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Posts in Category: Cannon Corner

Breakin’ (1984)

Breakin’, released in 1984, was Cannon’s first significant hit. Part of this may have had to do with MGM’s influence as U.S. distributor. They, quite possibly, ponied up a bit more for promotion than the notoriously shoestring Cannon Group could. Or maybe people were just really into break-dancing at the time. Whatever the case, Breakin’ grossed a staggering $39 million domestically on a budget that couldn’t have been higher than $2 million (if it was, something went seriously awry). Compare that to Death Wish II, which netted less than half that amount despite having a bigger star and a built-in audience.

Breakin’ has all the hallmarks of a Golan-Globus production: bad performances, awful sets, bizarre turns of plot, low stakes, occasionally surreal mise-en-scène. Why, then, did I watch all 86 minutes with a goofy smile on my face? I attribute it to the heady combination of breezy badness and the clear sense of fun from the actors. The stars (Lucinda Dickey, Adolfo Quinones, Michael Chambers) were clearly hired for their dancing ability above all, but they’re obviously having a great time making this movie—because they’re not good enough actors to fake that sense of fun and camaraderie.

The story follows the trials and tribulations of Kelly (Dickey), a jazz dancer whose career has stalled because she won’t sleep with the influential people who could put her on top (so to speak). After a dance-class friend coaxes her into driving him to Venice Beach, Kelly witnesses the exuberant break-dancing team of Ozone (Quinones) and Turbo (Chambers). Shortly thereafter, two improbable events change her life: Kelly has a slew of terrible auditions, and the Ozone/Turbo team are trumped by the “Electro-Rockers,” who dare to trump the male-male dance partnership by throwing—gasp!—a girl into the mix. Even though their girl doesn’t do much beyond rhythmically aiming accusatory fingers at Ozone and Turbo, they feel they’ve lost. Kelly decides she’d rather team up with them than continue struggling to make ends meet as a professional jazz dancer.

Christopher McDonald, who’s made a career out of playing snobby pricks, plays Kelly’s agent. He delivers a really nice, surprising performance as a guy who’s dubious yet supportive of Kelly’s choices, and willing to risk his professional career for her and her dance team. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but he plays a genuinely warm, compassionate person. He’s also the only one in the entire cast who can act worth a damn, which lends credibility to the goofy story. His actions pretty much drive the second half: after witnessing a “street” performance by “TKO,” he becomes consumed with getting them a prestigious audition with a bunch of stuffed-shirt professionals.

The plot exists primarily to string together break-dancing sequences. Everything about it is silly and—well, I’d call it melodramatic, but none of the performers (McDonald included) seem to take the generic conflicts seriously enough for there to be any real drama. Oddly, this is beneficial to the film. If any amount of pathos, legitimate conflict, or reality had seeped into this movie, it would have obliterated the overwhelming sense of joy permeating every frame. Absurd moments like Kelly’s audition montage, during which she auditions for one part that calls for a tall blonde (even though the producers are clearly holding a photo depicting her brown hair and short stature) before donning a wig to unsuccessfully audition for another part that calls for a short brunette (even though, again, they’re holding the same photo of her brown hair and short stature), would cause me to quiver with rage in a movie that took itself seriously. Here, it’s just one part of the goofy, grin-inducing package.

Ultimately, nothing matters but the dancing. If you like break-dancing (I don’t), you’ll love this movie. The choreography is great, the dance sequences are well-shot (especially compared to the amateurish blocking during normal scenes), and the soundtrack is annoyingly toe-tapping.

Because break-dancing, Jheri curls, wispy mustaches, and half-shirts have passed out of mainstream popularity, Breakin’ exists mainly as a colorful snapshot of pop culture phenomena lost to the passage of time. The sunny depiction of “street thugs” and dance competitions make it a pleasant, nostalgia-saturated way to pass a couple of hours. Those looking for substance need not apply.

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Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1985)

Sequels are all about raising the stakes, and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo does exactly that. In fact, it’s virtually identical to the first Breakin’, only with a sillier plot and crazier dance sequences. It also retains its predecessor’s sense of pure glee, preventing the movie from feeling like the crass cash-in it actually is.

The story hits all the same beats of the original: Kelly (Lucinda Dickey) struggles as a professional dancer but pines for the days of fun, dancing in the streets with Turbo and Ozone (Adolfo Quinones and Michael Chambers, respectively). Turbo continues to yearn for Kelly’s affections, but his jealousy over her blossoming career inadvertently pushes Kelly away. He wants her to volunteer at a colorful (literally—the building has a paint job you wouldn’t believe) neighborhood community center, Miracles. Unfortunately, a sinister developer (Peter MacLean) wants to tear down Miracles and replace it with a shopping mall. Will the power of break-dancing change the minds of City Council?

Although it mostly treads familiar territory, the screenwriters throw a couple of new peppers into the Breakin’ gumbo: this time around, Ozone develops a crush on an attractive dancer, which gives him more to do than act like a weirdo. Also, Kelly’s wealthy parents (Jo De Winter, John Christy Ewing) are introduced to act as the “haves” to the Turbo/Ozone “have-nots,” splitting Kelly’s loyalties. In a rewrite of a scene from the first film, Turbo and Ozone have dinner at Kelly’s house, and their brash/goofball sensibilities alienate her parents. Needless to say, Kelly rejoins “TKO” in defiance of her snooty parents.

