Sunday, February 11, 2018

Wheels of Fire (1985) review


Gary Watkins (Trace), Laura Banks (Stinger), Lynda Wiesmeier (Arlie), Linda Grovenor (Spike), Joseph Anderson (Scourge), Joseph Zucchero (Whiz), Jack S. Daniels (Scag)

Directed by Cirio H. Santiago

***WARNING! This review contains nudity***

The Short Version: It's sometime in the future after a nuclear holocaust. All that remains are gangs of capitalists and anarchists vying to either restore order or control it; while a cult-like gang of pacifists build a rocket ship for some paradise planet 20 million miles away; all this along with oodles of mindless violence and cannibalistic mole men in Cirio Santiago's utterly plotless, high-octane entry in the unusually prosperous sub-genre of THE ROAD WARRIOR clones. There's literally an action sequence every two minutes and not an ounce of story for miles. The Drive-in was made for movies like WHEELS OF FIRE.

Trace, a nomadic traveler roaming the desert in his weapons-laden mustang, reunites with his sister, Arlie. The meeting is short-lived when Arlie is kidnapped by an old enemy of Trace's, the ruthless Scourge, the leader of a gang of savages who roam the desert conquering what remains of mankind. Trace takes off in hot pursuit. Along the way he is joined by a determined lady bounty hunter, a clairvoyant, and a mumbling midget. With other factions fighting the Scourge, a new war is set to take place on the ruins of civilization.

Wasteland specialist Santiago fires up the engines for this, Cirio's second--a less somber actioner compared to STRYKER (1983), his first foray into ROAD WARRIOR territory. The differences between the two is night and day. STRYKER is a darker, slower paced picture; while WHEELS shares the sleazy atmosphere, but like a live-action cartoon with a pace that won't quit. These movies already beg for suspension of disbelief in not asking questions where the hell all the gas is coming from; but this one adds a bizarre subplot about a hippie commune who have built a rocket ship they plan to literally blast off into space for more sociable climbs.

WHEELS are constantly spinning; and rarely does the FIRE diminish. Literally every two minutes something is blowing up; or assorted characters of no consequence are being mowed down by machine gun fire. Easily one of the most brainless movies ever made, FIRE flaunts its lack of storytelling and common sense without a care in what's left of the world.

Even the music (from Christopher Young) never slows down. Possibly using Brian May's MAD MAX (1979) score as an influence (not the Brian May of Queen), it has that same kinetic energy that shoots an additional dose of adrenaline into the mix--making the digestion of rampant absurdity all the easier; and if WHEELS OF FIRE is anything at all, it's absurd.

This isn't a good movie in the classical sense, but as far as entertainment is concerned, it speeds past the average entry in this sub-genre and leaves a lot of other low budget actioners in the dust. An awkward mix of gratuitous nudity and caricature theatrics, if it weren't for the near-constant action, the predominantly awful acting would wreck the whole thing. Despite the mostly shoddy line delivery, it's still a great deal of fun helped by an over-the-top protagonist. 

Gary Watkins plays Trace, a futuristic Tough Guy armed with various guns and a mustang equipped with a spiked plate welded to the grill; a flamethrower; and alluded to in the title, a jet engine that propels him along the highway to send cars careening off cliffs and exploding on cue. Watkins is perpetually pissed off through most of the movie, only occasionally grimacing when he's feeling amorous towards his female counterpart, a Tough Woman named Stinger.

Watkins did very little before or after this movie. WHEELS being his one major leading role, he does well with what little characterization he's given. He's certainly not lax in the action department. The script gives him scraps to say, but a lot to do physically. If he's not speeding through desert locations, he's firing off any number of weapons, or jumping and leaping around dozens of villains he fills full of lead or engulfs in flames. 

Lee Ving of the punk rock band Fear was initially attached to play Scourge, but left just before shooting began for undisclosed reasons. He did do STREETS OF FIRE (1984), another movie with 'Fire' in the title. Fear had been in the industry spotlight since at least 1981 after an appearance in Penelope Spheeris's THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION (1981). John Belushi was enamored with the band and hired them to cut a song for the soundtrack on Belushi's NEIGHBORS (1981). When Belushi's desire for a punk-style score was ruled out, he then invited Fear to play on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE's Halloween episode in 1981--introduced by Donald Pleasence, no less. This too was short-lived as Fear was banned from the show after things got out of hand during their stage performance. 

