Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Losers (1970) review


William Smith (Lincoln "Link" Thomas), Bernie Hamilton (Captain Jackson), Adam Roarke (Duke), Houston Savage (Dirty Denny), Gene Cornelius (Speed), Paul Koslo (Limpy), John Garwood (Sergeant Winston), Ana Corita (Kim Sue), Lillian Margarejo (Suriya), Vic Diaz (Diem-nuc)

Directed by Jack Starrett

"That's a genu-ine gook-flattener. Man, you just roll over'em, flatten'em out, dry'em, sail'em on!"-- Speed selling the purpose of the retro-fitted motorbikes in the assault on the VC-Chinese enemy encampment.

The Short Version: You take an action movie shot in the Philippines, mix with director Jack Starrett, actors William Smith, Vic Diaz, add motorbikes armed with machine guns and explosives, and you get 70s exploitation nirvana. It's EASY RIDER meets APOCALYPSE NOW when a bad bunch of bikers raise hell in Cambodia to rescue a captured CIA operative. 

The US military entrust a five man biker gang, The Devil's Advocates, to infiltrate a stronghold in Cambodia to break out Chet Davis, a captured US diplomat. Considered expendable, if caught, or killed in action, no one will know the existence of the mission, or them. Led by 'Nam vet, Link, who has a past with Davis, they go in on Yamaha motorbikes retrofitted with heavy artillery and armor plating.

As a movie, THE LOSERS is anything but. Jack Starrett and the Biker King, William Smith reunite after the hit RUN, ANGEL, RUN (1969) for another unique, machismo fueled, hard ridin' flick. Smith was a sentimental cyclist in that one; for THE LOSERS, he's a traditional hog master, but he and his gang are (mostly) likable anti-hero types. The biker culture and the war in Vietnam were synonymous in relation to the brotherly bond shared between motorcyclists and soldiers. The integration of the two for an exploitation movie was a natural fit. The ambitious script was written by Alan (KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS) Caillou, who also plays the Albanian, one of the main villains.

In an unusual move for a trashy biker flick shot in the glorious hellhole that is the Philippines of 70s exploitation, Caillou's script contains a surprising amount of exposition. Predominantly in these types of movies, characterization was peripheral, with the main focus on the sex and violence. For THE LOSERS, both are evenly balanced. There's a bang-up action sequence to kick things off, and within the first ten minutes are boys in jean vests and tie dye t-shirts have their mission mapped out. From there it's playtime -- Limpy (Koslo), Dirty Denny and Speed check out the lovely locals while Duke (Roarke) rekindles an old flame. In between there's a lot of gratuitous nudity and raucous behavior. 

At a little over the 60 minute mark, the films selling point kicks into overdrive and it rarely stops for a breather for the next half hour. The Devil's Advocates, now with their armor plated, heavily armed motorbikes, set about machine gunning the Vietcong and the Red Chinese while blowing shit up left and right. Stuntmen and stunt dummies are sent flying all over as our wild bunch on wheels soar up and over the sets while perfectly timed explosions go off around them.

Additionally, the exploitation values top the scale with a lot of seedy local flavor via opium dens and whorehouses. The small town and its ramshackle establishments give the picture a grimy look that only enhances the production value that was barely there for what was said to be a $275,000.00 budget. Nonong Rasca's photography occasionally captures some stunning shots of the actors and their surroundings that make the film look more expensive than it really was.

The musical compositions of Stu Phillips are another aspect of this production that belie the low budget. His action cues perfectly accentuate what's transpiring onscreen, making these moments all the more exciting. The big set piece is staggeringly impressive, with action coverage from every position imaginable; and Stu's pieces give them extra firepower. As typical of downbeat 70s movies, there's even a main theme, 'The Losers', sung by Clover Ann Courtney.

William Smith once more shows why he's the epitome of the big screen Tough Guy. A former bodybuilder, Smith didn't have guns, he had cannons. Given the title of King of the Biker Movies, Smith only headlined five of them, but he made those five count. He's so imposing, he could make picking flowers appear macho. Speaking of something as passively peaceful as flower arranging, Smith's Lincoln Thomas (Link for short) is a Tough Guy with a sensitive side. Upon their arrival in the small Cambodian town, Link is surrounded by kids. One of the children is a hunchback. Link picks him up and takes him for a casual ride through the streets. In a novel twist, Caillou's script writes a soft streak for two of the other bikers as well. 

