Road House

August 24, 2012

Let’s get the official tsk-tsking out of the way: Road House is a violent, tasteless, unbelievable movie that has no redeeming social value whatsoever. With that said, we can talk about how much fun it is.

Road House is shameless, but it’s also irresistible. Patrick Swayze, who hasn’t had a film released to theaters since he struck gold with Dirty Dancing two summers ago, stars as “the best cooler in the business.” Translation: he’s a glorified bouncer who gets hired at bad clubs and bars and turns them around. He weeds out the deadbeats, throws out the drunks, chases the dope dealers.

But this fellow is a bit odd. As he’s fond of pointing out, he has a degree in philosophy. He instructs his burly crew of bouncers to be nice to troublemakers, “until it’s time to not be nice.” And when he’s insulted, he simply comments, “Opinions vary.”

After an opening sequence in which we see his brand of Zen pugilism (he sews up his own wounds), Swayze is hired to manage a rundown roadhouse in a small town outside Kansas City. After he arrives and begins to clean the place up, he comes to realize that the town is run by an evil landowner (Ben Gazzara), who has his hands in everybody’s pockets and his goons on everybody’s backs. Inevitably, Swayze is going to have to teach this guy a lesson and make the town safe.

Does this sound a little bit like a Western? It should, because Road House is unabashedly a Western in modern dress, with plenty of elements of Shane and High Noon. As if we couldn’t tell, Swayze’s new girlfriend, a blond gorgeous doctor, greets him with, “So you’re the new marshal in town.”

Swayze receives a bit of help from his mentor, the now-graying king of the bouncers (Sam Elliott, who has played a few cowboys over the years, in a sly performance). The movie skillfully mixes Swayze’s martial arts, his philosophizing (“Pain doesn’t hurt,” “Nobody wins a fight”), some kissy face, good roadhouse music, as well as at least one fistfight every six minutes. It doesn’t come close to being respectable, but Road House is a brawling good time.

First published in the Herald, May 18, 1989

I know what you’re thinking: I underrated it. True. Some movies hit the sweet spot where the ridiculous becomes sublime; Road House, you are it.


Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects

August 16, 2012

The new Charles Bronson movie is called Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects, and the title is only the first weird thing about it. This incredible movie posits Bronson as a Los Angeles cop who works in the vice squad, a job that depresses him but that provides the film with plenty of opportunities for sleaze.

In the opening sequence, he busts in on a man with an underage prostitute in a hotel room. Bronson grabs a sexual device and makes the man take his point, so to speak. (Bronson’s first line of the next scene is, “I don’t think I can eat tonight.” Sheesh.)

And this is just the beginning. In a parallel story, a Japanese businessman (James Pax) brings his family to the United States, where he molests Bronson’s adolescent daughter on a bus. Bronson’s rage goes out toward all Asian people; meanwhile, his wife (Peggy Lipton, once of TV’s “Mod Squad”) suggests that his concern over his daughter may be unnaturally intense.

Then, coincidentally, the Japanese businessman’s daughter is kidnapped by the same child-prostitution ring that Bronson has been investigating. Bronson doesn’t know if he can work the case—”Could you replace me with someone more sympathetic to the Oriental community?” he asks his superior—but he digs in anyway.

Wacky incidents in Bronson’s investigation include dangling a suspect from a hotel balcony by his feet (the man slips out of his boots and to his death below, an accident that is never referred to again); and a sequence in which Bronson forces the scummiest pimp (Juan Fernandez) to swallow a $25,000 Tiffany watch. In one gulp. On the less colorful side, Bronson also smears a guy with hot dogs and mustard at a football game.

Some of this falls into the so-bad-it’s-unintentionally-funny category, but quite a bit of the film is creepy and ugly.

It’s an unpleasant movie. I’m guessing that at some point, the complicated screenplay (by someone named Harold Nebenzal) may have been a serious look at a policeman who, dehumanized by his job, begins to crack up. Something along the lines of Clint Eastwood’s Tightrope, for instance. But in the hands of Bronson, everything gets trivialized.

This badger-faced, beef-fisted actor can still mix it up, but he does his most convincing acting when he tells his wife that he’d like to call it quits and open up a little saloon somewhere. (Perhaps in Carmel, like Eastwood.) It might not be a bad idea, Chuck, you’re looking tired.

First published in the Herald, February 2, 1989

Nothing against Bronson, but this string of movies was unworthy of the man. And Kinjite was one of the worst—J. Lee Thompson in the director’s chair, again.

