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Actor’s Spotlight: Nate’s Top Ten Jon Polito Performances

Many people saw Jon Polito as the effervescent, rambunctious mafioso character actor, a playful scene stealer never short on buzzing bumblebee characteristics and zesty Italian American energy, and indeed some of his greatest roles showcased that. But given the right script he was also capable of a disarming centre of gravity, a melancholic, thoughtful presence in certain key projects that to me was just as compelling as his loopy side. He has passed on now but here are my top ten performances from this incredible actor:

10. Officer Sherman in Stuart Little

A classic NYC beat cop, Sherman warns the Little family about an incident involving their… littlest member with deadpan comic relief, and Polito shows off his skill for situational comedy nicely. I have fond memories of this film from my childhood and him being a brief part of it was always cool to see.

9. Agent Chester Hymes in Big Nothing

This indie cult comedy sees two hapless conmen (Ross from Friends and Shaun from Shaun Of The Dead) try and pull off a bunch of dummy level schemes and constantly get thwarted by Ross’s cop wife (Natascha McElhone). Jon plays an eccentric, Colombo type FBI forensics guru who appears to be thick as hell at first but proves to be anything but. With hysterical coke bottle glasses and a spluttering line delivery he makes the character stand out.

8. Ashcan in Homeward Bound II: Lost In San Francisco

Ashcan is the belligerent villain of this urban set sequel, an obnoxious boxer dog who makes life difficult for the heroes with his sidekick Pete (Adam Goldberg). Jon’s trademark gravelly voice lent itself to lots of cool voiceover work in his career, this being one of the most memorable.

7. Rossi in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster

A brief but affecting cameo, Italian crime boss Rossi reflects to Denzel Washington’s Frank Lucas in regards to the changing of the times, the way the mafia operates and essentially laments that things ain’t what they used to be. It’s an important scene because as he speaks we can see the wheels turning in Frank’s mind and this interaction could have largely spurred the now legendary actions of Lucas and his organization. Who better than Polito to carry such a pivotal scene.

6. Montesquino in Masters Of Horror: Haeckel’s Tale

This wonderful horror anthology series saw many of the biggest names in the genre get to play in the sandbox for various mini movies. This one sees Jon play a demented necromancer who brings back people from the dead, at a high cost. Adorned in a top hat and more hair than we ever saw him have in his career, he gets to ham it up and lay on the creep factor big time in one of his showiest genre turns.

5. DaFino in The Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski

Another quick cameo, he’s been in nearly half the Coen’s filmography and always amps up the scene. Da Fino is a ‘private snoop’ in his own words, a ‘brother shamus’ to which Jeff Bridges’ The Dude aloofly replies ‘Your mean like an Irish monk?’ It’s a priceless little exchange of dialogue between the two actors that allows Jon to impart some important exposition in the highly convoluted plot and have some cheeky fun while he’s at it.

4. Steve Crosetti in Homicide: Life On The Street

One of the most well rounded characters he got to play, Steve is a Baltimore cop trying to keep the pieces of his life together in between tough job stress and the serious injuring of a friend and fellow detective (Lee Tergesen). He’s got a daughter he fights to see and the twilight of his arc sees him leave to Atlantic City where he apparently commits suicide. It’s a tragic turn of events that ends on a bittersweet note in the follow up film where we see him return in an epilogue that can only be described as heaven for cops. It’s so touching to see him sitting by his wounded friend’s side in the hospital, putting the man’s Walkman on for him with his favourite music even though the fellow is unconscious and listening in himself so that he might share a moment with someone he cares about a lot. Polito plays this character beautifully and I wish he got to play more like him in his career.

3. Johnny Caspar in The Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing

A feisty Italian crime boss constantly at odds with his two Irish rivals (Albert Finney and Gabriel Byrne), Johnny has a short fuse, volatile nature and has simply had enough bullshit or, as he idiosyncratically puts it, “I’m sick of the high hat!!!!” The amount of energy and frenzy Jon could whip up in his work was really something else, and this is a prime example.

