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He-Maniacs: Ridiculous 80s Action

  The one thing you must do with action movies is take them very seriously indeed. They deal with life and death, placing characters in great peril, and there is nothing funny about that. Got it? Well, that's what the filmmakers would hoped, although you assume cheering was allowed at the exciting bits, but the fact remained that quite a few of these productions were absolutely ridiculous, and at no time more than the nineteen-eighties when you might be tempted to view them with a jaded eye, even the more sincere, high stakes and respected ones. Talking of jade, there was apparently a huge market for the material in 1982, or there was according to Raw Force, a Filipino flick made just as the heyday of the American interest in making cheapo exploitation there was beginning to wane. In that case, appeared to be director Edward Murphy's thinking, let's go for broke.

Raw Force was an early, prime example of the ludicrous lengths an eighties action experience would go to in order to sustain the audience's interest. The jade is on "Warrior's Island", where an order of monks led by Filipino staple Vic Diaz make a deal with Nazi Herr Speer, who sports a toothbrush moustache and thick German accent (yeah, that's going to throw Simon Wiesenthal off the scent) to transport a large quantity of the material off the isle in exchange for young women. Before you think, tut-tut, naughty monks, this lot want the ladies to eat - they're cannibals. And they laugh uproariously at nothing in particular. And they create kung fu zombies to defend themselves, ninja zombies if need be. Are you getting the idea? This was a feast of not sensible, though we didn't reach the island until the last half hour, as before that we were invited to meet the good guys.

Who turned out to be sex-starved cruise trippers, vacationing around the Pacific islands on a ship belonging to Cameron Mitchell, because of course he had to be involved. He didn't get up to much kung fu, but he was an irascible sea dog who looks on in consternation as his vessel is commandeered in some sort of softcore The Love Boat episode where the passengers champ at the bit to get it on with each other, with no qualms about stripping for the camera. When they're not doing that, they train in martial arts (ah, plot foreshadowing) and get into a lengthy bar room brawl which somehow manages to feature nudity too, but the everything but the kitchen sink approach Murphy applied made Raw Force a cult item. Just when you thought it couldn't get any more over the top, he threw in a piranha attack for good measure; cheap and cheerful about covered it.

Neither the Americans nor the Filipinos had a monopoly on this stuff as Britain's Who Dares Wins illustrated in 1982, for the nation had been hugely impressed by live television coverage of the S.A.S. attacking London's Iranian Embassy in 1980 to save hostages from terrorists, therefore seasoned action producer Euan Lloyd sought to cash in on the interest by creating what could best be described as a tribute to the boys in black. Lloyd was not the producer of absolute classics, it had to be said, his speciality a collection of adventure flicks with often over-age stars as in The Wild Geese or The Sea Wolves, but here he had a star who was the hero to schoolboys across the land thanks to his leading role in thriller series The Professionals. Lewis Collins was that man, so dedicated to the field of action that, lest we forget, he believed himself to be an actual member of the S.A.S.

In an unofficial capacity, that was, but if the Commies invaded Lewis was harbouring a stash of weaponry to unleash on them, and Who Dares Wins was merely a stepping stone to realising that dream. The plot here was lambasted by the press, but according to Lloyd U.S. President Ronald Reagan thought if it wasn't a documentary, it was as near as damnit, which gave the project an international boost. Here we were meant to believe the real villains against the West were not so much the Soviet Union, more those bloodthirsty, murderous... er, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament brigade. This film wasn't fooled by their peacenik ways, to them it was obvious the anti-nukes protestors had within their ranks insurgents and terrorists to make Baader-Meinhoff look like a Tupperware party.

Collins was curiously passive for most of the (too long) movie, undercover to infiltrate the bad guys, which he does by deliberately having an affair with their leader, Ronald McDonald - oops, sorry, it was actually an unflatteringly made-up Judy Davis, who moonlights from her usual job in interpretive dance to organise what every peace campaigner wants: dropping a bomb on Scotland. Quite what the Scots had done to deserve this was not elucidated upon, but Collins (who is cheating on his wife for his country) came across as an establishment stooge and didn't get to shoot anybody until the film was nearly over: some action hero. As ridiculous as this was, perhaps more ridiculous was how many took it seriously, tapping into a vein of pro-Thatcher (and Reagan) hawkish politics as if right wing action was underrepresented: if it was before the eighties, it sure wasn't during.

