CyberTracker (1994)

Much like the “observer effect” in quantum physics, where the mere observation of an experiment causes a change to its state, so too it is with 1990s straight-to-video action movies. Just when you think you’ve reviewed all the half-decent ones, yet more emerge from the woodwork (okay, that’s nothing like the observer effect). But even though the ISCFC has featured over a thousand reviews, with mine personally coming in at a little over 900, I’d never even heard of this one until a few days ago.

The whole “never heard of it” thing is even more surprising when you factor in the two stars – Don “The Dragon” Wilson and Richard Norton. We covered the entirety of Wilson’s “Bloodfist” series a little while ago, and we’ve been fans of Norton’s ever since we saw him in a few Cynthia Rothrock movies. And here, we even get to hear Norton’s real accent!

Right from the beginning, we’re given a world which is something of a conundrum. Outside a club is a hologram person, imploring people to come in as they’ve got it all – “beer, whisky, heroin, cocaine”. So, this is a world where everything is legal, or where the forces of law & order have broken down completely, right? Well, not quite. In this heady far-off future of 2015, the US Government has merged with a corporation (I think? They’re sort of unclear on that point, the flags are different though) and we’ve now got the Computerised Judicial System. How crimes are investigated is a matter we’re never informed about, but people aren’t so much arrested as brutally murdered by a huge bald cyborg. Perhaps the cyborgs only go after the big crimes? Again, information we’re not given, although there is a sequel which may fill in all these holes, much like “Prometheus”.

Wilson is Eric Philips, low-level security guard for Senator Dilly (John Aprea, last seen by us in “Savage Beach” and “Dead Man On Campus”); Norton is Dilly’s right-hand man, Ross. Eric and Ross help to thwart an attempt on Dilly’s life by the UHR – “Union For Human Rights” – and because Eric is so awesome, he’s let into the inner circle. Although, the inner circle is basically Dilly going “watch me murder this unarmed protestor”, so Eric runs away, horrified at the person he’s working for.

Director Richard Pepin is no slouch – we’ve already covered his stuff in “T-Force” and “Hologram Man” – and he makes as much effort as his budget will allow to build a world. This is stuff like the bizarrely flirtatious relationship Eric has with the AI running his house; the scene where he turns her “perception” down so she won’t question his crap opens a whole can of philosophical worms. Then there’s the work of TV newsreader Connie (Stacie Foster), whose piece about the UHR is the most friendly-to-terrorism piece of news reporting perhaps ever. She’s as fine and obvious a love interest as b-movies have ever given us, even if I was worrying that she’d still not met Eric by the halfway point.

So, a fairly solid man-on-the-run plot; just one with cyborgs in it. When you’ve got Richard Norton and Don “The Dragon” Wilson as your stars, you can also expect plenty of fighting, and they’re both of course brilliant. One of the many plus points about low-budget cinema is you’ll get the main guys doing their own fighting, so you can keep the camera in close (no need to cut around faces or obviously incorrect haircuts). But the gun-play leaves a little to be desired. As the Cyber Trackers are made of some weird magic super-hard skin stuff, they don’t need to worry about dodging bullets or finding cover; and they’re also terrible shots, meaning there are a few more scenes than strictly necessary of a Tracker stood in the middle of a room, shots bouncing harmlessly off him, missing large numbers of people who aren’t making any attempt to cover themselves either.

I mentioned the low budget, but if you were counting the number of cars that blow up, you might be forgiven for thinking it’s got a much larger amount of money spent on it. Explosion after explosion after explosion…they even blow up a fire-truck at one point, which can’t have been cheap. Stock footage or the fact the director is also the boss of the production company? Seriously though, if you miss the explosions, wait two minutes and another one will be along.

A couple of splendid tropes of low budget cinema pop up here too. One is the “Access File” screen. You’ll have seen it yourself dozens of times, the good guy trying to log on to the villain’s computer, and rather than using Windows or Linux, it’s just a screen where you type in “Access File X” and it pops straight up. Perhaps Hollywood has its own OS that it’s holding out on us about? And the second, my personal favourite, is the Overconfident Villain. You know the deal – villain has guns, hero is trapped, villain goes “I don’t need guns to beat you!”, puts the guns down and immediately gets his ass kicked by the hero. The ur-example of this is the great Vernon Wells in “Commando”, but this is a fine entry in that particular tradition.