The unconventional emotional rider was seen in Starrett's box office success, another William Smith vehicle from 1969, RUN, ANGEL, RUN. Yet another Smith biker movie, ANGELS DIE HARD (1970), portrayed its hog ridin' hell raisers as the atypical anti-authority nuisance till a mine cave-in turns them into the good guys; and it's the Angels to the rescue. The rescue of THE LOSERS is far more bittersweet in its design and conclusion. The title itself is metaphorical in a few ways in what is not only a fantastic Drive-in exploitation movie, but one that posits an anti-war stance. The irony is seeing the peace symbol painted on the war wagon Koslo's character zips around in; while Smith looks every bit the biker version of Captain America with his stars and stripes helmet riding into the enemy encampment to save the day.

The rest of the cast do very well, and with the extra mile the script takes with its characters, it'd be a shame if they were less convincing. 

Adam Roarke was no stranger to the biker genre having starred in them before William Smith did. HELL'S ANGELS ON WHEELS (1967), THE SAVAGE SEVEN (1968), HELL'S BELLS (1969), and other Drive-in cult items like FROGS (1972) and DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY (1974) are among his credits. Roarke was a unique character whose art imitated his life in some respects; him being involved in gang activity in his youth prior to enlisting in the army. He was also an acting teacher in later years. He died from a heart attack in April of 1996 at just 58 years of age.

Paul Koslo is a familiar character actor, and a welcome presence in Starrett's movie. His character, Limpy (so named since he walks with a limp) is one of the most complicated of the lot. He make the role far richer than it likely would have been in lesser hands. The German-Canadian actor has worked alongside numerous heavyweights like John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Clint Eastwood, and Charles Bronson. Koslo's got a unique look about him suitable for bad guy roles, but he played good guys just as well. In THE LOSERS, he was nearly killed in a stunt gone wrong when his souped-up, weapons-laden three-wheeler crashes through some barbwire and turns over. The accident was left in the film.

As per the words of Smith and Koslo on the DVD commentary track, Houston Savage was Dirty Denny onscreen and off. After making a racist remark about the country's vice president, they were going to take him out into an alley and execute him right then and there till Starrett and others managed to calm the situation. Moreover, the entire movie is thoroughly Un-PC, and Dirty Denny more than lives up to his name. Savage's rough style didn't get him far. He was killed in a shooting about a year after the film was released.

Bernie Hamilton, probably best known to mainstream audiences as Captain Dobey on the hit cop show, STARSKY AND HUTCH (1975-1979). Hamilton plays a similar role, but as a military figure in THE LOSERS. He has quite a presence here, and he made it known elsewhere in films like HAMMER (1972), SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM (1973), and BUCKTOWN (1975). He appeared in scores of TV shows, so it's likely you've seen his face on the small screen at home. Hamilton was also involved in the music industry as a producer. He died at 80 years of age on December 30th, 2008.

Since this was shot in the Philippines, you can't have a Filipino lensed exploitation feature without the jovial countenance of the one and only Vic Diaz (above left). The rotund actor has brightened up countless movies made in the sweltering Filipino jungles. In this one, Diaz is a happy-go-lucky, English language inhibited mechanic tasked with jazzing up the Yamaha bikes with machine guns and rocket launchers. His presence only makes THE LOSERS a winning proposition; especially if you're familiar with the man and his lengthy filmography.

It may seem crude by today's standards, but there's much to find favor with in Jack Starrett's cult action classic. Both the script and the stunts are impressive beyond the meager means afforded this production. Starrett's work would only improve from here. If you've never ventured into the territory of biker movies, this isn't a bad place to start. It's less a conventional take on the once popular genre style, than it is an imaginative hybrid. In the world of motorcycle movies, there's the winners, and riding along the fringes of the genre, there's THE LOSERS.

