A hybrid of martial arts and 80’s disco, Barry Gordy’s The Last Dragon failed to kick-start a new genre, but is worth catching just for the sheer awfulness of the whole venture. Taimak plays Bruce Leroy, an aspiring martial-arts master who falls for Purple Rain’s Vanity, who stars in her own tv show and is something of a proto-video DJ. Neither of them can act their way out of a paper bag, but a gallery of weird and wonderful supporting roles keep Michael Shultz’s The Last Dragon breathing fire. Julius Carry gives a fabulously eccentric performances as the villainous Sho’Nuff, The Shogun of Harlem, William H Macy and Chazz Palminteri have cameos, and Faith Prince plays a wanna-be pop star who resembles Brenda Blethyn as Cindi Lauper. If that’s not enough there’s horrible comic relief from a group of kids who resemble a Bugsy Malone version of The Warriors, risible special effects as Bruce Leroy discovers ‘the glow’ a magical power that enables him to fight Sho’Nuff. and the whole enterprise is topped off with an extended promo for Debarge’s Rhythm of the Night. If Rocky can be a stage-show, The Last Dragon is surely in prime position for a Broadway reboot.
While the minutia of the James Bond franchise are still picked over by fans in forensic detail, there’s other 60’s spy franchises worth a look, with the four Matt Helm film making for undemanding kitsch viewing. Dean Martin seems to have made no effort whatsoever to look interested in playing Donald Hamilton’s laid-back spy as anything other than himself, a self-parody interested only in booze and women. In The Silencers, The Ambushers, Murderers Row and The Wrecking Crew, Martin wanders from exotic location to studio set with the air of a drunkard in an airport departure lounge, a half-empty glass glued to his hand and a bevy of beauties to ogle at. Times were changing in the 1960’s, and the charm of the Matt Helm movies is seeing Martin struggle to keep a straight face while lobbing ’hanky panky’ bombs at enemies, riding on flying saucers and seducing women with the charm of a freshly awakened warthog and a stream of resistible single entendres: “I’m gonna shock her out of her mini-skirt!’. Non-Bond franchises were clearly subject to the laws of diminishing returns at the time, and yet as the quality of the productions collapses, the fascination of the films rises; the efforts to convince audience of Helm’s coolness only make the tattiness of the films more entertaining. The Matt Helms were always more comedic that thrilling; they’ve probably never seemed funnier than they look now. Streaming for free on Crackle.
Stiff-upper lip British drama was rarely stiffer than in the late Alan Bridges’ adaptation of LP Hartley’s novel, a romance between a lady and her chauffeur that’s so repressed that when he finally lurches into self-destructive fury, it’s something of a surprise. Lady Franklin (Sarah Miles) mopes about her countryside pile, distraught over the death of her husband in WWI. Her driver, Steven Ledbetter (Robert Shaw) senses her desolation, and finds a potential soul-mate who he hopes will understand his own depression. Bridges was something of a specialist in country-house ennui, following up with The Return of the Soldier and The Shooting Party, and The Hireling offers extreme sensitivity to issues of class. A Grand Prix winner at Cannes, this neglected film is worth exhuming in the era of Downtown Abbey; it’s careful focus on the broken people behind austere facades comes vibrantly to life when a drunken Ledbetter smashes his car through her ladyship’s front-door.
Writer and director Paul Schrader has never been afraid to look at the seedy side of life; his follow up to his Taxi Driver script takes a conservative man Jake VanDorn and rubs his nose in the worst excesses of the pornographic film industry. Played by George C Scott, VanDorn is a deeply religious man searching for his missing daughter, and struggling to navigate an immoral LA world of cheap depravity with the help of a low-rent detective (Peter Boyle). Hardcore in a hard watch, but deserves respect for taking an non-titillating view of an exploitive industry, and it questions the motives behind both VanDorn’s search as well as the business instincts of the repellent characters he encounters. The exploitation of young men and women in pornography is a difficult subject to dramatize subjectively, but Schrader’s sobering film captures the bleakness of the exploited and those they leave behind.
Adapting a Peter Benchley novel in the aftermath of Jaws was always going be a difficult prospect; the lack of a killer shark stopped The Deep from reaching such iconic status, although Peter Yates’s film is a good-looking thriller with personable leads. Gail and David (Jacqueline Bisset and Nick Nolte) are holidaying in Bermuda when they meet up with adventurer Romer Treese (Robert Shaw) who is on the trail of sunken treasure. There’s plenty of danger, from a Haitian drug cartel to a deadly Moray eel that guards the treasure, and Shaw is always good value as a similar grizzled sea-soak to the one he played in Jaws. The Deep is likably old-school in its traditional adventure plotting, but Yates brings excellent production values to the fore, with impressive underwater photography that catches his photogenic leads at their youthful best.
Writer Ronald Harwood evokes the spirit of the ultimate ham actor, Donald Wolfit, in this wonderfully arch character drama from Peter Yates. Known only as Sir, this Shakespearean firebrand is played to the hilt by Albert Finney; an opening scene in which he stops a train by projecting his voice is a perfect illustration of his commanding figure. But his power is fuelled by an unusual relationship, as meek assistant Norman (Tom Courtney) is the wind beneath Sir’s wings. Set during the London Blitz, The Dresser was based on Harwood’s won experiences as a dresser for Wolfit, and while unashamedly theatrical in tone, Yates’s film is peppered with fantastic anecdotes about the bitchy-backstabbing that goes on behind the scenes of a rep company. Sir’s line ; “The critics? No, I have nothing but compassion for them. How can I hate the crippled, the mentally deficient, and the dead?’ gives some idea of the barnstorming style. Nominated for five Oscars, the Dresser is something of a forgotten movie; Finney’s majestic performance makes it well worth seeking out on free-movie channel Crackle.
Having spent most of their lives making meaningful movies, it’s hard to begrudge Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman taking a break from weighty roles to make a comedy on the lines of a Bing Crosby and Bob Hope Road to…film. Opening as the number one film at the US, Ishtar was hailed as a debacle, with the high price tag becoming an albatross around its neck. In retrospect, Ishtar is a surprisingly warm and funny movie, with Beatty and Hoffman both in good form as two talentless singer-songwriters who get involved in espionage alongside Natasha Kinski and a camel. Elaine may’s film has become a byword for excess, but buried deep inside is a smart, funny little road movie, a valentine to lost causes, swamped by lavish production values.