Category Archives: 1980

Fist of Fear, Touch of Death (1980, Matthew Mallinson)

Either there’s a good story behind Fist of Fear, Touch of Death’s production or it’s exactly what it seems to be, some producers got ahold of the rights to an old Chinese movie, 1957’s The Thunderstorm, starring a teenage Bruce Lee in a non-martial arts role (in fact, it’s incest melodrama), and couldn’t figure out how to make any money off distributing it as is. So in what’s both the most creative thing screenwriter Ron Harvey does for the entire film and the most staggeringly awful (arguably), the old footage becomes a “biography” of Bruce Lee. Starring Bruce Lee. Dubbed by someone terrible. It tells the story of a “karate crazy” teenage Lee bringing shame and ruin to his family because of that enthusiasm, which has its roots in Bruce’s pride in his great-grandfather… the Chinese samurai.

Because the producers also had the rights to a wuxia movie, which had already been released in the United States as Invincible Super Chan, but the more accurate English title is apparently Forced to Fight. Who knows where Harvey got the story for the dubbing in it—maybe it’s the original story, doesn’t matter. It’s really boring. And there’s a lot of footage from it. And it seems rather poorly made. Fist of Fear, Touch of Death is a martial arts cash-in without a single bit of good martial arts. There’s a moment when it seems like—if director Mallinson weren’t so shockingly inept his roles of director and co-editor—it might be good. Martial artist Bill Louie, dressed up as “Kato #2” in a grim and gritty homage to Lee’s “Green Hornet” character, who patrols New York City in a limousine, saving random woman from being gang-raped in public places in broad daylight by twenty assailants. During that lengthy, terribly paced, terribly edited fight sequences—where the background action of victim Annette Bronson trying to get her purse away from one of the bad guys is more interesting than the fighting—in that scene, there’s a moment where it’s obvious Louie’d be fun to watch in a better production.

This sequence comes towards the end of the film, after all the Bruce Lee flashbacks. They start talking about his fame and didn’t want to show any of his actual movies in case someone would sue them so instead they do the averted rape. It’s the second averted rape on the sidewalks of New York City in the middle of the day; the first one has another martial artist, Ron Van Clief, saving a random woman. The difference between Louie and Van Clief? The “saved” woman has to sleep with Van Clief to thank him, which is… not unexpected for a production of Touch of Death’s caliber.

The movie’s got this framing sequence with Adolph Caesar as a reporter named Adolph Caesar, who’s covering the 1980 World Professional Karate Organization’s world welterweight title fight at Madison Square Garden—not the main hall and I’m not confirming it’s the Hulu Theater because I already spent seven minutes figuring out the name of the organization—but all he wants to talk about is Bruce Lee. It opens with him talking to promoter Aaron Banks, real-life promoter who’s running the WPKO, so when—late in the film—there’s a fake conversation between Banks and Bruce Lee, where Lee profusely lauds Banks as the most important figure in martial arts history, you’ve got to imagine the filmmakers threw it in to get access to Banks’s event.

Banks also says Lee died from the “Touch of Death.” Or “Vibrating Palm.” It’s a secret martial arts move where you touch someone and then three weeks later they die. I think the movie says Lee died the year before, so 1979, but it was actually 1973 but whatever.

Fred Williamson shows up as Fred Williamson, his introduction being him waking up late because the hotel thinks he’s Harry Belafonte and gives him the wrong wakeup call but Fred’s still got time to bed his lady. The sixth time.

You’ve got to wonder if Williamson knew what he was in for.

When the movie finally gets to the fight… it’s terribly edited kickboxing bout. The guy who wins seems like he’s getting his ass kicked for most of the fight because of how Mallinson edits the reused footage of the fight. Though I supposed it’s possible its original footage of the fight, which is terrifying because it’s so poorly directed, especially for a televised fight.

There’s no reason to watch Fist of Fear, Touch of Death unless you’re a Bruceploitation completest or want to be amazed at how Caesar’s voice is so good you believe the nonsense he’s spewing. There’s some nice stock footage of late seventies New York City too. And the opening titles music is… the CBS/FOX Home Video music from the eighties and nineties.

But, yeah, either all the deals it took to get this movie made are either real interesting or real sad.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Matthew Mallinson; screenplay by Ron Harvey, based on a story by Harvey and Matthew Mallinson; director of photography, John Hazard; edited by Jeffrey D. Brown and Mallinson; music by Keith Mansfield; produced by Terry Levene; released by Aquarius Releasing.

