Thursday, May 16, 2013

Adrenaline Shot: ACTION U.S.A. (1989) and CARTEL (1990)


Since the birth of the film industry, it has always made sense for people who did stunts to become film directors.  In a medium built on conveying movement, it is perfect. Silent stars like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin showed they knew best when it came to filming their own knuckle whitening stunts.  In the 1970s and 80s, stuntman Hal Needham reigned supreme at the box office with his car crazy flicks like SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (1977) and THE CANNONBALL RUN (1981); Jackie Chan took his career to new heights when he decided he needed to be the one calling the shots on his death defying stunts; and even Vic Armstrong parlayed a career of stunts and second unit direction into the classic Dolph Lundgren feature ARMY OF ONE (1993).  The point being: if a stuntman gets his bruised tailbone in the director’s chair, you can expect lots of action (hey, don’t you dare bring up Spiro Razatos’ feature CLASS OF 1999 II: THE SUBSTITUTE [1994]). Nowhere is this more on display than in these couple of features from stuntman John Stewart.  A veteran actor and stunt coordinator, Stewart made the transition to directing in the late 1980s and made sure to make the most of it when it came to capturing his brethren doing extreme bits.

ACTION U.S.A. (1989)


John Stewart’s debut feature as a director came out on VHS via the Imperial Entertainment label.  This meant that two things were for certain.  One, the film was going to have a lot of action.  Two, you are going to sit through the trailer for BLACK EAGLE (1988) again whether you like it or not.

This film wastes no time getting into the mix and delivering on its titular promise as the opening has drug dealer Billy Ray (Rod Shaft, if that is your real name) and his girlfriend Carmen (Barri Murphy) speeding around a Texas town in a souped up Corvette with a personalized license plate that reads SLEEK 1.  They get to his house and start making out, but this afternoon quickie is interrupted by a couple of thugs who kidnap them both.  This results in a 20 minute action sequence that involves a car chase, a car and helicopter chase, a helicopter freefall and another car chase that results in a mobile home exploding in a huge fireball.  Yeah, I think I’m going to like this movie.  Anyway, since Carmen was a witness to all of this, she is placed under the care of FBI agents Osborn (Gregory Scott Cummings, recently seen as the bad guy in PHANTOM OF THE MALL) and McKinnon (William Hubbard Knight).  Their boss, Conover (William Smith), orders them to keep her safe while he builds a case on Frankie Navarro (Cameron Mitchell), the mobster behind all of this mayhem who is looking for a stash of diamonds.  Seems like a pretty routine job for our Fed boys, except that Navarro has hired hitman Drago (Ross Hagen), who has the unfortunate and uncanny ability to show up wherever our heroic trio ends up.

If there is ever a film that lives up to its title, it is this one. There is lots of action and it is filmed in the U.S.A. (the title on the clapper shown in the end credit bloopers is A HANDFUL OF TROUBLE). I mean, the VHS cover has a guy falling out a window, a guy on fire, and a flying car smashing into some parked cars.  Can you see what drew me to it?  Director Stewart can't go ten minutes without staging some crazy action scene. It is weird though as his film unfolds almost in reverse as the biggest action scenes take place in the opening twenty minutes. Not that the film's finale is a let down, it just doesn't have the huge explosions and insane car jumps that the film’s opening display.  Having been a stuntman, Stewart knows exactly where to place the camera in order to the maximum impact (pun most definitely intended) on a car slamming into the pavement.  No CGI cars and explosions a la FAST AND FURIOUS that drive the kidz wild nowadays (how anyone can get excited during a CGI car chase is beyond me).  There are even a few scary bits (like where Carmen’s character is flung out of a car during a chase and hangs onto the ajar door) which remind you that back in the day stunt folks were some crazy people.

Is that your raised motorblock 
or are you just happy to see me?


"Yep, they're real."
The entire cast is good although it is strange for me to see Cummings cast as a good guy. He and Murphy’s character naturally fall for each other, but the real relationship is the rapport between him and his partner played by Knight.  It is stock 80s action cliché (Cummings is white, Knight is black) but it works and they are obviously having fun in their roles. The highlight is a 48 HRS (1982) type sequence where they end up in a redneck bar and all hell breaks loose.  The supporting cast is also a dream for any exploitation cinephile as you get Cameron Mitchell (whose scenes were shot away from everyone else), William Smith, and Ross Hagen listed in the opening credits back-to-back.  I think I about died when I saw those names pop up.  Had they somehow worked in Aldo Ray, no doubt you wouldn’t be reading this review as I would have been found dead of b-movie player overdose.  All in all, ACTION U.S.A. is a perfect example of an era that has long since left us – a movie that serves as a vehicle for a bunch of insane stuntmen to show their wares.