In perhaps this sequel’s most interesting development, it introduces a little bit of darkness around the sunny edges of the Breakin’ universe: the film contains numerous disparaging references to street youths as either drug dealers or drug addicts, and Kelly’s parents raise legitimate (unanswered) questions as to how the seemingly unemployed Turbo manages to afford such stylish clothes.

Overall, Breakin’ 2 is about the joy of dance. This time around, the dance sequences are more elaborate and densely populated with rhythmic extras. They range from exuberant (dancing through the streets to protest the closing of Miracles) to surreal (Ozone dancing on the walls and ceiling of a rotating room either borrowed from A Nightmare on Elm Street or Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling” video) to creepy as hell (Ozone and Turbo fighting over a female dummy they both “see” as their respective love interests—it’s a well-choreographed, deftly edited sequence that is nevertheless a little disturbing). The dance numbers reach their silliness apex when an energetic dance sequence breaks out among handicapped patients in a hospital ward, complete with “sexy nurses” (straight out of a 976 ad) and surgeons popping and locking shortly after losing a patient (who quickly returns to life and starts dancing himself).

As a dance film, it never lacks for imagination. As a story, it’s goofy and predictable. As a viewing experience, it’s a hell of a lot of fun—more fun, even, than the first one. Even people who dislike break-dancing (like me) will derive at least some pleasure from the sense of offbeat fun contained within Breakin’ 2.

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Pirates (1986)

Look at the pedigree: Roman Polanski, disgraced and exiled director of several fantastic films (Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, Tess); Walter Matthau, an actor of such tremendous talent that he still qualifies as underrated despite three Oscar nominations and one win; and Tarak Ben Ammar, whose involvement as producer and/or financier of European films (most notably Life of Brian Franco Zefferelli’s La Traviata) lend him credibility despite his not being a household name.

Cannon brought these people together in a CAA-like package. After years of mockery from critics over their oeuvre—which, to that point, consisted largely of sequels, ultraviolent action movies, and crass attempts to cash in on fads (like breakdancing)—Cannon sought out prestigious yet down-on-their-luck filmmakers and actors to make a better class of film for them. For well-publicized reasons, Polanski hadn’t directed a film since Tess in 1979. After an almost nonstop series of hits during the first half of the ’70s, Matthau starred in an unfortunate string of flops. Cannon pounced, and Pirates happened.

What an ill-conceived mess of a film. Its opening sets a tone of depravity that the rest of the movie gleefully embraces: Captain Red (Matthau), a Cockney pirate with a huge black beard and a surprisingly convincing peg leg, is stuck on a leaky raft with his French manservant, Jean-Baptiste (Cris Campion). Jean-Baptiste fishes off the side of the raft, but all he can catch is a tiny minnow. Red is so hungry, he grabs the minnow and swallows it, even though it’s still on the fishhook, which gets stuck in his throat. Red yanks on the fishing line twice, but the hook remains stuck, so he slices the line with his sword and swallows it. This is played for laughs, but all it made me do was clutch my own throat, somewhat nauseated as my mind tried to simulate what it might feel like to yank on a fishhook caught in my throat. More attempts at laughs follow: not satiated, Red immediately lunges at his servant, attempts to bite him in the ass, and when Jean-Baptiste climbs the mast to get away from him, Red starts to chop it down with his sword, all the while explaining why it would be honorable for Jean-Baptiste to let Red eat him.

The possibility for laughs exist in these bizarre bits of business, but laughter never comes. This long opening scene exists solely to introduce Red as a comically unpleasant, gold-obsessed monster. I give Polanski some credit for never trying to redeem this character’s faults, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed spending time with Red or any other character in this film.

Immediately after this opening scene, Red and Jean-Baptiste sneak onto a Spanish galleon and get caught and forced into slavery. Ostensibly, the plot revolves around Red’s quest to steal a solid-gold Aztec throne from the ship, but the film gets distracted from that storyline with many other swashbuckling clichés: Red leads a mutiny, Jean-Baptiste falls in love with a beautiful aristocrat (Charlotte Lewis), Red attempts to ransom the aristocrat to her father (and when he won’t pay, Red instructs Jean-Baptiste to rape her in front of him), for some reason Red travels to a tropical island where he owes many people money, and so on.

The depravity continues in moments like the extended, graphic scene in which their captor, Don Alfonso (Damien Thomas), forces Red and Jean-Baptiste to eat a raw rat. Also, this movie has roughly as much rape-based humor as Yellowbeard (another awful pirate comedy), which is especially uncomfortable in light of Polanski’s sordid personal life. The humor relies far too much on gross-out gags, but those gags make the Farrelly Brothers look like Frank Capra. The miscalculation is surprising, because although Polanski is not known as a comedy director, he made at least one great one (1967’s The Fearless Vampire Killers) and peppered most of his other films with an undeniable wit. Matthau does his best to mine laughs from the awful material, but he has so little to work with, his performance frequently comes off as desperate. It’s sort of sad to watch.

