The Direct to Video Connoisseur

I'm a huge fan of action, horror, sci-fi, and comedy, especially of the Direct to Video variety. In this blog I review some of my favorites and not so favorites, and encourage people to comment and add to the discussion. For announcements and updates, don't forget to Follow us on Twitter and Like our Facebook page. If you're the director, producer, distributor, etc. of a low-budget feature length film and you'd like to send me a copy to review, you can contact me at dtvconnoisseur[at] I'd love to check out what you got. And check out my book, Chad in Accounting, over on Amazon.

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Three Kinds of Heat (1987)

This was one I watched way back when I did the "Ginty Moore Beef Stew" episode with the guys from Comeuppance, where we listed our top five Ginty films. That's number 85 in the archives, back on May 17 of 2021. I went to review it for the site soon after, but it disappeared from free streamers. So I had to wait, almost three years, until Prime got it, so I could do it now.

Three Kinds of Heat is a Cannon film starring Robert Ginty as a State Department agent on the trail of an evil criminal organization known as the Black Lion. In a shootout in the JFK airport customs area, he meets Hong Kong detective Shakti Chen, and NYPD cop Victoria Barrett. To help in his investigation, INTERPOL allows him to recruit the two women, and now it's an international hunt, as they travel to London, then back to NYC, finding danger and intrigue all along the way. Will they finally take down the Black Lion and save the day?

This is from 1987, but it feels like it might have been '84, and that difference actually plays better for me. For Cannon and Ginty fans, this is probably one of the more lesser-known ones, but it's a lot of fun. The Ginty you get is the Ginty you want, a little sleazy, a little mumbly, but ultimately someone you want to root for and enjoy seeing when he's onscreen. And then Shakti Chen and Victoria Barrett are great as his part of his team. You know Ginty asked to have them help because he thought they were hot, but he also knew they could more than hold their own, which they do. Finally, the action was solid too--perhaps there could've been more of it, but the combination of how great the action we get is, and the fun interplay between Ginty, Barrett, and Chen, it all works. This is a fun Saturday night throwback that will get you to the church on time.

We're only at 8 films for Ginty, which feels low, but when I looked, I did Code Name Vengeance back in February, but hadn't done one before that since December of 2022. Out of the ones I watched for the podcast episode, I think I have a few more of those to cover, as long as they're available on streaming. He doesn't have as much that we can review on the site--I think I count 12 more of his that we could do post, so that would barely get him to 20 tags--but he's so iconic, especially in the early DTV space, that the volume of tags doesn't begin to underscore his overall influence, and a movie like this really drives that home. This is worth watching primarily for Ginty, and he doesn't disappoint.

Cannon Films on the other hand is now at 44 films on the site--you'll see 45 tags, but remember we did American Ninja 2 twice. I think this is probably more substantial as a Ginty film, but it still feels authentic as a Cannon flick, especially from the 80s like this. When that logo appears at the beginning, you get that comfort food feeling telling you you're probably going to have a fun movie night, and the film delivers that quality comfort food you anticipate from seeing the logo. It's another area where the modern DTV flick can't compare. The average DTV movie today has 5-7 production company logos before the film starts, and none of them evoke the kind of feeling you get from one Cannon, PM Entertainment, AIP, Vestron, etc. Because the modern DTV flick can't compete with that, the movies are already working uphill with us as fans, while the Cannon film can use the cache of its logo to put us in a happier mood before the film even starts, forcing us to at least go easier on it, if not like it better as a result. By the same token, it's not just the logo, Cannon films may have been on a budget too, but not to the level modern DTV productions are. Between the fact that this was shot in NYC and London, and the level of special effects employed, you'd never see anything like this today. Imagine a director saying to their line producer they want to shoot in NYC and London today. The producer would laugh and say "just make it work in Georgia."

Our other two stars were Victoria Barrett and Shakti Chen. Barrett we haven't seen on the site before, and she hadn't done much before this, nor much since, but she was really good here, and I thought she and Ginty had great chemistry. Chen also hasn't been in much before or since, but she has been on the site before, in the Gary Daniels film Deadly Target. She's also been in a couple 80s classics, Volunteers and The Golden Child. The other thing is she was married to the film's director, Leslie Stevens, and was with him until his death in 1998. Another fun, solid performance from her, and often while Barrett and Ginty were doing their thing, she'd sneak off on her own, which led to some great interactions, like one where she interrupts a craps game.

Finally, early in the film Victoria Barrett tells Ginty and Chen "this is the Lower East Side, this is no-man's land." For anyone younger, that probably wouldn't make any sense, as the Lower East Side hasn't just been gentrified, it's in like a post-gentrification state. When I had Freddie Young from Full Moon Reviews on the pod to discuss Frankenhooker (episode 156), he talked about all the changes New York City has gone through since that film or this film was made. It's fascinating, because we think of New York as a character on its own, and in this movie it was co-starring alongside another world city in London, and we get that juxtaposition with London as the ritzy city with the fashion show, while NYC is the gritty one with the seedy warehouses and ladies of the night patrolling the streets. I don't know that anyone wants New York to fully go back to what it was--even Anthony Bourdain when he complained about what it became on episodes of No Reservations and Parts Unknown couldn't have fully wanted that--but there's a happy medium between that and the thing it's become. The Lower East Side may not be the no-man's land it was in the 80s, but it's a different kind of no-man's land now.

