Showing posts with label action. Show all posts
Showing posts with label action. Show all posts

Nov 13, 2020

WHITE FIRE (1984): THE DEFINITIVE INCESTUAL JAMES BOND RIP-OFF


 [Contains spoilers.]

Considering how often Hollywood stumbles upon a great idea and lays the groundwork for turning that great idea into a great movie, only to subsequently revisit that idea over and over with terrible sanctioned sequels or straight-up rip-offs, it’s amazing there aren’t more American-made James Bond imitations out there trekking the globe, neutralizing espionage, and generally making the genre more mediocre. It seemed filmmakers and financiers were a little less willing to borrow liberally from the imagination of author Ian Fleming and long-time Bond producer Albert Broccoli, so except for the Blaxploitation movement, which eagerly borrowed the character’s archetype of working undercover, bedding women, saving the day, and being a total bad-ass, resulting in some of the silliest movies of the sub-genre like 1977’s Black Samurai with Jim Kelly or 1973’s gender-swapping Cleopatra Jones with Tamara Dobson, you’d be hard-pressed to find many American productions riffing dangerously close to the concept. (Get Smart doesn’t count.) As usual, to find a bevy of borrowed concepts executed to shameless degrees, you’d have to go across the pond to lands near and far – and when I say far, I mean far, far from Hollywood’s trademark owners and rights-holders – to get a sweet, sweet taste of that Bondsploitation.

The Philippines had Weng Weng, a little person with a max height of 2’9” who starred in his own series of Bond-inspired spy spoofs, Agent 00 and its sequel For Your Height Only. (These are real.) If you follow cult movies with any regularity, then it won’t surprise you to know that India, too – alongside their own versions of Superman and even Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” – had ripped off the Bond series, this one flagrantly rubbing their unauthorized use of the brand in Hollywood’s faces with the aptly titled James Bond 777, described as “the adventures of Kishore, a ‘James Bond 777’ CBI agent, as he and heroine Sopa battle criminal mastermind ‘Boss’ and his gang which includes whip-cracking Jamilla and a trio of highly trained dogs.” Australia got in the game with the action caper The Man From Hong Kong in 1975, co-produced by Chinese financiers, and starring, ironically, Australia’s own native son George Lazenby, who famously took over for Sean Connery in the earliest days of the Bond franchise after the Scotsman demanded more money than producers were willing to pay. (Lazenby is the subject of a tremendous and unexpectedly hilarious documentary on Hulu called Becoming Bond – I can’t recommend it enough.) But leave it to Italy, king of the counterfeiters, in addition to their own versions of JAWS (Great White aka The Last Shark), Escape From New York (The Bronx Warriors), and Mad Max (The New Barbarians) to make not just their own Bond rip-off, but to actually have the audacity to cast – wait for it – Neil Connery, younger brother of Sean Connery and very much a real human being you didn’t know existed until just now. Known, hilariously, as O.K. Connery, Operation Kid Brother, and Operation Double 007, it even includes a handful of actors who had appeared in earlier James Bond films like DR. No’s Anthony Dawson and Bernard Lee to establish that the Italians were really going for it. (Interestingly, Connery’s character isn’t called James Bond or a remotely similar pseudonym, but rather “Dr. Neil Connery.”) Years later, in 1984, Kid Connery also appeared in China’s unrelated Mad Mission 3: Our Man From Bond Street for celebrated cult director Hark Tsui (Van Damme’s Knock Off and Double Team), in which “a master thief is duped by lookalikes for James Bond and the Queen of England into stealing a valuable gem from a heavily guarded location, then must help the police recover it.” Six of these movies were made between 1982 and 1997, released in China and America under the monikers Aces Go Places and Mad Mission, respectively, and while they were all spoofs of the Bond franchise, only one of them featured a Connery. Guess which brother.


