Ninja Lee Van Cleef: The Master

For the run-up until the publication of BLADE OF DISHONOR on Sept. 10th, I’m revisiting the books and films that inspired it: ninja, samurai, MMA fighters, WW2 epics, and yakuza flicks.

No, not that movie with all the yelling! The TV series starring Lee Van Cleef as a ninja master roaming the world in a van with goofy drifter Max Keller, dodging Sho Kosugi and fighting injustice!

a-masterI loved this show as a kid, and I’m still miffed they never had a crossover with the A-Team or Knight Rider. Ninja master John Peter McAllister (Lee Van Cleef) leaves the ninja life in Japan to seek a daughter he never knew he had. His former student Okasa (played by Sho Kosugi), a ninja master in his own right, decides this is dishonorable and cannot suffer his mentor to live.

The show was rather ridiculous, playing on pop mythology of the ninja powers, but it was good fun. I recall Max and Peter hanging from their ankles as prisoners in a dojo, and Van Cleef smashes a lightbulb with his foot and cuts the ropes using the glass held between his toes. It was better than Ninja III: The Domination, where evil ninja spirits possess a woman, but The Master’s charms were the non-stop action and the simple fact of NINJAS ON TELEVISION in the early ’80s.

Do you remember THE MASTER? The episodes were repackaged as TV movies, but sadly neither these nor the shows are available on NetFlix. Youtube clips are all that remain:

80s Trash of the Week: In God We Tru$t

I have a soft spot for Marty Feldman. I can’t say he has puppy dog eyes, unless your puppy is from an alien planet where their eyes grow on stalks, but I saw him in SILENT MOVIE and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN as a kid and always found him funny. His personal projects tend to be broad spoofs, such as THE LAST REMAKE OF BEAU GESTE, and his take on televangelists, IN GOD WE TRU$T. The problem that kept Marty’s movies from being as big as those of partner in crime Mel Brooks is that his sense of humor is so mild and subtle. He has a bit of Jacques Tati in him, a lot of vaudeville, and he was just too old fashioned for audiences by the time he was allowed in the director’s chair. He’s more famous for broadly comic roles in Brooks’ films, like his immortal Eye-gor, and the like. In his own films he is a less talkative Woody Allen, and while they are great if you like his self-deprecating, nervous milquetoast character, they require rapt attention to get the little details, and that’s something audiences have lacked for a long time.

~Do not walk on water~

The story begins at the Trappist Abbey of Ambrose the Unlikely, where the mortgage is about to be foreclosed upon. They have signs all over the place because of the Vow of Silence, that read “Keep They Trappist Shut.” Puns and PG friendly visual gags abound. Marty plays Brother Ambrose, the monk tasked with going out into the wild world and paying the mortgage so the monastery isn’t kicked out on its holy arse. On the road he meets a crazy, scheming revival preacher played by Peter Boyle who has a refitted school bus that he brings the Word to people with, for donations. Boyle plays the part a lot like his version of Dr. Gonzo in WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM without the politics. Sometimes he’s funny, but he’s a predictable character, stealing from Ambrose and dumping him in the big city.

If God had not intended for some people to be poor, then He would not have had The Bible published in paperback!  

There we have the most fun, as Ambrose meets Mary- a hooker played by Louise Lasser. Lasser is just a funny comedian and brings a lot to the role of the Hollywood hooker with a heart of gold. She first thinks Ambrose wants to break his vow of chastity, but when she sees he’s an innocent doofus, she helps him out, and introduces him to sinful indulgences like hot dogs and ice cream, which he prefers to mix together. As a ten year old, that was funny. Watching it all again, I grinned a lot nostalgically. The movie doesn’t really pick up until Ambrose sees televangelist Armageddon T. Thunderbird on the TV, played by none other than Andy Kaufman at his scenery-chewing finest. With an enormous pompadour and the showmanship and charisma of a master scammer, he has a religious empire run like a corporation, with suited stooges and everything an ’80s villain needs. He even has G.O.D., a computer of course, played by Richard Pryor.