2. Gideon in Alex Proyas’s The Crow

Motor City’s meanest pawnbroker, Gideon is a sleazy, amoral, nasty piece of work who serves as conduit between ill gotten goods and dirty money to a pack of savage local thugs. Fast talking, profane, volatile and ultimately a straight up fucking coward, he gets all the films’s funniest lines and Jon delivers them with effortless, scummy magnetism and milks the character for all its worth. “You’re lookin for a coroner, shit for brains!!”

1. Eddie Scarpino Giannini in Millennium

Eddie is a low level mobster who thinks he’s about to kick the bucket when he finds himself in the middle of the woods on the wrong end of an assassin’s gun. Then something very special happens to him. This is not only the finest work he’s done as an actor for me but the best guest arc on the fantastic Millennium. Eddie transforms from a selfish, murderous criminal into a fiercely protective guardian angel with something and someone to live for. It’s a beautiful performance that might have been nominated if it wasn’t just one episode. Plus we get to see him act alongside Lance Henriksen’s Frank Black as the two share a quiet moment at Christmastime.

-Nate Hill

B Movie Glory: Savage Dawn

It’s time for some schlocky 80’s biker trash. Savage Dawn is a cheap, sleazy, exceedingly noisy, obnoxious piece of dustbowl highway exploitation and I love every minute of it. Lance Henriksen is stoic ex green beret Stryker who drifts past a small town to visit his old army buddy (George Kennedy). Also blowing through the area is a pack of evil, vicious bikers led by sadistic Pigiron (William Forsythe, living up to that name and then some). Stryker just wants to chill out and have beers with his ol’ bud but Pigiron & Co. have other plans and the film is basically a loose, untethered series of ultra-violent run-ins with the gang, while other weirdo backwoods locals run in and out of the scenes all silly billy. Henriksen is the only actor here to play it remotely seriously, keeping that stone faced glare stolidly in place and dishing out beatdowns left and right. Forsythe is downright maniacal here, doing one of the best versions of his ‘psycho snarling hick shtick’ and chewing scenery like an evil tornado of redneck rambunctiousness. This was the first time these two tussled in a biker picture and would reunite again for Stone Cold in the 90’s, but that’s another story. The late Richard Lynch shows up as a feeble, horn-dog local preacher who gets in the way and the great Karen Black has a memorable turn as the loopy local slut. This ain’t nothing but bottom of the barrel street grease, there’s no way around it. But the actors sell it and there’s enough of them letting off steam to make this enjoyable, albeit fairly WTF in places. Gotta keep in mind that gnarly little nuggets like this were commonplace back then and sometimes I miss em.

-Nate Hill

Bruce Robinson’s Jennifer 8

‘Darkness descends on a small town’, the tagline of Bruce Robinson’s Jennifer 8 warns us. No kidding, this is one rained out, bleakly lit, forbiddingly gloomy thriller. Although not without noticeable editing and pacing issues, I love it for the thick, nightmarish atmosphere it produces, the drab northwestern small town feel and a well rounded cast of leering character actors who all may be suspect in the harrowing central murder mystery. Andy Garcia is big city cop John Berlin, called in by his veteran detective buddy Freddy (Lance Henriksen, almost incapable of not stealing every scene) to investigate possible serial killer after a woman’s severed hand is found at the local dump. Talk about your rainy movie scenes, the part in the scrapyard seems like they set up sixty rain towers in a circle and ran them full blast for a deafening monsoon that almost drowns out the dialogue. From there on in it’s a murky whodunit populated by cops, reporters, coroners and and other skeleton crew occupants of this understaffed town, many of whom have skeletons of their own in the closet or just may be the killer. Clues lead to a young blind girl (Uma Thurman, radiant in one of her very first roles) who attracts the killer like moth to a flame, as well as Garcia who acts as guardian angel and love interest to her. I guessed who the murderer is way before the final twist, but that’s not to say it’s a dead giveaway or lazily written, I just have a knack for recognizing actors anywhere right down to the bit players and saw traits in a brief physical reveal, but the mystery is still decently shrouded and pretty much plays fair against scrutiny. Garcia, Henriksen and Thurman are supported by a thoroughbred roster including Paul Bates, Kathy Baker, Kevin Conway, Graham Beckel, Nicholas Love, Bob Gunton, Jonas Quastel and Twin Peak’s Lenny Von Dohlen as the local newspaper scribe. Oh yeah, and John Malkovich weirdly shows up out of the blue as some eccentric, obsessive Fed who has it in for Garcia and puts him through a hilariously faux intense interrogation monologue. Director Robinson (the famed Withnail & I) apparently only wrote and directed this one in hopes of whipping up a mainstream commercial hit to raise dough for more brooding artsy stuff, but the joke was on him because from what I hear, this royally tanked and even went direct to video across the pond. Well it ain’t a perfect film but I love it anyways, there’s too much eerie rural atmosphere and too many stalwart actors to write it off, it fits squarely in amongst my top serial killer mysteries.

