Drones (2010)

One of the drums I used to beat regularly was “if you have cash, why spend it on some low-budget monster movie?” My theory, such as it was, follows thus – if you’re a producer with $200,000, the chances of you making a great monster movie with that are almost nil – it will look cheap, the actors will be bad, and no-one will like it. So why not give it to some comedians or an improv troupe? There’s a vastly better chance of a weird little comedy being a sleeper box office hit, you might get a big name to pop in for a brief cameo, and at the very least it will be different.

 

(ASIDE: Okay, I may be completely misunderstanding how movie financing works. But who cares? This is my damn site, I’ll write whatever I like. And I’m bored to death of cheap horror!)

 

But, we live in a world where there are almost literally endless amounts of zombie / vampire / shark / post-apocalypse movies, and precious few weird little comedy concepts. Which is why it’s so nice to find one like this, a genuinely odd but hilarious and quite sweet little movie, which could have easily been a stage play but uses its cameras in an interesting way, where a core cast of talented comedy actors nail their parts and a microscopic budget is used to its fullest.

OmniLink is a mega-corporation that seems quite nice, that gives us a training video where staff are compared to bees, but bees are super-good and do important work so that’s fine. We never find out what OmniLink does, unless I really wasn’t paying attention, but that’s definitely not important. Working there is Bryan Dilks (Jonathan M Woodward), who seems happy in his monotony; his best friend is Clark (Samm Levine), and there’s a handful of other, similarly happy, office folk – Amy, who he flirts with a little (Angela Bettis), Cooperman, the hippie who’s wood-panelled his cubicle (Dave Gruber Allen), Powerpoint-loving boss Pete (James Urbaniak), and the seemingly happy couple Miryam and Ian (Tangi Miller and Marc Evan Jackson).

 

Bryan’s world is turned upside down by two things – one, is finally getting up the courage to ask Amy out on a proper date, and two is walking into the office supplies room to witness Clark…I really don’t want to spoil anything, because this is a damned delight and I want you all to watch it. But it is in the trailer, I guess? Anyway, he discovers that his office has an unusually high number of aliens in it, and it turns out that they have designs on our planet. But are also cool with working for OmniLink and being nice and friendly and having relationships and stuff. The filmmakers described it as “The Office meets Close Encounters”, which renders most of my lame description moot?

 

Using aliens to comment on human activity is old hat, so it’s impressive that this feels so fresh and original – few aliens, admittedly, are that interested in alphabetical vs. chronological when it comes to file storage. It reminds me a little of Ford Prefect (the TV version, never seen the movie) from “The Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy”, and his odd but totally believable friendship with Arthur Dent.

Bettis and Woodward work very well together, and the central relationship is completely believable as well as having that sparking high-end comic dialogue that you’d normally get in a classic screwball comedy. This is down to writers Ben Acker and Ben Blacker, who are best known for being the creators / writers of “The Thrilling Adventure Hour”, the monthly live show / podcast which occasionally uses those classic screwball comedy tropes to great effect. The plot is fun too, there’s a ton of really funny jokes and brilliant comic business, and because they only have one set, really (a floor of an office, with a few cubicles and a conference room) they use it cleverly, making it almost cinematic. Well, okay, but it’s certainly never boring to watch.

 

The co-directors are two people better known as supporting actors on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” – Amber Benson and Adam Busch; Busch dealing with the actors, Benson the technical stuff. They also made a short film a couple of years after this called “Singlewood” but I wish this entire creative team had made a bunch more movies together. Perhaps I’m just annoyed at having seen more than my fair share of comedy from the Apatow / McKay / Feig stable and wishing there were more options out there that received the same level of publicity.

 

ASIDE: from reading about “Drones” appearing at festivals, I discover that the script was written in 2 weeks, and Acker and Blacker had never written a movie before; Busch and Benson had never directed before either, and worked out an unusual division of labour that worked well. Some of the actors improvised a lot, others stuck rigidly to the script, yet all those things which would normally spell disaster contributed to make this a winner.

Directors and cast

I won’t go on, because you need to go spend money on this movie. Maybe a sudden rush of purchases in mid-2019 will persuade some bean-counter somewhere to give them money to make another movie. It’s charming and funny and deadpan and sweet and even a little romantic and absolutely should be better known than it is. And I’m now determined to find one of those OmniLink mugs featured in the office and make it my very own.

 

Rating: thumbs up

 

GO BUY IT ON AMAZON BY CLICKING THESE WORDS RIGHT HERE

Advertisements

Cy-Warrior (1989)

If any of this stuff had happened, it would have been a fun movie

Our Youtube Film Club reviews are a bit more spoiler-y, as it’s right there for you to watch for free. Go have fun! Then stop having fun and read this : (

Frank Zagarino is one of our favourite b-movie actors here at the ISCFC – we’ve enjoyed his work in many action epics, but of course his best work is the “Project Shadowchaser” series, where he portrays an android (well, I’m pretty sure he’s an android in at least three of the four movies, I think he’s an alien or something in one of them).