And with that, let's wrap this up. Currently you can stream this free on Prime. That's your best bet, and well worth it. Maybe not the top tier of Cannon and Ginty, but it'll get you to the church on time.

For more info:

And my newest novel, Don's House in the Mountains, is available now on Amazon! Click the image to buy.

Sunday, May 5, 2024

Invincible (2020)

This past week we lost one of the best and most prolific DTV directors and producers, Daniel Zirilli. As such, I wanted to do a post in remembrance of him. This is one Ty and I covered on the podcast back on episode 138, so you can go there to see what we thought as well; also, Todd Gaines at Bulletproof Action has covered this too.

Invincible is about a corporation that may or may not have developed a process to create super soldiers. Johnny Strong is a former soldier and security specialist who's called in by said corporation after their prized experiment, Marko Zaror, goes AWOL and starts terrorizing Bangkok. As expert as Strong is--and with "Strong" in his name--he's no match for Zaror, and gets beaten nearly to death and has his spine broken. All hope is not lost though, as we have this super soldier stuff, and once Strong has a dose, he's ready to take out Zaror. Also, the stuff doesn't work if you don't take boosters, and Zaror wants more boosters, so he kidnaps Strong's girlfriend hoping to exchange her for some. Will Strong prevail?

Compared to the last Zirilli film we did, Phoenix, this was much better-made. As Ty and I said though, that doesn't mean it was more fun. Strong is a more steady and accomplished lead, and Zaror a more imposing baddie, but it's almost like the flaws Phoenix had made it more endearing. Another fascinating element is Wych Kaosayananda as cinematographer--yes, that Wych Kaosayananda. It adds a level of quality that may have betrayed the rest of the story and budget. It's such a weird thing to be reading off pluses for a movie yet putting them in the minus category. I think maybe this is the case because ultimately our hero doesn't have to figure anything out, he just gets his back broken and then he's given the super soldier serum to make him an equal to Zaror, which then becomes an advantage when Zaror needs the boosters. I guess the challenge for Strong's character was overcoming the loss of his humanity, which is a great concept, but in an action movie there was no space to explore that enough. All that said, this has a pretty solid action quotient, and sometimes that's all you need.

This is Zirilli's 17th tag on the site, but only his seventh director's tag, as more of his tags have come from his work as a producer. Unlike Phoenix, which felt rushed, this felt like it had more time available to it, plus it had more names to anchor the proceedings. We can't compare Natalie Eva Marie to Johnny Strong, he's been doing this longer and is more comfortable in dramatic scenes; and we can't compare Marko Zaror to a Russian guy smoking cigars that we've never heard of. I think what this movie does then is remind us that Phoenix is the anomaly in Zirilli's CV, and I think Invincible is closer to what we usually get from him. The most important thing that comes through in any Zirilli project is his love of film, and even if he's pumping movies out quickly and on the cheap, there isn't the cynicism we see in some of the more assembly line approaches to DTV action that we've seen in the last 15 years or so. In the age of streaming, as studios continue to cut budgets and expect DTV action to be done on the cheap, Zirilli's absence will be felt that much more, but hopefully the great influence he's had on others in the industry will continue to be felt, and they'll carry on his legacy. Here's to you Mr. Zirilli, you were truly one of the greats, and you will be missed.

"Road's closed, Pizza Boy." Before this film, that's what I knew Johnny Strong for, his classic line in The Fast and the Furious. Obviously, 20 years later, this is a more mature performance by him, and while I'm not sure I'd have pegged him as an action lead, he works well cinematically as a kind of muse for Zirilli and Kaos's eye. The way they framed scenes around him gave the film an overall sense of stylishness that you don't usually see with movies at this level. Strong also co-wrote the screenplay, so that may have had a hand in the tone we got. It was an interesting change of pace, and something I'd like to see more of potentially. It looks like he's working on his own Warhorse One series, but seeing the stuff Kaos has done with Mark Dacascos and Kane Kosugi, he and Strong could probably have some nice collaborations.

One thing Zirilli does is brings names to his films, and Invincible was no different. The name people of the site would be most familiar with is Michael Pare, who now has 18 films here. With the volume of stuff he's been doing, there is a question of whether or not the Hall of Fame is in his future. I feel like he needs some DTV standout roles to go with his big screen ones, but we'll see. We also had Sally Kirkland, who we've seen before in another Zirilli film, Acceleration. Another lesser-known one she did that we've covered is Guns and Lipstick, one I tracked down for the Wings Hauser and Evan Lurie factor--and was saddened to see our guy Lurie rocking a fanny pack... the less said about that the better. Then there was Vladimir Kulich, who we've seen here in three Jesse V. Johnson films, the two Debt Collector movies and Savage Dog, plus, he was in Crackerjack. At some point her and Kirkland probably should be tagged, maybe the next time either of them shows up. Finally, our baddie was played by Marko Zaror, who we've also seen a few times on here before, including Savage Dog with Kulich. He has a bunch of stuff in various stages of development on IMDb, so I'll be excited to see what we get next from him--and at that point I'll probably tag him too.

