The Shooter (1997, directed by Fred Olen Ray)


While riding his horse through the old, Michael Atherton (Michael Dudikoff) discovers a group of thuggish ranch hands attacking a prostitute named Wendy (Valerie Wildman).  Because Michael is known as being the Shooter, he has no problem coolly gunning the men down and saving Wendy’s life.  Unfortunately, for Michael, one of the dead men is the son of a fearsome rancher named Jerry Krants (William Smith) and Jerry has his own reasons for wanting Wendy dead.  Michael may be the Shooter but Jerry Krants is William Smith so you automatically know that it is not a good idea to mess with him.

In the grand spaghetti western tradition, Krants has his men kidnap Michael, beat him up, and crucify him outside of town.  The men leave Michael for dead but, after they’ve left, Wendy repays Michael’s kindness by untying him from the cross, nursing him back to health, and saving his life.  (The same thing used to happen to Clint Eastwood, except he usually had to nurse himself back to health without anyone else’s help.)  With everyone else believing him to be dead, Michael rides into town to get his violent revenge against Krants and his men.  With all of the townspeople convinced that Michael has returned as a ghost, only the town’s power-hungry sheriff, Kyle Tapert (Randy Travis), understands what has actually happened.  Tapert makes plans to use Michael’s return for his own advantage.  While it wouldn’t look good for Tapert to openly murder all of his opponents, what if he killed them and then framed Michael?  And then what if he made himself a hero by being the one to end Michael’s reign of terror?

Directed by Fred Olen Ray, The Shooter is a low-budget western that turned out to be far better than I was expecting.  Ray is obviously a fan of the western genre and, with The Shooter, he’s made a respectful and, by his standards, restrained homage to the classic spaghetti westerns of old.  He even shows some undeniable skill when it comes to building up the suspense before the climatic showdown.  Ray indulges in every western cliché imaginable but he does so with the respect of a true fan.

With his less than grizzled screen presence, Michael Dudikoff is slightly miscast as a Clint Eastwood-style gunslinger but the rest of the cast is made up of genre veterans who give it their best.  In particular, William Smith shows why he was one of the busiest “bad guys” working in the movies.  To me, the most surprising part of the film was that the casting of Randy Travis as a villain actually worked.  Fred Olen Ray made good use of Travis’s natural amiability, making Kyle into a villain who will give you friendly smile right before he opens fire.  Also be sure to keep an eye out for Andrew Stevens, playing the man who records Michael’s story.  It wouldn’t be a Fed Olen Ray movie without Andrew Stevens playing at least a small role.

Low-budget, undemanding, and made with obvious care, The Shooter is film that will be appreciated by western fans everywhere.

Film Review: Strategic Command (dir by Rick Jacobson)


In the 1997 film, Strategic Command, Richard Norton plays a terrorist named Carlos …. wait for it …. Gruber.  If that last name sounds familiar, that’s because the villain of Die Hard was named Hans Gruber and the bad guy from Die Hard With A Vengeance was named Simon Gruber.  Gruber — the number one name in hostage situations!

Anyway, Carlos Gruber and his fellow terrorists steal a chemical called Bromax from the FBI.  Bromax is a chemical weapon, one that can be used to kill thousands of people.  It’s probably not a good idea for anyone to have Bromax, regardless of whether they are terrorists or the FBI.  What’s the point of Bromax, really?  It only has evil purposes.  Plus, it has a stupid name.

Gruber proceeds to hijack Air Force Two, holding the Vice President (Michael Cavanaugh) and several journalists hostage.  Gruber wants his fellow terrorists to be released from prison and he’s prepared to kill the Vice President if he doesn’t get what he wants.  Perhaps because Gruber realizes how little the Vice President actually does, Gruber is also willing to spray Bromax over America.