It would appear, to be honest, that he was working out the kinks in his “robot acting”, as this movie predates “Project Shadowchaser” by a couple of years, and he’s really weirdly terrible in this. He moves like a stereotypical boxy robot, except when it’s inconvenient for him to do so; he does a weird stilted sort of talking, except every now and again when he shows some sort of emotion, seemingly at random.

Italian genre cinema has gone in all sorts of interesting ways. They started off with the Westerns, obviously, and some time around the turn of the 1980s they switched towards post-apocalyptic movies, using their arid landscapes and empty villages to create convincing hell-scapes. Since, oh, let’s stick a pin in a board and say 1979’s “Zombi 2” (“Dawn of the Dead” being known by the title “Zombi” in that part of the world), filmmakers also discovered they could abuse Italy’s non-existent copyright laws and produce “sequels” to well-known franchises. Then there’s filmmakers like Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso who made movies that sort of look like normal Hollywood fare, only made for a fraction of the budget – action, horror and sci-fi were the order of the day for them and the people even less inspired than them.

1989 represents the very end of this period, though, when…this is the section when a reviewer who’d done more homework than me would tell you the tax law that changed, or the cultural shift, but I’m more a big picture kind of guy (or “lazy”). Suffice to say, while there were a trickle more movies of the sort we cover from Italy, by the early 90s it was all over with.

Onto the topic of the day, “Cy-Warrior” (aka “Cy-Warrior: Special Combat Unit”). The opening credits are laid over the top of the creation of one of these machines, but they go one step further by having goo poured over the top of the robot parts to form the human flesh. Problem is, the goo wasn’t mixed very well by some poor underpaid production assistant, so it occasionally comes out as powder, or is lumpy, or is too watery and spills all over the side. Or maybe that’s the correct recipe for cyborg warrior fake skin, I’m no scientist. A group of lazy naval guys are transporting Cy-W (for that’s the name he’s given) and accidentally knock against his box, which is all it takes to wake him and force him to kill the soldiers, who are levelling guns at him – most of which happens off screen, because of course.

That stuff is supposed to be under his skin, I guess?

So, we get a healthy exposition dump from a nerdy scientist, and then the great Henry Silva shows up as the US government guy tasked with getting Cy-W back. Only problem is, they dub him! One of the best voices in the game, and they dub him with some generic guy! So, Silva is immediately the most hostile guy in movie history, calling Cy-W a “goddamn bastard” and a “piece of garbage” when, I have to stress, he’s done absolutely nothing! I mean, he offed those few guys in the beginning, but that doesn’t count – he was defending himself! Anyway, Silva and his men use comically over-the-top language to describe their opponent throughout proceedings, despite him really not being any sort of threat to them.

Because…no damn reason I can think of…the movie takes a sharp turn into sentimentality too. Cy-W saves a kid, or the kid saves him (I’m certainly not going back to check) who then takes him back to his house to meet his mother / older sister (again, not going back to check). The mother is an ISCFC favourite, possible Hall of Famer, Sherrie Rose (“Summer Job”, “Lauderdale”, “No Retreat, No Surrender 4”`) and…well, my notes read “please ask What Is Love? In that dumb robot voice soon, please”. They take his being a robot designed for killing in their stride and soon they’re giving him encylopedias to read and changing his hair and clothes, making him burgers and taking him out dancing. Unfortunately, they can’t teach him to move his head like a normal human, but we can’t have everything.

Silva ratchets up his campaign to ludicrous levels, slaughtering dozens of innocent bystanders in a market and being delighted about killing hundreds more, again, to stop one escaped robot who’s not shown the least indication of being violent, and definitely hasn’t received the software to turn him into what the military wants. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t even use a gun to defend himself at any point, which makes it even more ludicrous that they’d kill so many people to get him.

With Cy-W’s weird robot voice and the servo-motor sound (which isn’t there all the time, oddly), I feel like the sound guy had some fun working on this, but no-one bothered to tell the actors. Like, if they’d been told “we’re going to make this guy sound like a Speak & Spell machine, please react accordingly” the whole “are you really a robot?” conversation might have been a little quicker. I did like that he had a bunch of skin-goo on hand to repair himself after one tough battle, though.

The story comes to a grinding halt when Silva, with delight in his eyes, blows up the kid. I mean, I hated the stupid floppy-haired idiot, but even I was a bit surprised. Of course, the kid survives, and the final final scene, where the kid is in hospital but the power is failing, is one of the more absurdly melodramatic things I can remember.

“Cy-Warrior” feels like something produced by an industry that had forgotten what it was supposed to be doing, which makes the presence of actual real talent behind the camera surprising. Written by Dardano Saccheti, who also wrote “Zombie Flesh Eaters” (uncredited), “The Beyond”, “House By The Cemetery”, “New York Ripper” and “City of the Living Dead” and tons of ISCFC-covered stuff; also, directed by Giannetto de Rossi, who is more famous as a special effects guy (“Dune”, among many others). It’s just cheap and terribly dubbed and way too over-the-top with the simplistic emotional stuff and not original, even a tiny bit.

