Framed (1975, directed by Phil Karlson)


Revenge can be brutal, especially when you’ve been framed.

Joe Don Baker plays Ron Lewis, a surly nightclub owner and gambler who wins a small fortune, witnesses a crime, and nearly gets shot all in the same night.  When he reaches his house, he’s planning on calling the police but he’s confronted in his own garage by a sheriff’s deputy who tries to kill him!  In a lengthy and brutal scene, Ron beats the deputy to death and gouges out his eyes.  Even though Ron was only acting in self-defense, he’s charged with murder.  Told that there is no way that he’ll be able to win an acquittal, Ron pleads guilty to a lesser charge and is sent to prison for four years.

While he’s in prison, Ron befriends a mob boss (John Marley, who famously woke up with a horse’s head in his bed in The Godfather) and the boss’s number one hitman, Vince (Gabriel Dell).  While Ron is in prison, a group of men assault his girlfriend (country singer Conny Van Dyke) and tell her not to ask any questions about the events that led to Ron being framed.

After serving his sentence and getting into numerous fights with the guards, Ron is finally released.  When Vince shows up and tells Ron that he’s been hired to kill him, the two of them team up with an honest deputy (Brock Peters) and set out to find out why Ron was set up and to get revenge.

Framed is a brutal movie, Ron and his friends hold nothing back in their quest to get revenge.  Whether he’s shooting a man in cold blood or hooking someone up to a car battery in order to get information out of him, there’s little that Ron won’t do and the movie lingers over every act of violence.  Several pounds overweight and snarling out of his lines, Joe Don Baker may not be a conventional action hero but he’s believable in his rage.  He’s the ultimate country boy who has been pushed too far and now he doesn’t care how much blood he has to get on his hands.  However, because Baker does seem more like an ordinary person than a Clint Eastwood or a Charles Bronson-type, he retains the audience’s sympathy even as he splashes blood all over the screen.  As violent as his action may be, they always feel justified.

Baker’s performance and the believable violence are the film’s biggest strengths.  It’s biggest weakness is a plot that revolves around an elaborate conspiracy that doesn’t always make sense and some notably weak supporting performances.  Ron’s revenge may be brutal but it takes a while to get there and the first hour gets bogged down with Ron’s struggle to adjust to life in prison.  John Marley does a good job as Ron’s prison mentor but then he abruptly disappears from the movie.

Before making Framed, Baker and director Phil Karlson previously collaborated on Walking Tall.  Framed is far more violent than that film was but its plot doesn’t hold together as well.  However, if you’re just looking for a violent action film that features Joe Don Baker doing what he does best, Framed delivers.

Coach of the Year (1980, directed by Don Medford)


Jim Brandon (Robert Conrad) used to be a member of the Chicago Bears, until he was drafted and sent to Vietnam.  While Jim was serving his country, he was wounded in battle and when he returns to the United States, he’s now in a wheelchair.  With his playing days over, Jim still wants to put his athletic abilities to good use.  When the Bears front office tells him that they want to place him in the PR department as a glorified mascot, Jim tells them to forget about it and then starts to search for any opportunity to work as a coach.  Unfortunately, no one is willing to take a chance on a coach who can’t walk across the field.

While he looks for a job, Jim is living with his sister (Erin Gray) and her son, Andy (Ricky Paull Goldin).  When Andy gets caught (not for the first time) breaking the law, he is sent to the local reform school.  It’s while Jim is visiting his nephew that he notices that the students at the Illinois State Training School for Boys like to play football.  Jim suggests that the school needs an official team and that he would be the perfect person to coach them.

At first, the boys are rebellious and refuse to show Jim any respect but Jim slowly wins them over.  When a prep school’s football team visits the reform school and makes some snide remarks, Jim challenges them to a game.  If Jim’s team wins, it will not only prove that Jim can coach but it will also give the members of the team a needed boost of self-respect.  If Jim loses, he’ll get fired and his team will probably try to escape before boarding the bus back to reform school.

Coach of the Year was a TV movie and there’s nothing surprising about it.  It’s a typical example of an “inspiring” sports film, where an underdog team is led to victory by an underdog coach.  The two teams play each other twice in the movie and, just as surely as you’ll be able to guess who wins the first game, you’ll also be able to guess who manages to beat the odds and win the second game.  The film’s main selling point is that Robert Conrad gives a good performance as Jim Brandon.  Conrad is believable as both a coach, a former star athlete, and a man who is not yet prepared to surrender his pride.  Though Jim’s clearly the hero, the movie doesn’t idealize him.  Sometimes, Jim can be too stubborn for his own good.  Supposedly, in real life, Conrad was always the celebrity who ended up taking his appearances on Battle Of The Network Stars too seriously and that’s the way that Conrad plays Jim.  It doesn’t matter if his team is made up of a bunch of juvenile delinquents or that their games are just for exhibition.  Jim’s determined to win.

