Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Great Taste that Tastes Great
Can someone say...spaghetti?

Ironically enough, now that I've started working again, there's decent odds I might be able to write a few more of these... whether you care or not.

So I started a new show, and that means money! And money means...well, buying stuff! So in order to celebrate my new gainful employment, I started off with a purchase of Wild East's latest DVD offering. Let's just start talking about that shall we.

A Taste of Killing (aka. Per Il Gusto Di Uccidere, 1966, d. Tonino Valerii)

The Story: Bounty killer Hank Fellows collects rewards from stolen money shipments. His latest bounty puts him in the employ of a wealthy miner who wishes to protect his gold from the bandit who killed Hank's brother.

The Review: Let's just start by saying that I'm going to give Tonino Valerii a lot of leeway on this one. First of all, I really enjoy both Day of Anger (1968) and Price of Power (1969), though I have to admit I don't like My Name is Nobody (1973) half as much as many spaghetti fans. Second, this was his first movie, and although some first movies are great, I think they should be judged more on their merits and promise. Admittedly, this is all in hindsight and in some ways going backwards through his filmography, whereas I might look at your first movie without any other reference and pretty much denounce it as crap. That having been said...

I debated how much to describe in the story section in how Hank Fellows (Craig Hill) works. It's actually the most interesting aspect of the movie, and the one that separates from most of the genre. Hank follows gold and money shipments through dangerous areas watching them through a telescopic lens mounted on his rifle. Bandits attack the coach (Hank makes no interference), they ride off with the money, and Hank hunts them down and gets the money back. The device of the telescope comes up multiple times throughout the film, but not in the same Bond-ian way as the devices in a Sartana movie. We'll come back to Hank.

Thanks to Hank's telescope the cinematography in this movie gets to have some fun with interesting set ups and angles. The whole opening sequence where Hank watches a bandit gang rob a stage coach of $100,000 adds interesting layers of voyeurism to an already often voyeuristic medium (ie. Your watching Hank, Hank's watching the bandits, the bandits are watching the stage coach). It's a theme continued in the film in which everyone seems to be watching everyone else, and the frequent anchor is an old man who watches the town's various happenings with mirrors he sticks out of windows in his apartment above the town. Unfortunately, for all the potential for intrigue, the plot's fairly by the numbers and none of the double crosses or dirty deals I hoped might heighten the stakes ever came through.

Now, the story moves along well enough and has some fun with the devices noted above. The unfortunate part is that though the genre wasn't that old, many of the genre devices feel a little tired, a little throwaway, and many get no more development then as a means to move the plot swiftly along. For instance, the fact that outlaw Gus Kennebeck killed Hank Fellows brother gets none of the coverage that most revenge plots or even subplots do. It gets mentioned three times in the movie, and sort of...offhand at that. Another is the relationship between Kennebeck and his brother, which has the looks of the "one brother chose good, the other bad" subplot, but again, it doesn't get looked into. On the flip side, Gus does have far more development as the antagonist than Hank does as the protagonist. Not only does Gus have at least some relationship with a brother, he also has a girlfriend in town, and an illegitimate son. Though he tends towards the bad to the bone characterization, he also has moments of tenderness, a fanatic devotion to his son, and a certain melancholy which render him more human.

Which brings us back to Hank. Hank Fellows is given almost no real character traits beyond his killer instincts and his lust for money. Spaghetti Heroes are often anti-heroes who are slaves to greed, lust, and violence, but many of them still have some moment with other characters or some personality trait that shows they still have a heart and maybe a dash of compassion. Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, for instance, saves the peasent family from the lustful advances and cruel tyrrany of Ramon Rojo in A Fistful of Dollars though he gains nothing by it. Now slaughtering bad guys is every action hero's job, but that's all Hank does. The very telescope that makes him interesting at first later makes him invincible and somewhat uninteresting: He never seems to truly be in danger. Now, this makes him seem more like the 'avenging angel' or 'trickster god' protagonist of later spaghettis (ie. Sartana), but Hank also lacks the mysterious and ethereal quality of those characters. Finally, Craig Hill lacks the natural charisma to be an automatically empathetic character. As I witnessed in another Hill vehicle, I Want Him Dead (1968), he has a natural cold, steely-eyed psycho quality that makes him anything but endearing as a hero. In the end, it's the movie around Hank that keeps it interesting rather than the protagonist himself.

Oh....and it has George Wang in it as a Mexican bandit named Mingo. That's just weird. Although no more weird than Tatsuya Nakadai (one of my favorite Japanese actors) as a Mexican bandit in Today We Kill....Tomorrow We Die!. At least they let Mifune stay Japanese for Red Sun (1971).

Like I said though, I'm watching this through different eyes. In all, it was entertaining and fun, but not a great Spaghetti. Now, had I watched it first and then moved on to Day of Anger and Price of Power, I might have appreciated it more. I think that it's strange that though Valerii shot most of this movie on the same sets as For a Few Dollars More which he had assistant directed for Sergio Leone, he was still very much his own man. With those next two features, he developed and quickly into a solid director...which makes his mimicry of Leone in Nobody seem all the stranger in some ways.

In any event, this one probably isn't strong enough to have much appeal to those who aren't a part of Spaghetti fandom, but would be required viewing for those who are.


Friday, June 09, 2006

The Hard Way...Went Three
Had to come out of hiding for this one

I need a job. Seriously. Something I enjoy that...oh, I don't know...pays better than what I normally do.

The time off, however, has afforded me one luxury, and I've come here today to share it with you. Actually, it's been three or four luxuries, and I could probably talk about all of them. This one, though...this one was special. Extra special.