CARTEL (1990)


Just a year later saw the release of Stewart’s second action film with the direct-to-video CARTEL (his third film as a director after co-directing CLICK: THE CALENDAR GIRL KILLER [1990] with his ACTION star Ross Hagen).

The film opens with freelance airplane pilot Chuck Taylor (Miles O’Keeffe, of ATOR fame) touching down in California with what he believes to be a cargo of medical supplies for delivery.  The Federal agents who greet him, however, have bad news as he was carrying boxes full of cocaine.  Also at the airport are the men of Tony King (Don Stroud), the head honcho in this drug ring who wants to make sure he gets his shipment.  While Taylor is being arrested, King’s men roll up guns-a-blazin’ to procure their product.  Naturally, just like ACTION U.S.A., this erupts into a huge action scene where Taylor takes off in a plane with goons hanging on both sides and King puts the pedal to the metal in his Lamborghini as the cops give chase.  The events end poorly for the good and the bad as Taylor is arrested (“Whoa! What are you doing, man?”) and King and his car are launched 100 feet into the air in a huge fireball before he crashes and is then arrested.

Not surprisingly, both men end up in the slammer (a prison that shows ACTION U.S.A. on its television…hell yeah!).  As cinematic laws dictate, they are both on the same cellblock and King, who shows now visible damage from his fiery fiasco, rubs Taylor the wrong way by openly snorting coke and picking on other prisoners.  Their tempers flare and this quickly escalates into a…uh…arm wrestling match!  Yes, when you see someone unmercifully beating up your fellow prisoners, the only way to set them straight is to slam their appendage onto a table.  Anyway, Taylor shows King who is boss and beats him handily (haha).  This only fuels the bad guy’s vengeful mood more.  You see, he is still upset over all that coke he lost and tells Taylor he can work off his “debt” by working for him for a year.  Taylor passes, which is a bad move as King sends his henchmen (including ACTION’s lead Cummings) on the outside to kill Taylor’s girlfriend Donna (Crystal Carson), his sister Nancy (Suzee Slater) and her son Tommy (Bradley Pierce) in order to persuade him.  When they succeed in killing Nancy, Taylor decides it is time to bust out of this joint.  With Nancy’s investigative help, he learns the routines of the drug runners and decides to get revenge on those who framed him.  The bad news?  King has also escaped from prison and is looking for some payback as well.

Frankie Sweatpants always wondered why 
the other assassins never took him seriously:


CARTEL sees director Stewart working with a bigger budget and, as we all know, bigger means better.  Actually, that might not be the case here.  In contrast to the aforementioned ACTION U.S.A., CARTEL is surprisingly restrained.  Not that this is a bad thing, it is just that the action is more even spaced out over the picture and Stewart spends more time developing the drama between the characters.  Like ACTION, it seems to also be working in reverse as the opening action scene is definitely the highlight of the film and makes the finale (which takes place at a boatyard) pale in comparison.  There are some great little bits in here though that shows off that the stunt crew still needs their required adrenaline rushes.  For example, when the thugs show up at the house to terrorize Taylor’s family, they don’t just come in the door.  They drive a station wagon right into the house.  Even one guy attacking Nancy can’t be done simply as he has to attack her by jumping into the room through a glass window.

Stroud in one of his quieter moments
The cast is again good and O’Keefe proves again to be a solid leading man.  He does do this one thing with his voice every now and then that makes him sound like Elvis though.  The supporting players aren’t as diverse this go around, although that was probably due to safety matters of being on set with Don Stroud.  As we’ve come to expect from cinema’s wild man, Stroud gives a totally unhinged and manic performance to the point that I wonder if the coke he was snorting was real.  I bet the carpenters and set dressers were pissed when they showed up for work the next day and were all like, “Who has been chewing on the scenery?”  There is a bit of disappointment with the William Smith casting though as he is only in a few scenes and his crooked guard character never gets his comeuppance.  However, you can tell the filmmakers were once again having fun while making stuff get blow’d up real nice.  When looking for action, what more can you ask for?

Nancy's modeling career was really taking off!

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