Love and Bullets *** 1979

love and bulletsThe party line on Charles Bronson vehicle Love and Bullets is that it’s a stinker; it’s not. One of the better products of Lew Grade’s short-lived ITC label, it’s a film with a chequered history, and would almost certainly have fared better if John Huston has remained at the helm. But there’s quite an assemblage of talent here, starting with director Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke), writer Wendell Mayes (Death Wish) and Oscar-winning cinematographer Fred J Koenekamp, who captures various picture-postcard Swiss locations with some style.

Love and Bullets leans into Bronson’s lack of expression to good effect; as tough Phoenix cop Charlie Congers, he wears pretty much the same expression whether examining a corpse or ordering a cup of coffee. After the death of a colleague, Congers resolves to work with the FBI to bring down a Mafia kingpin Joe Bomposa (Rod Steiger) via Bomposa’s moll, a fast talking lady called Jackie Pruitt, played by Bronson’s soon-to-be-wife Jill Ireland. Pruitt is a fairly exaggerated character, as is the pursuing hit-man Vitorrio Farroni, played with trademark menace by Henry Silva. Congers tries to project Pruitt, dodging FBI and Mafia henchmen alike on a strong sample of trains, cars, funiculars and trams at various Swiss ski resorts.

If Love and Bullets wearied critics by being over-familiar in 1979, Rosenberg’s film feels much fresher now, with genuine chemistry between Bronson and Ireland (one of 15 films together), decent if implausible action (the paper-dart blow-pipe is laughable, but the car-jump from a moving train is still cool) and lots of fringe benefits including a cameo from British sitcom star Lorraine Chase. It’s not as violent as most Bronson pics, but also has a real downbeat, nihilistic stream behind the glamour; it’s a big movie that settles for being an effective B feature.

https://www.amazon.com/Love-Bullets-Charles-Bronson/dp/B07F462874/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=love+and+bullets&qid=1569059973&sr=8-1

 

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Death Wish 3 1985 ***

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Third sequels go off fast, like milk left out of the fridge, particularly if the second entry in the franchise is as vile as Death Wish 2. Presumably feeling that there was no more mileage in terms of gritty hatefulness, exploitation and misogyny, Winner goes off in a silly post-Rambo new direction with the third turgid chapter of the continuing adventures of taciturn vigilante Paul Kersey, played with minimal effort and no application whatsoever by Charles Bronson. Kersey is back in New York, and Winner opens his film with a typical lack of flair by showcasing the side of a bus that Kersey is travelling on through the opening credits. After a few decent location shots in Port Authority bus station, the action shifts to a strange post-apocalyptic landscape; for one reason or another, presumably cheapness, Winner elects to shoot his NYC drama in what looks like an old schoolyard in England, and the cognitive dissonance is mind-blowing in an Inception-type way. With three American cars and a couple of Victorian buildings, Winner and his team abjectly fail to conjure up the idea that we’re in NYC for a split second, and watching Bronson, Martin Balsam and Ed Lauter bumble around dull English street-corners gives Death Wish 3 the unprofessional air of an amateur/student film. Kersey arrives in NYC to spend time with a friend, but the attentions of various thugs including Bill and Ted’s not incredibly intimidating Alex Winter, set him on a Energiser-bunny rampage with one predictable take-away; ‘Blow the scum away.’ But rather than shocking the neighborhood, Kersey’s kill-fest delights various pensioners in the area, who are goey-eyed at his gift for constructing lethal man-traps and cheer from the windows as he mows down an army of thugs to create a kill-count that goes into double figures. Mourning widows break out ear-to-ear grins at the thought of impending violence, families share a smile like it’s Christmas Day when they hear of Kersey’s murderous sprees, while Jimmy Page contributes a raft of inappropriate music that sounds like a particularly jocular game-show theme. The mark of a truly terrible film is that, even on a third or fourth viewing, there are layers of awfulness to be discovered, and Death Wish 3 is a very rich text indeed.

Never Grow Old **** 2019

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We’ve seen this character in Westerns before; from Sergio Leone to Carry On Cowboy; the small-town mortician scuttles in the shadows between the buildings, following in the wake of a violent protagonist as he shoots his way to grim justice. Often played for laughs, the undertaker is usually a bit-part player; Ivan Kavanagh’s violent thriller puts him centre stage in a strong, involving story about morality and money.