-Nate Hill

In its wake came the Cyborgs: Remembering Knights with Gary Daniels by Kent Hill

There is a person I need to acknowledge here at the beginning, and that is my sister. More than once over these long years of obsessing cinema, she has been the one that has unearthed little gems of movies that I, either by ignorance or simple momentary blindness, have unwittingly passed by. Now I’m tough to recommend to. Meaning that if you are going to try and sell me on a film you think is great, I must state, I am not won over easily. Aside from my sister there has been only one other person that has recommended films to me that I (A) haven’t seen, and (B) were right in their prognostication – which is to say, they weren’t lying and the film was really grand.

And so it was on one of these rich but rare occasions that my sister presented me with a film I hadn’t seen, and that she foretold was right up my alley, as it were. The film was Albert Pyun’s Knights.

KNIGHTS

The video store we were in that day is long gone now. I was one of the last that still had a liberal mixture of the then new DVDs and the old, faithful, VHS tapes. Now from memory, which isn’t always accurate, my sister had watched the movie prior to this visit and, upon seeing me struggling to find something to watch, picked up the tape and gave me the rundown.

Then as now, the premise, in this man’s opinion, is most alluring.

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A Western/Vampire/Cyborg/Kickboxing flick set in a dystopian future – what more can you ask for? Wait – there is more.  It’s the screen debut of kickboxing champion Kathy Long, you get to see Kris Kristofferson (Heaven’s Gate/Fire Down Below) , or at least his stuntman, do Kung fu, be blown in half and keep fighting. There’s a deliciously villainous performance from Lance Henriksen (Aliens/The Quick and the Dead), wonderfully unintentionally funny moments with Pyun’s Red Skull, Scott Paulin (The Right Stuff). This film was touted to be a sequel to Pyun’s other post-apocalyptic success CYBORG and even stars it’s villain in the person of Vincent Klyn (Point Break) – the hits just keep on coming.

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To summarize, the story follows the journey of an orphan girl named Nea, growing up in a world where 1000 years of nuclear war has knocked society back to the stone age – and then come those Vampire Cyborgs. Feeding off the blood of the living and seeking to become ‘real boys’, they follow the plans handed down from the Master Builder. They also command human soldiers who have betrayed (the scene in which this plot point is tackled has a sweet little cameo from Tim ‘Jack Deth’ Thomerson) their race and help the Cyborgs harvest blood.

Into the chaos comes Gabriel (Kristofferson), a Cyborg terminator if you will, sent to end the brutal reign of his kin. He’s in town with a year to kill, literally, and to destroy the likes of Job (Henriksen), Simon (Paulin) and David (My Guest) (The Cyborgian Wild Bunch) with the aid of some rusty machetes and devastating martial arts manoeuvres like the Mont Blanc offensive along with the Crimean and Valhalla attacks.

Having been charged to take out the City of Taos and gather the blood of 10,000 souls to make them all powerful, the evil cyborgs might have pulled it off to if it weren’t for Kathy and Kris. Our heroes ultimately save the day and we are left with, what feels like, the beautiful promise of more to come (sequel). Sadly it never did. And though Nea finds her long lost brother who is captured by the elusive Master Builder, who we are then told via Nea’s voice-over that they chase across time and space till they catch up and kick some ass in Cyborg City – the movie is over, and all I want to do is watch it again.

I love the movies of Albert Pyun. From the seminal The Sword and the Sorcerer to his Captain America to Cyborg and Nemesis, Pyun is a filmmaker of such passion and diversity in his choices that you can only sit and let your mind dance in the splendor of his visions. But – Knights, I have to say is my favorite. To that end I have long wanted to do a little write-up on it and thought it a perfect fit for my ‘Remembering’ series here for PTS.

