Review: Predator (dir. John McTiernan)


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It would be accurate for one to say that Arnold Schwarzenegger was king of the 80’s action flicks. He first burst onto the scene in the titular role in Conan the Barbarian then it’s follow-up sequel. Yet, it would be his role in James Cameron’s The Terminator in 1985 that would make him a household name.

He began to crank out action films after action film every year to varying degrees of success and quality between 1984 and 1987. It would be in the summer of 1987 that he would add a third iconic action film role to stint as Conan the Barbarian and the relentless cybernetic killer, the Terminator.

Maj. Dutch Schaefer in John McTiernan’s action scifi Predator cemented Arnold Schwarzenegger as the most bankable movie star of the 1980’s. The film itself has become a go-to classic whenever film fans of all stripes discuss what were some of the best films of the era. Yes, I do categorize Predator as one of the best to come out of the 1980’s. It does more than hold it’s own when stacked up against Oscar winners, festival darlings and indie cult-favorites.

It’s a film that takes the premise that “man is the most dangerous game” to new levels by adding in a scifi element to the story. That scifi element being an extraterrestrial hunter who comes to Earth every so often to hunt. It’s chosen prey tends to be killers, fighters and soldiers at the top of their craft and usually during times of extreme conflict.

The film, as written by the two brothers John and Jim Thomas, actually works like a slasher horror film in the beginning as Dutch and his team of elite commandos trek through the Central American jungle on a rescue mission. A mission that lands the team in finding the grisly remains of another American special forces team. Questions come up as to whether their CIA liaison (played by Carl Weathers of Rocky and Rocky II fame) knows more about the true nature of their supposed rescue mission than he’s willing to let on.

It’s once the team, still being stalked through the jungle by an unseen predator, finally find the people they’re suppose to rescue that all hell breaks loose in more ways than one. The action is loud, messy and exquisitely choreographed and filmed. Unlike some of the action films of the last ten years, Predator succeeds with it’s action scenes for having a director who uses very long takes and little to no hand-held to keep the action geography easy to follow and the action choreography unencumbered by too many edits and cuts.

Even once the team realizes that they were now being hunted and that whoever, or whatever is hunting them, the film still continues to stay on a creative track. When I mentioned that the film plays out like slasher film, it does in way in that the titular character behaves and moves like slasher killers. It seems to be everywhere and nowhere. The very victims it’s hunting only see it when it’s too late and death’s upon them.

The film’s dialogue has been quoted by so many fans that memes have been created around them. Yet, this doesn’t mean that the film is hilarious. What it does have was that masculine, brother’s-in-arms banter and quips that’s become a sort of signature for screenwriter and director Shane Black who was hired to do some uncredited rewrites on the Thomas Brother’s original script. Black would also end up playing one of the commandos in the film.

Outside of Arnold himself, Predator would be best-known for the effects work by the late and great Stan Winston, who would come in to help redesign the title character (with some help from his buddy James Cameron) and the rest as they would say was film history. It would be difficult to go anywhere around the world, show the Predator to some random person and they not know what it is.

Predator was one of those films that people, at first, thought was just a mindless, popcorn flick. The type of cinema that was to be seen then forgotten for better fare. Yet, in the end, Predator ended up becoming not just a classic of its genre, but a perfect example of a film that transcends it’s genre roots to become just a great film, in general.

Lisa Reviews A Film That Was Not Nominated For Any Oscars: Mr. Billion (dir by Jonathan Kaplan)


The 1977 film Mr. Billion tells the story of Gudio Falcone (played by Terence Hill, whose real name is Mario Girotti).  Guido has got a pretty good life going in Italy.  Everyone in his village loves him.  He works as an auto mechanic.  When we first see him, he speeding around in a red sportscar.  When he returns to the garage, he smiles and says, in Italian, “Just like Steve McQueen.”  Guido may not be rich but he’s happy.

But that’s all about change!

Well, not the happy part.  Guido is pretty much always happy.  But he’s about to get rich.  It turns out that Guido is the last surviving relative of Antonio Falcone.  Years ago, Antonio immigrated to America and founded Falcon Motors.  The company eventually made Antonio one of the richest men in the world.  Unfortunately, the big Falcon Motors sign eventually fell off the company’s headquarters and it landed right on top of Antonio.

Everyone’s upset about Antonio’s death.  Well, everyone but the company’s vice president, John Cutler (Jackie Gleason).  John was naturally expecting that he would be named Antonio’s successor and that he would also inherit all of Antonio’s money.  Instead, Antonio’s will leaves everything to Guido!

Why?

