May 12 2017

SnakeEater II: The Drug Buster (1989)

Forever on suspension from the force, renegade cop Jack “Soldier” Kelly (Lorenzo Lamas, Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus) drops in on an urban-area gymnasium to see his pal, Speedboat (Larry B. Scott, Lamar in the Revenge of the Nerds quadrilogy), whose name is never explained and who gets nowhere near a body of water. Speedboat is coaching a group of youths preparing for some kind of step-dance competition, when all of a sudden, his sister and another kid collapse. Soldier plants the girl’s head in his crotch and calls for an ambulance. The pair ingested some drugs for a performance boost, not knowing the narcotics had been cut with rat poison.

While Speedboat’s sister lay comatose in the hospital, Soldier offers a sensitive recommendation: “I’ve got an idea! Why don’t you have your friends stop doing it like it’s popcorn?” Soldier quickly comes around and vows to take down the supplier; ergo, he becomes SnakeEater II: The Drug Buster. This time, it’s personal … and Lamas approaches being in on the joke.

Killing four drug dealers, the ever-cavalier Soldier faces going to prison, until his court-appointed attorney invokes the insanity defense and gets his client committed to a mental-health facility. There, Soldier flirts relentlessly with his psychiatrist (Michele Scarbarelli, TV’s Alien Nation) and is introduced to the residents’ favorite game: rooftop wheelchair battles. He forges a bond with a handful of fellow patients, including a human version of novelty Groucho glasses (Harvey Atkin, Meatballs), a tit-obsessed evangelist (Jack Blum, Happy Birthday to Me) and Torchy (Ron Palillo, TV’s Welcome Back, Kotter), the firebug whom Solider busted at the end of the first SnakeEater film. However, the two never acknowledge their shared history, so despite the characters being the same (and director George Erschbamer and his screenwriting team returning), SnakeEater II pretends their previous encounter never occurred.

Compared to the first movie, also released in 1989, Erschbamer (Fire Twister) considerably lightens the mood of The Drug Buster; remove the business with the girl in a coma and drug lord Franco (Al Vandecruys, Snowboard Academy) backhanding his hookers, and the action film is practically an action-comedy. Unfortunately, Erschbamer and company’s collective comic chops are even worse-honed than their combat ones. For example, as Soldier sneaks out of the “loony bin” via the overhead vents, he runs (crawls?) into a prostitute sneaking inside. And then a Domino’s Pizza deliveryman.

SnakeEater II kicks into third gear when Soldier and Speedboat don Inspector Clouseau disguises to infiltrate a French bistro prior to Franco’s arrival; while Speedboat dumps an entire flask of laxative into the marinara, Solider rigs the restaurant’s lone toilet with a MacGyver-style bomb to explode when flushed. Later, our less-than-dynamic duo take off their shirts to fill Franco’s panic room with bags of his poisoned coke, dumped through the ventilation system. (The film does not tell us if any pizza deliverers were killed as collateral damage.)

Instead of giving cups of piss to the homeless, the running gag this time is Speedboat answering yes/no questions with the rhetorical, grammar-butchering refrain of “Do shit stink?” It sure does! Would you have SnakeEater II: The Drug Buster any other way? Three years later, the series concluded with the aggressively punctuated SnakeEater III: … His Law. —Rod Lott

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May 11 2017

SnakeEater (1989)

When we first meet renegade cop Jack “Soldier” Kelly (Lorenzo Lamas, Body Rock), he’s lounging with his sunglasses on inside an abandoned building, tossing playing cards, singing “Kumbaya” and improvising a bit about death by masturbation. He’s on a drug stakeout. He’s an ex-Marine. He’s “some kind of nutcase.” He’s the SnakeEater, and he’s got the T-shirt and belt buckle to prove it.

To pick a nit, he’s never called SnakeEater; everyone refers to him as “Soldier,” but a title like that is hardly the stuff of direct-to-video gold. As Lamas’ long-running gig as Lance Cumson (!) on TV’s Falcon Crest was coming to an end, the Canadian-financed SnakeEater was his attempt at breaking out on the big screen. You remember the lines snaking around the block, right? No?

