When Hong Kong action alchemist John Woo mixes up his gracefully brutal aesthetic with big budget Hollywood high gloss, the results are an irresistible flavour. While not quite the balls out, blitzkrieg masterpiece that Face/Off is, his military gong show Broken Arrow is still one walk on the wild side of stunts, explosions, overblown madness and maniacal behaviour from John Travolta, who seems to be amping up the histrionics in double time just to cover Nicolas Cage’s shift this time around. He’s a navy pilot psycho called Deakins here, an unstable traitor who hijacks a volatile nuclear warhead and holds congress hostage, giggling like a schoolgirl the whole time. It’s up to his trainee and former partner Hale (Christian Slater) to hunt him through Death Valley where they’ve crashed, causing as much pyrotechnic commotion as possible and prep for the inevitable one on one smackdown that’s neatly foreshadowed by an opening credits boxing sequence between the two that’s an appetizer for the adrenal glands in prep for the chaos to follow. The action is fast, fierce and extremely violent, as is the amped up macho banter between the two, but Travolta really takes the role and sails off the charts into the ‘here there be dragons’ realm of acting reserved for only the most memorably over the top performances in history. “You’re fucking insane”, Slater sneers at him; “Yeah! Ain’t it cool?” Travolta smirks back with a face that would be straight if not for the knowing glint in his eyes. Park ranger Samantha Mathis helps Slater in his quest to bring the lunatic down, and there’s an impressive laundry list of character actors rounding out the military faction including Howie Long, Delroy Lindo, Frank Whaley, Bob Gunton, Chris Mulkey, Daniel Von Bargen, Vondie Curtis Hall, Jack Thompson, French Stewart, Raymond Cruz and Kurtwood ‘Red Forman’ Smith. Hans Zimmer does the score here and it’s an undervalued composition in his canon, a chromed up tune that drips cool and hurtles alongside the action awesomely. Woo has had some dodgy luck in Hollywood since (Mission Impossible 2 and Paycheck are painful), but this is one of his best stabs at the Western style of action, brought to eccentric life by Travolta’s oddball psycho and full of crazy ass action spectacle.
The Wraith was like many a glorious find back in the day at my local video store. The cover had a holographic shimmer to it – a strange robot-like character standing in front of some bad-ass, customized car that looked as though it would be more comfortable zipping through the galaxy rather than flying at break-neck speeds along the long stretches and cactus-lined roads of Arizona.
Yes sir, that cover held the promise of sci-fi mysticism combined with heat-thumping vehicular action to rival the Road Warrior.
Oddly enough, Dr. George’s post-apocalyptic action-adventure was the template for Mike Marvin’s Cult Classic. When the man who started out making skiing films came to Hollywood and saw an opportunity to fuse High Plains Drifter with Mad Max 2, one would assume it was a concept any studio would be happy to throw their weight behind.
But, then as now, the movie business can be treacherous, and Marvin’s experiences making The Wraith were far from pleasant. As a matter a fact, they were a nightmare. Plagued by unscrupulous producers, a tragic death while filming – along with all the other perils of production – it is a wonder that this certified 80’s classic ever made to to the screen.
Lucky for us, however, thanks must go, in no small part, to a string of wonderful performers, a dedicated crew and a talented director at the helm, The Wraith survives as a one of a kind mash-up of genres that has endured and is, for this film writer at least, yet to be equaled.
This interview was conducted before I was able to sample Mike’s great and candid commentary on the Region 1 DVD release of the film. And while some of what he relayed to me you will find on that release, the truly glorious thing that I experienced was to hear these insights, plus a couple that were not covered in that commentary track, first hand from this journeyman warhorse of a film-maker.
So seek out the The Wraith, those of you who have not yet experienced it. Let this interview, hopefully tantalize your interest to learn more about this incredible film that really was both ahead of its time, a product of its time and most assuredly one of a kind…
I really love this gig. I really do. I’ve had the distinction of being able to converse with many a hero and much admired artist over my time at PTS. There have though, been a few surprises along the way – and this was one of them.
I have long wanted to chat with Michael Davis. Part of it, and I’m sure you’ll agree having seen his films, that here is a man who went from making 100 Women to writing and directing the most-excellent, ballet of bullets that is Shoot ‘em Up. And you just need a few minutes of talking with Michael to understand how this was possible.
