Another feature of...
In New York
Plot: Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Hercules. Sort of.
It probably will come as small surprise that I have great respect for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Here’s a guy who came to our country as a penniless teenager, barely speaking the language. In short order, he made himself a millionaire in two different fields. First he found success as a celebrity body builder, then he reinvested that money in real estate. Next he decided to become a movie star. In quick order and despite limited thespian skills and a thick accent, he made himself the undisputed Biggest Movie Star in the World. This was, moreover, a position he held for much of a decade. The nonchalance with which people view his accomplishments will always baffle me.
Arnie continues to take more knocks than praise, a situation abetted by a recent run of lackluster efforts. That much of this scorn comes from people less intelligent than he, and certainly less shrewd, seems worth pointing out. (How many people who’ve had sport with his English speak a second language as well as he does?) Moreover, he’s the classic American immigrant story, one that still holds much power for people around the globe, even if there’s little awareness of the fact here. I certainly won’t pretend that he’s a great actor. However, that doesn’t mean he isn’t a great star. What he does, he does extraordinarily well.
His films speak to this, even (most of) his early ones. Look at the work his then biggest rival, Sylvester Stallone, was turning out at the same time in the ‘80s. Paradise Alley. FIST. Lock Down. Cobra. More important, look how humorless his films were. Schwarzenegger’s movies, meanwhile, were always comedies. Unlike those of his various would-be competitors, his pictures, save the Terminator films, never took themselves very seriously. Films like Commando and Running Man remain a hoot because they were knowingly exaggerated. As for The Terminator, it was Arnold’s idea to play the robot. (No, it’s not a cyborg. That’s always bugged me.) Schwarzenegger was given the script in order to look at the Michael Biehn part, but immediately grasped that he should be playing the film’s heavy. This is akin to Clint Eastwood lining out great swaths of his own dialog when he arrived in Italy to make A Fistful of Dollars. And limited actor or not, nobody stars in as many good to great movies as Arnie did without having talent. The two Terminator films, Total Recall, Predator, True Lies…that’s a pretty decent career right there.
Ah, but there’s always a skeleton in the closet. Here it’s his first film, an atrocious ‘comedy’ pairing Schwarzenegger with Arnold Stang (!), who I believe illegitimately sired Eddie Deezen. For *cough* humor purposes, the stars of the film were advertised as Arnold Stang and Arnold Strong, as the credits on the print here reflect. Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger’s voice was dubbed over, due to his then extremely poor English. The guy doing the voice pretty much sounds like somebody they’d get to play Hercules in a bad cartoon series, which is about right for this picture. With the film available on DVD (!), the major joy to be had from the disc is that they restore Arnold’s original tortured readings on a hilarious secondary audio track. (You also get German, French and Spanish language tracks.) Of special utility when listening to Arnie’s mangled vocals are the optional English subtitles, although French and Spanish subtitles are also available.
The film opens like one of those static old Mighty Thor cartoons. A muscle-bound god wants to go to Earth, his omnipotent father, the King of the Gods (Odin for Thor, Zeus here), forbids it, the headstrong son defies him, and trouble ensues. Herc floats down to Earth – scaring a woman on an airplane, har har – and ends up in the ocean. There he is picked up by a stock footage cargo ship heading for New York. More so-called comedy ensues. Hercules is soon brawling with the entire crew and, uh, other stuff. Then he jumps ship in New York, leading to the second ‘funny’ brawl in two minutes. There’s some good scripting.
Standing nearby is pretzel vender Arnold Stang, who helps Hercules make his escape. Want another taste of the writing here? Stang’s character is called ‘Pretzi,’ because, as he explains, he sells pretzels. Oh, yeah, now I get it. Thanks. Anyway, some typical fish out of water stuff ensues. Hercules doesn’t understand cars. Hercules doesn’t know what money is, I guess because they didn’t have it in ancient Greece. (Oh, wait...) This last bit, by the way, is dragged out to excruciating lengths. Responding to a cabbie’s slangy demands for payment, Hercules inquires, "Bucks? Doe? What’s all this talk about male and female animals?" After a while you’re thinking the film could have more aptly be titled "The Twelve Labored Jokes of Hercules."
Pretzi and Herc quickly (very quickly) just happen to come across a team of college athletes practicing various Olympic events, like the discus and javelin. Soon Herc is showing them how a demigod does things, much to their supposed amazement. This scene again spotlights the film’s stagnant pacing, with each scene taking forever to reach its foregone conclusion. In essence, watching the movie is akin to listening to a long series of meandering jokes whose punch lines you divine two sentences into the telling.
Also watching these events are Prof. Camden and Helen (groan!), his attractive young daughter. Soon Our Heroes have been invited to have tea (?) at the Professor’s house that afternoon. In one of my favorite moments of the film, Pretzi finds a 35¢ paperback tome on mythology lying on the mantel of the living room fireplace. Apparently this is the kind of thing a learned Professor keeps on hand for consultation purposes. I also like the tailored suit Hercules has acquired for his hulking frame in the few hours since his athletics display. Presumably this was purchased with the fifty bucks Pretzi won betting on him. From, uh, one of those stores where really large dudes can get a suit custom-made in a few hours for fifty dollars or less.
We cut to a zoo, which leads us to what is probably one of the ten greatest scenes in cinema history. After panning past some cages (what zoo keeps the tigers next to the gorillas?), we segue to Herc and Helen taking a hansom cab ride in Central Park. Then back again -- Hitchcock also used crosscutting to foster suspense, as in Strangers on a Train -- where a guard finds that the zoo’s Guy in a Bad Bear Suit has escaped. Now, when I say a ‘bad bear suit,’ I mean one that would have Benny Hill shaking his fist in envy. Needless to say, the Egregiously Ersatz Ursine soon (well, not soon, this being Hercules in New York) appears before the aforementioned hansom cab, resulting in a wrestling match of truly Jabootuian proportions. This scene alone makes the disc a mandatory purchase.
By the way, what is it with American bodybuilding-icon Hercules movies and bad bear fights? One of many startling scenes in the Italian Hercules movie that Lou Ferrigno made involved his battle with a, ahem, bear. Man, I’ve got to get around to that flick (and its sequel) one of these days.
