Saturday, May 30, 2015

Magnum Force (1973) review


Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), Hal Holbrook (Lieutenant Briggs), Felton Perry (Early Smith), Mitchell Ryan (McCoy), David Soul (Davis), Tim Matheson (Sweet), Robert Urich (Grimes), Christine White (Carol McCoy), Adele Yoshioka (Sunny)

Directed by Ted Post

"You expect me to believe that a traffic cop is killing off all the top criminals in the city?!"

The Short Version: Callahan returns to the screen for more crime-crushing excessive force, only this time he's up against a group of vigilante boys in blue whose 'judge, jury, and executioner' style make Harry look like a crossing guard in comparison. With a plot very similar to Italy's EXECUTION SQUAD (1972), Harry's second go round might just well be the likable, hot-headed Tough Cop's magnum opus.

A number of criminals who were able to use the legal system to their advantage are being covertly snuffed out by vigilante cops. As the Captain puts it, "Somebody's trying to put the courts out of business!" Harry Callahan, having been reassigned to stakeout duty, is put back on homicide to find out the identities of this secret execution squad.

Two years after putting a big hole in the Scorpio, Harry Callahan returns in this even bigger sequel that deals its justice as controversially as it did the first time around. DIRTY HARRY (1971) espoused an emasculated social structure in crime-ridden San Francisco. It was Callahan's tactics vs. a flawed judicial system; and quicker than you could say "Do you feel lucky?", critics began shouting the 'F' word (not that 'F' word) every few sentences. The sequel continues down that road, but pushes the boundaries by including a renegade band of motorcycle cops that represent the Dirty One's dark side. As has already been established, Callahan doesn't bother with arrests of dangerous criminals, he meets them on their own terms and disposes of them accordingly. 

The four man vigilante force are far more ruthless. Whether it's mobsters or pimps, they stalk their prey and pounce when they don't expect it, using their badge to get close to their targets and execute them (Interestingly, when they  play the game Harry's way during the Palancio stakeout, one of them gets killed). Harry, on the other hand, reacts to an opposing action. He engages them Old West style; and like Randolph Scott, Robert Ryan and John Wayne, he always gets the man on the Wanted poster. However, this particular world isn't big enough for more than one nonconformist. Eventually there will be a showdown between the maverick sheriff with the .44 magnum and the renegade posse. In the end somebody is definitely feeling lucky. 

For Callahan, there's no blurred line as to who is good or evil ("so long as the right people get shot"). This still didn't (and still doesn't) stop critics from throwing the word 'fascist' around in describing this cop whom they seemed more fearful of than the damn criminals. Moreover, those same critics have added an allure to the series that has enhanced the mystique behind it. For this sequel, the script (by John Milius and Michael Cimino) gives them their bonafide blackshirts; something more pronounced to fear that wears a badge and carries a gun.

Merriam-Webster defines fascism as "a way of organizing a society in which a government ruled by a dictator controls the lives of the people and in which people are not allowed to disagree with the government." Another definition reads, "A totalitarian philosophy of government that glorifies the state and nation and assigns to the state control over every aspect of national life." 

In the film, Harry is certainly not a dictator. The law is. The law decides who lives and who dies. Nor does Harry glorify the state; or in this case, the system. He hates the system--the liberal legal system that has made a mess of things and Harry's the janitor who must clean it up; which makes sense considering his name derives from always getting the dirty jobs. Well, somebody's got to do it. Ironically, he sometimes makes a mess of his own, but delivers efficient results in the end. In MAGNUM FORCE, there's some new enforcers in town, and they ride dark horses. If ever a fascistic label could be applied, it's on them.

The series would evolve further with the next entry, THE ENFORCER (1976), only critical notices would remain largely the same.

MAGNUM FORCE expands on the themes of DIRTY HARRY, and not exclusive to the political realm. One notable difference is Harry appears a lot less angry than the first movie where he seemed like he had a tack stuck in his foot or something. Even with the constant belittlement from Lt. Briggs (Hal Holbrook), Harry keeps his cool. These scenes with the Lieutenant are some of the best bits in the film.

Harry's more calculating this time around. An example of this is a scene where he's on the shooting range with Davis (David Soul). Harry's on to the boys, and when he "accidentally" shoots a target marker in the form of a policeman ("that last one was a good guy!"), he's giving a subtle hint.