The rather straightforward story puts Soldier on the hunt for his missing teen sister, Jennifer (Cheryl Jeans, an IMDb one-timer). She’s been kidnapped from a rented houseboat by an inbred country clan led by Junior (Robert Scott, Just the Way You Are), who kills her parents and sets the watercraft on fire before taking Jennifer to their rickety rape shack. Using a motorboat that’s been pimped out with parts of his beloved Harley, Soldier pulls into their neck of the swamp, sets some traps, shaves his face with a Bowie knife and Rambos up for revenge. Lamas is credited as having done his own stunts; his hair is not.

Helmed by George Erschbamer (The Incredible Adventures of Marco Polo on His Journeys to the Ends of the Earth), the film is bookended with a gag of a hobo asking a cop named Lou (former NFL Miami Dolphin and American Gladiators host Larry Csonka) for a cup of coffee, and Lou gives him a fresh cup of piping-hot urine. It’s also worth noting that SnakeEater contains an epilogue in which Soldier outsmarts an arsonist named Torchy (Ron Palillo, aka Horshack of TV’s Welcome Back, Kotter) with little more than a condom and a candle. Those objects are not important; that they’re setting up Torchy’s return for the immediate sequel, SnakeEater II: The Drug Buster, is. Therefore, the end-credits tradition of Marvel Cinematic Universe has the genius of Lorenzo Lamas to thank for the idea.

While we’re on the subject of genius, be sure to stick around for the thoroughly ’80s power ballad of a theme song, with plot-recapping and soul-searching lyrics like “Soldier, where’s your sister / Can you hear her helpless cries / The only light to guide you now / Is the fire in your eyes.” —Rod Lott

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May 8 2017

South Bronx Heroes (1985)

With all the low-budget panache of an unauthorized ABC Afterschool Special made on spec by the assistant to the second assistant director of Exterminator 2, the perennial dollar-bin favorite South Bronx Heroes both looks and feels like the cinematic equivalent of a missing child’s last known photo, one that happened to be photobombed by a breakdancing Mario Van Peebles (Rappin’).

Somewhere in the suburbs — we reckon it’s the suburbs, as the set is comprised of a wood-paneled rumpus room, and that’s a pretty suburban thing, right? — a child pornographer (complete with a script supervisor, boom mic operator and an intern to slate the scene) is berating some kids, so much so that they get the gumption to finally run away, an act which seems to encompass crossing over a mountain range that leads directly to the hellish landscape that is the Bronx. South Bronx, to be exact.

At this is all happening, a Naval-hatted Mario Van Peebles, complete with a rambunctious pet ferret, arrives in the South Bronx, fresh out of the Navy Mexican prison. He’s immediately accosted by a trio of multiethnic toughs armed with nunchucks, but Mario is quick to pull out a pistol, dub them the “faggot Mod Squad” and take all of their clothes.

As our pair of runaways find an abandoned building to squat in, they make the most of their days, eating garbage, avoiding area ruffians and sitting on rocks, staring off into the sun, dreaming of a better life as a brutally maudlin song about believing in yourself and fighting for what’s right Casiotones in the background.

Meanwhile, over at the Peebles place, Mario’s no-nonsense sister wants him to get a job and go straight, but he’d rather hang out at underpasses with his ferret, occasionally chilling with a breakdancing crew as (courtesy of Mario himself) a brutally maudlin rap about believing in yourself and fighting for what’s right Casiotones in the background.

When said orphans are busted taking a shower in his crib, after asking many inappropriate questions about the kiddie-porn biz in what I’m sure was director William Szarka’s idea of comic relief, Mario slaps on a 1940s suit and fedora, and goes undercover to help bring those suburban scumbags to justice. Wonder Years block of clay Dan Lauria shows up as an FBI agent for 30 seconds to offer his reluctant thanks in cracking the case.