Coach of the Year is on Amazon Prime.  Unfortunately, Battle Of The Network Stars is not.

 

Cinemax Memories: Raw Nerve (1991, directed by David A. Prior)


Raw Nerve opens with a serial killer haunting Mobile, Alabama, using a pump action shotgun to shoot women in the face while they’re wearing red high heels.  Race car driver Jimmy Clayton (Ted Prior, brother of this film’s director) has been having visions of the murders so he goes to the police and offers to help them out.  Unfortunately for Jimmy, neither Detective Ellis (Jan-Michael Vincent!) nor Captain Gavin (Glenn Ford!!) believe in psychic phenomena so they toss Jimmy’s ass in jail.  While Ellis’s ex-wife, Gloria (Sandahl Bergman!!!), tries to prove that Jimmy’s innocent, Jimmy’s mechanic (Randall “Tex” Cobb!!!!), takes an unhealthy interest in Jimmy’s teenage sister, Gina (TRACI LORDS!!!!!).

As you can tell from reading the paragraph above, the main thing that this film has going for it is a cast full of recognizable B-actors.  Though none of them are really at their best, Raw Nerve is still your only chance to see Glenn Ford, Jan-Michael Vincent, and Sandahl Bergman all sharing scenes together.  Unfortunately, despite all of the famous names in the cast, Ted Prior got the most screen time and he really didn’t have the screen presence to pull off either the role or the film’s loony final twist.

The best thing about Raw Nerve is that it features both Randall “Tex” Cobb and Traci Lords.  Lords was a legitimately good actress, even if her past as a pornographic actress made it impossible for her to get the type of roles that she really deserved.  Lords doesn’t get to do much in Raw Nerve but she does her best to make Gina into a real character instead of just a generic victim.  Meanwhile, Randall “Tex” Cobb is a marvel as a biker who is never seen without a beer in his hand.  When Cobb eventually leaves the movie, you miss him.

Raw Nerve was one of the many low-budget thrillers that came out in the 90s.  Like many of these films, Raw Nerve was directed by David A. Prior and released by Action International Pictures, which shared both an acronym and a sensibility with American International Pictures.  Though films like Raw Nerve may not have been great art, they were entertaining if you came across one of them on Cinemax.  Where else were you going to see Tex Cobb and Jan-Michael Vincent battle it out at two in the morning?

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #46: Walking Tall (dir by Phil Karlson)


Walking_Tall_(1973_film)About 50 minutes into the 1973 film Walking Tall (not to be confused with the 2005 version that starred Dwayne Johnson), there’s a scene in which newly elected sheriff Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) gives a speech to his deputies.  As the deputies stand at attention and as Pusser announces that he’s not going to tolerate any of his men taking bribes from the Dixie Mafia, the observant viewer will notice something out-of-place about the scene.

Hovering directly above Baker’s head is a big, black, almost phallic boom mic.  It stays up there throughout the entire scene, a sudden and unexpected reminder that — though the film opens with a message that we’re about to see the true story of “an American hero” and though it was filmed on location in rural Tennessee — Walking Tall is ultimately a movie.

And yet, somehow, that phallic boom mic feels oddly appropriate.  First off, Walking Tall is an almost deliberately messy film.  That boom mic tells us that Walking Tall was not a slick studio production.  Instead, much like Phil Karlson’s previous The Phenix City Story, it was a low-budget and violent film that was filmed on location in the south, miles away from the corrupting influence of mainstream, yankee-dominated Hollywood.  Secondly, the phallic implications of the boom mic erases any doubt that Walking Tall is a film about men doing manly things, like shooting each other and beating people up.  Buford does have a wife (Elizabeth Hartman) who begs him to avoid violence and set a good example of his children.  However, she eventually gets shot in the back of the head, which frees Buford up to kill.

As I said earlier, Walking Tall opens with a message telling us that we’re about to watch a true story.  Buford Pusser is a former football player and professional wrestler who, after retiring, returns to his hometown in Tennessee.  He quickly discovers that his town is controlled by criminals and moonshiners.  When he goes to a local bar called The Lucky Spot, he is unlucky enough to discover that the bar’s patrons cheat at cards.  Buford is nearly beaten to death and dumped on the side of the road.  As Buford begs for help, several motorists slow down to stare at him before then driving on.