They say Scorsese has a machine-gun-mouth. Well listening to Michael is like standing next to Jesse Ventura firing Ol’ Painless. And – WOW – what a delight, the frenetic and passionate electricity that this man generates in infectious.
Michael’s initial overview of the birth of his career is one of the most entertaining I’ve ever heard. From his beginnings as a storyboard artist, to various writing assignments (don’t say Double Dragon out loud), to his eventual directorial debut; it’s a madcap movie marathon coming at you – at high speed!
Our conversation was so enthralling, so engaging, that I would be doing my guest a severe injustice to cut even a moment of it. So I shall be presenting it to you as a trilogy. Each section I promise is as entertaining as the last. So, don’t touch that dial, and prepare yourself to experience the filmmaking personification of the perfect storm that is . . . Michael Davis . . . . . . PART 1.
This film might not seem like a big deal to you. It could merely appear as another throwaway action flick on your regular streaming service – one that you glance at out of curiosity, and then move on. But I really loved SHOWDOWN IN MANILA, and here’s the reason why . . .
Once, a long time ago, in the age of wonder, they were these glorious palaces that we called, Video Stores. They were a veritable treasure trove for cineastes of all ages to come and get their movie-fix. They housed the cinema of the ages and best of all, there would be movies you could find there, that hadn’t played at a cinema near you.
These were the titles that were made specifically for this new medium of VHS. Like the drive-in before it, these stores needed product. Thus a new genre was born, and it was called Straight-to-Video. What arose were glorious movies, some of which, sadly, died along with their era. Awesome were the sci-fi, the horror, and specifically speaking now, the action movies that would appear on the shelves. And such action. Real, intense, dynamic and always in frequent supply. It was good versus evil in all its glory – the villains wore dark shades and the heroes carried big guns. So, it was while watching SHOWDOWN that I was hit by this wave of nostalgia, engulfed by memories of the golden age of home entertainment.
The plot of the film is simple. But isn’t that true of the best action flicks? The package is a beautiful cocktail of old and new, peppered with filmmakers wishing to deliver a splendid throwback, mixed with the stars that climbed to the dizzying heights of VHS stardom.
For those who know what I’m talking about, and even those that don’t, I say, go check out this little gem that is cut from the past, and at the same time, is polishing by the future. So, here now, I present a trio of interviews with the film’s stars Alexander Nevsky(The man on the rise), Matthias Hues(The action legend), and the man responsible for that important seed from which all great cinema grows, the script, Craig Hamman(the veteran screenwriter).
Alexander Nevsky is a Russian bodybuilder, actor, writer, producer. His life changed when he saw Arnold Schwarzenegger in Pumping Iron and that spark would light the fire which continues to burn bright. In 1994 Nevsky graduated from State Academy of Management (Moscow). In 1999 he moved to California. He studied English at UCLA and acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. He has risen from a bit-part-player to an international action star the cannot be ignored. With his imposing intensity, versatility and personal drive, Alex, I believe, is poised to enter the arena of formidable action superstars – its only a matter of when.
Matthias Hues is a German-born actor and martial artist as well as being an action movie icon. He came to L.A. not knowing how to act or even speak English. The fateful moment would come when he joined Gold’s Gym and the establishment’s manager received a call from a producer who had just lost Jean-Claude Van Damme for his movie and needed a replacement. Matthias tested for the role, and he managed to convince the producers to give him the part despite having no prior acting experience. The movie, No Retreat, No Surrender 2, was a moderate success, but it opened the door. He is, of course, most recognized for Dark Angel, but has also played everything from a gladiator turned private investigator in Age of Treason to an aging hit-man in Finding Interest to a bumbling idiot trying to kidnap a rich kid in Alone in the Woods to a dancing lion tamer in Big Top Pee-wee. He’s even played a Klingon general in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
Craig Hamann came up alongside another young aspiring filmmaker whose work would go on to define a generation. When he and Quentin Tarantino embarked upon the journey to make their own movie, My Best Friend’s Birthday, there was no telling then, where the road would lead. Well we all know where Quentin ended up, but Craig too has enjoyed a long and prosperous career that has been anything but ordinary. He’s a writer, former actor, that has watched the industry ebb and flow. He’s directed Boogie Boys, had encounters with Demonic Toys and of course, of late, he’s been a part of an action-thriller in Manila. Craig has other projects in the works, and with the company he keeps, these efforts are, I’m sure, set to explode and entertain. Yet he remains a humble gentleman with a passion for his work and a dedication that has seen him endure as a great veteran of the movie business.