Finally, speaking of Zaror, look at that scene there with him and a cat, eating some fish he stole from a streetside vendor. I think the scene was used to show both how the serum turned Zaror into something of an animal, but also the humanity he had in not attacking the cat and letting them eat with him. This was as tight as the shot got unfortunately, but it keeps to my rule that any scene that includes a cat is better for it. I was trying to think of the best cats we've seen on the site. There was Williamson's in Black Cobra, who was a fantastic companion to him. We also had Ginty's in Cop Target, with which he used a machine that fed them while he was away doing his international mission. We also had Trigger in Do or Die, who gave their life so the rest of the Sidaris gang could live, after eating some poisonous food that assassins had cooked for them. I understand cats are harder to use in a film, because they don't obey commands as well as dogs do, but maybe that's what makes them all the better, because they're just kind of there doing their cat thing, like eating fish on the street while Marko Zaror is chowing down.

And with that, let's wrap this up. I think if you wanted to watch a film in honor of Zirilli, Renegades is probably a better bet, but this isn't horrible if you've already seen that. Yes, it's low-budget, and yes, the story has some holes, but the fact that Zirilli along with Kaos and Strong are trying to make something they care about does come through, and sometimes that's all you need. Before we end, one final toast to Daniel Zirilli. The spirit with which you made these movies was truly special, and I hope that legacy you leave behind lives on in new filmmakers.

For more info:

And my newest novel, Don's House in the Mountains, is available now on Amazon! Click the image to buy.

Sunday, April 28, 2024

VFW (2019)

I say this a lot, but this is one I'd been meaning to get to for a while now. When my wife and I subscribed to AMC+ so she could watch Mad Men, I knew I had no excuse to not make it happen, but then she got all the Mad Men episodes on Amazon Prime, so every month I wasn't watching this was another $10. Instead of renting it for $4, I've spent like $40 or $50 with the subscription at this point. Anyway, in addition to us, Bulletproof and Mitch at the Video Vacuum have covered this too.

VFW is about some aging veterans whose relaxing VFW location is under siege after a young lady (Sierra McCormick) escapes to there with an evil drug dealer's drugs. Now he wants them back, so he sends a host of drug addicts over to violently retrieve them. Our vets, led by Stephen Lang, can't have that, so they go about fashioning weapons out of anything they can find, and ready themselves for wave after wave of attacks. Will our heroes survive the night? 

This is definitely a good deal. The prodigious cast is the biggest selling point, and director Joe Begos doesn't sell us short on that. There are no bait-and-switches here, the names on the tin are names you see throughout. The fact that everyone involved is able to balance all of these stars in one location for a large chunk of the film is no small feat either, but between Begos's direction, and the talent involved, they make it work. Beyond Lang, we had DTVC Hall of Famers Fred Williamson and Martin Kove, plus William Sadler, George Wendt, and David Patrick Kelly. They can as easily give you a monologue as they can smash a baddie's face in, and make both just as believable. If there's a qualm, it's the dark lighting, which made it hard to see everything that was happening. It also betrayed the 80s throwback vibe the rest of the film was going for, from the music to the practical effects. The one thing digital cameras can't do yet is look like they're 80s movies shot on film, so we don't get the full comfort food effect that we'd get watching an actual 80s film. That's one qualm though in a movie that overall hits its marks and is well worth the watch.

We're always saying we're going to get more Williamson on the site, but this is now four films since December--though to be fair, one was a one-shot cameo in The Outlaw Johnny Black--so we're actually keeping to it for once. Williamson is pretty solid here. He's playing a Korean War vet, which means he's actually playing someone older, because he would've been 15 when the Korean War ended. I don't know if they thought he was too old to be a Vietnam Vet like the rest of the guys, but he would've only been in his mid-20s for the Gulf of Tonkin. It was an interesting decision, because I don't think they realized how old they were making him. Still, he delivers the Hammer performance you want, and it was great to see him in this. We're now at 32 films for him on the site, and if we keep doing one every other month, we may get him to 36 by the end of the year. We'll see if I stick to it.

Another Hall of Famer in this is Martin Kove. We don't see him as often--the last time was in August of 2022 when we did Death Match, and every two years sounds about right. That doesn't mean we don't love him, he's a Hall of Famer for a reason, one of the best to ever do it, and it's been nice to see him get more shine recently through the Cobra Kai TV show. Here he's one of the heroes, but still behaves in a way that puts everyone in peril. Unlike Williamson, who is someone we want to get as much stuff up as possible, with Kove it's more about films like this, or some of his PM stuff like To Be the Best that will get him back on the site; but who knows, maybe at some point when the bigger names are closer to completed, Kove may get more frequent tags. Right now he's at 18, so it could be some time before we get to that point.

There were a lot of other names that we don't usually see here on the site. George Wendt we've seen one other time, in the Dennis Hopper flick Space Truckers. As someone who grew up an hour north of Boston, Cheers was on quite a bit, and we all loved Norm. At some point the Cheers bar at Logan Airport had a likeness of him, and he sued them over it, which makes sense--you don't want to be associated with overpriced airport fare. The main star was Stephen Lang, and we've seen him one other time as well, with the Seagal flick Gutshot Straight. He's great here as the lead, and really carried things. I thought for sure he'd been in something else we'd covered, but when I looked through his bio, I saw almost all big screen credits. We also had David Patrick Kelly, who I thought was too young to be in a movie like this, but it turned out he was born in 1951. For an ensemble with names like this, he was a bit further down the priority list, but still turned in his usual solid supporting performance. Finally, we had the great William Sadler. Another one that hasn't appeared on the site yet, but last year he did a great interview with Jon Cross on the After Movie Diner podcast that you should definitely check out. After listening to that I became a bigger fan of his, so it was fun to see him here and finally get him on the DTVC.

