Friday, March 4, 2016

99% Kicking Ass: DEATH PROMISE

The disparity between the ultra-wealthy and the poor in this country has never been more apparent than now, unless of course you are actually poor, in which case it’s always been pretty apparent.  The same kind of thing was going on in the 1970’s, but instead of the 99% protesting by milling around aimlessly in large ruly mobs like these days, their blue collar heroes fought against corruption and economic inequality with blood, sweat, and throwing stars.  At least they did in 1977’s no-budget grindhouse firecracker DEATH PROMISE.          
In the seedy slums of New York, a cabal of slimeball landlords are trying every dirty trick in the book to force the tenants of Charlie Roman’s apartment building to move out, including cutting the gas and water, dumping garbage and live rats in the apartments, and attempted arson.  But they are thwarted at every turn by Charlie’s ex-boxer dad rallying the tenants and by Charlie’s sweet karate skills sending the slumlords' goons packing.  Impatient with their low to mid-level evil tactics, the landlords step over the line and kill Charlie’s dad.  Charlie promises to make the slumlords pay with their lives, a death promise, if you will.  With the help of his fight brothers Speedy and Sup Kim, they unleash ridiculously concocted vengeance against the greedy fat cats, leading up to a rooftop showdown with the Landlord Syndicate’s mysterious mastermind.  Will they finally be able to stick it to the man?  That’s not a euphemism, there’s a sword involved.
This movie makes me so, so very happy.  For one thing, it’s called DEATH PROMISE.  It sounds like a fake title, like DEATH BLOW from SEINFELD, but it’s no joke.  Not intentionally, anyway.  Mind you, no one actually says the words “death promise” in the movie, but the theme song sure as hell does.  This alone justifies the movie’s existence.

It is a movie that runs on pure heart, unhindered by lack of budget, script, or recognizable/legitimate actors. Dialogue may not always match the actors’ mouth movements, or even sound like the same person.  Store signs may be hand written on white paper.  Obvious dummies may be thrown from roofs.  This is all part of the charm.  With its theme of social justice (by way of murdering rich people), it has a classic Blaxploitation feel, but emphasizing class over race.  The Landlord Syndicate, as it is actually called in the movie, is a fantastic collection of evil stereotypes.  There’s the banker, the Italian mob guy, the corrupt judge, the drug dealing pimp, and, um, the guy with the beard who I think is in the hotel business or something.  Charlie’s building is the last obstacle to an unspecified real estate venture that will, in the bankers words, “make us all rich men [evil chuckle], I mean richer men.”  The judge whines that the laws today are all twisted to accommodate “those welfare people.”  If any of them had a Snidely Whiplash mustache, there would be copious twirling.  It’s funny that there is no real animosity between the members of the five person syndicate, even with their ethnic differences.  As long as you are rich, greedy, and immoral, it’s all good.

By comparison, the good guys are a lot less flashy.  Charlie is pretty bland for the main character, a standard karate guy out for vengeance.  I do like that he makes an impassioned prayer to God to help him kill these bastards.  I don't think that's a Sunday School approved prayer.  But what he lacks in charisma, he makes up for in fearless wardrobe choices.  Even for the Seventies, it is impressive.  Who wears white denim pants to a street brawl?  This guy does.  He’s the Shaolin Monk of paisley.  

Of course, he’s really only bland compared to his cohort in kung fu, Speedy Leacock, played with low rent Jim Kelly panache by an actor named Speedy Leacock.  If your name is Speedy Leacock, the script changes to accommodate you.  And this is a script with some pretty outstanding names already.  The banker’s name is E. Bartley Aldan, which sounds like either a robber baron or a STAR WARS villain (Grand Moff Aldan would totally work).  In any case, Speedy is one cool motherfucker.  He sports both an afro and cornrows in the movie (though not at the same time).  When he finds Charlie’s dead dad, after Charlie runs from the building in tears, all Speedy says is “aw damn.”  As Charlie trains in the art of killing with Master Ying in the exotic lands of a farm just outside of New York, Speedy plays Shaft and discovers the identity of the slumlord pentaverate.  He spies on them from the middle of the street, just daring a punk to give him shit.  He doesn’t need to go undercover, the brother is overcover.

Not that our heroes really have their work cut out for them, owing to the Syndicate’s exclusive use of utter morons as henchmen.  With the exception of killing Charlie’s dad (which happens off screen), they fail spectacularly at every task they are given.  After dumping a box of rats in the apartment hall (white lab rats covered in soot to give them the city rat look), they pause their quick getaway to gently harass an old guy at the door, giving Charlie the opportunity to beat them up.  When ordered to burn down the apartment building, another set of goons just set fire to cardboard piled up next to a decidedly non-flammable brick wall in the alley.  The mob guy’s henchman is actually tricked into killing his boss.  These are terrible, terrible employees.  No vetting at all.  Even the impressive lead goon, who looks like a skinnier, scuzzier version of Captain Kangaroo, only gets a few rounds with Speedy before being taken out by a sneaker to the throat.

One thing I’ve noticed, no one makes those great Bruce Lee vocalizations when doing martial arts anymore.  This movie is filled with ahwaas and hohies and whahaas.  When Charlie meets Master Ling, with his awesome frosted hair and old man make up, his first lesson is how to make a really ferocious hocking a loogie sound. 

The landlord deaths are pretty imaginative and all unnecessarily intricate.  The Beard guy is punched to death through the window of a moving car after a slow speed chase through a multi-story building composed entirely of basements (don’t question it).  Speedy dresses up like a mailman and gives the pimp a special delivery (a sack full of hungry rats over his head).  Charlie goes after the judge Bond villain style and drips poison down a string into his open mouth while he sleeps.   He handles the poison without gloves, so I really hope he washed his hands well afterwards.  My favorite death, or death reaction, to be specific, is the banker.  When he takes a shuriken to the back of the neck, he screams out “Oh my god!”  Not like a person who just received a mortal wound, but in a completely whiny way, like he just saw his car being towed.  He’s having such a rotten day.  To add to the hassle, after a few more steps, someone pops up and stabs him with a sword.  That scream is even whinier and more put upon.  The movie doesn’t state what day this occurred, but I bet it was a Monday.

The mysterious mastermind behind the whole thing, seen stroking a cat as all masterminds should, turns out to be (SPOILER!) Charlie’s old sensei Shibata.  This comes as a complete surprise, as long as you missed all those times they show him slightly out of focus in the back of the banker’s office, or sitting just inside of the frame as the banker talks on the phone.  Honestly, it could have been any one of the two old Asian characters in the movie.  This leads to the rooftop showdown between Shibata and Charlie, Speedy, and their new pal Sup Kim, who makes “whoosh whoosh” sounds while spinning his nunchucks.  Charlie and Shibata exchange Leone style close up stares as Speedy and Sup Kim look like they are trying to remember their grocery lists.  It’s very cinematic.

DEATH PROMISE is one of those movies that won’t come up in the suggestion list when you start typing it into the search on IMDB.  Or when you finish typing it.  Did you mean DEATH PROOF?  Are you sure?  Its page has no cast pictures, not even a poster thumbnail, despite there being an existing, (incredibly awesome) poster.   It stars a cast of unknowns who went on to be just as unknown.  The director, Robert Warmflash, never made another movie, though continues to have a busy career as a post-production supervisor to this day.   He actually worked on several award winning and respected documentaries like CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS and THE COVE.  That’s fine, some people peak early.  But a lifetime of reputable work cannot outshine the accomplishment of giving the world DEATH PROMISE, a humble story of the little guy sticking it to the man, and then throwing him off a building.

C Chaka

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