McQ (1974)

From the back of the box: “After his best friend, Sgt. Stan Boyle, is shotgunned to death, Lt. Lon McQ finds himself in trouble with his superiors when he beats up the man he believes was responsible, Manny Santiago.”

“Shotgunned to death.” What a turn of phrase. Is being “slightly shotgunned” a thing? “Shotgunned a bit.” Also, come to think of it, is McQ even a name?

Legend has it that John Wayne turned down the role of Harry Callahan because he didn’t want to play an anti-hero. That did not, however, stop him from dipping his toes in the “gritty urban crime thriller” pool. McQ was the first of two excellent entries in the genre he starred in, the other being the following year’s somewhat lighter Brannigan.

Despite it’s Dirty Harry-style underpinnings, McQ is at its core a film noir, with all the double crosses and troubled dames you could hope for. There are nods to The Maltese Falcon and Farewell My Lovely and that classic noir trope the McGuffin is present, if in the very ’70s shape of a truckload of drugs. It starts as a cop thriller but McQ soon hands in his badge to become the most noir of protagonists, a private eye. However, he is neither the standard pulp-era hard-boiled cynic nor the amoral ’70s anti hero. Nearing retirement, he’s seen it all and though, as is the way in these films, he’s willing to play hard and fast with the small matter of suspects’ rights, he is at heart an old-fashioned good guy. When Wayne delivers a very of-its-day line about “women’s lib”, he does it with a cheerfully rueful acceptance, Lawrence Roman’s script hinting at the changing times without overplaying its hand.

The capable supporting cast includes a raft of industry stalwarts of the day (several of whom had appeared in then-recent Wayne vehicles) – Eddie Albert, David Huddleston, Clu Gulager and William Bryant as well as future TV regulars Diana Muldaur, Julian Christopher and Roger E.Mosley. Not forgetting of course Al Lettieri as Santiago in full “slimy bad guy” mode.

The most memorable performance in the film is Colleen Dewhurst’s note perfect informant, Myra. In a layered, sympathetically played scene recalling Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely (and a likely influence on the 1975 film adaptation), McQ visits her to get information. He pays her in cocaine and ends up sleeping with her. A less typically “John Wayne” scenario is difficult to imagine.

Of course, there’s plenty of action here. Directed by genre giant John Sturges (Bad Day at Black Rock, The Magnificent Seven), McQ uses its Seattle locations to great effect, with fast cars and shootouts galore. There are memorable set pieces (McQ in his Trans Am being crushed between two trucks, a climactic beach front car chase) aided in no small measure by some terrific music. Really, apart from Wayne, the star of this film might just be Elmer Bernstein’s score, one of his best. The bold, brassy main theme fits Wayne to a ‘T’.

The urban thrillers of the 1970s produced many memorable movies from Dirty Harry to Death Wish and Get Carter. If McQ doesn’t quite sit at the top of that list, it certainly has its place alongside some of the lesser known gems of the era like Shamus, Sitting Target and Night Moves.

I watched this on VHS, a pre-cert rental copy that I picked up a few years ago for not cheap. This was due to there never having been a UK DVD release, though a glance at eBay shows me that US versions are now available at a reasonable price. There’s also recently been a reportedly very decent Blu Ray release, again USA only. These have to be worth checking out as the VHS print suffers noticeably from being panned and scanned.

McQ

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Masters and Hauers

The joy of the movie art tagline. Sometimes just lame and/or perfunctory, other times an art form to itself. Here are some of the gems I have on hand.

The Master:

1 – He hears the silence. He sees the darkness.

2 – The king of martial arts faces a bionic killing machine!

3 – The most feared person of all is a person without fear!

4 – One’s tough – one’s smart

Later Chuck releases often didn’t bother with a tagline. “Chuck Norris” was tagline enough.

Jeff vs. Jeff:

1 (a) – Just try him. (b) No gun. No knife. No equal.

2 – He’s the perfect weapon

Imagine the confusion amongst young cinephiles the world over. They’re not even the same Jeff.

Mind, if I had a time machine, I’d use it to go back and make the tagline for The Perfect Weapon “He’s the Karate Cop”. And, you know, kill Hitler.

Hot Hauer Action:

As if if Rutger with a sword wasn’t enough to secure the rental.

So stupid it’s clever:

Now, that’s just lazy:

Death Wish 6 – “The vigilante is back for vengeance again with a vengeance ..!” Ah, what might have been.

You thought that was lazy:

While the tagline hasn’t completely died, “from the director/writer/caterer of Taken” doesn’t quite cut it.

Keeping the flame burning:

1 – Seven colleagues. One weekend away. It’s time to get slaughtered.

2 – They’re close mates, but not that close.

3 – Part mystery. Part thriller. Parts missing.

These are all on that new fangled DVD format which is all the rage. Not bad.

