Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Blastfighter (1984) review


Michael Sopkiw (Tiger Sharp), George Eastman (Tom), Valentina Forte (Connie), Ottaviano Dell'Acqua (Matt), Michele Soavi (Pete)

Directed by Lamberto Bava (as John Old, Jr.)

The Short Version: Another Italian mishmash, this one combining elements of DELIVERANCE, THE DEER HUNTER, DEATH WISH and FIRST BLOOD. The script and direction are unusually good when dealing with the leads, but less so once the action takes over during the last half. The transition from exposition to violence isn't seamless and the film fails to fully exploit the moody and magnificent exteriors captured by Gianlorenzo Battaglia's camera. Still, compared with other Italian exploitationers of this era, Bava's revenge thriller is a BLAST.

After serving eight years in prison for killing the man that murdered his wife, Jake 'Tiger' Sharp, a former Atlanta, GA cop, has the opportunity to assassinate the lawyer that put him away. Given a special riot gun that can do just about anything, Tiger instead decides to put killing behind him and heads for the quiet of the wilderness. The solace is short-lived when his daughter he hasn't seen in years shows up and tries to have a father-daughter relationship again. However, local cretins won't allow Tiger to live peacefully and he's forced to fight back.

Italians were aces at culturally appropriating intrinsically American film styles like the Western; and they attempt to do the same thing for Southern Gothics with a movie bearing a title that sounds like one of their cheap SciFi knockoffs. If ever a film's title seemed misplaced in categorizing its content it's BLASTFIGHTER. Compared to other Euro-clones of this era, Bava Jr's US-lensed actioner is surprisingly polished when compared to works of his colleagues. If only they could've gotten somebody to write dialog that sounded like things that Americans would say.

The dubbed dialog offers many opportunities for unintended laughs via the dubbers going way overboard in attempting southern accents. Luca and Massimo De Rita's script is strong but undone by the villainous caricatures. What could've been a serious, dramatic exploitation picture, ends up a comic book; nothing wrong with that, of course; only Bava manages some powerful, visceral moments that yield to standard action cliches wrought by exaggerated hillbilly portrayals of all your finer Drive-in mountain man movies.

Michael Sopkiw's character is well defined and given plenty of time to brood and simmer before cutting him loose in the explosion-filled finale. Not only is he a man who lost eight years of his life over avenging his wife's death, he simply wishes to be left alone. Retreating to Atlanta, Georgia where the crime took place (probably not the best idea), he is quickly accosted by rampaging rednecks with nothing better to do with their time.

During this section of the film, we learn Sopkiw's character has great affection for animals, even going so far as to keep a fawn as a pet. The foreshadowing is obvious as to the fate of said fawn. Things are further complicated when his daughter enters the picture, hoping to have the relationship with her father denied her during her early years. Watch for an abundance of product placement during these early scenes! These portions of the film are rich in exposition; and it would've been extremely beneficial had the incidents leading up to the finale been granted a few more additional minutes. 

For instance, Jake Sharp's prison dilemma is mostly glossed over, giving the viewer a 'Cliff's Notes' version. The man that killed his wife is the gay lover of the attorney that put him away. Exploring this avenue further--one that plays like a mini-giallo--would've given Jake's conflict with human violence more poignancy in the later scenes. Still, Lamberto Bava has fashioned some commendable work here.

Bava's movie combines a number of elements from various movies such as FIRST BLOOD (1982); much like Stallone's iconic John Rambo, Sopkiw's Jake Sharp just wants to be left the hell alone. The finale is reminiscent of the classic 80s actioner as well. Sopkiw's dress at the end recalls Charles Bronson's attire in DEATH WISH 2 (1981). Other scenes evoke THE DEER HUNTER (1978), and especially DELIVERANCE (1972); probably the film's second biggest influence. Bava and crew shot some of the film in the same locales as the Boorman classic and even hired that film's young banjo player, Billy Redden.

That great ape, George Eastman, is co-starring once again; this time playing a quasi-bad guy. He hated the movie (as evidenced during his scathing interview), but gets to play a conflicted character this time out, as opposed to his usual cartoon villain. Torn between his friend (Sopkiw's Jake Sharp) and his psychotic brother, he knows that eventually he will have to bury one or the other. Eastman may disregard these movies he made, but he does well with this role; a highlight of his exploitation career.

Gianlorenzo Battaglia's photography is one of the film's strongest assets. Bava may not capitalize on using the environment to further a sense of dread, but Battaglia's camera gives us some haunting shots and sprawling vistas of nature. 

Code Red's bluray is another stunner, and comes equipped with an array of interviews. Unfortunately, the person in charge of subtitles once more crams too many of them onscreen at once... and again the last interview (with DP Battaglia) the font size decreases. Eastman's interview is the most eye-opening one on the disc; mainly because he nonchalantly trashes not only the film but Bava as well. Both uncomfortable and funny at the same time, Eastman seems bewildered that anyone would be interested in these movies.

