Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Silk (1986)

We’re all familiar with the expression “smooth as silk” (even the titular character in Cirio Santiago’s film knows it; “Because I’m so fuckin’ smooth”).  We’re all familiar with how the material is produced, as well (from the butts of caterpillars, amongst other creepy crawlies, just in case you weren’t).  For the life of me, however, I’ve never understood its appeal.  Sure, it looks nice and shiny and supernaturally wrinkle-free.  I get that it’s considered a luxury due to the arduous process of harvesting it (have you ever tried to milk a caterpillar?  Me neither, but I can’t imagine it’s easy).  I get that it’s exotic due to its origins in ancient China (at least to Westerners; Do people in the East just think of it like we do polyester?).  Thing is, I don’t particularly care for the feel of it.  It’s too smooth.  Despite its organic nature, it feels unnatural (again, like polyester, which I would, frankly, prefer).  I wore a pair of silk boxers once.  Once.  The constant, smooth sensation it provides just made me very self-conscious about how things were rearranging themselves down there every time I moved.  I can’t even imagine how much this gliding would irritate my nipples were I wearing a shirt made of the stuff.  I could see its worth in the ascot department, but I think that’s as far as I’m willing to go.  If you dig on silk, more power to you.  Give me cotton any day of the week.  Nice, plush, sweat-absorbing, snug cotton.

After massacring a bunch of thieves, intrepid cop Silk (Cec Verrell) finds herself following the trail of head gangster Austin (Peter Shilton) as he smuggles something somewhere.  Meanwhile, a couple of Nam vets run around killing and mutilating people.

Silk, the character and the film, is practically a carbon copy of George P Cosmatos’ Cobra, the main differences being that the protagonist is a woman, and she doesn’t cut her pizza with a pair of scissors.  Silk also borrows heavily from the Dirty Harry playbook (at one point, she has a villain dead to rights and says, “How do you feel, Slick?  Feel like takin’ the big ride?”; Of course, he does).  She wades into action in a heartbeat, climbing trestles, jumping on trains, leaping from rooftops, and shooting the shit out of bad guys with unerring accuracy.  And Silk is as disassociated with the violence she causes as any male action star ever was.  Maybe moreso.  In the opening sequence, she watches as the thieves’ car explodes into flames.  Santiago shoots Silk’s reaction in slow motion, her ice-blue eyes peering satisfactorily and disinterestedly at the deaths she brought forth.  The loss of life means nothing to her, because criminals, from the pettiest to the vilest, don’t deserve to live.  Her first rule of dealing with the lifestyle of a cop is “Don’t let it get to you.”  On the one hand, this makes sense, because there are surely a great many things about the livelihood that could desensitize a person.  On the flip side, though, it also means that one must be desensitized in order to kill crooks.  They must be dehumanized in the eyes of justice, unworthy to exist.  

Silk, the cop, is, in effect, a macho hero with female genitalia (which we don’t get to see, in case you were wondering).  She wears her hair slicked back.  She pauses before working to don a fingerless glove, but she doesn’t balk at getting her hands dirty.  The filmmakers, simultaneously, enjoy showing off Verrell’s female attributes.  Pulling herself over a ledge, we get a nice view of her hard nipples poking through her tank top (I guess it wasn’t made of silk?).  The camera also delights in focusing on her butt in various tight pants.  You can’t fault the filmmakers or the audience for this stuff.  Both know what they want, and both get it (plus, Verrell is strikingly beautiful).  For all of her testosteronic attributes, there are attempts to feminize Silk.  As the police celebrate a solid bust (you know, the kind where most of the perps are dead), Silk sits to the side, aloof.  Fellow cop Tom (Bill McLaughlin) approaches her to join in on the fun.  Silk tells him to meet her at her place.  This romantic relationship with a fellow officer carries tones of a teacher/student affair, Tom being a bit older and Silk’s superior.  When they go out, Silk wears dresses and does her hair up in curls, the opposite of her masculine appearance at work.  She needs Tom to provide a grounding against the rough life she leads, even if only physically.  Their romance never comes across as being between equals.  Tom leads the dance, and Silk follows, taking away some of her badass cred.  Part of the problem lies in the fact that Verrell is simply not a very good actress.  She can swing the deadpan delivery necessary for wasting bad guys, but she’s incapable of changing it up and actually showing emotion when it’s called for.  She tries to act everything with her piercing eyes, and it just doesn’t work (this is not helped at all by her covering them up with sunglasses in several scenes; Instead of playing enigmatically cool she’s simply inscrutably wooden).