As always I have a guest who was a part of the film, and in the case of Knights it is martial arts action legend Gary Daniels who is here to share is tales from days of old – when Pyun’s Knights were bold . . .

Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Gary Daniels

KH: Firstly Gary, thank you for giving us your time, you’re a busy man and we appreciate it?

GD: Cheers Kent. Knights happened 26 years ago so I haven’t thought about it for a long time. But since you brought it up, little memories are coming back.

KH: How did the role in Knights come to you?

GD: Knights came very early in my career, I had just arrived in LA, signed with my first manager, Hiley Elkins (who represented James Coburn and Lou Gossett Jnr). Hiley got me an interview with Albert Pyun for a role which I think was originally written for a woman. I didn’t have to audition, just had a chat with Albert and fortunately I got the role.

KH:  The locations used gave the film grand scope – what were they like to film in?

GD: Yes we shot in Moab, Utah. It was a small town with only one main road, kind of isolated but the surrounding countryside was beautiful and had some amazing landscapes that really enhanced the movie. Albert always had a very artistic eye and a clear vision for his films.

KH: You’ve played a diverse group of characters in your career – but what was it like playing a vampire/cyborg?

GD: Well as i mentioned this film came very early in my career so it was kind of a blessing for me to play a cyborg that didn’t have such a wide range of emotions, lol. Basically he was a robot that could fight. It was a good film for me to get my feet wet working on location with some great people and beginning to learn my trade.

KH: This film for me had echoes of another post-apocalyptic film you did; Fist of the North Star. Do you think there are parallels?

GD: For me personally I do not see any parallels between ‘Knights’ and ‘Fist of the North Star’.  In FOTNS I was the lead so it was a much more demanding job and there was more pressure on me to carry the film. Also with FOTNS there was a source material that we needed to honor.  ‘Knights’ was shot on location and 99% of FOTNS was shot on a sound stage. As a lead actor your relationship with the director and fight choreographer is much more in depth than when you are playing a lesser role, so I actually learnt a lot more from the FOTNS experience.

KH: As with Fist, on Knights you worked alongside some big names like Kris Kristofferson, Lance Henriksen – not forgetting five time world champion Kathy Long?

GD: Yes we had some great actors. Kathy and I got along great and would go to the gym together to work out, she was a very tough lady but also a very sincere person. On days off we would go on long hikes exploring the beautiful surrounding areas. At weekends the cast and crew would get together for barbecues and Kris Kristofferson would play guitar and sing so we were all treated to a private concert. My room in the honey wagon (changing room/trailer) was connected to Lance Henriksen’s so we would slide back the dividing wall and chat for hours. He was such a nice guy and gave me loads of advice. I was about to go and shoot ‘City Hunter’ with Jackie Chan so he gave me loads of advice on playing a villain. He had just received an offer to reprise his role as the android Bishop in the ‘Aliens’ sequel so he was in a good place at that time. As well as these great actors it was on ‘Knights that i got to meet and work with Burton Richardson who was the fight choreographer, a good guy and a talented, knowledgeable martial artist – also the stunt coordinator Bobby Brown whom I have been fortunate enough to work with several times since. He specializes in high falls and was once a high diver so can add tumbling to his falls, an incredibly talented man.

KH: Knights has gone on to become one of Albert Pyun’s more notable works among many in his prolific career, what it like working with him?

GD: Albert Pyun is one of the nicest, most easy going directors I have ever worked with, he has that Hawaiian island laid back attitude. I personally owed him a huge debt of gratitude as when I was on my way to Moab my plane had stopped for a layover in Salt Lake City and I was paged by the airport PA system.  My manager was calling to say that Golden Harvest had called and wanted me in work on ‘City Hunter’ with Jackie Chan but they needed me in Tokyo to board the ship we shot on at a date where I was still scheduled to be in Moab on ‘Knights’.   When I arrived in Moab I told Albert about the call and the situation and knowing who Jackie was he actually graciously rearranged the shooting schedule so I could finish my work on ‘Knights’ in time for me to get to Tokyo before the ship/cruise liner left. Not many directors would do that for a new actor so I will be eternally grateful to Albert for his kindness.

