Friday, February 24, 2017

It’s All About Attitude - PREDATOR 2

Compared to the glory days of the Seventies, when African American action stars like Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Richard Roundtree, and Pam Grier ruled the drive-ins, black representation in action movies in the following decades has been depressingly meager.  Things were particularly bleak during the Reagan years, where African Americans playing the lead in studio action films were pretty much limited to Eddie Murphy in the BEVERLY HILLS COP movies and Carl Weathers in ACTION JACKSON.  Great stuff, but not nearly enoughSo it was a pleasant surprise that in 1990 (technically still the ‘80’s if you ask calendar nerds), the sequel to one of the decade’s largest sci-fi action movies starred (and was absolutely dominated) by Danny Glover.  I am speaking of the one and only PREDATOR 2.

The Capsule:
In the near future of 1997, Los Angeles has issues.  Two vicious drug gangs are shooting the city to pieces, and the outmanned and outgunned cops are stuck in the middle.  On top of all that a mysterious third party is kicking ass and taking spines, leaving skinned bodies hanging all over the town.  When one of his team gets butchered by this new hunter, hotheaded Lt. Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover) makes it his mission to put the bastard down.  He’s not the only one looking for the elusive killer.  The Feds, led by Agent Keyes (Gary Busey), have their own special interest in the target, which happens to be a seven foot tall invisible walking scorpion with a laser cannon.  Harrigan will need to push himself to the limit if he wants to keep this predator from turning his skull into a trophy.  

PREDATOR 2 is the perfect franchise sequel.  It takes the basic idea of the original, super tough alien big game hunter poaching gun toting humans, but completely shakes up all the other details.  The isolated jungle setting is replaced by a near future crime ridden cityscape.  There is still an ensemble cast of protagonists, only with about a third of the combined muscle weight.  Instead of a super elite team of mercenaries who can take down an entire guerilla compound, PREDATOR 2 gives us a batch of brave but thoroughly ordinary cops.  The point of the first film was to show that even a team of the best warriors on Earth were completely outclassed by just one of these “ugly motherfuckers”.  The implication here is that these cops, led by the incomparable but somewhat less athletic Danny Glover, are going to be mincemeat.  

Honestly, the cops have a hard enough time surviving even before the alien shows up.  They are regularly caught in the crossfire as the ruling street gangs try to massacre each other.  The projected L.A. of 1997 is the kind of ultraviolent warzone that the conservative law and order types always think civilization is on the brink of dissolving into.  I’m willing to bet that whenever Trump talks about “inner cities”, he is picturing scenes from this movie.  It’s surprising he hasn’t name checked the Jamaican Voodoo Posse in his tweets about “bad dudes” yet.

Allow me a slight aside on the subject of street gang wardrobe.  PREDATOR 2 may be set in 1997, but it is clearly a product of the Eighties.  And the Eighties loved its completely ridiculous looking street gangs.  For some reason it was decided that all gangs during this period were to be modeled after a mix of THE WARRIORS and WEST SIDE STORY.   The punks in the subway scene look like they could start breakdancing at any moment.  El Scorpio’s Columbian gang is the most practical, mostly headbands and bulletproof vests.  Other than Scorpio’s cocaine covered goatee, they aren’t that exciting. King Willie’s Jamaican Voodoo Posse, on the other hand, is glorious.  Everyone dresses like a combination of Rick James and the Mad Hatter.  One of the lieutenants is decked out in fringed gold riding chaps with matching gold six shooters.  King Willie himself wears a giant Africa shaped chest plate like he’s a Rasta conquistador.  Those cats understood style.  

The Predator is even deadlier than in the first movie.  As with all good sequels, this one gives us a greater variety of goodies.  This Predator is definitely the high tech gadget loving kind of hunter.  In addition to the standard cloaking field, shoulder cannon, and arm blades load out, it also packs a net gun, razor prong shooter, retractable spear, and best of all, a laser Frisbee.  It racks up way more of a body count.  Cops, criminals, civilians, silver suited Feds, anyone with a weapon is fair game.