The movie doesn’t really work as a rollicking pirate adventure, either. Polanski does focus on some of the details of pirate life (such as Red bartering to get a fellow slave to carve him a new peg leg), but overall, it just mines too many clichés and has too little narrative focus to work as either a satisfying homage to classic pirate fare or a cautionary tale tearing down the pirate mythos. Any attempt to understand why the script is so scattershot would require more conjecture than I’m willing to put forth in a review. What matters is the fact that the story simply doesn’t work.

All of this is hugely disappointing in light of how good Pirates looks. The ship, a full-scale recreation (with a modern engine), is gorgeous, and the costumes alone do a great job of separating the disgusting pirate slaves from the well-kept Spaniards. The panoramic cinematography shows off the overall beauty of the sea and scenery (filmed in Malta and Tunisia). If nothing else, production designer Pierre Guffroy, costumer Anthony Powell, and cinematographer Witold Sobocinski should be commended. They managed to make a horrible movie look better than it should, and better than most cheap Cannon fodder. They’re the sole reason this movie didn’t get a shameful zero-star rating.

Pirates is a terrible film, lacking both the goofy charm of typical Cannon films and the high quality one expects from a Polanski film (assuming one hasn’t seen The Tenant or The Ninth Gate). The frustrating combination of incoherent storytelling and epically unfunny comedy obliterate a movie that had a great deal of potential.

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Death Wish II (1982)

The only possible way to enjoy the Death Wish films is to imagine they take place in an alternate universe where the paranoid fever dreams of the elderly have all come true. They’re the relentlessly cynical antidote to Cannon’s Breakin’ films, which paint Los Angeles slums with the sunniest possible brush. However, even the elderly’s paranoia can go too far, which is why Death Wish 2 feels like an exercise in depravity rather than a satisfying revenge thriller.

It opens with some laughably over-the-top thugs (one of them played by Laurence Fishburne) harassing Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson), who’s out on the Santa Monica pier with his daughter (Robin Sherwood). As you might recall from the original, non-Cannon Death Wish, Carol Kersey (played by Kathleen Tolan in that film) had the misfortune of watching New York hoodlums rape and murder her mother before raping her. It left her near-catatonic, and as Death Wish 2 opens, she’s still mute but is well enough to get released from the mental hospital into Paul’s care.

The thugs steal Paul’s wallet, and he lets it go because he’s just trying to show Carol a good time. See, in Death Wish 2, writer David Engelbach and director Michael Winner still want to have Paul balance a normal life with insane vigilante justice. He’s back to playing the mild-mannered architect, in love with radio journalist Geri Nichols (Bronson’s real-life wife Jill Ireland) and desperate to ensure his daughter’s safety. Letting the thugs steal his wallet is not the way to ensure her safety, because the thugs immediately descend on Paul’s apartment. Director Michael Winner leers eerily as the thugs take turns brutally raping Paul’s maid (Silvana Gallardo). When Paul and Carol interrupt them, they kidnap her and take her to an abandoned warehouse, where they giggle like 12-year-olds as they fondle her breasts, then rape her. The reenactment of her earlier trauma causes Carol to jump out a window, impaling herself on a wrought-iron fence.

Distraught for obvious reasons, Paul takes matters into his own hands. He rents a room in a flophouse and stakes out the Hollywood slums, slowly but surely taking out the thugs who killed his daughter. Desperate to solve the slew of vigilante killings, an LAPD detective (Ben Frank) calls in Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia), the NYPD detective who “solved” the vigilante killings in the first film. Ochoa fingers Paul Kersey, going so far as to break into Geri’s apartment to explain that Paul is a merciless vigilante. One of the few joys of the film is watching Charles Bronson attempt to talk his way out of hot water with Geri.

Despite the film’s problems, at this point Bronson still tried to make Paul Kersey into an actual character rather than a cartoonish superhero. As in the first one, he gives an impressively balanced performance. He plays Paul as a thoughtful, quiet man who feels more righteous indignation than bloodlust and wants desperately to keep Geri out of the mess he’s secretly creating on a gang-choked stretch of Hollywood Boulevard. This performance alone very nearly tempers the over-the-top depiction of criminals and violence, but the numerous rape sequences are just too salacious.

Much of the film is an orgy of graphic violence and gratuitous (and rather unpleasant, considering the endless amount of rape featured throughout the film) nudity. Watching Paul track and kill the thugs is mildly satisfying, but the whole movie is bound to leave any moviegoer with a shred of decency feeling vaguely ill. Add to that the typically shoddy Cannon production values, and the whole thing comes off like an over-the-top snuff film.

Despite the film’s unseemly content, Death Wish 2 was a huge hit for Cannon and Bronson, garnering a staggering $45 million at the box-office and spawning three more Cannon-produced sequels. How will those stack up to part two? I’ll be taking a look at each sequel during the month of November, so you’ll find out soon enough.