Never Too Young to Die/Jake Speed/Code Name: Emerald

August 14, 2012

It’s deadhead time at the movies, as early summer releases begin to die and the studios hold back some heavy hitters for the July Fourth weekend. Filling up all those multiplex screens this week is a trio of losers, soon to be forgotten.

Of the three, Never Too Young to Die is the most entertaining, simply because it’s the most outlandish. It’s all about a kid (John Stamos) who gets mixed up in a maniac’s plot to fill Los Angeles’s water supply with radioactive waste.

See, the kid’s father was a secret agent—in fact, he’s played by Goerge Lazenby, who played James Bond once. This tips off the filmmakers’ intentions; this movie is a gadgety, quick-moving teenage 007 movie. As such, it’s a limp outing, although one character actually says, “An entire city held for ransom by a maniac?” as though no one had ever said that before.

But here are the things to enjoy: ex-Prince protégé Vanity, first spotted wearing va-va-voom black lace at a funeral, then incongruously riding a horse across an Ohio farm, and Kiss member Gene Simmons, who plays the mad hermaphrodite villain named Ragnar. Simmons has no shame, a quality that greatly enhances the viewing experience.

As he cackles, rolls his eyes, sticks out his tongue and sings, “It takes a man like me to be a woman like me,” you know you’ve found the film’s reason for being.

In the same vein is Jake Speed, a relentlessly silly adventure flick that crosses the Indiana Jones movies with Romancing the Stone.

Jake is the fictional hero of a series of best-selling books. However, the writing team (Wayne Crawford—who also co-produced and co-wrote the film—and Dennis Christopher) that created him actually likes to live out his cases. So they contact a woman (Karen Kopins) whose sister has been sold into a white slavery ring in Africa, and propose to bring the girl back.

Naturally they take Kopins with them; she becomes nonplussed when she discovers these guys aren’t adventurers, but writers. Jake meets his arch enemy, played with slimy fervor by John Hurt. Hurt’s the kind of villain who keeps a cageful of lions under a trap door in his headquarters, so you know we’re in 007 country again.

Jake Speed is undone by its own spoofiness. Not so Code Name: Emerald, which is as glum as Jake is bubbly.

Emerald is about a soldier (Eric Stoltz, of Mask) captured by the Germans a couple of months before D-Day. It happens that he knows the date and place of the invasion, and if he talks, it could botch everything.

So the Allies send a spy (Ed Harris) whom the Nazis believe to be working for Berlin. He’s go to get to Stoltz and keep him from talking, without raising the suspicions of the German high command (Max von Sydow, Horst Buchholz, Helmut Berger).

The only intriguing thing about his film is why such fine actors would be attracted to such an enervated project. Harris, in particular, is widely thought to be one of our best actors (with good reason), and he has been, in The Right Stuff, Places in the Heart, and Sweet Dreams, at the peak of his powers lately; what’s he doing in this stillborn effort?

First published in the Herald, June 22, 1986

In fairness to the actors in question, the synopsis of Code Name: Emerald sounds like something that might be a serviceable thriller. The movie itself is just dead. Footnote to film history, though; CN:E was the first credit for screenwriter Ron Bass (based on his novel), who has since become a high-priced writing conglomerate. So there is hope after flops.

Johnny Handsome

August 10, 2012

In Johnny Handsome, Mickey Rourke takes his propensity for disfigurement to a new level. You thought he was ugly in Barfly, or Angel Heart? That was relative comeliness. In Johnny Handsome, Rourke plays a lowlife criminal whose face is unspeakably deformed. He’s so repellent he’s contemptuously known as Johnny Handsome.

When Johnny is double-crossed during a robbery and his best friend killed, he’s packed off to prison, a two-time loser. But then a doctor (Forest Whitaker), a specialist in reconstructive surgery, sees Johnny’s face, and he puts Johnny under the knife to try to make a new man of him. At least he fashions a new, socially acceptable face, but can a new face change the man?

As Johnny Handsome finds out, he must remain true to who he is. The second half of the film shows his revenge against the two sleazeballs who sold him out (deliciously and dementedly played by Ellen Barkin, also on sizzling view these days in Sea of Love, and Lance Henriksen). This part of the movie isn’t quite as intriguing as the character study of the first half, because it’s mostly clockwork action.

But action is the specialty of director Walter Hill (Red Heat), and he can bring this kind of thing off as well as anybody. Hill also glories in the blue-collar New Orleans locations and the tough, epigrammatic dialogue. When Barkin sizes up the new Johnny Handsome—she doesn’t recognize him—she leans in and leers, “I’ll tell you sumpin’, sweetheart: Lookin’ at you gives me some baaad thoughts.”