If you like people always doing the dumbest thing in every circumstance, then “CyberTracker” could be the movie for you. Some silly sci-fi, lots of terrible wooden acting, the occasional whisper of a sense of humour, terrible gunfights and excellent hand-to-hand fights. The usual. Let’s see if part 2 is any better!

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Youtube Film Club: Tough And Deadly (1995)

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If you saw one half of “Tough and Deadly” and one of “Back In Action”, you could be forgiven for not realising you were watching two different movies. I mean, you’d have to not be paying very close attention, but when stars Billy Blanks and Roddy Piper, just after meeting in odd circumstances, start fighting each other, a fight which counts as character development (a virtually identical scene in both movies), it’s enough to make you wonder.

But the good thing is, they’re both loads of fun and definitely come recommended. Piper is a private eye by the name of Elmo Freech (ah, the 90s and their wackily named characters) and Billy Blanks is…well, for most of the movie he’s known as John Portland, a CIA agent who suffers amnesia after getting involved in a gun battle, being kidnapped then injected with some weird cocktail of drugs. Freech is ambulance chasing down at the hospital and sees Portland brought in, covered in blood – even though he was tied up and drugged, he was still badass enough to kick the ass of everyone in the car with him and crawl away from the wreckage.

 

ASIDE: The main difference between the two movies is the treatment of cars. You only had to look askew at a car in “Back In Action” and it would explode in comically over-the-top fashion, but in the intervening two years someone evidently learned cars don’t really do that. Thank you!

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Anyway, Freech rescues Portland from an assassination attempt at the hospital and the two of them start working together. We even get a training montage as Portland learns to use his muscles again, although way later in the movie he says angrily “I spent two years learning to use my body again!” Two years? There’s no way! If that’s not enough for you, let’s discuss the monstrous coincidence that powers this tale – Freech was a cop who was kicked off the force for trying to bust a drug dealer called Milan. Milan is working with the CIA to run drugs, including Trekkler (the great Phil Morris, “Seinfeld”, voice actor extraordinaire), who also worked with Portland and wants him dead! Really? You couldn’t have thought of a better way to weave these two tales together?

 

If you ignore all that nonsense, then “Tough And Deadly” delivers in spades. Fight after fight after fight…Freech does his good old fashioned bar-brawling style, and Portland does more spin-kicks than anyone in any movie ever. They even bust some front businesses of Milan’s, a similarity so close with “Back In Action” that I really hope they were made by the same company or someone should be suing.

vlcsnap-2015-05-23-20h14m11s421_grandeThird-billed is Richard Norton, the awesome Australian martial artist who we’ve enjoyed in “American Ninja”, “The Salute Of The Jugger”, both “China O’Brien” movies and “Mad Max: Fury Road”. He’s Milan’s main goon, and is sadly underused here, but he and Piper do have a similar haircut and shirt, so it’s only Piper’s stubble that tells them apart in long shots. James Karen, who you might remember from “Return Of The Living Dead”, is good guy CIA agent Winston Briggers. It’s a very male movie, with the only woman with more than a cameo being Lisa Stahl as Freech’s secretary (she’s 9th billed, indicating just how much of a sausage-fest it is). Talking of Stahl, when our heroes have to hide out at her place, she lives in a mansion, full of huge rooms and tasteful furnishings. All I can say is Freech must pay a little too well. Saying that…when we see Freech’s home, he’s got a tiny apartment with the only decoration being a poster on the wall that simply says “pasta sauce”. Huh?

 

I think this a slightly better movie than “Back In Action”, though. The two stars come together earlier, and seem much more comfortable with each other. Blanks even…dare I say it…acts a few times! Piper is really good, and I wish he’d lucked into something like a Shane Black movie back in the 90s and become the star he deserved to be. There’s not quite as much fighting, which is a good thing (you can only stand so much before your eyes start to glaze over), the acting is overall better and while the plot isn’t exactly taxing, it’s not like any of us would approach a movie with Billy chuffing Blanks in it called “Tough And Deadly” and expect more than what was given.

Is this necessary? Really?

Is this necessary? Really?

After complimenting the treatment of cars, we do get one of the biggest explosions in the history of B-movies, near the end, as a helicopter armed with a rail-gun blows the crap out of a drug-warehouse. No effect, either, they really blew up a massive warehouse. On that crescendo, I highly recommend this, it’s available for free and is plenty of fun.