A flash-forward shows Patrick Tate (Emile Hirsch) entering a church, shotgun in hand. It’s an image that hangs heavily over the rest of the film, as the story uncoils to reveal his deadly motivations. Tate lives and works in the small frontier town of Garlow, populated by right-thinking, sweet-natured religious people until Dutch Albert (John Cusack) and his gang arrive. They bring booze, and recruit child-prostitutes for a local brothel, and dish out death to those who stand in their way. For Tate, it’s a moral quandary, but also a business proposition; after all, he has a young wife (Déborah François) and hungry children to feed…

Never Grow Old has a timeless story, but also one that feels intensely relevant in 2019. Dutch Albert promises a better life, or at least a more moneyed existence, but at a high cost. Tate has the option of keeping his head down and not acknowledging where the cash is coming from, but it’s inevitable that his supping with the devil will lead him to the moral awakening of the final confrontation. Faith in capitalism is one thing, but it doesn’t allow entrepreneurs to operate in a moral vacuum. Kavanaugh’s story is suitably elliptical that it doesn’t have a specific political meaning, but all comers can take something away from the picture of a world where the good guys are hamstrung by trying to do the right thing while the bad guys run roughshod over the rules.

What makes Never Grow Old really worth switching your phone off for is the acting; Cusack has travelled some distance from his pretty-boy rom-com image, and he adds a personal best performance amongst the gallery of villains he’s played. Dutch has a touch of Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York, volatile, off-key, oozing menace behind a blank stare. He’s well-matched by Hirsch, also a teen idol who has conjured up the grit required to gravitate to bigger things; his good looks work against his character’s moral weakness, making something complex of Tate; Hirsch’s Jay Sebring in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time …In Hollywood brought him back to public notice, but Never Grow Old shows he’s still a first-rate lead. François also deserves credit for taking a familiar character and giving her a hard, sympathetic edge as she begs her husband to recognise that the source of their good fortune is also their undoing.

Shot in Luxembourg and Ireland, Never Grow Old is a handsome, well-mounted Western in the old-tradition; it’s the kind of film that might have genre fans standing in supermarkets examining the case, wondering if this is any good; it is good, the kind of tough, thoughtful film that’s increasingly hard to find but easy to recommend.

NEVER GROW OLD is released on DVD 23rd September 2019 from Altitude Films

Rambo: Last Blood 2019 ***

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‘He’s a hell of a tracker!’ a passer-by offers during the pre-credits of Adrian Grunberg’s action sequel, which would have been more fun under the title Rambo Number 5. And John Rambo is one hell of a tracker, a fighter, a one-man army; over five films, his kill count must be in the hundreds, and this final instalment sets a more personal goal in its attempt to evoke the opening salvo in the Rambo saga; First Blood.

Sylvester Stallone may be getting on, but at least he looks the part as Rambo: Last Blood sensibly keeps the running and chasing to a minimum, and the star is understandably coy about keeping his shirt on this time around. A friend’s daughter unwisely heads across the US/Mexican border, and is kidnapped, leaving John Rambo as her last hope. His foray across the border is successful in bringing the girl back, but leads to some ‘bad hombres’ heading to Rambo’s place for some reprisals.

‘I hate to break it to you, but nobody writes letters any more’ is a line delivered to Rambo that emphasises the man-out-of-time conceit, but Rambo: Last Blood has concerns other then the demise of epistolary culture. Despite a brief shot of a slatted border wall, the politics are not persuasive enough to capture Presidential attentions as the second Rambo film did, and the use of tunnels under Rambo’s house to trap enemies evokes Home Alone as much as Skyfall

Yet despite a slow burn start, and a trailer that misleads about the nature of the action, the last twenty minutes of Last Blood are a reasonably rousing hurrah for one of cinema’s great action heroes. It may not be the all-guns blazing send off the fans want, but it’s not a dud either, and those looking to squeeze the last drops of pleasure out of the Rambo franchise should find that the conclusion of this one burns like a magnesium shard.