Fabio Frizzi's score is unmistakably Italian and feels terribly out of place considering the southern setting. 'Evening Star' is a catchy country tune you hear a few times during the picture. Written by the Gibbs of Bee Gees fame, the song was originally orated by Kenny Rogers and released in June of 1984. Instead of licensing Kenny's version some singer named Tommie Baby covers it; and it's a nice version as well.

If you're a fan of the films BLASTFIGHTER homages, or hixploitation in general, you'll most likely enjoy Bava's action-packed interpretation. Distinctly Italian, it never completely feels like a genuine Southern Fried Gothic, but a good assimilation crammed full of this genres brand of southern (in)hospitality.

This review is representative of the Code Red bluray. Specs and Extras: New HD master; 1080p 1.78:1; audio commentary with Michael Sopkiw; interviews with Michael Sopkiw, George Eastman, Lamberto Bava and DP Giolorenzo Battaglia; running time: 01:29:34

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Hands of Steel (1986) review


Daniel Greene (Paco Queruak), Janet Agren (Linda), Claudio Cassinelli (Peter Howell), George Eastman (Raul Morales), Donald O'brien (Dr. Olster), John Saxon (Francis Turner), Roberto Bisacco (Cooper), Franco Fantasia (Arthur Mosley)

Directed by Sergio Martino (as Martin Dolman)

The Short Version: Curious, mentally deranged blend of THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, THE TERMINATOR and the Trucker Action sub-genre finds a dismembered war vet turned into a bionic man and used for assassination. He ends up taking a much different career trajectory by becoming an arm wrestler at a desolate highway diner till corporate killers come looking for him. It's a ridiculously entertaining concept poorly realized by Martino doing the best he can with limited resources that didn't even allow for a model big rig to be blown up at the end. Worst of all, Claudio Cassinelli's death during filming cast a dark cloud over the picture that will never dissipate. Occasionally fun, bonkers as all hell, and never really coming to life till the last 20 minutes, HANDS OF STEEL is, by and large, a weak handshake.

Programmed by an industrialist to kill a blind, disabled leader of an environmental movement, a human cyborg's remaining 30% of humanity prevents him from carrying out the assassination. He escapes and ends up arm-wrestling local truckers, battling big government hitmen with even bigger guns, and a lady cyborg with a horrible southern accent at an Arizona motel and diner.

Simply put, HANDS OF STEEL is the best example of all your finer arm-wrestling, killer cyborg vs. mad trucker movies (there can be only one!). The laughable screenplay is the result of a dingy full of script-writers from a story by Martino. Imagine THE TERMINATOR (1984), instead of killing Sarah Conner, falls in love with her and she with him; then battles a motley clutch of sweaty truckers in arm-wrestling matches while hitmen hired by a corporate bigwig track him down. That's HANDS in a nutshell. 

Packed with 80s Action Hero tropes, the film's star, Daniel Greene, does as good as anyone could ask for in such a low-budget picture that is far too ambitious for the meager means afforded the production crew. If the film could've only realized its potential we'd be talking about an all-time exploitation classic. For a film called HANDS OF STEEL, about a muscular cyborg with 70% of his body consumed by heavy metal, with 5,000lbs of pressure per square inch, we never really see those steel appendages do any massive damage. You expect to see him punch through walls, squash heads like melons and thrash 18 wheelers with abandon.... but you get none of that; instead we get.... arm-wrestling.

HANDS is basically a grittier, more insane version of OVER THE TOP (1987), only the equally perplexing Stallone arm-wrestling, quasi-action-trucker-drama hadn't been made yet. According to Daniel Greene, he met Stallone in 1984 at a gym they worked out at together. Stallone in turn invited him to a screening of RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (1985) where he met some Italian producers that led to his lead role in the first of five movies for Sergio Martino. Maybe Greene invited Stallone to a screening of HANDS OF STEEL?

There hadn't been any arm-wrestling movies prior to this, so for a change, an Italian movie was an innovator of sorts. A good chunk of the running time is taken up with arm-wrestling, or Tough Guy talk about it. The sport has a lot in common with Professional Wrestling, and it wasn't unusual to see wrestlers engaging in throwing down arms to enhance the squared circle shenanigans. Hilarious, but garnering cool points for its inclusion, the Arizona diner where much of the film takes place has a dozen or more pictures on the wall representing arm-wrestling champions; yet all the photos are of professional wrestlers like Bruno Sammartino, Magnum TA, Terry Funk, Hillbilly Jim and Hulk Hogan!

HANDS really grabs the audience by the throat during the falls-count-anywhere finale that encompasses the last 20 minutes. It would appear Martino saved the bulk of his tiny budget for a helicopter-big rig chase; pump-action shotgun shoot-outs; John Saxon carrying a giant laser gun; and a wild, totally out-of-left field Karate brawl between Greene and a female cyborg wearing saran wrap for a skirt. Despite the late-blooming energy spurt, the limp-wristed budget is evident in the finale when a big truck is blown to bits by John Saxon. You never see it blown up, just some stock footage afterward. Martino's previous genre product had nice model work but none of that is found here. Easily the greatest stain on HANDS OF STEEL is the death of Claudio Cassinelli, a famous Italian actor beloved by international fans.