Because, apparently, Guido never asked Antonio for anything more than a “pair of American cowboy boots.”

Cutler and his sleazy attorney (William Redfield) are soon on the next flight to Italy.  When they find Guido, they make sure to compliment him on his cowboy boots.  They explain to Guido that he has twenty days to go San Francisco and sign the proper papers.  If he’s any later than 20 days he’ll lose the money.  Of course, that shouldn’t be a problem since Guido can fly over anytime that he wants…

Except Guido refuses to fly!  No, he says that if he’s going to go to America, he’s going to arrive there the same way that Antonio did.  He is going to take a boat to New York City and then ride a train all the way to California.

Did you guess that the very next scene would be Guido standing on the dock of a cruise ship, staring at the Statue of Liberty?  And did you also also guess that, upon disembarking, he would immediately find himself besieged by reporters, one of whom declares him to now be the world’s most eligible bachelor?  If so, good work.

But here’s the big question.  Did you also predict that John Cutler would attempt to sabotage Guido’s trip to California and that the sabotage would involve hiring a private detective (Valerie Perrine)?  Even more importantly, did you predict that the detective would eventually end up falling in love with simple but honest Guido?

Because that’s totally what happens!

At the time that Mr. Billion was made, Terence Hill was a huge star in Europe but was barely known in the United States.  He was best known for appearing in a series of comedic Spaghetti Westerns with Bud Spencer, the majority of which featured Hill as a lazy but likable ne’er do well.  In Mr. Billion, Hill is cast as the exact opposite, as an earnest man-of-the-people who is so nice that it’s almost painful.  Add to that some major tone problems (the film cannot make up its mind if it wants to be a comedy, an action film, or a romance) and you have a pretty forgettable movie.

And that’s kind of a shame because Terence Hill showed some legitimate charm in the lead role.  The role may have been underwritten but all Hill had to do is flash that winning smile and it didn’t matter.  It’s unfortunate that Hill didn’t get a more appropriate vehicle for his American debut.

Film Review: Mean Johnny Barrows (dir by Fred Williamson)


“Dedicated to the veteran who traded his place on the front line for a place on the unemployment line. Peace is Hell.”

— the end credits of Mean Johnny Barrows (1976)

“He’s not that mean.”

— Me, while watch Mean Johnny Barrows

Who is Johnny Barrows?  As played by blaxploitation star Fred Williamson, Johnny Barrows is a former football great who later served in Vietnam and won several silver stars.  As a soldier, he killed an untold number of people but he is always quick to explain that he wouldn’t do the same thing as a civilian.  Even after the war ended, Johnny remained in the army, teaching new recruits.  He was good at his job but, one day, a racist officer decided to play a stupid trick on Johnny.  During a training exercise, that officer put a live landmine out on the training grounds.  After defusing the mine, Johnny promptly punched the officer.  The result?  A dishonorable discharge and the lesson that peace is Hell.

Johnny returns to Los Angeles and discovers that the country he fought for isn’t willing to fight for him.  Because of his dishonorable discharge, Johnny can’t find a good job.  Because he can’t find a job, he can’t afford a place to live.  Johnny stays on the streets.  His only friend is a self-described philosophy professor (Elliott Gould, in an amusing cameo) who teaches Johnny all about soup kitchens.

When Johnny steps into an Italian restaurant and asks for food, he is shocked to discover that the owner, Mario Racconi (Stuart Whitman), knows who he is.  Mario says that he played against Johnny in a high school football game.  (Perhaps Johnny’s shock is due to the fact that Mario appears to be at least ten years older than him.)  Mario gives Johnny something to eat and even offers him a job.  Realizing that the work is mob-related, Johnny says that he’s not interested.  He’s not going to break the law…

And here’s where we run into a problem with the film’s title.  The film is entitled Mean Johnny Barrows but, so far, he’s been almost painfully nice.  Then again, Mild Johnny Barrows doesn’t have much of a ring to it.

Anyway, Johnny does try to stay out of trouble.  He even manages to land a demeaning job cleaning the toilets at a gas station.  But his boss (R.G. Armstrong) is a real jerk and Johnny has his dignity, no matter how much the world wants to take it away from him.  Finally, Johnny agrees to work with the Racconi Family.  Not only does he become friends with Mario but he also falls for Mario’s girlfriend, Nancy (Jenny Sherman).

