John McClane actually felt like John McClane. A rehash, but it knows to be breathless and engrossing at exactly every moment.

The Last Boy Scout (1991, dir. Tony Scott): I didn’t want to delve into too much detail as this one is pretty beloved, but I need to enforce my opinion that this is arguably my favorite Tony Scott film and, over time, Joe Hallenbeck has grown into my favorite Bruce Willis performance. Shane Black turns the sports industry on its head and warms out hearts with a goldmine of obscenities that refuses to let up.

Zero Tolerance (1995, dir. Joseph Merhi): PM Entertainment was legendary among direct-to-video fare in the 90’s for the nonstop explosions, bullets and reliable B-movie actors they trained out. This one might be my favorite. Robert Patrick in a rare heroic turn, getting into shootouts in Vegas and blowing Mick Fleetwood’s brains out in broad daylight. A crazy young Titus Welliver 20 years before Ben Affleck started getting him into every movie he made, leading a drug cartel called the White Hand (which sounds like something out of a Daredevil/Punisher crossover). Enough destroyed cars to fill up all of the body shops in Rhode Island. Countless shootouts.

6 comments:

George White said...

I always feel that Licence to Kill is the nearest we ever got to a Cannon Bond film. In the same way Diamonds are Forever is a kind of Russ Meyer at Fox-meets-ITC Bond. A lot of the cast worked at Cannon (Carey Lowell, David Hedison was in the Naked Face, Robert Davi was in the Cannon-distributed Wild Thing, which is similar to Quiet Cool, in its urban Tarzan hero rumbling around Canada posing as NYC, but is quite boring, and I didn't really like Quiet Cool, found it bland) and the exDe Laurentiis-Churbusco interior filming and the action, and the random 80s ninjas. Bond had featured ninjas before, but that was in the 60s, in You Only Live Twice as a vital plot point, here it's random coattail-riding.

I'm sorry but I found Walter Hill's Streets of Fire too 80s for me to like, if that makes sense.

I'd describe Eneemy Territory as if a Street Wars-era Jamaa Fanaka made Assault on Precinct 13. Ray Parker is great, but Tony Todd steals it. The way he plays it as kind of sinister yet kind OTT. Some great reddish lighting.

I forgot to list Nighthawks. That is really good. Great cast too. Nigel Davenport I always felt steals it, and the scenes in London add an idiosyncratic quirkiness to it, seeing character actors like Robert Pugh and Frederick Treves among it.

Adam Ant steals Cold Steel. The end theme is really soppy,

George White said...

The Challenge is Good. Great locations, great glasses characters wear. Great closing scene and ending shot. Great guns versus sword scene.

Ned Merrill said...

"We took her on a HONEY-moon." - Dario (Benicio Del Toro), LICENCE TO KILL

Mike Drew Flynn said...

Del Toro is so delirious in Licence to Kill. He sells that line so well.

Plus, that movie is the closest we got to a Joel Silver James Bond movie: both Johnsons from Die Hard (Davi and Grand L. Bush), Frank McRae (48 Hrs.), Wayne Newton (Ford Fairlane) and Anthony Zerbe (the Matrix sequels) all show up, not to mention Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Everett McGill.

George White said...

Yes, and there is quite an exploitative vibe to LTK, which we haven't got since the chop-socky parts of the Man with the Golden Gun. In particular, the Anthony Zerbe shark scene, photographed by Zombi second unit/zombie shark-fighter Ramon Bravo, also a Rene Cardona jr. regular

Mike Drew Flynn said...

It's one of only a few dozen movies out of hundreds, post-Batman, that really gets the concept of a PG-13 having an impact in terms of violence and sexual content.