Top 3

3.

The Stath! Points deducted, mind, for being intentionally funny.

2.

This is genius. The tag is near as big as the title, and downright weird. What is he, radioactive?

1.

Simple, economic and to the point – a thing of beauty.

King Kong (1976)

Slippery Big Oil man Charles Grodin out of Filofax leads an expedition to an unexplored pacific island in the company of stowaway hippie palaeontologist Jeff Bridges out of Nadine and castaway starlet Jessica Lange out of Rob Roy. Once on the island, it turns out there’s not much to offer in the way of oil, so they take home a giant apelike creature instead. While being put on public display in New York, said giant ape expresses its general displeasure by breaking loose and going completely mental.

The first remake, then, of Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 original which has long been considered a classic and rightly so, with its legendary stop-motion animated effects and creature designs still holding up well today. It does have its problems though, particularly the pacing. The first half of the film is downright boring, with nothing much to hold the attention until Kong finally puts in an appearance. The 1976 iteration has no such problems – beautifully shot by Richard H. Kline, the first half of the film looks great and is always entertaining. It sounds great too, thanks to John Barry’s score. Its real problem is that, although the pacing holds up, once Kong finally appears the special effects are a huge let down and they continue to jar somewhat for the remaining running time.

I think I saw this Kong Kong at the cinema when I was wee and then again on the telly in my teens. I was prompted to revisit it for the first time since then, on DVD, after rediscovering Bruce Bahrenburg’s excellent behind the scenes book The Creation of Dino De Laurentiis’ King Kong. As a snapshot of the clash of Old Hollywood and the emergent major independent producers of the ’70s it’s a great read.

A lavish Dino De Laurentiis production, this was one of the most expensive movies ever at that point and much was made at the time about the 50 foot-tall mechanical Kong that would be used in the production. It even gets its own onscreen credit. However, impressive as it is, the mechanical Kong actually only puts in a few seconds of screen time, played for the rest of the film by an obvious man-in-a-suit, and a giant mechanical hand. The De Laurentiis production was up against a rival remake in preproduction at Universal, and so the film was shot on an unrealistically tight schedule. Problems with the mechanical Kong couldn’t be ironed out in time and so the man-in-suit solution, in the shape of future makeup effects guru Rick Baker, was arrived at. The end result is an odd clash between a very handsomely shot, lavish production and something that at times just looks cheap and silly. However even the “suit” sequences do have their moments with an attack on a city train being particularly impressive, as is the surprisingly bloody climax set on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre.

Scripted by master of high camp Lorenzo Semple Jr. (the ’60s Batman TV series, 1980’s Flash Gordon) and directed with a sure hand by John Guillermin, there’s a great cast of ’70s character actors and supporting regulars at work here (Jack O’Halloran, Renee Auberjonois, Ed Lauter), as well as the three main stars on the rise. Grodin lends depth to his corrupt, ambitious company man and it’s hard, from a post-Big Lebowski vantage point, not to view Bridge’s charismatic turn as a peak at The Dude’s younger years.

In one of old school Hollywood’s last attempts at classic star building, this is former model Jessica Lange’s first film appearance. The camera, of course, loves her but it would be disingenuous to say that she has “Oscar winner” written all over her at this stage. She acquits herself well, though, largely replacing Fay Wray’s incessant screaming from the 1933 film with satirically inclined feminism-lite dialogue of its day (“… you male chauvinist ape!”).

Though perhaps not the all-conquering blockbuster De Laurentiis had been hoping for, it did well enough to merit a belated sequel, the now largely forgotten King Kong Lives (1986). The original has been remade twice since, in 2005 and 2017. The 2005 effort is a complete misfire, overlong, overblown and over reliant on CGI, with a poorly designed Kong to boot. The 2017 take, Kong: Skull Island is actually a lot of fun, completely reinventing the Kong story while getting the CGI and creature designs right.

The 1976 film sits somewhere between its two descendants if, like them, falling shy of the original. Hampered by its schedule and the FX technology of the day, it is still hugely entertaining and often gorgeous to look at.

mde

The Octagon (1980)

Ex-karate champion and secret good Ninja, Scott James (Chuck Norris), becomes embroiled once again in the world of ninjutsu when his wayward step brother, bad Ninja Seikura (Tadashi Yamashita) starts a training camp for what would appear to be weekend Ninjas … car park security Ninjas, perhaps. Dragging Scott reluctantly into proceedings are karate mucker A.J. (Art Hindle), anti terrorist McCarn (Lee Van Cleef) and a couple of potential romantic interests who – spoilers! – are not long for this film. Much karate-based action follows, with plenty Ninjas up trees and that, culminating in a raid on the Ninjas’ octagon-shaped headquarters.  Brilliantly, when we are privy to Scott’s expository thoughts, they’re in the form of a weird whispery voice-over.  Some quality randomness there.

