I’m Gonna Git You Sucka

November 11, 2021

A question. “Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?” The correct response, of course, is “Shaft.”

If that question was too esoteric for you, you may be beyond the humor of I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, a new movie that spoofs the wave of “blaxploitation” movies popular in the early 1970s. Sucka is written and directed by Kennen Ivory Wayans, who co-wrote and acted in Robert Townsend’s low-budget hit Hollywood Shuffle.

Wayans obviously grew up on films such as Shaft and Superfly, and he knows just how to send them up. In the opening scene of Sucka, a young black man named Junebug Spade is found dead on the street in “Any Ghetto, U.S.A.” Cause of death: O.G.’d. That’s Over Gold. He was wearing too many gold chains.

When Junebug’s brother Jack (played by Wayans) returns from the Army, he determines to topple the Mr. Big who’s been flooding the ghetto with cheap gold-plated jewelry. But Jack needs help, and he turns to the black heroes of his youth.

One of the movie’s amusing strokes is its deployment of the same actors who starred in those blaxploitation films. Jim Brown, the ex-football great whose acting career included a couple of these films as the character “Slaughter,” here plays a tough guy who comes out of retirement.

Other cast members include Bernie Casey, Isaac Hayes (who won the 1971 Best Song Oscar for composing “Theme from Shaft“), and Antonio Fargas as a procurer who reminisces over the time he won “Pimp of the Year” honors.

Wayans’ film may be a bit tumble-down, but it’s got enough of these wacky asides to keep it chugging along. There are a few running gags that pay off in funny ways, such as Jack’s childhood trauma involving a family of dwarves. And there’s a willingness to wink at the audience; at a bar, a patron wonders about the atrocious girl singer onstage. “She’s the director’s sister,” explains a waitress, as Wayans rolls his eyes sheepishly. If Mel Brooks had set his sights on blaxploitation movies, the results might have looked something like I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.

First published in The Herald, December 1988

This was the wellspring of the Wayans world, as In Living Color came along a couple of years later. The cast is damned impressive, with Steve James, John Vernon, and Clu Gulager in the mix, plus Jester Hairston, Clarence Williams III, Tony Cox, and a young Chris Rock knocking around. And the great John Witherspoon.


Invasion U.S.A./Commando

November 4, 2021

The formula seems to be intact, at least for these two action pics: A guy who just wants to be left alone is drawn out of comfy retirement to fight one last fight. (Schwarzenegger is with his little daughter, carrying logs on his shoulders in the desert of Southern California; Norris wrassles alligators at his everglades retreat.) Both retired heroes are drawn out into battle because an old nemesis has gone power-mad and wants to rule the world (more or less). And both films share, of course, the indestructibility of their protagonists and the uncanny willingness on the part of the thousands of extras to step in front of a red-hot machine gun. Oddly enough, they also share a tendency toward flipness; both heroes like to make funny cracks about the dude they’ve just wasted, a la James Bond (some bon mots in Commando are actually stolen from early Bond films, if I’m not mistaken). But the tone, especially in Commando, is less Bond-droll than a kind of hip nihilism, very much along the lines of Schwarzenegger’s big hit from last year, The Terminator.

Similarities noted, it must be said that the two films offer differing degrees of pleasure. Invasion U.S.A., helmed by Norris vet Joseph Zito and co-written by Chuck Norris himself, is a typically tawdry-looking Chuck movie. The villains perform atrocities, Chuck gets mad, mows villains down. Nothing too interesting about it, except that the atrocities are a little more far-out than usual: a suburban neighborhood prepares for Christmas, and a little kid runs out on the lawn to put the star on the top of the Christmas tree. She manages to get inside the house before the vans parked out front (bought and paid for with rubles, no doubt) deposit their payload on the front porch, torching the whole neighborhood. That’s a little kinky, but there are no scenes in which Chuck is forced to bite the head off a live rat (as in the unforgettable scene in Missing in Action 2), and Chuck’s masochism level is relatively low, although he does have to wear the same ugly blue shirt all the way through.