Unfortunately, not all Mafia families are as kind-hearted and generous as the Racconi Family.  The Da Vinci family wants to flood Los Angles with drugs.  It’s all the master plan of Tony Da Vinci (Roddy McDowall).  Tony is eager to prove himself to his father and what better way to do that than to smuggle heroin?  Tony also loves flowers because … well, why not?  Anyway, when the Racconis object to Tony’s scheme, a mob war erupts.  Nearly all of the Racconis are killed.  It looks like it’s time for Johnny Barrows to put on his white suit, pick up a gun, and get vengeance for his surrogate family.

There are some pretty obvious problems with Mean Johnny Barrows, not the least of which is the casting of Roddy McDowall — perhaps the least Italian actor in the history of cinema — as a ruthless mafioso.  After having starred in several successful blaxploitation films, Fred Williamson made his directorial debut with Mean Johnny Barrows.  Williamson’s inexperience as director shines through almost every minute of Mean Johnny Barrows.  Though he does well with the action scenes, there are other parts of the film where Williamson doesn’t even seem to be sure where he should point the camera.  With almost every role miscast, the performances are pretty inconsistent but Williamson gives a good performance (it’s obvious that he understood his strengths and weaknesses as an actor) and Elliott Gould is an entertaining oddity as the Professor.

If anything saves the film, it’s that Williamson’s anger at the way America treats its veterans feels sincere.  The heart of the film is in the first half, which details Johnny’s struggle to simply survive from one day to the next.  Even if Williamson’s direction is often shaky, the film’s rage is so authentic that you do get caught up in Johnny’s story.  The film ends on a properly down note, suggesting that, for men like Johnny Barrows, there is no hope to be found in America.

To quote the film’s theme song: Peace is Hell.

A Movie A Day #313: Lone Wolf McQuade (1983, directed by Steve Carver)


Chuck Norris is J.J. McQuade, Texas Ranger!

J.J. McQuade is a former Marine who keeps the peace in El Paso through a combination of karate and machine guns.  McQuade lives in a house in the desert, with only a wolf and refrigerator full of beer to provide companionship.  He prefers to work alone, even though his captain (R.G. Armstrong) insists that McQuade partner up with a rookie named Kayo Ramos (Robert Beltran).  Ramos is eager to prove himself but Lone Wolf McQuade has to work alone.  Otherwise, his nickname would not make any sense.

Things change when McQuade’s teenage daughter (Dana Kimmel) is put in the hospital by an arrogant and sleazy arms dealer named Rawley Wilkes (David Carradine).  McQuade is out for both justice and revenge and Ramos’s knowledge of how to turn on a computer proves to be helpful.  Also teaming up with McQuade: an FBI agent (Leon Isaac Kennedy), a retired Ranger named Dakota (L.Q. Jones), and Rawley’s former lover (Barbara Carrera), who now happens to be McQuade’s current lover.

The predictable storyline is not what makes Lone Wolf McQuade a classic. Instead, it’s that this movie features both Chuck Norris and David Carradine at the height of their abilities.    The whole film is directed like a grand western, with Norris and Carradine taking the roles that would usually go to Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef.  The plot may be full of holes but when these two face off, none of that matters.  Neither Carradine nor Norris used stunt doubles for their fight scenes and it makes all the difference.

This was one of the first movies to feature Chuck Norris with the beard that’s become his trademark.  Wisely, Chuck doesn’t say much in the movie and leaves most of the heavy-duty acting to his co-stars.  (Though he may be an icon of cool, Chuck has never been anyone’s idea of a great actor.)  Carradine’s performance as Rawley feels like an early version of his best known role, Bill in Kill Bill.  L.Q. Jones and R.G. Armstrong both bring their own history as members of the Sam Peckinpah stock company to the film while Barbara Carrera livens up her part with a sultry spark.  Keep an eye out for both William Sanderson and Sharon Farrell in small roles.  Speaking of small roles, Daniel Frishman almost steals the entire damn movie as a rival arms dealer.

Though it wasn’t produced by Cannon, Lone Wolf McQuade is an essential for fans of Chuck Norris.

A Movie A Day #55: Where The Buffalo Roam (1980, directed by Art Linson)


where_the_buffalo_roam_ver3At his Colorado ranch, journalist Hunter S. Thompson (Bill Murray) is up against a deadline.  He has to finish his story about his friendship with the radical lawyer and activist, Carlo Lazlo (Peter Boyle).  Thompson flashes back to the time that he covered a trial in which Lazlo defended a group of young men charged with possession of marijuana.  When the men are sent to prison, Lazlo snaps and physically attacks the prosecutor.  Later, Lazlo resurfaces during the Super Bowl and tries to convince Thompson to join him in fighting a revolution in Latin America.  And finally, in 1972, Lazlo tracks Thompson down while Thompson is traveling with the Nixon campaign.