As much as Killing Season has it’s flaws, and would have been better suited to a half hour short film rather than a slightly stretched out feature, it has strong points as well and entertains as best it can as a passable genre flick. Going the rugged survival/revenge route, a low key Robert Deniro plays Ben, decorated veteran who makes his homestead in the remote isolation of the the Smoky Mountains, scarred from battle both physically and mentally, ready to rest. Down time isn’t in his cards just yet, however, as trouble arrives in the shape of John Travolta as Emil, a Serbian/Bosnian warrior with wounds of his own and one big unresolved grudge against Ben. Both skilled hunters and survivalists, the two engage in a deadly geriatric cat and mouse game against a spectacular wilderness backdrop until the pasts and intentions of both are laid bare, and that inevitable climax rolls on in. Their close quarters warfare is quite fun, surprisingly brutal and just cartoonish enough to elicit a dark laugh here and there. Speaking of laughs, Travolta is so oddly characterized here he begs the query “Are you for real?”, sporting a dime-store fake beard and warbling out the most unconvincing Eastern European accent since John Malkovich in Rounders. That aside though, his actual acting isn’t half bad, especially in the final confrontation with Deniro that contains pathos the film never knew it had. The real allure here is the Smoky Mountain scenery, and I would give a shout out to the cinematographer but honestly with a location this good, a six year old and a smartphone could point n’ shoot and it would look like something Deakins wrought. This is by no means a great film, but is it entertaining and engaging? Absolutely, and any of these critics ripping it a new one on all fronts are just bitter, it seems.
There’s several movie versions of Marvel’s The Punisher, which these days are pretty much eclipsed by Netflix’s take-no-prisoners, balls out long form adaptation, but the film ones are still out there, if only for variety. By several I mean three, which some might not be aware of. Dolph Lundgren made an effort back in the 90’s which looks cool, but I’ve yet to see. Ray Stevenson most recently took up the mantle for a jagged edged, jarringly violent and dismal toned entry, which is worth a look. My favourite has to be the Thomas Jane one though, by far the most ‘hollywood’, high profile stab at the mythology, slightly silly in places, dementedly weird in others, a well casted, oddly pitched vehicle that is somehow the most fun of the trio of flicks. Jane, at least in the looks department, is the closest you’ll find to the Frank Castle of the comics, a rock-jawed, all American tragic antihero turned mass murderer. The story he finds himself in… well, it’s a little stuffed with itself, subplots dangling from it like entrails and far too many characters running about, but oh well. Jane’s Castle watches his wife (sadly short lived Samantha Mathis) and family massacred in the film’s opening, at the hands of melodramatic mobster Howard Saint, played by John Travolta, who’s determined to steal every scene whether anyone likes it or not. Forced into hiding, Frank eventually becomes the angry Punisher, a vigilante dressed like a jock in a school shooter Halloween costume, now on a path to wipe out Saint and his whole freaky entourage, which includes consigliere Will Patton, sporting some icky extra curricular activities. He also shacks up with sexy Rebecca Romjin and her two apparent roommates Ben Foster and comedian John Pinette, when he needs to dodge Travolta’s onslaught of colourful assassins. Well, he only *literally* shacks up with Romjin, but you get the idea. Speaking of assassins, there’s some really cool supporting villains dispatched by Saint. Castle is unprepared when an eight foot tall, mute Russian goon in Where’s Waldo inspired attire busts down his door looking for blood. My favourite has to be Harry Heck though, a contract killer so similar to Johnny Cash that for years after watching this I legit thought they somehow convinced the man in black himself to do an epic cameo. It’s actually a country singer named Mark Collie, but oh well, the guy composes a twangy guitar accompanied vocal for every target he’s assigned, which he croons out to them before getting violent, and that’s a fuckin wicked comic book villain in anyone’s books, whether or not the character actually appeared in the ones this film is based on (I’m guilty of never reading them). This film is fun because of it’s arch, broad strokes approach, especially with Travolta’s over the top take, Laura Harring as his emotional wife, whose fault it is that the whole massacre in the opening happens to begin with. That opening is ruthless, exploitive and doesn’t hold most of anything off camera, a good setup for revenge (or,sorry, ‘punishment’) in any pulp comic book scenario. Jane holds his own, and even popped up again years later to do a pseudo sequel in short film form called ‘Punisher: Dirty Laundry’, which is so good it almost blows this one out of the water. Here you’ll find a movie that’s not quite as resigned to it’s unpleasantness as the Warzone one (which really gets messed up), but still knows how to pack a mean punch, when it’s not too tied up with itself.
