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

Get it at Amazon.

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

Get it at Amazon.

Jan 16 2017

Fire (1977)

Producer Irwin Allen kept his once-Towering cinematic credibility in flames with Fire, a virtual remake of his previous year’s telepic Flood — just with another basic concept from your high school chemistry class (or a then-rather popular 1970s R&B-funk band).

The real-life town of Silverton, Oregon, comes under siege from a massive blaze sparked by the cigarette butt carelessly discarded by a greasy convict (Neville Brand, Psychic Killer) doing chain-gang cleanup work in the forest. In the line of fire — literally! — are such soaped-up characters as a widowed lodge owner (Vera Miles, The Spirit Is Willing), the well-below-her-league old man who has tried to get into her pants for decades (Ernest Borgnine, The Poseidon Adventure), and a teacher (Donna Mills, who clenched a bigger role two years later in Hanging by a Thread, another Allen tele-epic) on a field trip with her young charges.

And speaking of Hanging by a Thread, Patty Duke again assumes the role of an unhappy wife, here married — for the moment, at least — to a fellow doctor (Alex Cord, Chosen Survivors). Perhaps their love will be, um, reignited? Dur.

An Allen touchstone, the well-stocked cast is fun to watch, including Erik Estrada (Airport 1975) as a prisoner who uses the smoke as convenient cover for an escape. Director Earl Bellamy (Walking Tall Part II) puts Estrada front-and-center as much as he can, assumedly realizing the soon-to-be-CHiPs star’s chiseled good looks are Fire’s most special of effects. It’s certainly not the lazy stock footage of terrified townspeople — some in horn-rimmed glasses, to show just how mismatched the material is. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Dec 27 2016

Stunt Squad (1977)

In Italy, the crime rates have skyrocketed to such great heights, it’s enough to make a police commissioner throw his hands toward the sky in resignation and cry, “Mama mia!” What’s an authority figure to do? Well, there is always the idea of assembling a team of super cops who are not only crack shots, but aces on motorcycles — a Stunt Squad, if you will.

Cool concept, no? It’s an awesome idea. Unfortunately, director Domenico Paolella (Hate for Hate) fails to pay it off. He didn’t quite make that movie.

What he did make is more in line with the guns-a-blazin’ hallmark of Eurocrime. The criminals at Stunt Squad’s core employ a devious plan of rigging public phones with explosives, and once the devices are wired for maximum wreckage, gang leader/handsome man Valli (Vittorio Mezzogiorno, Antonio Margheriti’s Car Crash) enters a nearby booth, inserts a coin and dials an explosion. To Valli, the more collateral damage, the better.

That brand of ruthlessness results in the formation of the Stunt Squad, but don’t go look going for characterization, which begins and ends with its members donning matching yellow helmets. All but a modicum of vehicular mayhem ensues, to audiences’ sheer disappointment of what could have been. Paolella includes a make-good sequence at a disco club where the ladies lose their shirts, so viewers won’t lose their minds. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Dec 21 2016

Jason Bourne (2016)

Apparently having run out of intimidating-sounding words for the blank previously filled by “identity,” “supremacy,” “ultimatum” and “legacy,” the Bourne franchise goes for reunion-nametag basics with just Jason Bourne — nothing less and certainly nothing more. The moniker is fitting, because it’s as dull and unexciting as the film itself.

When we last left Jason Bourne (Matt Damon, The Martian) in 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum, he was … well, hell, I don’t recall, and given the amnesiac theme that kicked off the series, perhaps he doesn’t, either. But here, he’s boxing in bare-knuckle brawls that bring down Serbs in a single punch. Although these bouts are in Greece, the retired assassin’s participation seems rather out-and-about for someone so desperately wishing to stay off CIA radar. He is drawn back into his old employer’s shady world when former co-worker Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles, 2006’s The Omen) uncovers some intel about Bourne’s past — namely, his father (Gregg Henry, Body Double).

She snagged it as part of the complete information on CIA’s black operations by hacking into its mainframe; the agency even made it easy for her by dumping all the documents into one folder, handily labeled “Black Operations.” Nicky downloads it all to an encrypted USB drive, marked “ENCRYPTED” in block letters so as not to call attention to itself. And yet it does, so the jowly CIA director (Tommy Lee Jones, Mechanic: Resurrection) allows his expert on all things cyber (Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina) to bring Bourne in, while also secretly authorizing his elimination via a professional plugger (Vincent Cassel, Child 44).

By all accounts (being the previous four adventures — five, if you count the Richard Chamberlain one, which I’m not), this setup should place the film in forward drive. But it doesn’t, and no amount of director Paul Greengrass’ usual shaky-cam shenanigans can distract from the fact that some ingredient crucial to the tried-and-true formula is off, if not missing altogether. Part of it is Damon himself; speaking only 45 lines of dialogue, most of them spartan, he cruises through this one as if he were a robot. With the hero being a man of very few words (288, to be exact), it seems as if he’s tired of the material, and his lack of investment is infectious. Since his character’s arc already was granted definitive closure at the conclusion of Ultimatum (hence, the title), the web of plots and subplots feel as predictable as whether the end credits will roll to the groove of Moby’s “Extreme Ways.” (And to dispel any shred of doubt, yes, of course they do.)

By the time the story has loop-de-looped itself around to the Las Vegas Strip for the much-hyped car chase — well, technically, Cassel’s in a tank — the element on which Jason Bourne has double-downed is revealed to be excess. Perhaps Damon shouldn’t have been so quick to bad-mouth The Bourne Legacy, the 2012 franchise spin-off that fronted Jeremy Renner (Avengers: Age of Ultron) and Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) in the respective absences of Damon and Greengrass. Unfairly dismissed by audiences because it wasn’t a fourth go-round for Damon, Legacy concludes with a motorcycle chase that is far more gripping than the rather lax sequence here, not to mention being the superior effort. Humdrum Ludlum at best, Jason is so lifeless, it’s stillborn, as opposed to “still Bourne.” —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.