Finally, this is technically a horror film in addition to action, and as you've probably noticed, we don't do as much horror on the site here. In the past year it looks like we've done five horror films in addition to this one: three of which were directors we follow, Albert Pyun, J. Horton, and Harley Wallen; another was a documentary on W.A.V.E. productions; and the fifth was a Julie Strain movie in March of 2023. Part of it you see right away on the IMDb page, where this movie has 112 critic reviews. Adding my review to that ecosystem means it's probably only going to be seen by people who regularly follow the site, and while that's not a reason for me to not cover it, it's the reason why we do more action than horror, because action fans tend to find us more easily from IMDb when they're looking a film that maybe has 20 critic reviews--or in some cases even less. Horror is always going to be something I love though, and this film with its mix of horror and action elements reminded me how much I enjoy it, even if my pile of "to review" films is mostly action.

And with that, let's wrap this up. Currently this is available on AMC+. If you're already subscribed that's great, just don't end up like me and paying $10 a month for a service you don't really need just to make the film happen. Hopefully it'll make its way to the free streamers at some point.

For more info:

And my newest novel, Don's House in the Mountains, is available now on Amazon! Click the image to buy.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Galaxy Warriors (2022)

Back when I was doing my look at the MCU on my DTVC Extra podcasts--which you can find in the archives of the main podcast feed--I considered doing some low-budget comic book movies for the site, and that's when I found filmmaker Brett Kelly. He looked like a low-budget auteur I could get into, and this is his most recent film, so I figured I'd give it a look in our Indie Spotlight for April.

Galaxy Warriors is about intergalactic bounty hunter Demeter (Christine Emes), who, with her partner Vesta (Alianne Rozon), need to rescue Demeter's sister Artemis (Abbey Flockton) from a prison planet. To infiltrate it, they get themselves arrested and sent there, which seems like a great idea in theory, but the situation's a bit tougher, First, fellow inmate Circe (Christa Cullain) has a bone to pick with Demeter; then, once she's won Circe over, warden Enyo (Ellen Mildred) has been running a dark kumite of sorts, a la Ben Franklin in Bloodsport IV, and she's forcing the women to fight in it. Has Demeter bitten off more than she can chew, or will she be able to find her sister and get the hell out of there?

"You're close." This was Andrew Zimmern said on his show after he tried the plant-based scrambled eggs a vegan food start-up was working on, and this film, in its attempt to be an exploitation film without the actual exploitation, was also close. It's a futuristic women in prison film, with no nudity, no bondage--hell, they even went with gaiters on the prison outfits instead of go-go boots. The problem is, without nudity, bondage, the occasional girl-on-girl hook up--or even go-go boots--everything around it needs to be spot-on. You can have people doing plot exposition conversations in an Andy Sidaris film if the payoff is topless hot tub scenes and exploding helicopters, but without that it hurts the quality that much more. The other thing is I think there could be goofy send-ups to some of those hallmarks of the exploitation film, like maybe oversized chains that have no restraining effect to mimic the bondage elements that are often in these women in prison films, but they didn't do any of that. This does have a lot going for it though. Despite the missing exploitation, it's still fun; and there was an earnestness and heart in putting it all together that I had to respect, especially in this current ecosystem of assemblyline DTV films. I think they're on the right track, and the same way I like an Impossible Whopper, I like the idea of exploitation-less exploitation. They're close.

I'm not a full-on vegetarian, but if a place I'm eating at has vegetarian options, I tend to go with that. The key is, when I'm eating an Impossible Whopper, I know it's not real meat, but I like that it does a good job imitating it, without the inhumane factory farming and damage to the environment that comes with the real thing. Furthering the metaphor, what's interesting is, the fake version costs more to make than the real one--which seems ridiculous considering the latter involves taking a life, but that's factory farming for you--and I think the same idea applies with exploitation films. The exploitative elements cover up the films flaws--or they're more likely forgiven--so doing fake exploitation takes more to pull it off. One of the best examples of this is early on when Demeter and Vesta are chasing a guy in their space ship, and after some back and forth where he shoots at them and they have to dodge it, Demeter decides "let's just teleport him onto our ship." Wait what? Why didn't you do this right away? Again, if there's the pay off of exploitative elements, a flawed story element like that is forgiven; but here it stuck out that much more.

The closest comp to this movie is The Adventures of Taura: Prison Ship Star Slammer, or simply Star Slammer, a Fred Olen Ray film about a futuristic prison ship. That one does have the bondage, the nudity, the girl-on-girl, etc., but it also felt stronger overall. The jokes landed better for me, the story had fewer of the holes this one had, yet Ray was also forced to work on a microbudget. The other thing is it had more memorable characters. Ross Hagen as a baddie is hard to top, plus Dukey Flyswatter with his changing hairdos was fantastic; but even the warden played by Marya Grant and Mike played by Suzy Stokey had more fun material to work with than their counterparts in this, let alone our hero played by Sandy Brooke. Yes, the exploitation elements were there, but everything around it was still pretty strong, and I think for a Galaxy Warriors to get there without those exploitation elements, it'll need to approach what Ray and co. were able to do with Star Slammer in all the other aspects that much more.