Ted Post (director of HANG'EM HIGH, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK) kicks things off in much the same fashion as Siegel's original before piling on the action sequences and police procedural mystery. Just like in the first movie, Harry's lunch is interrupted; and like the first movie, he's not far from trouble. Instead of bank robbers it's hijackers aboard a plane. The outcome is the same, but with a touch of humor. What little humor found in DIRTY HARRY was on the uncomfortable side, but here, Harry's calm demeanor allows some genuine, if terse amusement to shine through.

Additionally, the script gives Harry some female entanglements this go round. One is the ex-wife of a cop friend of his (played by Mitchell Ryan); and another is an Asian lady living in his building, who, immediately after seeing him going up to his room, begins a brief convo before casually asking, "What does a girl have to do to go to bed with you?" Reportedly, these scenes were inserted to satisfy Eastwood's female fans, yet nothing is done with either relationship. Each woman gets a few scenes and then are dropped. 

The biggest missed opportunity is the angle involving Sunny, played by Japanese actress Adele Yoshioka. Since she provides the sole bit of romance for loner Callahan, the lawlessness of the bike-riding cops might of gotten a bit more mileage had she been put in their cross hairs. Instead, their totalitarian tendencies shine when they attempt to coerce Harry into their fold ("You're either for us or against us"). He refuses and has a noisy surprise waiting for him in his mailbox. Granted, Sunny is inadvertently put in harms way during this sequence, only Harry shoves her off-camera to her apartment, never to be seen onscreen again. Her character is welcome, if inconsequential, adding little more than to be the most likely reason Harry is less tense.

As fantastic a movie as MAGNUM FORCE is, there's no denying similarities to a 1972 Italian movie titled EXECUTION SQUAD (LA POLIZIA RINGRAZIA). In that film, a police inspector seeks those responsible for the deaths of criminals who have slipped through the legal system. His trail leads him to a secret vigilante squad of former cops. Directed by Stefano Vanzina, the Italian picture is far more political and complex in its storytelling; and a darker, more insidious affair. MAGNUM is more simplistic in its approach. 

Harry's first case opened up a lot of discussion on excessive force and dealing with a fractured legal system. Callahan's return to homicide approaches similar dossiers, but opts for the flipside of the coin that was tossed by critics in 1971; adding not only moral corruption, but questioning the brand of justice carried out by those who bypass the system, redefining vigilantism in a way that's dirtier than Harry could ever be. 

This review is representative of the Warner Brothers box set. Extras and Specs: anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen; A Moral Right: The Politics of Dirty Harry featurette; The Hero Cop: Yesterday and Today (vintage featurette); Dirty Harry Trailer Gallery; commentary by John Milius.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Silent Rage (1982) review


Chuck Norris (Dan Stevens), Ron Silver (Dr. Tom Halman), Steven Keats (Dr. Philip Spires), Toni Kalem (Alison Halman), William Finley (Dr. Paul Vaughn), Brian Libby (John Kirby), Stephen Furst (Charlie)

Directed by Michael Miller

The Short Version: Karate master and all around Tough Guy Chuck Norris battles an invincible slasher in this martial arts-horror mash-up, one of the 80s most bizarre combos. Mad scientist machinations are mixed with Voorheesian style 'stalk and kill' shenanigans, and topped off with American style 'fist n' kick' action. Amazingly, the script manages to find room for romance between Chuck and actress Toni Kalem. Truly a one of a kind motion picture experience and the only Frankenstein Monster vs Karate movie ever made.

The mentally disturbed John Kirby finally goes off the deep end killing two people with an axe before being subdued by Texas sheriff, Dan Stevens. Managing to break free of his handcuffs, the psycho is gunned down after another scuffle with officers. Near death, three scientists decide to test a new healing serum on Kirby, but they get more than they bargained for when their creation comes off the operating table. Now an indestructible killer, Kirby goes about murdering anyone he comes across to get a rematch with sheriff Stevens.

In the annals of American action hero cinema few were as quirky as this 1982 number from the guy who directed the MACON COUNTY LINE style thriller JACKSON COUNTY JAIL (1976), and the horror spoof NATIONAL LAMPOONS CLASS REUNION (1982). Chuck Norris did another similar movie in 1988 entitled THE HERO AND THE TERROR. In that one, Norris tangled with a giant serial killer played by Jack O'Halloran (Non in SUPERMAN 2). An even kookier Karate Kop movie that also starred Chuck Norris came in 1994's HELLBOUND wherein Norris battled it out with demons from Hell led by Christopher Neame (Johnny Alucard in DRACULA AD 1972). For this 1982 excursion, Norris battles what amounts to the Frankenstein Monster with the personality of Michael Myers.

