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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Time Bandits (1981)




Written by Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam
Directed by Terry Gilliam

Craig Warnock:  Kevin

David Rappaport:  Randall
Kenny Baker:  Fidgit
Malcolm Dixon:  Strutter
Mike Edmonds:  Og
Jack Purvis:  Wally
Tiny Ross:  Vermin

Sir Ralph Richardson:  Supreme Being
David Warner:  Evil

John Cleese:  Robin Hood
Sean Connery:  King Agamemnon
Ian Holm:  Napoleon

Michael Palin and Shelly Duvall as recurring characters named Vincent and Pansy

It's time for the Celluloid Zeroes to talk about whackadoo children's movies, and additionally about movies that can be put on the "How I Got This Way" checklist as either signposts for nerd parents that want their kids to grow up with an appreciation for the finer things in cinema, or as biohazard signs warning people to keep their children 150 yards from these movies at all times.

Watching this movie made me the only David Warner fan in DuPage County with an age in the single digits, so I'll let you decide for yourself what kind of signpost should be up about this flick.

When I was six years old, the family went to see a movie featuring some actors my parents probably heard of but I, of course, didn't know who John Cleese or Sean Connery were (it's at least possible that I may have known that Kenny Baker was the performer inside the R2-D2 shell in the Star Wars movies in 1981, but odds are I learned that later on). I have no idea what Mom and Dad were expecting but I got a movie that was hilarious and terrifying, often at the same time. And it also made no real attempt to define anything as fictitious--when God (excuse me, the "Supreme Being") and Napoleon are characters in your movie and both are treated exactly the same by the cinematography (as well as Robin Hood, the Devil, a 600 foot tall giant, cowboys and knights in shining armor)...well, that's a lot for a first-grader to absorb.

I remember wanting to see that movie again the minute it was over, and getting my first taste of what it means to be in the cult for a movie when other kids at school who saw the movie thought it was stupid and that I was wrong for liking it. Terry Gilliam, of course, went on to direct milestones of science fiction cinema like 12 Monkeys and Brazil, so it looks like I was right all along. Or at least it looks like a focus group made up of randomly selected six and seven year olds in the brass buckle of the Bible belt might not be the best ones to judge the quality of a movie. Or it could be that even when I was too young to know for sure that Godzilla wasn't real, I was still a complete mark for a director whose vision was as bent and idiosyncratic as Terry Gilliam's.

(I am not 100% sure that Godzilla isn't real now, and I'm 41 as of this writing.)

The first image that the viewer sees is a map of the universe with alchemical symbols and writing that looks like it might be Sanskrit or Enochian; various dotted lines connect rings of symbols on a field of deep blue as the camera falls into the map. It's a three-dimensional depiction, with some of the circles moving faster than others and suddenly a grid of bright white squares slams over the navigational chart, stopping the motion of the camera and the title comes up with one letter inside some of the individual squares. Looking at it now, I think a couple of things:  One, it's like seeing a rational framework imposed on the sequence's chaotic and mystical look at the world, in some ways prefiguring Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle; two, this movie gets to its opening titles almost as fast as RoboCop.

The view plunges down through the cosmos to Earth, and then to a suburban neighborhood in England where a mother and father boredly watch television while their ten-year-old-or-so son Kevin reads a book (and is facing away from the idiot box as he reads, which is a bit of staging that is almost certainly intentional). There's a "kitchen centerette" advert playing that promises a full meal from frozen block of ice to piping hot delicious meal in fifteen seconds. Kevin's much more interested with his history book (admittedly, one pitched to a grade-school readership) with its lists of combat skills needed by ancient Greek warriors. His father isn't paying attention in the least to his excited declarations of all the different ways hoplites could wreck the shit out of their opponents, and sends his son off to bed when his digital watch beeps out an alarm.

It may not surprise readers of this blog that Kevin stays awake in his room reading past his bedtime (an experience that I was familiar with, even at age six) but nobody watching the movie or reading this review has ever had a knight in full armor charge out of his clothes wardrobe on horseback. Probably. The horse leaps over Kevin's bed and charges away into a forest that wasn't there seconds ago (where a bedroom wall should ordinarily be expected to stand) and the air is filled with some kind of unearthly shriek. Kevin dives under his covers and when he's brave enough to take another look around his bedroom is in perfect condition again (it's a mess, but not a mess sitting in the middle of a forest and the wardrobe doesn't have a gigantic burst-out hole in it).

Well, that gets Kevin's father's attention, sure enough ("What the hell is going on up here?"). He demands that Kevin stop making noise, turn his light out and go to bed. Which is actually pretty reasonable as well as proof that Kevin didn't dream whatever it was that just happened (and now that I'm looking at this with more hindsight than I did in the theater--a wardrobe that's a portal to magical adventures? Looks like this is going to be Terry Gilliam's Narnia film).

The next day, Kevin tries to get permission to go to bed early (which is denied, but neither of his parents notice his absence while they're half-watching a game show called "Your Money or Your Life", where a contestant's husband is apparently drowned in a giant vat of custard when she misses a question--I remember this semi-inexplicable scene horrifying me when I was a wee sprat and it's still pretty weird now). Kevin sneaks a flashlight and a Polaroid camera into his bedroom, apparently planning to document whatever it was that was happening and almost drifts off to sleep when a toy robot on his cluttered-as-all-getout floor starts to move around on its own. Then, when he's actually out cold, creaking noises emanate from his wardrobe and the door opens from the inside.

Instead of a knight charging out and making enough noise to get his dad's attention, it's six dwarves sneaking quietly out into Kevin's bedroom. They're dressed in wildly different outfits (one's in professorial tweed, one has a Viking helmet and one's got World War I-style airman's goggles and a red jumpsuit) and they have a whispered conversation about whether or not they've eluded their pursuer, whoever that is. They also mention that Kevin's bedroom isn't on "the map", which means they're lost (just as that knight probably didn't expect to wind up in a suburban bedroom 600 years or so in his future). When Kevin turns his light on the group of dwarves yell and try to flee, but there's not a heck of a lot of room to move in a kid's bedroom.

At least two of the dwarves are packing heat, and the one in the airman's goggles drops his gun and surrenders, calling Kevin "sir" and claiming that they can explain everything. Kevin, naturally confused, asks who they are and the dwarves respond by saying that the person pointing a flashlight at them can't be "him", whoever that is, if he doesn't know who they are. They immediately dogpile on Kevin and pummel the poor kid. All the intruders want to know is how to get out of Kevin's bedroom and he doesn't have any idea--after all, he's got no idea how they all got in there. After some threats and shoves, Kevin's got his back literally to the wall and Randall, the leader of the gang, pushes him just a little further.

And the entire wall grinds and moves back about a foot and a half, revealing a corridor with the same wallpaper as the rest of Kevin's room that either just popped into existence or was there all along. Randall says that's got to be the way out and attempts to to marshal his forces into pushing the wall far enough out of the way that they can leave. Unfortunately, Randall, Strutter, Wally, Og, Vermin, and Fidgit are complete idiots and barely get out of their own way in order to get a move on. They take so long in trying to get down the instant hallway, in fact, that whoever it is they were trying to get away from tracks them down, appearing as a floating head surrounded by brilliant white light and thick fog. The head pursues them, intoning in a sepulchral voice for the dwarves to return the map they stole from him. Kevin, terrified of this apparition, beats feet with the six dwarves and helps shove his bedroom wall down the hallway until the septet shoves the wall into empty space and plunges into a bottomless pitch-black abyss. Well, at least they got away from the giant floating head.

What looked to be a plunge into an endless void turns out to be something much weirder--a rectangular aperture opens in the sky above a rural stone farmhouse, and Kevin and the dwarves fall out of the sky and land near some geese. Randall commands everyone to take cover in a conveniently nearby barn so they can reconnoiter and see if the floating head found them. It looks like they're okay for the time being, and Randall pulls a map out of his satchel to see where they are. Fidgit clues Kevin (and the audienece) in to one thing, at least--the floating head was "the Supreme Being", not any mortal man. ("You mean God?" "Well, we don't know him that well. We only work for him.")

While Randall takes another look at the map, Kevin runs out of the barn to get away from the half dozen lunatics that have shanghaied him out of his boring life and into existence as a fugitive from God. Turns out that the first people who hear him crying for help don't like Englishmen (or boys); it's a trio of French cavalry officers in Napoleonic uniforms. They decide to leave rather than slash Kevin to death and gallop off into explosions, flame and smoke. A column of fleeing wounded refugees take up the road after the cavalrymen ride off, and one of them is kind enough to tell Kevin that he's near the town of Castaligione, which is currently being sacked by Napoleon himself. The dwarves haul Kevin out of the refugee line and Randall points to a spot on the map labeled "1796"; it looks like he's got a guide to travel in time as well as space.

Randall and his crew want to get into the city, but the roads are packed with refugees or soldiers, and both groups are targets for artillery crews so it's far too dangerous to get to Castiligione that way. Instead they appropriate a rowboat and sneak into the city under cover of darkness and war. Kevin naturally wants to know why they're going towards the danger, and Fidgit explains that he's part of a band of internationally famous criminals. Napoleon's sacked the city, and that means lots of portable wealth is going to be in one big pile. The six Temporal Robbers are going to scoop up as much of that stuff as they can carry and make a run to another time hole. Napoleon and his entire army can search for years without ever finding them; it's actually an extremely audacious plan.

Conveniently enough, Napoleon is taking a moment for himself during the war, watching a Punch and Judy show in a semi-ruined theater. Also conveniently enough, he (and everyone else Kevin and the Time Bandits encounter) will be speaking 20th century English. So when the puppeteer dies on stage thanks to an errant bullet (another scene that horrified me when I was six) Napoleon throws a snit fit and wants to see more "little things hitting each other". When none of the other acts at the theater meet with the military genius' approval (they're all too tall for Napoleon to enjoy), the dwarves offer to do a quick musical number to entertain the general. They're not too bad (although "Me and My Shadow" isn't going to be written for another 150 years or so), but their own natural belligerence and quick tempers mean that the song and dance number collapses into a six-man beatdown after someone's dance moves accidentally make contact with somone else's head.

The theater manager is ready to hang himself with the curtain ropes when Napoleon himself comes backstage to congratulate him. He thinks that musical performance is the best thing that's happened to him since he decided to take over Italy, having mistakenly believed everyone there to be really tiny. He shouts down and sacks his long-suffering staff officers when they try to get his attention back to the war he started, and invites the singing and dancing troupe to be his new generals. I am not certain how he got the reputation for genius in this particular world, because he's petulant and dismissive on a level I wouldn't associate with a political leader until about 2000 to 2008 in America.

Napoleon drinks himself into a stupor while complaining about various other historical badasses who were shorter than him; outside in the cold, his former general staff shivers in their long johns. Once he finally passes out, Randall dispatches Strutter to find the nearby time hole (which will only be around until midnight), and everyone else packs as much coin and ornamentation as they can into a tapestry. The time hole opens up just as Og twists Napoleon's gold prosthetic hand off (NOTE:  I spent a comically long time thinking that was the reason Napoleon kept his hand inside his jacket in all those paintings after seeing this movie; thanks for nothing, Terry Gilliam). The dwarves have less than a minute to get past Napoleon's loyal but dismissed soldiers with a giant clanking sack of their commander's worldly goods and it's a narrow thing, but they do make it into the time hole just before it shuts. It is, of course, the fired officers who have their commander's best interests at heart and who lead the charge against the bandits. But when they get to the time hole it closes and they all just bump into each other in an alley.