The film’s plot is incredibly convoluted.  I’m sure it made sense on paper to Santiago and company at some point, but it’s confusing on screen.  For this film, however, it’s also unnecessary, and Santiago understood this.  All we need to know are these are the good guys, those are the bad guys, and there are a lot of punches, gun shots, and explosions between the two.  The stuntwork is well-handled, and it appears that they actually allowed Verrell to do quite a bit of it, which helps sell the copious action.  I suppose on the one hand it’s unfair to criticize Silk for being so devoted to its action aspects, as it delivers on them so well.  That being said, without a strong story to hold the set pieces together, it becomes little more than a highlight reel.  Granted, a slick (dare I say, smooth as silk?) highlight reel, but one, nonetheless.  For the undiscerning action junkie, this movie will work a treat.  For everyone else, it’s more like a snack you’re unsure if you regret or not after the fact.

MVT:  Santiago’s direction is tight and slick.  It’s his writing that needs to catch up with this skill set here.          

Make or Break:  The opening action scene sets the table for the film, both good and bad.

Score:  6/10

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Outfit (1973)

The 70s was hands down the greatest decade for crime cinema. Hard boiled cops in the west and rampant Yakuza in the east. I opened the pandora's box many years ago and I am still constantly finding gems as I dig deeper and deeper.

The Outfit feels like a test run for John Flynn's masterpiece of revenge cinema, Rolling Thunder. But in it’s own right The Outfit is one hell of a film. Following his release from prison, Earl Macklin (Robert Duvall) finds a standing contract still on his head from a previous bank robbery. The bank of course is owned by the mafia. The mafia doing what the mafia does best takes out Macklins brother as revenge and down payment on his head.

Duval plays Earl Macklin to an almost calculated stoic perfection. Never once showing any form of emotion, just revenge plain and simple. Hooking up with an old partner in crime Cody (Don Baker) and his current ‘girl’ (Karen Black) the trio sets in motion a smoothy ran unit picking off mafia drops and casinos taking a hefty bounty as they go. This is all to get the attention of the Mafia Kingpin, Mailer, fantastically played by Robert Ryan. A man who treats his woman like his business. With a cold and heavy hand.

Like a lot of 70s crime films the female protagonist takes a literal backseat to the budding relationship between Macklin and Cody. There are no jokes or long speeches about days gone by, just an airtight mutual respect. Without even having to mention it you know either would take a bullet for the other.

Picking off the mafia spots is done with ruthless professionalism. No unnecessary body count, just the money. The heists are perfectly executed too. No gimmicks, just men with a plan. Tracks are covered too. Even the slight look at the getaway vehicle causes Macklin to search for a new car in a scene that brings fantastic character actors into a small but well placed scene. The culmination of the heists is carried out at Mailers mansion. A heavily guarded almost Fort Knox of a building with Mailer inside almost expecting the duo to arrive at any minute.

John Flynn doesn’t once dwell on the violence in the film. At times it’s needed, but instead of heavy body counts Macklin and Cody use their heads to escape situations. Sometimes a simple outfit change helps them escape a torrent of mafia bullets.

The Outfit is a true classic of 70s crime cinema. Flynn gets the best out of both leads by letting them play off one another. The film is tough, but also exciting when it needs to be. A wonderfully paced classic of the genre.

MVT: The duo of Baker and Duvall. Two grizzled veterans of the 70s giving their all

Make or break: The heist where brains instead of bullets get them to safety.

Score: 8.5/10

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Bruce Kung Fu Girls (1975)

One may be the loneliest number, but five (and three, and seven, and thirteen; all odd prime numbers, funny enough) has a nice ring to it, too, and good things tend to come in that number.  For example, we have five fingers (and toes) and senses.  There was The Jackson Five and The Dave Clark Five.  Five Alive was a fruit juice/punch concoction I craved in my youth and very rarely got.  In the world of cinema, you have Devil Times Five, Fast Five, Slaughterhouse-Five, Five Easy Pieces, and Five Deadly Venoms, to name but five.  It’s that last one that relates to this week’s film, Shut Dik’s (what a great name!) Bruce Kung Fu Girls (aka Five Pretty Young Ladies aka Wu Jiao Wa).  Now, this film has about as much to do with Chang Cheh’s classic martial arts masterpiece as it does with Bruce Lee (whom do you think the Bruce in the title refers to?), but it does actually have five young women who can handle themselves in a fight, and we all know that things that come in fives have to be good, right (especially when they’re doing Kung Fu dressed in garish costumes)?

