Tag Archives: Billy Drago

B Movie Glory: Sci Fighters

Picture a bleached out, acid washed dime-store version of Blade Runner on a shoestring, bargain budget and you’ll have some notion of Sci Fighters, a silly futuristic flick starring lovable wrestler ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper and B Movie stock villain Billy Drago. By most standards it’s a miserable little exercise in schlock, but if that’s your thing to begin with, it’s a pearl. So it’s set in 2009, and the film was made in 96’, which going by a combination of the math and the severely bleak atmosphere, the filmmakers didn’t even stretch their timeline barely past twenty years from their date, showing either amusing carelessness in writing or even more amusing cynicism for where we’re headed, and how fast. The setting is Boston, and it’s a goddamn slum, with perpetually overcast skies, garbage heaps everywhere and a general sense that people have given up. Piper is Grayson, a hard boiled detective on the trail of a somewhat unusual killer. Far above earth in a filthy off-world prison on the moon, criminal Dunn (Drago) has encountered some weird alien parasite which hijacks his gaunt frame and torpedos back stateside to start a murder spree. Drago vs Piper in a sad-sack, disease ridden Boston is pretty much the suitable logline, and it’s not half bad. Piper makes a more grounded leading man than the film deserves, while Drago is straight up certifiable (nothing new) especially when the extraterrestrial, who has a garbled and endearing speech impediment, is controlling him. Effort is put into the atmosphere to some degree, but I feel like the success in achieving mood was probably also by accident of just leaving shit lying around set. A true peculiarity, worth it only for fans of the two actors and schlock-hounds alike.

-Nate Hill

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B Movie Glory: Francis Delia’s Freeway


In the vein of highway set psycho thrillers, stuff like Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher and Steven Spielberg’s Duel paved and pioneered the way, fertilizing the ground for countless other similar efforts, some terrific and others not so much. Freeway falls into the former category, an atmospheric little B movie that delivers more clammy thrills than it frankly has any right to. It’s not to be confused with the classic Reese Witherspoon trash-terpiece of the same name though, this is a different animal altogether. There’s a serial killer terrorizing the nocturnal arteries of the L.A. highway system in this, an unhinged whacko in a Lincoln of or some such automobile of equally austerity, firing off love rounds into people’s faces whilst bellowing out bible verses extremely out of context all over the overpass in the wee hours. He’s mostly heard and unseen, but he’s played by none other than Billy Drago when he does show that leering visage, and the man let’s it rip in a performance that should be legendary. He’s hunted by another cool-as-ice character actor, tough guy James Russo as a Detective of few words and tons of action, namely shooting anyone that won’t give answers or spur his leads. There’s a dark, dreamy nocturnal aura to this, love and care put into atmosphere, showing is that the filmmakers, despite working with a low budget, actually give a darn about quality in their work as opposed to a throwaway second tier genre mad dash where the lack of passion is evident. A low rent classic in the realm of homicidal vehicular themed exploitation. 

-Nate Hill

B Movie Glory: Dark Moon Rising 


You want a romantic werewolf flick that rises above the vomitus of Twilight and gives you nostalgic pangs for stuff like The Howling and Bad Moon? Dark Moon Rising is your ticket, and proves that you don’t need heaps of PG-13 gloss, mopey teen bottom feeder ‘actors’ and a vacuous script to make a young adult oriented horror film. This one is admittedly low budget and feels just south of finished in spots, but it’s well crafted, made with love and bereft of CGI. The story couldn’t be simpler: a small town girl (Ginny Weirick), her stern Sheriff father (Chris Mulkey) and the new boy in town (Chris Delvecchio) who just happens to be a werewolf. Young love is always just a stone’s throw away from danger, which arrives in the form of the boy’s dangerous, monstrous father Bender (Max Ryan) who also happens to be a werewolf. You can imagine how it goes: steamy New Mexico supernatural melodrama with a few buckets of gore tossed in and a handful of super cool genre actors. Sid Haig, Lin Shaye and Maria Conchita Alonso have wonderful extended cameos, but the standout is Billy Drago, a staple villain actor who gets to do something different here. Blessed with a reptilian visage that just demands evil behaviour from him, he’s given a sympathetic detective role here, a heartbroken lawman on the hunt for Bender to appease personal anguish. The makeup and prosthetics are terrific, retro latex nightmares that made me miss the good old days before I was born when every horror flick had to rely on the ingenuity of a hardworking team of gorehounds. Despite a few weird pacing issues (tighter editing would have been appreciated), this one is a little indie horror well worth your time. 