 

Rating: thumbs up

Youtube Film Club: China O’Brien 2 (1990)

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The denim-iest front cover ever

 

Competence in 80s and 90s martial arts cinema is by no means a given (witness the work of Ron Marchini if you’d like an example) so it’s nice to see one where everyone involved knows what they’re doing. Robert Clouse, director of “Enter The Dragon” and the first “China O’Brien”, has the good sense to keep the first movie’s stars – Cynthia Rothrock as Sheriff China; Richard Norton as teacher / former special forces guy Matt; and Keith Cooke as one-handed Native American badass Dakota – and let them do what they do best.

After the bombshell of finding out that China’s real name is Lori (thanks to a plaque she’s awarded at the beginning) we get cracking with the plot, which is only tangentially related to any of our heroes. One of the locals is in the FBI’s witness protection programme after ratting out criminal Charlie Baskin, but he also stole $5 million from him, unbeknownst to his family. Charlie busts out of jail and goes on a revenge spree against the people who put him behind bars, including, best of all, getting the judge as he’s on stage at a magic show. Was he just really confident or had no-one warned him a killer with a grudge against him was on the loose? Anyway, the baddies need the money to do a big drug deal and thanks to a mole inside the FBI, know where it is.

 

So China and her crew protect the family while hunting down Baskin and his seemingly limitless army of goons (seriously, that 5 million isn’t going to be much when you’ve divided it a hundred ways) and the story progresses as these stories do, with minor characters getting picked off and so on. Not a single one of the villains is any good at fighting, though, which means China and the boys go through them like a warm knife through butter.

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When this movie really picks up is in the last 20 minutes. Up to then has been okay, if a little slow, but it’s as if they all suddenly go “crap! We’ve got all these cool ideas for fights and stunts but we’ve already done the first hour! Let’s just cram it all in!” Basically, everything after the extremely odd one-camera scene – where all the main heroes are having a conversation in one shot, as if their second camera broke so they had to cram everyone into one corner of one room to film them – is a masterpiece of martial arts cinema.

 

You’ve got Richard Norton in an immaculate white t-shirt / double denim combo, not a bit of dirt or blood on him after all the fighting; China kicking someone clean through a wall (like they had a wire-fu special effects guy, but only for a day’s filming); someone getting a piano dropped on them; one goon hiding inside a toilet; China killing someone with a bow, after evidently forgetting she put down her gun for ever because she didn’t want to kill anyone else; and, perhaps best of all, KNIFE HAND GUY! He just shows up out of nowhere, has a cool fight with China and that’s it. He’s so awesome he makes it to the poster above, despite only being in the movie for maybe 45 seconds.

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There’s a couple of smaller performances that according to IMDB were the result of them realising the film was too short and having to go back months later for reshoots. Billy Blanks, taebo master, star of such gems as “No Retreat, No Surrender 4” and “TC2000” and perhaps the worst actor I’ve ever seen in my life, shows up in an uncredited role as “Zebra Print Zubaz Pants Guy” and gets his ass kicked swiftly – I’d like to think he was just hanging out on the set, visiting his martial arts buddies, and the director paid him a few hundred dollars to get beat up on camera. The other oddity is Baskin has a girlfriend at the beginning who’s obviously a bodybuilder, and it seemed a no-brainer that she’d be fighting China at some point. Unfortunately, she just disappears from the movie after a few scenes, wasted opportunity and all that.

 

It’s not what you’d call a great film, or even a very good one. The first hour is too slow and while I love Rothrock and Norton, neither of them are great actors so it can be a bit of a slog to get through their scenes. But what it does have is that super-entertaining final act. Norton wears a Canadian tuxedo to a funeral, it doesn’t so much have an ending so much as “this line’ll do as a last one, cut”…it’s got it all.

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Rating: thumbs up

Youtube Film Club: China O’Brien (1990)

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We love Cynthia Rothrock here at the ISCFC. From managing to maintain some dignity in the truly rotten “Tiger Claws” series, to a fun turn in “The Magic Crystal” to the genuinely great “No Retreat, No Surrender 2”, she’s managed to not exactly elevate her material; but to sort-of act at the same time as being one of the most talented screen martial artists ever.