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Death Wish 3 (1985)

Death Wish 3 might be the most insane, spectacular action film ever made. The film trims the “fat” of the first two (such as Paul Kersey’s attempts to balance a normal life with frequent vigilante killings) and amps up the film’s universe to a degree so over-the-top, not even John Waters would be bold enough to go there. The result is a gloriously violent, laughably absurd, but undeniably entertaining masterpiece of action filmmaking. Yes, it’s stupid and silly and cheesy and inconceivable, but for its chosen genre, it’s one of the high water marks.

The film opens with Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) returning to New York City for the first time after taking his vigilante act on the road. He wants to visit a friend—a Vietnam vet who lives in a slum so violent, it’s beyond any mere mortal’s imagination—but when he arrives at the apartment, he finds the man has been brutally murdered by one of the numerous hoodlums overrunning the streets. Inconveniently, Paul arrives just as the police show up. They arrest him for the murder and drag him to the station.

Shriker (Ed Lauter, who previously costarred with Bronson in Death Hunt), who heads the “NYCPD” drug task force, recognizes Paul from his exploits in New York a decade ago. He offers a deal to Paul: he’ll put him on the streets to reduce the number of hoodlums, and in exchange Paul will be untouchable by police. Paul initially refuses, but when he’s harassed in lockup by Fraker (Gavan O’Herlihy), the Opie-esque leader of a gang whose fashion sense and painted faces make them look like they recently left Thunderdome, Paul changes his mind. He wants to take down Fraker and his gang.

Both Paul and Fraker are let loose on the streets. Paul returns to his friend’s tenement building, which is occupied by the nicest bunch of people you could possibly imagine—an elderly Jewish couple who mind their own business, a young Latino couple just starting out, and a swingin’ single named Bennett (Martin Balsam), who schools Paul on the way the neighborhood works. From there, it’s a high-stakes battle between Paul’s high-powered revolver and the increasing insanity of Fraker’s coked-up antics. This culminates in an epic 20-minute street battle that rivals Saving Private Ryan in raw violence and chaos. I’m not being hyperbolic at all—it obviously lacks Saving Private Ryan‘s depth and meaning, but it is equally as intense and frenetic.

This movie is a mind-boggling joy to watch. Winner shifts the tone from the first film’s gritty sense of realism to the outsized realm of a living cartoon. It’s impossible to do it justice in words, so here’s a brief clip that says it all:

This is the world of Death Wish 3 in a nutshell: maniacal gangsters, impotent policemen, and benevolent Paul Kersey becoming the hero of the day simply by taking action.

Taking his cues from a screenplay so insane that writer Don Jakoby removed his name from the final film, Winner creates this seemingly apocalyptic world through a combination of budget-conscious choices: Filming in weed-choked, bombed-out sections of London to substitute for New York; covering the thugs in war paint to distract from the ratty, thrift-store clothing; and finding a group of “good” characters so polite and noble, nobody in the audience could possibly root against them.

Almost like science fiction, Death Wish 3 has only the tiniest possible footing in the real world. The film manages to succeed for two reasons. First, the goofy insanity of this world is consistent in its presentation—it doesn’t shift from gritty and real to raucous and over-the-top. Second, and most importantly, Paul Kersey still shines as a beacon of believability in the midst of the mayhem. Not because the sight of a well-built man in his mid-60s firing a gatling gun into a city street is in any way believable—because Bronson still plays him as a wounded man driven to his breaking point by what he’s experienced in his life. His anger and disgust is palpable and relatable, even if the things that anger and disgust him are jaw-droppingly farfetched. It’s also a nice touch that the other residents of the decaying apartment building join Paul in his stand against Fraker’s gang.

This film’s not for everyone, obviously. If you enter the world of Death Wish 3, you probably know what you’re getting into. The good news is that the film delivers beyond any viewer’s wildest expectations. This is why it received the coveted four-star rating. For what the movie wants to achieve—a chaotic, over-the-top action film—it surpasses any other example of the genre, including the other four films in the Death Wish series. As an avid fan of ridiculous action movies, I can guarantee you that you’ll never see anything else like it. Ever.

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Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987)

Left with no way to top the inspired lunacy of Death Wish 3, the Cannon Group decided to shake up the formula with the fourth entry. Gone is the pattern of Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) getting exposed to some sort of personal tragedy that leads to him surveying the creep-infested streets of an urban blight zone and then killing everyone in his sight. Instead, Death Wish 4: The Crackdown unspools more like a Grand Theft Auto game than a traditional Death Wish film, driven by imaginative action set-piece vignettes that build to a moderately compelling overall story.

Paul Kersey has returned to Los Angeles, rebuilt his architecture firm, and started dating a journalist, Karen (Kay Lenz). Within the first few minutes of the film, Karen’s daughter (Dana Barron, the original Audrey from National Lampoon’s Vacation) has overdosed on cocaine and lies comatose in a hospital bed. Karen becomes obsessed with pursuing the cocaine epidemic as a news story, against the wishes of her disinterested editor. However, Hearst-like publishing magnate Nathan White (John P. Ryan of It’s Alive, whose late-period career involved an embarrassing number of Cannon productions) has a similar personal investment in “cracking down” on cocaine. He knows who Paul Kersey really is, and they make an arrangement: Nathan will provide the pertinent details of all the top players in the coke trade, and Paul will take action.

