C.A.T. Squad: Operation Python Wolf (1988)

After a first movie which I was quite surprised by my enjoyment level of, the three main cast members return, along with director William Friedkin, for a sequel. I have no idea of the genesis of this, whether they were two separate pilots for a TV series that never got made – one very dark and serious, the other a little lighter; a couple of TV movies that Friedkin made because he had nothing better going on that year; or the first six episodes of a TV show edited into two chunks and sold overseas. Your guess is as good as mine, and the internet is devoid of information.

(Talking of selling overseas, my version is the British VHS tape, and on the beginning of it has a music video from the Schwarzenegger movie “The Running Man”, by John Parr, the most 80s of all musicians. Parr is originally from about ten miles away from me, a small town called Worksop, and there’s every possibility my father hurled drunken abuse at him on several evenings, as he would have been in the working mens’ clubs Parr originally plied his trade in, at roughly the same time. If he did, I’d be even prouder of the old man).

The Counter Assault Tactical Squad – aka boss Doc Burkholder (Joe Cortese); John Sommers (Jack Youngblood, and it’s a little bit confusing as the two men look a lot alike); and Bud Raines (Steve James), are trying to stop the sale of plutonium to South Africa, back in the bad old days when apartheid was still a thing. Their boss doesn’t return, and neither does Doc’s love interest – in their place we get Nikki (Deborah Van Valkenburgh, who I just discover made her movie debut in “The Warriors”), who’s a solid member of the team as well as being John’s fiancee.

It’s the villains who you’ll be delighted about, if you’re anything like me that is. The South African baddie Bekker is played by English character actor Alan Scarfe (“Lethal Weapon 3”, tons of genre TV) and the American doing the fixing for the sales of plutonium is the late, great Miguel Ferrer (too many amazing credits to list, but my favourite will always be “Hot Shots 2”). He’s firmly in sleazy corporate scumbag territory here, and I love it.

When John and Nikki decide to get married, just before John goes on a rather poorly-explained mission, in an SR-71 Blackbird, for the Air Force Reserve, she might as well have a timer above her head with “hours left to live” on it. Poor woman! It’s quite curious, that the one plane with a member of CAT Squad on it, is shot down by a South African lunatic with a special laser who’s also the guy involved in the plutonium buying which CAT Squad are investigating – by odd, I mean “coincidence of bizarre pointlessness”.

Let’s talk Steve James for a moment. His agent must have negotiated some sweet scenes for him in this sequel – it looks like he can play trumpet, so he gets to play, and he talks jazz a little too. Although, curiously, he gets his ass kicked on several occasions, despite being a massive, ripped dude who we know can legitimately kick ass (the American Ninja movies). Seeing him lose to a pudgy, middle aged fella is disconcerting to say the least – let us hope that it’s not related to William Friedkin’s curious fetish of having a white guy shout the n-word in his movies.

It’s a fairly light movie, with people smiling and having fun, until it lurches into really dark territory in the last third. People are killed in curious ways, and when the CAT Squad finally get to South Africa, what they find is so completely bleak that it sort of wanders off the path of entertainment into sternly political territory (with it just being a couple of years before the end of apartheid, this feels both incredibly sad and the product of a much worst time). But then…it has a charmingly naïve view of international politics at other times, so it’s tough to wrap your head round. And the CAT Squad, with its prominent black member, teams up with the South African military at the end! I wonder how Steve James must have felt about that?

Add on a magnificent “Python Wolf” logo for, apparently, the US Air Force, and you’ve got yourself a movie. It’s tonally all over the place, which means it’s not quite as satisfying as part 1, and the ending is so dark, but absolves the real villains (the South African state) from any responsibility for their crimes, so you’re left confused more than upset or pleased the bad guys finally get theirs. There’s a fun set piece in a nuclear processing plant, but it’s too little, too late, really. It feels like the end of an episode of TV rather than a movie, which is perhaps what it originally was.