It’s also a bit more of a dick than the first one.  It taunts Harrigan at the grave of his friend Danny (RubĂ©n Blades) by leaving him the necklace it tore off his corpse.  It has zero respect for public property, and it seems a little too eager to use its atomic wrist bomb in the middle of the city.  The attack in the subway was just it showing off for a crowd (and giving a noble death to the otherwise completely irritating Bill Paxton, playing a smarmier version of Hudson from ALIENS).  On the other hand, it does leave the kids alone, and didn’t kill Leona (Maria Conchita Alonso) when it sees that she is pregnant.  I guess it wanted them to grow up to have full sized trophy skulls.  

So our heroes are clearly outmatched in almost every regard.  It’s the disparity that makes this movie work so well.  Danny Glover is as far as you can get from Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he makes Harrigan even more of a badass.  Dutch is a battle hardened warrior in prime physical condition.  He knows tactics, he can make booby traps, he can lift a truck.  And he still got his ass kicked by a Predator.  Luck and quick thinking was the only thing that saved him.  Compared to him, Harrigan, a middle aged cop who gets winded running up stairs, seems like he would be lucky to last five seconds against one of these things.  He doesn’t have the muscle or the elite training.  What he does have above everything else is motherfucking determination.  This guy will not quit.  He will not let his superiors, the Feds, or seven foot tall invisible monsters get in his way.    Attitude is his greatest weapon.

Another nice twist is that it is Harrigan who spends most of the movie hunting the Predator.  The first half is basically a police procedural.  He runs down clues, consults the Medical Examiner, and has his people running tails.  We don’t get to see the asshole police chief (Robert Davi, the go to man for asshole superiors) ask Harrigan for his badge, but it comes close.  He even has a secret meeting with King Willie (Calvin Lockhart), the superstitious crime boss, for advice.  The entire third act is a cross-town, cross-building chase.  Harrigan will stop at nothing to catch his man.  Or scorpion faced alien thing.

All this leads to perhaps the most badass scene in all of cinema.  Harrigan follows the Predator down into his ship for the final confrontation.  The fight itself is amazing, sort of a high tech knife fight in a misty, weirdly lit crypt.  Again, the odds are wildly out of whack.  Kevin Peter Hall in his Predator gear dwarfed Schwarzenegger when they faced off.  Here, he looks like he could just step on Glover.  Harrigan gets smacked around like a rag doll.  The Predator’s arrogance gets the better of him, and despite having lost an arm to him earlier, it can’t help but underestimate the bloody and exhausted cop.  That’s when Harrigan [spoiler] shoves a laser Frisbee right through its chest.  

Awesome as that was, it isn’t the badass part.  Once Harrigan has confirmed his kill, the familiar triangular laser sights start moving over him.  A dozen more Predators appear from out of the mist.  They surround him.  Harrigan drops the laser Frisbee, shrugs, and asks “Who’s next?”

Daaaamn.  He just stood down a room full of the galaxy’s most fearsome killers with nothing but attitude.  The only thing the punked Predators can do is look at their feet and let him leave.  The leader even throws him a trophy, an ancient flintlock pistol.  It had a personal engraving from the previous owner, but everyone knows what it should read: “Earth’s #1 Badass”.

It’s also worth noting that if not for Harrigan, this would have been a straight up vigilante movie.  The Predator isn’t hunting cops, it’s hunting the criminals.  They are the most dangerous game in this scenario.  The Predator only starts to go after the cops because Harrigan keeps pushing it.  If he had listened to orders and stayed out of it, the Predator would have taken out all the gangs, collected its trophies, and taken off.  It kind of would have been the hero, The Punisher with Pincers.  I’m sure that’s how the other Predators framed it to this guy’s Predator wife and kids back on Predator Planet.  

Director Stephen Hopkins is no John McTiernan, and while PREDATOR 2 lacks much of the emotion and beauty of the original, it more than makes up for it in guts and pure entertainment.  It’s a great example of how unconventional casting can elevate a film.  Although the monster is the title character, Danny Glover owns this movie.  The Eighties may have been an embarrassingly sparse decade for African American leading roles in action, but at least it ended strong.

C Chaka

Friday, February 17, 2017

Stake Through the Heart - BLACULA

February, as you probably know, is Black History Month.  In honor of this, I’m focusing on some of the amazing cinematic accomplishments by African American actors and filmmakers, such as BLOOD AND BONE.  But February is also notable for Valentine’s Day, which I celebrated last year with the vaguely Valentine horror X-RAY.  This year I decided to combine the two with a classic Blaxploitation horror flick with a great romantic story at its heart.  Then I completely forgot about it and missed Valentine’s Day.  So now I presenta bit latethe 1972 better-than-you-would-expect vampire love story, BLACULA!