Once the stage has been set, the film moves from one sequence to another, with Nathan narrating the pertinent details and Paul taking out the trash. In these scenes, director J. Lee Thompson (who took over for Michael Winner as a result of Bronson’s disgust with Winner’s handling of Death Wish 3) manages to return to the first film’s suspense-thriller roots, putting Paul in actual jeopardy and finding clever ways to get him out of each situation. As the body count increases, Detectives Reiner and Nozaki (George Dickerson and Soon-Tek Oh, respectively) target Paul as a possible vigilante.

This film adds another component lacking in the previous sequels: guilt. It opens with an absurd sequence that only becomes marginally less silly when we learn Paul’s having a nightmare. I’ve captured it in the video clip below:

Warning: In keeping with Death Wish traditions, this scene includes some particularly harrowing violence against a woman. Sensitive viewers should steer clear. Fans of BMW might also want to steer clear, as this scene features possibly the worst product placement for their fine automobiles in the history of cinema.

Two key moments occur in this shoddily edited sequence. The first: A thug barks, “Who the fuck are you?” “Death,” Paul Kersey answers before shooting them all. The second: Paul flips over his final victim to reveal his face, and the face he sees is his own.

It’s a moment unlike anything else found in the Death Wish series and hints that, perhaps, Paul doesn’t feel he’s any better than the men he kills. Although the nightmare is never mentioned again, the scene seems to inform Bronson’s performance. He’s lost the moral righteousness of the first three films and operates with a bit more thoughtfulness. This ties quite effectively into the film’s idea of taking on major players instead of street thugs. In place of the mesh half-shirts, painted faces, and inverted mohawks, Death Wish 4 introduces a world of tuxedos, ballet tickets, and lavish garden parties. Like The Wire (yes, I am about to compare Death Wish 4: The Crackdown to The Wire), Paul has finally learned that the only way to have a real effect is to cut off the head of the snake, not the tail.

The action sequences have more variety than in the previous films. Paul actually employs disguises (something he hasn’t done since the second film) to infiltrate the cocaine ring, posing as waiters and forklift drivers to gain access to the inner circle. After attacking a video store (its walls adorned with posters of other Cannon films, making it an underfunded independent store that will undoubtedly be swallowed up by Blockbuster within months) that sells cocaine out of its back room, Paul sneaks into a posh party hosted by wealthy gangster Ed Zacharias (Perry Lopez). He finds creative ways to kill Zacharias’s security force, fakes a meeting between two rival gangs, and starts a war between the two of them. He even uncovers crooked cops on Zacharias’s payroll.

Although not quite as good as the first film or as mind-boggling as the third, Death Wish 4: The Crackdown is a solid action film that does a nice job of putting a fresh spin on both the franchise and Paul’s character. Any gamers out there will be impressed to learn that the very basic structure implemented in the Grand Theft Auto games and their knockoffs (stick characters on wildly varied, action-packed missions prefaced only by a brief explanation of who the target is, how they fit into the overall story, and why they need to die) can succeed as a film.

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Death Wish V: The Face of Death (1994)

By 1988, the Cannon Group’s shady financial dealings led them to the verge of bankruptcy. Partners Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus split up when Pathé Communications (not the storied French studio; yet another shady distributor owned by Italian financier Giancarlo Parretti, who was hellbent on buying the real Pathé) bought the struggling company, more to have access to their back catalog and lucrative MGM distribution deal than to produce new films under the Cannon name. After he failed to buy Pathé, Parretti set his sights on MGM, which he purchased in 1990 and ran into bankruptcy by 1991. (Allegedly, his reign at MGM inspired Get Shorty.) Globus stayed with Pathé, while Golan launched the 21st Century Film Corporation. One could argue that Death Wish 5: The Face of Death does not technically fall under the Cannon umbrella, but I can’t agree with that. Cannon had Death Wish 5 in development as early as 1988, so the fact that it didn’t get made until 1994—by a company founded by Golan—means that it’s Cannon to me.

Easily the worst film in the series, and such a disappointing note to end on, Death Wish 5: The Face of Death finds Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) in a New York City that looks conspicuously like Toronto. He’s entered the witness protection program, a believable necessity after taking down well-connected mobsters in The Crackdown, and teaches architecture at an unnamed university. He lives with Olivia Regent (Lesley-Anne Down), a prominent fashion designer. The fashion angle allows the film to both pander to the fashion craze of the early ’90s (seriously, in the early ’90s even I knew far too much about fashion, partly because I had a sister and partly because it had so much mainstream popularity, you couldn’t escape it) and allow for the sleaziest sort of gratuitous nudity. Unnecessary glamor shots of breasts, butts, torsos, legs (but, conspicuously, no faces) flood the first half hour of Death Wish 5 like an erotic sensory assault.