Horror movies were all the rage in the early 80s, particularly the slashers popularized by HALLOWEEN (1978) and the ensuing snowball effect caused by FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980). Both those franchises had very profitable sequels in 1981, a banner year for slashers. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Chuck Norris, arguably the quintessential American action star, was making major bank with his Tough Guy persona molded on western movie machismo. The big screen three-punch combo of GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK (1978), A FORCE OF ONE (1979), and THE OCTAGON (1980) grossed approximately $20 million a piece, successfully putting Norris on the action movie map. An eventual Macho-Monster mash was a stroke of mad genius.

Written by Norris's friend Joseph Braley (who also scripted GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK), the plot has Chuck playing a Texas sheriff (the first of his cowboy roles) clashing with a trio of scientists who allegedly work for the betterment of mankind, but end up creating a literal monster in the process. Following the slasher template, Braley includes a few of the mainstays like the POV shots (as well as some steadicam), the unstoppable killer, and a shock ending. 

The script devotes a surprising amount of time to a romantic angle for Norris. Amazingly, it never disrupts the flow of what is essentially a horror movie with action cliches inserted into it. Defying the typical slasher machinations inherent in Braley's script, Chuck gets naked with the lovely Toni Kalem on a few occasions, so the 'have sex and die' motif doesn't apply considering Chuck's burgeoning superstar status. You also won't see Chuck impersonate Dr. Loomis by running around screaming "I shot him six times!" in between confrontations where the psycho is filled with bullets, thrown out upper story windows, run over, set on fire, and on the receiving end of Chuck's knuckles and boots.

This is arguably one of, if not Chuck's busiest movie. He's constantly preoccupied with something, yet his demeanor never changes. His facial expression is one of perpetual enlightenment. Even when he's called upon to throttle whatever obstacle is in his way, Norris goes right back to that confident, carefree look on his face. One of the highlights of SILENT RAGE is the sequence where Norris's expressionless style overcomes a bar full of obnoxious bikers. After earlier telling them to get out of town, Norris, evoking a less talkative John Wayne (a type of role he essayed in FORCED VENGEANCE from the same year, perfected in LONE WOLF MCQUADE in 1983, and expanded upon in the long running series, WALKER, TEXAS RANGER), enters a local bar to find the gang still hanging around; literally having noosed up the barkeep. The breaking of bones and bar stools follows. If there's one scene that hearkens back to the westerns of yesteryear, it's this one. A touch of comedy is provided in the form of Norris's deputy played by Stephen Furst.

Most everybody will remember Stephen Furst best as Kent "Flounder" Dorfman from the comedy classic, ANIMAL HOUSE (1978); a role he reprised in the short-lived TV series from 1979. Showcasing a penchant for comedy, Furst was fantastic as the devious blue team-leader in MIDNIGHT MADNESS (1980), a film role that capitalized on his fat boy film star status. THE UNSEEN (1980) was his first horror role where he had no room for comedy whatsoever. SILENT RAGE (1982) was another horror feature for him, but one that allowed Furst to play a comedic character, and one that was goofy, pitiable, and lovable all at the same time.

While Chuck coddles his ineffectual, yet likable deputy, sterilizes a bar infested with a biker gang all by his lonesome, and rekindles a relationship with his ex-girlfriend, science deems it necessary to test a revolutionary serum on a maniac. This serum, when perfected, could be the cure-all to any number of maladies. Unfortunately for the scientific minds involved, common sense never figures into the equation that turning a deranged madman into a deranged superman isn't the brightest of ideas.

Dr. Spires (Steven Keats) is the brains behind the project, and the Dr. Frankenstein of the trio (the other two played by Ron Silver and William Finley of PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, EATEN ALIVE and THE FUNHOUSE). Braley's script, as enjoyably preposterous as it is, fine tunes all its wacky elements, giving them all time to breathe. Keats' character is given sufficient time to spiral down into madness--he may of already been there from the start, but it really begins to show about 40 minutes into the movie. 

John Kirby (played by Brian Libby, who previously worked with Norris in THE OCTAGON) is the monster. He only speaks a few lines at the beginning like, "Doc, I'm losin' it...", just before going outside, grabbing an axe, and using it for a purpose other than chopping wood. It's not explained why he never speaks for the rest of the movie, but that's where the title 'Silent Rage' comes in. He also spends the bulk of his silent rampage stalking victims while hunched over like a gorilla. Towards the end, he walks totally erect while stalking Toni Kalem in a hospital (shades of HALLOWEEN 2). Libby did most of his own stunts, as is extremely believable in the role. Often looking wild-eyed, the scenes where he kills with a total blank face are among the films chilling moments.