A couple Earth-bound equivalents are the Roger Corman-produced Pam Grier classics Black Mama White Mama and The Arena, again both full of exploitation elements, but also stronger all around. Pam Grier talked about how she welcomed the nudity scenes because she wanted to represent that a black woman could be naked onscreen as much as a white woman. In that sense, the nudity isn't just exploitative, it's also empowering, which I think shows that these things we label as exploitation aren't always black and white. I still like the idea of an exploitation sans exploitation--an Impossible Burger kind of exploitation if you will--or even if you won't--but I think there's also a place for exploitation, especially when it's done as well as the Pam Grier films were. She's the inspiration not only for a film like this one, but all of the female-led action we've seen, especially lately. 

Finally, this film was made in Canada. Fun fact about me: I grew up in Maine, but have never been to Canada before. I've had a couple different trips planned, but things like snowstorms came in and changed those plans. I feel like I need to get there at some point, even if I live much further away now in Philadelphia. I mean, at the very least, I need to get to Toronto to see a Blue Jays game, as big a baseball fan as I am. After I moved down here, my friends in Maine started doing day trips to New Brunswick--I think it's about 4 hours one way, but the idea sounds so fantastic. Just watching this film, it seems like there's a lot of fun stuff going on up there, between Blue Jays games, making Impossible Burger exploitation flicks, and bands like Glass Tiger and Loverboy, how can you go wrong?

The answer is you can't. And I think overall you can't go wrong with this, just know going in it's packaged as exploitation, but it is sans exploitation--and like I said, they're close to pulling it off. It has it's fun moments, and appears to be made with a lot of heart and earnestness, which is always a good thing.

For more info:

And my newest novel, Don's House in the Mountains, is available now on Amazon! Click the image to buy.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

One Ranger (2023)

Back in January on episode 143 of the podcast, Ty from Comeuppance and I looked at this as part of our "Malki on the Skids" John Malkovich double-feature. The fact that it also had Thomas Jane and was directed by Jesse V. Johnson, it was a no-brainer. In addition to us, Bulletproof has covered this as well.

One Ranger has Thomas Jane affecting a Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade accent while rocking a mustache and cowboy hat as a Texas Ranger. When he runs afoul of Irish criminal mastermind Dean Jagger, he's called in by a British secret service to hop across the pond to help take him down. Now he's working with Agent Smith (Dominique Tipper), with Malkovich as his boss, in this foreign territory, hoping to make it work and take this baddie down. Even though the title is "One Ranger," in fact he'll need some help if he wants to get this done and go back to Texas alive.

And that's the thing, the film is called "One Ranger" based off the idea that there was a riot in Texas, and only one Ranger was sent to quell it. When the Ranger was asked if more were coming, he said "one riot, one Ranger." That would have you believe that Jane and his fellow Rangers are badass Spartan warriors that get shit done on their own. It doesn't work out that way though. First, Jane and a fellow Ranger are transporting baddie Dean Jagger, when they're ambushed, and the fellow Ranger is killed and Jane seriously wounded. You'd think if it's "one riot, one Ranger," two Rangers would be even more unstoppable--except they aren't? And then in the UK, on a couple occasions Jane gets saved by Tipper. One in particular, he's at the desk of a hotel talking to a clerk, when Tipper catches someone before they could shoot Jane from behind. So it's "one Irish terrorist baddie, one Ranger and one UK secret service agent?" If he's such a badass lone warrior type, how is he letting someone get the drop on him so easily? Beyond all that, this is a fun time, and Jane's accent is even more fun. Also, with Jesse V. Johnson, you know there's a floor to his work that means it'll at least have a certain level of quality, and that was the case here. For a free streamer on Tubi this does the trick--I just wish it had a more accurate title.

This is now 12 director credits for Jesse V. Johnson, putting him in a five-way tie for third all-time, which is 31 behind Albert Pyun for top honors, and 3 behind Fred Olen Ray for second-most. While I would've said I don't see him catching Pyun, the speed with which he's making these movies does possibly put it in play. At this point I see 11 of his that I still have to review, and then if he keeps doing two films a year--okay, actually it's not that in play, unless I do this for another ten years, which isn't outside the realm of possibility! What I have to respect with Johnson, even with a film like this that I felt had its flaws, is he always turns out a competent, solid, professional product, which is no small feat in the current DTV action climate of churn and burn. If I'm spending my 90 minutes on a Johnson film, I have a good feeling it won't be wasted, and it wasn't here.

This is now five films for Thomas Jane, but I have a feeling that number will keep growing, because he's been working more in the DTV space recently--er, rather the last 10 years or so! I think his last theatrical film was 2018's The Predator. I liked what he did with this character here, even if the accent was a bit silly, and would like to see Jesse V. Johnson use him again. Maybe not in the UK, but what about LA or New York? Those could almost be unique countries to Texas. Also Vancouver or Toronto. And Johnson was worked in Thailand before too, so maybe we could stick the character there. The other thing is, with Disney bringing back the Jon Bernthal Punisher, it would be nice to see Jane's get some films again. Maybe a direct-to-Disney+ kind of thing, 90 minutes on a short budget, add in some other Marvel characters--like Scott Adkins as Daredevil?--and I think it would be a hit. Hell, Johnson could even direct. Give me a call Kevin Feige, I'm full of ideas.

