True Romance 1992 *****

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The late Tony Scott was something of a cinematic powerhouse, whose work was consistently underrated; a note on his Wikipedia page says that after The Hunger, he stopped reading the vitriolic reviews his film inspired. Most of these critics are long gone now, but Scott’s canon endures; hits like Top Gun, Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State are all better than average blockbusters, but his other works are remarkable in their consistency; Revenge, The Last Boy Scout, Man on Fire or Unstoppable would be highlights in any director’s resume, whether they appeased the public or not. His best film was a flop; 1992’s True Romance gave Scott a super-hot script, and he did it proud; Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette are ideal as Clarence and Alabama, young newly-weds who scram from snowy Detroit to sunny LA after he romantically murders her pimp Drexl (Gary Oldman under dreadlocks and prosthetics). All kinds of talent are shown to their best advantage here, from Bronson Pinochet’s coke-addled flunky to Brad Pitt’s avuncular stoner Floyd via James Gandolfini’s memorable thug. Scott creates the requisite tension, but also creates two vibrant, dynamic worlds for his characters to inhabit. And at the centre is one of cinema’s greatest scenes; a confrontation between Clarence’s cop father Clifford (Dennis Hopper) and mobster Cocotti (Christopher Walken). Two experienced actors with some great dialogue; Scott gets the best out of them as Cocotti’s threats raise Clifford’s awareness of his predicament. From the moment Clifford accepts his last cigarette, the dynamics of the scene change and it becomes a meditation on defiance in the face of death. Ridley Scott has given interviews regarding the family history of cancer which throw some light on his brother’s suicide; Scott’s elegiac handling of True Romance’s highpoint throws further illumination. Unfairly derided as a man who placed style over content, Tony Scott was in the deep end while most directors were just splashing in the shallows.

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Cannonball 1976 ***

cannonball-3The no-hold-barred, cross-country car-race became familiar via The Gumball Rally and The Cannonball Run films; Paul Bartel’s Cannonball was a pioneering entry in this subgenre, with David Carradine’s character Coy “Cannonball” Buckman taking some inspiration from Edwin G ‘Cannon Ball’ Baker. There’s a whole lot of cannon-balling in that intro, but there’s even more in this Roger Corman film, which has a decidedly shaky tone. Bartel had ben asked by Corman to beef up the content featured in Death Race 2000, and this chaotic mess of a film does exactly that, with plenty of violent deaths which run counter to the otherwise sunny outlook. Racing against Coy and his girl Linda (Veronica Hamel from Hill Street Blues) are brother Robert Carradine, Mary Wonorov as one of the ‘game girls in a van’ team, Dick Dastardly-lite Wolfe Messer (James Keach) and singer-songwriter Penman Waters (Gerritt Graham). As if that’s not enough, there’s also Dick Miller getting beaten up while Bartel serenades him on a grand piano, blink-and-you’ll-miss them cameos from Sylvester Stallone and Martin Scorsese, plus producer Don Simpson as a DA. Cannonball wears its thirst for carnage on its sleeve, and hopes the audience will feel the same. ‘See the worlds biggest pile-up!’ the poster screams, but the bloodshed sits uneasily with the silly comedy, and the idea of a road race in which dozens of people die is a conundrum the film’s lightweight resolution fails to address. The Cannonball myth was refined for more popular films; Bartel’s 1976 film is still something of a curiosity piece.

Heat 1986 ***

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Any personal investigation into the decline and fall of Burt Reynolds would have to include Heat, a 1986 film which eared the star a cool $2 million. Reynolds had decided, perhaps a half dozen films too late, that the ‘man with a car’ trope had been overdone, and was looking for more mature roles. Both Stick and Heat demonstrate that his stardom was considerable enough to bring in a team of top talent; William Goldman adapts his own novel here, while super-producer Elliot Kastner (Where Eagles Dare, The Long Goodbye, Angel Heart) produces. The opening sequence is pretty striking with Nick Escalante (Reynolds) hitting on a woman in a bar, only to be badly beaten by her wimpy husband. It’s soon revealed that this is a set up job, and that Escalante is being paid to make the husband look good. Establishing that our central character is happy to debase himself for cash is a strange way to start, and things get odder when Nick dons a ridiculously garish pimp outfit to avenge a woman Holly (Karen Young) who has fallen foul of a local crime boss DeMarco (Neill Barry). Nick pulls soon lamentable slow-mo kung fu moves and enables Holly to humiliate DeMarco by taking a knife to his genetalia. A side-plot involves Nick working as a bodyguard/chaperone to a gauche young man (Peter McNichol), although given how sleazy the whole enterprise is, it’s hard to imagine Nick’s influence being a positive one, and the way the stories are blended at the climax is crude to say the least. Heat went through several directors, with Dick Richards allegedly quitting after Reynolds punched him in the face. Given the atrocious fight-scenes here, a punch from Reynolds wouldn’t have much impact; a scene where he karate-kicks a light-bulb out if its socket is utterly farcical. And Nick’s habit of carrying his jacking on his shoulder by one finger makes him look like a male-model. And yet…Goldman was one of the Hollywood greats, and there’s some interesting scenes, notably a long meditation on gambling that transfers well to the screen. And even the confrontations between Nick and DeMarco have some latent menace; this is a small-scale, nasty but bluntly effective crime story, quite different from Goldman’s other work, but with evidence of his unique style. With support from Howard Hesseman, Heat isn’t exactly a classic, and was probably worth remaking as Wild Card with Jason Stratham, but there are treasures amongst the ruins for fans of Goldman’s gift for character.