The Capsule:
In 1780 Transylvania, erudite African prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) is discussing the finer points of having his nation recognized by the European world.  Unfortunately, his dinner host turns out to be Dracula (Charles Macaulay), who is a rude, racist son of a bitch.  And also a vampire.  He bites Mamuwalde and locks him in a coffin to be eternally tormented by an unquenchable thirst for blood.  He also leaves Mamuwalde’s still mortal wife (Vonetta McGee) locked in the same room to be tormented by her own thirst—and hunger—for a much shorter period.  Two centuries later, a pair of interior designers purchase the coffin and ship it to Los Angeles, where they unleash Mamuwalde on the modern world of 1972.  Shortly after breaking his 200 year dry spell, he is stunned to encounter a woman named Tina who looks exactly like his long dead wife.    Tina is unaware of his true nature, but is inexplicably drawn to him.  It doesn’t hurt that he is a charming motherfucker with a badass cape.  Her friend Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) is suspicious of this smooth talking mystery man, though.  He works for the police and has been puzzled by the recent number of bodies found drained of blood.  Can he and Tina’s sister, Michelle (Denise Nicholas) put the pieces together before Mamuwalde turns Tina into his bloodsucking bride?

Let’s get this out there right out of the gate: it cannot be overstated how much Dracula is a racist dickhole.  Gary Oldman really glazed over that aspect of the character, but Charles Macaulay brings it with full force.  Before the fangs ever come out, he condescendingly ridicules Mamuwalde’s desire to eliminate the slave trade and suggests that it has its merits.  He even offers to buy Mamuwalde’s wife, acting like it’s some great cultural honor.  Then he has the nerve to take offense when Mamuwalde very urbanely disses his company and cognac.  Entombing the guy to suffer for all eternity and leaving his wife to starve to death is a bit of an overreaction, if you ask me.  For an ancient lord of darkness, Dracula has very thin skin.

He’s also the asshole who comes up with the whole “Blacula” thing.  After Dracula bites Mamuwalde, he makes a big deal about cursing the prince with his name.  The only thing is, Mamuwalde is unconscious at the time, and Dracula doesn’t engrave it on the coffin or anything.  Two hundred years later when the coffin is opened, there is no one left who remembers Dracula’s clever little wordplay.  Mamuwalde is the only name he goes by for the rest of the film.  You failed miserably on that one, Dracula.  Sad!

I was hoping the ending would be a Dracula vs. Blacula throw down where the jerk finally gets his comeuppance, but no.  Once it switches to modern times, the castle's real estate agent explains that Dracula was taken out like a chump by the Van Helsings (the whole family?).  I guess the director figured Dracula had gotten enough attention with all the other Dracula movies, and his racist ass didn’t deserve anymore screen time.

This is not a tale of revenge, though.  It is a love story.  Mamuwalde encounters the reincarnation of his beloved wife, Luva, very soon after being awoken.  His only motivation suddenly becomes insuring his love is by his side for eternity.  He doesn’t overpower her, or beguile her with his vampire powers, he doesn’t need to.  Tina doesn’t recognize Mamuwalde and is at first frightened by him, but soon finds herself drawn to the man.  It’s not just because he is charming and well dressed (lucky they had such fly tuxedos in 1780, because he never changes outfits).  She instinctively believes Mamuwalde when he explains his story, accepting her role as Luva reincarnated.  The choice is entirely up to her.  Mamuwalde promises never to bother her again if she refuses to be his vampire bride.  She doesn’t hesitate to accept. I believe it’s meant to be fate, the reunion of two tragic souls, rather than just an incredibly wild coincidence.  

Of course, not everyone finds it so romantic.  Especially Gordon Thomas, Police Doctor.  It’s never established exactly what Dr. Gordon does for the police.  He’s not a forensics guy or a medical examiner.  He basically runs the whole department, though.  Even Lt. Jack Peters (Gordon Pinsent), the highest ranked cop in the movie, is constantly deferring to him.  He is certainly the most competent person on the force (the look that Gordon gives Peters when he asks if the two bloodless corpses they found could be related to the Black Panthers is priceless).  Naturally, Gordon becomes suspicious that the string of exsanguination murders just might be connected to the mysterious dude in the cape hanging out with his girl’s sister.