Obviously, if anyone’s going to change this town, it’s going to have to be Buford Pusser.

Once he recovers from his beating, Buford makes himself a wooden club and then goes back to the Lucky Spot.  After beating everyone up with his club, Buford takes back the money that he lost while playing cards and $50.00 to cover his medical bills.  When Buford is put on trial for armed robbery, he takes the stand, rips off his shirt, and shows the jury his scars.  Buford is acquitted.

Over his wife’s objections, Buford decides to run for sheriff.  The old sheriff, not appreciating the competition, attempts to assassinate Buford but, instead, ends up dying himself.  Buford is charged with murder.  Buford is acquitted.  Buford is elected sheriff.  Buford sets out to clean up his little section of Tennessee.  Violence follows…

On the one hand, it’s easy to be snarky about a film like Walking Tall.  This is one of those films that operates on a strictly black-and-white world view.  Anyone who supports Buford is good.  Anyone who opposes Buford is totally evil.  Buford is a redneck saint.  It’s a film fueled by testosterone and it’s not at all subtle…

But dangit, I liked Walking Tall.  It’s a bit like a right-wing version of Billy Jack, in that it’s so sincere that you can forgive the film’s technical faults and frequent lapses in logic.  Walking Tall was filmed on location in Tennessee and director Phil Karlson makes good use of the rural locations.  And, most importantly, Joe Don Baker was the perfect actor to play Buford Pusser.  As played by Baker, Pusser is something of renaissance redneck.  He’s a smart family man who knows how to kick ass and how to make his own weapons.  What more could you ask for out of a small town sheriff?

In real life, Buford Pusser died in a mysterious car accident shortly after the release of Walking Tall.  Cinematically, the character of Buford Pusser went on to star in two more films.

Embracing the Melodrama #59: At Any Price (dir by Ramin Bahrani)


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With Embracing the Melodrama coming to a close (only two more reviews to go, including this one!), I want to take this opportunity to tell you about a good film from last year that didn’t get quite as much attention as it may have deserved.  The Iowa-set At Any Price is a look at greed, family secrets, and even murder in rural America.  It’s not a perfect film but it features a perfect lead performance from Dennis Quaid and it’s worth taking a chance on.

Dennis Quaid plays Henry Whipple, an Iowa farmer who also works as a sales representative for the Liberty Seed Company.  Henry sells genetically modified seeds and one thing that this film gets absolutely right is just how cut-throat the seed business truly is in the heartland.  Henry is very proud to be the top seed salesman in the county, with only Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown) coming close to matching him.  The film’s best scenes are the ones that follow Henry as he travels along his route, selling seeds, giving away candy bars, and always flashing his wide grin.  It’s only as the film progresses that we start to notice how desperate that grin really is.  Henry, we soon realize, is motivated mainly by greed and fear.  He’s the type of farmer who will go to a stranger’s funeral just to try to buy the deceased’s land.  Henry is also the type of guy who is willing to cut ethical corners to sell seeds as well.  As far as Henry is concerned, he’s only doing what he has to do to make sure that he has a successful business to pass on to his family.

Henry is all about his family and, while that may be his redemption, it’s also his family’s curse because Henry is something of a control freak.  Henry’s loyal wife (Kim Dickens) turns a blind eye to Henry’s mistress (Heather Graham).  Meanwhile, his oldest son has fled Iowa and moved down to South America.  Henry’s remaining son, Dean (Zac Efron), is more interested in pursuing a career in NASCAR than on the family farm.  Eventually, as the result of a shocking and almost random act of violence, Dean is forced to pick his future.

With both Neighbors and That Awkward Moment, Zac Efron has been reinventing himself as a skilled comedic actor.  Before that, however, he appeared in a series of movies that were meant to show his dramatic range, films like The Paperboy, Parkland, and this one.  These films ranged in quality from terrible to good but, in all of them, Zac Efron felt miscast.  Efron is the weak link in At Any Price.  Dean is supposed to be a character driven by both anger and a need to win (at any price — we have a title!) but when we look at Efron’s pretty blue eyes, we’re left with the impression that there’s not much going on behind them.

Far more effective is Dennis Quaid.  Quaid is so likable in the role that it takes a while to realize that Henry is essentially a monster.  And yet, you never totally lose your sympathy for him.  He has his own demons, demons that he’s passing down to his son.  The power of Quaid’s performance is that you can tell he knows he’s wrong but he just can’t stop himself.

At Any Price is a good farmland melodrama, full of beautiful landscapes and carefully observed details.  It’s not a perfect film but it is one worth watching for anyone who is wondering whatever happened to the American dream.

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