About 10 minutes after, they called a wrap on filming, the always prolific Mario walked right up the block and started shooting the similarly themed DVD dollar-bin favorite Children of the Night, co-starring Kathleen Quinlan (Breakdown) as a sociology student undercover in the world of teenage prostitution. —Louis Fowler

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Mar 22 2017

Cannonball! (1976)

Like the more serious first cousin of Death Race 2000, the Roger Corman/Shaw Brothers co-production Cannonball! reunites that film’s director, Paul Bartel, and hard-driving star, David Carradine, for yet another round of cross-country carmageddon, this time minus the future setting and pedestrian bloodletting.

Based on the real-life outlaw sporting event known as the Cannonball Run, Cannonball! follows several participants daring to make the four-wheeled, trans-American trek from the Santa Monica Pier to New York City for a $100,000 payday. Per the screenplay by Bartel and 1980s megawatt producer Don Simpson (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, Flashdance, et al.), the audience is to root for Carradine’s ex-con character of Coy “Cannonball” Buckman, he of the striped Trans-Am, red handkerchief and corrections-officer girlfriend (Veronica Hamel, When Time Ran Out …). His chief rival in the race is the gun-toting good-ol’-boy Redman (Bill McKinney, First Blood), on whom Buckman busts out the kung fu.

Other notable participants include a young and in-love SoCal couple (The Howling’s Belinda Balaski Revenge of the Nerds’ Robert Carradine); a van full of women, driven by Bartel’s frequent co-star, Mary Woronov (Hellhole); and a rotund family man (Carl Gottlieb, Jaws), who cheats by immediately loading his Blazer into a plane and then unloads into his busty mistress (Louisa Moritz, New Year’s Evil). Cameos abound, including Corman as California’s district attorney, Hollywood Boulevard co-directors Joe Dante and Allan Arkush as junkyard gearheads, and as hoods who share a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Martin Scorsese and Sylvester Stallone.

Five years later, the Shaw Brothers’ fiercest Hong Kong studio competitor, Golden Harvest, took the same idea to the bank with the all-star, big-budget The Cannonball Run. But whereas director Hal Needham steered that Burt Reynolds ego vehicle from mere madcap into mental retardation, Bartel keeps Cannonball! on an even keel of action and humor. He even throws in a couple of surprising deaths. Bottom line: It’s a real hubcap-popper that delivers and delivers and delivers. —Rod Lott

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Jan 17 2017

Killzone (1985)

Having burst into the straight-to-VHS scene with the 1983 shot-on-video “classick” Sledgehammer, director David A. Prior upgraded to actual 35mm film for his sophomore effort, Killzone. The man-on-moon leap in image quality is its only superior element to Prior’s prior engagement.

With opening credits complete, Killzone zones in on an Asian military leader (Daniel Kong, Surf Nazis Must Die) teasing a bunch of white American soldiers with drinking water. It’s a hot day, see, and they’re bound to wooden poles, like prisoners of war. This, however, is no war — it’s a mere training exercise, but either someone forgot to tell McKenna (Fritz Matthews, Prior’s Killer Workout) or the man just has snapped. (Considering viewers aren’t privy to this info for a long while, I think it’s a toss-up.) The scenario prompts McKenna’s Vietnam flashbacks to feel like Vietnam here-and-nows, so he starts fighting back and killing for real.

This deviation from the rules doesn’t sit well with the cigar-chomping Col. Crawford (David James Campbell, Scarecrows); rather than just bitch-slap McKenna back into reality, he orders his men to shoot to kill. But this plot begs the question: Are McKenna’s flashbacks of Crawford killing our hero’s wife and child legit or phony?

Actually, I take that back; I don’t need to know. If Prior doesn’t aim for clarity, why should I ask for it? Viewers of his Deadly Prey will note Killzone’s eerie resemblance to that 1987 flick’s look, feel and cast (including Prior’s bro, Ted, and the aforementioned Campbell, who plays the same part in everything but name), but this one is missing that one’s overall shot of cutout-bin adrenaline. Only in the third act, when McKenna booby-traps the jungle (including the world’s most perfectly and conveniently timed death by boulder), does Killzone catch up to Prey’s pervading sense of fun. —Rod Lott

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