Two-Lane Blacktop 1971 *****

two-lane-blacktop-vintage-movie-poster-original-40x60-2989Having a car seems like a full time job in Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop, a road movie that sits neatly in the slipstream of Easy Rider and Vanishing Point. The subject is a cross-country road race, and the film was one of the inspirations for the Cannonball Run race. But we’re not talking celebrity cameos and car crashes here, and although we see several illegal car races, this isn’t franchise material either, although Fast and Furious Presents; Two Lane Blacktop is a title that potentially intrigues. Singer James Taylor and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson are two men who race their souped-up jalopy in one small-town after another; they soon pick up a girl, and get into a rivalry with GTO (Warren Oates). How GTO got his dazzling yellow sports car is never fully explained; the truth is not in him, and yet an odd friendship develops from their rivalry. All the characters are ciphers; as in Walter Hill’s The Driver, they are named for their function; Girl, Driver, Mechanic. GTO functions much like Jack Nicholson’s character in Easy Rider, an emblem of a lifestyle that the protagonists still can’t help but reject, even if he’s still pretty counter-culture. A downbeat line about the life-cycle of cicadas nails the film’s sociological ideas pretty succinctly, and the studied naturalism is something of a joy. Two Lane Blacktop has been tough to find and locate over the last fifty years, but it’s really worth the effort. Wikipedia’s plot summary says, “The film ends abruptly’ but that’s something of a dry understatement; it ends as it begins, in an unconventional style that’s rarely been bettered.

 

The Omega Man 1971 ***

omegaBack in Victorian times, there were no videos, trailers or DVD’s to remind us of great films; kids read books, and the description of The Omega Man sounded amazing to this kid. A future in which only one man survives, using unlimited weapons, any vehicle he wanted, living with extraordinary means as he battled an army of vampires for the planet’s future? It came as something of a shock to finally see Boris Sagal’s sci-fi thriller and register just how 1971 it was. The casting of Charlton Heston as Neville positioned Omega Man amongst a dystopian series that included Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green, but his larger-than-life persona also engendered a certain dated political view. The term ‘white saviour’ probably wasn’t minted back then, but Heston’s love of weapons, alpha-male preening and portrayal of himself as a messianic figure sit uncomfortably with the groovy décor and Rosalind Cash’s portrayal of the last woman on earth. ‘ Are you a god?’ a child asks Neville; today’s audiences may be than less impressed, but Sagal’s film leans into such criticism. A scene where Neville sits in a cinema and watches his favourite film, Woodstock, which he sees as a comedy and enjoys in the company of his machine gun, suggests we’re meant to find his retro-conservativism amusing, but his willingness to shack up with Cash seems like racial opportunism and doesn’t strike sparks. And yet such miscalculations don’t stop The Omega Man from having a cult appeal; there’s a James Bond-ian elan about some of the short-lived bursts of action, and a haunting appeal in the narrative tropes; the deserted city, the one person who carries the plague antidote in their blood; many of the clichés of dystopian future-worlds since find an early embodiment in this reactionary, yet entertaining film.

Firepower 1979 ***

Producer Lew Grade certainly had an eye for a bad movie; ponying up for The Cassandra Crossing, Saturn 3 and Raise the Titanic indicates a complete lack of discernment , and presumably that’s what led him to the door of director Michael Winner. Even Winner’s successes, notably Death Wish, are in dubious taste, but his worst efforts have to be seen to be believed, and Firepower is pretty bad. Originally developed as a Dirty Harry movie, Firepower is a shambolic violent caper movie set in a drab looking Caribbean. James Coburn plays Jerry Fanon, a gun-for-hire who agrees to locate and secure reclusive businessman Carl Stegner, teaming up with Adela Tasca (Sophia Loren) who wants revenge on the billionaire for personal reasons. With the film-makers imagination seemingly taken up by thinking of strange character names like Manley Reckford, securing appearances by Jake LaMotta and OJ Simpson, blowing up buildings or demolishing them with bulldozers, there’s little chance for old-timers like Eli Wallach or Vincent Gardenia to shine. The final action scenes have a couple of great shots to recommend them, but most of Firepower is notable only as a repository of disinterested performances and seemingly improvised quirks; Loren’s ability to make scrambled egg sandwiches is her most interesting trait, while Coburn unwisely play two characters in the same scene without any special effects; Winner’s inability to frame the two characters convincingly reduces this scene, like many others here, into a Godardian mush of incoherence. There’s a lot going on in Firepower, but not much of it is in front of the camera; a brief glimpse of Victor Mature with green hair tops things off with just the right bizarre note in time for the closing credits. And any film which has a specific credit for saxophone solos deserves a  special mention in dispatches;  slathered over the locations like a cheap balm, these moments of musical noodling turn the stomach and yet tickle the mind with their awfulness, much like Winner himself.