So yes, God was black here long before BRUCE ALMIGHTY, and Richard Pryor jumps right into the role. Like Ambrose, he’s an innocent- a computer program that is just learning about the real world. I don’t know if Feldman was trying to make an absurdist and atheist comment on God, or making an insightful satirical poke at how computers have become our God, but the scenes with Pryor and Kaufman are the best in the movie, and make it worth tracking down. It’s not available on DVD, nor as a torrent. I got lucky and it was played on cable last February. Between this, THE LIFE OF BRIAN and WHOLLY MOSES, kids with HBO in the ’80s had a lot of annoying questions to ask the Sunday school teachers! This isn’t as great as the Pythons take on the Gospels, but it is fun once it gets going and is a must for fans of Marty Feldman and Andy Kaufman, as they made so few films. In the video clip I uploaded, you get to see God give the finger.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 2
Could it be remade today? Not a chance
Quotability Rating: None
Cheese Factor: Monk’s toe cheese
High Points: Andy Kaufman and Richard Pryor
Low Point: Long, slow start
Gratuitous Boobies: Nun (get it?)

© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

Showdown in Little Tokyo

Showdown in Little Tokyo is one of my guilty pleasures.

It has Dolph Lundgren in the Arnie role, and Brandon Lee as his goofy partner. Before Brandon (son of Bruce, you know) became The Crow (full review) and then was tragically killed on set, he did a few chop socky flicks like this and the less effective Rapid Fire. In this one he plays an Asian Task Force Cop who’s a Valley boy and knows nothing of his culture. Part of what I liked about it was that he never sees the life and embraces Zen. He does however, want to eat sushi off of naked chicks, but who wouldn’t? I mean, hot chicks. Freshly scrubbed ones. Actually it’s probably one of those things that sounds more erotic than it really is, unless you’re an emasculated Japanese salaryman who can only get off by subjugating women.
But it’s that kind of movie. Japanese-scare flicks were big in the ’80s, such as Rising Sun, but by the 1991 it was a bit dated. The movie doesn’t let that bother it. Lundgren plays an L.A. cop with his own rules, whose parents were murdered in Japan by the Yakuza. This led him to love samurai culture so much that he becomes the big white super samurai who likes kicking Yakuza ass, waiting to avenge his parents. His beat seems to be driving around Little Tokyo and waiting for gangsters to threaten store owners, and then destroy their store in the process of kicking the shit out of said gangsters. It’s nice work if you can get it. He meets Brandon this way, as they pull guns on each other, and fight, and then of course get a begrudging, professional respect. And later, they comment on dick size.
You know, like straight guys do. The “unlikely partners” aspect is fun because Lee is, like his father, a totally ripped little psycho dude, and Lundgren is a musclebound man-mountain from Hitler’s most lurid wet dreams. It’s like Laurel and Hard-on with Karate. The fights are very good because Lundgren actually competed in Shotokan tournaments, and Brandon Lee is… Brandon Lee. If hadn’t been killed, he’d be transcending his father’s legacy. Here he’s not reaching for the artistic skies, but it was a start. He’s the clown to Lundgren’s stone-faced straight man. Now another “of course” is that the Yakuza thugs are led by… the guy who killed Dolph’s parents. We knew that was coming. Played by the dependable Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Mortal Kombat, John Carpenter’s Vampires) he oozes with evil for evil’s sake. We meet him when he beheads a topless crack whore.
Yup. Tia Carrere plays one of his non-crack whores who sees the murder and goes to the cops. She also gets nude, but it’s a body double. Of course, she sleeps with Dolph; it’s a rare Hollywood film that lets an Asian male wet his chopstick. Now, I bet you’re saying Tommy likes this movie? I’d hate to hear what he has to say if he hated it! But really, the action and humor in Showdown in Little Tokyo absolve it of all its stupidities, including a guy getting impaled on a bent katana and thrown into a fireworks pinwheel that suddenly goes off for no reason except that it would be frickin’ awesome if it did that. You get to see Dolph Lundgren yank a man through a frickin’ door. You get awful jokes like Dolph telling Tia he’s so stealthy that she won’t hear him coming, and then later when she jumps on his Godzilla-size junk, she coyly whispers that she heard him come. Get it?
Brandon Lee makes the best of the ridiculous dialogue, somehow making lines such as “You have the biggest dick I’ve seen on a man” sound funny and not totally gay, after they fight yakuza in a bath house. He also gets to beat up the lead henchman while reading him his Miranda rights, only to throw him into a vat of meth-infected beer, and say “You have the right to be dead.” And he gets to say the line that inspired the title of this review, when they go on their last suicide mission into the bad guy’s lair: we’re gonna kill those guys, and then we’re gonna eat sushi off naked chicks! Because earlier, they saw rich Japanese businessmen doing that in one of those secret Japanese clubs where Japanese people go and do weird Japanese things, like eat sushi, and sing karaoke.
Although it wasn’t released until 1991, Showdown in Little Tokyo is an ’80s movie through and through. From the repetitive electronic soundtrack to the enormous body count of ethnic baddies, the mix of action and humor trying to riff off earlier hits like Commando and Die Hard, it missed the ’90s boat and didn’t realize it had to be more sensitive, and have some sort of message, maybe about the environment, or corporate malfeasance, or homelessness. That makes it a bit of a dinosaur, like the frat boy showing up in a pimp outfit at a costume party. But it made that ’90s concession where if you’re gonna kill a bunch of shady ethnic stereotypes, you have to have at least one of them be a good American. Like Fasil in True Lies, etc. Who was the good Latino in Commando? Exactly.
It’s a good dumb movie with plenty of boobs, guns, karate battles and explosions, and sometimes that’s just what you need. Dolph and Brandon made a good team, and I wish they’d had another chance to work together. Lundgren will return in Sly Stallone’s epic The Expendables, and I hope it jump-starts his career in America again.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 2
Could it be remade today? With Russian mobsters, sure.
Quotability Rating: Good
Cheese Factor: Easy cheesey, Japanesey
High Points: Brandon & dolph yukkin’ it up
Low Point: offensive Asian stereotypes
Gratuitous Boobies: Tia’s body double and a hot blonde (and the lead Yakuza guy’s tattooed man-boobies)

