Friday, July 25, 2014

Cinemasochism: NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE (1986)

I love talking shop with fellow cult film fans from around the world.  It is always an adventure when you start talking about some prestigious film and end up talking about the merits of Godfrey Ho or Tomas Tang.  My path to NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE was like that…minus the prestigious part.  Online pal Sir Patryk McGahern, the Indiana Jones of finding unreleased movie relics, sent me a trailer for some disaster called THE LEGEND OF SIMON CONJURER (2006).  The preview for this thriller starring Jon Voight looked like some trailer parody off of Saturday Night Live, but it was apparently a real film that was made by brothers Stuart and Steve Paul.  By the end of our conversation, he was telling me I had to see NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE, the Pauls third feature film effort.  And he warned me not to read anything about the plot.  Consider me intrigued.

Thanks to Video Junkie head honcho Tom, I soon found myself with a copy.  About 20 minutes in, I had to stop and email Tom to make him aware of this film’s greatness.  Not only had he seen it before (several times!) but he said he was waiting to revisit it, knowing full well that I was soon going to be send him a WTF email. Damn, am I that predictable or is this film really that whack?  I’d say a bit of both.  Obviously I wouldn’t advise you to read this review if you haven’t seen the film and rush right out to find a copy. However, if you’re feeling adventurous, keep reading.

The film opens in the middle of a California desert with a bunch of “only in Hollywood” motorcycle thugs cheering on their leader Velvet Von Ragner, who greets his minions by calling them “my little turdballs.”  This is one freaky looking dude as he is a cross dresser and, to my mind at the moment of viewing, looks a lot like Gene Simmons in drag. Then it hits me…OH…MY…GOD!  Close ups reveal it is really Gene Simmons in drag.  Okay, you have my attention.  Ragner lays out his plans to get billions from California by re-routing toxic waste into the city’s water supply.  There is only one problem – someone has stolen the diskette he needs to put his plan into action (apparently a back up copy was beyond their thinking) and he figures out who the thief was after killing a female spy.  “Bring me Stargrove,” he screams.  This leads to an intro music montage that only the ‘80s could deliver as Lance Stargrove (John Stamos) shows some sick gymnastic moves over the opening credits set to the theme song sporting the following lyrics:

Stargrove! Flying like he’s never flown.
Stargrove! Running to a danger zone.
Stargrove! Are you gonna stand alone?
Stargrove! Stargrove!

Oddly, the filmmakers want to endear Lance Stargrove to us by showing him cheating on a test with help from his nerdy roommate Cliff (Peter Kwong).  I guess since he is young, handsome, and athletic it is okay.  After Cliff shows off some homemade weapons in his dorm room (uhhhhh), Stargrove laments about how his father, Drew Stargrove (one-and-done James Bond George Lazenby), probably won’t be making it to parents’ day on the campus and will miss his gymnastics meet.  And why won’t he be there to show his paternal support? Seems he is too busy saving the world from Ragner and, wouldn’t you know it, his three-man squad is scheduled to raid his headquarters inside of a dam right at the time of the gymnastic competition.  Duty calls.

Stargrove, the elder, is accompanied by Carruthers and a disposable third guy. Hey, that Carruthers looks just like Gene Simmons in a really bad red wig and beard…ooops, more on that later. Naturally, Carruthers turns on Stargrove and disposable guy and, even more naturally, disposable guy ends up being disposed of.  Stargrove is shot and captured and Ragner demands to know where the disk is.  Stargrove responds by blowing up some of his men, before getting blown away himself by Ragner.  If you listen real carefully on the soundtrack here, you can hear Lazenby cashing his check for his 5 minutes of screen time.  Cut to the standard funeral bit complete with a mysterious woman (Vanity) graveside.  On the way home, Stargrove, the junior, is informed that his father has left him a farm out in the mountains.

