Friday, June 24, 2011

El Terror de Mexico: I, THE EXECUTIONER (1987)

One of the sadder aspects of being a Video Junkie is the tease - the prospect of seeing something so alluring and awesome looking, only to have it snatched away from you quickly.  Nowhere is this more apparent in the world of 1980s Mexican exploitation cinema.  Unlike their contemporaries in Hong Kong, Italy or the Philippines, the Mexican b-movie masters committed the ultimate cinematic cockblock by rarely dubbing or subtitling their films for the English market.  For every DON’T PANIC (1988) that got an English dub, there were probably ten just as cool flicks that weren’t, shall we say, gringo friendly.  I can remember going to visit Tom out in San Jose back in the mid-90s and marveling at all the cool looking Mexican action flicks on the shelves (almost all of which featured at least one guy nicknamed “Gordy” or “Flaco”).  But then I would have to come crashing back down to reality when I realized ¡No Habla Español! Sure, you could find a dubbed flick here and there, but they were few and far between. Thankfully, the advent of DVD allowed for more companies to offer English subtitles if they were inclined. Even better, some fans of Mexploitation cinema have take the time to painstakingly add subtitles to some of the better films to expose them to a wider array of fans.  Sure, I could learn Spanish, but that’s too much work, damn it!  

One of the actors I’ve enjoyed finding out about during my south of the border sojourns is Valentín Trujillo. Born Rafael Valentín Trujillo Gazcón in 1951, he came into a show business family as his grandfather was a film producer and his uncle Robert was a director. Trujillo made his screen debut at 2 months old (typecast as a baby!) and kicked his career into high gear at the tender age of 7 to star in over 140 features.  As a teen he even got into the Columbia Pictures release RAGE (1966) alongside Glenn Ford and Stella Stevens.  His character was named José.  Typecast again, damn it!  In the 1970s Trujillo became a leading man and an action star in his native Mexico. Perhaps it was his exposure to the American filmmaking system, but Trujillo strove to make his action films stand apart as his characters were more complex than the average good guy/bad guy dynamic and the films tackled many social issues Mexico faced during these times.  As a result, he became very popular and one of the country’s top box office draws.  The first film I saw of his was OCCUPATIONAL KILLER (1985; aka Polícia de narcóticos) and it kicked ass.  Trujillo starred as a no-nonsense cop on the trail of a vigilante blowing away drug dealers with a shotgun (and the problem is?).  The film has such an emphasis on bloody violence that it reminds me of the 70s Italian crime films. Hell, the idea of killing a kid and stuffing his corpse with bundles of cocaine is straight out of the Henry Silva sleaze-fest CRY OF A PROSTITUTE (1974).  Anyway, I was hooked and started trying to find as much of his stuff I could, which led me to I, THE EXECUTIONER (1987).

The film opens with a bunch of government types in a smoky boardroom watching a slideshow about wanted Nazi criminal Elpidio Arenas (sure sounds German to me).  Not wanting to deal with bothersome crap like international laws and country sovereignty, the group decides this is a job for special agent The Executioner aka Valente Carrera aka Valente Thompson (Trujillo), a former Mexican cop who now resides on a houseboat in San Diego, CA.  This leads to an incredible 20-minute pre-title sequence where a camouflaged Carrera parachutes into Arenas’ compound, takes out a dozen or so henchmen (including chopping one guy’s head off in a ceiling fan), and captures his target.  Carrera then literally gift wraps the criminal as he drops his capture off in a box at the house of reporter Sammy (Florencia Ferret).  He gives her all of the scoops as there is a budding relationship there, even though Valente adamantly sticks by his story that he only sells insurance.  Interestingly, our lovebirds’ first onscreen encounter involves Sammy sneaking up on him and the always-on-his-toes Executioner defensively turning around and slapping her.

The Executioner isn’t a bad guy though as touching scenes with his younger sister Lupida show his softer side.  Of course Valente’s job is to take down the bad guys and he gets his next assignment from his boss (fellow action superstar Mario Almedia in his trademark cowboy hat). The Executioner heads down to Acapulco, Mexico to bring in Tony Martinez, who is running a child prostitution and drug ring.  He does this with ease and once again drops his prize at Sammy’s pad. When Martinez is being taken into court, his crew plans to spring him.  Valente tries to stop this and is shot twice during the escape.  The Executioner’s boss feels this is the perfect time to “kill” off his man and has the newspapers run headlines that Valente Thompson has been killed while he spends a month recuperating in a secret location.

This plan doesn’t fool big crime boss Johnny Carmenta (Mexican director René Cardona) one bit and he sends his goons after Valente’s sister.  The plan is to drug her up in the hopes that it will get the in-hiding Executioner to emerge.  It works perfectly as Valente quickly makes his way to the hospital where she is being watched following an overdose. Of course, Carmenta’s crew didn’t count on the Executioner taking things so personally.  As the old saying goes, you mess with Lupita, you get the horns. Valente blows away the three hitmen waiting for him outside the hospital (oddly enough, no cops want to talk to him after this) and then begins to wage his one man war against Carmenta’s crime syndicate.  And you know that can mean only one thing – time to bust out the camouflage wifebeater top again and get down to business.

Never trust bad guys who drive Snoopy buggys
If you are looking for some good old fashion 80s head-busting action, you can’t go wrong with this flick.  Like Eastwood and Stallone, Trujillo took over the directorial duties on his films and this was his third time behind the camera.  Trujillo – who looks a bit like Michael Shannon – does quite a bit of his own stunt work and he definitely knows what audiences want (action!) given the film’s over-the-top opening.  In fact, he almost does the entire film a disservice as this opening sequence is more action-packed than anything else in the film.  It is almost like a film in reverse, with the huge finale coming first.  Regardless, there are still some good bits later in the film.  There is a cool motorcycle chase through the streets of San Diego and the finale on Carmenta’s ranch is suitably bloody and grim.  To show he had his finger on the pulse of audiences, Trujillo even throws in a back alley kung fu fight (where he is obviously doubled).  Thematically it is pretty simple stuff, but, as mentioned before, Trujillo does work in some social commentary about the scourge that is the mob.  Given the title and plotline, I’m sure this is unofficially trying to cash in on Don Pendleton’s popular “The Executioner” man-versus-mafia book.  I, THE EXECUTIONER marks only my fourth Trujillo film (after OCCUPATIONAL KILLER, CITY RATS and HUMAN HUNT) and it is by far the best of the bunch.  It is a shame more of his work isn’t available English friendly as I’d love to see more.

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