Not wanting to see America get Bromaxed, the President sends an elite force of special op. soldiers after Air Force Two.  Captain Rattner (Jsu Garcia, back when he was still using the name Nick Corri) is in charge of the mission and he doesn’t expect there to be any slip-ups.  Accompanying Rattner’s men is Rick Harding (Michael Dudikoff!), the inventor of Bromax!  Along with not wanting to see Bromax sprayed over America, Harding also wants to save the life of his wife, Michelle (Amanda Wyss, who co-starred with Jsu Garcia in the original Nightmare on Elm Street).  Michelle is one of the journalists on the plane.

Strategic Command is stupid, yet strangely likable.  It’s impossible not to admire the film’s attempt to be a huge action epic without actually spending any money.  As a result, Air Force 2 is a commercial airliner.  There’s a surprisingly small number of people involved on both sides of the plot.  The viewer might expect the hostage situation to be one of those big, “all hands on deck” emergencies but, instead, the President is content to send 6 people to get the job done.  Fortunately, there aren’t that many terrorists either.  This is action on a budget.

Adding to the film’s overall strangeness is the miscasting of Michael Dudikoff as a quiet and somewhat nerdy scientist.  This is one of those films where the viewer is meant to assume that a character is smart just because he’s wearing glasses.  Dudikoff is so miscast that, again, it all becomes strangely likable.  He and Richard Norton are so enthusiastic about chewing up the scenery that it’s kind of fun to watch.  Also fun to watch is the legitimate great actor Bryan Cranston, cast here as a vain and cowardly anchorman.  One gets the feeling that this is probably not a film that Cranston brags about but his performance isn’t bad at all.  Every film like this needs to have a self-important reporter who can get humiliated in some fashion and Cranston handles the role like a pro.

Strategic Command is dumb but kind of fun, in the way that many 90s direct-to-video action films tend to be.  It’s a good film for when you want to watch something that won’t necessarily require your full attention.  In fact, the less thought one gives to what happens in Strategic Command, the better.  Watch it for Dudikoff, Norton, and especially the one and only Bryan Cranston!

Avenging Force (1986, directed by Sam Firstenberg)


If you think this year’s elections are messed up, just watch Avenging Force and see what happens when two martial artists run against each other for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Steve James plays Larry Richards, a former military commando who is now running for the Senate in Louisiana.  His opponent is Wade Delaney (Bill Wallace), who is described as being “the South’s youngest senator” and who is also secretly one of the world’s greatest martial artists.  Wade is a member of Pentangle, a Neo-Nazi cult that is made up of wealthy businessmen and other politicians.  When Larry and his family are invited to ride a float in the most sedate Mardi Gras parade of all time, the Pentangle attempts to assassinate him.  While Larry escapes injury, his oldest son does not.

Larry’s best friend, Col. Matt Hunter (Michael Dudikoff), is also in town and Hunter just happens to be another one of the world’s greatest martial artists.  (This film leave you wondering if there’s anyone in Louisiana who isn’t secretly a ninja.)  Matt tries to protect Larry and the remaining members of his family from Pentangle.  Matt fails miserably.  With Larry and the entire Richards family now dead, Matt goes deep into the Louisiana bayou, seeking both to rescue his sister (who has been kidnapped and is set to be sold at some sort of Cajun-run sex auction) and avenge Larry’s death.

As you probably already guessed, Avenging Force is a Cannon Film and it’s crazy even by that company’s fabled standards.  It’s not often that you come across a movie about a U.S. Senator who is also a neo-Nazi ninja who spends his spare time stalking people through the bayous.  What makes this plot point even more memorable is that no one in Avenging Force seems to be shocked by it.  Matt isn’t surprised in the least when an elected official suddenly lunges out of the fog and attempts to drown him in swamp water.  Of course, Senator Delaney isn’t the only villain in the film.  In fact, he’s not even the main bad guy.  That honor goes to Prof. Elliott Glastenbury (John P. Ryan), who lives in a huge mansion and who sees himself as a real-life version of The Most Dangerous Game‘s General Zaroff.  He not only wants to secretly rule the world but he also wants to hunt human prey in the bayou.  When Matt shows up at Glastenbury’s mansion, he is greeted by a butler who complains that Matt hasn’t bothered to wipe the blood off his shirt before showing up.