One to put way down your list of “rainy day Youtube movies”, I think.

Rating: thumbs down

Deadly Reactor (1989)

Some times, post-apocalyptic movies are made because the filmmaker wants to say something about the human condition when it’s under extreme stress. Sometimes it’s because they just want to make a cool movie and have loved other post-apocalyptic movies in the past. But sometimes, it’s because the producers are cheap and they really wanted to make another movie (let’s say a western) but didn’t want to pay for any sets.

“Deadly Reactor” falls into the latter category (obviously). It’s an unwelcome return for David Heavener, who we’ve covered before but are really struggling with the idea of continuing to cover in the future. He’s a bigoted right-wing fundamentalist who releases videos on Youtube (more popular than any of his movies were) with super-lurid titles like “They’ve Destroyed The Family Using LGBT as a Front!” and “Warning! Canada is Breeding Islamic Terrorists to Invade America!” He claims to have actual conversations with God although, sadly, God didn’t show up earlier in his life and give him filmmaking tips; and seems to be trying to fleece people out of their money – sorry, “crowdfund” – for a TV show called “The Last Evangelist”.

Apologies for continuing to dunk on David Heavener after I said I wasn’t going to review any more of his movies, but I need to try and get some entertainment from him. Friend of ISCFC and genre filmmaker par excellence Len Kabasinski suggested I carry on, and you know all it takes is one off-hand comment and I’m in for the long haul!

“Deadly Reactor” is a bizarrely edited, dull nothing of a movie which seems to be a vague homage to the Clint Eastwood westerns, just not as good or as interesting and with worse actors and script and direction. There’s a pull quote for an upcoming DVD release!

ASIDE: the opening credits reveal a link between Heavener and the Prior brothers! We had a “good” time reviewing their work last year, and it turns out that not only did they both make movies for the same company – AIP, Action International Pictures – but this movie is produced by Fritz Matthews, who acted in “Deadly Prey” and a bunch of other early Prior movies. Is this trivia of interest to anyone other than me? Probably not!

Right at the beginning, we get Heavener’s dull voiceover telling us about the nuclear apocalypse. Well, he mentions it once, and it gets one line of dialogue later on, but otherwise is completely ignored by everyone. So, there’s an evil gang, led by Hog (the excellently named Darwyn Swalve) who just rape and pillage all over the place – there’s a pretty high number of exposed breasts in this movie, which dates it almost better than a birth certificate – and Cody (Heavener) who had his family killed by the same gang and was left for dead by them. The gang find out about a town which was largely untouched by the bombs and has food and gas still available; Cody just sort of wanders into town after finally healing up from his wounds.

The guy who helps Cody recover also trains him in how to shoot, the implication being Cody is a sweet family man who’s never had to deal with such things before. He’s told that bullets are incredibly rare, and people are resorting to making their own, but if you then see the number of bullets that are just fired randomly throughout the movie, you might think someone is lying about something. Oh, and he asks Cody to read the Bible to him, which inspires Cody to become a preacher, I guess.

Because this is a David Heavener movie and no-one bothered to tell him that you should probably have exciting or interesting stuff happen, these non-events stretch to over half the movie’s run-time. This is without any backstory, really, for Cody’s character, which is par for the course in an Eastwood / Leone movie but not for some low-budget AIP effort. He gets made Sheriff of the town, lets out one of the criminals and trusts him to be his deputy (a trust that is entirely borne out, despite it making no sense whatsoever) and then trains the townsfolk to use weapons in preparation for the return of the gang.

Oh, and then he leaves town. Why? Absolutely no idea. There’s a huge gun-battle where no-one gets shot, and then Cody comes back to save his love interest, when he should probably have protected her a little more rather than riding off. Fight between main bad guy and main good guy, standard stuff, the end.

It’s not that “Deadly Reactor” is bad, although it’s certainly not good. There’s just enough acting chops and budget on display to stop its mere existence from being funny. It’s that it’s so, so boring. Monotone acting performances and shoddy gunfights and nowhere near enough action or incident to fill a movie – unless you’ve mainlined coffee just before the opening credits, you will be napping by the one-hour mark. And that’s what I think of this.

Rating: thumbs down

Triple Threat (2019)

There’s a long tradition of movies made in Asia having a white / Western villain – think of pretty much any Jackie Chan movie, for example – but most movies made in English, at least partially for a Western audience, with “big” names in starring roles, definitely hew to the template of the brave (white) hero going overseas and whupping ass.

But nowadays, Chinese cash is flooding the movie business, and things are looking different. At the top end of things, that means big budget normal Hollywood fare with a Chinese co-star (such as “The Meg”) and at the level we normally come in at, movies like “Triple Threat”. I presume the title is nothing more than a happy coincidence with the Ben Affleck-starring “Triple Frontier”, and I’m also pretty sure this will be a lot more entertaining, and proper action movie length (not over two hours, in other words).

