Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Zebra Force (1976) review


Mike Lane (Carmine Longo), Richard X. Slattery (Charlie DeSantis), Rockne Tarkington (Earl Lovington), Glenn Wilder (Lieutenant Johnson), Anthony Caruso (Salvatore Moreno), Stafford Morgan (Sgt. Stangman), Clay Tanner (Lt. Dan Claymore), Timothy Brown (John)

Directed by Joe Tornatore

The Short Version: 70s actioner mixes mafiosi with the black action genre, and injects them both with a wild storyline only found in the whirlpool of creativity that graced low budget movies of the time period. The uniqueness of the script is punctuated by a laundry list of familiar genre players and one helluva cool twist in the tail. Another unexpected turn is that the title vigilante force nearly snafu their own movie via poorly written characters and exasperatingly bad acting. The Zebra Force feel like an afterthought in their own movie. Very entertaining, but average at best; only diehard 70s Drive-in specialists need apply.

White Vietnam vets disguised as black men guided by a maimed former commander lead an assault against the mafia to rid the city of its criminal element. After a number of double crosses between rival mob factions, one of the Zebra Force is captured and tortured for information. Their identities revealed, a showdown between the gangsters, the vigilante group and the cops takes place in and around the commando units hideout.

Cinema everyman Joe Tornatore writes, produces, and directs his first effort behind the camera; an intriguing low budget hybrid pairing the black action style and a gangster thriller while making the 'Disturbed Nam Vet' angle as the films narrative thrust. Tornatore got the film done in three weeks and for an amazingly low $185,000. The results are more than adequate, if not entirely effective. Rated PG, the violence level would equate to a PG-13 nowadays. Tornatore's script has some clever touches in it, including a fantastic swerve at the end. Still, some things nearly derail the picture, and this too is a bit of a bombshell. 

The films major handicap is, surprisingly enough, in its title strike force. We're introduced to this eight-man team during a well-staged assault on a mob casino spread out before and after the opening credits. A few minutes later, the group is revealed to be an all-white band of former Vietnam veterans wearing black masks to make their targets think it's black gunmen pulling off the hits. Led by Lt. Johnson (who is missing an arm, most of his face, and communicates through a voice box), their motivation is somewhat vague, aside from being a band of vigilantes fighting crime in ways the law can't. They do clean up in mob money during their raids, which alludes to the retirement plan the government denied them for serving their country.

What makes this group of specialists a detriment to their own movie is that little time is spent getting to know them. Any of them. It wouldn't much matter as their acting is unremittingly poor. Their dialog is likewise weak. It's like the Zebra Force lines were written in a rush and the best were reserved for the experienced cast members. The scenes involving the squad often feel intrusive. They remain largely unknown and never feel like they are the main characters they should be. You do learn they like RC Cola and Budweiser, though. More time is spent on the gangsters. They are the better actors, and far more engaging than the Zebra crew; who, for the most part, are about as appealing as goat cheese. 

The lackluster Zebra Force aside, they are at least surrounded by far more capable character actors to make the proceedings more interesting. Outside of some good, if sporadic stunt work (high falls, car stunts, etc), these thespians are the main saving grace of the picture, and arguably the main reason to watch this movie. They include....

Mike Lane has had a healthy career in films and television. He guested on numerous western, fantasy, and action shows; and even got to play Hercules in the mildly entertaining ULYSSES AGAINST HERCULES (1962) from director Mario Caiano. Other genre roles include the underrated thriller THE NO MERCY MAN (1973), the torturously plodding THE MASTER GUNFIGHTER (1975), and the post nuke favorite STRYKER (1983). 

Another TV veteran, Rockne Tarkington (third from left) had a healthy film career as well. He played the main heavy in THE NO MERCY MAN (1973), and the flamboyant hero with the pet lion in the under-appreciated black action thriller BLACK SAMSON (1974). As one of the mob bosses in ZEBRA FORCE, Tarkington gets one of the best sequences, and throws around some of the best lines.

Anthony Caruso made a mint off playing Indians and gangsters throughout his illustrious career. He did very little film work in comparison to his TV resume. According to director Tornatore, Caruso (like some of the other actors) approached him about getting a part in the movie. The same year Caruso would also appear in one of Fred Williamson's worst movies, MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS (1976).

Italian born Mario Milano was, like Mike Lane, a professional wrestler, and was active during the 1960s working angles with some of the big names in the NWA during that decade. Milano (above emptying trunk) did only a handful of movies in minor roles. He's just a driver in ZEBRA FORCE, but likely his most substantial role was as a Russian fighter in Chang Cheh's classic THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972).

A regular in the films of the great Jack Starrett (who directed one scene in the picture), Clay Tanner plays the chief cop on the case. Tanner isn't given a whole lot to do, but it's nice seeing him amongst the other familiar faces. He made a more memorable impression as one of the devil worshipers in RACE WITH THE DEVIL (1975), and the abusive father in FINAL CHAPTER: WALKING TALL (1977). 

Of the squad, Timothy Brown had the healthiest exploitation career, and is the only member of the Nam'sters who stands out, despite having limited screen time; which is saying quite a bit considering little is done with the characters the film is built around. You'll just have to see the flick to see how the exploitation veteran figures into the mix. You can find Brown in related fare like SWEET SUGAR (1972), BONNIE'S KIDS (1973), GIRLS ARE FOR LOVING (1973), and DYNAMITE BROTHERS (1974). 

As for this widescreen DVD release, it looks fantastic. But like the films lacking qualities, there's a bit of violence missing from the finale. In it, one of the main villains is gunned down by police. On the DVD all we see is Carmine exit his car, and then there's a jarring cut to an aerial shot of him already on the ground. The option of seeing this bit of footage is listed on the main menu as 'Original Ending (1st test theatrical release)'. That footage is of lesser quality and fullscreen, but it's great to see it, and a shame this final bit of just desserts is missing from a fairly immaculate looking print.

As a piece of escapist 70s cinema, THE ZEBRA FORCE will leave its mark mostly with hardcore fans of that decades bountiful number of exploitation pictures. Few others will find much of interest here, particularly if you're not familiar with the well known faces of the cast. It was a popular enough title that Joe Tornatore got the squad back together again for the 1987 sequel, CODE NAME: ZEBRA FORCE. For its budget, Tornatore's first time helming a motion picture isn't bad at all, but ultimately feels like having a juicy steak without the potatoes to complete the meal.

This review is representative of the Code Red DVD. Extras and specs: Interview with director Joe Tornatore; original uncut ending; ZEBRA FORCE trailer; trailers for EQUALIZER 2000, WHEELS OF FIRE, MANIAC (THE RANSOM), INN OF THE DAMNED, FAMILY HONOR; 16x9 widescreen 2.35:1 (box mistakenly states 1.85); running time minus PG end card: 1:30:22 (box states 96 minutes).
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