Meanwhile, somewhere over in Turkey, a Frenchman named Jean-Marie Pallardy, director of softcore films like Erotic Diary and Hot Acts Of Love, was prepping his own take on the Bond concept, only this time with a twist. Buoyed by a pretension and grandiose self-importance of which only European filmmakers are capable, White Fire (aka Vivre Pour Survivre) takes the concept of an undercover superspy (Robert Ginty, The Exterminator series) and gives him…a sister (Belinda Mayne, from another Italian rip-off, Alien 2: On Earth), who gets involved with her brother’s missions. Our characters’ fates are written in the film’s very strange prologue, which feels like something James Glickenhaus would’ve directed while being Italian, as our young brother and sister witness the assassination of their parents by anonymous soldiers (one of which includes a pretty gnarly death by flamethrower, allowing for a fiery cameo from the director himself). Young Bo and his sister Ingrid (sometimes accidentally called “Inga” by people who should know better) grow up under the care of Sam (Jess Hahn, The Trial), “the American” who saved them as children on the beach. With his guidance, they become Turkey’s go-to brother-and-sister superspy team straight outta MI-6.

Just kidding! They become JEWEL THIEVES.

I know, I know, hang on – we’re getting there.

The siblings – the both of them, mind you, at least I think – inexplicably work at a diamond mine in the middle of a desert in Istanbul (which is misspelled on the opening title card). Apparently, I think, Bo and Ingrid have been stealing diamonds from their company for years and selling them to your usual collection of bad guys, only a higher-up at their company, Yilmaz (Gordon Mitchell), is both aware of this and in on it for reasons never explained.


Soon we meet the bad guys, headed by Sophia (Mirella Banti, Tenebrae), sometimes called “Sophie” by people who should know better, a fierce Italian crime lord. Or is it Barbossa (Benito Stefanelli), sometimes accidentally called Barbarossa by people who should know better, who is actually the one in charge? Or is it Paydin (???), a man who definitely exists in the movie but who doesn’t appear on IMDB or anywhere on the Internet? Yilmaz, it seems, is in cahoots with this shady trio, and has a deal to sell them the diamonds that Bo and Ingrid have been pilfering from the diamond mine. Say, why bother with all these extra steps? Why wouldn’t Yilmaz just steal the diamonds himself and cut out the middlemen? What in the good gravy of Turkey is going on in this movie?

White Fire throws an awful lot at you during the first five minutes of its present day, and frankly, if you’re not already lost at that point, I’m impressed. Is this entire diamond operation good or bad? Hell, are Bo and Ingrid good guys or bad guys? Is this one of those crime/caper flicks born from the era where you rooted for the thief, like Charley Varrick or The Getaway, or does director Pallardy fail to understand characterization? No justification is ever offered for why Bo and Inrid have chosen this line of work, but White Fire definitely wants us to sympathize with them regardless of how they ended up there.

Now, about that incest…


At some point during the movie’s making, Pallardy made the baffling choice to portray his two heroic siblings as being closer than normality allows. Adult Bo seems…a little too preoccupied with his sister. Mainly, her beauty. Mainly, her naked beauty after she climbs out of the pool following a skinny dip session, at which point he rips away her towel to get a glimpse of her fine flesh. “You’re not anybody’s kid sister anymore,” he says, his eyes trained on her naked form. “You know, it’s a pity you’re my sister,” he adds.

And boy, it’s weird.

Really, that’s just the beginning – merely a single instance that, if you wanted to, could be dismissed as one of those unfortunate translation hiccups that happens every so often in European/American co-productions (similar to how Liam Neeson’s Brian Mills seems overly possessive of his daughter in the first Taken, with his dialogue at times more appropriate for an eager young lover than his own progeny). On paper, there’s nothing “wrong” with this. American culture has always been more buttoned up than our European counterparts, right down to how we interact with our own families. They kiss their relations on the mouth; we don’t. Third generations see their grandparents with regularity and even live with them in greater numbers; we don’t. And, I guess, they leer at their naked sister and opine about how the only thing keeping their libido in check is their DNA; we…definitely don’t. (Insert typical redneck joke here.) Just the fact that most European statues and artwork portray naked subjects and ours have on thirty layers of stuffy clothing tells you everything you need to know about the difference in our cultures.