But enough of my half-assed theories about modern action cinema! You want to know if you should spend your hard-earned time / cash on this movie! I think if you’re a fan of the sort of movies we cover here, then just listing the cast will likely be enough to have you heading for your nearest movie rental service. Tony Jaa (Ong Bak, Furious 7, xXx: The Return of Xander Cage)! Iko Uwais (the two “Raid” movies)! Tiger Hu Chen (Man of Tai Chi, Kung Fu Traveler)! Celina Jade (Arrow)! And that’s just the Asian stars!

On the other side of things, let’s start with Michael Jai White (Undisputed, Black Dynamite). He’s long been a favourite of ours, so it’s cool to see him in a big-budget movie doing his thing. Michael Bisping, former UFC fighter and surprisingly not-terrible actor, is here too; as is another ISCFC superstar, Scott Adkins. We’ve covered a decent amount of his movies and have enjoyed pretty much all of them, and it’s cool to see him here as a really unhinged villain.

There’s a plot, but it’s definitely secondary to proceedings. A criminal syndicate is targeting Chinese people and businesses in the Asian diaspora, but authorities are powerless to stop them. So, two things happen at once. One, Xian (Jade) inherits her family business and pledges her enormous wealth to putting an end to the syndicate and protecting the world’s Chinese people. Two, a group of soldiers led by Devereaux (White) moves through the jungle and murders everyone at an MI-5 black site, to rescue one particular prisoner, Collins (Adkins). Well, they murder almost everyone – one guy, Jaka (Uwais) is thought dead but he survived – he was beaten by Payu (Jaa) and Long Fei (Chen) and is looking for revenge – he didn’t see any of the other terrorists.

Collins, Devereaux and their gang are then sent to kill Xian. Turns out Payu and Long Fei were just trackers they’d hired and then also left for dead as they wired the black site with explosives and destroyed it, so after a fight – in an underground fight league! Never change, movies! – the three men, all from different countries, team up to protect Xian and take down the terrorists.

Nice and simple. The joy in “Triple Threat” is, well, not only seeing some of the world’s best martial artist-actors doing their thing. Director Jesse Johnson (who also works as a stunt performer) knows enough to get out of the way of these guys – they all hit their signature moves and the fights are well choreographed and crisply shot and edited. There are some pretty good set pieces, too, like the assault on the police station and the chases through the streets.

I think it’s hampered, if anything, by its script. Perhaps the stars, from all over the world, all wanted to push things in different directions. Perhaps the Chinese backers insisted on certain plot devices. It’s the clunkiest part of what is otherwise a superb movie.

I had a hell of a good time watching this. Had the feel of an old-fashioned movie while having all the exciting camerawork and effects of a 2019 movie. While a lot of the enjoyment comes from seeing a cast of such legendary martial arts performers work together, it’s not just that. Okay, watching Scott Adkins go toe-to-toe with Iko Uwais and Tony Jaa at the same time is pretty amazing, and their fight delivers in spades. If you’re struggling to understand what a big deal this is for martial arts fans like me, then imagine some superhero you like and some other superhero you like teaming up to fight some iconic villain?

Recommended wholeheartedly. Director Johnson and star Adkins have another movie coming out this year, called “Avengement”, which doesn’t exactly help his “naming a movie something very similar to another, bigger-budget movie” issue with this one. But anyway! It looks great, and more Adkins is a good thing.

Rating: thumbs up

American Commando Ninja (1988)

Normally, when I write notes when doing a review, they’ll be full of lines I liked, or things I want to remember, things that puzzled me or stuff I think will be entertaining to read, but here it’s almost all questions.  “What?” and “who’s that guy?” and “where the hell are they?” and “is this supposed to make sense?” among many others. I’ve seen a whole heap of movies, dear reader, but few of them are as incomprehensible as this one. I just read the synopsis on IMDB and I was all “is that what this movie is supposed to be about?”

It’s also a rare example of a movie from the Godfrey Ho stable (he merely wrote this one) which is, as far as I can tell, the same thing from start to finish. Often, these no-budget masters will buy a movie from another part of the Far East, and splice in scenes they either specifically shot themselves, or scenes from some other unfinished movie, and release it as a new thing, with the barest attempt made to make all the parts make sense. Please check out our Godfrey Ho reviews to see some of the gems I’m talking about.

That does not mean it makes the least bit of sense, though. According to experts in these things, “American Commando Ninja” (which features no Americans in lead roles, and I don’t think there are any commandos in it either) is actually edited together from a Taiwanese TV series, and Godfrey Ho, along with frequent co-conspirator Joseph Lai, just made some footage into a movie with scant regard for making a pleasant narrative experience. That would explain how ugly it looks, as it’s shot on video, which is fine for TV but not so great for the big screen. Ah, who am I kidding, this never got shown on a big screen. The same series was also turned into this movie’s “sequel?”, “Born A Ninja”, so if I can find that we’ll review it soon.

