Each month The Grumps bring you a selection of what’s new and now in the Action genre. Strap in for Round-house Round-Up!
from brian miller:
FORTRESS OF AMERIKKKA (1989) [REISSUED ON BLU RAY BY VINEGAR SYNDROME]
Some take a particular joy in seeing very specific socio-political themes of the present depicted in older films. “They knew,” is the proclamation of this easy hindsight prophecy building. More likely, this instinct reveals how much our understanding of art comes from projection. Especially with the KKK built right into the title, Fortress of Amerikkka could easily be taken as pre-MAGA commentary. Following this approach, it would also seem misguided. The commentary on what militias and domestic terrorism is doesn’t quite add up to anything that fits into modern discourse. Nazism is the blanket term for fascism here, but it comes from so deep in the era of the term equating to cartoon villains, that it could really mean anything. The sort of middle finger being thrown here is typical of a lot of ’80s “backseat of my mom’s Volvo” style punk; a time when it felt like enough to simply point out that America sucks and see what feathers get ruffled. All this said, there are far brighter shining stars from this era of punk irrelevance and angst. This is definitely a slice of punksploitation that could offend if it were not so gleefully stupid. For bottom-of-the-barrel action though, it is a charmer.
ETERNALS (2021) [NEW TO STREAMING ON DISNEY+]
Fascism also takes the center stage in Eternals ~ nothing exactly new for almost every modern-era Superhero film. The twist here is fascism on a cosmic level, giving audiences a team of powerful beings responsible for nearly every human accomplishment ala Ancient Aliens conspiracy racism. These beings are then revealed to be inside of yet a larger Russian doll of god dictators committing galactic genocide on the regular in order to continue their own “noble” bloodline. That is the punk, anti-authoritarian way to digest the film. It is fair. Eternals also happens to be the first Marvel movie in ages to escape their self-inflicted never-ending 2nd Act death trap. The pace and atmosphere of Eternals feel fresh and full of breathing room. The claustrophobia of telling the same story “and then and then and then” style is gone both in an overall narrative arc and character development. While the action isn’t choreographed or filmed with the level of engagement that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has, this room it is given is welcome over the muted delivery of most MCU offerings. While a close analysis of Eternals reveals another bummer message about the nature of power, it is a pleasing ride.
JACKASS FOREVER (2022) [NEW IN THEATERS]
God bless Johnny Knoxville, Jeff Tremaine, Spike Jonze, Steve-O, and the entire crew of courageous idiots who knew exactly what we needed to break up the anxiety-ridden tedium and woe of the past three years of Pandemic. I can’t say Jackass Forever is a return to form because it’s literally a form that never left, but it is a return to a mindset that has been fleeting from many of us. Did we forget how to have fun in 2019? Jackass Forever thinks we did, and I’m inclined to agree– which is, 20+ years after our first introduction to these hilariously rude boys, what makes this film more than just a nostalgia cash grab. Jackass has always been an experience, one that makes us feel like we’re in on something, and what sets this apart from other sequel/reboots is that its documentary-style presentation makes it feel timeless. Even though Knoxville, Steve-O, Chris Pontius, etc. are older and should know better by their middle age, it seems as though they’ve actually aged into a kind of anarchic professionalism. I guess with our own desires to recapture parts of our unrestrained youths without betraying our more mature selves, we can find that relatable. Of course, that’s not to say Jackass Forever isn’t full of cock-monster theatrics, crude pranks, foolhardy stunts, and gross-out moments that rival the worst body horror films, but at least this time they’re responsible enough to ask a cool scientist for help lighting their farts on fire.
MOONFALL (2022) [NEW IN THEATERS]
Sometimes Hollywood forgets it’s Hollywood. Studios get lured away from their grandiose origins by the betrothal of the indie darling, the guaranteed Oscar bait, the serious melodrama with a statement. But if there’s anything that can bring Hollywood back, it’s a messy big-budget B-movie with sci-fi, action, and thriller all rolled into one. Moonfall doesn’t promise a lot, but what it gives is fathoms above anything the Academy can handle: a good time. It’s the kind of movie that’s so bizarrely ill-conceived that we can’t help but be entertained; from bad karaoke to bogus science to cuddly conspiracy theorists to pedigree actors obviously not giving a damn, this thing is (I don’t say this lightly) wild. Throughout the film the audience is subjected to action trope after action trope: outrunning debris, car chases and shootouts with dirtbag bandits, beat-the-clock insanity, and added wackiness due to (I guess?) the scientific possibility of upside-down gravity. The only thing Moonfall lacks is a little bit of honest emotional depth in some parts, but…come on, really? Do we actually expect this? No. However what might be unexpected is, it’s almost hard to tell, but this might be a blockbuster with a message: a lowkey criticism on American bureaucratic impulsiveness, in a “we’ll fix today but worry about tomorrow later” kind of way. Overall, though, Moonfall is a bad movie. But it’s one that’s pretty easy to forgive.