Starring Adolph Caesar (Adolph Caesar), Aaron Banks (Aaron Banks), Fred Williamson (Fred Williamson), Ron Van Clief (Ron Van Clief), Bill Louie (Bill Louie), Teruyuki Higa (Teruyuki Higa), Richard Barathy (Richard Barathy), Louis Neglia (Louis Neglia), John Flood (John Flood), Gail Turner (rape victim), Annette Bronson (rape victim #2), and Hollywood Browde (Fred Williamson’s girlfriend).


Stryker’s War (1980, Josh Becker)

Stryker’s War runs just over forty-five minutes. The first fifteen to twenty minutes are all about how twenty-two year-old lead Bruce Campbell can both do anything and make everything feel legit. The film opens in Vietnam (as shot in East Michigan) with Campbell taking his squad out on a mission after being promoted to lieutenant. It shouldn’t work at all. But it does, because Campbell. When Campbell gets wounded and shipped back home where he lives in a remote cabin trying to drink himself to death, it also works. Director Becker has a nice style with the actors, so when Campbell’s bantering with the kindly grocery store owner—played by Campbell’s dad, Charlie—it maintains a certain bit of seriousness, but also a lot of appreciation for the scene being able to work. War never does victory laps, but it’s full of confidence in itself (knowingly thanks to Campbell).

Turns out the kindly grocery store owner—who delivers microwave dinners and liquor to Campbell—has a pretty granddaughter who just might give Campbell the will to live. When she shows up–played by Cheryl Guttridge—the short leans heavy on the absurd; it’s love at first sight, complete with accompanying, sweeping melodramatic music and longing gazes from the lovebirds. She’ll be back the next day with more food for Campbell, giving him an excuse to shave and get dressed up.

Concurrent to Campbell’s burgeoning romance are radio reports of Manson Family-style killings in the Detroit area. They’ll be important in a bit, but first the short’s got to introduce Campbell’s Marine buddies—Scott Spiegel, David M. Goodman, and Don Campbell. None of them are good, occasionally they’re kind of bad, but Becker directs their scenes so well it doesn’t matter. That extended suspension of disbelief he’s set up with the romance carries over to the Marines being on a weekend pass from Japan to… East Michigan. They’re looking for something to do so they decide to visit Campbell in his remote cabin. They find him waiting for Guttridge, who hasn’t shown up, so like any red-blooded American males they get really drunk at nine in the morning and go outside to shoot things.

That night, when Campbell’s dog goes missing and they go out looking for him, they discover the Manson-esque cult is in the nearby woods and they’ve got Guttridge.

Sam Raimi plays the cult leader.

The last fifteen or so minutes of War is Campbell and his pals taking on the cult in the woods, set to familiar music borrowed from other films. There’s some great Bernard Herrmann in there for Campbell and Raimi—the film pairs off the good guys and the bad guys—and I wish I could recall the main chase theme for the rest of them. There’s a lot of running through the woods, some great action gore money shots, and an excellent pace.

War doesn’t aim too high—it’s ever conscious of its limitations—but it’s a great showcase for Campbell and a decent one for Becker. Becker seems like he’d rather get more stylized with the direction but doesn’t have the opportunity, but every once in a while there’s an excellent, complex shot.

It’s very impressive. Especially whoever cut all the music together; the editing’s quite good, but the music editing is outstanding.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Josh Becker; produced by Bruce Campbell and Becker.

Starring Bruce Campbell (Stryker), Scott Spiegel (Marine #1), David M. Goodman (Marine #2), Don Campbell (Marine #3), Cheryl Guttridge (Sally), Charlie Campbell (Otis), and Sam Raimi (Head Crazy).


The Big Red One (1980, Samuel Fuller)

The Big Red One is a fairly even split between action and conversation. The film tracks a single squad as they start fighting in North Africa, follow the war into the Mediterranean, participate in D-Day, then go east. The film skips to each event. There’s usually some epilogue to the event, something like character development or character revelation, then it’s on to the next event, starting with the time and place in the war. Squad member Robert Carradine narrates the film, which includes bridging the gaps between the events. He’ll occasionally have something to say about his fellow squad members, something to further reveal their character, but he doesn’t have much opinion of that new reveal. Even if it’s something bad. Even though the film’s about these five men, it’s not about their relationship. We’re not invited. Carradine fills in some details, very occasionally contextualizes, but there’s something going on in One away from the viewer. Director Fuller is telling the audience a story, which is somehow different from telling a story. How he’s telling the story is very important.