Avenging Force was originally planned as a sequel to Invasion U.S.A., with Chuck Norris reprising the role of Matt Hunter.  When Norris declined to appear in the film, the connection to Invasion U.S.A. was dropped and Michael Dudikoff of the American Ninja films was cast in the lead role.  (Of course, they didn’t bother to change anyone’s name in the script so the hero of Avenging Force is still named Matt Hunter, even if he’s not meant to be the same Matt Hunter from Invasion U.S.A.)  What Dudikoff lacked in screen presence, he made up for in athleticism and Avenging Force features some Cannon’s best fight scenes.  The plot may be full of holes but the idea of ninjas in the bayou is so inherently cool that it carries the film over any rough patches.

The critics may not have loved Avenging Force when it was first released but it holds up well as a fast-paced and weird action film.  It is perhaps the best Cajun ninja film ever made.

A Movie A Day #307: River of Death (1989, directed by Steve Carver)


In the Amazon, natives are dying of a mysterious disease.  Could it have anything to do with a German war criminal named Wolfgang (played by Robert Vaughn) who is living in a cave that is decorated with a Nazi flag?  A scientist (Victor Melleney) and his daughter, Anna (Sarah Maur Thorp), are determined to find out.  They hire a tough explorer, John Hamilton (Michael Dudikoff), to lead them up the river but John does not do a very good job because the scientist ends up dead and Anna ends up kidnapped.

Everyone tells John to forget about Anna.  Colonel Diaz (Herbert Lom) says that she is dead.  John’s best friend, an arms dealer named Eddie (L.Q. Jones), says that she’s dead.  John refuses to accept that and he organizes an expedition to help track them down.  A strange man (Donald Pleasence) and his assistant (Cynthia Erland) approach John and offer to help.  What John does not know is that the man is actually Heinrich Spaatz, yet another Nazi war criminal.

River of Death is a ridiculous movie but it is entertaining in a way that only a late 80s Michael Dudikoff movie can be.  Though River of Death was a Cannon film, it was produced by the legendary Harry Alan Towers, which is probably why the production standards are higher than the average Menahem Golan quickie.  Dudikoff does a passable imitation of Indiana Jones (and he even gets to do some Apocalypse Now-style narrating) but the real reason to watch the film is to watch veteran actors like Robert Vaughn, Donald Pleasence, Herbert Lom, and L.Q. Jones ham it up.  Vaughn doesn’t even attempt to sound German while Pleasence gives a performance that is strange even by his own considerable standards.

One final note: River of Death was the second-to-last film directed by Steve Carver, who also did Capone, and Big Bad Mama, along with helping to make Chuck Norris a star by directing Lone Wolf McQuade and An Eye For An Eye.

A Movie A Day #306: Platoon Leader (1988, directed by Aaron Norris)


Having just graduated from West Point, Lt. Jeff Knight (Michael Dudikoff, the American Ninja himself) is sent to Vietnam and takes over a battle-weary platoon.  Lt. Knight has got his work cut out for him.  The VC is all around, drug use is rampant, and the cynical members of the platoon have no respect for him.  When Lt. Knight is injured during one of his first patrols, everyone is so convinced that he’ll go back to the U.S. that they loot his quarters.  However, Knight does return, determined to earn the respect of his men and become a true platoon leader!

