Monday, June 1, 2015

Bulletproof (1988) review


Gary Busey (Frank McBain), Darlanne Fluegel (Captain Devon Shepard), Henry Silva (Colonel Kartiff), Thalmus Rasulala (Billy Dunbar), L.Q. Jones (Sergeant O'Rourke), Rene Enriquez (General Brogado), Mills Watson (Colby), James Andronica (Agent Tarpley), R.G. Armstrong (Miles Blackburn), William Smith (Russian Major), Luke Askew (General Gallo), Lincoln Kilpatrick (Captain Briggs), Lydie Denier (Tracy), Ramon Franco (Camilo), Juan Fernandez (Pantaro), Danny Trejo (Sharkey), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (thug)

Directed by Steve Carver

The Short Version: 80s Action movie excess is the heart and soul of this intentionally ridiculous, unPC gem of a movie from 1988. Starring the indefatigable Gary Busey as a plain-clothes Rambo nicknamed Bulletproof, he's the wisecracking one-man army that strikes fear in the hearts of Communists and terrorists the world over. Armed with a variety of guns, military hardware, and every hero-villain cliche of the last few decades, this farcical, last hurrah of the 80s style of Action Hero is locked and loaded with 94 minutes of armor piercing entertainment.

A multi-national band of terrorists hiding out near the Mexican border steal a top secret military weapon, the NBT-90 Thunderblast, and take hostage the military attachment transporting it. An LA cop and ex-CIA agent, a loose cannon named Frank "Bulletproof" McBain, is coerced back into action to find the super tank, and bring both it, and the hostages back if possible.

One of the last of the special breed of 80s Action Hero cinema is something of a passing of the torch between big name Tough Guys and a burgeoning crop of villains coming down the pike up to that point. There's Henry Silva (bad guy of scores of crime and western movies), William Smith (veteran Tough Guy Supreme of hundreds of movies and television), and newcomers to the catalog of criminality, Juan Fernandez and Danny Trejo. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa even manages to squeeze himself in as a thug in a flashback sequence. 

Jammed into this films compact 94 minutes are even more genre Toughs like R.G. Armstrong (MAJOR DUNDEE), L.Q. Jones (THE WILD BUNCH), Thalmus Rasulala (BUCKTOWN), and Luke Askew (COOL HAND LUKE); all are on hand to give able support to Busey's McBain, the human ammo repellent. 

Forged with virtually every single action movie cliche, McBain, "a one-man suicide squad", isn't so much bulletproof from a technical standpoint, but he certainly takes'em like a man; having been shot a number of times (39 by the end of the flick) and keeping the bullets he received in a jar like trophies won in the line of duty. Carrying as many wisecracks as ammo packs, McBain is the sort of guy you'd catch saying, "John Rambo? Never heard of her."

This role is more suitable to Busey's offbeat style than his previous hero lead in EYE OF THE TIGER (1986) since the actor wears this more outrageous role like a glove. Not only smooth with sidearms and automatic weapons, McBain is quite the ladies man; so be prepared for a kinder, gentler Busey in between exchanges of quips and gunfire. Later known for off-kilter behavior, Busey's McBain has the sort of impulsive, devil-may-care attitude that could be mistaken for a guy with a screw loose; and Busey lost a few in 1988 in an incident that would take his public life in a different direction. 

Several months after BULLETPROOF's brief theatrical release, Busey would nearly kill himself in a motorcycle accident, and his behavior would quickly become the stuff to fill any number of Hollywood gossip papers. Critics at the time savaged the movie, perturbed that Busey, who had made quite a name for himself with his star turn in THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY (1978), would now headline a film of this type. What's really saddening is that Busey didn't make more in this vein; or continue to mine more gold from the richness of character that is Frank McBain.

