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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.

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