-Nate Hill

THE UNTOUCHABLES – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987) is a film that asks the burning question: is police brutality ever justified? It is when you’re dealing with the likes of Al Capone and Frank Nitti – gangsters that had no problem blowing up children and killing nebbish accountants to get what they wanted. The film doesn’t exactly adhere to historical fact opting instead to go with John Ford’s famous credo of printing the legend and in doing so raising the characters and their exploits to mythic status. De Palma’s adaptation of Eliot Ness’ 1957 memoir of the same name had all the makings of a powerhouse production destined for greatness. It featured a screenplay written by legendary playwright David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross), expert cinematographer Stephen H. Burum (Rumble Fish) was behind the camera, master composer Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad & the Ugly) was scoring the film, and Robert De Niro and Sean Connery were signed on to play larger-than-life characters. The result was an exciting, action-packed epic that helped revitalize De Palma’s struggling career (after the critical and commercial failure of Wise Guys) and earned Connery his first Academy Award.

It is 1930 and gangster Al Capone (Robert De Niro) controls most of the illegal business in Chicago with a ruthless, iron fist. After a ten-year old girl is killed in a gang-related incident, Federal Treasury Agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is brought in to clean up the city. His first attempt is an embarrassing failure so he tries a different approach. He decides to form his own task force of three men to help him take down Capone and his empire. He picks a veteran beat cop named Malone (Sean Connery), who knows the city and becomes Ness’ mentor. He also selects Stone (Andy Garcia), a cop fresh out of the academy and ace shot with a pistol. Rounding out the group is Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), a bookish FBI accountant who figures out a way to nail Capone. Together, they form an incorruptible group determined to bring Capone to justice.

De Palma and Mamet make it clear right from the get-go that The Untouchables isn’t going to be some half-assed, sanitized gangster film as they proceed to have Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) blow up a bar with a little girl in it. This shocking sequence, juxtaposed with Capone lying about not using violence to enforce his will, sets an all-bets-are-off tone as we get an idea of just how brutal life is in Chicago and how far Capone is willing to go to make a point. This is then contrasted with Eliot Ness’ blandy-McPlainWrap home life with a loving and dutiful wife (Patricia Clarkson) and cute-as-a-button child. We see just how far removed from Chicago Ness’ home life is and what a rude wake-up call he will get when he starts working in the city.

Kevin Costner is wisely cast as the stiff, idealistic Ness. He’s the least interesting character and plays the role straight, trying not to go the obvious heroic route. His all-American looks and Gary Cooper-esque style are ideally suited for the role of the last honest man in the corrupt town (which Oliver Stone would also utilize in JFK). His Ness is as straight an arrow as they come, which makes the character’s arc over the course of the film an interesting one. He goes from staunch upholder of the law to someone who has adopted Malone’s by-any-means-necessary philosophy.

This allows Connery to rightfully shine as the aging cop torn between riding out his remaining time and retire alive or making a difference with Ness and his crew. Unlike Ness, Malone has grown up on and worked the mean streets of Chicago. He understands that they are at war with Capone and must do whatever it takes to bust him and break up his empire because he will be just as ruthless. Upon the first meeting, Malone imparts a valuable lesson to Ness: “Make sure when you shift is over you go home alive.” It seems obvious but is an important one to know. It is also the reason why Malone initially turns down Ness’ offer to form the Untouchables. Connery shows what a once great actor can do with the right material and this results in a truly inspired performance — arguably the veteran actor’s last great one.

Rounding out his trilogy of memorable cameos in the 1980s (including Brazil and Angel Heart), Robert De Niro put on the pounds again (which he first and most famously did for Raging Bull) and transformed himself into Al Capone. Like Tony Montana in De Palma’s Scarface (1983), Capone is surrounded by luxury and opulence but is still just a cruel thug at heart. In the few scenes that he has, De Niro makes them count and it is a thrill to hear a great actor say Mamet’s tough-guy dialogue (listen to how he says the word, “enthusiasms,” in a scene). The actor clearly relishes the role and treats the dialogue like he’s enjoying a rich meal and each word is a juicy morsel that he savors.

The supporting roles feature some fantastic actors, chief among them Billy Drago who exudes just the right amount of oily menace as Nitti. For example, there is a scene where he cordially threatens Ness and his family. On the surface there is the appearance of civility but we know what his true intentions are and it doesn’t take Ness much time to figure it out but by then Nitti is speeding off in his car. He’s made his point. Drago doesn’t get many lines or a lot of screen time but makes the most of what he’s given, making a fine addition to De Palma’s roster of cinematic sociopaths.