This is a comparatively early outing for Chuck, one of the movies that cemented his reputation as an actual honest-to-goodness film star.  He’s personable enough here and his fight scenes are excellent.  It’s easy to forget, between laughing at the memes and groaning at the man’s personal politics just how impressive his onscreen fighting style was – practical and brutally effective with just enough flash to keep the “ooft!” factor in play – making him for that reason at least an influential figure in martial arts movies and action films in general.

Watch out for a young Ernie Hudson as a karate competitor-in-training and Richard Norton, who would go on to appear in countless Hong Kong vehicles with the likes of Cynthia Rothrock and Jackie Chan before his own brush with DTV stardom in the ’90s. Interestingly, here he plays two roles. As a heavy for a mercenary recruitment operation, he takes an unglamorous kicking from Chuck and is otherwise seen throughout as Seikura’s enforcer, face obscured by a fancy Ninja mask. In this guise, his fight with Norris near the film’s end is fun to watch.

While The Octagon is hardly a classic, it cracks along at a fair old pace.  One of a handful of films directed by Eric Karson (who returned to Ninja movies eight years later with Black Eagle, helping propel a young Jean Claude Van Damme to spin-kicking stardom), this one kicked off the brief early ’80s Ninja craze and was blatantly ripped off the following year for the awful Franco Nero vehicle Enter the Ninja.

I started viewing this via an original pre-cert VHS but my machine started acting up so I switched to an old forgotten DVD. I’m sure the DVD is sourced from the same print, only later, after it had developed some problems. I believe there is now a more recent and generally better DVD version available (the older one is also cut, which I don’t think is true of the VHS).  In this instance though, VHS definitely beat DVD hands down (the format if not the hardware).  Also, check those covers out.  The VHS is epic, the DVD is a load of pish.

The Octagon

 

 

 

The Marine (2006)

Super Marine John Triton (John Cena off of the wrestling) is discharged after heroically but illegally rescuing His Men from some swarthy foreigners who prove no match for his enormous arms. After a stint as a security guard goes amusingly pear-shaped due to fighting, his missus is kidnapped by that Terminator who could turn himself into vinyl flooring (Robert Patrick) and that naked guy out of Spartacus (Manu Bennett) after a bunch of explosions and some fighting. After that, it’s all fighting and explosions.

The Marine

This one is almost derailed at the off by the cheesy title card which is a beyond camp live shot of Cena in full US Marine dress uniform (one of the great unintentionally funny military getups) standing to attention in front of the Stars’n’Stripes before snapping off a salute. Oh dear. The opening rescue mission sequence, right out of the mid-’80s Chuck Norris playbook, doesn’t entirely help matters, being most reminiscent of the Charlie Sheen/ Michael Biehn “classic” Navy SEALS. Clearly, this could go either way.

Happily, once Triton is returned to civvy street and everybody stops saluting, the film hits its stride, turning out to be a total ’80s/’90s action movie throwback, solidly directed by first-time helmer John Bonito. There are ’90s-style “big-bang” heists, great effects and stunt work. Those effects are mostly practical – shit blows up for real – and a succession of satisfying fight scenes deliver a mix of old school duking it out, martial arts and of course, pro wrestling moves.

Even if the script does go from “dumb-but-entertaining” to just plain “dumb” here and there, the pace never lets up so by the time you’ve spat your beer out shouting, “no, hang on a minute”, there’s another explosion and all’s well.  The bad guys are played mostly for laughs, complete with some sub Carry On-style music cues. As the big bad, Robert Patrick is on particularly fine scenery-chewing form.

As befits an early WWE Studios production, the soundtrack features the Smackdown-friendly likes of White Zombie while end credit tune If It All Ended Tomorrow is credited to John Cena and Trademarc – serving now as a reminder of Cena’s old wrestling gimmick (as a rapper – he was on Top of the Pops!). Cena is fine in the action hero role here, handling most of his own stunts and comfortable with the straight-man dialogue.

The Marine was successful enough to spawn several DTV sequels, none of which featured Cena, who went on to make the similarly received, Renny Harlin-directed 12 Rounds.  Since then, his wrestling schedule appears to have largely taken precedence.  Recently though, he’s been picking up critical praise for his comic turns in Trainwreck and Sisters, and this year’s dramatic role in The Wall. Surprisingly director Bonito only seems to have completed one other project, 2011’s Carjacked.

A film I never saw new, and was only vaguely aware of, I picked this up as part of an irresistible “4 DVDs for 99p” charity-shop deal and had no real hopes for it. Turned out to be just-under-25p very well spent. If you find yourself hankering after the likes of Raw Deal or Cobra of an evening, The Marine could well be the very thing.

The Marine cover