Because of how truly insane White Fire ends up getting, I don’t know if it’s a spoiler to tell you that Ingrid is attacked and killed by the flick’s requisite bad guy (well, gal) during the first act, and after Boris’s entire life ends emotionally, Sam does the only responsible thing he knows to do: he chooses a prostitute who looks like Ingrid (Diana Goodman), gets her plastic surgery, and trains her to mimic Bo’s departed sister, eventually – basically – replacing the departed Ingrid with this new model named Olga. Why Sam assumed that Bo’s fragile, compromised mind would be able to handle such a casually cold doppelganger switcheroo is part of what makes White Fire so goddamn fascinating. This isn’t Sam acting as the covert snake in the grass for some shadowy crime group; he’s not some mind-fuck genius like Hannibal Lecter putting the mental whammo on an already delicate target. This was just Sam being Sam because he honestly thought this was an okay and helpful idea; i.e., “Ah, jeeze, Bo’s sister died. I better get him a new one.” In fact, the closest to real, actual human that Sam gets with respect to his plan is that Ingrid had already been immersed in the shady goings-on of these bad guys (you know, the ones who KILLED HER), and they could use Olga, her replacement, by re-inserting her right back into the scheme and none of their progress would be wasted. Sam really wants to get rich! And I’m not postulating here, because he caps off the breakdown of his weirdo plan to Bo by saying, “We’d be rich!” Oh sure, Sam wants Bo to get over his pain, but he also wants them out of the smuggling game for good, and the fabled white diamond could be their ticket to retirement. It all hinges on Sam’s well assembled scheme (and I’ll paraphrase to make a point):

Bo: “The bad guys definitely shot a nail into Ingrid’s brain and she’s dead.”

Sam: “Let’s go for it anyway.”

So, are Sam and Bo calling the bad guys’ bluff, or do they think some other unrelated group of bad guys are the ones responsible for Ingrid’s death so it wouldn’t be weird when she came back from the dead? And, to sound as callous as Sam for a moment, why the hell do they need Ingrid or Olga at all? Are they incapable of working directly with the bad guys to offload their cache of stolen diamonds? White Fire, in its ongoing theme, never makes that clear.


At first, Bo is understandably dismissive of this plan – and not because Sam, his longtime father figure, could be so uncaring, but because his plan relies on a lazy sleight of hand no one would ever possibly believe: the bad guys would see the newly transformed Olga, believe her to be Ingrid, and think, “Huh…I guess she survived getting her brain shot with a nail…and also forgot about that time we shot her brain with a nail.” Piss off with that emotional turmoil: logistics – this is where Bo’s main focus lies. And he’s not wrong.

Things only get worse once the scheme is underway and Bo starts treating his replacement sister pretty poorly – again, not because he’s still mourning over Ingrid’s death and how dare this impostor think she could replace her, but more because Olga initially fails to know the things that Ingrid knew and do things in the same way that Ingrid used to do them. She is a poor student behind on her studies and he is the teacher who’s had it. During one pivotal moment, Olga loses her cool while trying to be Ingrid and rattles off a sarcastic remark about how she’ll never be as perfect as Bo’s “saintly sister,” leading Bo to slap her very hard in anger. (This is your reminder from me, your host, that we’re still supposed to be rooting for Bo in spite of this – that, at this moment, White Fire, almost offensively, wants us to throw our full emotional support behind the girl-slapping, sister-replacing, sex-pervert diamond thief.) It’s that moment in every romantic dramedy where the main couple, with their own traditions and rituals, break up in a highly dramatic manner, and then later, after one or both of them have met someone new, they see in real time how their replacement lovers fail at being the same person they’re trying to replace. That’s exactly what Bo experiences during the second act of White Fire, only this time, the former lover he’s trying to replace is his sister, and yep, we’re still in increasingly weirder and weirder territory, but things, somehow, get weirder still – and much, much cringier.