A blaring front-page headline on the incident appears in The Daily Tribune. Oddly, the subhead to this reads "Panic in New York: Menagerie Breaks Loose." This seems a bit much for a single bear; much less one that was recaptured before practically anyone knew it had escaped. Even weirder is the real life explanation for this. You see, movie newspapers come preprinted with generic fake articles. You just add an appropriate headline and/or lead story. (I previously referred to this in my look at Kronos.) Anyway, the ‘menagerie’ headline was in fact a standard one for phony movie newspapers. In particular it appeared on every single edition, regardless of the main story, of the various newspapers showcased in Horror of Party Beach!
Following the article, Herc and Pretzi are approached by a wrestling promoter. The Daily Tribune, which presumably just runs the first story to come along, heralds this development with another banner headline: NEW WRESTLING WONDER – HERCULES. (This ‘paper’ is folded right under the headline, no doubt so as to hide the identical generic articles as seen in the earlier edition.) I’ve mentioned that most of the film moves at an excruciatingly slow pace. Here, however, we go directly from bare seconds of footage establishing Herc in his new career to gangsters putting the muscle on Pretzi. Now, I’m not exactly sure how Pretzi’s signature on a contract would compel Hercules to work for these goons. Neither, apparently, are the filmmakers, since they basically just elide over this point. Anyway, Pretzi, fearful of a beating, guiltily gives in.
Zeus, prodded by his wife *cough* Juno -- who more properly should be Hera -- prepares to send the (not very) fearsome goddess Nemesis to punish Hercules. Hercules does have his defenders, though. Mercury (should be Hermes) and some other goddesses, including Venus (should be Aphrodite) and Diana (should be Artemis) intercede on his behalf. To Juno’s displeasure, Zeus gives Mercury a last chance to fetch Hercules back.
Back on Earth, Herc and Helen are touring the city. He is perturbed, however, to see a movie poster for ‘Hercules Against the Monster.’ (This isn’t a real film, and whoever mocked up the poster included a graphic of Godzilla [!!] on it.) He is especially displeased with the actor portraying him, and removes his shirt to show Helen his comparative magnificence. Eventually they end up in the Automat (!), where Herc is much impressed with the quality of the grub. Then it’s on to Central Park. Then…hey, I’m not boring the hell out of you, am I?
Mercury arrives in New York via a helicopter (?), and then waits for Hercules in his hotel room. (However, when Our Hero asks him when he last saw Zeus, he says five minutes ago. Whatever.) Despite Mercury’s importuning, Hercules remains adamantly pigheaded and refuses to return to Mt. Olympus. Pretzi, also in attendance, is amazed when Mercury leaps out of their 23rd floor hotel window. He goes to tell the Professor and Helen (who think he was just drunk), while the enraged Zeus sends again for Nemesis. Her mission is to take him to Pluto, which is weird, since the Greek god of the underworld was Hades. Too bad the scriptwriter didn’t read that paperback on mythology that’s been kicking around. Juno, meanwhile, secretly orders Nemesis to take away Hercules’ divinity, via a magic powder that she provides. I’m not sure why Nemesis would obey Juno over Zeus, but there you go. (They hint at blackmail, but it’s all pretty weak.)
Hercules drinks the potion seconds later. Following this, Nemesis meets with Pluto, who dresses like that gay fellow in The Producers. Pluto hungers after Herc’s soul (he’s a demigod, after all), but refuses to murder him directly. Nemesis leaves the details up to him. It was at this point that I began wondering why all these gods were so willing to royally piss off Zeus. The Greek gods were never much known for their forgiveness, and you’d think they’d fear Zeus most of all. Still, though, the plot must go forward, and so…
Stuff happens, etc. Eventually Hercules meets a challenge from strongman Monstro. This is held in a television studio with his friends looking on. Shorn of his divinity, however, he fails to lift a thousand pounds and loses the match. Knowing that Hercules’ gangster backers have lost big money -- Pluto placed a large bet, so as to assure this -- Pretzi grabs him and they flee the building. Meanwhile, Zeus, smelling a rat, calls for Nemesis.
Helen and her father drive off, knowingly luring the gangsters away with them. So Pretzi informs Hercules, who is less than pleased that Helen has put herself in danger for his sake. Next comes a bit that makes the earlier escaped bear a model of believability. Looking about, Herc commandeers a horse-drawn chariot (!), which is being driven as a promotional gimmick by a guy dressed like Tarzan. (??) Soon the demigod, Pretzi in tow, is in pursuit of the gangsters chasing Helen. Since the horses are moving at what is at best a canter, I’m not sure how he manages to catch up to them, but he does. (Maybe because the thugs are driving a beaten-up station wagon.) Anyway, this tiresomely wacky race continues on at interminable length. Finally Herc and Pretzi make it into the Professor’s car and they speed off.
Having run out of gas (I’ll say!), they all hide in a building. Soon the gangsters, reinforced by others of their numbers, have surrounded their hiding place. Meanwhile, Nemesis is spilling the beans to Zeus. Despite his anger, however, Zeus orders that Hercules pay the price for his stubbornness. Venus, knowing that Herc is getting his Olympian ass handed to him down on Earth, confers with Mercury. They decide that while they can’t interfere directly, they can send Hercules help. And so Atlas and, get this, Samson (!!!!) magically appear an instant later and give Hercules a hand.
Zeus calls off these helpers, but decides to give Herc his strength back, etc. and so forth. Having triumphed, Hercules asks for Zeus’ forgiveness and is returned to Mt. Olympus. Pretzi, being an otherwise friendless and pathetic nerd, mourns Hercules’ departure and the return of his boring life. However, returning to his apartment he has a final conversation with Hercules over his radio (?). Even odder is that Hercules sounds completely like another actor when he speaks over the airwaves. Ah well, Pretzi will always have his bittersweet memories, anyway.