Gordon has his work cut out for him, because Mamuwalde is one cool cat.  For someone locked in a casket for almost 200 years, he adapts to modern life remarkably quickly.  He struts into the swinging nightclub where Tina and her friends hang out less like an 18th century aristocrat and more like a L.A. regular.  Nothing fazes him, not electricity, or television, or automobiles.  Well, one taxi does faze him, but only because it runs him over.  Even that seems to be more from the shock from seeing Tina for the first time than from being plowed into by a horseless carriage.  It does offer the sassy cab driver a few moments to yell at him for running out in front of her before he turns her into a vampire.

The movie uses low impact vampirism rules. Mamuwalde just has to drain a person and they return as one of his undead servants.  By the end of the movie, he’s amassed quite a little army.  Gordon and Lt. Peters find themselves in a pickle when they track down the nest and find themselves surrounded.  Lucky for them that these vampires follow the same habits as the ones from VAMP, and make sure their hidden lair is stocked with plenty of flammable liquid.

Ultimately, it all ends in [spoiler] tragedy.  Gordon, Michelle, and Lt. Peters make a last ditch attempt to rescue Tina before she can fly away (as a bat) with Mamuwalde.  In all the cop killing chaos that ensues, Gordon accidentally stakes the freshly minted Vamp Tina.  With nothing left to live for, Mamuwalde leaves Gordon and the rest alive and exposes himself to the sunlight.  It is practically Shakespearean, but with more shriveling flesh and maggots.   

The movie does have a few of the weirdo moments I live for.  Famous character actor Elisha Cook Jr. plays a crotchety morgue assistant with a hook hand.  I didn’t notice until his second scene because no one ever mentions it and it has absolutely no purpose.  My theory is Cook just showed up wearing it.

I did notice that Dr. Gordon’s lab desk has a large jar simply labeled POISON.  You know, for that authentic medical professional look.  It’s not as great as an open container of ACID perched on a top of a shelf, but I’ll take it.

My favorite bit of strangeness is Skillet (Ji-Tu Cumbuka), a guy from the nightclub who just inserts himself at Tina, Gordon, and Michelle’s table and totally ruins the mood.  They never establish his relationship to any of the characters, he’s just a mooch who drinks their champagne and hits on the cocktail waitress.  I kept waiting for him to run afoul of Mamuwalde (like the cocktail waitress does when she takes his picture) or to factor into the story in some meaningful way.  But nope, he’s just Skillet, baby.

Director William Crain was one of the first African American filmmakers to hit it big, commercially.  BLACULA made a huge amount of money for American International Pictures (AIP) and spawned a slew of Blaxploitation horror films, including the eventual sequel, SCREAM BLACULA, SCREAM (starring Pam Grier!).  Crain himself did one more, DR. BLACK AND MR. HYDE, before moving into television (including, inexplicably, The Dukes of Hazard).  

Overall, it’s a pretty solid production for such a low budget, and more dignified than one would expect from the title.  Mamuwalde is a very sympathetic character, despite him being a murderous fiend.  His scenes with Tina are incredibly romantic, and I can’t be the only one who wanted them to get away together.  Not everyone comes off in the best light (the gay interior decorators are cringe worthy stereotypes), but the main cast, the heroic Gordon, the brave Michelle, and the well intentioned Lt. Peters, come off looking good.  Except for Dracula.  Man, fuck that guy.

C Chaka

P.S. I can't believe I went the whole piece without equating racist Dracula to Trump.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Bet On The Underdog - BLOOD AND BONE

Apologies to Sam Jackson, but Michael Jai White is the baddest motherfucker on the planet.  No one can rock a fight scene quite like him.  He doesn’t need wires or CGI or editing tricks to kick four dudes in the face all at once, he just does it.  He's more than just a great martial artist, though. He also has serious acting chops. The man can project gravitas like nobody’s business, and he has great comedic timing (see BLACK DYNAMITE, no seriously, see it).  And if you are looking for a purely heroic, fighting for the underdog kind of badass, and who isn´t these days, look no further than 2009 DTV masterpiece, BLOOD AND BONE.   