Fuller centers the film around the sergeant, played by Lee Marvin. He’s not just the center of the movie, he’s the hero of Carradine’s narration, which is more important; Carradine’s not the hero of his own narration. It’s not his story he’s telling, it’s Marvin’s, even though Marvin’s an intentional mystery. And not a mystery Fuller’s inviting the audience to solve. Or even attempt to solve. Marvin’s the hero. He’s the older, gruff sergeant with a heart of gold. A World War I vet too (the film opens in a flashback to it; good de-aging makeup). But Marvin’s never a stereotype. Neither are Carradine, Mark Hamill, Bobby Di Cicco, or Kelly Ward. Because Fuller doesn’t even give them that much character in the script. All the personality to the characters comes from the actors, which is an exceptionally odd choice for Fuller to make. And a completely successful one. That open space where Fuller could’ve written character—remember the movie’s half conversation, so these guys are always talking, sometimes about themselves, but nothing about anything to do with themselves. Hamill’s an artist. We find out nothing about it, he’s just drawing all the time. Carradine’s a writer, we find out a bunch about it… but he’s never actually writing. Di Cicco and Ward imply these complicated characters in their deliveries of one-liners. It’s a very strange, very good way to… get out of doing the character work but not let it go to caricature.

Fuller does something similar with Marvin, but gives him more backstory and experience because he’s older and has more experience and backstory. But Fuller’s still relying on Marvin for all the action reactions and processing of the events he’s experiencing.

Because in many ways, the four younger guys—they’re all privates—the four privates, they’re interchangeable. During the action scenes, anyway. When one of them does something significant, sure, then they’re different—usually Fuller forecasts the character’s taking center stage—but some of the point is how everyone in the squad except Marvin is interchangeable. Fuller sets the leads apart from the other four squad members (you usually only know one other squad member at a time, the other two or three are screen filler), but not in any way to make them exemplars. They’re just the guys who hang around Marvin the most and have some unrevealed history together. It’s none of our business, they’re just our protagonists.

And, incredibly, Fuller gets away with it. Di Cicco’s charming enough, Carradine’s funny enough, Ward’s surprisingly alpha enough, Hamill’s sufficiently sad enough. See, Hamill’s the movie’s second-is lead. It’s really Carradine but the movie pretends it’s Hamill because Ukelay Ywalkerskay. And Hamill gets a fairly intense arc all to himself and Fuller makes him do it all on his face. The film charts Hamill’s abilities at emoting improving until they’re finally successful enough they cover the absence of exposition on Hamill’s subplot. Fuller avoids it, then leaves it up to Hamill to make it all right to avoid it.

It’s so well-directed. Fuller’s so thoughtful about it all. He rarely lets the film go off on tangents and usually they’re only because he’s interested in something separate from the main cast, their concerns, their needs. Fuller occasionally checks in with German sergeant Siegfried Rauch, who’s basically evil Lee Marvin. He’s got similar experiences; not just the last war, but also taking on these wet-behind-the-ears new recruits; he’s just really evil. Fuller likes using Rauch to distract from what he’s not doing with the main cast, like developing their characters. Rauch isn’t like the other main characters; Rauch never gets to mug his way through a scene. He doesn’t get free rein to do whatever on his character between his lines. He’s different.

Because, you know, he’s the Nazi.

Good photography from Adam Greenberg, great editing from Morton Tubor, very strong, very often disquieting score from Dana Kaproff. It’s a somewhat traditional war movie score, but Kaproff takes it in different directions, which help to reveal (presumably accurately) more about the lead characters.

Performances—Marvin’s great, Carradine’s great, Hamill’s good, Di Cicco and Ward are great. Marvin’s really great. He gets some great material and makes it even better.

The Big Red One is superb.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Samuel Fuller; director of photography, Adam Greenberg; edited by Morton Tubor; music by Dana Kaproff; produced by Gene Corman; released by United Artists.

Starring Lee Marvin (The Sergeant), Mark Hamill (Griff), Robert Carradine (Zab), Bobby Di Cicco (Vinci), Kelly Ward (Johnson), Joseph Clark (Shep), Ken Campbell (Lemchek), Doug Werner (Switolski), Perry Lang (Kaiser), Howard Delman (Smitty), and Siegfried Rauch (The German Sergeant).



Gregory’s Girl (1980, Bill Forsyth)

At no point in Gregory’s Girl does writer and director Forsyth wait for the audience. He’s not hurried, he’s not hostile, he’s just not repeating himself. Ever. The result is a whimsical but grounded film, not exploring much more than its characters could handle and often trying to make space to find some everyday magic. Forsyth doesn’t establish the limits of this magic until he goes rather far with it, which sort of retroactively makes earlier scenes more in the same category. The film doesn’t have a jumpy narrative pace but it does have a speedy one. The pace is key to the film’s particular charm and second only in importance to leading man John Gordon Sinclair.