Zeus listens to Hercules’ tale, after which he sends everyone away so that he may ponder it. The completely unexpected laff riot conclusion then sees Zeus, clad in a bad suit, floating past an airplane that inevitably contains the same woman who earlier saw Hercules. Man, didn’t see that coming. Oh, wait. I did.
Summation: Horrendous ‘comedy’ of interest primarily to collectors of bad Bear Suit scenes and those who enjoy watching future stars humiliate themselves.
Aka The Ballad of Virgil Cane; The
Curse of the Demon Mountain; Demon Mountain; Shadow Mountain;
Plot: Civil War veteran Wishbone Cutter (Joe Don Baker !!) seeks treasure in the land of a fabled creature.
Pretty much from the opening credits we know this will be an odd one. It stars Joe Don Baker, as well as Sondra Locke, no doubt courtesy of her many appearances in Clint Eastwood westerns. Moreover, an appearance by Slims Pickens (!) is heralded, as is the song "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" by The Band. (!!) I can only assume that the tune was not written for this film, but somehow obtained through some particularly heinous act of extortion. That’s my hope, anyway. In any case, Pickens appears here as Virgil Cane. This to correspond with that ditty’s opening line, to wit: "Virgil Cane is the name and I served on the Danville Train…"
The film opens with an awkwardly written crawl, more or less as follows. "The only place in North America diamonds have been found in is Arkansas. Through the years more than 60,000 stones have been found in the volcanic mountains of northern Arkansas." Apparently, they feared that audiences would be unaware of these facts, and so made sure to provide us with them. Fair enough. I hereby vow not to make fun of the film on the basis that diamonds aren’t to be found in Arkansas. Mission accomplished.
We cut to a Civil War battle. Capt. Wishbone (!) Cutter is in charge of a Rebel cavalry unit. He also sports about the worst looking whiskers I’ve ever seen, more than adequately explaining why Joe Don Baker normally appears clean shaven. Cutter is ordered to attack the Union forces, despite the fact that, as he puts it, "They got a hundred mortars zeroed in!" Actually, they have cannons, not mortars, but why argue? In any case, his unit is rebuffed not by artillery but by a countercharge by Union cavalry. Whatever. All I can say is that this whole battle sequence is extremely confusing. Not as in "the havoc of war" confusing. More like "the havoc of bad editing" confusing. It’s in the aftermath of this melee that we get the aforementioned song. In any case, Cutter’s forces are routed, and his Sergeant, Virgil Cane, is laid low with a bayonet wound. Before he dies he tells Cutter of some diamonds he’s hidden away back in the wilds of Arkansas.
After the war, Cutter returns home to find that both his house and his wife have become the property of a Dam Yankee. This sets up a fight scene which functions mostly to eat up some running time and inject a little bloodshed into things. This, as we shall see, is the type of movie where various stuff just kind of happens until they’re ready to get the plot moving again. Anyway, the Yankee gets the upper hand (with the help of the Mrs.) and Cutter is soon out on the road and a hunted man. He and his half-Irish/half-Indian sidekick O’Brian track down Richmond, an old associate who’s a geologist. They offer to cut him in if he helps them locate Cane’s cache of diamonds.
Along the way they find a slaughtered party of prospectors, all slain with arrows. Another shaft flies out of the surrounding woods and Richmond takes it in the arm. Our Heroes beat a hasty -- although not nearly hasty enough for my tastes, if you know what I mean -- retreat. Along the way they ride past a woman. A handy close-up reveals that she is alive but in shock. It’s also, unsurprisingly, Sondra Locke, who seems to have made a specialty of playing ravaged and/or damaged women. Or perhaps she looks shocked here because she realized that this was the kind of movie she was going to get when she wasn’t working with her paramour Eastwood. Cutter, noticing her, goes back for a look and grabs her up.
When Locke remains in one of her trademark trances, Cutter picks her up and drops her in the river for a little immersion therapy. Sure enough, she comes right out of it. Then he forces whiskey down her throat. Remember this regimen if you ever stumble across a dazed rape victim. Richmond expresses disgust at these tactics, thus establishing him as a wimp. In any case, Locke (who’s playing Drusilla Wilcox, in case you care) about two minutes later is telling Richmond that she’s fine. Folks sure were resilient back in those days.
Then some more stuff happens. That night in camp, O’Brian hears a noise (one that should have awoken everyone else, too) and goes to investigate. An arrow lands near his head and he begins to fire, alerting the others. They make it back to camp afterwards with no further trouble. In the morning, though, O’Brian remains agitated. He’s a brilliant tracker – I mean, he’s got Cherokee blood in him, right? -- but can find no sign of the people following them. Then some more stuff. Then Locke heads off to sew up her ripped dress. Needless to say, we cut to watch this, despite the fact that Locke apparently wouldn’t sign a nudity waiver and we just see her bare back with her torso strategically placed in position to the camera so that we don’t really see anything. This all leads nowhere, so I guess it was just a Hubba, Hubba scene.
That night O’Brian and Cutter find that their horses have been stolen. O’Brian goes in search of them while Wishbone remains behind to protect the chick and the greenhorn. Cutter later awakens (good sentry!) to see O’Brian returning with the horses. They have weird claw marks on them, and O’Brian is starting to get seriously freaked out. So we get the standard Native American / White Guy argument about the supernatural and all that. Anyway, we’ve still got a movie in here somewhere, so naturally Wishbone remains adamant about pressing forward.
We move on, with the film continuing to be the sort of affair that might kindly be called ‘episodic.’ Unkindly, you could say it’s just a bunch of scenes stitched together. The party comes across the Obligatory Crazy Cackling Woodsman. That’s bad enough, but he has a Crazy Harmonica Playing Mute Partner. Ee-yikes! Let’s hope these guys get killed off right quick. Sigh. No such luck. The party heads back to the Crazy Woodsmen Cabin for dinner. This longish diversion serves little plot purpose (surprise!), except to indicate that the area to which Our Heroes are headed is haunted. The Crazy Mute guy, for instance, lost his eye and suffered his facial scarring there. It was after this that he stopped talking. Oo, eerie, eh? Oh, wait, there is (eventually) a plot purpose for this stuff. The two guys have another hidden partner, and it turns out that they plan to get ahead of the party and ambush them.