Commando is a lot more fun. Arnold Schwarzenegger is actually better in his Terminator role, because there his voice could sound dead and metallic and be suited to the character. He sounds more Teutonically incongruous than ever in Commando, but that’s all right. The forward motion of the film itself is the main thing, and it trips along pretty well. Its inferiority to The Terminator stems from the lack of an identifiable directorial personality; colorless Mark L. Lester handled the reins on Commando, and the gap between the flip, funny dialogue and the ordinary visualization suggests that he might not have had that much to do with what is good about the picture. (An example of the absence of overriding directorial presence: in some early, execrable lines of dialogue, Schwarzenegger trades quips with his daughter on the subject of Boy George; this seems to establish him as something of an old fogey. But late in the film, he exhorts his main foe – played by Vernon Wells, the fearsome Wez of The Road Warrior – to join in a fight to the death, and whispers, “Let’s party.” Since the character has not changed at all in the day that has passed since the first dialogue exchange, and this last phrase is quite irreconcilable with his earlier behavior – although it sounds great in the TV commercials for the movie – you get a feeling the director did not have a terribly strong idea or notion of what the character was about).

All of which, perhaps, is taking too seriously a film whose major concern is to rub its hero’s chest with grease and have him cream the bad guys – except that James Cameron was able to take the same concern and carry it off with a lot of style in The Terminator. The attitudinal holdovers from that film that crop up in Commando might very well be attributable to Schwarzenegger himself – which conjures up big-bicepped visions of a future auteur fashioning his own odd, sardonic, and by all means muscular mise en scene.

First published in The Informer, October 1985

This was a case of double-dipping, as I’d reviewed Invasion and Commando for The Herald, but I guess I needed something for the cover of The Informer, and Arnold was it. Lester spiraled into lower-budgeted titles, but has a robust career as a producer, so good for him. I forget that Arnold’s character in Commando was called John Matrix. Man, we had some dumb fuckin’ movies back then.


The Road Warrior

October 5, 2021

The opening montage is pretty good: It lets us know we’re in a future where the possession of fuel is of supreme importance (not too distant a future, apparently), and we see some newsreel-like footage of how the world got to this point, as well as some clips from a movie called Mad Max (The Road Warrior is a sequel, although that term hardly seems appropriate). This intro, with narration, is in standard movie ratio: The screen is squarish. Things are fairly ordinary until the moment after the screen goes black, and suddenly we get blown backward out of a car’s supercharger and the screen whomps into widescreen Panavision and we’re doing about eighty or ninety miles an hour down the highway of the Wasteland. I think it’s safe to say that not a single “fairly ordinary” thing happens after this.

Mad Max was Australia’s biggest hit ever, although it didn’t do much over here in the States (in Seattle, it had a brief run at the Grand Illusion; also a showing in a UW Australian film series, where some members of the audience absolutely refused to believe that such a not-nice movie was the most popular film Down Under). It’s a good movie, but it didn’t come near suggesting the kind of cosmic blowout that the same director/co-writer had in store for the sequel. The Road Warrior (it’s just Mad Max II in Australia; too bad) is a stunning, witty, riveting story about finding meaning in a world that seems meaningless, and how the action of finding that meaning becomes the stuff of legend. Key word here is “Action,” because that’s what The Road Warrior is, as well as what it’s about (Raiders of the Lost Ark looks like a game of bridge by comparison). George Miller has invoked a rollercoaster ride in describing the film’s headlong rush, and that will serve as an approximation of the movement of The Road Warrior.

But it doesn’t begin to do justice to the kind of vaulting imagination seen at work here. A simple tale: A man must lead people and their cargo to safety against incredible odds. But as the narrative hits you (and hits you, and hits you), the richness of invention along the way is breathtaking. Just naming cinematic comparisons, one could bring up Kurosawa, Peckinpah, Huston, and Spielberg; that might give some idea of the flavor of the movie, but it should be stressed that this is a George Miller film all the way, and is quite free of any hommages to the masters. Miller simply has an understanding of the way movies move, and with his big budget here, he is able to take the care that was sometimes absent in Mad Max. (A number of shots – most of which last only a few seconds – look like the kind of things that filmmakers spend their whole day waiting to get. I don’t know how Miller did it so often.)