Showdown in Little Tokyo on Netflix

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The Running Man

SubZero… now plain zero!!

I love bad Arnold movies. This is miles ahead of Raw Deal but behind Commando. In a prescient future, the government depends on reality shows to distract us from the horrible economy, and when chopper pilot Ben Richards refuses to fire upon a food riot, he is framed as the engineer of the massacre, and of course gets pulled in to the biggest game show on TV: The Running Man, where criminals run from maniacal stalkers with flamethrowers, chainsaws and operatic voices, to gain a chance at a jury trial. Arnie’s one-liners are at their worst, some of them barely make any sort of sense, but the TV satire with Richard Dawson from Family Feud is just too good to miss. It’s not a bad movie, but like most futuristic satires it has to wink at the camera instead of playing it straight like the original Rollerball (the James Caan one) or just going with it like Commando. It’s definitely worth seeing once, and bares little resemblance to the Stephen King story it’s based on, but this ain’t Arnie’s best. It’s also a lot far from his worst. This is probably the best example of an Arnie movie, come to think of it- it’s the median.
The movie has a lot to like. Arnie may be running around in yellow tights like Bruce Lee in Game of Death, but he gets to cut a guy’s nuts off with a chainsaw! Dweezil Zappa plays a leader of the revolution! Old grannies say they want to see him kick some ass! And best of all, Richard Dawson plays it completely straight, playing a real sonofabitch of a TV host and loving every minute of it. If you ever wanted him to say Survey Said… FUCK YOU! This is your chance.
It goes crazy to the camp side, with an opera-singing Hunter named Dynamo driving around in a dune buggy covered in Christmas lights. Even Arnold’s jokes on him make fun of how awful this concept is. “Aghgghg!! you big light bulb!” Jesse Ventura has a small role as a former gladiator, but we don’t get to see them really fight; that’s too bad, it would have been awesome. The Running Man remains a guilty pleasure in the Arnold compendium, but it shows that he can make a hit even out of a ridiculous, campy ’80s flick.