Cutter and O’Brian are on to the rascals, though. They pretend that Cutter’s horse has thrown a shoe, which will allow O’Brian to sneak around and ambush their ambush. Richmond, however, has another idea. He and Drusilla will go for a walk, which will seem less suspicious. Then he will scamper to a position on the hill above the miscreants and plant some dynamite. The explosion should bury them in a landslide. For the first time, Richmond gains Cutter’s approval. "That’s a hell of a good idea!" he chortles. One awkwardly edited scene later and the deed is done. Or so it appears. The last guy, the one who’s more mean than crazy, emerges battered but extant.
Drusilla goes for a walk that night. Soon after this the others hear the loud screeching of an eagle. To their relief the panicked Drusilla makes it safely back to camp. The next morning, however, they find the body of the last woodsman peppered with arrows and clawed in the face. (Well, that guy sure didn’t last long!)
Later that day they find the mountain where Cane said he hid the diamonds. O’Brian freaks out again, for it’s the peak known to all Indian tribes as The Mountain of Demons. He proceeds to explicate the legend of Chikara, "a great and powerful eagle." Long story short, it’s bad mojo to climb the mountain. Wishbone refuses to budge, however. (Remember, all Joe Don Baker characters are defined by their obstinacy.) O’Brian sends them ahead, saying he’ll catch up.
So…uh, various stuff. They look around for the diamonds, and Drusilla and Cutter snarl at one another, and Richmond and Drusilla grow closer, etc. Oh, and at one point O’Brian tells Drusilla that "you’ve got very sharp eyes." Hmm, could that be the clue to a shock twist ending somewhere in the next twenty-odd minutes? Or am I just kind of bored and imagining things? Anyway, he and Drusilla head down a trail she saw (hence the remark), and there’s a landslide, and O’Brian and the party’s horses all turn into dummies and fall to their deaths. Then we see a big eagle. Spooky, eh? Drusilla is found hanging from a rock and saved by the others. This last bit is shown in time-consuming detail and shamelessly milked for *cough* suspense.
Earlier they found a really deep hole in a cave, and now Cutter suspects that Cane climbed down the side and hid the diamonds there. Richmond lowers himself on a rope and rather quickly finds something. Soon he and his find are back up topside. Richmond takes a look and confirms that they are diamonds, and biggies at that. Still, they have to make it back to civilization, and without horses. Exhausted, Cutter goes to sleep and leaves Richmond on watch. He and Drusilla take the opportunity to fool around. She then suggests that they head outside a piece for a, uh, little privacy, if you catch my drift.
SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT
To my complete lack of surprise, Richmond takes an arrow. Drusilla runs screaming back to the cave, where she and Cutter wait out the night. The next morning, everything looks clear. Driven to emotional extremes, he and she start making out. (Man, I hope Locke got a bonus of some sort!) As he begins to remove her dress, though (ewww!), he sees a tattoo that matches the insignia on the mysterious arrows they’ve been plagued with. He recognizes her as Chikara, but it’s too late. She stabs him to death, takes the diamonds and strews them into the depths of the pit.
Then, in a bit that really makes no sense but which provides a cool ending (sorta) she sees some other men (?) approaching. She rends her clothes and falls to the ground in the same manner as when Cutter found her earlier in the movie. Wow!
Summation: A plotline that might have worked nicely as a half hour Twilight Zone episode is stretched past the breaking point. Not awful, but it’s slow going.
course as a result I get extra yucks out of the vast majority of Civil War
films. Just a note about the idiocy of the Curse of Chikara
During the Civil War, mortars were used only for bombarding static positions
– like trenches or forts. They would be totally useless against a troop of
cavalry. Our Hero, early in this film claims that he’s afraid to attack
because of the enemy “mortars”. Yes, I know the enemy actually isn’t
shown to have mortars, but the fact is that any Civil War officer who was
reluctant to lead a cavalry skirmish because of mortars would be so
incompetent he should be sacked on the spot. It would be like a modern
lieutenant refusing to lead his platoon into combat because the enemy has
ICBM silos nearby.
Indians using arrows in Arkansas, post-1865? Ludicrous. Several thousand
Indians fought in Arkansas during the war, most (but not all) on the
Confederate side, and every last one of them had gunpowder weapons.
love Sondra Locke. Not as an actress, you understand. When I was just a kid,
she made a big impression on me and I’ve never gotten over the crush. If
she showed up in my office today and asked me to quack like a duck there
would be no resistance on my part. Just so you know. Therefore, in this
film, as in all Sondra Locke films, she can do no wrong. I’m especially
glad she killed off the other guys in this film. It shows she’s saving
herself for me. *sigh*
Plot: Shaft takes it to some mf’in’ slave traders on the Mother Continent.
What went wrong? How did the character who epitomized Blaxploitation and had a famous Oscar winning theme song go commercially awry? The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind. Well, actually, the answer is just…blowing. When the movies started to blow, people stopped going to see them.
Actually, that’s a bit unfair. The movies didn’t become bad, so much. Instead, I believe the real problem was elephantiasis. The first Shaft introduced the Sex Machine to All the Chicks as a black superman in a gritty urban milieu. The second film, as sequels often do, thought it best to up the stakes. The sections of the film dealing with New York’s mostly black underclass still had some kick to them. Unfortunately, the finale, featuring an overly elaborate sequence wherein a helicopter full of snipers chases around a Shaft armed with a super-powerful shotgun, seemed like it was in the wrong picture. Don’t get me wrong. It was pretty spectacular stuff, some of it, and the stunt flying was often extraordinary. Still, such James Bond-esque antics just didn’t suit Our Man Shaft.
So they tried it again. Only instead of fixing what was wrong in the second film, they further exaggerated those very elements. Here Shaft is ultimately removed, not just from New York City, but from the country altogether. This might have worked for international drug scourge Cleopatra Jones in her sequel, but not for John Shaft. Damn, dude, the funky streets of New York City are your co-stars! Didn’t you know that? Worse yet, the film is given a ‘serious’ issue to ‘confront’ and is bulked up to nearly two hours in length.