To see the name Fred Olen Ray as a story contributor (along with Ray collaborator T.L. Lankford as scriptwriter), BULLETPROOF could either fire on all cylinders, or spit out nothing but blanks. Thankfully, it's the former; and with action-exploitation specialist Steve Carver (BIG BAD MAMA, LONE WOLF MCQUADE, AN EYE FOR AN EYE, DRUM) at the helm, what could possibly go wrong? The script is chockablock with familiar action movie tropes and attitudes that keep tongues wedged firmly in cheeks. You need not look any further than the opening sequence where McBain is intro'd as a more affable version of Dirty Harry Callahan giving chase to an ice cream truck moonlighting as an arms trafficking vehicle.

Colonel Kartiff (Henry Silva), one of two main villains, is another example of BULLETPROOF's dedication to overindulgence of its subject matter. The Muslim leader of Arab, Cuban and Nicaraguan terrorists, every few minutes he's slapping somebody, or saying things like, "He was a CIA pig! His death was his reward!"; or, "You will obey me! Take.... off... your clothes, woman!" Silva is an old hand at this sort of role. It's not the first time he's played in a dictatorial capacity. He does crazy very well, adapting an insane psychosis to his characters in westerns (THE HILLS RUN RED from '66) and modern day thrillers (Di Leo's MANHUNT from '72). Even when playing a good guy, Silva had a gleam of villainy about him. Films like CRY OF A PROSTITUTE (1974) and MANHUNT IN THE CITY (1975) are examples of this.

Busey doesn't get all the hero glory in BULLETPROOF. Some of it comes from an equally memorable, and over the top heroine. The most irascible of the tough talking hard asses is Captain Devon Shepard (Darlanne Fleugel of BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS and TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA), an Iron Lady who brazenly talks a lot of shit to the Colonel; like this classic exchange, "In your country, you treat women like camels, and send young boys to their deaths in the name of your excuse for a god!" Her big mouth gets some of her compatriots killed, but she keeps firing off insults anyways. The girl can't help it. She also looks great firing a machine gun.

To not leave out any of the world's major players in the Communist dictatorial arena, the script finds room for 80s villain mainstays, the Russians. William Smith, star of countless TV and film roles, and a master at playing Tough Bastards good and bad, is seen at the beginning during one of McBain's dream sequences. The two have met before. Playing a Russian, Smith (who speaks the language fluently among other languages) officially steps into the movie during the last half hour where he pretty much takes over for Silva once he's reduced to a wimpish state in lieu of McBain's uncanny ability to avoid death. Kind of similar to RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (1985) with the Vietnamese villains being usurped by the Russians.

Story contributor Fred Olen Ray had directed other, similar action movies, such as CYCLONE (1987) from the previous year about a weapons-laden motorcycle driven by Heather Thomas. Others include ARMED RESPONSE (1986), COMMANDO SQUAD (1987), and WARLORDS (1988).

Aside from Gary Busey and a plethora of guns, grenade launchers and ammo cartridges, the other major attraction of BULLETPROOF is the Thunderblast, the Swiss Army knife of battle tanks. It does everything but fly. It even has its own built in coffee maker. Armed with an array of missiles and machine guns, it gets a good workout at the end when it engages in a handicapped match with modified versions of tanks and aircraft seen in 80s actioners like RED DAWN (1984) and the Rambo series. 

Any action fan worth their salt needs to see Gary Busey's best lead role during his brief tenure as an 80s Action Hero. When was the last time you saw Stallone, Norris, Schwarzenegger, or Bronson play the saxophone in between emptying numerous gun magazines? Mayhem nearly from start to finish, BULLETPROOF is definitely packing a lot of heat.

This review is representative of the Shout! Factory 2 disc set with BAMBOO GODS AND IRON MEN, TRACKDOWN, and SCORCHY (cut TV version). Extras and specs: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen.

