Death Rage 1976 ***


Yul Brynner was something of an unlikely star, but his performances in The King and I, The Magnificent Seven and Westworld made him a house-hold name. By 1976, he was dying of cancer, but still puts in a serviceable performance in Antonio Margheriti’s murky but effective thriller. Brynner is Peter Marcinia, a NYC hit man who re-enters the killing game to revenge the death of his brother. He travels to Naples where he tangles with both the local cops and the mafia, while finding time for romance with exotic dancer Barbara Bouchet, whose night-club routine gets quite a bit of screen-time. While nothing new in the genre of poliziotteschi, Death Rage has plenty of punch-ups and car chases, well-filmed and anchored by an unexpectedly touching performance from Brynner. There’s a weariness about his portrayal of Peter that makes Death Rage worth catching for genre fans; struggling to get himself into gear for one last job, there’s echoes of another 1976 elegy for a Hollywood star, Don Siegel’s The Shootist and John Wayne.


First Blood 1982 ****


David Morrell’s novel was mooted as a project for Martin Scorcese and Robert De Niro, post Taxi Driver; if they’d taken up their reins, First Blood probably would be quite a different film from the one that Ted Kotcheff crafted for Sylvester Stallone. It would have been hard for it to be much better; First Blood is a very different wounded animal from the Rambo films that followed; rather than a muscle-bound war-god, spitting fire and knocking helicopters out of the sky with his hands, John Rambo is a depressed drifter who falls foul of the local authorities in a small town, stripped, jailed and humiliated before he fights back and makes his escape. Even then, First Blood is clearly a survivalist picture, with a small body count and the emphasis on how John’s training helps him rise about the persecution of local Sherriff Brian Dennehy. By keeping things small-scale, Kotcheff manages to make the action work; the scene in which Rambo steals a motor-bike to make his escape is still one of the most exhilarating cinematic examples of breaking the law.

The Fast and the Furious : Tokyo Drift 2006 ****


The development of the Fast and Furious movies is one of the more abnormal franchises, driven by fan power and divided into two different trilogies, ingeniously tied together by the closing sequences of Fast 6. After the original, solid, entertaining film, Vin Diesel opted not to return, and John Singleton’s 2 Fast 2 Furious seemed to take the sequence down the laws of diminishing returns. Paul Walker also elected to body-swerve the third entry, but it’s arguable that Justin Lin’s Tokyo Drift is the film that got the car-race franchise back on track.

Lucas Black is a serviceable if unexciting lead as Sean Boswell, a US teenager who decides to avoid a jail term by shifting to Tokyo, where he becomes involved with the world of drift racing. Sporting a rather natty blazer, Sean appears to have an almost unlimited budget for high-performance cars, and spends his days practicing driving around in circles with considerable diligence. With no grand heists or any of the crime-busting action of the second trilogy of films, Tokyo Drift settles for street-racing, and delivers in spades, with colourful backgrounds that seem to have been torn from video games. Tokyo Drift is the black sheep of the franchise, with only Han (Sung Kang) and a cameo from Vin Diesel offering a firm connection to the chronology, but it’s a fast paced and enjoyable diversion for the blockbuster franchise.

The Night of the Juggler 1980 ***


Any alternative history of American cinema should include this surprisingly raw studio thriller from 1980; James Brolin plays Sean Boyd, a tough cop who has alienated many of his fellow policemen by taking a hard line on corruption. He’s forced to confront his contemporaries when his daughter is kidnapped in error; the culprit Gus Soltic (Cliff Gorman) doesn’t realize that it’s not the daughter of a wealthy industrialist he was hoping to use for an extortion plot. The first half of Robert Butler’s film, adapted from a novel by William P McGivern, is a terrific chase sequence in and around New York’s Central Park, with Boyd battling to get his daughter back. The second half is less sensational, but still taut, and cop and quarry get closer. The Night of the Juggler is something of a social document of NYC circa 1980; street gangs, porno stores, and police corruption ideally embodied by the perennially sweaty Dan Hedaya.

Goodbye Pork Pie 1981 ***


The possible permutation of using the British Mini car for stunt-work were seemingly exhausted by The Italian Job, but Geoff Murphy’s 1981 film manages to find a few new variations. The bright yellow car, nicknamed Pork Pie, is stolen by Gerry (Kelly Johnson) for a trip across New Zealand to Invercargill, and olden man John (Tony Barry) comes along for the ride. They pick up Shirl (Clare Oberman) and their antics lead authorities in a merry dance, becoming folk heroes along the way. Murphy’s film is a good humoured romp that led him to Hollywood gigs like Freejack and Young Guns 2; the jazz score is cool, and the lo-fi car action is impressively done.

The Hidden 1987 ***


Jack Sholder’s 1987 romp is a very enjoyable example of B movie action; cop Tom Beck (Michael Nouri)  is teamed with FBI agent Lloyd Gallagher (Kyle McLachlan), only to find out that his partner is an alien in disguise. Soon they’re on the trail of a more deadly breed; an alien that passes from host to host, via their mouths in gross-out detail, and has a penchant for stealing sports cars. McLachlan’s character contains many of the same elements as his Twin Peaks protagonist Agent Cooper, and his interplay with Nouri is fast and funny while the action puts many other prestige pictures to shame. A minor role for Danny Trejo completes a package to trash cinema-fan should be without.

The Seven Ups 1973 ***


Having produced Bullitt and The French Connection, it’s no surprise that Phillip D’Antoni’s only film as director has a scorching car-chase to offer, making full use of the areas in and around New York. Roy Scheider is Buddy, one of the Seven Up team whose name comes from the length of sentence given to the criminals they pursue. They’re up against a group of mobsters who are impersonating policemen to shake down the locals as part of a protection racket, and with Sonny Grosso’s real life exploits providing the source material, as with The French Connection, the details reek of authenticity. Tony Lo Bianco, Joe Spinell and Richard Lynch add to the hard-boiled credentials, but the chase sequence is what elevates The Seven Ups to greatness; there’s no jolly high-flying stuntwork, just speed and grit, leading to a punchy climax involving a stationary truck. The Seven Ups is scarcely remembered today, but fully deserves a cult following.