The Capsule:
A mysterious stranger named Bone (Michael Jai White) rolls into L.A. like a storm; his mind on a mission.  With the help of Pinball (Dante Basco), a small time promoter with a big mouth, he starts working his way up the underground fighting circuit, one pulverized opponent at a time.  Or in some cases, several at a time.  It’s not money or fame he is after, though.  Bone is working his way up the ladder to get to James (Eamonn Walker), a hotheaded crime boss with aspirations of the big leagues.  James wants into the Consortium, an organization controlling the multimillion dollar illegal fight racket.  He’ll need Bone’s skills to do it.  What James doesn’t know is that Bone has a promise to keep, and he's going to take down James piece by piece in order to honor it.

I prefer my action heroes to be flawed, in most circumstances.  I like them in the mold of DIE HARD’s John McClane; fallible but determined.  They make mistakes, they get scared, they get hurt.  Invincible characters just aren’t compelling, generally.  It’s hard to invest in a character who does everything right.  There are no stakes, no fear –realistic or otherwise—that the character won’t come out on top.  Ultimately, they are just boring. 

Now, forget all the shit I just said, because it in no way describes Bone.  Michael Jai White plays Bone with such confidence, presence, and charisma it doesn’t matter that he outclasses ever single chump in this movie.  His unwavering confidence is what makes him captivating. He’s like a precision machine.  You want to see what he can do.  It’s not just the confidence, though.  Bone is also thoughtful, observant, and most importantly, humble.  Mixing arrogance with confidence makes someone you want to see fall (or at least get taken down a bit).  You root for the quietly self-assured type.  That character deserves to win. 

It also helps that he is constantly underestimated by his enemies.  Now, Michael Jai White is an intimidating guy. He’s big and clearly in great shape.  Some of his opponents are mountains, though.  And as imposing as Bone is, he’s still only one guy.  Part of the joy in this movie is in knowing these cocky bastards have no idea what they are getting themselves into.  

The opening scene sets things up perfectly.  It starts in prison, with a whole crew of mean ass inmates surrounding Bone when he’s in the bathroom.  They taunt him about the unpleasant things they plan to do to his person.  Bone reacts like they are a bunch of rambunctious kids running around the living room.  He gives them to the count of 5 to get the hell out of there.  The half dozen knuckleheads, all with shanks, cannot believe what this guy is saying.  They don’t even let him get to five before rushing him.  Bone proceeds to absolutely destroy the entire group before they can lay a finger on him.  It’s a perfect Sergio Leone style introduction to a character who best not be fucked with.

Another nod to Leone is that Bone is kept mysterious.  He’s like the Man With No Name, except, you know, with a name.  We learn a small amount of backstory in a flashback (Bone had a twin brother who died, because the world is not awesome enough to contain two Michael Jai Whites), but that’s it.  The movie never reveals where he came from, why he was in prison, how he got out, or how he became such an amazing fighter.  Combined with his almost inhuman skill, it gives him an almost mystic presence.  He’s like a spirit of justice, materializing out of nowhere to right wrongs.  Except that spirits of justice don’t hang out in prison playing chess and beating the hell out of gang rapists, so there’s probably nothing supernatural going on.  

The movie isn’t all grim and face punchy. There is a nice amount of humor to lighten things up.  Dante Basco’s Pinball is introduced at the bottom of the street fighting heap, promoting novelty fighters like a huge brute in curlers going by Mommy Dearest.  Pinball is the kind of over the top character that would easily become grating after a few minutes, except that he and MJW play off each other so well.  Bone is always looking irritated and slightly embarrassed whenever Pinball is doing his smack talking promotion thing.  He breaks his intense, brooding stare at just the right moment to give Pinball a quick and disapproving sideways glance.  Bone warms up to him as the movie goes on, and Pinball gets more self-reflective and learns to turn it down a little.  Just a little.

Bone also develops a sweet relationship with Tamara (Nona Gaye), who he’s renting a room from.  She is just as mysterious as Bone, but in a nurturing way, not an arm snapping way.  She looks after a house full of kids who were either abandoned or lost their family.  It’s never established that she is officially a foster parent, though, so it’s kind of like she’s an outlaw caregiver.  The Nanny With No Name.  Although, again, with a name.  Everyone has names, I should just leave that one alone.