Heading out to check out his new digs, Stargrove sees the mysterious woman tending to a horse on his farm.  Before he can collect his rent, she is attacked by a couple of Ragner’s goons.  To show how tough she is, she tells one guy to “eat shit” and then forces his head into a pile of horseshit.  Ah, I love a woman who takes things too literally.  Good thing she didn’t yell “fuck you” to him.  After she disposes of these guys, she introduces herself as Deeja Deering, an associate of Stargrove’s father.  She doesn’t want this frail kid getting wrapped up in this espionage business that involves the organization Stargrove’s father worked for and her new contact…Carruthers.  *insert dramatic music cue here*  James Bond, Jr. follows Deeja to a club in downtown L.A. called Incinerator, where they let the patrons ride their motorcycles up to bar to get a beer and can of oil.  Yes, really.  You know it is a rough place as the song “Fire up the Night” blasting on the soundtrack features the lyric: “We…don’t…give…a HUFF ABOUT YOU!”  Oh man, they don’t give huffs?  Buncha stone cold killers up in here.  Anyway, within minutes of his arrival, Lance gets treated to a performance by the venue’s resident artist – the one and only, Velvet Von Ragner!  In what truly had to have been Gene Simmons’ lowest point (before doing a reality show) he croons, “It takes a man like me to be a woman like me” while decked out in a glitzy headdress and outfit that even Cher would say is too gawdy.

“You will never find a more wreteched hive of scum and villainy...hey, damn it, who let the Valley Girl in?”  


After some baddies try to kill Lance by blowing up his motorcycle at the club, he realizes he is up to his neck in this sequined-cloak and dagger business with Ranger and opts to use his certain set of skills (pommel horse, still rings, horizontal bar!) to save the day.

If you’ve made it this far, first let me congratulate you.  Second, let me say one more time, Gene Simmons in drag! Yes, if NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE has any place in film history, it is for the mind bending visual of the Kiss demon dolled up to the max and giving a performance dialed up to 11.  Let’s be honest: Simmons is not a good looking dude, so he makes an even uglier dudette.  Sporting a huge wig, Simmons as Ragner comes off looking like Vanessa del Rio after a hard day at work.  When Simmons cackles and bugs out his eyes, he comes off looking like Karen Black after a regular day at work.


Simmons made quite an impression in his first non-Kiss acting performance as the villain in RUNAWAY (1984) as he and his tiny robots chased down Tom Selleck. Unfortunately, he blew all of that credit (and more) with his second villainous outing.  It is the kind of performance so bad that today it would kill a career or at least send one into hiding for a few years.  Back then it hardly effected Simmons because either no one saw it or they just summed it up to “oh, that wacky Gene!”  Regardless, he bounced back nicely with his third main villain role in the Rutger Hauer action flick WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE (1987).

The use of a hermaphrodite bad guy/girl gives one a peek into the insanity of this production.  With such an over-the-top heavy, you’d think that this film would be self aware and have its tongue firmly planted in its cheek.  Yet it appears director Gil Bettman is going 100% serious in the handling of the material and makes wrong choice after wrong choice. I guess it starts with getting George Lazenby, the James Bond that a) either no one remembers or b) no one likes.  I’m sure when this was written they were hoping for Sean Connery. But, to paraphrase Ted Knight in CADDYSHACK (1980), “You’ll get Lazenby and like it!” Then we have the casting of singer, Prince pet and Playboy centerfold Vanity. She is easy on the eyes, hard on the ears as her acting is really, really rough. The same could be said for lead Stamos as he seems to have all the charisma of a cup of Greek yogurt.  Then again, he was a hunk for the ladies to ogle.  Their chemistry is nil, which makes a building seduction scene between Lance and Deeja doubly hilarious.  While standing around antsy like he has to pee, Lance strokes a Perrier bottle and voraciously chomps into an apple as she splashes water all over herself with a hose dangling inches from her mouth.  The gang is so ridiculous that even Hong Kong or Italian film crews would look at them and go, “No, not very realistic, too silly.” Nowhere is the OMG intent-versus-realization divide bigger than in the finale where Lance gets the better of Ragner by telling him how beautiful he thinks he/she is.  Cinema has always been entranced by the James Bond, Jr. kind of storyline, where the kid helps out his spy pop (a great example would be the previous year’s TARGET with Gene Hackman and Matt Dillon).  Unfortunately, this ain’t it. Regardless, highly recommended for its schlock value.

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