KH: Can you share with us any interesting tales from the shoot?

GD: One story from that shoot I remember other than the one above was  . . . One day Kathy and I were driving to set and she accidentally ran over a rattlesnake in the road, a pretty big one I might add. Kathy was driving and she stopped the car, we looked back and saw the snake writhing around in the road. Kathy got out the car, walked back to the snake, picked it up and carried it to the side of the road so no other cars would hit it. That is the kind lady she is.

KH: What do you think are the ingredients for a cult classic?

GD: I don’t think that when you are making a film that you are planning on making a ‘cult classic’, it is really up to the audience and the fans that make that a reality. While shooting I think everyone just does the best work they can but some films just touch a nerve with certain audiences. They are not always the biggest budgets with the biggest stars but usually there is something original and unique that appeals to people.

KH: Before we finish, have you the desire to return to the post-apocalyptic actioner if gifted the opportunity?

GD: I would happily return to the post-apocalyptic genre, as always decisions are mostly based on the script and the character I am offered (and sometimes the money, lol). I was offered a lot of films early in my career that I would love to revisit as after almost 30 years in this business I feel I am a much more seasoned actor now and I have a lot more life experience to bring to my roles. The post-apocalyptic genre allows such a great scope for creativity as the future is unwritten so the only limit is your imagination.

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Big thanks again to my Guest, the awesome Mr. Daniels for his time. Please do, however you can, seek out Knights – you won’t be disappointed I promise. And if you are not familiar with the cinema of Albert Pyun (https://www.albertpyun.net/), there’s no time like the present to start checking out his movies. The glorious thing is, despite struggling in a battle against dementia, Albert continues to keep his cameras rolling. C’mon! That’s gotta inspire.

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Gary Daniels has performed in over 70 films since his start as an extra in an episode of the 1980s television series Miami Vice. He is best known for playing Kenshiro in the live-action version of Fist of the North Star. He is also known for his roles in the Jackie Chan film City Hunter, and as Bryan Fury in the 2009 live-action film Tekken, based upon the popular fighting game series. He was also seen in the Sylvester Stallone film The Expendables as Lawrence “The Brit” Sparks, an ally of the villain James Munroe.

If you wish to stay up-to-the-minute-informed with the awesome cinema of Gary Daniels, please follow the link below:

https://www.facebook.com/therealgarydaniels/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joyce Chopra’s The Last Cowboy

I’m a huge fan of the Hallmark style drama films, and anyone who scoffs at the inherent melodrama or perceived schmaltz is missing the point completely and deliberately robbing themselves of the therapeutic, diversional catharsis one can find in them. When you’re feeling shitty about the world, your problems or any other negativity, they can be a life affirming escape because they almost always are just small stories about kind people, families overcoming trouble or getting together for various holidays, just pleasant, earnest entertainment for entertainment’s sake, simplicity itself. Joyce Chopra’s The Last Cowboy is a fine example, and especially a treasure for the way it casts usually edgy, frequently villainous character actors in sympathetic, against type lead roles. The great Lance Henriksen is Will Cooper, a stubborn, salt of the earth old school rancher whose land is in danger of being seized by the bank. After his estranged daughter Jake (Jennie Garth) returns home with her young son after many years absence, it becomes clear that it’s up to her and Will to reconcile their differences, put the pain of the past behind them and work together to save the ranch before it’s too late. Henriksen is always a dynamic actor and imbues Jake with grit and grace, while Garth, who I haven’t seen in a single other thing, does a great job too. The real scene stealer is character actor M.C. Gainey as Amos, Will’s lovable farmhand, friend and confidante. This is a special role for him because he’s almost always found playing roughneck bikers, evil criminals or redneck truckers, but here he’s an honest to goodness decent human being and he just nails it. Bradley Cooper shows up as well in a more subdued role as a horse owner who brings business to Will and stirs Jake’s heart. This is a small, very low budget TV movie and has barely ever seen the light of day in terms of exposure (it took me like five years to track down a DVD), but it’s heartfelt, really well acted and if you’re a fan of anyone in this cast it’s a rare gem.