Rating: thumbs in the middle


C.A.T. Squad (1986)

When you think about it, William Friedkin can compare “best five movies” with just about any director. “The Exorcist”, “The French Connection”, “Sorcerer”, “To Live And Die In LA” and “The Boys In The Band” are all absolutely fantastic, in different ways too, and he made the incredibly creepy “Bug” as recently as 2006. One gets the feeling he’s still, even now, just doing whatever the hell he likes – in semi-retirement, he directed a couple of episodes of “CSI” (possibly as a favour to his old star William Petersen) and in 2017 made a documentary about a priest who performs exorcisms, co-written by film critic Mark Kermode, who’s long championed “The Exorcist” as the greatest movie of all time.

So it was with moderate puzzlement I discovered he’d made two made-for-TV action movies in the mid-80s, with a star I’d never heard of (but co-stars I definitely had). After watching the first one, my best guess is Friedkin wanted to see if he could make a classic 70s Euro-spy-thriller, and took whatever opportunity afforded itself to do so. So, ignore the title, which makes you think of some cheesy all-female boobs-n-guns effort, and settle in for one of the more interesting forgotten gems of the 80s.

Carlos (Eddie Velez) is moseying round the world, killing seemingly random people in very different ways – one guy, he snipes from the roof of a nearby church, the other he switches the candles in a restaurant for high explosives, completely destroying the place and dozens of people. Your normal bog-standard cops aren’t enough for this, so we get…the Counter Assault Tactical Squad! Quite why the movie went for such an offputting title is a question we may never get an answer for, sadly.

Head CAT is Doc Burkholder (Joe Cortese, who looks like a weird mashup of three different actors in one body), and we get a sweet “assembling the team” segment, second favourite to the “ultimate badass” speech. His boss is yer man from “Northern Exposure”, Barry Corbin, and they play a very strange game of…poker?…with each other, but they’re only holding a $1 bill and seem to be reading from it. Perhaps if this had been picked up to go to series – it’s very obviously the pilot for a TV show, made by NBC – they’d have explained some of this stuff to us. Anyway, his second-in-command is the late, great Steve James (the sidekick from the early “American Ninja” movies), Patricia Charbonneau from “Desert Hearts” is one of the others, and the new guy, the one who gets the arc, is a very young Bradley Whitford, even predating his star-making role in the second “Revenge Of The Nerds” movie (or was that just me?)

The script is from the same guy who wrote “To Live And Die In LA”, Gerald Petievich, and he used to be a Secret Service agent, so there’s at least half an idea that the stuff on screen bears a decent relationship to the truth of this sort of operation. The team, each of whom has a nicely defined area of specialty, patiently tracks Carlos down throughout a variety of locations, all over the world.

Even though it’s a TV movie, there’s plenty of artistry on display, as it was shot by Rbert Yeoman, who’d go on to be nominated for Oscars, and with Friedkin at the helm, it’s almost inevitably going to be classier than your normal effort. I mean, I could have done with a few fewer Dutch angles, but I guess it was less of a cliché back then? Also, and this might be the weirdest credit of them all, the soundtrack was done by Ennio Morricone! According to experts, it sounds like offcuts from his other work, but I’ll take it, even the bits that don’t really fit the scenes they’re in.

In what amounts to a small roadblock to enjoyment, it’s a little difficult to get over the mental disconnect of there not being a huge amount of “action” in “C.A.T. Squad”. When you see Steve James, you expect him to kick a little ass and look amazing doing it, but here he’s a quiet family man (he has a deaf son and shows off his signing skills in a touching little scene) who throws a grand total of one punch, and then throws someone off a balcony. Or they fall off after getting punched, which is sort of the same thing.

But what mostly happens is people look pensive in a wide variety of locations. Carlos doesn’t so much seem ahead as running on a different track until the last third of the movie – he gets no joy from his actions, the C.AT.s get no joy from tracking him down. While it’s not fast or action-packed, it’s a more cerebral affair, with much more in common with a 70s spy movie than an 80s action one.

It’s an interesting one, for sure, and I’m looking forward to the sequel, the too-many-animal-words-in-there “C.A.T. Squad 2: Operation Python Wolf”.

Rating: thumbs up