In the end, Johnny Handsome comes close to being a real thug’s tragedy. It’s got seediness and flavorful characters, including Johnny’s post-makeover girlfriend (Elizabeth McGovern), who isn’t quite the goody-two-shoes she seems to be, and Johnny’s nemesis, a police lieutenant (Morgan Freeman) who is merciless in his harassment of Johnny—or is it merciful?

Rourke does well with his role. The scene in which his bandages come off and he peers into a mirror is one of the best pieces of acting I’ve seen in a movie this year.

Finally the movie and his performance come up short, because there isn’t really enough of Johnny to provide for truly tragic dimensions; he becomes submerged in the revenge story. That story is a pip, nevertheless, and Johnny Handsome is a fascinating brew.

First published in the Herald, September 29, 1989

Still waiting for the Johnny Handsome cult to gather. I guess the film doesn’t quite work, but Hill gets moments like nobody else, and Rourke is pretty remarkable.


July 12, 2012

You can see why James Woods would be attracted to the lead role in Cop, a new police thriller. His character, a volatile big-city cop, is both an intelligent, sensitive family man and a nervy, hair-trigger obsessive. The role fits right into Woods’ gallery of unclassifiables, from the killer in The Onion Field to the buzzsaw reporter in Salvador to the perverse thug in Best Seller.

Woods is never a dull actor, which means there’s always something to watch in Cop. But the movie is a strange, unsuccessful mélange of different styles. For a while, it appears to be a provocative character study of a cop on the edge, similar to Clint Eastwood’s Tightrope, wherein Woods is curiously attracted to a serial-murder case involving innocent girls.

Then the film veers off into an odd look at man-woman relations, as Woods engages the help of a feminist poet (Lesley Ann Warren) with some predictable clashes in sensibility. And then some of the movie is black comedy, as when Woods picks up the companion of a hood he’s just shot in the street; she looks down at the corpse and asks, “Is what’s-his-name dead?” just before Woods takes her home to spend the night.

None of it ever gets in gear. The tone of the film seems to shift from scene to scene, as though writer-director James B. Harris (who also produced the movie with Woods) were trying out different, awkward styles. Harris, who made his niche in film history by producing three of Stanley Kubrick’s earliest pictures (The Killing, Paths of Glory, Lolita), has had a fitful career as a director, and Cop does nothing to advance it.

Every time Harris starts to touch on a potentially interesting subject, the film suddenly shifts back into cop-movie cliché (the by-the-book police captain growls to Woods, “If you go to the media with this, I’ll crucify you!”).

The performers seem uncertain, too. What to make of Warren’s poet, who goes from defensiveness to giggles within a few moments? (Check out her wonderfully blowsy performance in HBO’s recent Baja California instead.) Charles Durning and Charles (“Hill Street Blues”) Haid, both looking more rotund than ever, are fellow cops, but both are sketchily drawn.

Woods’ electric presence—the sharp shoulders, the lean, haunted face, the breathless jabber—can carry a film, but can’t make it comprehensible. Cop may be guilty of relying too much on its star to piece things together. Woods is good, but he can’t do it all himself.

First published in the Herald, April 10, 1988

I don’t remember the movie, but this was in the period when Lesley Ann Warren was finding her post-ingenue career very fruitful. Same for Charles Durning, of course.


July 4, 2012

After muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger’s initial forays into the cinema—namely, Pumping Iron and Stay Hungry, in which he basically played himself—people wondered just how this awesomely constructed fellow with the thick German accent would ever find his niche in films.

Well, perhaps not that many people wondered. In fact, Schwarzenegger was not taken seriously at all—although the Hollywood folk who laughed at him way back when may be kicking themselves now.

Schwarzenegger seems to know what he’s capable of, and he knows how to package himself (if you’ve ever seen him on talk shows, you know he’s not stupid). He’s been bankable since the first Conan movie, but his real success may lie not with that centuries-old character but with a very hip, modern kind of action hero.

In last year’s The Terminator and the current Commando Schwarzenegger is playing almost the same role, with just a few technical differences (the Terminator was not human; the Commando is, so we’re told). The two films share a sardonic sense of humor that approaches nihilism: Arnold cracks jokes as he walks away from the bad guys he’s just blown away.

In Commando, that’s quite a sizable number of corpses. Arnold mows down more enemies than you can shake a stick at, all the while catching a few scratches on his own considerable torso.