So, there’s a guy, David, in black martial arts robes. He’s just meditating when a sudden attack almost catches him off guard, but he’s too badass so fights all the various traps and flying stuff off quite easily. Turns out it’s just a test from his teacher, who wants him to go to another country (I believe they’re in China?) and help out their secret services. There’s a scientist who has a formula for something or other he invented during WW2, and it belongs to China. I’m pretty sure about all this. You even see him in the airport (100% guerilla footage, I’m sure) before he disappears from the movie for about half an hour.

We cut to a young woman in Confederate flag shorts (!) who’s trying to get Tanaka to tell her where the formula is. But she gets beaten up, despite being a pretty decent fighter, and the guys take Tanaka and get him to dig up the box with the formula in it. Confederate Flag lady has a sister, who lets us know “never trust a scientist” which seems at best out of left field and at worst slightly unfair to the rest of the scientific community. Anyway.

Right from here, it’s confusing as hell. Who are these people? Are they in any way related to the guy we saw at the beginning? Are they the good guys, even? One thing I need to state at this point is that it’s the worst dressed movie perhaps of all time, as I hope you’ll notice if I can find a few screengrabs to share with you. Everyone’s dressed like they’re a nerd trying to hang out with the cool kids at a beach party.

The two women have an Uncle, who seems shady as hell, despite being one of the good guys. I think. Maybe it’s a Charlie’s Angels style situation? Then there’s a dude called Larry, who turns up with his badass martial arts style and is so awesome that David decides the two of them should be friends and team up, so they go for a meal together and just hang out. A scene that would have been fine in a long-running TV series, but not so hot when we’re in the middle of a martial arts movie. Ah, who cares, it’s as coherent as anything else in this damn bizarre affair.

I really got lost here. I don’t enjoy going “this makes no sense hur hur hur”, I want to describe what the filmmakers were going for, even if I think they didn’t achieve it, but with this one I’m genuinely stumped. There’s a white guy in a cheap suit who wants the formula and is presumably up to no good, and then there’s a climactic fight scene in what might be a local park, and features a giant statue of the Buddha, painted a garish orange. They let the bad guy go at the end, for no reason other than he was presumably the villain of the series and needed to come up with a new plan every week to stymie our heroes. Oh, the fighting sucks too, in case you were wondering about that.

Dubbing! Now, if you’ve seen any martial arts movies from that part of the world, you’ll have seen some bad dubbing, but here it’s taken to a whole new level. It’s wooden and everyone sounds like they were dubbed by the same guy, that’s a given: what I’m referring to is how the dubber blows lines almost constantly. I wonder if, the first time he messed up, the director just motioned for him to carry on, as they’d only booked the recording studio for 90 minutes and they didn’t have time for retakes or anything like that.

A couple of random thoughts before we wrap things up – there’s a lovely scene with a fight on a rope bridge, and the cameraman is stood on the bridge too, so the scene is almost like some modern work of art as he’s flying all over the place, desperately trying to stay upright. And there’s the party / nightclub scene, which features one of the greatest songs of all time, “Tiger Of The Night”. I wish I could share it with you, but it seems impossible to find.

Lastly is the relationship between David and Larry. I assumed they were a couple at the end, but it seems one of the sisters was a bit in love with David, and she wanted to go with him as he drove off (spoilers!) He just says “no thanks” and leaves, and it’s Larry who looks the saddest. I assume it’s to do with China – Taiwan friendship, or something, but it really looks like they should have driven off together.

This was among the oddest experiences I’ve had reviewing movies for the ISCFC. “American Commando Ninja” is certainly an experience, though, and if you’re in the mood, it could provide a decent bit of entertainment on your next bad movie night.

Rating: thumbs down

 

EDIT: If you’d like to read even more words about “American Commando Ninja”, then I highly recommend the site “Ninjas All The Way Down”. Read their review – https://ninjasallthewaydown.wordpress.com/2015/10/25/american-commando-ninja-1988/

 

Highway To Hell (1991)

Much like our last review, this features the brother of a much more famous actor in a prominent role; but unlike our last review, this movie is really good and entertaining and you won’t want to beat me up if you watch it based on my recommendation.

There’s also a few really interesting names to talk about, which is pretty fantastic for a movie I just picked off my pile of VHS tapes to review without knowing a great deal about it. First up is the writer, Brian Helgeland. Obviously, we know him from “A Nightmare On Elm Street 4” but less horror-literate fans may remember him from “LA Confidential”, where he won an Oscar for his script (he was also nominated a few years after that for “Mystic River”).

Then there’s the cast. Not so much the main names (although they’re all totally decent) but some of the supporting cast, who would go on to much much bigger things. First up, Ben Stiller! A year away from getting his own show on MTV, he plays two small parts and has a whale of a time with them both. His parents, legendary comic actors Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller, also pop up in grotesque cameos, as does his sister Amy; and Gilbert Gottfried, who I’m pretty sure got to improvise his own lines, plays Hitler in one scene. Lita Ford acquits herself well in her only acting role too.