“China O’Brien” would probably be no.1 if you did a “Family Fortunes” round on naming a Rothrock movie. I’ve never seen it before, but (aside from the 80s high school movie love) I was a bit of a snob in my youth, watching indie, arthouse and “serious” foreign movies; my friends, sensibly, enjoyed stuff like this. If you like, you can see ISCFC as me catching up on my teens, and hopefully recommending some fun stuff to you, but you don’t come here to read my dull life story!

China O’Brien is a cop as well as a martial arts teacher, and one day one of her students, a young angry black man, decides he’s had enough and tells her she wouldn’t last two minutes in a real fight on the street. She’s all “you know how I feel about violence” and then agrees to meet him in a back alley at 10pm? It turns out she thinks this is a demonstration, something the movie struggles to tell us, or perhaps they wanted to put us on the back foot from the beginning? Anyway, after realising she’s in a real fight she then, completely out of character, shoots someone emerging from the shadows. This is…a kid, maybe? (again, the movie isn’t interested in telling us)…and she’s forced to hand in her badge and gun. After very minimal soul searching, she’s off to Beaver Creek, Utah, the small town she grew up in to visit her Dad, the Sheriff.

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So the movie is that classic “hero rides into town” story. But the villain in this, Sommers, manages to differentiate himself from other movie villains not by chewing scenery, but by having zero respect for the law from the very beginning. On a routine call to a lumber yard, Sommers’ people decide to ignore the Sheriff, then when he tries to arrest them go full-on to murder him and China, using chainsaws, guns and all sorts. Then, the Judge (who’s in Sommers’ pocket too) threatens to have the Sheriff charged with wrongful arrest! It’s hammered home that this is a very bad man, but when the Sheriff and his Deputy are blown up, that’s when I’d be calling in the FBI. They sort of mention they’re thinking of doing it, but that never happens.

China decides to stay in town and stand for election for her Dad’s old job, and luckily she’s got some help, in the form of her old high school boyfriend turned special forces soldier turned teacher Matt – the great Richard Norton, who co-starred with Rothrock in “The Magic Crystal”. Now, Norton is Australian and makes no attempt to hide his accent; it’s a toss-up which is odder between that and the final member of their little gang, “Dakota”, a Native American who’s played by Keith Cooke (who does not appear to be Native American at all), whose mother was forced into prostitution. So, it’s the three of them against Sommers and his goons – the townspeople, apart from the people who Sommers has in his pocket, are all firmly on China’s side.

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It’s a riot of odd haircuts and magnificent clothing choices, as China rocks the Hammer pants regularly, and numerous townsfolk sport weird and wonderful variations on the mullet. It’s also a riot of acting styles, with Rothrock and Norton almost convincing you they’re human beings. No, I’m sorry, I was being mean – there’s one scene where Norton gives Rothrock a little peck and she performs “girlish glee” as well as I’ve ever seen it done. The rest of the cast are convincingly sleazy-looking local hoodlum types.

But you don’t see a Cynthia Rothrock movie for the acting. She’s an amazing martial artist, as is Norton, and they work at the absolute top of their abilities here. The camera is sped up a few times but they’re still incredibly precise, well-choreographed, demanding and real-looking stunts. I will also never get tired of seeing sexist rednecks looking surprised after “little girl” O’Brien absolutely whups their ass. The fight round the bonfire is a little masterpiece, and it’s almost worth the cost of admission on its own.

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It’s a great movie. You know what you’re getting and the film does not disappoint. Okay, the lawlessness doesn’t ramp up throughout, starting at a “we are prepared to murder someone in a bar for no reason” level and staying there, but the extreme black and white allows you to sit back and enjoy, with no fear of double-crosses or twists or any of that. Just pure fun and ass-kicking excitement. It’s also a movie with two rather unusual bits of trivia attached to it, first of which is the director Robert Clouse, who’s best known to us as the director of “Enter The Dragon”. While this isn’t quite as good as that, it’s still got the pedigree of a director who knows how to film martial arts.

Second is a rather nondescript song which plays as China drives to her home town, performed by a band called “Tess Makes Good”. This is none other than Tori Amos, after her brief attempt at pop stardom with Y Kant Tori Read but before “Little Earthquakes” would make her an international superstar. This movie is the only way to hear this song, should you be an Amos completist, as the soundtrack was never released and she never put the song out herself. Anyway, here it is:

Rating: thumbs up