Speaking of Mamet’s dialogue, it crackles and pops with intensity and provides many of the film’s classic scenes, perhaps none more memorable than Malone’s famous speech to Ness where he tells him how to get Capone. “He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way.” Sean Connery delivers this speech with the passion and conviction that rightfully earned him an Oscar. The other scene of classic Mamet dialogue is Capone’s infamous dinner table monologue where he talks about teamwork before braining a hapless flunky with a baseball bat for not being a part of the “team.”

Brian De Palma’s stylish direction is perfect for this epic story: long, uninterrupted takes, slow motion and excellent compositions within the widescreen format. He may well be one of the greatest practioners of this aspect ratio. Just look at a simple set-up in the scene where Malone takes Ness to a church and lays it all out for how they’re going to get Capone. Both men take up most of the foreground occupying either side of the screen. The camera is low looking up at them so that we also see part of the beautifully ornate church ceiling. It is this kind of shot that would be totally destroyed when shown pan and scanned on television. Then there is the much-celebrated train station shoot-out, which was a shameless homage to a famous sequence in the legendary film, Battleship Potemkin (1925). It’s a bravura sequence that is beautifully orchestrated by De Palma as he builds the tension leading up to the shoot-up for what seems like an unbearable eternity. The entire sequence is a brilliant lesson in editing and camerawork.

Although, De Palma does go a little over-the-top (even for him) with the Ness-Nitti show down at the end, which features the director’s obligatory homage to Alfred Hitchcock. There is also a silly bit of business where we see two old cops duking it in a rainy alleyway as Connery and veteran character actor Richard Bradford laughably beat each other up in a scene that I could’ve done without. Also, Malone’s prolonged death scene drags on for what feels like an eternity but these are really minor flaws in an otherwise unimpeachable stone cold classic as De Palma does his best to distract us from these histrionics with giallo lighting in the Connery fight scene and suspenseful point-of-view steadicam work in the death scene.

In 1984, producer Art Linson met with Paramount Studio’s president Ned Tanen about adapting The Untouchables television series into a film. Tanen liked the idea but Linson did not want to do a sequel, a remake or a parody. He wanted “to create a big-scale movie about mythical American heroes.” Linson needed a screenwriter and thought of David Mamet, fresh from just having won a Pulitzer Prize for his Broadway play Glengarry Glen Ross. He met with Mamet and the writer agreed to do the film. The screenwriter was a native of Chicago and something of a gangster history buff. He envisioned a story about “the old gunfighter and the young gunfighter … It occurred to me, what happens if this young innocent, who’s charged with defending the law but only understands that in an abstract way, meets an old disenchanted veteran, the caretaker of the law, soured at the end of his career because of the corruption in the city?”

Mamet asked Paramount to show him two episodes of the original series and he liked them but felt that “there was nothing I could use in the movie.” Mamet wrote an original story after realizing that the real events – Capone being caught for tax evasion – were not that dramatic. Mamet created the character of Malone and gave Ness a family (he did not have one in real life). After eight months, Brian De Palma was approached to direct by Linson after Mamet wrote the third draft of the script. The director liked that the script was more about the characters and did not see it as a gangster film but more like The Magnificent Seven (1960). He felt that the project was “different from anything I’ve done in the past, because it’s a traditional Americana picture, like a John Ford picture.” He, Linson and Mamet worked together on it with De Palma emphasizing the Capone character more. According to De Palma, the film “reflects upon the incredible pressure we place on our police by not equipping them to adequately fight criminals. Why are we surprised that some of them go overboard?”

For the role of Eliot Ness, Linson and De Palma initially considered William Hurt and Harrison Ford, but, according to Linson, they wanted “someone with the right combination of naiveté, earnestness and strength.” They ended up casting Kevin Costner who wanted to do the film because it was so different from the television series and Ness “has to ask for help. It’s the more modern notion that a smart man takes a step back sometimes – that to be a hero you don’t have to be Rambo.” For Jimmy Malone, the filmmakers wanted Sean Connery but assumed that he would not want to play a supporting role and take a pay cut. However, Connery was drawn to the project because of Mamet’s script and the chance to work with Robert De Niro. He ended up signing on for a percentage of the profits. For the role of Al Capone, De Palma wanted De Niro. Paramount initially balked at the actor’s asking price of $1.5 million but relented.

The principal actors rehearsed together for a full week and Connery tried to remain in character even when the cast was relaxing. By the time principal photography began, whole scenes had been blocked and unworkable ideas rejected. A rapport between the actors playing the Untouchables had also been established, which definitely shows in the film. In preparation for the film, De Niro put on 30 pounds between the end of his Broadway run in Cuba and His Teddy Bear and his days of filming scheduled at the end of the 70-day production schedule. He analyzed old Movietone newsreels in order to get Capone’s voice, movements and mannerisms. On an interesting note, the famous scene in the church between Ness and Malone as originally written, took place on a street, but Connery suggested it take place in a church – the only place left in the city where they could speak freely.

