Monday, March 21, 2016

Deadly Farce: PLAYING WITH DEATH (aka TARGET EAGLE, 1982)

In today's era of over-produced, mega-budgeted, clinically scrutinized genre fare, the low-rent movies of the early '80s that filled a global demand for action flicks take on even more charm than they had back in the day. Even better if they were made in Italy and/or Spain. In that case you could look forward to the occasional fallen star, plenty of action (and/or make-up effects) and a variety of extras who clumsily deliver their lines with a thick accent, in broken English. While the majority of mainstream movie goers would look upon this with disdain and confusion, there are those of us who feel it is cinematic comfort food. Such is TARGET EAGLE. It's like an unskilled home cook decided to make a dream burger and piled on so much stuff that it becomes an ugly, sloppy mess that is still pushing those comfort-food buttons.

Written and directed by veteran Spanish writer-director José Antonio de la Loma (the man responsible for writing Fulci's amazingly bizarre 1982 epic CONQUEST), the film desperately wants to be sort of a Jesús Bond, starring Jorge Rivero, Max Von Sydow, Maud Adams, Chuck Connors and George Peppard! What could possibly go wrong? (Warning: More exclamation points to come)

The movie opens with a man being forced at gunpoint to signal a jumper on an airplane with a flashlight. The jumper may have superhuman vision to spot a flashlight signal at 5000 feet, but he certainly doesn't have much sense as he plummets to his death like a sophisticated conversation at a GOP debate. Apparently, what is presumably a Spanish secret service department (we are never told what it actually is) headed up by one Colonel O'Donnel, aka The Ogre (Max Von Sydow), had used the jumper, or rather faller, as a mole into an organization of heroin smugglers. It seems that their heroin sting was a bust due to an internal leak which means that the smugglers are going to do a much bigger run next time. For some odd reason the Israelis, who seem to be unconcerned about drug smuggling in general, are keen on this one op. Since their top agent, Paco, is dead, what to do now? Call in another agent? Hell no! Blackmail some ex-foreign legion merc who is wanted for war crimes in Africa. This man has a name. His name is... David (Rivero). Ok, so not exactly a slick spy name, but it sure beats the hell out of "Paco". Of course for some inexplicable reason we don't actually find out what his name is until the 50 minute mark!

Of course the fact that David is trying to get around Spain on the sly after escaping an African jail means that the service that is so secret the audience can't even know what it is, must chase David around the streets when he tries to escape in his pursuers before allowing himself to be taken in. For some reason The Ogre says that his agency doesn't pay for operatives to go on missions (no wonder they are Spain's best kept secret), but they will expunge his record if he goes undercover and infiltrates the Mafia. To convince him further that this is a good idea, they hold him in a cell without food and water until he finally gives in. Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure I worked for these guys. Extra work for no pay and a deprivation of human necessities? Yep, that was my last employer, for sure.

An agent referred to only as "Captain" (José María Blanco) works for The Ogre with Paco's fiancee Carmen (Maud Adams), who will be David's handler.

Also interested in the case is Sam (Connors), an agent of some sort (we are never told what exactly), who works for an undisclosed agency, when he is not providing Spanish translation services for hockey players (no, really!). When Sam meets up with the Captain, Cap asks him "so, how come heroin has become a problem?" to which Sam replies "hmmmm... it's not just a question of heroin." Huh? The only thing more complicated than the nameless agencies and characters is the plot which moves with the smooth precision of an interstate pile-up.

In order to infiltrate the Mafia, his first step is to get accepted into a skydiving school. After being rudely turned down by the instructor he decides the best way to get in is to do some smooth talking and maybe grease a palm, right? Uhh, no. David decides that the best thing to do is to hire a bi-plane and do some stunt-flying in restricted airspace and then dive out of said plane, joining the students in mid-air! Not once but twice! Maybe The Ogre should consider paying people for life-threatening espionage assignments. He'd probably get a better class of applicants.