Battle Beyond The Stars 1980 ****

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‘I eat serpent seven times a week’ says Gelt (Robert Vaughn), in one of a number of quotable lines from Roger Corman’s Star Wars rip-off Battle Beyond the Stars. There’s a certain logic to Corman’s thinking here; if Star Wars knocked off Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, then why not rip of Seven Samurai? Sure, The Magnificent Seven already Westernised that classic text, but why not lean into it and have characters like Cowboy (George Peppard) and to take things further, get Robert Vaughn back and have him say the same dialogue he did in John Sturges’s film? John Sayles was the screenwriter charged with sorting out the conceptual issues, and presumably his writing process involved being locked in a room with the script for Magnificent Seven, Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces and a massive lump of cheese, because cheesy action is what results. Henry Thomas is Shad, a young farmer dispatched to put together a group of mercenaries to defend his home planet against despot Sador (John Saxon). The team he puts together include various oddities like a lizard man, bald twins and a Valkyrie, played by the voluptuous Sybil Danning in costumes which make Caroline Munro in Starcrash look positively demure. With a James Horner score and James Cameron on effects, Battle Beyond The Stars has quite a pedigree, and the talent bring their A-game to this B movie. Jimmy T Murakami directs, so what do we talk about when we talk about Battle Beyond The Stars? Spaceship interiors seeming made of plasticine, planets made of candy-floss; it’s a strange universe to explore in low-budget cinema, but there’s a degree of knowing wit in the dialogue that makes Battle Beyond the Stars a guilty pleasure.

Percy 1971 ***

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1970 saw two movies in competition; not competing submarine dramas, not even competing competing magician dramas, but competing ‘search for a penis’ comedies. David Niven’s The Statue has already been covered in this blog; this entry deals with the rather more successful Percy, which was eighth in Britain’s top ten box office attractions. A quick cross-check with 2018’s top ten suggests that, in like for like terms, a cool £35 million would be the kind of sum earned. This Ralph Thomas film makes some fuss about being the first to deal with the presumably hot topic of penis transplants; the eternally put-upon Hywel Bennett plays Percy, an antique dealer who receives another man’s member after an accident and sets out on a quest to find out who it belonged to; a ‘genital mystery tour’ as Percy wryly suggests. This quest involves meeting a number of comely women, including Britt Ekland, Elke Sommer, Adrianna Posta and Sheila Steafel, and a surprising amount of introspective soul-searching, accompanied by a soundtrack by Ray Davies and The Kinks. Despite a couple of brief lewd moments, including a striptease to a xylophone instrumental of Lola, this isn’t a typical British sex-comedy, but seems to be leaning into some kind of existential angst. Things get a bit lost in the second half, but the cameos keep things moving, with Denholm Elliot on top for as Percy’s doctor, Are You Being Served? star Arthur English doing a comic routine in a pub, and Patrick Mower makes a personable playboy. Percy is best seen as a repository of dated fashions and dialogue; Percy’s Mini-Moke is something to behold, as are his garish outfits. Meanwhile various actresses  try their best to set pulses racing with such unwieldy chat-up lines as ‘If I want to discuss dogs, I call a vet’ and ‘What do you think of my reproduction Welsh dresser?’

The Order 2001 ***

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Sure, Jean-Claude van Damme can do the splits on a kitchen cabinet, or trace a consignment of exploding pants through Hong Kong (Knock Off); but have you ever wondered what his writing would be like? The Muscles from Brussels admits that he’s had significant drug problems during his career, and his script for Sheldon Lettich’s The Order suggests a star way out of control. JCVD kicks things off by imagining himself as a knight at the First Crusades in 1099, sickened by the violence of the age and having an epiphany that involves looking directly at the camera and widening his eyes as a Pino Donaggio score swells. Jump forward to the present day and JCVD is an Indiana Jones figure in the world of stolen artefacts, complete with a father (Vernon Dubtcheff) who has access to the original knight’s enlightened scrolls. The scrolls are stolen, and Rudy heads for Israel, where The Order considers cultural differences by disguising van Damme in beard and ringlets as a Hassidic Jew and having him shout ‘Oi Vey!’ as the cops chase him around New Jerusalem. If this doesn’t sound bad enough, Charlton Heston turns up looking rather less than fresh and mumbling about knickers before taking an early bath to allow the kickboxing to get into gear. The Order asks far too much of the star, with abrupt chances of tone between murder, comedy, travelogue and philosophising that require the kind of charm that Cary Grant couldn’t make run smoothly. As a ludicrous romp, however, The Order has a few choice moments; as Rudy notes with gravitas, ‘Laughter opens the soul’ and there’s lots of accidental merriment to keep your inner-being well ajar here.

Vice 2019 ***

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After the information dump of The Big Short, Adam McKay continues his post SNL career as a political activist with this scabrous portrait of US vice president Dick Cheney. As played by Christian Bale over several decades, Cheney is viewed here as the man behind, happy for others to take the limelight while getting what he wants behind the scenes. With make-up rendering him all but unrecognisable, Bale seems to submerge himself into the part to great effect, and Amy Adams matches him as his wife. McKay is an anything-goes director, and it’s no surprise to hear that an elaborate musical scene was cut; there’s also scenes which don’t quite land with relation to the Halliburton scandal and the final obsession with heart problems is the film’s weakest suit. But some of the comedy is proper satire and it works, notably Albert Molina as a waiter offering a menu of corruptions, Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, and a interesting footnote on the creation of Fox News. As satire, Vice didn’t have much chance of reaching an audience, but it’s much more than just a glorified SNL sketch.