Five centuries or so earlier, in Sherwood Forest, a nobleman named Vincent and a lady named Pansy are talking about their future lives together (along with references to a "personal problem" of Vincent's that has cleared up and him not having to wear "the special..." thing that is not ever actually defined; when I was six, that all sailed miles over my head). Their kiss is interrupted by seven time-traveling criminals that fall into their coach and cause its destruction. Vincent and Pansy run for it while the dwarves and Kevin figure out where and when they are--unsurprisingly, Kevin knows more about the clothing of medieval England than the dwarves do.

It turns out that the brazen theft of Napoleon's stuff was the first time out for Randall's crew, and Kevin asks to join them (more out of a sense that he'll be able to see things he's only ever read about than out of a desire to take stuff from people with impunity, and good for him). While the other dwarves gather up all the coins, goblets, jewelry and trinkets that fell out of Vincent's coach Randall explains that he and the other bandits stole the map to all of creation from the Supreme Being. Creation, according to Randall, was a dauntingly massive job to put together in just seven days so God used a lot of subcontractors to make little things like ferns and trees while he was working on dividing the waters from the firmament, giving life to the first man and woman, and instilling to capacity for good and evil in his creation. After Og designed a six-hundred-foot-tall tree that smelled awful, the entire greenery department was busted down to the maintenance department and told to patch up all the fraying threads in the fabric of Creation. Instead of doing that, they swiped the map and ran off to fill their pockets to their six hearts' content.

Kevin takes a picture of the six dwarves with his Polaroid (with Randall brandishing the map and everyone grinning proudly) when they hear Pansy yelling "Help! Robbers!" Wally thinks that's a request for robbers to show up and the crew rushes off to see what they're needed for. Vincent and Pansy have been tied to a tree and robbed blind; Kevin and the dwarves walk right by them to follow the huge scary dudes who took Vincent's stuff. All seven of the bandits walk into a snare trap and wind up hanging upside down while some distinctly scabrous and frightening-looking Merry Men want to know what's up with them, as it were. Randall says he's the leader of a gang of horrible robbers and the Merry Man decides to take them all back to meet the boss.

Back at the Merry Men's hideout, there's all kinds of Terry Gilliam-style slapstick (the first two robbers we meet are arm-wrestling; one tears the arm off the loser and throws it on a wheelbarrow full of severed limbs. Yes indeed, six-year-old Tim freaked out at this scene as well). There's also a group of men target-spitting at some frying pans (and the bandits), and a general aura of squalor and filth to the point where you can practically smell the pre-Renaissance BO in the camp. The whole crowd of degenerate thieves falls into terrified silence when the boss finally shows up, and...

...it's John Cleese acting like a genteel upper-crust snob forced to rub shoulders with the hoi polloi. He's also wearing a spotlessly clean costume of frilly green velvet over a perfect white tunic--the disparity is amazing. I didn't notice for years how goofily huge his Robin Hood hat is as well. He winds up looking like a ridiculous cartoon. The upper-crust twit is deeply impressed with the haul that the bandits have brought to his camp and can't wait until he gives it all away to the poor. You can practically hear the mental "...Wait, WHAT?" from Randall once it becomes clear that Robin Hood will be taking all of the gang's ill-gotten gains and distributing them to the impoverished people in and around the greater Sherwood Forest metropolitan area. But the bandits are surrounded, outnumbered and completely cowed by the Scary Merry Men, so off their loot goes into the hands of the poor (they also get a punch in the face from one of the hugest Merry Men available, which is explained to Robin as something that is regrettably necessary; the nobleman acquiesces and tells them to carry on, of course).

Randall decides to leave the Merry Men since they're just going to take all their stuff, and during a thunderstorm (passing Vincent and Pansy, still tied to the tree). Fractures in the band's leadership structure manifest themselves, and while everyone other than Kevin squabbles in a mud puddle over who's going to get the map, the scene shifts to a scrying pond in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, where Evil is looking at the bandits and plotting to take their stuff. And this is where I became a David Warner fan for life (Hi, Mr. Warner, on the extremely minor chance that you're reading this. You are the best.)

Evil is stuck in a dingy industrial space with his minions, who are a bunch of thickheaded middle-aged and older louts in protective plastic clothing. Whenever one of them says something that Evil doesn't like (which is often) he zaps them with lightning from his hands, destroying the henchman in a fit of pique. Which is right and proper for a mastermind, because hench are a dime a dozen.

I should point out here that Warner isn't playing Evil as "the devil", although he's wearing flowing red robes and is explicitly described as a creation of the Supreme Being. He's Evil. That means that he is short-sighted, brutal, cruel, subtle, devious, witty, egomaniacal and obsessed with proving his place in the world--which, to him, is "in charge of the whole shooting match". He claims that he created himself and that he's all powerful, so you can add "deceptive" to that list of adjectives I listed a line or two farther up in this paragraph. Of course, one of his hench asks why he can't escape the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness if he's really all-powerful (and of course all the remaining peons shuffle away from that guy as he asks the question, because they know what's coming). Evil claims that he's hanging out with his coterie of bozos because he wants the Supreme Being to think he's safely locked away. But if he gets his hands on the map, he'll have the ability to go anywhere he wants, at any time. And that means a universe made over in Evil's technophilic image ("I would have started with lasers. Eight o'clock, day one!"). And he does have at least a glimmer of a point, in that the Supreme Being came up with three and a half dozen different types of parrot. Are they all truly necessary?

While Evil's ranting about his future of a world where everything's part of a massive mechanical construct his minion Benson spots the bandits and Kevin with the map. After vowing a horrible torture for his follower if the guy's wrong about anything, Evil decides to get the bandits' attention by mentally dominating Og, the dimmest of the crew. Speaking through Og, Evil tempts the bandits with the promise of "the most fabulous object in the world", and everyone but Kevin thinks that sounds like a really cool thing to have. But before a vote can be taken about whether or not they should go get whatever the most fabulous object in the world is, events force their hands. What Wally mistakes for a forest fire is something arguably worse for the crew as that giant floating head shouts at them to return the map before something bad happens. They bolt for a nearby time hole and find not one but two of them. Kevin gets to the site first and finds not one, but two time doorways. He runs through one that closes right behind him as the bandits struggle through the gale-force winds to get away from the giant floating head.

This has the function of returning the focus exclusively to Kevin, since he's been separated from the bandit gang and is now completely on his own. The time hole he ran through drops him off in ancient Greece (just like he was reading about at the start of the film). In fact, it's Kevin plummeting down from a hole in the sky that fatally distracts a minotaur that was winning a fight against King Agamemnon. The legendary actor that plays Agamemnon wound up in this movie thanks to a willingness to schedule the film around his availability as well as a joke in the screenplay that the original agent 007's agent heard about (something along the lines of "The king removes his helmet to reveal it is none other than SEAN CONNERY or an actor of equal stature that the production could actually afford"). After making short work of the minotaur, Agamemnon decides that the child who fell from the heavens and saved his life must have been sent by the gods. Therefore he should treat the boy with respect and gratitude, even if "Kevin" is not a name that sounds particularly divine. He rides back to Mycenae with Kevin in tow for a celebratory feast (and showing off the minotaur's severed head as a trophy).

This turns out to be a pleasant interlude for the boy, with crowds of admiring ancient Greeks cheering him (and their king, of course) as they enter the city. There's plenty to eat, no homework, and as many hyperviolent murals showing battles between hundreds of warriors as a kid could want. And in Agamemnon, Kevin finds a father figure that's supportive and interested in him, a complete 180 from his own loutish father back in England and several millenia in the future. And it's interesting that Kevin appears to be getting what he needs from this relationship rather than what he wants (he thinks learning how to swordfight would be brilliant; Agamemnon is more interested in showing off conjuring tricks to perhaps the one person in the city-state that won't excessively fawn over him). Kevin burns through at least a couple packs of Polaroid film capturing images of the city and tells the king that he wants to stay there rather than returning home to his real father and his friends. Well, Agamemnon assumes he's got friends but I'm betting a bookish ten-year-old did about as well in England in 1981 on that score as I did in 1985 in the suburbs of Chicago.

Agamemnon declares that the next day he'll make an official proclamation about whether or not Kevin's going to return home, although what anyone's going to do without the map of holes in time to restore him to his rightful place is anyone's guess. A pair of silent, golden-masked figures drag Kevin out of his bed and place him on a horse, leading him into Agamemnon's public audience chamber (and Kevin, like the viewing audience, has no idea if these guys are planning to kill him or not). It turns out that he's hit the jackpot--Agamemnon not only says that Kevin can stay in Mycenae, but that he's going to be adopted as the king's son and heir. Looks like Kevin picked the right time hole to flee through, though from the scowl on the queen's face when she hears that news (which Kevin and Agamemnon utterly fail to notice) he might want to invest in a couple guards and a food taster.

Speaking of food tasting, there is a celebratory banquet after the king's pronouncement complete with a troupe of masked and elaborately costumed dancers spinning and shaking their way through the throne room. Six of them, as it turns out, none of them taller than a child. Once their full-head masks come off Kevin recognizes his erstwhile gang, and shouts that he doesn't want to go when they drag him towards their heap of treasure "donated" by the guests at the banquet. They raise a tapestry up to shield themselves from the revelers' gaze and when it falls to the ground they've all vanished completely. It's Agamemnon who first figures out that they're not coming back, and the film cuts to smokestacks on a luxury liner in the Gilded Age before he can do more than stand up in shock. Like his arrival in Mycenae, it looks like Kevin got what he needed out of the bandits' arrival, not what he wanted.

On that luxury liner, incidentally, are another Vincent and Pansy, professing love to each other despite Vincent's nose (it's got a "thing on the end of it" in his words). Vincent's marriage proposal is fatally injured by six dwarves and a child landing on top of him and dislodging his toupee, the poor bastard.
But despite an inauspicious arrival, the bandits settle in for a pleasant sea voyage. They had enough gold and jewelry to pay for a ticket, it would appear, and the on-board tailor has fitted all of them out in perfectly tailored tuxedos. They all clean up quite well, as it turns out. But even with suits and bow ties and fresh-cut carnations in their boutonnieres the bandits are still greedy little jerks. But now they're greedy little jerks with a plan. Randall took a look at the map and found that the most fabulous object in the world really does exist, and its location is indeed listed on there.

It turns out that the ultimate treasure is hidden away in "the Time of Legends", which sounds like the right place for it. There's no time hole that leads to the legends though; you just have to believe in it strongly enough to get there. Randall also mentions that the most fabulous object in the world is stashed away in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, which means that Evil just has to hang out for a little while longer vaporizing the occasional henchman in a fit of pique until Randall and his gang bring the map to him directly. Kevin's not really sold on this plan (and is still sulking about getting kidnapped out of ancient Greece) but it looks like events are going to make his mind up for him quite soon. That luxury liner of the Gilded age they're all sailing on? It's the Titanic. Incidentally, the lifesavers in the movie have "S. S. Titanic" painted on them, but the actual ship was the RMS Titanic. This also makes the James Cameron blockbuster the second movie to have both David Warner and the Titanic sinking in it.

