Budget thrills aim to bust through your television screen with Explosive Cinema, a new 12-movie set from distributors Mill Creek. 12 Crown International films are collected in this three-disc set, for a low, low $9.98 MSRP. Are any of them good? Well...
Disc 1, Side A: Killpoint (1984) / Low Blow (1986)
The set begins with a Leo Fong double feature. In Killpoint, top-billed star Richard Roundtree makes sporadic appearances while Fong does the footwork chasing down a mobster (Cameron Mitchell) and his crazy, civilian-murdering assistant (Stack Pierce, a man named to be in B-action movies), then Fong, Mitchell, and Pierce all return for Low Blow, which recasts Fong as the grungiest, on-his-last-leg-iest private investigator ever committed to celluloid, sent to investigate a missing girl who may have been taken by a creepy cult. Killpoint's screenplay was written by Frank Harris, who directed both films, while Fong himself wrote Low Blow. Although the former starts out promising, with fairly brutal action and evidence that Fong has the martial arts skills and just enough charisma to carry this kind of material, Harris' direction of the fistfights lacks any sense of threat or immediacy, and his talent with gunplay isn't much more inspired. There's also a fascinating number of scenes of people on the phone -- buckle your seat belts. At least it has a great closing theme song (too long, livin' on the inside! / sometimes, fight to see the outside!). Low Blow does better by embracing its cheesy '80s nature, starting with the non-stop synth and ending with hilarious one-liners ("On second thought, forget the sandwich!"), while simultaneously improving the action. It's one of the set's goofy winners even before Fong cuts the roof off a car with a band saw while three would-be assassins are still in it.
Disc 1, Side B: 9 Deaths of the Ninja (1985) / The Patriot (1986)
A friend mentioned that the only good part of 9 Deaths of the Ninja was the film's bizarrely arty opening credits, and it only takes a few minutes of the movie to see that he was right. A bus full of kidnapped tourists and the aforementioned ninjas aren't enough to muster the faintest bit of interest. Of all the films on the set, this is the worst in terms of quality (See Disc 2, Side B for the second-worst), with poor acting, dull direction, and a terribly uninspired screenplay. Following this, director Frank Harris gets a third film the set with The Patriot, a dry terrorist-thwarting thriller with a cast that makes the viewer wish the movie was better. Gregg Henry (of Payback and Slither) plays a dishonorably discharged Navy SEAL named Matt Ryder who gets a chance to restore his record when he inadvertently discovers a bomb-smuggling plot. Harris also brings Stack Pierce back a third time in a small role. It's nice to see the reliable Leslie Nielsen giving a solid performance as the admiral who puts Matt on the job (rest in piece, Mr. Nielsen), and Henry is an authentically sweaty hero, but the film gets increasingly boring slogging through a tired love triangle and an uninteresting mystery, before finally arriving at an uninspired, predictable finish. Not even some ridiculous, impromptu dancing can bring the film to life.
Disc 2, Side A: Top Cop (1990) / The Silencer (1992)
Moving onto Disc 2, Top Cop stars a paunchy, unclean-looking Stephen P. Sides as a cop on the edge who takes the law into his own hands when an evil drug dealer (Len Schlientz) kills his partner. It's not good by any stretch of the imagination, but it is hilarious; like Low Blow, Top Cop never met a cliche it didn't like. Director M.L. Maness includes plenty of ridiculously bloody action (most inappropriately, when our supposed hero shoots and kills two muggers in a DC bathroom), and bookends the movie with a thoroughly sleazy opening on the set of a child porn, and an ending that turns weirdly ambiguous thanks to one awkwardly-placed sound effect. Next, Lynette Walden plays Angel in The Silencer, who wanders the street secretly packing a giant, gold-and-silver plated gun with a long silencer, taking out the city's most notorious perverts. At the same time, a creep played by Chris Mulkey magically watches her through an arcade cabinet and talks to himself about what he sees, occasionally popping into "reality", still spying on the heroine. Eventually, it becomes clear she's an assassin and the game machine is providing her assignments, but the Mulkey end still provides a weird sci-fi element that the movie never really explains. Such sense-making responsibility falls on writer/director Amy Goldstein, but she gains points back for an awesome, arcade-influenced opening credit sequence, and for delivering a half-baked but still intriguing blend of sexploitation and feminism. For one, Walden's character sexually dominates the film's clueless boyfriends and lovers in all of the cheesy sex scenes (one of which bumps and grinds to a halt when she can't find a condom). Clearly, there's also some sexual symbolism when Angel kills one mark (Morton Downey, Jr.) by forcing him to deep throat the silencer until he chokes, and perhaps some true-to-life turnabout when Angel locates a target on a film set lorded over by an egotistic male director (hmmm).