All the entries in The Arnold Project

IMPORTANT ADDENDUM: This movie came from Milky’s Netflix, and he watched it with me, and farted on my couch a lot, and did slap my belly with glee. There, now quit whining.

Southern Discomfort

I saw Southern Comfort on HBO in the early ’80s long before I knew who Walter Hill was; I liked The Warriors and Streets of Fire and 48 Hrs. (full review) but I hadn’t connected them as the work of one director yet. I remembered it as a cheap Deliverance knockoff, so I wanted to refresh my memory.
The story is a simple one. A squad of Louisiana National Guard are training in the bayou. They aren’t the best and brightest; their Sergeant is straight laced, but the boys have some whores lined up for fun after maneuvers, and they want to get done quick. Among them is a loaner from Texas named Hardin, played by Powers Boothe; Fred Ward as a crude loudmouth named Reece, Keith Carradine as a sarcastic self-deprecating smartass named Spencer, and T.K. “Nauls from The Thing” Carter. That gives us some solid character acting on board and a beloved cult director, so let’s see how much comfort it gives us for the next two hours.
During training, the lazy fellows are in Cajun country, and have no respect for the swamp folks; Reece calls them coon-asses. He cuts their nets as they wade through the bayou, completely unmindful of the snakes, gators, gar and other critters. They’re city boys, and some comparison to the culture clash between Americans and Vietnamese. The Cajuns speak their French patois, live off the land, and just want to be left alone. The Guard boys have blanks for training, and the guy with the M60 likes pranking people with it. When they come upon some pirogues (canoes) and decide to take borrow them as a shortcut, he fires at their rightful owners when they’re caught. Problem is, the hunters in the swamp have guns with real ammo, and they fire back.
The soldiers are green and panic, and end up lost in the bayou, with a few bullets each, surrounded by inhospitable territory and people who live in it, who they’ve made their enemies. Sound familiar? Not long after they regroup and go a little wild, they capture a Cajun trapper played by Brion James. He speaks only French, and his lines are especially funny if you understand a little. He’s stoic and laconic, and when they come upon a stringer of 8 dead rabbits- coincidentally the same number of soldiers- they think it’s a warning and are creeped out. They demand an answer from him, and he just says, “lapin!” Sonny “Billy from Predator” Landham plays another of the hunters, but doesn’t get any lines.
The rest plays out mostly as expected- some men cling to reason and military procedure, others want revenge and grasp for power in the confusion. When they realize they are being hunted, some lose it, and they never come to terms with how dangerous the land alone is, even when it is used against them. We do get to see a more pleasant face of backwoods Cajun life as two of the men come upon a small town and join in a crawfish boil, pig roast and celebration. Unfortunately the story structure is a bit muddled and the ending comes 20 minutes too late. It spends a little too much time whittling down the Guards with clever traps like a slasher film, when it should have stuck to the war film formula. It’s still an enjoyable film, in Walter Hill’s best pastiche of a Sam Fuller B-movie.
The very end slows as the rescue arrives, but comparing National Guardsmen taking it easy at home in ’73 to soldiers in Vietnam running for the medevac chopper is a bit much. I would have loved the festival scene to continue its creepy vibe, where they are unsure if the ropes being strung up are for slaughtering pigs for the feast, or for hanging interloping soldiers. I would have liked them to panic and turn on their hosts, but instead it continues the slasher vibe. Not a great movie, but a good one, and the bayou has never been bleaker. It was filmed on location and Hill’s crew suffered in the wet and cold. Ry Cooder’s excellent soundtrack, with some traditional Cajun music by Dewey Balfa, helps set the film’s excellent tone, which makes the foggy swamp one of the creepiest settings in a long time. Southern Comfort may not be one of Hill’s best, but it’s definitely an interesting take on the Vietnam metaphor.

What’s a Boogen?