There's nothing like clinging to a scrap of wreckage in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic to make people get over their misgivings, and the seven members of the group decide to believe their way into the Time of Legends as opposed to dying in a shipwreck. Og's the one who tells everyone that it's time to start the quest (but Evil's voice is overlaid on the soundtrack when he talks) and the group gets sucked down a whirlpool of Evil's making as they start believing their way into the place they need to get to. They wind up falling up into the sky while the film is reversed (a low-budget but neat way to show that things are different where they've gone) and find themselves bobbing on alien tides as a pirate ship floats near them.

The ship turns out to be crewed by a seven-foot tall snaggle-tusked ogre and his wife (who was supposed to be in extensive makeup until the actress convinced the director that it would be funnier if she was just a perfectly ordinary person married to the ogre). In keeping with Terry Gilliam's bent sensibilities, the monster and his wife are a perfectly happy middle-aged couple devoted utterly to each other. Their domestic bliss is interrupted when the ogre casts a net out into the sea to catch his dinner and winds up with six dwarves and a child on the deck of his boat. The ogre's got a bad back ("I grew too fast when I was younger", he complains) so he can't do much more than roar at the dwarves when he tries to terrify them, but that turns out to be quite sufficient until the ogre inevitably throws his back out picking up Kevin.

Kevin's gotten better at thinking fast since he got dropped out of his bedroom and into an adventure and he tells the ogre (who turns out to be named Winston) that if he and the dwarves stretch his limbs out it'll fix his back. That even turns out to work, but the main thing Kevin wanted to do was get the ogre on his back while he and the dwarves grab his limbs. Winston and his wife are rather easily outwitted, as fairy-tale monsters are, and after the ogre coughs hard enough to fill the boat's sails the crew makes their escape. Everything looks like it's going well for once until the ship runs aground on something that lifts it into the air. Which turns out to be a giant so huge that it doesn't notice the ship on its head as it stomps off onto the shore (an amazing image on the big screen, and pretty great even just on television).

The scene with the giant, incidentally, is one of the more Pythonesque bits in the film. In the Monty Python's Flying Circus television show Terry Gilliam's job was to link the various sketches together in each episode with his trademark cutout animations. Here in the film each previous vignette ended when the Time Bandits had to put on their boogie shoes and flee the giant floating head, but this time it's the giant striding along that gets them away from the ogre and on to the next section of the narrative. And that's certainly random and surreal enough to be a Terry Gilliam linking animation, even if it is in real life.

The episodic nature of the film can also be explained by the fact that two of the Monty Python troupe wrote it--it's the sort of thing that would make up an episode of their show. Other than having the continuing group of characters in Kevin and the dwarves, I can certainly imagine that an episode of the Flying Circus would make fun of Robin Hood one moment and have Satan griping about how God put nipples on men for no reason in another. It's the through-line of Kevin's adventures that makes the narrative cohere, although how many acts the screenplay is using and in what order they are is an open question.

The bandits try to figure out a way to stop the giant, and the best they can come up with is prying up the planks in the bilge and hitting the giant's exposed head with a mallet. Of course he doesn't even notice that, and it's up to Kevin to think of something again. The ogre had a bunch of patent medicines and pharmaceuticals to deal with the infirmities of middle age--among them is a gallon jar full of sleeping potion. Filling a fireplace bellows with the knockout elixir and using it as an improvised hypodermic needle means that after a slight stinging sensation on his scalp, the giant wants to take a nap. One he lies down it's a simple matter for everyone to bail out and make their way towards the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness.

Somewhere in a gravelly wasteland where the map indicates the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness is supposed to be (but where nothing's visible to the horizon in every direction, the crew walks straight into an invisible barrier. ("Oh! So that's what an invisible barrier looks like!"). Nobody figures out how to breach it until an argument with Randall turns more violent than usual; he throws a skull at Wally when his subordinate takes the map and the barrier shatters, leaving a hellishly jagged mountainscape filling the screen while the fragments of the barrier show an empty stone desert stretching off impossibly at the same time (this one shot, more than anything else in the film,  proves that Terry Gilliam was going to have one hell of a career in fantasy and science fiction cinema).

The group is suitably awestruck at the sight in front of them and proceeds towards the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, a slate-grey castle made of spikes and spires, and impossibly tall. The group tries to sneak inside, their minds on the most fabulous object in the world, when the gates slam shut behind them and trap everyone in Stygian darkness. A dazzling spotlight illuminates the subject of the group's quest off in the distance and the stone maze they have to traverse is another staggering vista made possible by a matte painting and Terry Gilliam's outsized imagination.

It turns out that the most fabulous object in the world is actually just that kitchenette that Kevin's parents barely paid attention to on that game show in the first five or ten minutes of the movie--which is nothing that he's impressed with, but Randall and company sprint off to find their way through the maze to get to it. None of them listen to him when he tries to explain that it's got to be a trap, but when he sees his own parents behind the MC he knows for sure that it's got to be some kind of illusion.

Not that it helps anyone when Evil snags the map from Randall. Kevin, even though he wasn't dumb enough to run right into Evil's power, gets captured by a shrieking black-cloaked figure with a horse skull for a head and joins the dwarves in an iron cage that's hanging by a rope above a massive black abyss, with darkness as far as anyone can see in any direction, including up--another striking yet simple image from Gilliam and his production designers. Incidentally, one way to make the space look even bigger than it was? Having some of the other model cages built half-size so they look farther away from the cage the protagonists are in. With nothing other than a black void on the screen, it's impossible to accurately judge the distance between things.

 Moping in the cage and reflecting on the fact that Evil's going take over the universe, Kevin sorts through his pictures and spots the one of everyone holding up the map. Which means he's got at least a cruddy copy of the map that can get him and the bandits anywhere in time and space. And, happily enough, there's a massive time hole in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness. All they have to do is figure out some way to get from one cage to the next and work their way back to the fortress (and then defeat Evil and get the map back, but first things first). The plan involves picking the lock on the cage door with a knife Kevin appropriated in his adventures and then slicing strands of rope from the gigantic knot securing the cage. Tying the rope around Strutter's waist, he becomes a living grappling hook on a pendulum and eventually grabs on to the next cage. Now he's got to hang on while Wally swings to the next cage and serves as an anchor for the rope so each of the bandits can slide to safety. It's an ingenious plan, and shots of the rapidly fraying rope atop the original cage show the audience how little time and how much risk is involved in carrying things off. The sequence is almost wordless as well, showing rather than telling as each phase of the plan is carried out.


The plan succeeds and Randall is ready to find the gigantic time hole and run away; Kevin tells him that Evil's going to destroy everything if he keeps the map and it looks like the bandits have been changed by their exposure to Kevin because they immediately agree to go back into mortal danger to keep the map out of Evil's grasp. Right now Evil's coming up with a plan to "remake man in Our image, not His". While he's working on his plan, Evil turns one of his surviving henchmen into a dog and commands him to guard the map (correctly assuming that a dog would do a better job than the idiots he's been saddled with). As he walks off with another henchman explaining computers and nuclear reactors to him the dwarves sneak in along with Kevin and Benson, growling to warn Evil about the intruders, gets told to shut up by his master and then winds up distracted by a bone.

Og snags the map and chucks it at his compatriots, but gets found out and Evil zaps him, turning him into a pig-man. As the Time Bandits make a run for it Evil summons a shrieking cohort twelve foot tall, of horse-skull-headed demons that bash their way through solid stone while tracking down the intruders. But they're not the cleverest beings in the whole entire world and miss their quarry while searching. Kevin comes up with a desperate plan:  Each of the dwarves other than Og (who can't talk while he's a pig) will dive into the gigantic time hole in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness and bring back help. Hopefully that'll be enough to defeat Evil. In order to buy time for this plan, Og and Kevin are going to stick around in the fortress and distract the forces of Evil.

After Kevin yells at the demons to get their attention in an insanely reckless charge, he turns a corner and comes face to face with the glowering form of Evil. Surrounded and outnumbered, he still refuses to hand over the map (and even threatens to burn it after swiping a torch from a conveniently close and slow minion). Evil incinerates all of his forces and blasts Og when the half-pig tries to run, then swipes the map from Kevin when he's distracted by that. His face glowing red, Evil advances on Kevin when a tank busts through the wall with Randall in command. A quartet of knights in shining armor, a squadron of Roman archers, a spaceship piloted by Wally and a trio of cowboys all join in as well, and each one is made short work of by Evil as they attack.

The cowboys are flung over the walls of the fortress to fall into the abyss while Evil flicks the arrows back at the archers with universally fatal results. The knights charge in and Evil puts on a gas mask as evil yellow smoke billows around him (which is almost certainly a comment on mechanized warfare of the Twentieth Century and its total disregard for the laws of chivalry). The horses get out of that boondoggle but the knights all wind up spitted on their lances and wind up looking like a macabre piece of modern art. The tank and spaceship are taken over by Evil (who laughs about how machines are his to control) and Fidgit doesn't survive the attempt to take Evil down.

I should point out here that knights, soldiers, cowboys and spacemen are all the kinds of heroes a grade school boy would have (and the archers are also the kind of thing a bookish history buff would know about); there have been several hints over the running time of the film that all the adventures are taking place in one fantastically detailed dream of Kevin's--for one thing, everyone he meets speaks English that Kevin can understand, which doesn't seem too likely in Sherwood Forest or in ancient Greece. The tank, the knights, the spaceship and everything else he's encountered so far can be glimpsed either on the incredibly cluttered floor of his bedroom or on the wall that he and the dwarves shove down an impossible hallway to get away from the Supreme Being at the start of the film.

Speaking of the Supreme Being, he's the only thing that could possibly stand between Evil and the destruction and blasphemous recreation of the entire universe now that Evil has the map, so it's a good thing for the surviving (and human-shaped) protagonists that he petrifies Evil and ends the threat more or less effortlessly. Randall and his compatriots scoop up all the fragments of Evil they can find (after a hint from their boss, God, that they should be doing that). While they're busy picking up chunks of charcoal in the shape of a David Warner statue the Supreme Being restores Og to his normal shape and Fidgit to life. Because, after all, he has powers even greater than Evil does and also because those stone fragments aren't going to pick themselves up.

While the dwarves are busy putting all the chunks of carbonized Evil in a post box (where the British postal service can apparently be trusted to ensure that it will never be seen by anyone else, ever again) Kevin gets his travel-demolished clothes back from the Supreme Being--who, in a charmingly fussy detail, makes the boy sign for them before handing them over. But Kevin's not satisfied with the conclusion of his adventures, and takes the Supreme Being to task for all the people who just died in a futile attempt to defeat Evil. He winds up asking the ultimate question (and one that marks the intellectual development from a child to an adult as far as I'm concerned):  Why is there such a thing as Evil in the world, if the Supreme Being that created everything is supposed to be benevolent?

And the film doesn't put any remotely convincing words in the Supreme Being's mouth when he gets asked. First he ducks behind a pillar to avoid engaging with Kevin and then steps back out to say "I think it's something to do with free will". Forget the ogre married to a middle-aged British woman and the arm-wrestling match that tears someone's limb off every time they lose; that line of dialogue is the most twisted thing in the film, and viciously unsuitable for a child to overhear. I'm indebted to Gilliam on a level I can barely articulate for having heard it when I was too young to process what it meant.