It’s a seemingly perfect life for Paul. He lives in a nice-looking house (I like to imagine he designed it himself), has an intelligent and attractive girlfriend, and gets to care for an adorable moppet (Erica Lancaster). It’s almost like he rebuilt the life destroyed in the first Death Wish film.

But all is not right in the garment district. Olivia’s ex-husband, Tommy O’Shea (Michael Parks), is a comically vindictive mobster with a stranglehold over the entire New York fashion infrastructure. He uses the legitimate businesses to launder money, but he’s hit hard times. People aren’t buying enough clothes to justify the enormous sums of money flowing out of the businesses. Tommy solves the problem by tossing clothes into a vat of acid, which I have to imagine is somehow symbolic of Cannon’s late-’80s business model.

Upon finding out about Tommy, Paul calls his old friend, district attorney Tony Hoyle (Saul Rubinek), who wants Olivia to testify. She agrees on the same night Paul proposes marriage, so it’s no surprise that she’ll end up dead before the movie’s over. First, “Flakes” (Robert Joy), a dandruff-plagued assassin, puts on a female disguise so he can catch Olivia in the bathroom and bash her face into a mirror repeatedly, permanently disfiguring her. It’s soon revealed that Tommy has dual motives for wanting Olivia dead—in addition to preventing her from testifying, he wants his daughter back.

If you think Paul’s going to give her up without a fight, you haven’t read any of my previous Death Wish reviews.

Death Wish 5 keeps the stakes frustratingly low and, with the exception of “Flakes,” entirely free of the imagination that made the other films so entertaining. Paul finds himself up against a handful of ineffectual, nonthreatening goons, all of whom he dispatches with dismaying apathy. In all of the previous films, Bronson (sometimes single-handedly) made the films work by never forgetting Paul is as wounded and vulnerable as he is angry and intelligent. Here, Bronson’s apparent disinterest in the film (allegedly, he demanded a higher salary than usual in the hopes that they wouldn’t make the film; his gamble paid off financially but not creatively) carries over to Paul, which is a huge detriment.

The film also takes a big gamble on the misguided notion that Michael Parks is a frightening heavy. Parks, whose career has been reinvigorated thanks to an association with Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, has been decent enough in other films but is simply terrible here. Not for a second does he sell the idea that Tommy O’Shea is either smart enough or ruthless enough to run a successful organized crime syndicate. Believing in that one simple fact is the key to making the story work.

In fact, the only two actors who seem interested in giving good performances are Saul Rubinek and Miguel Sandoval. As a crooked cop, Sandoval plays the character with an eerie mixture of kindness and violence that makes him much more intimidating than anyone else on Tommy O’Shea’s payroll. As the district attorney, Rubinek’s “special appearance” has the dubious honor of representing the failed justice system. There’s a moment, late in the film, when he realizes the corruption and ineffectiveness endemic in the system that he has a hand in running. By playing it as if his entire world has shattered around him, Rubinek single-handedly creates the only part of the film that has any resemblance to the off-kilter tone of the previous Death Wish movies. It’s simultaneously heartbreaking and silly, which is exactly what the moment should be.

Overall, though, the film is terrible: Exploitation at its worst, without the charming strangeness and over-the-top violence of the other films. It’s an incredibly depressing note to end on, so much so that I wish Golan had continued with his plans to make Death Wish 6: The New Vigilante, in order to redeem the series. However, it’s just as easy to pretend Death Wish 5 doesn’t exist, in the same way Bronson wanted to pretend the misunderstood masterpiece Death Wish 3 didn’t exist.

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The Delta Force (1986)

The Delta Force opens with a poorly staged, poorly edited sequence inspired by the real Delta Force’s failed 1980 mission to rescue the American hostages in Iran. I figured I’d be in for a silly, entertaining ride on par with Death Wish 3. A funny thing happened, though: The movie started to get good. Like, legitimately good, not just fun or mindlessly entertaining. In fact, if not for all that distracting crap with Chuck Norris, this could have been a very suspenseful successor to the Airport franchise.

Loosely based on the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847, the film feels very much like an Airport film. It introduces a wide range of characters (featuring, in typical Airport fashion, a who’s-who of washed-up actors including Martin Balsam, Joey Bishop, Shelley Winters, Lainie Kazan, and perennial favorite George Kennedy), relationships, and foibles, before thrusting them all on a New York-bound commercial airliner hijacked by two Lebanese terrorists (Robert Forster, David Menachem) protesting the existence of Israel. The strangest and most impressive thing about the film is the relative balance between heroes and villains. Instead of the rah-rah jingoism I expected, director/producer/co-writer Menahem Golan (himself an Israeli) allows the Delta Force to do some bad things and allows the terrorists to do some good things. It’s not quite as black-and-white as typical Cannon fare.

Norris stars as Major Scott McCoy, who retired in disgust after the botched 1980 mission. When he hears about the hijacking, he brings himself out of retirement and spends much of the movie shooting Arabs and blowing up buildings. Ostensibly, The Delta Force is an action movie, but it excels in the scenes between the terrorists and hostages. Instead of those scenes feeling like a relief from nonstop action, the action feels more like a needless distraction designed to put asses in seats to watch the film Golan really wanted to make—an atypically nuanced portrait of U.S. foreign policy, using the planeload of hostages as a microcosm for western society.