No idea what The Road Warrior‘s post-Festival fate will be (it’s entirely possible that when Warner Brothers releases it in August, it’ll get dumped in the toolies as a typical summer action movie), but if it comes to your town, don’t miss it. There are few things as exhilarating as running through and surviving the Wasteland.

First published in The Informer, May 1982

Odd review; I don’t say much about what actually happens onscreen, and neglect to mention the name of the movie’s little-known leading man. This was part of a package of reviews of movies shown in the Seattle International Film Festival that year, published in The Informer, the Seattle Film Society’s newsletter, of which I was editor. I had forgotten that the film showed at SIFF well before it opened for its regular run. The SIFF founders had the volume cranked up way too high (as was their preference) at the Egyptian theater, and the movie pretty much took the roof off. I realize this must have been before the Film Society (separate from SIFF) had the bright idea to bring Mad Max back for a couple of showings, which sold out in spectacular form.


Walker

April 13, 2021

A charismatic American adventurer is on trial, accused of administering his own foreign policy. Instead of backing down, though, he faces his accuser and speaks of the necessity for vigorous intervention. Indeed, he speaks of manifest destiny and declares that, “It is the fate of America to go ahead.”

No, it’s not Oliver North, 1987. Rather, this is an early scene from Walker, a film that tells a true story from the 1850s, when American William Walker went to Nicaragua and bloodily declared himself president. But the parallels between now and then are too ripe not to be acknowledged, and Walker deliriously leaps on them.

But then, the word “delirious” is almost synonymous with the name Alex Cox, the abundantly talented director of Repo Man and Sid and Nancy. Cox takes Rudy Wurlitzer’s script, which follows Walker’s violent rise and his eventual downfall, and turns it into an insane, out-of-control movie that reflects the madness of Walker himself. This movie resembles a spaghetti Western directed with all the bomb-throwing revolutionary fervor of Jean-Luc Godard.

Cox frequently punctures the traditions of period storytelling. Now and then a mercenary will brandish a semiautomatic pistol, or a modern helicopter will fly by; at one point Walker picks up a copy of Time magazine with his picture on the cover, and beams madly, “Didja see this?”

In other words, Cox goes too far; by any conventional standards, he’s heavy-handed. And yet these gleeful anachronisms are in tune with the film’s other excesses, like the exaggeratedly violent shoot-outs that help Walker’s band of men conquer Nicaragua, or the oversized villainy of Cornelius Vanderbilt – in this film a craven capitalist pig if ever there was one – who funds Walker’s trip south.

The funny thing is, all of this wildness conveys an absolutely compelling vision of an out-of-control situation. It’s an inflammable movie, which is just what it should be.

It’s all the more amazing that, in between the jokes and the anachronisms, Walker contains some powerful movie making. For all his florid touches, Cox is capable of great subtlety, such as the early scene when Walker agrees to give up adventuring and stay at home with his fiancée. As they embrace, the lifts his head to listen to the people outside in the street, chanting his name, which his fiancée cannot hear because she is deaf.

And the finale is the burning of Grenada, an astonishing, bravura piece of filmmaking, even if Cox insists on undercutting it with his absurdist sense of humor.

Ed Harris, the superb actor from The Right Stuff and Sweet Dreams, plays Walker with considerable courage, and a willingness to look foolish; his Walker is an idealogue, madman, weasel. Almost everyone else in the movie is ragged and bedraggled, but there is good work by Sy Richardson, as Walker’s sympathetic aide; last year’s Oscar winner Marlee Matlin as the fiancée; and Peter Boyle as Vanderbilt. The inventive, haunting music score is by ex-Clash member Joe Strummer.