Anyway. Two young lovers are off to Vegas to get married, and it was here, before I knew who was going to show up later, that I thought “this is an A-list cast (for us)”. Chad “brother of Rob” Lowe and Kristy Swanson are Charlie and Rachel, and they’re eloping for…some reason. Are they too young? Not really, judging by looking at them. Controlling parents? Who knows. Anyway, with their cute dog Mr Ben in tow, off they go, but because they’re worried the authorities will be looking for them (?) they decide to get off the highway and use the back roads.

When they hit the Last Chance gas station, I noticed that someone had spent a decent chunk of change on this movie and my hopes lifted even further. Real sets! This has that classic old man who warns them against carrying on down that road, and especially warns them not to sleep in their car before they get past a second large tree. Of course, they both fall asleep almost immediately and nearly crash their car, and that’s when they meet Hell Cop, a mute monster with words and symbols carved into his face, with a very unusual pair of handcuffs, who decides to beat the crap out of Charlie, then kidnap Rachel and take her back to hell with him. Luckily, when Charlie wakes up and goes back to the gas station, the old man is full of useful information, giving him a car and a bunch of stuff that will help him out – and off Charlie goes to hell, which you can do just by driving to a certain place and then believing in it, really hard.

It’s at this point where the movie gets both better and worse. Better, because it becomes a funny (if over-broad) grotesque comedy with some superb characters; worse, because it seems a little too episodic, like the various places Charlie goes to find Rachel don’t seem connected to each other. Hell Cop seems to keep stopping at these colourful locations for no good reason other than to allow Charlie to catch up, look around for a few minutes, then have a confrontation and carry on.

But, those places are a heck of a lot of fun. First up is a diner, where cops (one of whom is Jerry Stiller) try and get a cup of coffee from the monstrous Medea (Anne Meara), and there’s a cook outside, frying up steaks on the hot concrete (Ben Stiller). The makeup is great, the look of the place is great, it’s a fine scene.

Charlie’s car breaks down and he meets the curiously helpful Beezle (Patrick Bergin), who fixes it for no charge – his tow-truck has “AAA – Anarchy Armageddon Annihilation” on the side; as he drives further he sees “Good Intentions Paving”, which is…er…a group of construction workers who are all Andy Warhol, feeding people who say stuff like “I only had sex with my husband’s boss” or “I let him drink bleach so he’d learn” into a gigantic grinder and coating the road in them.

And so on. I don’t want to recap the entire plot, because it would just be a rather breathless “and then he went here, and there was this cool reference, and then he went…” but let’s just say it unfolds at a decent pace and while it’s never enormously surprising, it has some good laughs, some good grotesquerie and…well, some of the acting is fine. Chad Lowe is a little too dull a main character to really support, and you kind-of want the smooth, charming, helpful Satan to win, but you’re having a good time so his wet-blanket-ness is less of a problem to overcome.

Hell Cop is a great villain, too. Mute, scary-looking, and with a badass weapon, he does what’s needed. The other main antagonist, Royce (Adam Storke, who was in “The Stand”) could have and should have been the good guy (he might have needed a haircut to look less like a douchebag, I suppose), and did a great job with what he had.

So, I enjoyed it a lot, but it doesn’t quite work. I think the biggest problem is the lack of flow – it’s perhaps more a series of sketches based in Hell than it is a proper movie. Some of the scenes are fantastic, and they’ve really worked hard on the visuals, but I kept wishing it would settle down a little. Helgeland was still honing his craft at this point, but he populates the movie with some memorable characters, if not a terribly memorable story. Perhaps the issue might be the director, one Ate de Jong, who also directed “Drop Dead Fred” (which I really wanted to like, but boy was it bad) in 1991 before going back to his native Netherlands and directing movies and TV there.

Still, this is head and shoulders above the sort of thing we normally cover here, and I recommend it without exception. Funny, odd, and nightmarish in about the right proportion, it’s just got a blu-ray release so you can enjoy it properly now.

Rating: thumbs up

Outlaw Force (1988)

“Hey Mark, why did this movie suck so bad?”

On IMDB, there’s one of those user-created lists of Frank Stallone movies. How bored must you have to be, how finished with every human activity that could bring you joy, to create a list of Frank Stallone movies? Although, saying all that, he’s kind of fine in this movie. Sorry.

A long time ago, we started covering the movies of David Heavener. He’s one of those names you hear at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to B-movies – a guy who made a little money selling country songs (we think, information is hard to come by), and parlayed that cash into a long movie career. He’s directed over 20 movies, starred in a handful more – his career briefly intersected with that of Donald Jackson and Scott Shaw, who gave the world “The Roller Blade Seven” – and is a genuine lunatic.