This review is representative of the Dark Sky DVD.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Any Which Way You Can (1980) review


Clint Eastwood (Philo Beddoe), Sondra Locke (Lynn Halsey-Taylor), Geoffrey Lewis (Orville Boggs), William Smith (Jack Wilson), Harry Guardino (James Beekman), Ruth Gordon (Zenobia "Ma" Boggs), Michael Cavanaugh (Patrick Scarfe), Barry Corbin (Fat Zack), John Quade (Cholla)

Directed by Buddy Van Horn

The Short Version: Clint's comedy knockout was another bare-knuckled hit at the box office containing twice the fights, twice the fun, twice the Clyde, and twice the machismo. The plot is still basically the same; meaning there is no plot. The main difference is this time it's less a road trip movie than it is an epic with Philo being pushed by the Mob into a big-ticket brawl with an East Coast mauler in the form of the toughest Tough Guy of them all -- onscreen and off -- William Smith. The serious streak plays fair with the funny business -- till the main event when the testosterone can't contain itself any longer as one of the Silver Screens best, and manliest trading of fists ever captured on film unfolds. This is one sequel you should see Any Which Way You Can.

Bare-knuckle brawler Philo Beddoe decides to retire from the underground fisticuff circuit (he's starting to like the pain). Meanwhile, some mobsters in the same field are having trouble setting up fights with Jack Wilson, a vicious fighter on the east coast who leaves his opponents a mangled mess. Hearing about Beddoe's track record, and sensing a huge payday, the mob pushes Philo into one last slug-fest destined to be the biggest macho melee of all time.

Beers To You, the makers of ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN, for such a kick-ass second round of shenanigans from Philo and Clyde. It's a rare sequel that matches what came before, and manages to surpass its predecessor in the process. Clyde is again the show-stealer, although Ma is sidelined to a degree. The Black Widows gang gets humiliated twice as much, but redeem themselves during the no rules, last man standing bash-fest at the end. Everything ends on a happy note for everybody, wrapping things up nicely, although a third round of Clint and Clyde would have been welcome. Still, for a sequel, there's some tasty ingredients in this curious country stew that only gets better the more times you cook it up. 

William Smith is firing both barrels of his big guns during a painful, yet spectacular fist fight that begins in a barn, and extends in and out of various businesses, leaving collateral damage in its wake. Smith could play good guys and bad guys with the greatest of ease; villains were his specialty, and, like he says in the movie, he eats these roles like candy. Smith isn't technically a villain here, yet he's not really a good guy, either. There's a mutual admiration between Beddoe and Wilson. It's the boxer version of code of honor ethics seen in samurai films, westerns, and kung fu movies. It's the macho aesthetic wrapped around bars, beer, bikers, and brawls. John Durrill's song, 'The Good Guys and the Bad Guys' perfectly sums up the movie.

Buddy Van Horn had been Clint's stunt double since 1968s COOGAN'S BLUFF. ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN was the first of three times Buddy directed his long-time friend; the other two times being THE DEAD POOL (1988) and PINK CADILLAC (1989). His direction improved on James Fargo's from the previous movie. The sequel is a slicker, more polished picture. It complements EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE with some noticeable additions and alterations that either work in the favor of the film, or against it.

Eastwood gets to show off his Tough Guy image even more in his second outing as Philo Beddoe. This means more fight scenes, not to mention his free-for-all at the end with William Smith is among the best hand-to-hand tussles ever captured onscreen. Eastwood's dry humor and relaxed demeanor encore as well. He even gets the girl back he lost prior. 

Sondra Locke reprises her role as Lynn Halsey-Taylor -- a part that depicts her as having grown and matured beyond her scheming hustler of the first movie.  Her singing voice sounds much better, too.

Ma (Zenobia Boggs, played by Ruth Gordon) has a lesser presence the second go round. She's still pissed over Clyde swiping her prized Oreo cookies, and still has a mouth like a sailor -- you just don't get to hear as much of it as before.

Orville gets sidelined, too. He's still relegated to sidekick status, only his screentime is reduced. His girlfriend Echo (Beverly D'Angelo) is conspicuous in her absence, but she's replaced by a blonde nurse whom Orville connects with after taking a bullet for his buddy.