We open with some obvious heavies chasing a young black man around a huge estate somewhere. The Bad Guys speak a foreign tongue, which along with the architecture of the mansion indicates that this is taking place overseas somewhere. (You might think Africa, given the title, but actually it’s France.) Cue some classic wakka-chikka music. The man is captured and beaten.
We cut to a Rolls Royce transporting Mr. Amafi, an arrogant, Germanic looking fellow. Also in the car is Jazar, a beautiful woman smoking a cigar. Boy, you gotta like that. As Amafi takes back the stogie (Freud!), she bends down to, uh, do him a close personal favor. Given the, er, nature of said favor, and the cigar and stuff, well, a viewer might be reminded of a certain influential American of recent memory. There is a difference, though. When this fellow gets a call on his car phone during the proceedings, he tells the caller to ring back later rather than blithely carrying on with the conversation.
Back to the estate house. The black guy is tossed, beaten and cuffed, into a secluded courtyard. Amafi arrives and a henchman shows him the data their prisoner’s been collecting. Amafi orders the fellow killed. This despite the fact that the guy’s father is an ‘emir,’ although one currently in America (?), I guess. "He can’t throw a spear all the way from New York," Amafi notes, establishing himself as the film’s Obligatory Racist Crimelord. Nice to see the filmmakers honoring the traditional ways.
Cut to further wakka-chicka music as spot Shaft jogging around Central Park. Returning to his snazzy sports car, he chases off some youths who were attempting to purloin his hubcaps. (You know crime in New York is bad when Shaft if getting ripped off!) Back at his apartment, Our Hero is accosted by a big dude clad in an African tribal gown, who subdues him with a drugged dart (!). He is then carried off in a gigantic old black Lincoln or Caddie. Man, I love those old boats. Shaft awakens butt naked (literally) in a stable, lying in some hay. Well, that’s a new one on me.
Sitting conveniently nearby is a staff (Freud!), which he grabs as a weapon. Leaving the stable, he comes across the fellow who drugged him. This worthy also has a staff, and like Robin Hood and Little John they engage in battle. This is carefully shot in such a way as to fully feature Richard Roundtree’s muscular ass (a sight we’re treated to, I believe, in all three pictures) while his willy remains out of sight. Now, let’s go back to my earlier meditations on where the series went wrong. Think about this scene as I’ve described it. Again, how did we get from the first film to this here in only two further steps?
History repeats itself. Shaft gets clobbered again, and groggily wakes up again, still unclad. (Why would the Emir want a guy who manages to get cold-cocked twice in an hour’s time? It doesn’t exactly make him look that competent.) This time he comes to in a room containing a sand floor and a ceiling full of klieg lights, which apparently functions as a Betty Crocker Easy-Bake Oven writ large. By the way, yes, Mr. Roundtree has an admirable ass. I admit it. So can we move on now?
Shaft is told over a speaker to walk across the sandy floor and back for the next eight hours. If he survives, his captors will speak with him further. Shaft, however, being the stubborn cuss that he is, instead buries himself in the sand as protection against the lights. Impressed with this canny stratagem, Emir Ramila, leader of the Manta Tribe in East Africa (that’s what we’re told, anyway), makes a personal appearance. Soon Shaft, now thankfully clad, is meeting with the Emir in the Library. (Where else?)
Basically, Shaft is being hired to discover who’s behind the smuggling of African black men into European countries – including France! – to work as cheap labor. This, the film will often tell us, more or less amount to slavery. Now, I’m not sure this really constitutes ‘slavery’ as it is generally understood. They even explain that if the men cause trouble, they are deported, which usually isn’t the way slavery works. I’m not saying this situation wouldn’t be awful -- although staying in Africa and starving is probably awful, too -- but let’s not blur and dilute what words mean. It’s like calling somebody who supports school vouchers or welfare reform a Nazi.
This is especially important as real, actual slavery from and in Africa was still occurring when this film was made. Sadly, it does so even now, notably in the Sudan. But in real life it’s Blacks enslaving other Blacks, which muddies the racial waters a bit too much for Hollywood to want to tackle. Moreover, the film never addresses the economic conditions that cause the men to sign up for these jobs in the first place. Admittedly, the workers discover that they’re getting rooked on pay when they arrive, but the fact remains that they wouldn’t have voluntarily left their homelands if they didn’t believe they could do better elsewhere. Therefore, it seems somewhat moot that by the end of the picture all the bad guys are dead. That doesn’t really solve any of the underlying problems that resulted in the situation to start with.
On another point, I find it rather difficult to believe (to say the least) that a personal autonomy freak like Shaft would work for anyone who has treated him the way the Emir has. To help obscure this fact, they now introduce Aleme, the Emir’s -- three guesses -- beautiful daughter. She will be Shaft’s instructor on the nuances of the Manta dialect. Walking along the East River, Aleme gives Shaft a quick rundown on African tribal history. Here we get some typically laughable Afrocentrism, including some jibes at Shakespeare for being a "Johnny-come-lately, compared to your cats grooving on poetry a thousand years ago." I guess the seemingly immortal quality of the Bard’s work, as well as its manifold insights into the universal human condition, don’t matter much if guys in Africa were grooving on poetry before he was.
On the other hand, they do mention that Aleme will endure a (ugh!) clitoridectomy before she is allowed to wed and have sex. So they are addressing some of the less enlightened African traditions. Or maybe not, since they also have Aleme defend the practice (!). Apparently the fact that Evil Whites aren’t behind the custom makes it more palatable.
Shaft is soon heading for Africa, quickened by his attempted seduction of Aleme. During an airport layover, he is quickly accosted by an assassin dressed up like a cleaning lady. This fellow was so obviously a man that I expected Austin Powers to jump out of a stall and beat up on the guy. Really, it’s that bad. Shaft almost gets killed – again, he’s looking none too ept in this film – but is saved by a white guy he met and had some sport with on the flight over. This is Williams, an agent of the Emir.
