Saturday, August 7, 2010

Sci-Fried Theater: HANDS OF STEEL (1986)

In the alumnus of Italian genre film masters of the ‘70s and ‘80s there are many directors that are fondly remembered for their horror movies, crime films, or gialli. While many dabbled with varying degrees of success in other genres, nobody did it as successfully as Sergio Martino. Now I’m not going to sit here and say that the man never mined pyrite out of the celluloid mountains, but generally speaking he could go from low-budget to no-budget and sci-fi to action to horror without missing a beat. Even when faced with what appears to be the budgetary equivalent of the trade-in value of a ’76 Ford Pinto, Martino can whip something out of his ass to make a damned entertaining movie. Such is the case with HANDS OF STEEL.

Set in the not-too-distant future, that looks a lot like Detroit, it seems that in the future our only hope for the future is a politician who says there is no future. And he’s blind and in a wheelchair! No, no, I’m not going to make any jokes about certain political parties being short-sighted and lame, that’s way too easy. Interestingly even though the entire country, as we find out later, is totally behind this Arthur Mosley guy (who’s campaign is supposedly about “hope and change” but his slogan is “you have no future”) his political machine is run by guys in hospital scrubs out of a fleabag hotel room (hospital scrubs, they're the future!). Martino covers himself here by having a lengthy conversation between the cop who is heading up the politician’s security and Mosley’s campaign manager where they mention that the fleabag hotel was chosen as a staging area because of Mosley’s “stubborn idealism”. While setting up the character (which will be mostly forgotten after the first 20 minutes) one of Mosley’s assistants actually finds Mosley sleeping while listening to an audio tape of one of his own speeches. Two things; if your political candidate puts himself to sleep with his own speeches, I don’t think that the opposition has much to worry about, and cassette tapes? They’re the future!

After an attempted assassination, the would-be killer, and his spiffy digital watch with black rubber calculator function keys (it’s the future!), flees the scene through what appears to be an abandoned bus terminal, but we are told it is an “electrical conduit”. The politico, Arthur Mosley, is taken to the hospital where they discover that in spite of being karate chopped in the neck, his spleen has been damaged! The police have black and white photos (it’s the future!) of the car that the “killer” drove off in, but they can’t seem to figure out how he managed to escape or what he looked like. Says the campaign manager guy with whom the police detective is discussing his escape-via-conduit theory, “how could he have made it through alive?” to which the cop replies “that’s what I’m trying to figure out!” What I am trying to figure out is why the cops keep calling the guy a “killer” when he hasn't actually killed anyone! Oh and while we’re at it, why does a freakin' cyborg need a digital watch anyway? Or a nap. Or a digital watch alarm to wake him from said nap! Yeah, I said cyborg. Ah, stop it. It's not a spoiler... you can see it on the damn poster.

As it turns out, the “killer’s” name is Paco Quernak (Daniel Greene) and now he’s taken it on the lam, to seemingly no place in particular. After driving all night through acid rain, that actually eats holes in the roof of his car, he trades it in for a new-used car at an auto lot in the middle of the Arizona desert where the old coot running the place calls him a “jackass” and says his car has “the value of a bucket of rust”. He drives a few miles in it before it dies (it’s a Ford after all) and he needs to ditch it. Since he doesn’t want to leave anything for someone to trace back to him, he runs the car off of a cliff where it tumbles to huge wide-open plain and bursts into flames sending a pillar of smoke into the sky. Nice job Paco, nobody will notice that. Oh, and you left your receipt in the car with your real identity on it (which the police conveniently find half burned). I guess all them cybernetic do-hickey’s got installed below his neck.

Since it is the future everything is retrofitted with dryer tubing. Yep, dryer tubing… it’s the future! Since Martino can’t afford elaborate sets or even matte paintings, he throws all his set-dressing cash into dryer tubing. It’s everywhere! Cars, hotel rooms, science labs and even the hick bar in the middle of nowhere that Paco ends up hoofing it too. Once there he discusses his situation with the owner, Linda (Janet Agren), who’s protests are quickly defeated by his superior logic:
Paco: “I need a place to stay for a few days.”
Linda: “Sure, and in exchange you help me out around here until you cut my throat and take off with the few bucks I’ve got in the till.”
Paco: “I could have done that already.”
Linda: “Ok.”

Of course this just sets the stage for a showdown between some ornery, arm-rasslin’ truckers and our cyborg Paco. Oh yeah, Paco is being hunted by The Foundation, headed up by John Saxon, an evil corporation that turned him into a cyborg (via scientist played by Donald O’Brien) in order to use him for a political assassin… and now he’s brawling with extras from OVER THE TOP. Makes perfect sense! While Linda tries to avoid confrontation between her none-too-bright and overly aggressive boyfriend Raul (George Eastman) by having Paco get a couple of cases of Guinness out of the back (wait, Guinness in a trucker bar? What?), Raul and company finally get under his skin by saying things like “he’s about as strong as a wet fart!” and “when I get through with you, you’re going to have to wipe your ass with your nose!” I mean, who could stand that sort of abuse without snapping? Let the testosterone flow!

Meanwhile the cops are still trying to figure out what the hell happened with Mosley. Since Mosley is blind, he didn’t see his assailant, so the cops go to their futuristic computer program that can give a two-dimensional outline of the weapon. Pretty sweet, huh? While the computer operator and the cop are totally baffled by this image, the program can even analyze the image and suggest what fits the profile! A miracle of modern technology! Here the outline is obviously of a fist, so the computer suggests things like “ashtray” and “crowbar”. It’s comforting to know that unlike in say, THE TERMINATOR (1984), in the future computers are still just as dumb as the people who program them.

The film culminates with non-stop action as The Foundation and the cops figure out where Paco is (by way of a strip club of course). Paco dispatches his rivals with machine-like efficiency, smashing motorcycle helmets, crushing heads and gouging eyes. At one point he is attacked by an evil female cyborg (clearly inspired by Pris in 1982’s BLADE RUNNER) in a scene that is strangely echoed in Albert Pyun’s 1991 cyborg epic NEMESIS. Paco manages to rip the head off of his evil cyborg attacker and throw it on the floor where it lies and taunts him with machinery sticking out of her severed neck. In Pyun’s film, some thugs machine gun a female cyborg in half and her truncated body with mechanical parts spilling out like entrails continues to berate her assailants (or rather Tim Thomerson). Both scenes take place in dilapidated hotel rooms and are loaded with firepower which makes them feel similar. Whether it’s coincidence or not, I can’t say for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Pyun caught HANDS OF STEEL at the drive-in back in the day and thought that it needed a bit of cyborg nippleage.

As much as I enjoy this movie, every time I watch it, it’s always tinged with a few sobering thoughts. Martino regular Claudio Cassinelli, who plays one of The Foundation’s mercenaries, was killed during a helicopter accident while making the film. Some feel that the film should be banned or boycotted because of this which I think is foolish. Nobody wanted him to die, it was a tragic accident and boycotting the film would make the work and his death in vain. Cassinelli starred in so many genre classics and semi-classics from Martino’s own MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (1978) and ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN (1979) to Fulci’s ROME 2072: THE NEW GLADIATORS (1984) and MURDER-ROCK: THE DANCING DEATH (1984). It would have been great to hear what he had to say on making these films and his thoughts on the way they are received today. Sadly we can't, and I don't see any reason why we should not to enjoy the work he left behind.

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