Friday, September 23, 2016

It's All In the Name: DEVIL’S EXPRESS

Sure, some movies may have a bigger budget.  Some movies may have better dialog and a lucid script.  Some might have much, much better acting.  Better everything, really.  But do they have an actor named Warhawk Tanzania?  1976’s DEVIL’S EXPRESS does.

The Capsule:
Kung Fu master Luke (Warhawk Tanzania) and his shifty student Rodan (Wilfredo Roldan) go to China for physical and spiritual training.  While Luke is meditating, Rodan gets bored and swipes an amulet from a nearby cursed cave.  The cave turns out to be the tomb of an ancient demon that has been trapped there for over 2000 years.  Now freed, the demon follows Luke and Rodan back to New York City in search of the amulet.  Being a simple country demon, it is not used to life in the big city and takes refuge in the subway.  Meanwhile, Rodan's gang, the Blackjacks, are having a beef with the Chinese Tongs gang.  The police think the mutilated bodies they keep finding in the subway tunnels are related to the gang war, despite the fact that gangs rarely tear people open from the inside out.  Luke tries to de-escalate the gang tension and uncovers the truth of the demon under the streets.  New York’s only hope lies with Luke’s badass skills as he challenges the demon to a Kung Fu battle to the death.  Note: this was the original ending for THE EXORCIST, but they decided to go high brow at the last minute.

Technically speaking, DEVIL’S EXPRESS is a bottom of the barrel Blaxploitation/Kung Fu movie.  It did have a full crew (including 5 screenwriters!), which is more than some of these movies can say, but that didn’t do it any favors.  Dialog fades in and out almost arbitrarily, even though the actors are clearly speaking.  It’s always covered by music, so maybe it was an artistic choice, though it seems more like the audio guy forgot to press record on the sound equipment.  Sometimes the camera can’t keep track of the actors during sudden movements.  The focus puller can be more of a focus guesser.  And while their Kung Fu is strong, their choreography isn’t.  Punches and kicks often come nowhere close to the actors, who react to them all the same.  I guess it’s the thought that counts.  It’s pretty close to DOLEMITE levels of rudimentary filmmaking, but without the charisma of Rudy Ray Moore.  

Instead, it has Warhawk Tanzania.  He might not have the moves of Jim Kelly, the cockiness of Fred Williamson, or the style of Richard Roundtree, but he does have the name Warhawk Tanzania.  A name like that gives you a badass pass for life.  I’m guessing it’s a stage name (I don’t know the Tanzania family personally, so I can’t be sure), but even so, it takes balls to carry that title.  Comparatively, his character’s name of Luke is pretty boring.  Perhaps he feared his role of the smooth talking, demon hunting, cop dissing Kung Fu master would be too over the top awesome for the average moviegoer if he used his real name.  

Unfortunately, he’s not in the movie that much.  He’s there in the beginning and the end, but disappears during the middle (after a weird, wordless montage of him hanging out with his wife or girlfriend and playing stickball with the adoring neighborhood kids).  He does show up for a great “telling off the cops” moment, even if the dialog is kind of odd.  “Look, Jim [note: the character’s name is not Jim], you don’t come on to my turf talking about busting ass.  You got to bring some to get some.”  Um…bring some ass?  How do you respond to that statement?

In Warhawk’s absence, the movie primarily follows his shady pal Rodan and his gang and their tension with the rival Tongs gang.  Thankfully, it’s not really about racial tensions.  The problems all stem from a dice game disagreement/hold-up that Rodan and one of the Tongs were a part of.    Then the Tongs rip off Rodan in a drug deal (see, shady).  After that it’s on.  Full scale gang battles ensue, complete with classic foley effects (each punch sounds like someone hitting a phone book).  Even with the less than convincing fight choreography, there is some decent mayhem on display.  There are rumbles in alleys and basketball courts.  No throwing stars involved, but there are nunchucks, and one of the Blackjacks pulls a full sized katana from his jean jacket.  A gang member spits blood like a fountain.  It’s got so much gang warfare, in fact, that following the success of THE WARRIORS a few years later, it was re-released as GANG WARS.  From what I can tell, it’s exactly the same cut of the film, but the trailer takes out all references to the supernatural or horror.  I imagine anyone going in expecting a straight forward gritty urban tussle left a bit confused.  I don’t think THE WARRIORS opened in China, 200 BC.  