But it was not merely the West who had a monopoly on ridiculous action, as Hong Kong churned out their product, naturally a portion of that was going to be ludicrous, perhaps the apex (or nadir) of that being Fantasy Mission Force in 1983, which sought to cash in on the increasing popularity of action thrillers by giving them a very Eastern twist. It was possibly set during World War II, yet its concept of that conflict was as if it was simply a fact of life, not in the past, purely a thing that still happens and something we have to deal with when it intrudes on our existence, so at the beginning a selection of generals from various countries are kidnapped by the Japanese forces, and the force of the title must be assembled from what can best be described as a ragtag group of mercenaries and official soldiers alike, not that they kept their minds on the job.

The biggest draw here would be Jackie Chan, already the most famous movie star in the world by this stage, but though he took part in the climactic battle he was not strictly speaking the lead, as this was more an ensemble cast of which Chan had been recruited to add star power from a few days' work. Mostly we followed the band of brothers (and sisters) who made up what passed for a men on a mission movie some way after The Dirty Dozen, as there was a quest element here as well, not that anyone so much as mentions the missing generals until the very last moment, as if the screenwriter Jimmy Wang Yu (who appears) got so carried away with adding the likes of a haunted house packed with ghosts or a musical number devoted to how much food a man can logically eat in one sitting that he suddenly remembered how he had started this rigmarole in the first place.

There was another megastar here in the shape of Brigitte Lin, though her fame did not spread much outside of Asia, and she was the de facto leader of the mercenaries who included among their number a couple of Scotsmen, played by Hong Kong actors in kilts - they were presented to us in a Benny Hill-aping speeded up comedy skit, for this was supposed to be a comedy into the bargain. Not that it was funny for its deliberate stylings, it was more downright peculiar because of them, with Chan firing an eight-barrelled shotgun which sends him flying backwards through a wall, or a tribe of Amazon women in leopard print who the heroes blithely massacre, or the bit everyone recalls, the advance of a muscle cars decked out in swastikas and with Mad Max 2-style warriors riding them like chariots. It was difficult to describe quite how bizarre this was: you had to see it.

If there had to be non-Hollywood rivals to Hong Kong in the ludicrousness stakes for this genre, then the Italians had to be in the running, flinging out an abundance of cash-ins and rip-offs of hits at their native box office at a tremendous rate until the bubble burst and the industry began to dwindle into a sad reflection of its former, tacky glories. But before that happened, they had a chance to exploit the craze for 3D movies that largely took place in 1983, before the format's resurgence in the twenty-first century, once again as an attempt to tempt punters back into cinemas: in the eighties, that was because of home video, which was where most people would likely have caught Treasure of the Four Crowns. It was the brainchild of director Ferdinando Baldi, who had been on the crest of a wave earlier in the year with his 3D Western Comin' At Ya!

Cannon, for it was they, smelled a hit and recruited Baldi to make their very own version of Raiders of the Lost Ark (to go along with all those other versions of Raiders of the Lost Ark this cheapjack studio churned out), which apparently to give the dubbing artistes a rest was produced with the minimum of dialogue: there is not one word spoken in the first twenty minutes, not by star Tony Anthony or anyone, for Anthony was the only person we could see on the screen as his adventurer character negotiated the dangers of a castle in search of a special key. As this was 3D, there was a plethora of pointy objects thrust at the camera, often with no other motive than to make the audience duck, which might have been fair enough when seen in three dimensions, but the majority of viewers would have seen it in two.

This meant the potential for a drinking game was inadvisable when there were so many spears, snakes, knives and whatnot in yer face, so to take a drink every time this happened would have you absolutely paralytic after half an hour, or sooner. It got so bad that half the bloody movie seemed to be shots of things pointed at the audience, and the process was so thrifty the photography suffered, with bits of dust and dirt littering the frame. As for the plot, Anthony had to find the four crowns, or maybe three - or two - which an academic had dispatched him to track down as they contained incredible power, so he had his own gang for a Mission: Impossible affair akin to a sixties caper movie that centred around foiling an evil religious cult. It was worth sticking around for the imitation of the ending of the Spielberg epic, a welter of grungy effects that were pretty hilarious.