Cobra (1986) review

COBRA 1986

Sylvester Stallone (Marion "Cobra" Cobretti), Brigitte Nielsen (Ingrid), Reni Santoni (Sergeant Gonzalez), Andrew Robinson (Detective Monte), Brian Thompson (Night Slasher), John Herzfeld (Cho), Lee Garlington (Nancy Stalk), Art LeFleur (Captain Sears)

Directed by George P. Cosmatos

The Short Version: Often feeling like an Italian version of DIRTY HARRY, but made in America, this aggressively nasty Cannon film (directed by an Italian) portrays Stallone as an urban Rambo doing battle with a bizarre gang of slasher killers who take survival of the fittest to murderous extremes. They even perform a 'Radio Ga-Ga' type ritual before going out to slaughter random people with axes and knives. The darkest, most uncompromisingly brutal movie on Stallone's resume, COBRA has a nasty bite that leaves you both disturbed and breathless over the course of its 90 uncomfortable minutes.

Marion "Cobra" Cobretti is the tough cop cure for the disease-riddled criminal element in Los Angeles. Particularly grim are a gang of 'New World Order' types who take the quote, 'only the strong survive' so seriously, they spend their evenings slaughtering random people with axes and knives to thin the herd of humanity. A young model named Ingrid witnesses one of their nightly kill sessions, and it's up to the unorthodox Cobretti to protect her.

Stallone gets Dirty in his own version of Eastwood's iconic policeman. Based, perplexingly enough, on British crime writer Paula Gosling's novel, 'A Running Duck' (released here as 'Fair Game' and adapted again in the 1995 film of the same name), Stallone more or less did away with the source material and wrote his own version of Gosling's book--transforming it into a DIRTY HARRY (1971) movie not starring Clint Eastwood. Reportedly, portions of the COBRA script was the basis for Stallone's aborted version of BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984). COBRA was so different from the Gosling source, that Warner Books wanted to re-release it as 'Cobra', but Stallone refused to use his likeness since the book was not his version. Why not just novelize Stallone's script? Instead of Gosling's 'Nam vet sniper working for the San Francisco PD, it's a maverick cop from LA, who, like his 70s antecedent, has his own remarkably similar playbook.

If you've seen the Eastwood movies, you know what to expect here. It's so close to Callahan, you'd think COBRA was an Italian bandwagon movie made in America. The Callahan connection continues with the participation of Scorpio himself, Andy Robinson, as the asshole detective Monte. Stallone went totally overboard with everything in his script, successfully turning Robinson into an even bigger asshole than the similar characters in the 70s Eastwood favorites. There's also Reni Santoni who played Harry's partner in the original movie. He plays Cobretti's junk food loving partner in this '86 assimilation. Stallone meticulously recreates a great deal of what was seen in the first three DH pictures, maximizing the amount of violence to the point the hero is turned into a caricature and the movie into a twisted sort of parody of action movie conventions; and one with the sleaziest tone of any such picture.

Unlike Callahan, Cobretti isn't all that mouthy. He's more the strong silent type, but prone to an abundance of 80s Action Hero one-liners. Stallone's script gets so carried away with the quips that it becomes almost immediately clear that Cobretti has nothing of substance to say. This means little since his Colt .45 and laser scope Jatimatic Sub-machine gun do most of the talking. It's the action and violence that are the major selling point of COBRA.... 

....And this selling point proved to be troublesome to the film obtaining an 'R' rating. Some 30 minutes were removed, losing a lot of exposition the picture needed; and a lot of sadistic violence that earned the film an 'X' rating got slashed. This, too, doesn't matter much as, despite being conspicuously choppy in its current version, COBRA succeeds in being as horrific as some horror movies.

For example, director Cosmatos induces an incredible amount of dread during the opening credits sequence. Sylvester Levay's musical score is constantly oppressing the viewer with apocalyptic tones not normally associated with cop thrillers. This being the 1980s, it wouldn't be the same without some rock-metal tracks accompanying the symphonic assault. On two occasions, the movie halts its doom and gloom atmosphere, and for a few minutes, the story is told via something resembling an MTV music video. One of these musically enhanced sequences is generously padded with shots of Stallone's then wife, co-star Brigitte Nielsen (as Ingrid, the model) dressed (or barely dressed) in an assortment of outfits while posing with robot set decorations. Unfortunately, Levay's electric guitar piece, 'Skyline' was among the casualties of the re-editing process.