-Nate Hill

Stan Winston’s Pumpkinhead

Stan Winston’s Pumpkinhead is the kind of giddy visual treat you get when you give a special effects wizard like him the director’s chair as well as animatronics duties. A kind of bizarre, atmospheric backwoods fable infused with slasher sensibilities, it’s gory, grisly with a hellish supernatural vibe and an eleven foot tall monster that makes a real impression. Before all that though, there’s a surprisingly touching setup that’s sees small town farmer Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen rocks it as usual) living the quiet life in rural USA with his dog and young son (Matthew Hurley), until a roster of big city punks show up and inadvertently cause the kid’s death via an idiotic dirt-bike stunt. Devastated and heartbroken, Ed turns to a local witch (Florence Schauffler, terrifying) who skulks around the bayou in hopes of retribution. He isn’t quite careful enough what he wishes for though, for the cackling old bitch unleashes aforementioned Pumpkinhead, a nigh unstoppable demon who hunts down the teenagers one by one and starts to tear them limb from limb. Ed, not being an evil man but blinded by rage and heartbreak, sees his fatal mistake, suits up with shotgun, flamethrower and true grit and aims to do a little hunting of his own, perhaps to put an end to Pumpkinhead’s teenage mutilation derby. The monster here is actually a really scary creation from Winston and his team, all gnarly clawed fingers, gaunt skin over a skeletal gargoyle frame and leering fangs, like a Xenomorph after six rounds of chemo as it butchers these hapless kids. Henriksen is awesome in a rare lead role and really kicks ass both physically and in terms of showing the smouldering emotion in Ed’s broken soul. The forests are filled up with eerie lighting and scores of smoke machines for the unmistakable 80’s atmosphere, while Winston & Co. ensure that not only are the special effects top tier, but setting feels authentic too, having its own personality. A horror classic. I won’t weigh in on the sequels as I’ve never really gone for the plunge, but from what I’ve read they seem like garbage for the most part.

-Nate Hill

Paul W.S. Anderson’s AVP: Alien Vs. Predator

Here’s the thing: much of what is needed was in place to make an epic, badass Alien/Predator crossover flick. They had a solid premise, a director with a sure footing and visible background in horror, an able cast with a genre/franchise titan as a callback to earlier entries, and all the special effects they could want at their disposal. So how did AVP: Alien Vs. Predator end up being an oven roasted, inexcusable slice of shit? Well, script and execution I suppose, the whole thing just has a murky, suspiciously rushed feel to it and no trace of memorable pedigree at all. However, to me their first mistake and cardinal sin was to rate the thing PG-13. These are two intense, extremely graphic and gruesomely violent horror franchises, and as such any amalgamation should, of anything, step up the carnage, so whoever had final say as far as that goes should have a face-hugger attached to every orifice of their body. So what does work? Well, Lance Henriksen for one, but he has a history of being the best thing about many films he’s been in and it’s hard for him not to shine through any amount of muck. He plays the dying CEO of infamous Weyland Yutani corporation and gives all the grit and gravity he can amongst a flurry of inconsequential CGI. Recruiting a team of scientists and mercenaries, he plans to descend into an Antarctic pyramid where centuries ago, the mythic Yautjas and the primal Xenomorphs had a Royal Rumble. Star Sanaa Lathan is actually great as the ‘final girl’ of sorts in this slasher game, other team members include Ewan Bremmer, Raoul Bova and Tommy Flanagan, but most are lost in the confusion, poorly written or forgotten entirely. The battle scenes are haphazard and sloppy, the dialogue barely there and the colour scheme is this kind of shitty, subdued blue-hue nonsense with no personality it’s own, like an icy deodorant commercial that just happens to have monsters in it. Many people blame director Anderson, but who really knows. People forget that he’s responsible for the first Resident Evil film which is solid, gutsy horror and has the type of energy meant to be found here, as well as Event Horizon, one of the scariest, well wrought sci-fi/horror flicks of the century, so he was a reasonable candidate to helm this. In any case, it’s a big ol’ mess, a titanic wasted opportunity and a dark stain on both respective legacies. There’s a sequel which I haven’t seen, but it’s probably just as wretched.

-Nate Hill