Principal photography started in mid-August 1986 and utilized over 25 separate locations in Chicago with the border raid sequence shot on the Old Hardy Bridge spanning the Missouri River because of its period look. The train station shoot-out cost $200,000 to light because extra light was needed to shoot the sequence in slow motion. It took six days to shoot the scene, which cost an additional $100,000. Not surprisingly, staging this sequence like the one in Battleship Potemkin was De Palma’s idea. The budget escalated from $17 million to $24 million thanks to the cost of production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein transforming an entire block of LaSalle Street in Chicago into the 1930s complete with 125 costumed extras and 60 period cars.

The production design for The Untouchables is fantastic, especially the opulence of Capone’s headquarters, with Morricone’s score resembling a 1930s riff on the music from De Palma’s Scarface. This film is one of those rare big-budget, star-studded blockbusters that actually works. All of the right elements came together at just the right time and place and resulted in an incredibly entertaining motion picture. The Untouchables shows what a master filmmaker like De Palma can do with a director-for-hire paycheck movie. He may not be making a personal statement with this film but he still gives it his all in terms of style and virtuoso camerawork. This film certainly set a high standard for period gangster films, casting a long shadow over future endeavors like Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009) and the HBO T.V. series Boardwalk Empire.

B Movie Glory with Nate: Cyborg 2: Glass Shadow

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The fact that Cyborg 2: Glass Shadow has almost nothing to do with the first Cyborg is probably a good thing. I’ve seen both, and the first one is an ugly, grimy early starring vehicle for Jean Claude Van Damme that plays like an episode of American Gladiators on PCP. This sequel, however, is a scrappy little sci fi delight. It takes plays in a futuristic B-Movie realm where maniacal corporations wage war on each other for the control of lucrative artificial intelligence, cyborgs who can be programmed to be slaves, soldiers or whatever you want. Angelina Jolie is Casella ‘Cash’ Reese, a gorgeous warrior Cyborg held under the watchful eye of the Pinwheel corporation, ruled by a hammy Allen Garfield. Her trainer, a mercenary named Colton Hicks (Elias Koteas) starts to fall in love with her. In this particular B movie universe, it’s implied that there are fragments of what may resemble a soul that begin to grow inside the cyborgs, and gradually Cash falls for him as well. They plan their escape, and embark into a delightfully cheap looking metropolis of the future, seeking an oasis far away that’s basically a non extradition zone for robots. Pinwheel sends some dangerous bounty hunters after them. There’s fighting. And running. And shooting. And Cyborg sex including a 17 year old Angelina going fully topless, which makes me wonder how the filmmakers ducked the authorities on that one. Not that I’m complaining. Aside from baring her chesticles, she makes a pretty solid action heroine at that age, and even before making a name for herself she carries the film pretty well. Koteas is pretty much capable of anything as far as acting goes, breezing through this one in his sleep whilst still keeping one eye open to give Hicks a vulnerability and desperation that the film hardly deserves. Character actor Billy Drago gives a scene stealing performance of sheer unbridled lunacy as Danny Bench, a terrifyingly unhinged contract killer who pursues the pair and has an absolute smackdown of a fight sequence with Koteas. That old salty dog Jack Palance even shows up for an amusing, warmhearted supporting role as a mysterious hacker who helps the duo out and in turn gets his own retribution. Get one thing straight right now: this a B movie. If you go into one of these with your critic’s brain shoveling coal into the fires of cynicism, you’re gonna have a bad time. These films are overtly cheap, chock full of deliberate plot holes and speckled with acting that could wilt flowers. But I love them anyway. I grew up watching an endless stream of direct to video horror, sci fi and thriller flicks that maybe ten people on planet earth besides me have seen. I love them, they are amazing and they exist in a realm far, far outside film ‘criticism’. It’s best to gear your brain into fun mode before hitting play, then just relax and enjoy. If you’re the type of person that can do that, you’ll love this kind of stuff. If not, steer well clear. Cyborg 2 is the perfect example of a B movie done right, and I’ll be the first to admit that there’s plenty that are made with the kind of lifeless ineptitude that doesn’t even deserve a place in the genre. This one’s cheaply made, doesn’t have much of a budget to its name, yet admirably creates it’s own little world with what it has, spinning a story of action, romance, robots and Angelina Jolie. Honestly, who can say no to those things? You, that’s who.