There’s even a little bit of a police procedural rolled in as the cops try to figure out who or what is responsible for all the mangled corpses in the subway tunnels.  In this kind of movie, the cop parts are usually a slog to get through since the cops are either complete morons, or racists, or both.  The detectives in this one are a delight.  Cris is a street-smart veteran and a student of Luke’s dojo.  Sam is a smiling doofus who looks fresh from the country club (he’s shocked that Cris doesn’t play tennis).  Cris’ theory is that the bodies are due to the gang war.  Sam, who has a degree in criminology, thinks it is all due to mutant animals from the sewer.  There is a great scene where they go to a bar in Luke’s neighborhood for information.  Cris goes into the back room to talk with Luke, leaving Sam to order a Coca-Cola with a squeeze of lime from the bar and flash his “hi fellas!” smile.  Everyone stares at him like he’s a honkey from outer space.   You expect terrible things to happen while Cris is away, but when he comes back, everyone in the bar is sitting around captivated by Sam’s hypothesis about monster alligators and giant rats.  He has cut through the racial tension by being a totally oblivious goof ball.

The movie is full of quirky characters like this.  A put upon waitress turns out to be a karate expert and wipes the floor with two belligerent drunks. Speaking of the belligerent drunks, one minute they are trying to kill each other for some unspecified debt, and in the very next scene they are best pals again.  It could be a continuity error (one of countless), but I prefer to think this is just how these guys roll.  This happens every week with them.  Probably the most random thing in the movie is the sudden appearance by German comedic weirdo Brother Theodor.  He’s sort of the less violent Klaus Kinski.  I’m not sure if someone persuaded him to be in the movie or if he just showed up and started doing his thing because he saw a camera.

Then there's the unnamed, vaguely defined demon.  Obviously none of the five writers could agree on the exact nature of this creature, so it changes scene by scene.  In the beginning, it’s something like a mummy.  In order to get to New York, it possesses the body of a Chinese businessman.  You can tell he’s possessed because he stumbles around and has gigantic eyeballs.  The effect is super cheap, just painting big white eyes over the actor’s eyelids.  It’s silly, but surprisingly effective and even creepy when the guy flexes his eyelids.  Mostly silly, though.  When it first senses the amulet, the demon messily tears itself out of its host.   Then it seems to forget about the amulet and just kill random people, including one it lures into the tunnel with a distressed voice that sounds like Siri.  There is a nice scene where a crazy bag lady walks through the subway car loudly complaining to herself and hissing at passengers until the sight of a headless lineman shuts her up.      

It’s actually the Tongs who figure out what is going on once they snatch the amulet from Rodan.  They broker a peace with Luke (after he kicks most of their asses) and take him to their ancient leader, who like all elderly Asian characters in cheap exploitation movies, is a young guy in unconvincing old man makeup.  He actually looks a bit like a hairier version of Lando Calrissian's copilot from RETURN OF THE JEDI.  This unnamed old guy describes the myth of the unnamed demon.  If it can destroy the amulet, it will be unstoppable, free to cause havoc in underground mass transit stations all over the world.  Luke will have to fight the demon and force it back into the amulet (or something like that, he’s vague with the details).  Even though he can’t physically help Luke, the old guy says he will join minds with him.  I think this is just his mystic bullshit way of saying “my thoughts are with you,” while he stays safe in his apartment.  

The Demon V. Warhawk fight is the film’s biggest moment, of course.  There is little doubt who the victor will be once Warhawk shows up wearing form fitting, gold crushed velvet overalls.  The demon should have just crawled into the amulet at the sight of such glory.  Luckily for the audience, the demon evils up and we get our epic Kung Fu against Magic (and editing tricks) finale.  Just as the old man warned, the demon can take the form of people Luke cares about.  This means Luke has to fight against his wife/girlfriend/woman he had sex with in a montage, twin brothers from his Army unit in ‘Nam (totally made up that backstory for two random guys we’ve never seen before), and Rodan.  The old guy failed to mention that the demon can also stop time, become invisible, and throw ghost trains at Luke.  Add all that up with the completely different lighting in each shot and you have the most baffling yet awesome fight sequence ever.  

It is with great sadness that I report this was Warhawk’s last film.  His first film, BLACK FORCE, was released one year prior.  It is reported to be even worse than DEVIL’S EXPRESS, which means I have to see it.  Warhawk Tanzania did put out some ambient/noise recordings on Bandcamp in 2010, though I can’t confirm whether this was the man himself or just some guy who thought Warhawk Tanzania was an incredible name for a band (it is).  He was not, contrary to Rotten Tomatoes, in the 1994 documentary GANG WAR: RUMBLE IN LITTLE ROCK, proving that Rotten Tomatoes is, in fact, worthless.  Barry Rosen turned out to be a terrible director (he only did this one and THE YUM YUM GIRLS, made in the same year), but a fairly successful TV producer.  Some of his work includes such low shelf syndicated series like Highlander, Zorro (which I didn’t know was a thing), and Police Academy (which I really didn’t know was a thing).  He’s still working today on things I’ve never heard of.  

Even though is time in cinema was brief, the world should feel blessed to have witnessed Warhawk Tanzania face kicking a demon while wearing gold velvet overalls.  I certainly do.

Warhawk Chaka

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