My childhood friend Ruben had a knack for making any movie sound like the most awesome thing ever. He’s the reason I watched Halloween III: Season of the Witch against all my better judgment, and his review of The Boogens, a cheesy B-movie monster flick with voracious critters released from a mine explosion, is why I watched this oddly named bit of drive-in fodder. He’s never let me down.
The Boogens lures you in with its stupid title; what the hell is a boogen? Is it a snot monster? Or something like a boogeyman? You only hear it once, when the crazy old miner trying to warn everybody- by scowling creepily from afar- finally says his piece. Decades ago, a mine collapse killed dozens in the sleep mountain town of Silver Something. (I’m not going back to look it up.) Now, a new company wants to re-open the mine, and two young guys named Mark (the nice guy) and Roger (the horndog) sign up to work it. All Roger talks about is boning his girlfriend Jessica, who’s driving up in a Beetle with her sensible friend Trish, and her annoying as hell poodle, Tiger.

Hi, I’ll be your Steve Guttenberg equivalent for the evening.

It is rare when you root for the dog to be killed in a horror movie, but I rooted for Tiger to be eaten. And I got my wish. The miners blast open the collapsed tunnel and find piles of human skulls and bones. If The Boogens had a little more budget, it might have been a precursor to The Descent, but no such luck. It’s really not scary, but might have been worth seeing at a drive-in, when your date would clutch you whenever the monster roared or flung one of its bizarre clawed appendages (complete with whip sound effect)!

Gonna put on my Boogen shoes! Disco inferno!

As it goes in the horror genre, the horniest people die first. Even though Mark’s sweet bozo demeanor will eventually get him into Trish’s down jacket, they’re wholesome and become our heroes. Come to think of it, I don’t think Roger ever gets to be “Hormone Man,” and leap over tall women with a single bound, as he hopes. So you got a nice reversal there. But soon, dogs and people start disappearing, and claws start gouging their way through the floor heater grate to come getcha. The monster’s arms resemble the critters from It’s Alive 3: Island of the Alive a bit, and you never get a full look at what a boogen really looks like. It’s sort of like a snapping turtle with really long limbs and a whiplike tail that grabs you and pulls you into the water, or through the door, or wherever the partial monster puppet is sticking out of.

Don’t do this:
or you get this:

And that’s cool. It’s certainly a unique monster, pulled out of the writer’s ass, and it sure likes to hook people and drag them back to the mine for feasting. So besides killer turtles, The Boogens also has a crazy old miner with dynamite going for it:

Git off mah land!

And as was expected in any horror film in 1981, we get some boobage but it’s nothing to write home about. Trish is cute and has a nice pair that she demurely bares, but Jessica manages to get nearly yanked through a heating vent, chased all around the cabin throwing tea kettles and boxes of bric-a-brac at the boogen interloper without losing her towel. I bet if she threw the towel over the monster’s head, she could have run naked into the snow, and then run up to a store window and cut the glass open with her nipples, and survived. And I would have loved to see it.
The Boogens is best visited as an early 80’s creature feature that manages to keep your interest with some amusing victims and a unique, if somewhat silly monster. I would have liked to hear the crazy miner- the modern equivalent of a grizzled prospector I suppose- tell more tales of how he survived the boogens, but he barely lasts five minutes before falling victim to his age old nemesis. Sucks how that happens. Even Quint got to stick a knife in the shark’s face. Poor old Crazy Guy throws some ineffectual sticks of dynamite that should have made some turtle soup.
According to IMDb, In his Twilight Zone Magazine review, author Stephen King called The Boogens… “A wildly energetic monster movie!” For this movie to be called “energetic,” Steve would have had to have been beard deep in a mine shaft full of cocaine.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 3
Could it be remade today? Oh please, oh please…
Quotability Rating: enh… hormone man?
Cheese Factor: Limboogen
High Points: weird critters, crazy miner
Low Point: Amazing krazy glued on towel!
Gratuitous Boobies: One close-up, one side boob:

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Trick or Treat, smell my feet, give me some heavy metal to eat!