Randall and company are all punished by the Supreme Being for running off with his map and stealing things by getting demoted as well as a pay cut "backdated to the dawn of time" but considering what kind of things the old man did to smite anyone that looked at him cross-eyed in the Old Testament they got off lucky. And as for Kevin, he gets restored to his bedroom in a cloud of smoke that could either be a reference to the pillar of white smoke that gets sucked up into the sky with the dwarves and the Supreme Being in it (another really cool looking thing that Gilliam put in the movie) or the billowing yellow smog emanating from a loaf-of-bread sized fragment of Evil that everyone overlooked while cleaning up.

The smoke follows Kevin to his bedroom, where a fireman smashes down the door and hauls him out of his bed while flames billow in the hallway. Outside his parents are arguing about whether or not to run back into the inferno to rescue their toaster (mom votes for it; dad's against the idea). Kevin's still got his satchel with him, though, and inside it are a series of Polaroid photos featuring daily life in Mycenae, a group of eclectically dressed dwarves holding up the map of all the frayed spots in time and space, and everything else he captured for posterity on his journey. Oh, and the fireman that grabbed him up and yanked him out of mortal danger? He looks pretty familiar to the boy.

But there's still one last jolt coming. The toaster oven was apparently running all night and whatever was inside it started the house-destroying fire. What's left inside it now is a carbonized lump a little larger than a closed fist that's emitting a foul-looking yellow smoke. A very, very familiar-looking yellow smoke. Kevin shouts to his parents that it's evil and they shouldn't touch it...and, well...they really should have listened to their son for once. The firemen drive off and Kevin looks like he's got the real adventure ahead of him, with no help from anyone to get him where he's going. Congratulations, kid, you just grew up in a matter of seconds.

I adore this movie. I am an utterly biased reviewer. You should watch it and you should make sure your children, if you have any, see it when they're too young to process all the caustic wit and realize what Gilliam is really saying at the end. This film is one of the things I saw that was wrong for me, and I wound up desperately wanting more. I still do.

_____________________________________________________

This review was part of the Celluloid Zeroes' look at oddball movies pitched to children but possibly screamingly inappropriate for them. You know, for kids. The other entries in this roundtable are as follows:

Micro-Brew Reviews studies The Magic Serpent and draws several conclusions.

Psychoplasmics cracks The Gate open a bit to see what's on the other side.

Seeker of Schlock swings into view with Spider-Man.

The Terrible Claw Reviews puts on a referee shirt for Gamera Vs. Viras.

The Web of the Big Damn Spider counts up The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.




Monday, March 28, 2016

Extreme Prejudice (1987)



Story by John Milius and Fred Rexer; Screenplay by Deric Washburn and Harry Kleiner
Directed by Walter Hill

Nick Nolte:  Jack Benteen
Powers Boothe:  Cash Bailey
Michael Ironside:  Major Paul Hackett
Clancy Brown:  Master Sergeant Larry McRose
William Forsythe:  Sergeant Buck Atwater
Maria Conchita Alonso:  Sarita Cisneros

I just saw Turbo Kid yesterday and now I'm in the mood for some more scenes of Michael Ironside being a total badass. While I'm at it, I'm also in the mood for some Walter Hill-directed action and the original mission statement of this blog ("Use the movies of the time to examine Cold War politics") means that I really ought to take a look at something that uses the War on (Some of the People Who Take Some Varieties Of) Drugs as a plot device.

So here we are. I'm sure this one will be testosterone-poisoned, even for a Walter Hill Joint. There are five different characters listed as some kind of sergeant in the IMDB credits as well as two deputies and the intriguingly named "Man with Chub" and "Chicken Champ Kid". A quick scan of the performers shows that the gender balance of the movie is about 19:1 in favor of men. That's the kind of imbalance you normally only see in a Chang Cheh movie, and since it's Walter Hill in charge of this film I'm willing to bet that it'll be saying things about masculinity, not just having characters be really masculine over the running time.

The title is a fragment of the phrase "terminate with extreme prejudice", which is CIA and military slang for a shoot-to-kill order, or more colloquially, "Wreck the shit out of that guy", and hopefully some day there will be a direct-to-VOD action movie called Wreck the Shit Out of That Guy. Or, if we're really lucky, that will be the subtitle for The Raid 3. Now on to the narrative.

Hey, remember teletypes? It's what people used before text messages, cell phones, the Internet, and other 21st century communications technologies to get information around quickly. And they were bulky machines, usually owned by newspapers, the military, and spy agencies--at least in movies. I wouldn't know about how they got used in real life. At any rate, the first image on the screen in Extreme Prejudice is a dot-matrix teletype cranking away informing the Clancy Brown character that he's been reassigned to "Zombie Unit". The word "Werewolf" shows up without any context--and in too close of a shot to get any context for its appearance. Dare I hope that this isn't just a Walter Hill action movie about a border war between drug gangs and a Texas Ranger, but that it's also going to have monsters in it? I think a werewolf with a Stetson hat and a Ranger badge would be a heck of a thing to put in a film (Asylum studios, if you're reading this, email me! We'll come up with something!). The viewer sees words, then sentence fragments (in a closer shot) and then just individual letters (in an even closer shot). Which probably means that the viewer, like the characters, is deliberately not being given the full story right from the start. Which is completely appropriate for a war-on-drugs movie from 1987, or an unfortunate artifact of the DVD I've got the film on, which is cropped to full frame instead of widescreen.

Master Sergeant Larry McRose steps off a bus toting his luggage and sporting a really impressive several-weeks-growth beard. We only get to see him for a second or two before his ID card from the US Army gets shown on screen as well as a caption that he was declared missing in action in 1972 and is officially presumed dead. At the same bus terminal, there's the loudmouthed hick Buckman Atwater, officially killed defusing a bomb in 1974 and his "body damaged beyond recognition". A third sergeant, Charles Biddle, was officially killed in a helicopter crash in 1983 and his body never recovered. I realize this is the same setup for joining MegaForce, but I'm willing to overlook that in favor of seeing what Walter Hill does with the concept of badass military men who can never go back to their previous lives. Biddle's attempt to set up a booty call on a pay phone is interrupted by a fourth sergeant, the towering Luther Fry, "killed" during a training exercise in 1977. Their conversation is interrupted by Staff Sergeant Declan Coker literally jumping up on Fry to greet him; Coker was on a chartered plane that went down in 1984 and his body was never identified. Collectively they're team and their individual roles are the Leader (Hackett), the Conscience (McRose), the Muscle (Fry), the Techie (Biddle) and The Guy Who Doesn't Really Get a Trait (Coker).

That's a lot of dead-on-the-paperwork soldiers to be in one place. And the sixth one, a major named Paul Hackett, is listed as killed in action during the evacuation of Saigon in 1973; there was a mass burial, so Hackett didn't even get an individual gravestone to show where his body is supposed to be. The soldiers catch up with each other with an expected amount of dick measuring and friendly insults, with Fry and McRose immediately breaking off their hostilities when the major tells them that there are no problems. Well, technically there was probably a question mark there but Hackett was undeniably telling his subordinates that they were not going to have a problem with each other.

Then it's time for the credits over a red-and-orange sky at sunset; Nick Nolte and Powers Boothe have first and second billing but neither of their characters were in that opening scene. Walter Hill gets his name on the screen just as the sky is going fully black, and then the scene shifts to jacked-up trucks driving in a torrential rainstorm. The Texas Rangers in the lead truck pull up to a bar, where they identify a known dope runner's vehicle outside and wonder why the Border Patrol is so terrible at catching up with criminals who make their way from Mexico to Texas. While the passenger radios the Border Patrol to let them know that a criminal named Chub is driving back over the border and maybe they could try to capture him this time, the driver, Jack Benteen, brings a shotgun into the bar--which is full of Hispanics that don't look like they want a Texas Ranger in there at that particular moment. Benteen notifies a drug grower named T. C. that they're going to be leaving together. T. C. notifies Benteen of his refusal to put handcuffs on himself and go out to the Ranger truck by drawing a pistol; the criminal winds up dead and one of his friends gets smacked unconscious with the stock of the shotgun. Which shows that Benteen isn't one of those "shoot everyone" kinds of 80s cops--he's willing to take people in alive but concussed but alive, which is pretty unique for action movies of this vintage.

The other Ranger provides some backup and the third member of T. C.'s organization gets cuffed and hauled out as well; the film doesn't mention it but presumably crime scene photographers will get there soon and an ambulance that won't be bothering with lights or sirens will be along for T. C.'s body eventually. Benteen goes back to his place and wakes up his girlfriend Sarita, who works a different shift than the Ranger and is happy for the opportunity to actually see him without having to schedule time for it in advance. Benteen's not thrilled that he had to kill someone earlier (which makes him rather atypical for an action hero in this decade), and even less happy that he did it because farming pays so little in the region that dope running for someone named Cash Bailey is the only way for some people to hang on to their land and livelihoods (how in the hell did a nuanced look at drug importation get on American movie screens in 1987?).

Meanwhile, somewhere else, a stubbly guy in a sweat-stained white suit and cowboy hat watches a helicopter approach his ranch and plays with a scorpion that climbed out of a big bag of weed before crushing the arachnid in his bare hand. That's our introduction to Cash Bailey. Bailey's operation is being watched by a couple of the soldiers from the opening scenes; there's a rust-bucket truck three decades old that transports ledgers and cash for Bailey's operation. It makes sense to me that a smart drug lord wouldn't flash a lot of style in this area--everyone wears jeans, not Armani suits, and having a gleaming black limo drive up to the bank twice a week would effectively put a blinking neon sign up saying YOU CANNOT IGNORE THAT I AM A DRUG LORD with Bailey's signature in bright electric blue. As it is, his operation has attracted the notice of the black ops squad, but that's a completely different level of attention that forcing the local police or sheriffs (or Rangers) to do something about you.

Whatever operation is going on, the Dead Boys know who Jack Benteen is just like they know how the drug profits are being laundered at a tiny local bank. And they watch one of Bailey's goons deliver a bomb in a rabbit cage to a local restaurant to take out some dude named Andy. As a consequence of this, Ranger Benteen and some local law enforcement types grab a low level dealer in order to tell the guy that he has a choice:  get arrested for selling drugs or tell Cash Bailey that Benteen wants to set up a meeting (in Mexico, out of the Ranger's jurisdiction). And the location is given as "the old blind where we used to hunt deer", which does not sound like the kind of thing you'd usually hear from a crusading lawman.

Another helicopter-landing-fueled transition ensues as we watch two of Bailey's goons (one of whom is played by the unmistakable Tom "Tiny" Lister, Jr.) tell Benteen they need his gun (the Ranger refuses, naturally) and Cash Bailey stepping out of the whirlybird to tell his hench that they can just back off; he trusts Benteen enough to keep a firearm in his possession in the drug lord's presence. Interesting. That quote from E. M. Forster about choosing between your country or your friend to betray comes to mind. It's been a while since they've seen each other but the affection that Cash and Benteen have for each other appears to be completely unfeigned. Cash, in lieu of talking about their present circumstances, reminisces about the past and asks about a girlfriend the pair of them had (at the same time, if Bailey's story can be believed). Bailey implies that the bombing was a punitive action because one of his partners was skimming from the till, but also says he would like to set up a deal with Benteen to have the crime solved. Then, of course, he offers to bribe his old friend to the tune of a hundred grand a year to switch sides, and Benteen says he'd be perfectly willing to cross over but he'd have to quit being a Ranger if he did, and his value to the Cash Bailey personal cartel would be minimal without his badge.