Sinclair is disarming, sincere, and awkward. His closest confidante, the film goes on to reveal (after the first “act”), is little sister Allison Forster. Sinclair’s home situation, which does get covered at the beginning, appears to be one of ships passing the night. The film introduces his father (Dave Anderson) and mentions his mother, but they’re not part of Sinclair’s regular day and the film is all about the regular days of its cast. When Forster comes in, she helps explain why Sinclair’s so awkward. It’s not just because he grew five inches over the last year to tower over everyone else at school, teachers included, but because instead of having teenage boys as his primary social influence, it’s soulful ten year-old Forster. She’s already got a beau of her own, in what might be the film’s most mature onscreen relationship; the tweens understand dating, the teenage girls understand dating, the teenage boys not so much.

Forsyth gets a lot of quiet humor out of Forster’s beau, Denis Criman. He’s a similarly soulful ten year-old. He and Sinclair have a great scene together.

Albeit one where Forsyth’s limited composition techniques gets in the way—Forsyth relies way too heavily on close-ups, which could be a budgetary thing, but it’d be nice to have a two shot for some of the banter; the two shots do eventually come in, at the end of the film for the… action-packed (at least from Sinclair’s perspective) finale. Their arrival isn’t just welcome, it’s noticeable. Gregory’s Girl never amps up the pace or drama. Forsyth never changes the gentle, lyrical, detached narrative distance.

Including when Forster comes in—sorry, there’s something else to talk about with that sequence. Forsyth juxtaposes soulful Forster, with her wise-beyond-her-years (or just appropriately pre-hormonal) understanding of coupling, with already graduated Douglas Sannachan coming back to visit his pals. While Sannachan is explaining the sexual conquests being a window cleaner allows, Forster is hanging back, waiting to give Sinclair better advice. Forsyth constantly plays with the idea of mutual exclusivities in the film. Boarish bullshitter versus sweet and sincere, for instance.

But then there’s also the whole football thing.

Soccer football.

In addition to all the boys getting interest in the girls—though the film doesn’t discount the possibility they could be interested in boys (Gregory’s Girl, which doesn’t have homophobia or bullying, is a decidedly un-American teen movie)—they’re interested in footy. One of the main plot lines involves football coach Jake D’Arcy demoting former star striker Sinclair (he grew, it’s not his fault, he’s got too much height now to walk properly) to goalie and getting a new striker. Turns out the best striker in the school is a girl, Dee Hepburn. Sinclair immediately falls for Hepburn, watching how she can control the ball, while D’Arcy goes on this “girls can’t play boys sports but wait she’s better” arc. Only it’s a really quiet arc. Meanwhile Hepburn’s got to fight the preconceived notions. For the first two “acts” (quotation marks because it’s pointless to think about the film epically), Forsyth splits the narrative between Sinclair, D’Arcy, and Hepburn. Once the football ends—once Sinclair outgrows it—he’s ready for romance.

Even if he doesn’t understand it.

The only other subplot to last until the finish is Robert Buchanan and Graham Thompson’s. They’re comic relief; the boys even more inept at the romance than Sinclair. They’re a lot of fun. Thompson’s the silent one, Buchanan’s the motormouth. Their subplot is mostly aside from Sinclair’s main one, but the threads intersect early on to lay the groundwork for a pay-off in the finale. It’s another of the lovely, deliberate moves in Forsyth’s script. If only he liked two shots more.

Nice photography from Michael Coulter, fun smooth jazz score from Colin Tully. John How’s cuts are always a little too rushed, especially with the lack of coverage, but maybe the lack of coverage is why the cuts are a little too rushed.

Forsyth’s got some big moves he saves for the end (might be nice if they’d been foreshadowed) and they’re more than worth the wait. Gregory’s Girl is a delightful peculiarity.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and Directed by Bill Forsyth; director of photography, Michael Coulter; edited by John Gow; music by Colin Tully; produced by Davina Belling and Clive Parsons; released by ITC.

Starring John Gordon Sinclair (Gregory), Allison Forster (Madeline), Dee Hepburn (Dorothy), Jake D’Arcy (Phil Menzies), Clare Grogan (Susan), Billy Greenlees (Steve), Robert Buchanan (Andy), Denis Criman (Richard), Graham Thompson (Charlie), Douglas Sannachan (Billy), and Chic Murray (Headmaster).



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