In the podcast episode, Ty and I joked about Malkovich looking at the projects his agent was giving him, and then looking at the home improvement projects his wife was asking for for their house, and marrying the two. "Oh, this movie will cover the new kitchen island" or "this is perfect to pay for the outdoor pizza oven." Viewed from that lens, it makes sense why Malkovich would make these films--and to be honest, a low-budget Jesse V. Johnson film isn't the same as a Randall Emmett thing, but he's been doing his share of that level of quality stuff too. Also, I couldn't tell if his scenes with Jane and Tipper were shot together, or if he even made the trip to Ipswich where the UK scenes were filmed, which is the kind fun element of these low-budget actioners that I always enjoy. This is only his second film on the site, but I have a feeling we'll be seeing him more, as he has more home improvement projects that need funding.

Finally, we have an appearance by Mark Griffin in this. Who's that you ask? He played a higher up in the film I Am Vengeance: Retaliation, where he had one of the best lines of all time. He was asking some fellow soldiers if they wanted to go in and help the hero, and in asking he said "fancy it?" How do you say no to that? In American English, if you used "fancy" in that context, people would think you were trying to affect a UK way of speaking, so we really can't use it like that. Another I think is "cheeky." Some, on the other hand, we've been allowed to co-opt, like "baddie," or "on the tin" for "on the [DVD] cover"--though I think the latter might be pushing it a bit. Some uses would be confusing, like "chips" for fries, though we do use it in the name of the UK dish "fish and chips" instead of calling it "fish and fries"--I think in that case, "fish and fries" sounds too pedestrian to have on a menu. In Maine where haddock is really good, they use that instead of cod for that dish, so if you're ever there and see "fish and chips" on the menu, it's worth trying--I fancy having some myself when I visit my family up there again soon.

And with that, let's wrap this up. Do I fancy One Ranger? I don't know if I'd go that far, but it's solid enough to get you to the church on time. I just wish it had a more accurate title, like "One Ranger... Plus One British Agent." Either way, you can check out for free on Tubi here in the States, which is a great way to go. And for the podcast episode, check out number 143 in the archives.

For more info:

And my newest novel, Don's House in the Mountains, is available now on Amazon! Click the image to buy.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Paradise City (2022)

Back on episode 128 of the podcast Ty and I covered this in our continuing effort to watch all of Bruce Willis's 2020s and late 2010s DTV films, and I'm finally getting around reviewing it. I'm not really sure why that is, because as far as I know it's been on Hulu this whole time. Anyway, we're getting after it now.

Paradise City has a guy named Ryan Swan (Blake Jenner, no relation to the Jenner family) who is in Hawai'i to find out how his father (Bruce Willis) died. Signs point to John Travolta, who is sponsoring senate candidate Branscombe Richmond, but just has the vibe of a creepy bad guy. First Swan enlists the help of his father's old partner (Stephen Dorff), and then when he goes missing, he teams up with a local police detective (Praya Lundberg). After she dons a bikini to find Blake's father's phone in a lagoon, she then takes Blake to Paradise City, this community hidden from away from the White Man, which Travolta wants to get his grubby hands on so he can ruin it. Is Blake able to find what he's looking for at Paradise City?

This is about what you'd expect from one of these films, but the names help, especially Travolta, who gives us a bit of his Battlefield Earth baddie in his performance. There's also a lot of goofiness, like when Stephen Dorff is captured by Travolta's baddies, first he and Travolta have a funny back and forth, and then when his goons beat up Dorff, they're like straight-punching him from off screen. It's hilarious, and does what you need. Another was when Travolta threw a village elder from a helicopter into an active volcano. Still, Blake Jenner, as your young man doing the heavy lifting, doesn't quite bring it the way a Johnny Drama would've done, and I think our lead needed that kind of energy. I think they also tried to prop up the scenes between Jenner and Lundberg by having her in skimpy outfits like a bikini, as a way to hide the fact that they didn't have great chemistry, and the scenes themselves looked like they were one take and done. This is also the first time Travolta and Willis were in a film together since Pulp Fiction, so for people my age, that was a fun element of this that pushed it above your usual 2020s DTV Willis fare. Oh, and as an aside, this film has nothing to do with the Guns N' Roses hit.

We're now at 15 for Willis on the site, and with the number of films I've covered on the podcast with Ty, I think we have another 10 ready to review. He's not horrible here, but he's not in this much either, which is par for the course with these later Willis films--Paradise City was 4th from the last for him. Seeing him with Travolta was a reminder of how far we were from the days of Pulp Fiction, and how amazing they both were in it--"Zed's dead baby, Zed's dead." This October will be 30 years since Pulp Fiction came out, and Ty made the point that this film in 1997 would've been huge. Stephen Dorff would've had to have been the Blake Jenner part, and we also would've gotten more Willis. The one point I made though is that in a 1997 version, they may not have given the role of the senate candidate to Branscombe Richmond, which would've been too bad.

Travolta on the other hand is just moving into the DTV world. While this is his fourth tag on the site, it's only his second DTV film, after The Killing Season--the other two were Wild Card posts for The Punisher and Battlefield Earth. And speaking of Battlefield Earth, there was a bit of the old "Man Animal" in his performance as a baddie here, which really stole the show. In looking at his bio, he's had quite a few DTV flicks, or ones that did like in the tens of thousands in the theater, that we could cover here--not to the level of Willis, but he's had about ten years since The Killing Season, and it looks like he's made 14 DTV flicks in that time, which is still pretty prolific. Based on how much fun this performance this was here, I think it'll be worth checking some of these other ones out in the near future.