Neither old friend wants to hurt the other (I know this is how I'd feel if Captain Telstar, the best character I made in seven years of playing City of Villains, ever had to throw down against BioVolt the lightning-throwing City of Heroes character played by my decades-long friend Joel). But there's still a pair of deaths to account for and the small matter of a drug pipeline from Mexico to the United States run by Cash Bailey. Benteen tells him that he's willing to look the other way long enough for his old friend to cash out and run away to some place that doesn't have an extradition treaty. Bailey isn't willing to consider cutting and running, and tells Benteen that he's on the wrong side of the Rio Grande to make threats. Benteen is implacable, even when Cash starts asking about Sarita, the woman from before, and mentions that he should have married her himself back in the day. Benteen won't be distracted, though, and tells his old friend one more time to skip town while he can and then walks away. Cash Bailey gets the last word, though, saying he's got a feeling that the next time they see each other one of them is going to be leaving feet first.

Whatever the Zombie Unit soldiers are up to, it starts in an unemployment office in Texas. Sergeant Atwater starts talking smack about the towering black dude a couple spaces ahead of him in line to talk to a clerk, and gets one-shotted out cold by Sergeant Fry as part of whatever plan this is. One assumes that Atwater's irritating enough that Fry volunteered for the chance to punch his lights out. Meanwhile, Major Hackett is talking to that bank president we saw briefly, wondering just how safe their safes are on site. And Atwater and Fry are shown in jail cells, setting up some kind of remote microphone system smuggled into the building in Fry's hollowed-out shoe heel. Atwater, acting serious for a change, lists off all the guns and riot gear that the police have in their station (and sums it up by saying they're perfectly set up to handle drunken hicks--damning with faint praise if I've ever heard it). Meanwhile, Hackett and his sinister black briefcase stop by the car that Sergeant McRose is driving; his trip to the bank was meant to give him the chance to scope out the security system there. I'd guess there's going to be a bank robbery coming up, and the soldiers want to know what kind of worst-case-scenario police firepower can be brought to bear against them.

Got room in your heart for another "meanwhile"? Meanwhile, the county sheriff that has been working with Benteen brings in a dossier on Cash Bailey that lists what he's been up to and how he became a weed baron over the last decade or so. He's got enough money and clout to escape legal consequences in Texas and in Mexico, and he's been successful enough that he thinks he can keep going that way indefinitely. And Benteen still thinks of Cash as his old friend, regardless of where life has taken the pair of them. The sheriff says that the easiest way is just about always the wrong one and uses a metaphor for water following the path of least resistance to explain why rivers and men go crooked. The sheriff leaves Benteen's office after cheerfully warning the Ranger about that Chub Luke guy they failed to catch earlier outside the bar where T. C. got shot to death; apparently Chub is going to lay some kind of ambush for Benteen on his drive home.

Nothing happens that day, but when he wakes up in the morning Sarita knows that Benteen had a meeting with her old ex-boyfriend Cash Bailey; apparently the Mexican community has a fully functional rumor mill that keeps people updated on all the important happenings in town (such as, say, a Texas Ranger slapping a low level dope seller around a little bit in order to set up a meeting with a big-time dope seller). Sarita asks what Bailey said about her and Benteen lies to her, saying the subject never came up--which boils over into an argument when she's showering and he's brushing his teeth. Sarita wants to know if Benteen's ever going to make an honest woman of her after two years of them sleeping together, and Benteen's obviously thinking about how much more his old buddy Cash has to offer her than he does--at least on a material level. It's also the angriest we've seen him so far in the film, which is interesting because we've seen him walk into a potential death trap, shoot someone who pulled a gun on him and try to save the life of an old friend from his rather distant past without getting rattled.

Over at his office, Benteen is taking his fight with Sarita out on everyone nearby, and the sheriff tries to defuse things (since it's Rip Torn, he more or less succeeds). A tip comes in about some drug deal stuff going down and Benteen heads out with the sheriff to go deal with it; they go right past the cell holding Sergeant Fry--a great reminder that the two plotlines are indeed intertwined, and that the military guys are going to get warned about what's going on thanks to that radio transmitter rig.

Next follow two scenes in cars--the sheriff and Benteen talk about how things are deteriorating in town and how T. C. used to be a really good kid along with his brother Chub (the sheriff mentions going on fishing trips with their father). In the other car, Sergeant McRose is driving Major Hackett somewhere and they're talking about having to blow up a building as a distraction before robbing the bank; Hackett says that they're only stealing money from the bank to cover up that they're also going to raid the safe deposit boxes. He also tells his driver that it's a national security issue when McRose says that he's not thrilled about using his black ops skills against American targets (especially if it means blowing up someone's property as a distraction for the sham operation that's covering the real operation). I'm really not used to Clancy Brown playing the nicest one in a group.

The sheriff and Benteen pull up to a dilapidated gas station that wouldn't be out of place in one of those spam-in-a-cabin movies. Arturo, the guy who owns the place, comes out to tell him there's been some Mexicans hanging out in the middle of nowhere drinking beer and waiting for someone; he says the guy with the beard got called "Chub" by the others. That's all our stalwart lawmen need to hear in order to jump into action. Benteen sneaks around to the back door while the sheriff and Arturo remain up front. And from a distance, Hackett and McRose keep an eye on the situation so they know what the local law enforcement is like.

Once the bullets inevitably start flying, the sheriff gets taken down by Arturo and Benteen is outnumbered as well as outgunned. Benteen has a lever-action rifle and some kind of automatic pistol up against a half a dozen people with submachine guns and assault rifles. But he's smarter and knows to do things like duck behind cover instead of walk around like he owns the place (he also, like the head of the Irish mob in Miller's Crossing, knows that shooting someone in the foot is a hell of a distraction). Chub and a couple of his underlings get away, and Benteen isn't going to be driving his Ranger truck anywhere without some extensive body work. The pickup truck full of dope slingers makes its way to Hackett's station wagon and Chubb and a nameless hench with a machete make their ultimate mistake when trying to carjack the pair of black ops soldiers. Hackett kills the machete guys with his bare hands, because you don't threaten Michael Ironside without serious consequences.

Time for another "meanwhile", wherein a call from Cash Bailey's lieutenant to a bank president is monitored and recorded by Sergeant Biddle, the guy who uses all the computers for the group. Every crew needs a tech guy, of course, and for fans of clunky Eighties computer and A/V gear this scene is a real treat. After we see that the shadowy military forces know what's going on with Cash Bailey's cash flow, Hackett shows up in disguise as a glasses wearing, pencil-pushing Fed to talk to Benteen about efforts to monitor the drug traffic along the Texas-Mexico border. benteen isn't particularly having any of it, and blows the "bureaucrat" off in no uncertain terms.

Time for a musical number. We all know from our reading that Walter Hill likes to put the occasional song in his films from time to time, and this one has Maria Conchita Alonso as the chanteuse at a bar, backed up by a mariachi band. The fake Fed invites himself to drink with Benteen, who happens to have very high standards for boozing partners. It also transpires that Benteen has requested help and information from the DEA for more than a year but never heard back from them, so he's less than thrilled that an unrelated paper-shuffler has shown up and assumes assistance from the local Texas Ranger will be forthcoming.

Once he starts talking, though, Benteen finds it hard to stop. He's sore about the sheriff getting gunned down, and furious that the drug tip that sent them to Arturo's was a trap. After dropping Cash Bailey's name as the local big fish and cause of all the recent ruckus, Benteen gives a shell casing from the scene to Hackett and is told that the manufacturer's mark on the brass--which Benteen doesn't recognize--can get ID'd in a day. Benteen says if that really happens he'll be impressed enough to cooperate with the federal guy's investigation and walks off. In 1987 people were awfully cavalier about the chain of evidence in homicide investigations. At least in Movie Texas, they were.

Sarita realizes that her man's knotted up and angry because of the sheriff's death, but Benteen says he can't talk about it (he's not the kind of man who does that). Instead, he's going to do something about it (because he is the kind of man who does that). Sarita wants to talk to her man about what's going on, and Benteen says things are too complicated right now with him, Cash and Sarita so he wants her to give talking about their situation a break; they part on bad terms.

The next morning, Atwater gets bailed out of his jail cell and goes to a car that has the three other sergeants in it. He's his usual happy asshole self until he finds out that the plan to rob the bank has changed and that it's going to be a "daylight hit". Even the jerkiest of the crew realizes that will result in deaths, and he didn't sign up to kill innocent Americans in his second life as a black ops soldier any more than any of the other men did. But McRose follows orders, just like he expects all the other men to do as well. A little later, we see Atwater and Fry in a sewer tunnel looking at the power cables going into the bank (and there's a completely gratuitous scene where Atwater stabs a sewer rat).

That night, and across the river in Texas, Bailey gets dropped off at an apartment building by his goons. He's not using the helicopter at this point, since that's a little conspicuous. He's still got a bright white suit on, though, so there's a limit to how sensible Bailey is willing to be. Biddle's still in the crew's surveillance van and we hear Bailey talking from a bug before we see who he's visiting. He makes reference to proving that he really wants whoever it is because it's a massive risk for him to be on the American side of the Rio Grande. Inevitably, it turns out to be Sarita that he's visiting. Just as she's not satisfied with what she gets from Benteen, she's not certain that fleeing the States and living life as Cash Bailey's kept woman is what she wants--after all, he left her before and he could do it again if he gets bored or spots someone he likes better. Bailey says it'll be different this time, and that Sarita's the best woman he's ever known. When the scene breaks off, it's an open question of whether or not Sarita's going to go with Cash, but the drug lord mentions a big Independence Day celebration coming up, and if I know my Walter Hill movies there's going to be plenty of fireworks that day.

Back at his office, Ranger Benteen is going through a CIA-supplied catalog of cartridge case markings; it looks like he's not convinced that the lab in Austin or his new friend with pull in Washington will be helping him out in time. He's just starting to consult the binder full of shell casing marks when Hackett shows up and tells him it's German ammo shipped to Montreal. The working hypothesis is that Bailey is buying foreign ammunition for some reason--perhaps American manufacturers weren't openly selling to Mexican drug cartels in 1987.

After changing his suit (the "D.E.A." functionary wears a white suit, a necktie and glasses when he's talking to Benteen; Hackett is in black with no glasses or tie when he's with his men) it's time for the official Heist Briefing. Rule One of Heist Club is that they have to look like civilian bank robbers in order for the overall plan to work. Rule Two is that they won't be using radios at any point once the robbery starts. Rule Three is that timing is paramount and Rule Four is that they will use beepers to signal their base of operations once things have been accomplished. It's not quite as precise as the First Gotham Mafia Bank getting knocked over by a crew of five (then four...three...two...oh, just the Joker at this point) but there's certainly plenty that has to go right in order for all the men to get away safe.

Hackett's going to give the go signal on site at the bank while everyone else takes their places and preps their tasks. Atwater rigs a semi truck with some kind of bomb as the distraction; Coker's stuck driving it and he's had the least dialogue in the film so far. He doesn't get blown up, though. He dives out of the semi before it smacks into a warehouse, sending it up into a cloud of smoke and flame and distracting the hell out of the local police (including Benteen). Several minutes after the warehouse goes up, Fry kills the phones at the sheriff's station, and the dispatch guys are too busy trying to get a dial tone to even suspect that something's up.