Italy also had a hand in another action flick from 1983, The Raiders of Atlantis, an epic of ludicrous proportions courtesy of trash expert Ruggero Deodato. Any claims that he was bringing up entirely serious points when he made the notorious Cannibal Holocaust a couple of years before can be safely put to bed (nightmares notwithstanding) with one look at this conglomeration of anything that happened to be popular in the international action field for the early eighties, just as the genre was really taking off. Although with a title like that it sounds as if Doug McClure should have been a major player at some point in the plot, it was actually Christopher Connelly who we had to thank for leading us into this mess of borrowed ideas from anywhere from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Mad Max 2, both of which had been major successes at the Italian box office.

Of course, simply ripping off other hits is not going to guarantee entertainment, yet The Raiders of Atlantis has proven oddly enduring, not to mention endearing, even away from the traditional Italian trash fans as this was the sort of nonsense that amounted to a personal discovery in the video stores of the eighties, and also the twenty-first century equivalent, stumbling across it on a streaming site and having your curiosity piqued enough to give it a go. This is the way that many a ridiculous action effort from this sainted decade has burrowed its way into the cult fan's consciousness, and when Deodato was keen to deliver as many flying bullets and arrows and explosions as he possibly could cram into ninety minutes, it was easy to be drawn into what quickly became hypnotic: witnessing countless stuntmen (or probably the same ten) meet their fictional demises can do that.

That story had it that a crashed Soviet submarine had inadvertently caused the lost city of Atlantis to rise from the depths, thanks to, um, radiation or something, and as that city was domed, the inhabitants were able to greet us surface dwellers with a less than hearty welcome. In fact, as Connelly and his weird, stereotypical black guy in an action item Tony King discover, the Atlanteans were actually refugees from The Warriors and the aforementioned Mad Max 2, bristling with weaponry and riding souped up vehicles, the origin of which was never explained because, well, who cares, right? They kidnap regulation beautiful lady archaeologist Gioia Scola who must be rescued, but not before about five hundred people are murdered on screen with gunfire, arrows, machetes, flamethrowers... you get the picture, who cared about plot when there was carnage?

Hopping forward athletically to 1985, Gymkata went down in history (well, cult film history which is markedly different from actual history) as one of the prime clunkers of eighties action yet was latterly rediscovered as a camp favourite. For the uninitiated, the term Gymkata, which nobody calls it in the movie itself, refers to what the tagline had it as "The skill of gymnastics, the kill of karate" which in practice meant its star Kurt Thomas (an actual Olympic gymnast, lest we forget) diddled around with fancy leaps, tumbles and exertions before hitting people, when he would have been more effective simply to forget about the jumping around and go straight to the hitting part. It may come as little surprise to learn this was Thomas's only opportunity to demonstrate his thespian abilities in a major motion picture.

If you could call Gymkata major, that was, as it turned out, quelle surprise, that nobody was much convinced by what the credits inform us had been based on a novel called The Terrible Game, a title that seems more apt that anyone involved could have ever imagined. And the game itself? Simple, Thomas is an Olympic level gymnast (how was he cast?) who is trained in martial arts combined with his gymnastic moves to compete in a gruelling contest which seems to involve every contestant being murdered, either by each other or the organisers. This takes place in the made-up country of Parmistan, and our hero must win it to make sure America can place a satellite detection base there as part of President Reagan's never completed (because it was silly) Star Wars programme, though quite how these elements were connected was anyone's guess.

Anyway, off goes Kurt, after falling in love with an initially mute Parmistan Princess (fully clothed glamour model Tetchie Agbayani) who guides him through both the training and her homeland until it's time to get into one of those sporting trials you only ever get in the movies, because in real life they would be illegal since murder generally is. No matter, Kurt was able to find a way to sneak in a collection of his best physical jerks while pretending to hit people, including the sequence everyone who caught this recalls, where he must negotiate the town of the criminally insane, one of the weirdest parts of any action movie this decade, with such highlights as a man cutting his own hand off for a laugh, a priest flashing his bottom, and Kurt on a makeshift pommel horse booting his assailants in the face. All that and the most overused "falling over" sound effect ever.

Perhaps the King of ridiculous eighties action showed up slap bang in the middle of the decade: Death Wish 3, also from 1985. It was the middle entry in the series that had begun in 1973 with the comparatively serious, though not less violent, Death Wish, directed by Michael Winner who helmed the first three instalments. Why didn't he do parts 4 and 5? Apparently it was because the now 64-year-old star Charles Bronson believed the third was far too violent, and on watching it you might think this was not down to his distaste at portraying a vigilante who had essentially become a mass murderer, and more to do with how ludicrous it all was. In the opening two he was positively restrained in contrast, here eventually massacring almost a hundred people: but they were scummy gang members, so that was all right, then. Wasn't it?