Though Cannon was best known for making B action movies (many of which starred either Chuck Norris or Charles Bronson), they occasionally tried to improve their image by releasing a prestige film.  Platoon Leader is somewhere in the middle between Cannon’s usual output and their “respectable” films.  It is based on a highly acclaimed memoir and, though the film was made in South Africa, it does a good job of recreating the look of Vietnam.  For instance, Platoon Leader‘s version of Vietnam is more convincing than what Cannon later presented in P.O.W.: The EscapePlatoon Leader also spends some time developing its characters.  Lt. Knight is more than just a stoic action hero, which already distinguishes it from 90% of Cannon’s usual output.  At the same time, Platoon Leader was directed by Chuck Norris’s brother, Aaron, and he doesn’t hold back on the explosions and the gunfire that everyone had come to expect from a Cannon war film.  The end result is an enjoyably hokey film that has a few more layers than the typical Cannon production but not too many.

This film was originally titled Nam but, after the success of Platoon, the title was changed to Platoon Leader.  In typical Cannon fashion, Platoon Leader plays like a more jingoistic and even less subtle version of Stone’s film.  The main difference is that Platoon‘s Lt. Wolfe never won the respect of his men and ended up getting killed with almost everyone else while Lt. Knight beats back the VC and shares a celebratory embrace with his sergeant.

One final note: keep an eye out for genre vet William Smith, who starred in The Losers (a film about a group of bikers who are recruited by the CIA and sent to Vietnam), in the role of Dudikoff’s superior officer.  If Platoon Leader had been made in the 70s, Smith would have played Dudikoff’s role so his appearance here is almost a passing of the B-movie torch.

A Movie A Day #133: American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (1987, directed by Sam Firstenberg)


Duuuuuuuuude!  The American Ninja is back!

In this sequel to the first American Ninja, ninja Joe (Michael Dudikoff) and sidekick Jackson (Steve James) are now Army Rangers.  They have been assigned to provide security at an embassy on a small Caribbean island.  At first, it seems like an easy gig but then Joe discovers that a large number of Marines have recently vanished.  According to the only witness, they were abducted by men dressed in black.  Joe and Jackson know what that means!

The Marines are being set up by a traitor in their own ranks, Tommy Taylor (played by Miguel Ferrer look-alike Jonathan Pienaar).  Taylor is being blackmailed by a master criminal known as, I kid you not, Leo the Lion (Gary Conway, who also co-wrote the script).  Leo is brainwashing the Marines, shooting them up with all sorts of drugs and transforming them into zombie-style ninjas.

Doing away with any pretense towards reality, American Ninja 2 is pure comic book action.  A bad guy even says, “It’s the American Ninja!” when he sees Joe.  It’s a strange film.  On the one hand, it is full of goofy humor and it even has a streetwise kid sidekick, all things that would indicate that it was made to appeal to kids.  On the other hand, the first cut was reportedly so violent that it got a dreaded X-rating.  The final version still has enough impalings, decapitations, and throwing stars to the head to earn its R.

With its combination of nonstop action and Steve James one-liners, American Ninja 2 is both a worthy sequel and a worthy addition to the Cannon library.  Still, it bothers me that at least a few of the ninjans that Joe and Jackson killed were probably just brainwashed Marines.  That amounts to a lot of innocent victims being killed by our heroes.

The life of an American ninja is never an easy one.

A Movie A Day #132: American Ninja (1985, directed by Sam Firstenberg)


Hell yeah!

From Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan, the duo who were responsible for producing the coolest films of the 1980s, comes American Ninja!

Private Joe Armstrong (Michael Dudikoff) is the newest arrival on an American army base in the Philippines.  A former member of a street gang, he has been forced to enlist in the army in order to keep himself out of jail.  Because he keeps to himself, the other soldiers do not like him.  Colonel Hickock (Guich Kook) is angry that his daughter, Patricia (Judie Aronson), likes Joe and conspires to have Joe court martialed.  Joe’s only friend is Corporal Jackson (Steve James), who starts out as an enemy but changes his ways after Joe shows off some sweet martial arts moves.  Because Joe is an amnesiac, he does not know where or why he learned how to fight.  He just knows that he can.