The story of William Walker is a remarkable one. Maybe in the future it will be told in rational terms. In the meantime, Alex Cox’s unbalanced, bizarre, and inspired version will have to do.

“History does not smile on pedants,” Walker says, and there’s nothing pedantic about this movie. Perhaps, someday, we can induce Cox to tackle the Oliver North story.

First published in The Herald, December 1987

Glad to hear I liked this movie, which I haven’t revisited. The supporting cast is crammed with fun people: Richard Masur, Xander Berkeley, Alfonso Arau, Rene Auberjonois, John Diehl, Richard Edson, Gerrit Graham, Joe Strummer. And of course Ronald Reagan, in newsreel footage. Cox has had a long and winding road since then, but apparently this studio-backed movie trashed his chances for regular Hollywood work.


Midnight Run

March 23, 2021

Robert De Niro may have opted out of the lead role in Big – he was an early choice – but he did not, evidently, give up on trying his hand at comedy. Midnight Run, De Niro’s newest, allows this gifted actor to let fly a few punch lines for a change.

In Midnight Run, De Niro is playing opposite an actor much better known for comedy roles: Charles Grodin. This, on first glance, looks like an exceptionally odd pairing, but then that’s what the movie is about. De Niro is a rough, wily bounty hunter hired to pick up Grodin and transport him from New York to Los Angeles. Grodin is a mob accountant who is almost certainly going to be killed by his ex-boss, the Mafia chief (Dennis Farina), when he is delivered into custody.

So Midnight Run mines a couple of different veins at once, the buddy movie and the road movie. George Gallo’s script, notwithstanding some loose ends, is quite ingenious in getting the couple from plane to car to bus to train. The traveling companions are being chased by the mob, a very ticked-off FBI man (Yaphet Kotto), and a competitive bounty hunter (John Ashton).

The buddy stuff succeeds because the combination of De Niro and Grodin is just unlikely enough to work. Grodin may have the best deadpan in the business – he’s made a virtual career out of it, even in his talk-show appearances – and he keeps it trained steadily on De Niro. There’s nothing original about the combination of personalities; Grodin’s the fussy one, goading De Niro about the negative effects of fatty foods and cigarettes, and about De Niro’s estrangement from an ex-wife in Chicago. De Niro, predictably, bristles and barks at Grodin’s touchy-feely approach.

Nothing new about that, but these two actors are inventive enough to discover fresh ways of doing it. Director Martin Brest lets some scenes run on in loopy improvisational manner, and De Niro and Grodin find some charmed chemistry together.

It’s a pretty funky movie – gritty and foul-mouthed and loose – but with an unforced measure of sweet stuff. That it works as often as it does is a tribute to Brest, who juggled similar elements in his fine Going in Style earlier this decade. There’s a terrific scene in Midnight Run in which De Niro and Grodin stop by the house of De Niro’s ex-wife, and the comic argument that ensues is suddenly stilled by the appearance of De Niro’s daughter, whom he has not seen in nine years. It’s a very touching moment.

I don’t know if Brest is cursed by good fortune, or what. He had a megahit in 1984 with the original Beverly Hills Cop, but Midnight Run is his first movie since. I hope Midnight Run doesn’t have to top that movie for this guy to get another job – he’s too good to waste.

First published in The Herald, July 21, 1988

It was a hit, although it’s uncertain whether Brest, who has made exactly three features since this came out, and none since Gigli in 2003, was cursed by good fortune. Everybody give it up for Going in Style, a nice picture. And RIP Yaphet Kotto.


Amsterdamned

March 4, 2021

The previous offering by the Dutch filmmaker Dick Maas was a strange little horror movie called The Lift, about an elevator that went berserk and started killing people. It was a wild movie, full of left-field humor and inventive shocks.

Ditto for Maas’s new film, the drolly titled Amsterdamned. In this one, an Amsterdam policeman (Huub Stapel) must track down an amphibious sicko who prowls through the canals of the city and slices up people who get too close to the water. The movie veers between the heart-thumping suspense of a Jaws and the queasily unpleasant grossness of a slasher movie.