If you’re thinking “he can’t be that bad, surely” then I will present the title of a Youtube video from August 2018 as exhibit A. “They Are Slaughtering Our Babies And Trafficking Their Body Parts!” where Heavener, along with a fellow by the name of Coach Dave, discuss their rather extreme anti-choice views. He’s in favour of building a wall along the Canadian border to stop Islamic terrorism, which is apparently being bred there, thinks communism is still the global evil to rail against, and…well, it’s too miserable to continue with. I only discovered his Youtube work as I was sitting down to write this, so forgive my going on about it a little. I’ve no reason to think he’s not genuine in his beliefs but that doesn’t make them any less abhorrent.

So, this may be our last Heavener movie. The two we’ve seen (this and “Massacre”) were so dull that I’m honestly relieved to have a reason not to go deep down another rabbit hole. Given I’ve already tipped my hand as to whether you should track this movie down or not, let’s try and have some fun with this review.

Heavener is Billy Ray Dalton, a country singer (Heavener also wrote and performed the majority of the soundtrack, giving us such gems as “This Honky’s Gonna Honky-Tonk Tonight”) who helps out a guy at a gas station who’s being hassled by some gang of…sort of punks? Metal-heads? Anyway, while he’s out performing, the bad guys come back to town, and to get revenge for the guy being mean to them, rape and murder his wife and kidnap his daughter, planning to sell her to a child pornographer. Fun times!

At the funeral, one of the local cops approaches Billy and says “is there anything I can do for you?” My response would have been “catch the people who did this, you lazy asshole” but Billy is too nice, not even getting annoyed when he’s told that, due to the lack of evidence or eye-witnesses, there’s nothing they can really do. What? There’s tons of evidence! And plenty of people who saw them! Is this cop trying to tell us that he’ll only bother investigating murders when he’s got a witness who actually saw it all happening?

Anyway, Billy puts on his cowboy gear and he’s off to LA to investigate these hoodlums. Well, I say investigate, as he actually asks a few questions when he gets there, but most of the time, just appears to have psychic powers, as there’s no other explanation for how he knows what he knows.

The two cops Heavener pressures to help him are Stallone and the great Paul Smith (Bluto from “Popeye”, “Crimewave”, a million other roles). Smith is playing so far against type that it’s kinda fun, well, if you like reasonable cop dialogue from a guy who looks and dresses like an angry homeless guy (seriously, his shirt is stained and full of holes, while everyone around him is wearing suits). They’re both given personalities, but are extremely irrelevant to the plot, and are definitely only there to get the thing up to feature-length. In fact, their primary role, the only thing that couldn’t be replaced, is looking up Mr Dalton and finding out he’s former Special Forces, what is known in our part of the world as the “ultimate badass” scene.

He kicks a bit of ass, shoots a bunch of people, gets help from one of the abused gang-women (who’s cool with the drug-dealing, but not so cool with the child-porn) and shows these dirty LA scumbags how justice is meted out, old-west style. He literally hangs someone!

Why is this movie so bad? Well, one thing, it’s very poorly directed, by Heavener. My particular favourite was, whenever a character got punched, they just sort of stood there for an uncomfortably long time waiting for the fist to hit them. There’s poor lighting and the way everything looks very slightly out of focus and the sound is pretty rotten too. But we’ve seen lots of movies that we enjoyed with all those technical flaws, and the true fault with this one is it’s boring. The final fight has generated no tension, no atmosphere, and the main character is so taciturn that it’s impossible to support him. Also, with the wild media panics about missing white girls and gang violence (adding in the murder of the wife) there’s no way in hell that the LA police would be so casual about it. It would have been front-page news all over the country!

There’s also the way it’s structured. Take a look at any modern revenge thriller, and how the thing that needs revenging happens pretty early on. We know what’s coming, so get to the good stuff. “Outlaw Force” drags on to almost the halfway point before he sets off for LA, and doesn’t exactly accelerate once it gets there. “John Wick” it ain’t.

If anything, David Heavener reminds me of Neil Breen, only with the barest level of competence. He’s in the movie business purely as vanity, has those ideas that he goes back to again and again, but unlike Breen doesn’t make absolutely bonkers bargain-basement movies; there’s just enough cash and just enough sense to make movies that sort of look like the B-movies we know and love, but with absolutely nothing enjoyable in them.

Rating: thumbs down

The Strike (2001)

Our friend Donald Farmer made movies in an interesting array of styles, after his early, low-budget horror. There’s sexy thrillers (“Compelling Evidence”), sexy horror (“An Erotic Vampire In Paris”), historical (“Blood and Honor”), child-friendly (“Space Kid”), comedy (“Bollywood and Vine”, which I think remains unreleased) and revenge thriller (“Body Shop”), among more horror.

Also, in 2002, he made a martial arts movie! Well, I imagine his friend Andre Buckner, who’d appeared in several Farmer movies to this point, came to him with the script and asked him to direct (Buckner would go on to direct a couple of his own movies in the years to come), so add another string to the bow of one of the more individual genre directors of the last forty years.