The unusual and unsettling score reinforces the horror motif. Curiously, there are no action-driven musical pieces; all action sequences have no musical accompaniment. The score is made up strictly of suspense cues. 

At the time, Norris was really excited about this movie. He was growing tired of doing martial arts movies and wanted more serious roles. That he was starring in a film about a Karate cowboy sheriff trying to stop an unstoppable maniac puts serious strains on that proclamation. Still, it's very polished and, despite capturing the feel, it never quite turns into a purely exploitation movie, which would have been very easy to do. Chuck Norris kicking ass in a full bore Drive-in style movie isn't a bad idea, though. Any movie with a tagline like "Science created him. Now, Chuck Norris must destroy him!" demands any action-exploitation fans undivided attention.

This review is representative of the Columbia DVD. Extras and Specs: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Trailers for other films.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Warlord (1965) review


Charlton Heston (Chrysagon), Richard Boone (Bors), Rosemary Forsyth (Bronwyn), Maurice Evans (Priest), Guy Stockwell (Draco), Niall MacGinnis (Odins), Henry Wilcoxon (Frisian Prince), James Farentino (Marc), Sammy Ross (Volc)

Directed by Franklin Shaffner

The Short Version: For two cinematically lush hours stoic knight Chrysagon falls in love with a bestowed pagan girl and battles pillaging barbarians in Franklin Shaffner's lesser known Arrows & Armor saga about swords and social status. A love story at its core, there's Medieval macho posturing aplenty as our chainmail-wearing hero adheres to pagan law to take a man's woman on her wedding night; but when she refuses to go back, swords are drawn and blood is shed in a series of impressive sieges by armies of Hollywood stuntmen.

In 11th century Europe, Chrysagon de la Creux is sent by the Duke of Ghent to maintain order of a Normandy coastal area plundered by Frisian raiders. Out in the middle of this marshland is a tower overlooking a pagan village. Before they arrive, they engage in battle with their Frisian enemies. With the leader's young son left behind, Volc, the dwarf falcon trainer, takes the boy back with them. The next day, Chrysagon rescues a beautiful young girl from a pack of dogs while out hunting. Named Bronwyn, he immediately becomes transfixed with her. Promised from birth to a villager named Marc, Chrysagon is saddened upon learning she is to marry this man the following day.

Advised by his brother Draco and squire Bors, there exists a custom among the pagans known as 'Droit du seigneur' wherein the Lord of the land can take the bride on her wedding night, but must return her by dawn the following day. Marc takes immense umbrage with the Lord using the Right of the First Night, and becomes even more incensed when, the next day, his new bride decides to stay with Chrysagon of her own volition. Enraged, Marc heads North to bring the Frisian barbarians to both retrieve his son, and lay siege to the Norman tower and kill everyone in it.

Prior to working on PLANET OF THE APES (1968), director Shaffner, actors Charlton Heston and Maurice Evans worked together on this spectacular action-love story set in Medieval times. From the opening majestic herald of Jerome Moross's main theme to the closing curtain call, THE WAR LORD conquers the screen with superb performances, vigorous battles, and a king's ransom in battle-hardened bravado.

Charlton Heston's fourth and last film of 1965, this one's an Arrows and Armor saga with some 50 minutes worth of battering rams, catapults, mobile assault towers, and the clanging of cold steel. According to Heston, he ranked his work in THE WAR LORD among his best. He definitely delivers a spirited performance as the righteous knight, Chrysagon. Despite being the Duke's favored chevalier, and a penchant for being fair and just, the love he builds with Bronwyn (whom he initially believes is a witch) manages to pierce his heart underneath all that chainmail, melting away some of that steely exterior.

Based on the play, 'The Lovers', by Leslie Stevens, the film kicks things off with a brutal, extraordinarily well choreographed battle scene that introduces the unwavering resolve of Heston's Chrysagon; a character that we will discover is far more complex than his overly masculine nature lets on. This first duel with the Frisian leader sets the stage for the years long enmity between the two men that comes to a surprising, and ambiguous finish by the end of the movie.