Bill Murray as the legendary gonzo journalist, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson?

It sounds like a great idea, it’s just too bad that the movie’s not any good.  Where The Buffalo Roam may be based on three of Thompson’s best known articles but it never feels gonzo.  It never comes close to capturing Thompson’s anarchistic spirit.  The real Thompson did drugs by the handful, was fascinated by guns, and always seemed to be on the verge of plunging into the abyss.  Where The Buffalo Roam’s Thompson is a mild prankster and an ironically detached hipster, the type who the real Dr. Thompson probably would have kicked out of a moving car.  As for Carlo Lazlo, the character is based on Oscar Zeta Acosta, the infamous “Samoan attorney” that Thompson renamed “Dr. Gonzo” in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas.  The movie never figures out what to do with the character or Peter Boyle.

While preparing for the role, Bill Murray spent months hanging out with Thompson and, according to the book, Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live by Doug Weingard and Jeff Hill, literally became Hunter Thompson for not only the duration of the filming but for several months afterward:

“In a classic case of the role overtaking the actor, Billy returned that fall to Saturday Night so immersed in playing Hunter Thompson he had virtually become Hunter Thompson, complete with long black cigarette holder, dark glasses, and nasty habits. ‘Billy,’ said one of the writers, echoing several others, ‘was not Bill Murray, he was Hunter Thompson. You couldn’t talk to him without talking to Hunter Thompson.'”

Neither Thompson nor Bill Murray were happy with Where The Buffalo Roam‘s neutered version of gonzo and the film is really for Murray completists only.  The closest that Hollywood had gotten to getting Thompson right remains Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

A Movie A Day #8: White Lightning (1973, directed by Joseph Sargent)


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A year after co-starring in Deliverance, Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty reunited for another movie about life in the backwoods, White Lightning.

White Lightning starts with two hippies, bound and gagged and floating in a canoe.  While a banjo plays in the background, two rednecks use a shotgun to blow the canoe into pieces.  They watch as the hippies drown in the swamp.  It turns out that one of those hippies was the brother of legendary moonshiner and expert driver, Gator McCluskey (Reynolds).  Gator is doing time but when he hears that his brother has been murdered, he immediately realizes that he was probably killed on the orders of corrupt Sheriff J. C. Connors (Ned Beatty).  The Feds arrange for Gator to be released from prison, on the condition that he work undercover and bring them enough evidence that they can take Connors down.

Back home, Gator works with a fellow informant, Dude Watson (Matt Clark), teams up with local moonshiner, Roy Boone (Bo Hopkins), and has an affair with Roy’s girl, Lou (Jennifer Billingsley).   Connors and his main henchman, Big Bear (R.G. Armstrong) both suspect that Gator and Dude are working for the government.  Since this is a Burt Reynolds movie, it all ends with a car chase.

A classic of its kind and a huge box office success, White Lightning set the template for almost every other film that Burt Reynolds made in the 1970s and 80s.  There is not much to the movie beyond Burt’s good old boy charm and Ned Beatty’s blustering villainy but if you’re in the mood for car chases and Southern scenery, White Lightning might be the movie for you.   Joseph Sargent also directed the New York crime classic, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and he gives White Lightning an edginess that would be lacking from many of Burt Reynolds’s later movies.

For tomorrow’s movie a day, it’s the sequel to White Lightning (and Burt Reynolds’s directorial debut), Gator.

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Horror on the Lens: Children of the Corn (dir by Fritz Kiersch)


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Today’s horror on the lens is the 1984 film that TSL editor-in-chief Arleigh Sandoc has called the worst Stephen King adaptation of all time.  For the record, I tend to agree with that judgment but, for some reason, a lot of people seem to like Children of the Corn.

And I will admit — the kids are creepy.  Especially that little Isaac guy with the shrill voice.  Whenever Isaac starts screaming, “MALACHI!!!!,” — well, it’s like nails on a chalkboard, to be honest.

Anyway, in case you’d forgotten, this is the movie where all the little kids hang out in a cornfield and kill adults.  It attempts to say something about religion but I’m not sure what it’s trying to say.  It’s all kind of silly but, as I said, some people seem to like it.

(Personally, I prefer that old episode of South Park where they keep declaring shenanigans on the carnival, all the cows jump off a cliff, and the visiting yankee tourists end up getting devoured by rats in jail.)

In order to help you decide for yourself whether or not this is a decent film, here is Stephen King’s Children of the Corn!  Enjoy it while you can because you just know that YouTube is going to eventually yank it down for copyright reasons.