Three The Hard Way (1974, d. Gordon Parks Jr.)

The Story: A music producer teams up with a...well, I don't know what he was supposed to be...so let's try that again...Jim Brown (Jimmy, a record producer) teams up with Fred Williamson (Jagger Daniels, a guy with a name too cool to have any kind of job that I could tell) and Jim Kelly (Mister Keyes, a karate expert) to stop a white supremacist's plot to kill all the black people in the U.S. through a toxin he plans to spread in the water supply.

The Review: Hmmm, where to begin...This movie, on the whole was a very very mixed blessing. On one end, it was highly entertaining, occasionally riotously funny, and just an all around old school film version of total nonsense and total cool. Essentially, the same as every movie made in the last 3-4 years, and yet with an actual charm that I doubt any of these latter day action movies can match. On the other hand, for fans of the far, far, far superior work of Superfly, it's a letdown of colossal proportions from director Gordon Parks Jr (who sadly made only one other film before he died in a helicopter crash).

Someone who has done far more research into Blaxploitation or the work of Parks Jr. might be able to explain where this movie went south. Maybe it was budgetary limitations (the genre was definitely on a frequent waves of ups and downs in quality), perhaps it was the script (the story and action come in spurts between a lot of walking around and driving scenes), or maybe the filmmakers shot high and missed (the scope in terms of action and locales was huge by comparison to Superfly). Part of me wants to say that maybe alongside strong budgetary limitations, Parks wasn't ready to tackle a large scale action film as compared to his dad's studio backed effort Shaft's Big Score which balances action and story quite well. Then again, the action scenes in this movie are quite fluid, and there's some great camera movement to capture them. So maybe it was a bigger more mainstream story that he wasn't ready for.

What carries the movie for the most part is the cast. Like so many great action movie stars, Fred Williamson never has to do anything in a movie, but be Fred Williamson. Never without a cigar, Fred's got that perfect quality of looking like he could be at your backyard BBQ having a beer with the neighbors, and then in a flash mow down the army of ninjas that just came in to mess up the place. Sure it'd be nice to see him play a part...or play at least a slightly different part...but it really isn't necessary. As long as Fred delivers the cigar, the smirk, and the @$$ whoopin' then he's given you everything you need. Now, the camera isn't always as kind to Jim Brown. Oh, you never doubt that again he could kick everyone on screen's @$$ for looking at him funny, but sometimes he's just a few touches leaden and occasionally seems embarassed to be there. In this one, Jim Brown's cool and at ease, and only the audience must come out embarrassed during his long winded and frankly weird record producing scenes at the film's opening. So two out of three ain't bad.

My problem came with Jim Kelly. Don't ever get me wrong...ever: I love Jim Kelly. Every time I have ever sat down for some Enter the Dragon goodness, I literally choke down the rage that Jim Kelly is killed instead of John Saxon. It just never made sense to me: Jim Kelly can do the moves and is ultra-f!cking cool, and by comparison John Saxon looks like a stop motion animation doll could bust better moves. (Actually...don't take me wrong there...John Saxon and Michael Ironside both have that great A-No.1 prime grade sleazy creepy quality both as good guys and bad guys that I, for one, love.) My problem here is that apart from some of the best kung fu fighting noises ever to grace the silver screen, Jim Kelly gets about five lines in the whole movie. Now while this is an improvement over the Jim-Fred-Jim spaghetti western vehicle Take a Hard Ride where Kelly played a black Native American mute (You're guess is as good as mine), it's not enough. The man fought alongside Bruce Lee, he was Black Belt Jones...we'll forget the two Al Adamson movies...give him more respect! Then again, it's over thirty years later, the movie's in the can...and there's no going back. So suffice it to say, I wish this movie would have cut the opening Jim Brown Jim-ness, and way upped the amazing Jim-ness of Jim Kelly...The man who to this day still has the best on screen Afro imaginable.

As for the rest...hmm...well, the villains are pretty stock and fairly weak. It would've been better had they played down the oddball vaguely effeminate Monroe Feather (that's a villainous name?) and way upped the sleazy Dr. Fortrero. And yes, I must admit that this movie has one of the most ridiculous henchman bodycounts of any movie I've seen. Like the oft-pointed out death cattle known as Star Wars stormtroopers, these guys seem to line up and fall down. Apparently, Mr. Feather (I can't get past that name...Jiminy X-mas) pulled out the health benefits from his troops, because these boys all seem to need a trip to the optometrist based on their aim. Still, they serve the purpose they're there for: to get mowed down by our leading men. Likewise, the toxin that only kills black people that our villains plan to release could use a little more screen time. Now like most large scale destructive plot devices (and most supernatural plot devices), you usually have one of two choices: 1) Explain as little as possible and hope the audience takes it for granted that it exists, or 2) Explain the hell out of it, and hope the audience still buys it. In this case, they opted for the former, but they opted for it a little too much. Hell, I knew what I was watching so I took it for granted anyway, but for a general audience it needed a little more screen time or a little more description to give it any realistic tension.

Finally, I want the theme song. There's a soundtrack floating around out there, but it's pricey and it's of dubious origin. I've bought enough spaghetti western soundtracks of questionable repute to know that there's a line on how much to spend without a preview. Nonetheless, excellent theme song.

Well, once again, darn it, I've made it seem like there's nothing but negative things to say about this movie. Well, it's done out of love. The truth is I had a helluva good time watching Three the Hard Way even if it was a crappy DVD dub off of a VHS tape. While I don't think it's for everyone, those who love 70's action and Blaxploitation are very much in for a treat. Most action movies these days, even with twice the plot and three times the action, only wish that they were this cool.