Amafi hears of the bungled hit and is, needless to say, not overly happy. Of course, this means that Amafi knows of Shaft’s existence and that, thus, there’s a mole somewhere. (But then, in this kind of movie there’d have to be, wouldn’t there?) And it’s Wassa, one of the Emir’s right hand men. Go figure.
Meeting with his contact, Shaft is given a native fighting stick with a hidden camera in it (!!). (Big deal, Chesty Morgan had hers implanted!) He also gets a tape recorder disguised as a radio. "I’m not James Bond," Our Hero protests. "I’m Sam Spade." (Get it?) He’s to travel by foot over the border to where the recruiters are. After signing up with them, he’s to phone his contact if he makes it (bum bum bum) alive to Paris. So he hits the road, kills a guy (in a bit they ripped off for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Commando), adopts a wild dog, then Aleme pops up for some pre-clitoridectimal lovin’ in a little thatched hut, after which she decides to forgo the procedure (what, it’s voluntary?!), he and Fido set off again, and he meets Kopo, his new native bodyguard, or zabana in the Manta tongue. I apologize for this next bit, but there’s seemingly no way around it. "Hi, I’m Kopo...Kopo zabana..." Thank you, Ladies and Gentleman, I’ll be here all week.
Shaft and Kopo learn where the next pick-up is going to happen and head out. Sure enough, the trucks arrive just as they do. There Fido attacks a local, pretty much so that the guy can kill the dog with his stick. Shaft looks to retaliate. Kopo, trying to keep him out of trouble, get nastily beaned in the back of the head for his efforts. Ah, well, we knew there’d be a big staff fight in here somewhere, so we might as well get it out of the way. It gets to the point where his foe literally tries to tear out Shaft’s throat with his teeth (!!), but Shaft (duh) ends up the winner. I’ll give the movie this, though, it makes it look pretty crappy to get beaten on with a big stick.
So Shaft and Kopo sign up with the recruiter guy. Then they go to bury the dog. Fido’s death, naturally, is played as a bigger deal than any of the actual people who get killed throughout the movie. As they attend to this somber duty the recruiter guy shows up and starts shooting at them. Kopo bites it (boy, he sure was a big help). Shaft takes care of the shooter by breaking his neck, which he accomplishes by cupping the guy’s chin in his hand and pulling his head to the side. Then Our Hero rejoins the convoy of itinerant worker guys. Next, well, if you ever had a yen to see Richard Roundtree riding a camel, then this is the film for you.
Back in France, Amafi and Jazar – remember? – are again riding around in the Rolls. She starts to get all hot and bothered watching some shirtless and sweaty black laborers. (Ah, not since Mandingo, eh?) She even appears to, uh, finish the trip, if you get my meaning. Amafi is disgusted by her tastes, but envies her as well. "I’d give ten years of my life," he states. "To be able to see the world only in sexual terms." Uh, OK. Ten years, huh? Well, whatever. Wazza the Mole shows up to report that Shaft is still alive and kicking. Amafi tells him to fly down and take care of it himself, or else. Jazar, meanwhile, volunteers to go and, uh, distract Shaft was as to make the job easier.
Hey, c’mon, a white nymphomaniac in a Shaft movie? What did you think was going to happen?
The party of slaves-or-whatever stop amidst their travels to hit a whorehouse. (Again, this is not what I think of when I think of ‘slavery.’) Shaft is just about to get it on when the dude he bested in the stick fight shows up with orders to kill him. There’s a chase through a street market, and yes, produce gets spilled. Shaft, needless to say, soon gets the upper hand, though.
He then rejoins the others as they board a ship for the next leg of their journey. Also on board is Jazar, in a teeny-weeny blue bikini, and Wassa. (Of course, only Shaft is manly enough to give Jazar the eye as she walks out on deck.) Wassa wants to take Shaft out immediately, but, of course, Jazar must first fulfill all of her Unnatural Urges. (Gee, where is this heading?) The workers are stowed down in the hold, but she has them brought topside in small groups for fresh air. During one of these breathers (literally), she calls over Our Hero. She lets him know that she’s on to his real identity, and then takes him back into her cabin for a little nookie. He interrogates her, and for those who are interested, she spends pretty the whole scene nekkid.
Anyway, I’m sure you can probably figure out what occurs to each and every member of our cast during the remainder of the film’s final half hour.
Summation: Overblown (if still well made and entertaining) stuff that killed a franchise. Well, almost. Actually, the deathblow came after Shaft was presumably completely neutered as a character with his own mid-‘70s primetime action series on CBS (!!). Bet he didn’t spend much time takin’ it to the Man there.
Plot: A 33 minute cheapo video ("approximately 40 minutes," my ass) portraying various historical adventures starring Fabio (!!), every woman’s perfect man.
Boy, if you ever see this tape resting in the dollar bin of your local video store, grab it. I don’t think it’ll be making its way to DVD any time soon. Or ever.
We cut from a chintzy computer generated title credit to the man himself. The big haired goofus is attired in a sports jacket, sans shirt. Because, you see, it’s so sexy. He inarticulately thanks us for joining him and then we get going. After a soulful montage, mostly consisting of slow glides over a typewriter, we cut to an attractive woman tossing and turning in her bed. She rises and begins searching through the crumpled sheets of paper surrounding the typewriter. Then she grabs a pad of paper and, digging further, finds a picture of Fabio. In this he’s attired in a sports jacket, sans shirt. Because, you see, it’s so sexy. It certainly spotlights his incredible cleavage, anyway. Maybe, the woman mutters, she should make this fellow the hero of her new romance novel.
Her main problem, other than the fact that she has photos of Fabio in her house, is that she’s unsure of what time period to use. This is a big decision, after all. As can be seen from the covers of these books, they are all exactly the same. Only the names of the characters and the historical settings are different. (Did you ever see that one featuring the big bare-chested guy with long hair? And he’s crushing the loins of a beautiful woman against his own, while her upper body leans back with a facial expression indicating a swoon of ecstasy? Yeah, that one.) "My editor expects something today," she notes helpfully to herself. Normally, I’d laugh at the idea that anyone could write an entire book by pulling an all-nighter. However, we are talking a romance novel here, so all she really needs to do is plug in the appropriate proper nouns. I mean, writing these things must basically amount to filling in a very long Mad Lib, as far as I can tell.