When Olga returns from her successful plastic surgery (which also sees the return of Belinda Mayne), Bo falls in love with her immediately. “I love you, Ingrid,” he says, holding her tightly…and Olga is totally fine with this – totally fine with throwing away her entire identity and serving as understudy to a dead girl she’s never met with whom her own brother seems to be in love. Moments later, Bo and Olga are on a boat where she is straddling him. He slowly undoes the straps on the front of her dress and caresses her bare breasts…as flashback scenes of an underage Ingrid play in his mind. (Sam’s just a few feet away in the hull during all this, by the way.) Whether Bo is being intentionally portrayed as someone finally able to embrace the realization that he’s in love with his dead sister, or through necessary movie machinations lacking those deeper implications that exist simply to drive the narrative forward, White Fire never specifically clarifies. (In real life, director Pallardy has been angrily dismissive of the incest theory, trying to pass off this conspiracy as puritanical Americanism, even pointing the finger at those who believe such a thing and insinuating maybe they’re the ones with sexual hang-ups. Granted, it’s ingrained in our culture to be weary of open sexuality, even though we use it to sell everything – from gigantic hoagies to kids’ clothesbut I’d like to think we’re on the ball enough to know what incest looks like.)

Weirder still, this new love isn’t presented as a conflict. This isn’t some kind of psychological malady on which Sam looks back and which forces him to realize he’s made a terrible decision in setting this whole thing in motion. This isn’t a moment where parables about accepting death come into play and shape the rest of the movie, leading Bo to realize there is no replacing a lost love, plutonic or otherwise. If White Fire is successful, then the audience will want this to happen because Bo deserves to be happy, and the romance that blossoms between him and Olga is meant to mirror that kind of surface-level, happy-ending love as depicted in most superficial romances. White Fire doesn’t want its audience to feel conflicted, and it doesn’t want them to think, “Oh, Bo, no! Don’t go down this road!” White Fire wants its audience, instead, to sigh wistfully and say, “Ah…good for them. They deserve love.”


If you think this is White Fire’s sole example of total insanity and reckless incompetence, you’re horribly wrong. All of White Fire is made with this kind of delusion where the siblings’ love isn’t nuts, or the good guys’ Ingrid/Olga-swapping plan isn’t absurd, or the bad guys’ schemes and double-crosses are totally clear, or the lead evil femme isn’t hilariously dubbed and very poorly portrayed, or the sought-after white diamond isn’t a totally useless subplot (considering it explodes at the end for absolutely no reason). Fred Williamson’s Noah eventually shows up as a kind of third-party complication looking for Olga, and he spends so much time in his own subplot that you become convinced White Fire is one of those situations where two unfinished films were edited together as one fully incomprehensible mish-mash. But nope! It was all part of the plan, I guess!

Right around now, you’re probably wondering, “this doesn’t sound like a James Bond rip-off at all.”