Trick or Treat is the king of the Heavy Metal Horror movies of the ’80s. It’s not the scariest, nor does it have the best music, or the best monster make-up, but it has Ozzy and Gene Simmons, so it wins by default.
I’ve wanted to see this movie for years. Like the infamous Black Roses, where Vincent Pastorelli gets eaten by a wall speaker, Trick or Treat was infamous for Ozzy, Gene, and a scene where a girl gets raped by a demon in a car parked on lover’s lane. That scene turned out to be sillier than scary. I mean, after the tree rape from The Evil Dead, the bar is set pretty high on the disturb-o-meter for this sort of thing. But nothing brings back the mid-late ’80s like reminiscing about when Al Gore’s wife colluded with the religious right to protect children from “porn rock,” leading to some of the most hilarious Senate hearings ever recorded.
But the movies took a different tack; they went for the idea that maybe our heavy metal bands were demons sent to possess and kill us. Trick or Treat does even better. It begins with loser metal kid Eddie Weinbauer getting teased and bullied in school by the jocks, for well, being the only metal head. They prank him into running naked into the gym while the girls are playing volleyball, and for a moment I thought the story was going to be good and disturbing in a Stephen King sort of way, because he looks really pitiful as he squirms belly first back into the locker room. But no, it quickly reverts to exactly what you’d expect from this kind of picture.
And that’s not bad. Movies are all about expectations; sometimes we’re joyfully surprised. This isn’t one of those times, but if you want to see a demonic heavy metal singer return from the dead, it certainly delivers. Weinbauer’s idol is Sammi Curr, a hair metal douche who testifies before congress that if they try to censor him, “we will take you down!!!” It was a cute nod to the PMRC circus that Tipper created, which eventually led to those “Parental Advisory – Explicit Lyrics” stickers on certain CDs. Shortly thereafter, Sammi dies in a hotel fire, and Eddie is crushed. He thinks about suicide, but instead visits his one metal buddy, the DJ named Nuke- played by Gene Simmons. Nuke gives him a tape that has Sammi’s latest song on it.
At home, Eddie plays Sammi’s new record over and over, until the backmasked track summons his evil spirit back from the grave! First it seems like nothing much. When the jocks try to get revenge for Eddie leading them on a wild chase through school that ends with them spraying the faculty lunch room with a fire extinguisher, the metal shop comes alive (heh, get it? METAL shop?) and threatens to drive a spike through Lead Jock Douche’s eyeball. But Eddie’s a pussy, and calls off his metal minions. But soon, Sammi’s spirit has a mind of its own, and wants to get his evil mix tape played on the radio, so he can… I dunno, come out of your radio and look like the undead member of Motley Crue? Sammi doesn’t really do much when he manifests his power except zap a few people into dust and ’80s clothing.
The one girl who takes pity on Eddie gets demon raped into a coma by Sammi, after he lends her that tape before knowing its power. Sinister stink lines ooze out of the stereo and seduce her, taking off her clothes for our amusement, and then solidify into a Satanic Sammi slug monster that slips her the supernatural salami. It wouldn’t be a heavy metal horror movie without the boobies, and it manages to jam every ’80s fear about the music- suicide, porn lyrics, backwards tracks, and Satanism- into one package. So while the story flops all over the place, unsure whether Eddie Weinbauer should be a villain bent on revenge or a sympathetic dork turned hero, it is a lot of fun for fans.
Part of it is worth it just to see Ozzy with his hair neatly parted, playing the part of a smarmy religious figure attacking his own music, and Gene Simmons playing a DJ. They have small roles, however, and evil Sammy gets defeated by a toilet at one point. He’s not really that scary, doesn’t have any cheesy lines like in latter-day Freddy Krueger movies that might make him better company if he’s not going to be frightening. No such luck. It also doesn’t help that our hero is Marc Price, “Skippy” from Family Ties. He’s decent enough, but he’s no Steven Dorff in The Gate!
Trick or Treat is decent fun for metal fans, with music by Fast Eddie from Motorhead and Dave King of Flogging Molly. It’s sadly lacking in gore, as the demonic singer’s power mostly consists of zapping people with electricity and making them turn to dust. Nowadays it’s most worth watching for the cameos, which also includes Glen Morgan- director of Final Destination– as Eddie’s nerdy pal and only friend. It’s pretty obvious why he went into directing, but he’s better than most of the cast!

Beers Required to Enjoy: 2
Could it be remade today? only if hair metal returns…
Quotability Rating: low
Cheese Factor: Motorheadcheese
High Points: Cameos
Low Point: lame villain
Gratuitous Boobies: one scene, but they are nice 

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