Naturally, all the controversy around Death Wish 3, which suffered various cuts from censors around the globe, elevated its status as something to be treasured among trash fans, and given it was produced by Cannon, the quintessential studio for delivering action rubbish in this decade before they ran out of money, merely enhanced that glamour for cultists. This time Bronson's Paul Kersey, the world's most bloodthirsty architect, returned to New York City and one of his old war buddies, who he stumbles upon lying, dying before we can get to know him. The cops burst into the apartment, arrest Kersey and make him spend the night in the cells with precisely the kind of person he will spend the rest of the movie blowing away with his artillery; when chief Ed Lauter lets him out, Kersey kicks him in the bollocks, thus engendering a newfound respect.

Lauter sanctions Bronson to go out and kill as many baddies as possible, for this was one of those eighties crime fantasylands where the police were useless, either because they had their hands tied by red tape, or because they were not permitted to shoot any evildoer, or indeed suspect, who looked at them in a funny way. Bronson had no such qualms, a guardian angel for the elderly citizens who cannot afford to move away, and anyone else at the same disadvantage, including Star Trek's Marina Sirtis who in a definitely not funny sequence is gang-raped. What was Winner thinking, you may ask? To all intents and purposes, to make the villains as despicable as possible so the audience can relish their ultimate destruction, that's what, and seeing Bronson with a Browning machine gun eliminating loads of typical eighties movie gang members was undeniably memorable.

That cliché multicultural gang might have been a holdover from The Warriors in 1979, but was very durable, examples even appearing in the decade's pop videos. The baddies in Death Wish 3 were led by Fraker (Gavan O'Herlihy) and you knew he was an evildoer because he sported a "reverse mohawk", in that his hair was shaved up the middle, which in no way looked utterly silly. But perhaps the most famous gang member from the film was The Giggler (Kirk Taylor), a maniacally laughing fast runner who Bronson notoriously takes down with his massive handgun, a scene that has become a fan favourite. Meanwhile, Deborah Raffin played the journalist who makes the mistake of hastily falling for Bronson, and we all know how that always turns out for an eighties action hero: they have to be lone wolves, don't they?

Well, not always, granted there was always the buddy movie, though it was usually the case that they were mismatched. In Never Too Young to Die, from 1986, John Stamos, the year before he became a sitcom star with umpteen episodes of Full House, teamed up with singer and Prince protégé Vanity to lead a film that did not so much teach future eighties scholars of the importance of the dual action process, and more how difficult it was to recapture the magic of a James Bond effort when they had a far higher budget than you could ever dream of. The brainchild of Steven Paul, who would go on to produce his oft-cursed Baby Geniuses franchise, this was his initial attempt at spawning his own baby Bond series, or at least a teen Bond as Stamos was effectively playing here, only it was under the impression it had a sense of humour.

Now, Bond rip-offs have been ten a penny since the sixties when Dr. No changed the landscape of popular cinema, and some of those have been spoofs in a display of bets-hedging, but you could watch Never Too Young to Die from start to finish and not be aware it was a comedy, merely that these sorts of excesses were the norm in the action thrillers of this decade. As we have seen, you may not have been entirely wrong about that, but this was the only adventure in that vein to feature the KISS member Gene Simmons as a hermaphrodite leader of a multitude of Mad Max 2-inspired thugs who was determined to bring California to its knees by poisoning their water supply. This was a lot more upfront about non-hetero gender than the Bond series had ever been, though inherent in way too many of these projects was a wide streak of camp not always acknowledged.

It didn't make this the slightest bit laugh-inducing, unless it was the laughter of disbelief, and Stamos was playing the son of the agent who fails to bring down Simmons' empire in the first act, played by one and done actual Bond George Lazenby (presumably Connery and Moore were otherwise engaged, funny that). In a possibly conscious throwback to Gymkata, our hero is a championship-level gymnast for skills that occasionally come in handy when, say, hurling a bad guy over a dam, but mostly he relied on whatever firepower he had to hand, as did his screen girlfriend Vanity who was the agent guiding Stamos through his training. Despite an obviously higher budget than some of its rivals, it still managed to look cheap and nasty, the synth rock score plastered over every scene not helping, but it went about as far as eighties action bad taste could, compelling in that respect.