However, it’s the rare film that can have its cake and eat it, too. As the first half (which focuses primarily on the hostages) gives way to the second (which focuses on the rescue), the film has successfully made its hostages into resonant characters we actually want to see rescued. It’s my own opinion that Norris has always been a lesser action star—a blank slate who lacks the built-in persona of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, or even Van Damme—which may explain why I didn’t care so much about his one-man-army antics and only really enjoyed him when his superior officer (Lee Marvin, in his final film role) verbally abused him for ignoring his team. However, The Delta Force gives Norris a few moments to shed his stoic, expressionless persona and actually act, however briefly. He pulls it off, which makes me hope the other Norris films I’ll cover this month will ultimately lead to me changing my mind about him. If he ever fights a bear, I know I’ll change my mind.

Overall, The Delta Force is a solid thriller only marred, ironically, by its emphasis on big explosions and gunfights. Less of that, and maybe this would have been a great film instead of merely a good one. Then again, more of it, and it may have ended up as a gloriously absurd, comically misguided action film on par with most of Cannon’s releases. Either way, it could have been better than what it is, but it’s still pretty good.

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Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection (1990)

Cota killed her husband in front of her, then he killed her sick baby and used the baby’s corpse to smuggle cocaine, and then he raped her.—General Taylor (John P. Ryan)

Yes, the Cannon Group is back in all its silly glory. After last week’s viewing of the surprisingly good The Delta Force, which may be as close as Menahem Golan ever got to a real passion project, it’s time for the absurd cash-in of a sequel: Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection, alternately known as Delta Force 2: Operation Stranglehold, even though neither title makes sense in the context of the film (it takes place in San Carlos, a fictional South American country; neither “Colombia” nor “Operation Stranglehold” are ever mentioned in the film).

Despite tossing the word “connection” into the title, the film has no connection to the first film aside from its main character, Scott McCoy (Chuck Norris). Whereas the first film bordered on realistic with its sweaty, suspenseful depiction of a skyjacking and its gritty, unpleasant Israel locations, the sequel takes place in the over-the-top world of James Bond villains who live in palatial estates and build gas chambers into their conference rooms, so they can watch prisoners choke to death on gas through a thick pane of glass.

Billy Drago plays the villain, drug kingpin Ramón Cota, as a drugged-out, vaguely effeminate fop who shares a spiritual kinship with Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. As a villain, he’s too silly to instill the fear or hatred director Aaron Norris desires, which might be why the script piles on an unending number of reasons to hate him. From the quote that opened this review to the sniveling smile he wears throughout the farce of a trial that opens the film, Cota is supposed to be the baddest of all asses. I had a very hard time taking him seriously, which is the film’s most infuriating problem. His partner in crime, General Olmedo, is played by the always-reliable Mark Margolis (Breaking Bad fans will know him as Tuco’s bell-ringing invalid Tio). Margolis is one of those actors who can instill terror without much more than a sidelong glance. He’s infinitely more effective as a villain but chronically underused here.

The plot is about as simple as you’d expect: General Taylor (John P. Ryan, in a scenery-chewing performance in which he channels a goofier version of George C. Scott’s Patton—so, in other words, Scott’s Buck Turgidson) sends McCoy and his partner, Bobby Chavez (Paul Perri), to San Carlos to capture Cota so he can stand trial for drug crimes in the United States. He’s released on a $10 million bail, which the movie portrays as an obscene miscarriage of justice (while ignoring the fact that it’s a violation of international law to retrieve a criminal in a country with no extradition treaty to stand trial for crimes he technically oversaw on foreign soil, never personally committing a crime in the U.S.). Cota quickly pays the bail and returns to San Carlos, but not before he and some men gun down Chavez’s pregnant wife and teen basketball star son.

Enraged, Chavez takes an unauthorized solo trip to San Carlos to take down Cota. He fails spectacularly, ending up in Cota’s conference room gas chamber, choking to death on acrid gas while Cota’s apparent board of directors chuckle gleefully. Needless to say, now that it’s personal for the guy we’re supposed to care about, McCoy finally springs into action. An endless, slow-motion training montage in which McCoy performs martial-arts moves on a team of men (who seem to get nothing out of it beyond learning how to take a punch) precedes McCoy’s trip to San Carlos. He sneaks into the so-called “Green Zone” and meets up with his contact, Quiquina (Begonia Plaza). Cota turned her into his sex slave after killing her husband and sick baby, so she’s obviously pretty eager to join forces with people who want to take Cota down. Her role in the movie is marginal, however. Once McCoy gets into Cota’s compound, it’s pretty much a hour-long orgy of gunfights, explosions, martial-arts fisticuffs, and a bizarre sequence in which McCoy and Cota are tossed about through the jungle while suspended in harnesses attached to General Taylor’s helicopter.

Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection delivers on two enjoyable fronts: stupidity and fun. However, it never reaches the transcendent, surreal joy of a film like Death Wish 3, owing in large part to Norris’s direction. Most Cannon films suffer from poor staging and sloppy filmmaking. I can and often do forgive that, because that’s usually part of the charm of the films. The problem here is Norris’s tendency to linger for far too long on moments that are not as enthralling as he seems to think. The aforementioned training montage, the harnesses, McCoy’s bizarre skydiving antics (which are not nearly as impressive as the following year’s Point Break—if that film was 100% pure adrenaline, this one is 80% adrenaline cut with baby laxative), and use of slow-motion that even Zack Snyder would consider excessive. Pretty much every sequence would be fine if it were half as long.

Compounding this problem is Drago’s performance, which doesn’t create the ominous threat it should. Even the crassest action-star vehicle makes some attempt to keep the stakes high for its hero, usually by depicting an increasingly threatening, increasingly insane villain. In contrast, Cota seems weaker and weaker as the film goes on. Maybe that was Norris’s intent, but it falls flat dramatically. The only satisfying moment involving Cota is when Quiquina goes after him with his own machete. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end well for Quiquina, and by extension doesn’t end well for the audience.

Overall, Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection is a deeply flawed film that contains a few decent moments but mostly falls flat. You won’t miss anything by skipping it, but it does have a few highlights: assassins dressed as clowns shooting up a van full of DEA agents during Rio De Janeiro’s Carnival, and the following clip, which features what might be my favorite line delivery in any film, ever:

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Missing in Action (1984)

Missing in Action opens with a sequence somewhat reminiscent of Apocalypse Now. “I’m still only in Saigon.” Well, Braddock (Chuck Norris) can’t believe he’s still in the U.S. When the U.S. Army declared him missing in action (hence the title) and abandoned their search for him and his men, it took Braddock seven years to get home. Now that he’s there, he’s sickened by the apparent diplomacy between American political and military officials and the propped-up dictator (James Hong) who brokered peace between the U.S. and Vietnam.

Since returning to freedom not long ago, Braddock spends most of his time in hot, filthy transient hotels, reliving the nightmare of his jungle incarceration. The combination of Norris’s brooding intensity and Jay Chattaway’s minimalist, Moog-based score (think Midnight Express, because that’s probably what he was borrowing from) bring startling emotion to an otherwise stereotypical one-man army action hero. Unlike the strikingly similar Rambo: First Blood Part II, Braddock’s single-minded obsession with rescuing his fellow prisoners—long after the government has written them off and ended the “war”—makes sense in light of the pain and rage on display in the film’s first few minutes.

There’s not much to the rest of the film. After initially refusing to take part in a publicity photo-op (masquerading as an investigation of soldiers still MIA) in Saigon, Braddock realizes this is his only opportunity to get anywhere close to Vietnam. If he can get close, he can get to Vietnam and rescue his brothers in arms. Real Philippines locations lend stark, sweaty verisimilitude to a fairly schlocky, simplistic plot. Braddock visits shady bars and sleazy brothels, trying to put together the arsenal he’ll need to bust in and take back his men by force. Aiding him in his quest are Tuck (M. Emmett Walsh), an ex-soldier well-connected in the underground, and Ann (Lenore Kasdorf), the sexy diplomat assigned by the embassy to babysit Braddock. Once they assemble the arsenal, Braddock and Tuck head across the pond to Vietnam. From there—well, let’s just say this film reminded me how viscerally and enthusiastically I respond to the sound of machine-gun fire. I spent far too much of my childhood watching movies like Missing in Action, so there’s an odd comfort in the wanton violence dominating the film’s second half. Your mileage may vary.

Despite the film’s simplicity, I find myself on the cusp of recommending it. It lacks the campy appeal of more mindlessly entertaining Cannon fodder, though it contains the typical displays of raw, testosterone-fueled machismo often mischaracterized as homoeroticism (and with good reason—in particular, Braddock’s attempts to wrench a knife from the hands of a potential assassin could easily be mistaken for a completely different act that would have warranted an X rating). Really, it’s a sterling example of how much goodwill an effective opening can have on a film.

So many movies of this ilk open with a botched mission, forcing a redemptive arc for its central character. Missing in Action does, as well, but it takes the time after the explosions and the narrow escape to establish Braddock’s emotional tumult—his guilt over leaving men behind to save himself, the horror of the memories of his imprisonment, and the mind-numbing tedium of returning to a “normal” life. The film handles this very effectively, and as such generates more than enough goodwill to carry it through to the end of an otherwise mediocre action flick. If not for those scenes, my rating would drop by at least a star. Consider that fair warning: If the opening doesn’t resonate with you, chances are the rest of the film will serve as a frustratingly straightforward example of jingoistic action.

Editor’s Note: You might be wondering why the first film in a trilogy has a “Based on characters created by…” credit. Turns out, Missing in Action and its prequel Missing in Action II: The Beginning were shot back-to-back, with the intention that the “prequel” would be the first movie and Missing in Action its sequel. Golan and Globus determined Missing in Action was the better film of the two and released it first. Hence, the “first” film is based on characters created by the writers of the “prequel.”

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