In addition to Willis and Travolta, we had a bunch of other names. Like Willis, this is Branscombe Richmond's 15th film on the site. We're used to seeing him in small parts in 90s DTV actioners, so to see him here was a lot of fun. Speaking of fun, Eva from Hot Seat was back in this one. If you listen to the episode Ty and I did on Hot Seat, 118, we extolled the virtues of Eva, played by Kate Katzman, who's in this as a madame--at least I think she was a madame--maybe strip club owner? I mentioned Stephen Dorff above, who we could've used more of, but he's great in any case. We also had a small cameo from DTV character actor mainstay, Noel Gugliemi, who played another gangster looking to make a deal with Travolta. Finally, you may have noticed Johnny Messner was tagged. That's because he was a producer on this, but he's not in the film at all as an actor.

Finally, as I mentioned in the podcast episode, at the end of the film when our heroes infiltrate Travolta's big dinner, Jenner's character goes disguised as Gavin DeGraw while acting as the chauffeur driving the women there. Every time I see this I hear I'm in looove with a giiirl... or IIIIII don't wannbe... What amazed me was how far we were from when Gavin DeGraw was making Mom Rock hits that were used for the theme songs to CW teen dramas, that the character could go into Travolta's compound dressed like DeGraw, and no one would say "hey, aren't you the guy that did that 'I Don't Wannabe' song?" "Sorry, I don't know what you're talking about." "No way, you're him! This is so cool!" "I mean it man, I'm really not him, I'm just a chauffeur." "What kind of chauffeur dresses like Gavin DeGraw? Fine man, you wanna be like that, whatever. I didn't like your music anyway." God, brings you back to the late 2000s though, doesn't it?

And with that, let's wrap this up. You can get this on Hulu, which I think isn't a bad bet. The names are what sell it, and Travolta in particular does a great job, which makes this worth a look. On the other hand as a warning, it was still made on the cheap, and all the names are supporting characters, so more of the film centers on Jenner and Lundberg. And if you haven't yet, you can check out episode 128 in the podcast archives for the conversation Ty and I had on this.

For more info:

And my newest novel, Don's House in the Mountains, is available now on Amazon! Click the image to buy.

Sunday, April 7, 2024

The Fantastic Four (1994)

This is one I'd been meaning to do for a long time, and once I saw it was on YouTube, I bumped it up in my queue. Then for the DTVC Extra I was looking at MCU Phase 2, and thought I'd watch the 2015 Fantastic Four debacle, and decided I finally needed to watch this as well for comparison's sake; and then for the review, I put it here, one day after producer Roger Corman's birthday.

The Fantastic Four is based off the Marvel comic of the same name. In this iteration, Reed Richards (Alex Hyde-White) is in college with Ben Grimm (Michael Baily Smith) and Victor Von Doom (Joseph Culp), when some intergalactic phenomenon is happening and Richards and Doom invent a device to tap into it. Things go wrong, and we think Doom dies. Years later, Richards thinks he has it right, so he and Bailey plan to go into space this time, and they decide to take Sue and Johnny Storm (Rebecca Staab and Jay Underwood) with them, despite them having no training or experience. It's okay though, no training would prepare them for what happened: they all get special powers! Turned out Doom didn't die though, and he wants their powers so he can use them for his evil ends. Will he succeed?

I didn't hate this. It had some flaws--like making Sue and Johnny Storm much younger, and then still having them fly on the ship; or the whole thing with the Jeweler kidnapping Alicia Masters, which felt rough considering she's blind--and was funny because they did a POV shot from her POV when she's blind!--but beyond those flaws, this is closest to the source material--and they wanted to be closer, because they wanted the Jeweler to be Mole Man, but they weren't allowed to use him--and the 90s TV movie feel took me back to movies like Trial of the Hulk, which was fun from a comfort food standpoint. As far as casting, I liked everyone they had, and other than Ioan Gruffudd, who I feel is the perfect Mr. Fantastic, I don't think anyone cast in these parts since have been better (which isn't to say I didn't like Alex Hyde-Smith here in that part, I definitely did). For someone who grew up in the modern world of comic book movies, this might hurt your sensibilities, and I get that; but that 2015 one had a $120 million budget, and it's an objectively inferior movie to this. Which means as you're watching this, you can't help but wonder how this would've been with a bigger budget. Could it have been an all-time great? Maybe not a top 10, but maybe one that gets onto those click-bait-y "Most Underrated Comic Book Movies" articles or "Top Non-MCU Marvel movies."