FROM JUSTIN HARLAN:
DEAD HEAT (1988) [REISSUED BY VINEGAR SYNDROME]
1988’s Dead Heat is a masterwork of the extremely popular buddy cop zombie actioner subgenre. Treat Williams teams with Joe at peak Piscopo in this great genre picture that also features the great Darren McGavin, TV’s Lindsay Frost, and a fantastic late era performance from the great Vincent Price. While decent prints and editions of the film haven’t been too hard to find, the film’s most recent 4K restoration from Vinegar Syndrome brings this gem the way it was meant to be viewed and with tons of great features to boot.
After a tragic death of his partner, the cleverly named Roger Mortis (Williams), Officer Bigelow (Piscopo), and coroner Dr. Rebecca Smythers (Clare Kirkconnell) decide to try out a machine that can bring Mortis back to life. The resurrected officer returns in a zombie like state, but he’s far from the only zombie they have to deal with.
The absurd action comedy is not going to win any awards for its great social commentary or high brow themes, but it’s an incredibly fun time. With a fantastic looking and sounding edition of the film, it’s hard to find anything negative to say about it… as long as you enjoy fun. Uppity film snobs need not apply.
from nick spacek:
SHAWSCOPE VOLUME ONE [ARROW VIDEO]
Arrow Video’s massive Shawscope Volume One box set sees 12 films from Hong Kong studio Shaw Brothers released together in a wonderfully-curated collection. Spread across eight discs, each title is presented on high definition (1080p) Blu-ray, including seven new 2K restorations by Arrow Video. These films are arguably the best they’ve ever looked after decades of clipped, cut, and murky presentation on VHS and DVD, with several presented uncut for the first time. If that wasn’t enough, there’s a 60-page book and two compact discs featuring music from the De Wolfe Music library used in many of the films in the collection.
Let’s be fair, here — Shawscope Volume One is a massive undertaking to watch. Frankly, even as enthusiastic as I was to receive this in the mail, and as giddy as I became when the hefty package thumped out of the box onto my dining room table, it rapidly became apparent that trying to binge this much content was overwhelming.
Honestly, it also felt a little dishonorable to try to cram these films in one after another, as well. Given the sheer amount of extras involved, this isn’t something which is to be gobbled right up, but instead, to be savored when one really has the time to dig in and appreciate things. Thankfully, Arrow has done a really solid job in putting this set together, presenting the films in such a way that, should you watch them in the order they’re included, you get a sense of growth as Shaw Brothers moved throughout the ’70s.
While King Boxer (aka Five Fingers of Death) isn’t necessarily my favorite Shaw film, one appreciates it for how it set forth the concepts of a Shaw Brothers kung fu film early on. Also, the inclusion of Cinema Hong Kong: Kung Fu, “the first in a three-part documentary on Shaw Brothers’ place within the martial arts genre produced by Celestial Pictures in 2003,” really provides some excellent backstory on the studio, providing excellent visual references for David Desser’s similar essay within the included book.
The Boxer from Shantung is brutally efficient kung fu fun, Five Shaolin Masters has far too many characters and is way too long, but includes some decent fight segments, and is the first film in the set to really pop, visually; while its prequel, Shaolin Temple, is waaaaay more fun than its predecessor with the training sequences especially top-notch.
I then adore the fact that Arrow decided to drop as its fifth film, The Mighty Peking Man, which is a full-on kaiju picture. While definitely a King Kong rip-off, the included quicksand, tiger attacks, and lady Tarzan means I approve all of this silliness.
The fifth disc pairing of Challenge of the Masters and Executioners from Shaolin makes for some cognitive dissonance. While thematically linked, the tonal variations between the two couldn’t be greater. Much as Crippled Avengers would later add some comic relief to what was first presented in The Five Venoms, so does Executioners from Shaolin do for Challenge of the Masters, although far less effectively.
I suppose it’s not for nothing that Challenge of the Masters is a Wong Fei Hung film starring Gordon Liu, who just excels in every moment he’s onscreen, mostly because this historical figure is given a sense of humanity, whereas Executioners from Shaolin‘s villain, Pai Mei, is so comically evil and well-trained that the goofiness of some of the fights can’t be helped. Despite the gravitas director Lau Kar-leung attempts to add to his film, it’s impossible not to giggle at a man being dragged around because his foot has been sucked up into someone else’s groin.
Chinatown Kid gets two versions on its disc — the 115-minute international cut, and the 90-minute alternate version — but the longer one just shows more detail, rather than changing anything, plot-wise, although several fights get to run longer.
The Five Venoms and Crippled Avengers are probably the highlights of this collection, because they look fantastic, and are arguably the “hits” of Shawscope Volume One. What more can be said about them than that they offer amazing fights, crazy costumes, and a variety of styles from which to select your favorite. They’re probably the most action-packed films in this set.