Oliver Stone’s Savages is the best film the man has made since the early 90’s, and reminds us of what colourful, bloody, hectic, Mardi Gras shock & awe blistering good times the man is capable of bringing us. His political/war films are all well and good, but for me the lifeblood of this filmmaker lies in his sun-soaked pulp n’ noir toolbox, the ability to spin grisly, darkly romanticized genre campfire yarns that exist eons away from the geopolitics of our plane. Savages is so whimsical it could float right out of our grasp on a cloud, if it weren’t so heavy and heinous at the very same time, and it’s in that careful balance of heart, horror and humour that the film comes out on top, despite a relative cop-out of an ending that can be forgiven when the package as a whole is considered. Based on a novel by Don Winslow, this is an odyssey of cartels, violence, love most pure, drugs, guns, California dreaming and a cast having more fun than they have so far in their collective careers, and I do mean that. The film opens with grainy, harrowing camcorder footage of sinister cartels beheading innocents to set an example, and that’s just the start of it. Pan over to Cali paradise where angelic Ophelia (Blake Lively in a beautiful, vulnerable performance) lives with the two loves of her life, gentle hippie Ben (Aaron Tyler Johnson) and hardened Afghan vet Chon (Taylor Kitsch), two brotherly marijuana barons who provide the west coast with the finest bud the region has to offer. They live in harmony, both in love with Ophelia, existing as a functional little romantic trifecta tucked away on the sun-dappled coastline, until darkness finds them in the form of the power hungry Baja Cartel, who want a piece of their impossibly lucrative action. Although spearheaded by a fiery Salma Hayek, it’s Benicio Del Toro’s Lado who strikes fear into hearts, a ruthless, casually sadistic enforcer who’s not above the lowest brands of violence and degradation. Del Toro plays him with a knowing sneer and a grease-dripping mullet, a positive scourge of everything pure and good in his path. Ben and Chon are thrown into a world of hurt when he kidnaps Ophelia, held as a ransom so the boys play ball with Hayek’s plans for aggressive expansion, promoting all out guerrilla war-games between both factions. John Travolta does his wired up thing as a cheerfully crooked DEA underboss who is their conduit to all things intel related, and Emile Hirsch their surveillance expert. This is a film of both bright light and terrible darkness, and it’s easy to get swept up in the hypnotically wistful current before the film turns evil loose and gut punches it’s audience. The visual tone is crisp and endlessly colourful, and Dan Mindel’s cinematography doesn’t shy away from the overt nature of the brutality, especially when Hayek’s right hand accountant (Damien Bechir) is gruesomely tortured by Lado, and during a daring highway ambush that showcases both Chon’s merciless tactical resolve and Ben’s fragility, both driven to staggering extremes by their love for Ophelia. Stone has always had a flair for eye boggling excess, dastardly deeds done under a baking hot sun and garish, over the top characters that would be right at home in a cartoon if they weren’t so tangibly present, especially in Del Toro’s and Travolta’s cases, it’s a beauty of a thing to see them both chow down on the scenery here and riff off of each other in a quick scene where they share frames. Many folks were underwhelmed by the work of the three young leads, but they couldn’t have been better, really, especially Lively, who’s wounded soul brandishes a sword and shield of sunny disposition even when faced with utter hopelessness, a lilting poetry to her hazy narration that threads the tale together in fable form. Commerce is chaos here too, as we see how the south of the border drug trade encroaches on many individuals who don’t yet understand the evil emanating from that region, and are rudely awakened. There’s so much going on in this film, it’s so vibrantly alive in every facet, a showcase example of the bruising, beautiful power that movies have over us.