Well, strap it on, Moneypenny. The framework for your typical Bond picture is all right there in front of you. Right off the bat, Bo is Bond, and Ingrid/Olga are any number of Bond girls that have perished over the years, leaving Bond to wonder if the superspy world is for him. (In fact, the women in White Fire echo those from the Bond series: really only there to make shit much more complicated for the men, either through emotional sabotage or cloak-and-dagger duplicity, and they are almost entirely disposable.) Sam is “M,” Bond’s handler, mentor, and all-around paternal figure – the one who finds the missions, arranges the plays, sets Bo out into the criminal underworld while he stays behind and reaps the benefits. The diamond mine where the siblings work, only ever called “the organization,” looks less like an industrial mine and more like a post-apocalyptic bad-guy headquarters straight out of John Carpenter’s version of 1997’s New York, containing numerous shady rooms where people are tortured and executed, and where its armed guards have hilariously oversized helmets worn by the likes of Rick Moranis in Spaceballs. You’ve got the international bad guys, the espionage, the double-crosses, the triple-crosses, the sporadic fight scenes, the quippy one-liners. You’ve got the third-party frenemy in Noah, who seems like a bad guy, and possibly is a bad guy, but maybe ends up being a good guy because he helps the “siblings” out of a jam. You’ve got “the mission,” which is stealing the white fire diamond – a diamond so dangerous that it scorches the flesh of anyone who touches it – and you’ve also got what the movie is really about, which is who the hell knows? You guys, there’s a part where a hapless schmuck is tied down to an industrial table saw that inches closer and closer to his balls akin to the infamous laser beam scene from Goldfinger, only this time the poor slob doesn’t make it off the table. And if THAT wasn’t enough, you’ve got the goddamn TITULAR MOVIE’S THEME SONG.


White Fire is a mystery, and for so many reasons, chief among them: where did this movie come from? How is it possible that so many movies, either from the golden era of bad cinema (the ‘80s) like Chopping Mall or Pieces, or from the modern age like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room or James Nguyen’s Birdemic or anything Neil Breen has ever directed, can be celebrated for their turdiness, but meanwhile, something so deliciously stupid as White Fire has gone unwhispered about on street corners like the anti-Candyman? But okay, fine – sometimes movies get lost for a long time and then come roaring back, so we can put that aside and focus on the question that truly matters: WHAT is going ON in this MOVIE? Can anyone tell me? Because I’ve spent three thousand words trying to lay it all out in order and it still doesn’t make a lick of sense. 

White Fire exists in its own world and lives by its own rules, where characters repeat lines of dialogue that should’ve been removed in the editing room, offering the impression that every character has obsessive compulsive disorder. White Fire is the kind of movie where Fred Williamson carries an unlit cigar at all times, even in scenes when he’s shielding himself from gunfire and moments from death (and you just know this was Williamson’s idea: sacrifice a tiny bit more realism in exchange for looking “cool”). White Fire is the kind of movie that depicts a normally icky place like a plastic surgery clinic as a haven for girls to wander around half-naked wearing colored togas like goddesses on Mount Olympus. And oh yeah, White Fire is the kind of movie where the girl-slapping good guy wants to bang his sister but then she gets a nail shot into her brain and dies so he finds a replacement and she gets plastic surgery to look like his dead sister and then he bangs her instead.


Honestly, cataloging and transcribing all of White Fire’s irrationality is an impossible task and I’m doing you a disservice by trying; instead, you need to experience it for yourself, because along with all the crazy, it’s entertaining as hell. It hits the ground running with rampant stupidity and never lets up. From literal chainsaw fights to haphazard car chases to unflinching giallo-like violence, White Fire is non-stop, and if the plot starts to feel like it’s not coalescing in your Bond-proofed brain, don’t give a fuck because it wouldn’t make sense no matter who was looking. If you like cheesy ‘80s action flicks, European curiosities, so-bad-it’s-good trash classics, overly dramatic Italian-style quick-zooms, or another title to watch during your Robert Ginty fan club meetings, White Fire is here to make you say, “Oh, brother – I love you.”

Luckily for you, it’s now available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.

Nov 26, 2019

THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (1974)


To lean on an overused expression, they really don’t make films like The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three anymore. The remake from 1998 with Vincent D’Onofrio, and the other remake from 2009 with Denzel Washington and John Travolta and directed by Tony Scott, proved that with ease. Because the uniqueness of the original is very much a product of the time in which it was made.