But at least there’s never a dull moment. The cop is an irreverent presence; when his partner asks him about a witness’s description of the killer – “What could it mean, a monster with big black claws?” – our hero replies, “I dunno. Does your mother-in-law have an alibi?” (Apparently mother-in-law jokes know no international boundaries.)

He’s also making time with an attractive diver (Monique van de Ven), who’s helping him find the underwater maniac. But a lot of the movie’s buildup simply prepares the way for a couple of terrific chase scenes that use the unique layout of Amsterdam.

The first is a good motorcycle chase, in which the quarry winds up hanging from the lip of a drawbridge. Cool.

The second chase takes place on the canals, as two speedboats thread their way through the low bridges and around hairpin corners. It’s a wonderful action sequence, rife with tight spots and black humor. At one point, the cop actually falls out the back of his otherwise-unoccupied boat, and hangs on by a rope while he hopes the thing doesn’t abruptly change course.

In all of this, Maas’s film is somewhat patchwork and offhand. Amsterdamned almost looks as much like an audition for a big Hollywood action movie as anything else. On those terms, I’d say Maas puts his best foot forward. Sign this guy up for the next James Bond movie, and put some juice back into the series.

First published by The Herald, November 1988

It opened in Seattle at the Market Theater, a Vestron Pictures release! Maas didn’t get his 007 shot, although he remade The Lift in 2001 with two Lynchian lead actors, Naomi Watts and James Marshall. Apparently that one had its release killed by September 11, 2001.


Man on Fire

February 17, 2021

Man on Fire is a highly eccentric thriller that gathers talents from a half-dozen countries, and allows them to fall flat on their faces. Most of the main actors are Americans, the director is French, the screenwriter is Italian, and the cinematographer is British. To put it bluntly, they’re not speaking the same language.

About the only international collaborator who succeeds is the cinematographer, the excellent Gerry Fisher, who manages to convey the fading glamor and decaying cities of Italy. The volatile Italian setting produces anxiety in a wealthy couple (Brooke Adams, Paul Shenar) who are worried that their 12-year-old daughter (Jade Malle) may be ripe for a kidnapping.

So they hire a bodyguard for the child. He (Scott Glenn) is a burned-out case, an ex-CIA agent who has seen too much horror in his life. Thus he is all ready to be charmed and rejuvenated by the lonely little girl, and blow up a lot of bad guys when she is eventually kidnapped.

The movie spends a lot of time on the dewy relationship between the grizzled bodyguard and the girl, a movie situation—from Witness to Someone to Watch Over Me—that has found new life recently. They sing to each other and read from Of Mice and Men, all of which becomes rather icky-poo.

Thus we are told in no uncertain terms that, really, this film is not just another violent revenge drama, but a movie with a sensitive soul. Okay, right, but you know the patty-cake stuff is going to give way sometime, and Glenn will start threatening to cut off villians’ fingers before it’s over.

The movie’s main problem is its fundamental incoherence; it’s difficult to follow what’s going on. That goes offscreen, too; the presence of name actors such as Adams and Jonathan Pryce is bewildering, since they do nothing but walk in front of some nice Italian scenery.

The director, Elie Chouraqui, seems intent on obscuring everything in his path. He refuses even to deliver a cathartic climax, opting instead for a mysterious ending guaranteed to have moviegoers everywhere scratching their heads. If I sat down and thought about it I might begin to understand exactly what goes on in the kidnapping business, but who would want to sit down and think about it?

First published in The Herald, December 12, 1987

I wonder why I neglected to mention that Joe Pesci is also in the cast—Danny Aiello and Laura Morante, too. IMDb says that Tony Scott was originally set up to direct; he would have to wait until the 2004 Denzel Washington/Elle Fanning remake of the source novel. That film managed to demonize Mexico and show Scott doing his hyperdrive stylistic jackassery.