First up, in a burst of fecund originality, she envisions Fabio as a Viking. "I open with him," she thinks – ah, voiceovers, the bad screenwriters' greatest friend – "heading towards a particular castle." Those are the kind of details that mark a great author, by the way. A hack might have had the Viking heading towards a castle in general. Not here, though. No, this is a ‘particular’ castle, and on "the English Coast," to boot. Our Hero, meanwhile, is shot is silhouette, so that our first good look at him will be all the more laughable. Er, I meant dreamy.
"He might decide to go ashore alone," she ponders. What, and leave that whole other guy that was traveling with him back in the boat? This is a doughty warrior indeed, my friends! Odder, though, is his reason for doing this. It’s not for purposes of stealth, say, but because he wishes "to avoid unnecessary bloodshed." Boy, this lady really has vast insight into the whole Viking culture. Who else would have pegged a plot on their little-mentioned squeamishness regarding violence.
Our intrepid, battle scarred hero (well, not ‘battle scarred,’ literally, that’d mess up his pretty visage) comes across a young Englishman. This fellow is waving about his sword and dreaming of martial glory, calling out exaggerated insults to his imaginary foes. Laughing with disdain, Viking Fabio leaps out, cutting off the impudent toad’s head with one mighty stroke of his sword. He then smears his face with his enemy’s blood and mounts the head on a stick as a warning to all. Oh, no, wait, he mercifully teaches the lad a lesson and will then let him go. Yep, he’s a Viking, alright. This goes on at some tedious length, especially for a program lasting just a tad over half an hour. I am now pretty glad that they fell so short of the advertised forty minutes.
Finally, Viking Fabio grows weary of all this (I hear ya, buddy!!) and makes to end it once and for all. Supposedly. Although I can’t help noticing that the ‘death stroke’ lands about two feet away from his opponent. In any case, the lad’s life is supposedly spared when the Obligatory Beauteous Lady runs into frame – where the heck was she supposed to be? – to beg for her young brother’s life. Viking Fabio orders her to kneel before him, giving us a rather cheesy glance at her own impressive cleavage. (Ye Olde Silicone, no doubt.) This sight I found rather strange, given what you would presume to be the video’s target audience.
She prays, thinking she’s about to die. Hearing her, he asks her brother if they are Christians. (English gentry? Gee, I wonder.) Anyway, the twist ending is that he sends the lad off for a priest. That’s right, he steals her away rather than killing her. Moreover, Viking Fabio will see them wed first, in respect to her religious beliefs. (!!!)
"Forget that one," our authoress exclaims as we return to her. (Maybe she’s a better writer than I thought.) Then she laboriously puts her gray matter back to work on the matter. "You know," she mutters, "my editor has a real thing for pirates." Wow. A romance novel about a pirate. There’s a brainstorm. So the stage is set, as "a pirate ship…employed by Queen Elizabeth…is chasing a Spanish Galleon." Astoundingly, this is more or less historically accurate. Well, OK, the privateers alluded to here tended to be British, so the Fabio thing is slightly off. Still, though. Anyway, the average fan of bad movies is undoubtedly envisioning the copious use of stock footage to bring this all to life. In fact, they use an even cheaper technique. Everything is just described verbally. Hell, it makes you wonder why they bothered using film.
Anyway, a storm hits and the pirate ship is damaged (we're told). The Galleon fares even worse, and sinks near an island in the Caribbean (we're told). "The Captain," she continues, "would probably set up camp on the beach." Why, yes, because that way you wouldn’t have to show a ship at all! How convenient. Furthermore (gee, who’d thought), most of the crew has been ordered to stay aboard said unseen vessel. Upping the Hubba-Hubba factor for…uh…someone, presumably, the Fabulous One is here shown topless, shamelessly flashing his giant hooters at the audience.
Fabio, who lacks the scarring that one might associate with life as a pirate captain, is set up in a tent on said beach. Meanwhile, most of the production budget is blown in procuring four or five, uh, well you can’t really call them actors, but…you know, guys, to play some of his subordinates. These fellows are a hoot, attired in hilariously bogus wigs, sporting the white even teeth that are requisite in bad historical epics, and making the obligatory "Arrr!" noises. One, of course, has an eye patch. This guy, as you might anticipate, is the worst ham of the lot. Inevitably, he refers to Fabio as the "The C’pn."
Anyway, one of them spots something off camera, and soon an unconscious woman is being brought before Pirate Captain Fabio. Who, yes, is now wearing a puffy white shirt with the plunging neckline, the traditional garb of those in his line of work. Seeing the woman slung over one fellow’s shoulder, he asks, "What’s that?" Now, I know that pirate captains didn’t require a college degree or anything, but Yeesh. Anyway, and I was waiting for this to be said, but the woman was found "washed up on shore." This, of course, is explained rather than shown, and furthermore the woman’s dress is dry. "What is that stench," Captain Pirate Fabio asks. "Ah, the tides washed her through some animal droppin’s," comes the answer. Huh?
The woman comes awake and is tormented, sorta, by the lusty pirates chaps. Proving rather fastidious for a pirate, Captain Fabio orders her washed -- gee, I didn’t see that coming -- "with plenty of soap." (!!!) Uh oh. That’s sure to cause dissention in the crew, who at this point in the voyage are probably down to half rations of soap as it is. That’s not the only thing, either. Proving as sexually progressive as, say, oh, a Viking, Captain Fabio promises that the woman will remain undefiled by his men. Then Fabio, who gives off a definite vibe of disinterest towards the female gender during all of this (hmmm), tells her that she better start treating him with respect. And if she doesn’t? "[Y]ou will go without dinner until your manners improve." Yep, he’s a pirate, alright. Edward Teach used to do the same thing.