The Invisible Thief terrorizes Taiwan, robbing from the rich and giving to himself.  The Police Superintendent (Lui Ming) is flummoxed.  Luckily, his five nieces, who operate a Kung Fu gym/spa, volunteer their services in catching the bandit.  But will Ku Lin’s (Polly Shang Kwan) feelings for the hapless scientist Lu conflict with her devotion to justice?

Bruce Kung Fu Girls is as much of a Bruceploitation film as Schindler’s List is a buddy cop film.  It’s deliberately mistitled to lure fans of Lee into the theater.  Don’t misunderstand, I didn’t expect this movie to have anything whatsoever to do with the man, a la something like The Dragon Lives Again, but you have to admit, it’s fairly brazen to slap even an allusion to his name on a film like this.  I admire that spunk.  What this film does, like The Dragon, is creates a science fiction influenced superhero world.  Key to this is the idea of “technology.”  The Invisible Thief uses super science to fuel his super powers.  He has a cheap little laboratory and a shiny, silver suit, and it’s all very kitschy while also being just enough for the audience to buy it.  The police, who normally have enough on their hands with the likes of thugs under the command of Mistress Pei Pei Chow (Chang Chi-Ping), now have to contend with robbers whom they cannot see.  Despite the fact that this guy calls his shots, the cops just can’t seem to get their shit together (why does no one think to throw a bucket of paint in the proximity of the floating gun?), the Superintendent and his boss lament their own Stone Age techniques (“Technology is all around us.  We’re getting left behind”).  The Girls must be used because they are “modern,” though not necessarily tech savvy.  What they are, however, is clever, and they wear black leather uniforms, complete with hot pants, thus making them a superhero team of sorts.

The Girls have a seemingly fierce feminist streak in them.  They use a girls-only swimming pool.  They run a girls-only gym.  They have no compunction about throwing down with bad guys, and the bad guys (I suppose being equally feminist) have no compunction about striking back.  For all their independence, however, the Girls all behave like school children.  This is spurred on by the appearance of Lu, in a quasi-interesting reversal of the cliched “damsel in distress” syndrome.  They save his sad ass, and each woman suddenly thinks he’s the cat’s meow.  This is illustrated in a rather drawn out sequence.  Lu visits the gym and gives each of his rescuers a gift (I fantasize it was Pet Rocks for all).  That night, each of them makes an excuse to call Lu and go out to meet him (let’s just never mind that he doesn’t accept any of their invitations that we are aware of).  While waiting, each of them hallucinates that they see Lu with another woman, and they react violently.  They are, in effect, Boy Crazy.  But Lu only truly has eyes for Ku Lin, of course.  For all of the individual freedoms for which the Girls fight, they are, in the end, just young girls who get swept away by the wave of puppy love that Lu instigates in them.

Bruce Kung Fu Girls has a certain easy charm to it.  It is purely lite, dumb fun, and it knows this.  Yet, it missteps in two very distinct ways.  First, it is overly concerned with the act of frolicking.  The Girls jaunt off to the park and toss a large ball around.  They throw a birthday party for Chao Ping, the youngest of the quintet (we know she’s the youngest because she always wears her hair in pigtails and acts even more childish than the other four).  They go camping with some pals, but not before they waltz all through the forest, chuckling and acting up (or acting up as much as they ever will).  The camping trip also includes a full song sung by Ku Lin (you can almost smell the record tie-in, can’t you?).  Dik wisely spices up these long sequences by having the bad guys randomly appear and cause a ruckus, just not much of one.  The birthday party winds up turning into a cake-smashing party, and the villains appear to be having as much fun as the attendees (and far, far more than the viewers).  Second, the plot, such as it is, meanders and forgets that it exists at all for long stretches.  Further, the crime aspect of the film doesn’t do much original and repeats itself once or twice too often.  The finale is sufficiently ridiculous (Mistress Pei Pei Chow seriously did not think this thing through), and it all ends up as harmlessly as a television cop show.  The thing is that the film doesn’t give itself over to its more unique aspects enough to make it fully satisfying.  It’s like the frozen pizza of Taiwanese pulp cinema which, every now and then, is innocuous enough to get you by.

MVT:  The leather outfits.  Well, I liked them, anyway.

Make or Break:  The scene at the museum is the most distinctive one in the film, and displays what the movie should have trafficked in more.  Plus, it has lots of the Girls in their leather costumes.

Score:  5.5/10