The characters of The Black Widows biker gang have a lesser presence this time. The running gag of their bikes being demolished one by one is abandoned, but replaced with a goofier one in which they lose all of their body hair after being doused from top to bottom in tar; from there they don wigs that do anything but improve their appearance. They get to redeem themselves at the end and finally get the upper hand on somebody -- that being the mob henchmen during the climactic no-holds-barred fist fight.

Stanford Sherman's script immortalized the famous line, "Right turn, Clyde", -- an order from Clint to Clyde to deliver a straight right to whomever is unlucky to receive the orangutan's power punch. Cholla is the first to feel the pain after inferring an "ape roast" is in Clyde's future. The hairy fist sends Cholla and his gang tumbling over like a line of dominoes.

One guy who doesn't get brushed by the wayside is Clyde, the orangutan. His character is greatly expanded upon. Clyde still enjoys his beer, but he's changed a lot from his more docile persona of before. Now, in addition to being an alcoholic ape, he's more hands-on with humans; he enjoys demolishing, and or shitting in cars, and is even more amorous than he was in the first movie. In fact, everybody gets some amour any which way they can. Going back to Clyde...

Manis from EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE had grown too large and aggressive to be used for this picture, so a new Clyde had to be hired. Bobby Berosini didn't supply the orangutans for the sequel. The production went with Gentle Jungle, Inc., an animal service company that has provided natures creatures great and small for scores of movies and television programs. Boone Narr was the trainer for ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN.

Regarding the subject of the orangutan, there seems to be an inability to discuss this movie in recent years without bringing up rumored animal violence behind the scenes; this being due to a lot of confused, and often mixed up information from sources (including a 2008 LA Times piece) who seem to put a lot of faith in an old National Enquirer piece from March of 1985. If these sources aren't getting the names of the movies wrong, they're unaware that the 'Clyde' of the sequel is not the same one used for the second production. The alleged story is Any Which Way But Straight; depending on what you read, it goes that the ape trainer ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN beat the animal so severely for supposedly stealing donuts on set, it died of a brain hemorrhage. This story, too, depending on where you read it, has conflicting information. In some, the ape died after the movie wrapped, and in others the ape died before the film finished, and another primate was brought on to finish the movie. The absurdity of this whole thing is that a National Enquirer story would be taken as fact. Even more perplexing is that the credited ape's trainer, Boone Narr worked as an animal trainer/coordinator for dozens of movies after this one. It begs the question that if this story was in fact true, exactly why in the hell would he be allowed to work with animals on so many movies afterward? Some of these include THE BEASTMASTER (1982), INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989), WHITE FANG (1991), TOP DOG (1995), WILLARD (2003), and HACHIKO: A DOG'S STORY (2009).

In other news, Fats Domino brightens things up with a bit of 'Whiskey Heaven' in the Palamino Club. Country singer Glen Campbell follows suit.

Cult siren Julie Brown appears in one of her first roles as Candy, a bouncy member of a wealthy gambler's entourage. Horror fans will remember her from the 1981 killer kid slasher movie, BLOODY BIRTHDAY. Most 80s lovers will recall her MTV music video comedy series JUST SAY JULIE.

ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN is famous for the first and only time Clint Eastwood ever battled the Swamp Thing. Stuntman Dick Durock, later to play the title creature in Wes Craven's SWAMP THING (1982) is the brawler Clint tangles with at the beginning of the movie.

This sequel is, apart from some of the things listed above, nearly identical to the previous movie. Both pictures were huge box office successes. The quirky, memorable formula of Fargo's film is repeated here, but done with a bit more panache. It's one of those rare occasions of a sequel besting its predecessor.

Eastwood's two EVERY/ANY WHICH WAY movies became regular staples on television beginning in 1981. Much like the actors other movies, the popularity of these two comedies helped cement his status as a Hollywood icon, outlasting other macho men specializing in action cinema. Adding real life Tough Guy William Smith to the mix was an ingenious casting choice, and key to making this double feature one-two punch among the manliest movies of all time.

This review is representative of the Warner Brothers DVD.
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