Cassinelli is fantastic as the ruthless assassin, Peter Howell. With his clean-shaven face and slicked-back hair he looks a lot like Antonio Banderas. Playing against type as a villain, he never smiles and looks great in his action scenes. After his death, the remainder of his scenes were finished by Roberto Bisacco (who actually favors him; see insert) playing a different character in the beginning. The stories surrounding this tragedy vary (the interviews on the blu offer differing points of view), but it's one of cinema's darkest moments when the light of such a fine actor was extinguished.

During filming on Friday, July 12th, 1985 actor Claudio Cassinelli was killed in a helicopter crash along with the pilot, Dennis Nasca, in Arizona. The scene called for Cassinelli's character to be using a machine gun to take out Greene's character. The helicopter was to fly under the Navajo Bridge crossing the Colorado River. The rehearsal of the stunt was successful. Upon going under the bridge for the actual filming, the chopper was too close and the rotor blades hit the structure causing the helicopter to rip apart into multiple pieces, plummeting some 500 feet into the Colorado River below. Cassinelli's body was recovered three hours later by divers, still strapped to his seat. According to reports, the pilot had a bottle of Ionamin in his hotel room; a drug that had side-effects of nervousness and erratic behavior and wasn't to have been taken 24 hours before flying. Nasca's body was never recovered.

Cassinelli didn't need to be in the helicopter for these scenes, but conflicting stories state he wanted to do it for his son and others say he was nervous about doing the sequence at all. He was 46 years old at the time and was married to journalist Irene Bignardi.

The helicopter was a Bell 206B. It's the one John Saxon is seen in at the end. Apparently scenes were re-shot and or re-arranged to substitute the loss of Cassinelli. You do see the chopper fly under the Navajo Bridge after it briefly chases Greene's character. As for the crash, stories are conflicting that a wind gust brought the chopper up into the bridge; the pilot became distracted; or he was trying to show off. At any rate, Cassinelli's widow brought a 10 million wrongful death lawsuit against Nasca's widow and three companies later that year in 1985.

On an upbeat note, big George Eastman is a highlight playing the Mexican roughhouser, Raul Morales who, incidentally, has no morals. As per Greene's remarks, he had a great time not only making the movie, but working with Eastman, alias Luigi Montefiori. His constant mugging and menacing disposition are one of the film's genuine bright spots. On his interview, Eastman states he had little interest in doing the movie, feeling the script was stupid; you'd be hard-pressed to notice as Eastman goes over the top, playing his greasy truck driver to the hilt.

As briefly mentioned above, Daniel Greene (the Fuddian cadet in the STRIPES clone WEEKEND WARRIORS [1986] and Elvira's love interest in ELVIRA, MISTRESS OF THE DARK [1988]) looks great in his role as Paco. Greene favors Ferrigno and does his best playing the semi-sentimental cyborg. The sequence where Paco repairs one of his arms reminds you not only of the similar scene in THE TERMINATOR (1984), but that he's 70% machine; the rest of the time you may find yourself forgetting this since his mecha-fists aren't used to much advantage. With guys like Stallone, Bronson and Norris dominating Tough Guy cinema, Greene had a lot of potential for an American action hero on the DTV market where he got to shine in several such pictures both here and abroad.

Filling out the rest of the cast, Swedish actress Janet Agren convinces as an Arizonan running an out-of-the-way motel; Donald O'brien, Dr. Butcher himself, has a minor cameo as Paco's programmer; and John Saxon collects a check for several scenes worth of work only to lose heart in the project by the end (if you've seen it you get it).

As for the rest of the picture, the set design is cheap-looking with machine dryer ducts sticking out of everything from walls to cars. The script attempts something of an environmental message showcasing the archetypal dystopian future of this style of movie; depicting the usual, and tired, plot device of big corporations as the reason for society's collapse. This portion of the script is woefully overshadowed by both the budget and the extreme nuttiness the film revels in later on.

Claudio Simonetti of Goblin contributes a repetitive but catchy 80s synth score.

The very definition of a 'big dumb action movie', with a fantastic cast of genre regulars, Martino's bizarre, impoverished mixture of SciFi-Action-Machismo has some intriguing qualities yet one wishes the crew had more money to give those HANDS an extra punch to passably pulverize the viewer into submission. In some ways a grossly missed opportunity, HANDS OF STEEL loses its grip on the audience right from the beginning, but manages to hang on for a satisfactory finish.

This review is representative of the Code Red bluray. Specs and Extras: New, exclusive HD scan; 1080p 1.78:1; interviews with Daniel Greene, John Saxon, Sergio Martino, George Eastman, and Roberto Bisacco; original trailer; running time: 01:33:08.

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