Disc 2, Side B: Scorpion (1986) / Van Nuys Blvd. (1979)
Although a whole eight minutes pass before a single line of English dialogue is uttered, it's all okay, because Scorpion is another solid B-action pleasure. Martial artist and mustache man Steve Woods (Tonny Tulleners), aka Scorpion, is an American spy. Within the first half hour, he's kicked ass in an Italian bar fight, single-handedly averted a plane/hostage situation, and is assigned to guard a high-profile witness who the villains may try to take out. Before Steve can renew his Chuck Norris Fan Club membership, the situation's gone haywire: dead witness, dead cops, and Steve chasing the perps around the city, desperate to kick them into submission. Tulleners is no great shakes as an actor (the depth of his emotion is "mopey"), but he's a perfectly passable action hero, keeping his delivery dry and his gaze blank. Anyone paying attention will also notice the film is an absolute rip-off of Bullitt, only bothering to lose the famous car chase and subbing a harbor for the airport (seriously, nobody sued?), but it's still silly fun. On the other hand, the "sex-and-drugs" coming-of-age story Van Nuys Blvd, about a wide-eyed kid cruising the big city streets in his party van, is the one inclusion in the set that just doesn't make any sense: it's not explosive or action-oriented in any way. Did someone at Mill Creek fall asleep at the wheel? I suppose it's a teensy bit better than 9 Deaths of the Ninja (still pretty bland), but it's the second-worst in the set just on the basis there's no reason it should be included.
Disc 3, Side A: Iron Angel (1964) / The Hostage (1967)
Iron Angel kicks off the last disc in less-than-stellar fashion. The plot supposedly concerns a group of soldiers venturing behind enemy lines to destroy a Korean mortar, but when the group rescues Karen Fleming (Margo Woode), the story is quickly overwhelmed with a boring gender war between Fleming and Sgt. Walsh (Jim Davis). The performances (especially Woode's) are fine, but everything else about the film is monotonous: the repetitive, indistinguishable hillsides, the endless bickering, and Ken Kennedy's odd directorial style. Although Sgt. Walsh keeps having sex dreams straight out of a Skinemax flick, Kennedy's decision to stage them without any dialogue, set to blaring, tuneless music makes them just as bland as everything else. Next, The Hostage has to rank as one of the only films I've ever seen that literally takes two seconds to get going, opening as immmediately as possible with a murder, before developing into the hostage situation promised by the title. Character actor king Harry Dean Stanton and Don Kelly play a pair of movers turned kidnappers who don't expect a hilariously bitter bum (John Carradine) to pick up on their plan to dispose a body, much less their escape trail, while Danny Martins turns in a solid performance as the little boy they capture. More than anything, Hostage gains points for weird side characters, like an old woman who turns super bitter when the boy reveals his mother called her a liar, and Carradine's bum, who spends twice as much time pessimistically yelling at passerby as he does begging for change.
Disc 3, Side B: Terror in the Jungle (1968) / The Skydivers (1963)
In a twist that would be more surprising if the box summary didn't ruin it, a movie star, a murderous rich woman, a nun, a band, an entrepreneur, and several other cheeseball characters are introduced for fifteen boring minutes, then suddenly and unceremoniously massacred in a violent plane crash. There's no real explanation why the accident's sole survivor, a little boy named Henry (Jimmy Angle) was flying separately from his father (Robert Burns) in the first place (all he does in the meantime is go to the bar), but the crash sends Dad into the jungle hoping to find the kid in the imaginatively titled Terror in the Jungle. If films can be called "timeless", Jungle is the opposite, often feeling more like a parody of old-fashioned "aw shucks" squareness than the real thing, complete with sterling, progressive dialogue like "You just can't win with a woman!" The film shifts unconvincingly back and forth between limp race-against-time suspense and weird, travelogue-like observation, neither of which is very good (the film whips out the threat of the kid being sacrificed without any preamble in an attempt to bring the ending to life). The film is also curiously religious, with two major priest characters and a tribe with primitive beliefs, and the use of a stuffed animal during the ending is...bizarre? The Skydivers closes the set out: an incomprehensible soap opera of "he's-cheating-on-her-but-she's-cheating-on-him" back and forth nonsense, done with a cast of characters who are about as colorful as the film's black-and-white photography. There's also skydiving, probably included in the hopes that the stunts would make the movie in any way interesting to watch. No dice. (Stick with the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" version.)
Explosive Cinema arrives in a double-width plastic case featuring an image of a mulleted, mustachioed, sunglass-wearing, gun-toting dude kicking through a pane of glass while sparks fly. Frankly, I doubt there's a more fitting image in recorded history than the one they selected. Beneath, you can see all the title logos for the films, while the back has a short synopsis, rating, runtime and other info for each film (although it's slightly annoying they aren't either listed in the order they're presented on the discs, or presented on the discs in the order they're printed on the case. Inside the case, the three double-sided discs are in paper sleeves, held in place by a very sturdy square clip molded into the case.
The Video and Audio
There's almost no use in reviewing the video and audio quality of this release, because any public domain collection is going to vary, but first, let's start with the specs. All of the the films are presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, with the exception of 9 Deaths of the Ninja (2.35:1), Iron Angel, and Welcome to the Jungle (1.33:1), which appear to be their original aspect ratios, with Dolby Digital 2.0 English tracks across the board. For the most part, these are artifact-heavy and dated, but relatively clean transfers. None of them have that horrible "underwater" look of some public domain masters, and none of them appear to be watermarked, although most, if not all, are interlaced. The sound is almost uniformly muddled and slightly tinny, but clear enough that there's no struggling to understand dialogue, and free of warping or popping. All in all, the set looks and sounds about as good (if not slightly better) as can be expected. No subtitles or captions are included for any of the films.
None. Well, unless you like chapter stops.
Sure, there's no deeply compelling reason for any discerning cinema fan to make sure they see any of these movies, but for fans of these low-priced public domain collections, this box has a strong batting average: three strong cheeseball efforts (Top Cop, The Silencer, and Scorpion) and a handful of hit-and-miss timekillers, all for less than ten bucks. For the target audience, given the price, a light recommendation.
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