Thinking of my own experience with the Fantastic Four, my earliest memories are one of the cartoons, either the '67 one or the '78 one, and I feel like it was mixed in with things like Space Ghost, Birdman, and Thundarr the Barbarian on a Hanna-Barbera morning cartoon show--and when I say morning, I mean like really early, like 6:30a before my mom took us to nursery school. From there you'd see the Fantastic Four everywhere. Human Torch hung out with Spider-Man. Any kind of Marvel product, like a lunch box, would have them included. When I started collecting comics myself in the late 80s, Fantastic Four wasn't one I bought, but it was understood as one of the major cornerstone ones for Marvel, the one that started the modern age of comics at that time. From there though, Fox bought the rights to Fantastic Four and X-Men, and then Disney bought Marvel, and the focus became the MCU, of which Fantastic Four, because it was owned by Fox, wasn't a part of. Watching this movie from 1994 reminded me of how big a deal they were, and how much of a shame it is that they haven't been around for the growth of the MCU. The biggest omission has been Dr. Doom, who is Marvel's best baddie. We know now that there's an MCU adaptation in the works, so we'll see how it does, but at this stage, between the MCU's growth from 2009 and 2019, the only Fantastic Four we got was the sauteed in wrong sauce 2015 reboot; and now as things have waned a bit, they might be looking at the new Fantastic Four to be one of the ones to bring them back. Is it too late though? We'll see in 2025.

Out of everyone, I think Rebecca Staab was the most like her comic book character. It was weird that her character was a high schooler at the beginning--played by a younger actor--because I think if she'd been in college with Reed, Grimm, and Doom, it would've made more sense. When she brings out the iconic Fantastic Four uniforms, and she's already in hers, it was the big reveal moment we didn't get in the others because they weren't the same iconic ones we grew up with. It was interesting that Staab was the one wearing hers for most of the time, the idea almost like "young men watching this aren't watching it to see Jay Underwood or Alex Hyde-White in spandex," but it was also a reminder that she was one of the bigger female comic book heroes, and has been left on the shelf for a long time. In 1994 she would've been one of the first on the big screen, after Supergirl, as we were one year before Tank Girl, two before Barb Wire, and Batgirl doesn't appear in the Batman films until 1997's Batman and Robin--so on top of predating everyone but Supergirl, she also would've been the only one who's superhero moniker was "woman" instead of "girl." Instead, this was shelved, so Staab and her portrayal of Sue Storm/Invisible Woman didn't get to have that part in history. Another reason why Disney should clean this up and put it on Disney+.

Our film's one Hall of Famer is the great Roger Corman, whose production company Concorde-New Horizons has produced some of the greats from the late 80s/early 90s that we love, in particular the Bloodfist films. He was also instrumental in molding the action genre with his 70s exploitation films, especially the ones starring Pam Grier. One thing that's interesting when you look at the documentary on this film, Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman's the Fantastic Four, which we've reviewed on the site, is Lloyd Kaufman said he was approached to make this film too, and turned it down because he wanted Troma to focus on their own characters. Corman on the other hand went for it. He swears that this was supposed to be released until Marvel killed it, which sounds closer to right when you watch the movie, but what it did was allow the rights holders to renew their option so they could work with Fox to make the bigger budget one ten years later and make more money. The comp is probably Cannon with Captain America and Superman IV, and what Corman did that they didn't, was he didn't pump too much money into this. He easily could've gambled, thinking this was his big opportunity, and put more money of his own upfront, which he would've lost and probably would've ended his production career. But that's why he's been in the business so long, he doesn't take gambles like that. This is only his 32nd tag on the site, but sometimes I find a film he produced that I forgot to tag, plus he has so much out there that we could review, that 40 and 50 Club and beyond isn't out of the question, it's just a matter of if I can review them all. Happy Birthday Mr. Corman, you truly are one of the best to ever do it.

Finally, for this last paragraph, I wanted to reflect on the evolution of comic book movies over the past 30 years since this was made. In 1994 we had the first two Superman movies and the first two Batman movies as the standard of quality for films, plus the '60s Batman, The Incredible Hulk, and Wonder Woman as the standard for TV shows. You could make the case that as successful as a lot of the comic book movies in the intervening 30 years have been, none of them are really better than those standards--that 30 years later they're still the standards--and I think the reason why is so many movies want to be Superman--Kevin Feige said he watches it for inspiration before starting any new MCU project--so how can you be better if you're trying to emulate it? And who wants to try being Tim Burton's Batman and take that gamble? The Joker was a gamble, and the fact that it paid off should be the thing studios are looking at, because it's not in either Donner or Burton's shadow. TV on the other hand has been a little better. While those three shows really stand up for me, you can look at Daredevil and Arrow as two that reach that standard, plus some of the Disney+ mini-series have been good too. On the other hand, have any of them really changed the zeitgeist the way those three have? If I say "you won't like me when I'm angry," or if a TV show shows a person spinning around to transform into a new outfit, or has a fight with flashes of "boom!" and "pow!" on the screen, we know instantly what that means and what it's referring to. Is there anything about Daredevil, Arrow, or those Disney+ shows that have had that kind of effect on our culture? At least the MCU films have had some of those kind of inroads--if I reference Wakanda everyone knows what I'm talking about, but even that is a remake of Superman--a fantastic one, done really well, but a kind of remake nonetheless. Deadpool is another one that hasn't exactly followed the standards, so maybe that's the one this summer that will change the game, but again, it is interesting to think that in the 30 years since this came out, Donner's Superman and Burton's Batman are still the standards. The special effects have gotten better, but the stories haven't kept pace.

And with that, let's wrap this up. Currently YouTube or a bootleg DVD is the best way to see this. Hopefully Disney+ will get a version on their site between now and when the 2025 MCU film is released. Yes, it has its shortcomings, but it's also the most faithful version of the comic to this point and deserves to be seen by the world--and the PR boon Disney could get by leaning into it is something the really need right now.

For more info:

And my newest novel, Don's House in the Mountains, is available now on Amazon! Click the image to buy.