He’s mad because the bad guys (led by Dan Hedaya) have kidnapped his daughter to blackmail him into performing a Third World assassination. Arnold escapes their clutches by dropping out of the bottom of a plane just as it’s taking off (this may be a movie first). He then has to find the villains within a few hours, and the trail leads him to a ritzy Los Angeles shopping mall (great shootout), a sleazy motel room, and finally a secluded island fortress where Arnold paints his body and wipes out the final couple hundred adversaries.

His last confrontation is with an old Army buddy who was drummed out of Arnold’s fighting unit. He’s played by Vernon Wells, who displayed formidable fearsomeness as the mad, Mohawked Wez in The Road Warrior. He still makes a good emissary of evil.

Commando is certainly nothing great—not even on a pulpy level, as The Terminator, a lively movie, was—but it does have a sense of humor about itself. Schwarzenegger is not quite as believable as a human being as he was as an android, and they’ve given him too many lines of dialogue.

To the film’s credit, there is a rather nice love interest for the big guy in the figure of Rae Dawn Chong, as a stewardess accidentally drawn into Arnold’s chase. Much of the time she’s crouching behind tables, shrieking as Schwarzenegger dukes it out with someone, but she also gets to hang around and get off some one-liners. When Arnold is mixing it up with a particularly nasty opponent, Chong makes the pointed aside, “These guys eat too much red meat.” The people who cooked up Commando share those dining habits.

First published in the Herald, October 10, 1985

Still early in the Schwarzenegger breakthrough—early enough so that he’s working with directors like Mark Lester. I recall this one having far too many awkward lines—you just want him to shut up and be Arnold.

The Evil That Men Do

June 21, 2012

Fans of late-night movies have fun following the early career of a fellow named Charles Buchinsky (sometimes Buchinski), a striking supporting actor who hangs around the edges of scenes in program fare from the 1950s. He made B-movies, including Westerns, and his Slavic features were used for comedic effect when he played a milk-drinking tough guy in the Tracy-Hepburn movie Pat and Mike.

In the mid-50s he changed his named, and what a change it brought about. Charles Bronson. Grrr. Suddenly, he was one of The Magnificent Seven riding off into a squinty-eyed sunset. Bronson was to become even bigger in the 1970s, when his action films grossed hundreds of millions of dollars, and he was a gigantic box-office draw all over the world.

Bronson has made some good movies—such as Once Upon a Time in the West and The Great Escape—but he’s been coasting for years. He’s no longer as popular in the United States, but overseas his name still brings ’em in, and he continues to make movies with violent (especially revenge-related) themes.

The Evil That Men Do is formula Bronson all the way. He’s a professional killer lured out of retirement when a friend is murdered. This time, the fish is a big one: an evil man known as “The Doctor” (Joseph Maher) whose work and pleasure is in torturing and murdering innocent people.

Bronson goes undercover to what seems to be Guatemala (the film was shot in Mexico), accompanied by his friend’s widow (Theresa Saldana), who poses as his wife. She’s always saying things such as, “Why is he so cold? Nothing affects him,” about Bronson—which he finds out, because he can read lips. But he doesn’t care, because he’s cold and nothing affects him.

The Doctor is surrounded by vicious bodyguards, all of whom are destroyed by Bronson. Not too many surprises here, since we know how the film will turn out, but there is a kinky first for a Bronson film: One of these creeps (Raymond St. Jacques) propositions Charlie and Saldana, who pose as a sexually adventurous couple. Bronson even puts his wrinkled paw in the dude’s hand and proposes a threesome.

Charles Bronson? In a threesome?

Thanks heavens, nothing weird happens, because before the guy can get out his leather socks, Bronson wastes him good.

The rest is standard fare: Bronson speaks little, and much blood is shed. Director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Naravone) keeps things moving at a snail’s pace, which really drags down a film with a dusty Mexican setting.

What gives the film a strange feeling is the presence of Theresa Saldana, who had a role in Raging Bull. A couple of years ago, she was stabbed on the street by one of those psychos who become obsessed with a media image. That’s the kind of scenario that might crop up in a Bronson film, and somehow her casting here—although she’s perfectly okay in the role—lends an uncomfortable eeriness to some aspects of the movie. Unfortunately, though hardly unexpectedly, that’s the only interesting thing going on here.

First published in the Herald, September 29, 1984

For me this one started the run of unbelievably moribund Bronson pictures in the 1980s, including three Death Wish sequels. Driving up to the Aurora Village theater to see one of these on the Friday afternoon it opened was a truly numbing experience, in every way.