I should also note that there is a cameo fight staring Gina Carano of HAYWIRE fame.  The director had to limit the shared screen time between her and MJW to avoid people going blind from the sheer awesomeness.

Eamonn Walker’s James is a fantastic villain, and the perfect counterpoint to Bone.  He’s the definition of arrogance, a man who thinks of himself as more important than those around him.  He doesn’t drink, smoke, or swear.  He puts on the air of refinement, quoting the Art of War, and Genghis Khan.  No matter how hard he tries, though, he cannot escape his own crippling insecurity that deep down, he’s nothing but a lowlife thug.  That self-hatred is always seething just below his cool exterior, waiting to explode in violence and cruelty.  One second he is talking casually, the next he is running down a prostitute for no reason at all.  Even his right hand man is constantly nervous around him, especially when James makes him hold up the raw meat to feed his vicious attack dogs. 

There is a amazing scene where James is having a relaxed dinner with a colleague, an oblivious jerk named Daryl.  We know he’s a jerk because he has a sweater draped over his shoulders and is going on and on about golf.  He gets embarrassed when his girlfriend turns on the stereo and it plays “Dance Hall Days”.  James asks “You think the brothers aren’t down with Wang Chung?” and starts to sing along.  Daryl and his girlfriend get all excited, like it’s karaoke night, but James’ crew start looking nervous.  They know what’s coming.  Just before the chorus, James pulls out his sword cane and runs Daryl through.  It was a completely psychotic move, but in his defense, the guy would not shut up about golf.

James’ big dream is to leave the streets behind and join The Consortium, a group of super rich, elitist criminals who setup the big fights.  It’s just the kind of vaguely ominous title that a bunch of self-aggrandizing assholes would call themselves.  You know, like The Syndicate, or The Cabal, or The Trump Organization.  Normally these guys wouldn’t have anything to do with the likes of James, but he has an in with one of the members.  Franklin (Julian Sands, at his aristocratic, racist best) is willing to vouch for him, if he can come up with a five million dollar wager and a fighter that can stand up against Franklin’s top man. 

The climax of the movie is Bone pitted up against Franklin’s fighter, who is unfortunately not named Blood, but Pretty Boy Price (Matt Mullins).  Again, there is no doubt who the winner will be, but the fun comes from watching this cocky jackass, who doesn’t even bother to take off his suit jacket before the fight, strut around like he isn’t going to break a sweat.  He does break a sweat, along with other body parts.  It’s the longest single fight of the movie, and Bone does take a few serious hits, but it’s all about wearing Price down, taking the pride out of his step.  The fight is filmed with the same wide angle, long take style as all the others, allowing for a serious appreciation of the choreography and the athleticism. 

For Bone, it isn’t about the fight, it’s about completely ruining James.  [Spoiler] Just when he has Price pinned, poised to break his arm, Bone glares at James and taps out, forfeiting the match.  James’ five million and any chance of getting into the Consortium is gone.  Infuriated, he rushes Bone with a katana.  Franklin, being a sport, throws Bone a sword, too.  But because he is so supremely badass, Bone throws away the sword and just keeps the scabbard.  Now at this point, any sane person would have dropped the katana and said “fuck it, I’m done.”  James, as we know, is not a sane man.  It does not go well for him.  Bone is too noble to kill the chump, so he leaves him to an even worse fate.  Franklin is not as noble.  

It is one of the greatest crimes of cinema that BLOOD AND BONE didn’t get a sequel.  The adventures of Bone, going town to town providing justice for the underdog, could easily have become a franchise.  Director Ben Ramsey had only done one feature before this (LOVE AND A BULLET), but he showed himself more than capable of creating a lean, focused action movie, and he works well with MJW.  But the forces of evil keep us deprived of a BLOOD AND BONE IIAnd as long as we are talking conspiracy theories, who can explain how this movie, along with the majority of MJW’s other starring features, is only available on DVD, not Blu Ray?  That is some bullshit.  Why are we being denied hi-def Michael Jai White?  We can take it.  I blame the Consortium.

C Chaka