McRose and Fry--in security guard uniforms--get into the bank, disarm the requisite on-site elderly security guard, and start making their withdrawals. Meanwhile, Coker has driven into a ditch and can't get the car out of the sandy soil on the side of the road (even with Atwater pushing).  While the two fake security guards clear out the cash on hand, Hackett takes the bank president into the safety deposit box room, sticks a gun literally in his face, and asks if he feels like dying for Cash Bailey instead of handing over the man's safe deposit box. He's not interested in the money in there, but takes a couple of notebooks instead. Around this time, Coker and Atwater get their car back on the road and head into town for the rendezvous that they're probably just slightly late for now.

Bailey's money man takes about a step and a half into the bank before getting clubbed unconscious by Fry; he had two suitcases full of cash on him, so Hackett's people are probably financed for the next couple of decades. Add in the money they're swiping from the bank as well and they're doing fine. Well, they would be, but...answer me this. You ever seen a heist in a movie that went the way the criminals planned it to? Me neither. The first any of the soldiers know about things going wrong, it's when Fry gets shot to death by an Uzi-toting hench of Cash Bailey's. That guy lives about another four seconds more than Fry does, and the robbers leave in two vehicles just as Benteen drives up and sees Coker throw an illegal U-turn. A rather choppily edited chase scene ensues (I don't get much spatial information from closeups of Nick Nolte behind a steering wheel, myself) and when Coker drives down the wrong alley and racks his car up, he and Atwater surrender to the Ranger rather than compromise things any further.

Which means that Benteen runs their fingerprints once they're booked back in the sheriff's station (under fake names, which means I'm expecting Bill Forsythe to talk about using code names for the bank robbery). Seconds after he has the fingerprint cards ready to fax to the FBI, one of the deputies tells him the markings on some of the shells from the shootout at Arturo's were Special Forces issue, and therefore not to be listed in the standard catalogues of bullet casings. Oh, and when Benteen figures out that he needs to talk to the D.E.A. about their man, the personnel office says they've never had someone named Frank Ralston on the payroll. Benteen might be a cowboy more than an investigator, but he's far from stupid and he's starting to put two and two together a couple of times.

In the cells, Coker and Atwater are trying to figure out how to break out and rejoin their crew; McRose and Biddler are waiting around at their crappy van at the rendezvous point and wondering how long they should wait for Hackett. They also process their feelings about watching a friend and colleague die because the operation went south, with McRose pointing out that the grunts always wind up catching a bullet when the officers' plans don't work out perfectly. Biddle's also steamed that his friend was killed on American soil doing an op rather than in one of the hot spots they're used to working in.

Meanwhile, back at the sheriff's station, the records for Atwater, Coker and Fry have been sent over from the Army's records office. Benteen doesn't know precisely what's going on but he does know that it's something big and secret if three soldiers listed as KIA have been in his jail in the last week. Add the fake D.E.A. agent and the real bank robbery and it sure looks like some shadowy conspiracy type shit has been going down under his nose. He leaves the station after giving orders for a deputy to stand guard with a shotgun and gets to the cantina, where the bartender tells him Sarita left with "an old friend" and went to Mexico.

Benteen tracks Hackett down and brings a loaded rifle to their discussion--and Hackett gives him his real name and rank, though he doesn't bother with the serial number. After being asked the perfectly understandable question about why the U.S. military is robbing banks on American soil, Hackett says that Cash Bailey has documents that would embarrass the American government stashed in that bank along with a ton of money. If Hackett can be believed, Bailey used to be an undercover D.E.A. agent who went native and used what he knew about the law enforcement side of the drug war to set himself up as a regional power. Hackett tells Ranger Benteen that he and his men can sneak into Bailey's compound and take him out; all the major wants are Bailey's notebooks (again, if one can trust the word of a known liar). Benteen goes back to the station and relieves his (sleeping) deputy, then unlocks the door for Atwater and Coker. Next thing you know, the four military guys and Benteen are on a rickety old bus bound for Mexico, with Hackett telling the Ranger that he's going to have to follow orders on this operation and Atwater mumbling about how he has his buddies in the squad and his country and that's all he's got in his life.

In a crumbling hotel, everyone sits around sweating and loading their guns. Benteen leaves to go talk to Cash, having been told that half an hour after he gets to the Bailey hacienda the four soldiers are coming in guns a-blazing. Once he leaves, Hackett tells his squad that the rules of engagement are as follows:  Kill Bailey, and other than the soldiers he's talking to, nobody in the compound is to be considered a friendly. I mean, we knew Hackett was a villain because Michael Ironside is playing him, but still. That's cold. McRose pushes things as far as he's willing to (not far), but gets his objections on the record.

Benteen walks into the compound while the soldiers take a quick peek at the place from a distance and mark the defenses they need to account for. When the Ranger gets to the front porch of the hotel Bailey's taken over, the drug lord himself saunters out with a bottle of booze in his hand and says Benteen can take Sarita back over the border, but he's planning to stay. Benteen responds by challenging his old friend to a gunfight, one on one, like in the olden days. Bailey can't back down in front of all his men, so he agrees to it. Benteen surrenders his gun so that he can go inside Bailey's fortress and see that Sarita's all right before the showdown. This is what happens when someone watches too many Westerns as a kid.

In the calm before the storm, both Benteen and Cash talk to each other about how much they miss the old times and wonder what happened to each other. Benteen gives his back story--he left the little map speck border town he lived in and went to a series of big cities, but nothing felt right for him till he came back home and became a Ranger. I'm not sure I was expecting that, but it's nice that there's a scene with Nick Nolte and Powers Boothe just talking to each other about their regrets and how much they miss each other. In several of Walter Hill's movies, things come down to a one-on-one showdown--think of the dueling guitarists in Crossroads or the unforgettable sledgehammer fight at the end of Streets of Fire. This is the first Hill movie I've seen where it's an actual Western-style gunfight that things are headed towards.

During the conversation, Bailey loses his cool, saying there's no such thing as right or wrong--just choices. He's made his, and he's going to live or die by them. But he's not going to let anyone take his empire away (which leads me to think that Cash doesn't want people to know he started out as a snitch for the D.E.A. if he's getting so angry about the possibility of giving up his spot on the org chart). He punctuates his declaration of his place in the world by shooting one of his lieutenants point-black in the head, then telling Benteen that the man was stealing from him. Which means that he abused Cash's trust, and he will not abide that at all.

Bailey gets himself liquored and coked up but good, nerving up for the confrontation that he knows is coming. Benteen rises to order a tequila and gets joined at the bar by Atwater, who tells him that the half hour of lead time has been cut in half and Hackett wants the Ranger shot on sight. Even a lout like Atwater has his limits, though, and he warns the lawman rather than going along with his orders ("When the shootin' starts, keep your goddamned head down" is his exact advice).

Before the shooting can start, though, Hackett tracks down that money-toting dude from earlier in the film. He says they need to destroy all their records because the Mexican police and the D.E.A. have worked out a deal that ends the protection they've enjoyed so far. I have to say, even for a double-crossing sonofabitch, Hackett's quite a jerk. I don't think he's told the actual truth to anyone in the film, even the men he expects to follow his orders.

Down in the bar, Benteen notices cops filing in right before Sarita breaks away from Cash and goes to him. Upstairs, Hackett tells Merv the money guy that he needs Cash's notebook, then shanks the dude when he won't release it without Bailey's permission. Before he can even clean the blood off his knife, McRose pops in to see what's going on and puts his commanding officer at gunpoint.

Downstairs, it's just about duelling time between Cash and Benteen; the drug lord keeps up a constant stream of patter about how things are going to go because he's nervous and because Powers Boothe sounds great talking stuff up and Walter Hill knew that when he cast the man. Cash declares that the duel is a personal matter between him and Benteen, so his hundreds of guards with assault rifles are not to interfere. He also complains to Sarita that if she starts crying it's going to change the whole tone of the enterprise and he just doesn't feel like it's helping anything.

While we're experiencing duellus interruptus in the courtyard, McRose figures out that the bank robbery was Hackett working off the books and without permission on U.S. soil, The only thing that went wrong for the major wasn't Fry's death, it was the other four sergeants' survival. Hackett wants a gigantic pile of money, and he wants to retire somewhere and try to forget all the awful, awful shit he did for his country. He thinks that's perfectly reasonable, and worth setting his men up to die in a mission that was never sanctioned by anyone in the command structure. Just as McRose is about to shoot the major, two things happen. First, the pair of duellists in the courtyard reach their tenth step apart from each other and get ready to shoot. Second, one of Cash's guards walks in on McRose pointing an Uzi at the major and gets blasted in pre-emptive self defense. Then his body hits the courtyard and the shit well and truly jumps off.

For every one of Cash's security goons with a gun there's two or three unarmed partygoers. Benteen's on his own, Hackett is on his own, and the four sergeants don't all know they've been betrayed. Which makes for an interesting running gunfight, because the various factions don't all know what's going on and who their real enemies are. Benteen, for his part, gets Sarita into a Jeep and flees the chaos rather than try to fix things on his own. The unofficial creed might be "One riot, one Ranger" but he's not stupid enough to think he can outfight everybody with a single automatic pistol. Hackett gets taken out by his own men, who are almost immediately killed by two dozen of Bailey's goons, and after the battle is over it's time for Cash Bailey to face down his old friend again. This time Cash just wants Sarita to count to three and the shooting will start. It takes Ranger Benteen telling her to do it for her to start, but she refuses. So Cash just decides to draw on his oldest friend. He's a rotten shot, though, and misses every time. Benteen empties his gun into Bailey after giving him one last chance to surrender, which Bailey refuses to take.

And then it's one guy facing down a couple dozen armed Mexicans, with Benteen negotiating his release by telling Bailey's highest-ranking remaining hench, Lupo, that it's time for that guy to wear the white suit and give orders. Lupo says gringos are crazy, and it's time for the Mexican cartels to just go into business for themselves. Ranger Benteen and his girl walk off into their uncertain future, and since this isn't that kind of movie they aren't going off into the sunset. Instead it's just a hot summer day with a whole lot of bodies left behind them and the promise that nothing has truly been resolved.

Man, why couldn't Artisan have released that DVD in widescreen? I feel like I missed about a third of the movie with the shots getting framed the way they were, especially in the car chase before Atwater and Coker are captured. Other than that, it was a fine experience, with a much more subtle and reasonable treatment of the drug trade than I would have expected for the penultimate of the Reagan years. Perhaps that's one of the reasons this flick doesn't really get a lot of love that I've seen, even among action fans and Walter Hill cultists. I mean, showing that the entire system is compromised from top to bottom and the requisite One Tough Ranger is barely able to escape with his life at the end of it? I wasn't expecting that in the least. And knowing that the drug gangs are going to continue smuggling their stuff across the border and do whatever they want? I wasn't expecting that either. Finding out that the super-awesome soldiers doing secret missions for the government were all suckers betrayed by their CO? Didn't see that coming either. It's the kind of movie I'd expect from Walter Hill, where the tough stoic men live or die based on the strength of their character. And it's something that flies in the face of virtually every other action movie I can think of from that decade, saying that problems are messy and unsolvable by direct action, even by a man who's the third Texas Ranger in three generations in his family. Hell, I'm not even sure he gets the girl at the end or if they just stick together till they're back in Texas.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Celluloid Zeroes Petroni Fide Roundtable: The Human Factor (1975)


Original screenplay by Peter Powell and Thomas Hunter
Directed by Edward Dmytryk

George Kennedy:  John Kinsdale
John Mills:  Mike McAllister
Rita Tushingham:  Janice
Raf Vallone:  Lupo



The Celluloid Zeroes are saluting the late George Kennedy with this roundtable, celebrating his work in cinema's trenches for decades. Yes, he did indeed win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in Cool Hand Luke, but the kinds of movies we're going to be talking about are the ones that he took for a paycheck rather than for the prestige. Kennedy himself knew how to poke fun at his image (he called the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrams after Airplane! came out, asking them why they didn't call him when they were making it since he'd been in all the Airport movies that they were parodying; that is why he would up in their six-episode wonder Police Squad! as well as the Naked Gun movies that were made a decade after the show went off the air). His physique was that of a stocky guy who was aging relatively well; it's a far cry from the chiseled bodies that get to do action movie things now. But once upon a time movies could star people who looked like him, and Checkpoint Telstar and its friends look back on those days fondly.

