Thursday, November 4, 2010

Banzai Runner (1987) Slightly Fast, Partially Furious

When I first found the Banzai Runner VHS tape, I was struck by the cover art, the promise of a film starring Dean Stockwell, and the title which brought up images in my mind. However those images were of either someone illegally smuggling dwarfed trees or Peter Weller starring in the Jim Fix story. Needless to say, that’s not at all what this film is about Instead it’s another in a long line of films about a loose cannon cop who, acting just outside the law, manages to bring down the menace facing the street. In most cops’ cases, the perpetrators would be arsonists, rapists, terrorists, or drug runners. While the last of those subjects is briefly mentioned, Dean Stockwell has a very basic enemy, the North American douche bag in a really fast, really expensive car.

Patrolling the California highways that run to Las Vegas, Billy Baxter (Stockwell) is frustrated with his pokey cop car that won’t even go a third as fast as the sports cars that rule the roads. The new captain isn’t interested in stopping the speeders, and he thinks that Baxter is on some kind of vendetta to find the driver of a black Porsche that ran his brother off the road and killed him. When Billy goes on a 200 MPH joyride, that is finally the last straw and he loses his job. Creditors and his wife’s divorce settlement are both closing in on the former cop as a DEA agent approaches him to go undercover to bring down the “Banzai Runners” who the agency suspects is running cocaine in their car.  Along with his nephew Beck (John Shepard), they infiltrate the culture finding it mostly populated with spoiled boys with fancy toys, but their path finally leads them to the drug dealer Syszek (Billy Drago), the proud former owner of a black Porsche.

Starting in the opening credits, you can tell the most speed involved in the film would be from speeding up the film to make the cars look like they are going a hundred and eighty miles per hour. The good news is it allows you to get over that foible early on, and once accepted, the car chases in the film are enjoyable, not that The French Connection was in any trouble of being dethroned. The problem with Banzai Runners is that for a film about speed it proceeds at a slow, methodical pace taking far too much time for Stockwell’s moody introspection. Take for example the five minute scene where Stockwell, looking as hang-dogged as he can, wanders around his house too sad to summon up the strength to play his trumpet. There’s so much wrong going on here. Where’d the trumpet coming from? Why is he so sad? (The viewer doesn’t find out until two scenes later what’s bumming him out.) Why hasn’t Ziggy told him where Sam has leaped to now?

I’ve seen one other film by director John G. Thomas before, the Michael Parks/Denise Crosby crime thriller Arizona Heat (1988). Based on those two films, I would say that Thomas wanted badly to direct heavy drama, but he could never get any projects off the ground without genre trappings. The scourge of rich guys in fast cars, only one of which seems to be running drugs, is hard to see much of a threat to any cop that wasn’t being played by Dean Stockwell. The plot of the film makes as much sense as something like Raw Deal, but no action star would want to be a film with so little action.  Dean, who I love to see in films like Dune and Blue Velvet, did his best with what he was given. He was easily the bright spot in the film, but when the second best actor was Billy Drago, who appeared here as a villainous mix between Barry Manilow and Martin Short, you’re really in trouble. John Shepherd (Tommy from Friday the 13th: A New Beginning) was among the worst in the film. Playing Stockwell’s nephew Beck, Shepherd got on my last nerve, and the scenes he carried alone with his girlfriend (Dawn Schneider) were the most fatty and unnecessary.

I was hoping Banzai Runner would come across like a prehistoric version of 2 Fast, 2 Furious, but Dean Stockwell is no Paul Walker. Oh, it just hurt me inside to say that. Ok, so Stockwell is leaps and bounds better than Walker (even in this turd), but he just didn’t make much of an action hero. With a few tweaks to the script, a better lead actor (I would have rather seen Michael Parks in this film), and a tightening of the pace, Banzai Runner could have lived up to at least part of the promises made by its poster. The tagline promises easy women (I counted none.), dangerous men (again I only counted the one, other than guys in danger of wearing tacky ‘80’s suits), and exotic cars. When I, with my extremely limited knowledge of cars could identify most of the models, the cars are not all that exotic. Banzai Runner had a lot of promise, but the only thing it does quickly is neglect to make good on any of it.

MVT: I have to go with Billy Drago. Though I could talk little about him (all his action is in the last third of the film), he gave the entire picture a boost by providing some actual menace where it was severely lacking. Even in the brief role, he kept me watching when I was all but about to give up.

Make or Break: Banzai Runner is broken, and what got it that way is the slow, slow pace. The subject matter at hand was fast cars, and the film only manages to deliver three high speed chases, one of which is not really even a chase. I needed to feel intensity from Stockwell. He was supposed to be a man driven by revenge, but he mostly seemed to be driven by the desire to not lose his home. Banzai Runner spent too much time exploring nothing, and not enough time making me give a damn.

Score: 4.25/10.00 This is for die hard car nuts or Stockwell completists only (I know somewhere out there someone loves Dean that much.) For anyone else, there are better car movies, better loose cannon cops, and better movies in which to enjoy Mr. Stockwell.


  1. Great review, LB. Dean Stockwell and Billy Drago. You'd think a movie with those two would be... oh wait, nevermind. I don't know what I was thinking there. By the way, if there is a Dean Stockwell completist out there, someone should make a documentary about him or her. I can just picture this person hoarding, obsessively watching Quantum Leap, and not having much of a social life (apologies to any Stockwell completists reading this).

  2. The reason I had to include that description was to conjure up the image. I'm glad it worked! Thanks for the comment Aaron.