You would think with the chaotic filmmaking industry in the Philippines, Lee Ving would feel right at home. Whatever led to his bolting from the picture, the guy that replaced him on WHEELS OF FIRE, Joe Mari Avellana (as Joseph Anderson), was a Filipino actor and filmmaker who worked on a lot of Cirio's movies both in front of, and behind the camera.

Trace may be a loner type, but he's not alone in this movie. Along the way, he meets up with various other characters. These are either grossly underwritten (Spike played by Linda Grovenor) or are barely explained at all (Pug the midget).

Laura Banks as Stinger gives Trace a love interest... if only the script was interested in doing so. After rescuing her and another nimble female from the cannibalistic Sand Men (a race of humanoids doused in white paint that are the low budget Morlocks of the movie), there's the inevitable love scene; but then this angle is abandoned to make way for more gun battles and explosions. Banks would return to Cirio land a couple years later in DEMON OF PARADISE (1987).

Grovenor's Spike is the most unassuming character in the movie. Playing a clairvoyant, she's like the girl next door; but during the big battle finale, she suddenly turns into an acrobatic hellcat. Her character doesn't exude the demeanor of a fighter, but she looks good on camera when she turns into one. Within the span of a few minutes, she easily surpasses Laura Banks' Stinger character (see insert), the female Mad Max of the story. There's a late-blooming hint that Spike has some affection for Trace, but it's too little and too late with this revelation just shy of the end credits.

What little string of plot holding WHEELS together is Trace retrieving his sister Arlie from the clutches of Scourge and his gang of killers. Played by Playboy cover girl and July 1982's Playmate of the Month Lynda Wiesmeier, she's the most tragic character of the bunch. Getting only slightly more to do than some of the supporting cast, Wiesmeier's main function is to show off her perky butt cleavage and stay half-naked for much of her screen time--displaying her assets for those who may have missed her Playboy spread. Despite her character's lengthy humiliation as a trampoline for the bad guys, she does get to go out with a bang at the end. Sadly, Ms. Wiesmeier would pass away aged 49 December 16th, 2012 from a brain tumor.

WHEELS OF FIRE (originally titled 'The Vindicator') found itself in a hot spot in the early months of 1985 when Roger Corman and New World's new owners (lawyers Harry Sloan and Lawrence Kuppin) jousted lawsuits between one another. New World's new owners seemed little interested in distributing Corman's Drive-in style exploitation--opting to put more high-profile pictures at the front of the slate. So, after announcing he was going to release his films on his own, New World sued him for 40 million over breach of contract and defamation. 

Corman's 400 million suit charged that New World refused to distribute his movies. He was also seeking to take back control of his former company which he'd sold to them in 1982.

New World, on the other hand, charged that Corman was intending to set up his own distribution company in violation of their sales agreement. In countering, Corman stated at the time his whole point in selling the company was to free himself of the laborious work involved so he could focus solely on distribution. Corman also stated New World had not only refused to release two of his pictures--WHEELS OF FIRE and the teen sex comedy SCHOOL SPIRIT--but that they'd cheated him on his distributors fee on films like SPACE RAIDERS (1983) and SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE (1983). 

New World then argued that Corman was bypassing them for deals with other companies. Ten days later the two parties dropped their respective lawsuits and settled out of court. Corman was free to distribute his own productions while New World was no longer obligated to do so. The subject of this review was ultimately released under the Concorde Pictures banner, set up by both Roger and Julie Corman in March of 1985. Among the slate of movies already completed and ready for distribution included STREETWALKIN' (1985)--their own version of New World's popular ANGEL (1984); and Cirio's THE DEVASTATOR (1986).

In a sub-genre crowded with lackluster imitations of George Miller's wasteland classic, Cirio's WHEELS OF FIRE is nitro in comparison. The Italian variants usually take center-stage but Santiago was more often than not the superior when it came to action; and movies like this require about as much attention to plot and characterization as to the obligatory abandoned factories and desert locales that make up the settings. Silly and never boring, this is a FIRE that burns hot for a brief, but action-packed 81 minutes.

This review is representative of the Code Red Bluray. Specs and Extras: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen; Interview with writer Frederick Bailey; interview with production supervisor Clark Henderson; trailers; running time: 01:21:07

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