After managing to royally piss off one of the students, Laura (Susana Dosamantes), David somehow manages to seduce her in a piano bar, only to find out in the morning that she ripped him off for no apparent reason, which particularly odd as we find out later that she is one of Carmen's contacts! Why? I don't know! Perhaps it is just an excuse to film a scene of Rivero walking around his hotel room in his tidy-whiteys. This subplot (I use the term loosely) leads to a chase when David later spots Laura in a car at while driving through the city. The chase leads through a cracker fu dojo, where we get a big, badly choreographed fight scene that ends up with David flying out of a second story window. Sure it makes absolutely no sense, but on the other hand, it isn't boring.

David manages to attract the attention of a mob guy who has been lurking around the diving school and they make a deal to have him jump with a big bag of heroin while at a go kart track. Meanwhile Carmen goes to investigate some "shop" (clearly a warehouse) in which she is attacked by someone who runs back to the Egyptian ambassador's yacht.

The mondo bizarro plot thickens when The Ogre receives anonymous papers detailing the mission. He knows it's not from the Israelis or Americans, so it must be... from the Mafia! Now the movie gets even more wacko. We get completely random sequences, such as a group of black-clad motorcycle guys chasing David who is in a powered trike hang glider as a prop plane threatens to shoot him down, a croquet game with mob honcho Peppard, a ski chase, a snowfight, blatant sexual harassment of a coworker, a Libyan plot with no Libyans to be seen, Captain berating his drug sniffing dog on a yacht by saying "what do you think this is, a pleasure cruise?" and so much more. One of my favorite moments has The Ogre discovering that the Egyptian ambassador is making a deal with the Libyans to provide them with materials to make a nuclear weapon and devises a cunning plan, "We keep quiet and wait". Yeah, no hurry. It's just a threat to the entire world civilization, that's all.

The word "muddled" is a nice way of describing the plot which is pretty simple in theory, but is made insanely complicated by non-sequitur scenes of action and dialogue, a complete lack any sort of character information. Not to mention that it feels as if it were assembled after the B-roll got ruined by the lab and editor spilled all the cuttings on the floor and patched it up as best he could without a script to guide him. Erm... I'm assuming there was a script because there are three credited writers, one of which is credited with "additional dialogue". You'd think that at least one of these writers would notice that the movie completely forgets to uncover the leak in The Ogre's agency by the end of the film! I like movies that keep you guessing, but this is ridiculous! In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, I found this to be totally enjoyable. I mean, it's not short on random action sequences, the car chase sports some solid stunt driving, it's not short of stars who appear to be even more confused than the audience, and it's got a great disco-y theme song by none other than the legendary Pino Donaggio!

Interestingly de la Loma is more of a prolific screenwriter than a director had an extensive career in cranking out low-budget Euro westerns and crime films in the '60s and '70s, even dabbling a bit in the spy and juvenile delinquent genres. While his career was winding down in the '80s, he managed to get a few international successes with name casts, including the Sybil Danning Adventure release of KILLING MACHINE (1984) which stars Lee Van Cleef, Margaux Hemingway, Willie Aames and Richard Jaeckel, not to mention Jorge Rivero, Frank Braña and Hugo Stiglitz! Likewise the wannabe Cannon film COUNTERFORCE (1988) was also something of a success due to the casting of Robert Forster, Isaac Hayes, Louis Jourdan, George Kennedy, Andrew Stevens, and, of course, Jorge Rivero and Hugo Stiglitz.

Honestly, PLAYING WITH DEATH is a hot mess, but if you are the right kind of person, it sure is tasty.

Moments of Clarity:

2 Reactions:

  1. Can only find the theme online, and it's awesome - it's very Baccara.

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  2. The all-star European action spectacle is one of my favourite subgenres, things like the insane slavesploiter Ashanti with Michael Caine, Peter Ustinov, Rex Harrison, William Holden, Omar Sharif, Beverly Johnson, Kabir Bedi (in Counterforce too).

    I am always reminded by this sort of movie whenever I watch Never Say Never Again, which despite its thirty million dollar budget has its feel lapse between something like this and a British sitcom movie thanks to the dialogue polish of Clement and Le Frenais, i.e. reusing their dialogue from Porridge.

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