Is there anything that guarantees someone's going to get racked up more than a seemingly ordinary morning at the start of a movie? John Kinsdale has a cholesterol-packed breakfast with his kids at an ordinary looking suburban breakfast table, talking to one of his sons about a forthcoming sportsball game (which has been cancelled, according to the kid) and intervening with wisdom and humor when his young daughter wants to bring some kind of gigantic plush-doll person to school with her. Then he leaves his garage (stuffed so full of things in boxes and kids' bikes and wagons that there's no room for a car), gets into his blue station wagon and goes to work. There's a shady-looking dude working on a car on the street next to Kinsdale's house, though, and the viewer gets to think about that while a vaguely ominous piano theme plays under the credits and Kinsdale drives to the office, which has ALLIED FORCES SOUTHERN EUROPE / FORZE ALLEATE SUD EUROPA painted on the entrance gate overpass.

Kinsdale turns out to be an electronics engineer and computer expert for the Allied militaries in Naples; it's a slow day at work so he and a colleague, Mike McAllister, are playing a racing game on a mainframe (with Atari 2600 level graphics until one of them crashes; then it's stock footage of Grand Prix disasters on a loop). Kinsdale's wife calls to remind him that they're remodeling the patio and she's hiring a part-time nanny; things are still slow enough at work that more time is dedicated to discussing a birthday present for Kinsdale's son Jeffrey than to anything related to the military-industrial complex. It's a bad omen when an ambulance passes Kinsdale on the drive home after work and an worse one when he sees more than one of them (and a few police cars) parked outside his house, lights flashing and sirens still on.

Inside the house is Kinsdale's worst nightmare--his family is lying under bloody morgue sheets in the living room. The fake blood is fire-engine red, and I'm choosing to interpret that is intentionally lurid to make the crime scene look like a pulp magazine color. There's an Italian cop who says the victims were killed execution-style, which Italy wasn't used to at this point. And everyone's so concerned with the logistics of getting the bodies out of the house and to the waiting ambulances that nobody notices Kinsdale coming in until he wails over the body of his wife. That seemed like a realistically awful thing to have happen. God knows what he's thinking as he drives back to the crime scene (or, as he thought of it up until that day, his home) and past a couple kids playing in the street. Once he's back home, though, there's an empty bed and dozens of memories lying in wait to torture him.

In the manner of mass slayings in movies since the invention of mass electronic communications, a television news report drops some exposition on the audience while Kinsdale goes through his sock drawer and pulls out his duty weapon (a .45 Colt automatic) and a box of ammunition. As he listens silently to the news report about his family's deaths Kinsdale puts the gun to his head, but then decides to shoot the TV instead. There's a picture of John and his wife next to the television set; it's an interesting contrast to have the shattered glass of the picture tube and the intact glass over the photo in the same frame. And it's interesting to me to watch Kennedy playing a grieving husband and father. Yes, the point to the movie is that he's gonna seek vengeance on the killers of his family, but the film took the time to show him as a decent provider and a caring father and husband before putting him through sheer hell. I haven't actually seen the first Death Wish film so I'm not certain how little grieving Paul Kersey does before going out into the world with a nickel-plated revolver, but at twelve minutes into The Human Factor the death wish the protagonist is demonstrating is directed at himself, not at the world.

Over at the Naples main police station, the homicide detectives are asking John whether or not he got along with his wife (apparently looking at him as a suspect even though he was at work behind a security checkpoint when the killings took place). Inspector Lupo also has to ask if his family had been threatened by anyone, and Kinsdale doesn't know of anything that would have fit that bill. As a way to put the grieving father at ease, the chief detective shows off the crime lab and computer facilities at police HQ. He's also talking at least a little bit about DARPANet's precursors to the internet when he mentions the way they can transmit evidence to other police mainframes electronically (which makes me wish for a CSI show where that first letter stood for "Colossus").

The detective mentions that there was trace evidence at the scene--Kinsdale's wife grabbed a few hairs out of her assailant's head and they're being analyzed at the Carabinieri headquarters. Apparently the hair tonic the murderer used came from the Soviet Union, and microanalysis of the hair fibers themselves mean that Kinsdale has at least a vague idea of who the killer is now (a red-haired male between the age of 25-45 or so--and one with rH negative blood factors, not that you can tell that by looking at someone). He runs out of the room and stalks out of the complex after he hears that and goes back to his office to bury himself in his work. Back at the office, McAllister is goofing with a machine that goes "ping" and tells Kinsdale that he's welcome to return but everyone's surprised to see him back after so little time. It turns out that Kinsdale wants to use NATO's resources to track down his family's killers, and wrote a program--longhand, in a notebook--that should help him do just that. He tells McAllister that he knows just how far up shit creek they'll be if they get caught and he'll understand if his coworker decides not to do it. McAllister just says they should get started.

Immediately after that, we get a visit from this movie's version of the Stupid Chief. It's a general with NATO who offers to give Kinsdale an extended leave of absence to get over his loss ("Wouldn't you rather go home?" "What home?". Ouch.) Kinsdale tells the general he'd prefer to stay in Naples and throw himself into his work and his commanding officer just backs down and leaves. The general isn't a complete idiot, though--he asks Janice, another computer worker at the facility, to run a computerized psychological profile on Kinsdale to predict how he's going to take the life-shattering psychological shocks that he's had to absorb recently. Janice says she'll get right on it and walks off to do just that.

The next we see of Kinsdale he's watching a computer-controlled war game on a gigantic WarGames style big board; a simulated nuclear war is going on with a body count in the tens of millions and NATO wants to know what's likely to happen to their command structure and troop strength once the mushroom clouds start sprouting all over southern Europe. If everything goes the way the computer says it will, Italy will be fine after World War III. When Kinsdale leaves the simulation room he runs into McAllister, who says he cheated and sank the Soviet fleet early so that things would wrap up sooner. Here's hoping NATO doesn't decide to rattle any sabres based on those war game results, then (although the general does notice the "Soviet" fleet was uncharacteristically sloppy in the game, he doesn't seem to think anything is up).

Back in their work space, Kinsdale and McAllister use their mainframe to try and figure out what the chemical samples in the assassin's hair mean. If you like avocado-colored mainframes and microfilm readers, this section of the film will be a real treat for you. I was amazed that the hideous color schemes of the mid-Seventies extended to the military industrial complex, myself. McAllister uses a computer named "Nine Eleven" to work on the hair sample problem; whoever it was that killed Kinsdale's family was a white male with red hair and the chemical composition of the pollutants in the hair tonic match the filthy, filthy air in New York City. So now there's an avenue to backtrack--if the computer experts can assemble a list of people who traveled to Naples from NYC they can start working their way through the list and eliminate the bad matches. When they've got their much smaller list, they can start investigating more thoroughly (or just start shooting, if Kinsdale doesn't want to waste time or has gone completely around the bend).

McAllister also figures out that he can cross-check the results that Nine Eleven is giving him by breaking into the draft records for anyone on the list (to see who has an rH-negative blood type) and pokes through the airline manifests from LaGuardia or JFK to Naples as well. Now that we all know what Google is and what it does, none of this seems particularly amazing, but in 1975 it had to look exactly like Big Brother rifling through the lives of a thousand people to find the one that Kinsdale is searching for. In a matter of seconds, Nine Eleven and McAllister have found two matches for the age, hair color and blood factors who have come from New York City to Naples and Kinsdale goes off to look for one of them.

Kinsdale finds the first guy rather quickly, who turns out to be a married man from New Haven who used false paperwork to get to Naples on a package tour; he and his wife fess up instantaneously and Kinsdale stomps off, since he may have found some penny-ante wrongdoing but nothing at all that he's actually interested in. (Also, especially given the coincidental name of the computer that McAllister used, I'm amused at how shoddy the airlines' security apparently was for their international flights.) Janice drops by as Kinsdale is doing more work trying to find the other red-headed man that seems to be his family's killer, and works the conversation around to the fact that she programmed a psych profile for Kinsdale and wants to talk to him about it. During this brief conversation Janice says she's willing to make her own psychological-profiling software and her programming talents available for Kinsdale's vengeance quest, as long as he "won't take any unreasonable chances".

So far Kinsdale has been an astonishingly methodical man on a mission, so Janice probably doesn't have anything to worry about. I'm also intrigued by the way this movie works with the required "the system cannot work to help you" plot points that later vigilante movies used with abandon. Kinsdale is using the resources of The System in order to track down the killer, and the people who work with him in The System have lined up to help him. Hell, I'm pretty sure Janice is going to falsify her results so the general stays away from the planning and research sessions that both she and McAllister will be holding with Kinsdale.

Kinsdale agrees not to take any unreasonable chances, but you and I know he won't consider a suicide mission unreasonable if he can strike back at his family's killers. Oh, and Janice hands her psych profile over to McAllister, saying she's worried about the path that Kinsdale's on. McAllister looks worried as he starts to peruse the report as well, but before that plot thread advances any farther the scene shifts abruptly to a junker van with three stern people in it (two men, one young woman). The woman gets buzzed in through the security gate, saying she's the one who called about a child care job. She also lets half a dozen men in jumpsuits and skis masks into the house; the housewife is shot dead before she can get through a scream and the men spread out to look for whoever else is home.

Back at NATO's computer room, Nine Eleven has intercepted a communique (or generated its own alert; the dialogue isn't particularly clear) that something's going to happen related to the Kinsdale family murders that day by eight PM local time; footage of the terrorists shooting three bound and gagged children is intercut into this sequence. The teletypes in the computer room wake up and start printing just as Kinsdale turns around to look at them, and the next thing we know he's using his NATO card to get into the gated house and start asking questions about what happened (so even though he's investigating outside the law and far beyond the limits of the rules, he's using the tools of that system to facilitate his efforts again). A helpful embassy worker named Edmonds says that a six-person American family has been variously shot, beaten and strangled to death.

Edmonds is shaken to his core about what happened to this family, and refers to "that poor bastard in Naples" while reflecting on the crime wave that's claimed almost a dozen politically targeted lives by now, not knowing exactly who he's talking to. Kinsdale gets put into the amazingly ironic position of getting the embassy worker to calm down so that his tirade doesn't draw more attention (and expose Kinsdale as being at the scene illegally). He's steely and determined enough that he doesn't crack, even when the children's bodies are taken out of the house, but it's a near thing and George Kennedy sells the hell out of his mental state in the closeup he gets.