After this attention-grabbing opening, THE WAR LORD settles into dramatic territory exploring topics of social status, superstition, religion, and romance. The village is populated by pagans whose bizarre rites are orated by Chrysagon's loyal attendant (Boone) as the remnants of lingering devilry after Christ cast "the old gods, demons and spirits with snakey hair" down into hell. Chrysagon is too preoccupied with the Frisian devils to be bothered with the biblical sort. He's a Christian man, but doesn't have a devout attachment to it. 

Maurice Evans (see insert above) is on hand in a modestly lighter capacity as the chief priest. If you listen carefully, you'll recognize a hint of Dr. Zaius in his voice. 

Pagan and Christian iconography are spread throughout the movie; the former having greater significance than the latter. The scripts flirtation with pagan religion briefly carries supernatural overtones. This is dispelled right after Bronwyn, after laying bare her body, bears no regret in refusing to go back to the man she'd just married the night before. From here the movie sets the religion and romance angle aside, indulging in near non-stop action with the last 45 minutes begetting a string of sieges on the tower. 

In that time, every Medieval Age trick in the book is catapulted onto the screen. The Frisians bring with them a few crude, yet elaborate contraptions to breach the tower. With each succeeding attempt, the enemies manage to eventually get inside, or on top of the tower. This gives dozens of stuntmen one opportunity after another to endanger themselves with a slew of high falls and crashing through objects. If that weren't enough, there's trouble brewing between Chrysagon and his brother Draco (Stockwell) that bubbles over like the boiling oil poured from the parapets. Altogether, you've got about an hour spent with a romance angle, and about another hour with action and sword fights before the two are merged during the conclusion. Heston even utters "damn, dirty armor" at one point.

THE WAR LORD is a very busy picture whose brisk pace defies its 121 minute running time. Shaffner's movie was originally a three hour spectacle, but lost an hour after the studio re-cut it.

The genesis of THE WAR LORD began in 1962, with filming taking place in late 1964. Heston was very excited about the production, but, according to him, Shaffner's creative control extended to a contractually 2 hour movie. Since it ended up a 3 hour picture, the studio took over. To see this lost hour would prove beneficial, but as it is, the movie is near perfection. Characters are top notch, with line readings of the major participants having this low, guttural delivery that could put hair on your chest. You'll recognize Paul Frees dubbing some of the voices, too.

From the beginning, both Shaffner and Heston wanted to shoot on genuine European locales, but the studio refused; so the Universal backlot stood in for Medieval Normandy. Albert Whitlock's matte paintings completed the illusion. Interiors lend an old-fashioned, operatic feel. Only some obvious process shots mar an otherwise sumptuous production.

Alongside Heston, Richard Boone is superb as his wisened squire, Bors. Without even saying anything, Boone evokes a defiant mood in lieu of one of his lords bewildering decisions. Looking war weary, he eagerly jumps into the thick of things during the hairier moments. Steadfastly loyal, he's like a father to Chrysagon. His dedication contrasts with Guy Stockwell's increasingly perturbed Draco. 

As Chrysagon's brother, Draco lays hints from time to time that he takes issue with both his brother's virtuousness and his lofty position; the latter of which Chrysagon carelessly puts in danger for the love of a woman. Late in the film, Draco plans to return to the Duke with reinforcements to handle the Frisian threat. Upon his return, he brings support with him, but also a huge surprise.

For a PG movie made in 1964, there's a quite a bit of skin on display without ever showing anything explicit. Tastefully done, it's unusual to see half a dozen scenes with a barely obscured, unclothed lady in a mid 60s Hollywood film. Additionally the violence is surprisingly forceful for this time period, and foreshadows the direction cinema was headed in a few more years.

This was an early role for Rosemary Forsyth, who spends much of her screen time wearing very little. Her character isn't as (figuratively) fleshed out as she could be, but considering an hour of the movie was removed, no doubt a lot of Bronwyn went with it. Julie Christie was up for the role of Bronwyn but the studio passed on her, believing her asking price too expensive.

A stunning presentation with a fantastic script and performances bringing it to life, THE WAR LORD delivers everything its trailer promises. Set decor, costumes, a rousing and romantic score, marvelously mounted action sequences all complement the men and women of this 11th century landscape. A strangely underrated film lost in the folds of other Heston pictures, it comes highly recommended, and an essential title, if for nothing else, to see Shaffner and Heston warm up for their iconic PLANET OF THE APES a few years into the future. 

This review is representative of the Eureka! UK RB Blu-ray. Specs and Extras: 1080p 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; isolated music and effects track; original theatrical trailer; 28 page booklet.

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