About an hour passes. To indicate this, we next see Pirate Captain Fabio wearing another puffy shirt, this one in patterned pastels and adorned with big rhinestones, er, I mean, diamonds. Because pirates pretty regularly changed their attire, I guess. I mean, when we first saw him, just a bit earlier this same evening, he was shirtless. Then he donned the white shirt. And then he changed into this one. Still, no matter what the shirt, it remains faithfully unbuttoned, the better to showcase Fabio’s Pamela Anderson-sized breasts to advantage. Not my advantage, particularly, but somebody’s.
Pirate Captain Fabio returns to his tent to find the freshly washed woman there, now dressed in a white slip (?). She complains about the inappropriate nature of this attire, and he agrees. Lifting a trunk lying in his tent, he notes "There must be something in here a woman can use." (Hmmm.) Sure enough, he finds one dress, which magically fits her perfectly. (Actually, she hasn’t put it on yet. I’m just assuming.) However, the Puritanically Proper Pirate makes her say "please" before he hands it over. I mean, he actually asks her, "What do you say?" (!!) You can only wonder what he does when one of the crew misuses their salad fork.
Dinner is brought in, nicely arranged on plates. Again, though, Pirate Captain Fabio insists on a "thank you" before the woman will be allowed to eat. She refuses. This is all supposed to portray, I would guess, his masterful breaking of this strong yet haughty woman’s spirit. But Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, they ain’t. Instead, it’s like watching two petulant children playing You’re Not the Boss of Me. (This is especially true if we assume that one of the children can barely speak English.) Anyway, if the goal is to create a palpable sense of sexual tension, well, back to the drawing board. Ditto on the scene’s supposed humor factor.
After dinner the two begin to play chess. (First they rip off Tom Jones, then The Thomas Crown Affair.) To my horror, they use Pachelbel's Canon to accompany this scene, bringing to mind Alex’s experience with Beethoven in A Clockwork Orange. Of course, in his case the problem was that he couldn’t close his eyes. My problem is quite the opposite, as I’m severely tested to keep them open. This all goes on for a while, and in slow motion, to boot. Anyway, it’s well known that few woman can resist the Joys of Chess, and it’s here that she begins to fall for the big lug. The game completed (in more ways than one – get it?), Fabio leans in for a kiss. However, the woman (not yet named, to my knowledge) demands that he say ‘please’ first. How droll. Ye Olde Turnaround. Needless to say, the one kiss ignites their passion and a grand make out session begins. This sight, meanwhile, ignited my grand passion to hurriedly press the fast forward button on my VCR remote.
Cut back to Our Authoress. Smiling over her work, she happily notes that "That is a really good possibility." If she means in terms of creating the first literary ipecac, then she might well be correct. However, she then pauses. "I’d love to write something contemporary," she muses, "with a real twist at the end." I thought she had to have this done by morning? And who is she talking to? Talk about a lazy scripting technique. Anyway, she ponders the current interest in the supernatural. (This actually is true. There’s a whole sub-genre now of vampire romance novels.) We are again horrified by the awareness that yet another vignette approaches. Still, the fact that we learn it represents the Authoress’ "secret fantasy" at least indicates that it’s the last one. And none too soon, might I add.
This tale is shot in sepia tones, and stars the Authoress as its female protagonist. This makes sense, since it’s her ‘secret fantasy.’ Also, it’s one less *ahem* actress they have to hire. Apparently she has a different idea of what ‘contemporary’ means, though, for her dress and his white tuxedo coat mark this more as occurring in the 1940s than the present day. Which is the point, I guess, that it resembles a 1940s cinema romance. A really, really bad one, but still. Entering, she notes that she can’t believe that she’s with him. For this is Count Fabio, you see, "one of the handsomest, wealthiest, most sought after men in the world." (This must be that supernatural angle she mentioned earlier.)
Wisely, they let her do all the yakking, while Count Fabio mostly keeps his inarticulate trap shut. Unwisely, there’s a lot of yakking for her to do. The plaintive revelation that she’s a "plain, ordinary, grade school teacher" alone made me burst out laughing. (By the way, was the phrase "grade school teacher" used back in the ‘40s? I can’t recall ever hearing it in a film from that period.) She tells him that she’ll always cherish their time together, but that tomorrow she must return to her world, where she belongs. Of course, he then tells her that she’s wrong, that he really does love her, etc. This goes on as an abject lesson of how dreadfully long five or six minutes can last. During his speech, triumphant horns sound to mark key clichés. "Just listen to your heart," he tells her. (Cue horn.) "I couldn’t live my life without you." (Cue horn.) This device calls to mind the 1966 Chamber of Horrors, although they were a bit more truthful in calling their musical cues the "Horror Horn."
She continues to blather about how it can never be, etc. Finally, to prove his love, he proposes. Cue tearful slo-mo close-up shots and the obligatory swell of romantic music. (Usually I’d use the term ‘lush’ to describe the romantic music, but that’d be a bit much here.) Anyway, the Authoress rouses from her daydream (which is more than I can say), a smile on her face (ditto). Looking up, she notices an almost comically massive red rose sitting nearby. Turning around, she finds Fabio, still duded up in his Count outfit. Apparently this is like that scene in An American Werewolf in London where David Naughton seemingly wakes from one nightmare only to find himself in another.
Count Fabio undoes his ponytail, letting his luxurious mane fall freely. Our Heroine has problems dealing with her literal dream lover appearing in her living room. (Considering that he’s Fabio, I’d imagine that much of her problem stems from embarrassment. This is probably the kind of thing that destroyed the Krell.) She tries to wake herself back up, but to no account. Count Fabio, also confused, puts forward the theory that the ‘Dreammaker’ has decided to make her dreams come true. This is all played, I think, for comedy, but that’s a theory at best. Oh, and in case you missed it, this is the contemporary supernatural storyline she alluded to before. The woman whose dream phantom lover comes to life. Again, I’m going back to that Krell thing.
Anyway, she wakes up again. Talk about a glutton for punishment. Now, if that was the supernatural element, the whole ‘Dreammaker’ thing, then what about the also mentioned twist ending? Well, the exhausted woman decides to go back to bed. Where we find that her lover/husband/whatever is…get ready for it…Fabio. Wow. She was fantasizing about her own man. Gee whizzo. Yeah, that’s a corker of an ending, all right.
-by Ken Begg