On the lower end of the budget scale, but not so low they couldn't afford a scene with an exploding helicopter (well, sort of) in 1987 action auteur David A. Prior unleashed Deadly Prey on an unsuspecting world, an item that largely went to video, or at least that was where most people caught it. Taking the venerable old plot of 1933's The Most Dangerous Game, where humans hunt other humans for sport, one which has been reused countless times over the years, this applied it to the talents of the director's brother, Ted Prior, a self-styled pin-up for the laydeez who appeared in Playgirl magazine at one stage. Here he was the hunted, as after going out to the bins one morning his character is promptly kidnapped by a mercenary training school who coach their students by having them track and kill innocent members of the Californian public.

But they have met their match with Ted who proceeds to massacre pretty much all of them in retaliation at this affront, though not without cost. Now, if you've seen this you'll definitely remember it as the one where the muscleman goes full Rambo wearing nothing but a pair of skimpy, denim cut-off shorts, which was funny enough, but the suspicion that if they could have got away with it, they would have had him running around stark naked makes it even funnier. Mr T. Prior was not backwards about coming forward to show off his physique, and couple that with the way he got punched in the face about a hundred times and you were in for a treat, assuming you never took an action flick remotely seriously. Within ten minutes, the supporting cast are dropping like flies, which presumably our hero would also eat since he chomps worms and rats too.

If you're going full-on survival mode, then one assumes there are no half measures. Of worms. Adding to the mayhem were appearances by ex-matinee idol Troy Donahue and, what's this? Yes, our old friend Cameron Mitchell as Ted's father-in-law, proving himself a mainstay of the impoverished end of the action scale once again. The methods found to execute every last one of the bad guys were novel at least, as Ted manufactures wood-based traps, including stabbing a man with a twig (it goes straight through the evildoer), or miraculously digging pits in then ground where he can conceal himself and jump out to give the mercenaries what for, usually turning their own weaponry against themselves. Though the most celebrated kill arrived at the end, where (spoiler) Ted chopped off a baddie's arm with a machete, then beat him to death with the bloody limb.

To end on, let us settle with one of the most notorious action efforts of the eighties, The Terminator. But not any old Terminator, nope, we have his distaff side, Lady Terminator from 1989, an Indonesian rip-off of the James Cameron classic which lifted whole scenes from that to apply to a villainess who in the tradition of exploitation filmmaking from that region of the world, wasn't a cyborg this time but the reincarnation of a "South Seas Queen". We saw her at the beginning being finally satisfied sexually, only to realise she is being fooled by her American suitor who takes the source of her power, a snake that turns into a dagger (best not to ask where he retrieved it from). She curses said Yank's descendant, who turns out not to be a lady, but an anthropologist (that's what she claims), seeking the dagger for research purposes.

Disappearing under the ocean in search of the artefact (it's unexplained why, but then so is a lot of this), the boat is caught in a tidal wave and she is landed on a huge bed where she is penetrated by the snake. So far, so what does this have to do with a time-travelling Arnold Schwarzenegger? All is revealed after our bad girl (Barbara Anne Constable, who never made another film as this was such a terrible experience for her) emerges naked from the sea (er, apart from white knickers we're not supposed to notice) and the Cameron homages begin in earnest. The punks giving up their leather this time were two blokes laughing their heads off while one urinates copiously (?), and the Sarah Connor is an aspiring pop singer who is protected by an American cop - it's unclear where this was set, despite the filming locations in Indonesia.

There was such cheek in Lady Terminator that it grows oddly endearing - shoot up nightclub? Check! Drive truck into police station? Check! - though the violence was amped up to ludicrous degrees, to the extent that there wouldn't have been anyone left alive in the city once the deadly female had unleashed hell about the place, with an automatic weapon that only needs reloading twice, but sprays about a billion bullets. The intentional humour was so weird that it was a lot less funny than the unintentional humour, and the production crammed in car chases and exploding vehicles galore, including the regulation helicopter blown to smithereens, so much so that the whole shoddy affair resembled someone trying to tell you about that action movie they saw once but getting the details wrong, and then a director making that inaccurate description into an actual film. After this lot, you may be thinking, wait, isn't every eighties action example ridiculous? More often than not, would be the reply - that's the appeal.
Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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