As has already been proven, the future has a bad memory. Over time, individuals who were once prominent actors, or filmmakers, slip into the ether. Names like Walter Matthau or Robert Shaw, celebrated during their time, may or may not survive the pop culture purge that’s currently in progress with the generation just below our own. Names like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, who died young, beautiful, and tragically, will always live on, while some of their colleagues will become trivia in board games and movie theater screens just before the ads for Hyundai. For some, those names are already forgotten, but for those who still remember, it might still come as a surprise that Walter Matthau, best remembered for his lifelong friendship and multiple on-screen couplings with Jack Lemmon, did his fair share of roles in the 1970s where he played kind of a badass. Not Schwarzenegger or Stallone levels of badass, mind you, but a different kind of badass. With his roles in The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three, or Charley Varrick, or The Laughing Policeman, the lanky and limber Matthau exuded that 1970s version of a badass without the egocentricity of ridiculous musculature or an array of militaristic weapons. Matthau could be a badass only with a look, or a wry smile, or a perfectly timed cutting remark. His resistance to authority, his disdain for bureaucracy, and his insistence on always getting his man made him a less showy but just as effective “action” hero.

As for the villain (well, the lead villain), Robert Shaw’s menacing, icy, and subtly funny take on Mr. Blue (yep, Tarantino steals from all over) is a perfect foil to Matthau’s Lt. Zachary Garber. He is very much no-nonsense, at times treating the hostages in his subway car with more respect than his fellow heisters (brought to life by the likes of Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, and yes, Earl Hindman, aka Tim Taylor’s neighbor, Wilson, in nine years of Home Improvement). When one uses the term effortlessly cool for actors from this era, the names Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood come to mind, but Robert Shaw out-cooled them all. Perhaps best remembered as Quint from JAWS, followed by his villainous turns in The Sting and From Russia with Love, his untimely death at 51 is one of the worst tragedies to befall the art of cinema, as it robbed us from so many more potentially great roles from the underrated British actor.


Two strong lead actors aside, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three’s greatest strength is its screenplay, based on the novel by John Godey (Johnny Handsome) and adapted by Peter Stone (Charade; 1776). Channeling Die Hard before Die Hard existed, the majority of Matthau and Shaw’s scenes together are shared via radio between the New York City subway operations hub and the taken train car, and despite this, the men manage to show a tremendous rapport, anyway. Helping this is the cracking, sharp-witted dialogue, which comes off as both cinematic and realistic at the same time. Add to that a slice of political incorrectness (it’s true—in previous eras, it was okay to laugh at the things that made us different) and a ground-zero look at how different facets of city culture react to a terrorist event (topical!), and the end result is The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three—one of the only times domestic terrorism was fun.

Director Joseph Sargent (White Lightning; JAWS: The Revenge) matches the thrills with the laughs, presenting an old-fashioned good time with one of the best, ironic, and expertly executed endings of all time. And to forgive another overused expression, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three’s DNA lives, breathes, and bleeds New York – to the point where the city is not just another character but the main character. In fact (move over, Spike Lee), The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three just might be the most New York film ever, from the emphasis on local actors for bit parts, to bigger-than-life New York attitudes, to iconic city geography, and to how ably Sargent captures the city, warts and all. The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three takes place in several not-so-glamorous environments. Much of the film, understandably, is subterranean, spent in gritty and dank locations like malfunctioning train cars or subway tunnels and platforms, but this only adds to the film’s appeal. Having set The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three in any other city would have stripped away its identity, its wryness, and most importantly, its sense of humor.


Much of The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three is dialogue driven, but composer David Shire’s musical score complements the subtler and less bombastic moments outside of scenes of gunplay or car chases. (Shire has amusingly described his earlier attempts at scoring The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three as “bad Lalo Schifrin” and “bad flute jazz.”) Scenes set underground on the subway tunnels or platforms benefit from echo and station ambience, exuding the New Yorkness of New York, and working perfectly alongside Sargent’s intent to make this a New York story.

The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three is a classic of the genre, the sub-genre, or however you want to catalog it. It exists in a simpler time, both historically and cinematically, when all you needed for something to go so wrong was a handful of homegrown men with a plan, and all you needed to right that wrong was someone on the opposite end of the radio to ensure those men never reach the last stop.