Edmonds is out drinking to forget with the person he thinks is an American investigator (he thinks he's drinking with "Frank Evans"). While he's rattled and liquored up he drops a little information on the investigator, also lamenting that every law enforcement agency works on their own, which creates gaps in their knowledge that the terrorist are currently exploiting. Since he hasn't been able to find the other red-haired man on his own, he drops the man's name on Edmonds, and the jump cut to the CIA looking at surveillance photos of Alexander Baldwin Taylor suggests that Edmonds' phone is bugged or that he gave the information over instantly--which he probably should have, but it still looks rather hinky. Maybe it just two the murders of two American families to get all the different agencies to decide to play nice with each other.

Taylor's a disaffected radical rich kid who dropped out of UC Berkeley and went to Italy with 300 grand in cash; it's presumed that he's using this money to finance the killings, but at least at this point nobody can say with any confidence what he's trying to accomplish with the murders. Inspector Lupo, sitting in on the briefing, wants to know why none of the Italian law enforcement agencies were told about the radicals in their midst (and he's got a point). The CIA officer in charge of the briefing gets told off pretty effectively, but he also says that he's following orders from his political structure just like Lupo is. He does at least sketch out what Taylor's been up to and points out that the ringleader of the killings wants to see himself as a "political messiah", giving orders and causing death financed by his banker father's wealth. He's also been linked to a second-in-command named Hamshari, but at least according to Edmonds nobody knows where Hamshari is or what he's up to at this point.

I swear my totally legitimate download of the film is missing a scene somewhere in here, because while he's still at the bar, Kinsdale calls McAllister to tell him about a letter sent to the President of the United States with a terrorist threat to kill American families in the Mediterranean every three days starting on a particular date. The letter writer wanted ten million dollars and a bunch of political prisoners / terrorists released from jail and didn't get what he wanted; now two families are dead and a third somewhere in the region is going to die in less than 72 hours. He gives Alexander Taylor's name to McAllister and tells his colleague to check various datbases to try and find Taylor and predict his cell's next target, but even Nine Eleven can only do so much in such a short timespan.

Kinsdale busts out some social engineering moves next, going to an airline branch office and telling the woman there that he's the computer expert from company headquarters and he needs to work on their new logic circuit. It works perfectly (because computer experts looked like George Kennedy in 1975) and he gets to work on their system, calling McAllister and hooking the airline computer up to Nine Eleven back at NATO headquarters. It's not quite as tedious as watching John Carradine do light appliance repair in The Astro-Zombies but it's not the most interesting thing the movie's shown us so far, either. While in a live text chat and simultaneous phone call with McAllister, Kinsdale sets the parameters of their searches to try and track down Taylor and Hamshari. They wind up just delivering exposition about Hamshari Junior to each other (he's the son of the Professor Hamshari that Taylor knew at Berkely) more than anything, though.

While the computer experts are working together, Lupo visits Edmonds at the embassy and finds that the "Frank Evans" the Foreign Service man talked to was a tall stocky blonde American man, and it certainly looks like Kinsdale is going to be in some serious hot water very soon. And McAllister has some more bad news for him--the special computer searches and programs they're running as a special project are eating up a noticeable amount of resources at NATO, which is conspicuous, which will get them both fired once the right people realize what they're doing. Not only that, but Kinsdale gives the least convincing "Right!" in human history when McAllister asks him if they're going to give their data on the terrorists that are killing American families to the police once they've tracked down the active cell. Kinsdale isn't the only one running a special program, though, and McAllister points out that Nine Eleven sees only an 8% chance of Kinsdale successfully killing the terrorists once he's got them identified and makes his move. It's the cold green text telling him that he's 92% likely to fail that shakes Kinsdale more than anything--he accepts that he would have tried to murder the killers, but he wasn't imagining that he'd have a one in twelve chance of doing it successfully.

While in an elevator with McAllister, the penny drops and Kinsdale realizes that the ads for nanny services in the "Daily American", a newspaper catering to Yankees working in the area, is one more hugely significant clue. His family placed one, the other murdered family placed one, and he calls the one he sees in that day's classifieds back (using more social engineering and pretending to be from the ad department at the paper, checking up to see if the classified got any responses) to find who he thinks the next victims are going to be. Now that he knows where the killers are going to strike, he strides out of the elevator and directly into Lupo's line of sight. Which makes some sense--there's still forty minutes to the movie's running time and if Kinsdale just told the cops and the Italian version of the FBI what to do, the film would be over and he wouldn't get his revenge. He peels out in his station wagon and Lupo's driver follows in a comically tiny Italian cop car. Lupo's driver looks like a skinnier Nick Frost in a couple shots, so that's neat. But even in Naples, a car chase is just a car chase, honestly. And though there are plenty of near misses, there aren't any crashes and Kinsdale even stops for a red light during the thrilling action sequence.

If you liked the car chase, you'll dig it even more when Kinsdale ditches his Brady wagon and runs off on foot through the streets and then into a building, with Lupo in pursuit. Plenty of shots ensue of George Kennedy going up and down stairs and he does manage to elude the cops by hopping backyard fences. So that happened. Kinsdale makes his way to the family's house from the nanny ad and pulls a gun on the father to get Aldo the handyman inside. Ironically, the family thinks he's an intruder and a criminal and the phone rings before Kinsdale can explain himself; the NATO man shoots the phone in order to go back to his conversation with the family. He just about manages to explain that the Gerardi family is in danger for being Americans before a car pulls up outside and the front doorbell rings. It's the woman from the "nanny agency" but thanks to Kinsdale (and Aldo, who shoots from an upstairs balcony and clearly isn't in the mood for this terrorist shit) the criminals are force to flee. Oh, and the woman dropped her purse when she beat feet so there's another avenue of investigation to pursue. It's great that Kinsdale had a partial victory--he's on the right path, and saved some lives even if the terrorists are all capable of attacking someone else in another three days. Their current "attack the people who need help taking care of kids" plan is probably going to be abandoned as well. It's a damn site better than anyone else has done fighting the criminals so far.

Kinsdale goes to Janice's apartment, and finds out that 1) the cops are searching for him everywhere, and 2) she's loyal enough to him to let him couch surf at her place regardless. And over at the terrorists' hideout, Hamshari says that they have to have been betrayed somewhere, so he's taking control of their operation and they're going to do something new and fast to show that the Murder Brigade can't be stopped even if they can be frightened away by a middle-aged dude with a pistol.
The next morning, McAllister is over at Janice's place when Kinsdale wakes up. He points out that Kinsdale might have broken their pattern and frightened the group off, but they'll change their methods now. Not only that, but if Kinsdale had actually called the cops and gotten them to work with him, the entire cell could have been captured. Now there's another innocent family at risk because of Kinsdale's recklessness and he absolutely refuses to see how much he's in the wrong. He also says he's not going to work to get the killers jailed so they can become underground heroes and ransomed out by another group of terrorists, which does make some sense. And he traces the cell to their location thanks to some stuff in the young woman's purse that was dropped at the scene. There's a bankrupt cafe and coffee bar that they hang out at, and Kinsdale spots their bullet-pocked van when he sneaks in.

Taylor notices that he's being followed by an angry American man in a borrowed VW beetle and runs for it; Kinsdale hits him with the car and gets into a startlingly vicious hand-to-hand-to-switchblade-to-shovel-to-length-of-chain fight with the man. Kinsdale winds up on top at the end of the fight, but an old Italian lady saw the fight and screams for the police as he stumbles away from the aftermath of the two man war. Kinsdale goes back to the cafe / hideout only to find that none of the other terrorists are there; he also sees that they kept his daughter's plush toy from the very start of the narrative as a trophy and he cradles it in his arm, holding a gun in the other hand. It's a bizarre and affecting tableaux and something that I never would have expected to see in an action movie.

While Kinsdale's waiting at the terrorist hideout, Lupo goes to NATO headquarters and gets a quick demonstration of Nine Eleven's capabilities when it shows him his own dossier and background. It's the easiest way to demonstrate to the detective exactly how much Kinsdale has figured out, but the general shows up just in time to tell McAllister just how deep the shit is that he's in for inviting a civilian into the restricted computer room. McAllister decides that he's in for a penny so he might as well go in for the full pound and confesses to his commanding officer that he and Kinsdale were using NATO resources illegally to track down the terrorists, and succeeded. (Lupo:  "A very elaborate vendetta, General." The general, numb with shock about what he's just been told:  "What?" Lupo:  "A kind of vengeance." The Stupid Chief gets to be the comic relief even in a movie as somber and technically focused as this one.)

McAllister gets a call from Kinsdale while the general and Lupo are in the computer room, and he's numb and tired--he killed Taylor, yes, but that hasn't done anything to bring his family back. Instead, he's just baffled that he doesn't know what to do next and fatigued beyond endurance as he waits in the hideout. The general asks Kinsdale to surrender to the police, and let the military and political structures help him out. Kinsdale hangs up the phone and slams his hands down on the arms of the chair where he's sitting in frustration (and the movie remembers that he got stabbed in the hand, and he's in an amazing amount of pain because he hit the chair. Right after he goes to clean the wound off he gets accosted by the two CIA guys from much earlier in the story, who snag his ID and want to know what an American computer expert is doing in the gang hideout.

While all this stuff is happening, the gang has broken into the official NATO comissary that caters to the Americans living in Italy and are hiding out waiting for it to open so they can take a bunch of hostages, which they do. Kinsdale stumbles across a clue that lets him know that's where the terrorists are and heads off to see if he can beat those 23:1 odds laid down by Nine Eleven and take out the criminals. By the time any official police or military response takes place, the hostages will be as good as dead, but maybe Kinsdale can get there in time to do something. By the time he arrives at the comissary there's a police and military cordon (that he drives through in a stolen car). He also drives straight through the front of the store and takes out one of the terrorists, then goes all Good Guy With a Gun on the remaining ones in the market. It's not a complete NRA fantasy; he gets shot more than once as he works through the terrorists and it's thanks to the screenwriters more than his tactics that none of the hostages are killed. The last shot of the film is his devastated face (cut off by bad framing), showing that even though Kinsdale's "won" in the end, he has nothing left in his life. No family, and sure as hell no job after all the illegal shit he pulled in his vengeance quest.

I don't really know what I was expecting when I snagged this movie as my Petroni Fide selection; I was expecting something goofy and Cannon Studios appropriate when I read the synopsis but instead I got to see something that doesn't always take the protagonist's side, and that presents his grief as a raw wound that is not healed at the end, even though Kinsdale set out to do exactly what he wanted to do. And I got to see a nicely underplayed part from George Kennedy, which was a great little bonus. I'm sorry that it took his death for me to even find out this movie existed but it serves as a tribute to his undeniable talents as an actor (and hopefully will show up on Netflix or disc soon so other people can check it out as well).
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The other Celluloid Zeroes have actually met the deadline for the Petroni Fide roundtable, and their entries in tribute to George Kennedy can be found here:

Cinemasochist Apocalypse lets itself through a side door to check out Uninvited.
Micro-Brewed Reviews records a lucid dream while watching Nightmare at Noon.
Psychoplasmics checks its boarding pass courtesy of The Delta Force.
Web of the Big Damn Spider gets tailored for a six-sleeved Strait-Jacket.