I’ve seen a lot of martial arts movies, and you can get a fairly good sense of where things are going quite quickly, but “The Strike” mocks such easy attempts at categorisation! The Typical Martial Arts Movie Plot, which this is definitely set up to follow, goes as follows: the star’s big brother is killed in a different country, taking part in a tournament or because he won a tournament. The star must go to the country and take revenge for his brother, either by winning the tournament or killing his brother’s killers, or both. It’s typical that he gets some ancient wisdom or learns a new technique along the way (and, surprisingly often, shacks up with his brother’s girlfriend).

There are two brothers, one of whom is a champion pro kickboxer, the other a hotheaded amateur who wants to compete in the big leagues. But at every point where you expect it to get going with some action, it just doesn’t – not that all fighting movies should fit this template, but they should at least offer us a decent reason to keep watching.

Right from the beginning, it feels curious, as we see a scene of older brother Damon (Buckner) training a class of kids. Compare this to, say, “Kickboxer 5: Redemption”, where an identical scene at an identical point lasts 15 seconds. Here, it goes on for two minutes, which doesn’t seem like a lot but when it’s kids who have zero to do with the rest of the movie, really begins to drag. Anyway, he’s a good guy ex-cop who helps kids, and his younger brother Joe (Tony Luke) is…also a pretty good guy, honestly, even though Damon tells anyone who’ll listen what a dog Joe is with the ladies.

Joe’s girlfriend Rachel (Stephanie Sinclair) has some character quirks, like wearing a Juliana Hatfield t-shirt and lecturing him about the wonders of female indie singer-songwriters; also, she has a large, square free-standing poster of Andy Garcia in the corner of her bedroom. I’m genuinely fascinated about the sort of person who would spend money on such an item, and would have that and only that next to their bed!

Damon and his girlfriend talk about Joe a lot, like, way too much, while they’re in the apartment and while they’re on a random walk round the city. About 20 minutes in, they’re strolling round when Damon sees a couple of guys attempt to abduct / rape a woman in an alleyway. I need to break this scene down, a little. One of the two guys is holding the woman from behind with a pipe across her throat, but I’m going to take a wild guess and say he’d only had the concept of acting explained to him thirty seconds before Farmer called “action”, as he starts off by looking right at the camera, and throughout his too-brief time in the spotlight looks nervous and away from the action, as if he’s looking to someone behind the camera for advice. It’s amazing and is almost worth the cost of admission on its own.

Joe wants to get involved in the real fight league, but because he’s dumb as a box of rocks and his friend is a sleazy asshole, he goes to see Mr Ramsey (Farmer regular Danny Fendley). Apparently, if he fights for Ramsey, there’ll be all sorts of influential people there who can help him move up the ladder. Unfortunately, the actual fight is in a large warehouse, where there are maybe 5 people there to watch. Did he at no point smell a rat? Also, the fights are to the death, and as I’ve said before, running a fighting organisation where all the losers are killed just seems like a very poor business model.

There’s a brief appearance by B-movie legend George Stover (who has his name spelled wrong in the credits) as the producer of “American Expose”, the tabloid TV show that links a number of Farmer movies together and has given me the idea for the script I’m writing set in the Farmer-verse; their film crew films one of the fights and then disappears from the movie. What? Also, there are two very similar-looking redheads (Jenny Wallace, as Ramsey’s secretary; and the host of the TV report on the fight league) which lends an air of confusion to a movie which doesn’t need any more confusion.

I’m getting way too bogged down in the minutiae of “The Strike”, but I feel that’s because it seems determined to confuse and disappoint. The camera cuts just as sex scenes are starting, on several occasions (we still see a few naked women though), which is, sources close to the production tell me, were filmed but removed on the insistence of an actor’s wife. But I need to break down one more scene!

To keep him fighting for them, Momota, one of the other criminals involved in the fight league (who may or may not be in league with Ramsey, it’s almost impossible to tell) kidnaps Rachel. But, he’s also got a bunch of other attractive white women enslaved in another corner of what I presume is the same warehouse, and wants this young lady drugged up and turned into a prostitute. The four women aren’t on beds, they’re just on what look like long painting tables, two to a plank, and aren’t in a room, just a corner of a massive warehouse. Who does this? Could no-one have sprung for just one extra room to film in?

The best way to describe this is “unsatisfying”. The plot is poor, the acting poor, and the stakes are rather low. The direction is fine, but I’m going to guess (again) that Farmer didn’t have a lot to work with, either in terms of budget or available talent. It starts off nowhere and goes nowhere, unable to decide which of the two brothers is supposed to be the star. It ends nowhere too, with there being no real crescendo to the action, and although both brothers appear able to fight, the fight scenes are slow and sort of boring.

Because its structure is so odd, I’m going to take a wild guess and say it was quite personal for Buckner. Maybe he has a brother who helped him out at a tough time in his life, or he read a story when he was younger that really affected him. Or maybe it was just written by a guy who’d never done a script before and had no real idea how to structure them? Who knows?

An intriguing curio from one of our favourite directors, but perhaps not worth spending too much money tracking down.

Rating: thumbs down