Regarding music videos, COBRA is mostly a visual experience. Stallone barely gives his characters any motivation or emotional attachment with the audience. What little plot there is is an amalgamation of the aforementioned DIRTY HARRY films. This lack of a cohesive storyline results from drastic cutting, and Stallone's fondness for big action set pieces. It would be beneficial to see the picture with all its footage put back in at some point. If nothing else, in its present form, COBRA is definitely a visceral, gut-shredding movie.

The action and stunt work is nothing short of amazing. Terry Leonard and his team manage some stunning pieces of action; highlights being a wildly chaotic car chase and the siege at the end preceding the finish in the foundry. This is one of the few differences with the Dirty Harry franchise--in those films, the action was more dangerously intimate. The smaller scale usage of guns in those movies made you more aware of their presence, even fearful of them. There were no massive explosions, or whole city blocks obliterated, and scores of villains turned into Swiss cheese. It's not a bad thing, but the more restrained scenes of violence involving Callahan resonate more than the 'kill everything that moves' attitude of COBRA where it's so exaggerated you become desensitized to it. 

As Marion Cobretti, Stallone gives his character a bunch of colorful quirks, but none of them manage to make him very appealing. He cracks open a beer during a tense grocery store hold-up, has the design of a cobra on the grips of his Colt pistols, and cuts pizza slices in half with scissors. He's basically an urban Rambo--he talks about as much, but never gets quite as impassioned as Rambo. Stallone also writes Cobretti as some sort of outcast, even more despised than Callahan. His superiors treat him like he's at the bottom of some sort of social hierarchy. Cobretti is basically a grubby exterminator who is reluctantly called in when a roach problem gets a little too out of hand. Which brings us to....

Brian Thompson is gifted with one of the finest faces for villainy ever conceived. The man looks like he stepped right out of a comic book; and considering COBRA's overblown style, he couldn't have picked a better major bad guy role as The Night Slasher, the leader of a merry band of butchers. In the movie (at least this truncated form), it's not entirely clear who the killers are. There's never a name attributed to them; only that they have no intentions of allowing the meek to inherit the Earth, adhering to a 'survival of the fittest' mantra. Every night they go out and slash, hack, and mutilate random victims in a cultish enactment of natural selection. You never learn this much till the very end when Thompson delivers a grim monologue that recalls a similar one spouted by Gene Davis during the closing moments of 10 TO MIDNIGHT (1983). It's also here that the aura of horror returns inside a foundry with smoke, steam, and fire engulfing the surroundings. It's the film begins like a nightmare and ends like one.

The last scene wraps things up nicely as Cobretti, after making amends with Monte via his fist (in the same fashion as Peter Weller did with Meg Foster at the end of Cosmatos's LEVIATHAN), rides off with Ingrid on a motorcycle as the anthem rock of John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band's 'Voice of America's Son' rolls out over the end credits.

Most of the big guns of 80s Action did a horror oriented actioner--Norris with SILENT RAGE (1982), Bronson with 10 TO MIDNIGHT (1983); and Eastwood even implemented horror into the narrative of Callahan's last in THE DEAD POOL (1988). Of these, COBRA is arguably the most stylish. It's not a particularly good movie, but it's damn efficient in its ability to give its audience an adrenaline rush for nearly 90 minutes. Try and put the comparisons to Eastwood's signature cop out of your mind and you'll have a thrilling good time with Stallone's ultra-violent, emotionally vapid clone.

This review is representative of the Warner Blu-ray. Extras and specs:1080p anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1; commentary with director George P. Cosmatos; vintage Making Of featurette; original theatrical trailer.

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