Heroes of the East and Dirty Ho have their moments, and it’s fun to get to see them, but they’re a little too goofy for my liking. I enjoy some comedy in my kung fu, but when the fights become so slapsticky that it’s like watching a cartoon, I start to tune out. Excellent battles, though, even so.
The included book features what might be my favorite extra in the entire set, which is James Flower’s “Lip Flaps & High Kicks,” an essay on dubbing which really gets into the nuts and bolts of dubbed audio in Hong Kong films. The idea that many of these movies were shot without sync sound in the first place, thus making the idea of watching them in the original Cantonese or Mandarin a more “authentic experience” than watching an English dub something of an ill-informed elitist opinion, is pretty interesting. It’s fascinating, and offers up something rather more thought-provoking than the usual history of or behind-the-scenes one finds in a box set.
The De Wolfe Music compilations which make up discs nine and ten of the Shawscope set are excellent examples of some stellar ’70s library music. While there’s music drawn from six different films spread across the two discs, the vast majority of disc nine comprises the score for Chinatown Kid, with disc ten mostly featuring The Five Venoms. It’s impressive how these disparate tracks, pulled from a variety of composers, can create a cohesive listening experience one can enjoy even apart from the films themselves.
F/X (1986) & F/X2 (1991) DOUBLE FEATURE [KL STUDIO CLASSICS]
While the lead actor in these films is ostensibly Bryan Brown, let it be known far and wide that the real star of both pictures is the one and only Brian Dennehy. Brown is capable as special effects man Rollie Tyler, but as detective Leo McCarthy, Dennehy is just an absolute joy to behold every time he’s on screen.
Given that so much of both the original 1986 F/X and the 1991 sequel — which should always be referred to by its full name, F/X2: The Deadly Art of Illusion — are given over to over-the-top displays of special effects trickery, illusionary prowess, and technical wizardry, the fact that at no point does Dennehy as McCarthy ever play it straight. He’s not mugging at the camera, mind you, but he’s definitely well-aware of just what kind of movies these are and what his role in them is, and he’s going to have fun while he doing it.
Whether it’s shamelessly flirting with the woman in the records department, arguing with his superior officers, or interacting with Brown’s Rollie, Dennehy’s approach of “can you fucking believe this?” works just as well for his character’s reactions as it would for anyone presented with scripts that include identity swapping, double and triple crosses, and gadgets and gizmos of all varieties.
The fact that both films end with scenes that exist for no other reason than to place Rollie and McCarthy in some European country for exactly 30 seconds worth of footage is also hilarious. Sure, why not fly a crew, the director, and your two stars to Rome so that they can shoot one scene? That’s a heck of a vacation on Dodi Fayed’s dime.
Oh, the plot: they’re absurd, loaded with character actors you’ll know and love, and solely exist to move from effects piece to effects piece, with just enough Dennehy in the first film to keep things from bogging down too terribly much in dealing with the actual plot. The sequel is far more over-the-top, definitely more fun, and 50% more Dennehy.
The Blu-ray transfers are fine, but a little dark and not quite as crisp as one might’ve hoped for a series which relies so heavily on special effects, but they still look pretty good. The behind-the-scenes making-of featurettes — produced contemporaneously with each film — are interesting, but very publicity-minded, as opposed to introducing any deeply intriguing content.
GHOST RIDERS (1987) [MVD]
While this film — wherein desperado Frank Clements is hanged in 1888 and curses the town preacher, and 100 years later, “Frank Clements and his gang return from hell to seek revenge against the preacher’s grandson and his family.” — has a lot of promise and a fantastic poster, the movie is far more action than horror. At no point do the skull-faced cowboys of the o-card or the original movie poster make an appearance.
Rather, the film is a $58,000 low-budget picture that takes advantage of the possibilities surrounding the filmmakers such as Texas scrub, a Wild West village, and actors gleaned from director Alan Stewart’s work in commercials and creates something which is charming, but by no means terrifying. At most, it’s a solidly-effective action romp with some amazing squib work which will ably kill part of a Sunday afternoon.
The shot on 16mm feature is part of the last gasp of independent genre filmmaking of this sort, and the included featurettes, such as the vintage Baylor University-produced “Low Budget Films: On the Set of Ghost Riders” and the new “Bringing Out the Ghosts: The Making of Ghost Riders,” offer some excellent insight into how Ghost Riders was made. Much like a previous release from MVD, 1989’s Mind Games, the special features are a far more interesting watch than the film itself, but well worth your time if you’re a fan of genre movie-making of a certain era.
The Blu-ray’s image quality is about what one would expect from a 30-year-old indie originally shot on 16mm, and there’s a persistent tape hiss throughout, despite the fact that the audio is still rather low in the mix. That said, this is more of a historical document than entertainment at this point, and it all works well for that purpose.
Can’t get enough Action? Take a look at last month’s Round-house Round-Up for more!