It’s good that he can because the local black marketer, Ortega (Don Stewart) has hired the legendary Black Star ninjas to help him steal supplies from the base.  Ortega has even allowed the ninjas to set up a training camp in his back yard.  When Joe prevents the ninjas from kidnapping Patricia, the ninjas swear revenge.

As if there could possibly be any doubt, American Ninja was made and distributed by Cannon Films.  It is about as pure an example of the Cannon aesthetic as anyone could hope to find.  Find a star — in this case, Michael Dudikoff — who was credible without being expensive.  Give him a love interest who was easy on the eyes and who could get held hostage during the film’s climax.  Toss in slow motion stunt work, big explosions, and Steve James.  Come up with a title that would appeal to both NASCAR-loving patriots and drive-in movie fans.  End result: American Ninja!

As a film, American Ninja get the job done and then some.  The fights are well-choreographed and the movie does not allow things like character development or subtext to get in the way of showcasing plenty of ninja action.  There are enough weird details, especially after Joe dons the black pajamas of the American Ninja, to keep the move interesting.  At one point, a ninja literally vanishes and what’s cool is that no one acts surprised when it happens.  Long before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, American Ninja showed that there’s nothing a ninja can’t do!

One final note: Keep an eye out for my favorite scene, in which a slow-moving jeep bumps into a tree and explodes with all the force of a planet that’s just been zapped by the Death Star.

A Movie A Day #13: Ringmaster (1998, directed by Neil Abramson)


ringmaster-posterJerry Springer has been many things over the course of his long life.  Lawyer.  Anti-war activist.  Adviser to Bobby Kennedy.  Congressional candidate.  City councilman.  Brothel aficionado.  Mayor.  Journalist.  Commentator.  Talk show host.  Destroyer of culture.  Scourge of humanity.  Twice, he was a highly recruited candidate for the U.S. Senate but, both times, it was decided that there was no way a morally questionable television personality could actually win high political office in the United States.

(Yeah, about that…)

There is one thing that Jerry Springer has never been and that is a movie star.  However, that’s not for lack of trying.  At the height of his talk show’s popularity, Jerry Springer starred in Ringmaster.  Though he played a character named Jerry Farrelly and his show was retitled The Jerry Show, there was never any doubt that Jerry Springer was meant to be playing himself.

Who is Jerry Springer, according to Ringmaster?  He’s a sad and weary man who sleeps with his guests and worries that his raunchy show will be his only legacy.  After one show, he tells his staff that he will never again be elected to political office.  His staff laughs but Jerry didn’t sound like he was making a joke.  Why does Jerry do it?  Because he cares about America!  When a man in his audience starts yelling that Jerry and his guests are all going to Hell, Jerry gets in his face and let him know that his show is providing a voice for the people who live in the real America.

In Ringmaster, the real America is made up of people like trailer park nymphomaniac Angel Zorzak (Jaime Pressly) and her mother, Connie (Molly Hagan).  Angel and Connie appear on The Jerry Show after Angel sleeps with her stepfather (Michael Dudikoff, the American Ninja himself) and Connie gets revenge by sleeping with Angel’s boyfriend.  Also on the show is Demond (Michael Jai White), who cheated on his girlfriend with her two best friends and, the night before the show, cheats with Angel too.  Thanks to the show, Demond gets his comeuppance and Angel and Connie’s relationship is repaired.  The movie ends with mother and daughter back in the trailer park, talking about how their new neighbor has big feet.

Pressly and Hagan are the best thing about Ringmaster.  The worst thing is undoubtedly Jerry Springer.  For someone who has made a career in both politics and television, Jerry Springer turns out to be a terrible actor.  He sleepwalks through the movie with a please-kill-me look on his face, keeping his head down and muttering the majority of his lines.

According to Wikipedia, Ringmaster had a budget of $20,000,000 and grossed back less than half of that.  Why would people pay money to watch what they could see on TV for free?  Jerry Springer never became a senator or a movie star.  He continues to host his talk show and probably will until the end of time.