The good news is that I can finally get rid of my VHS copy of the blaxploitation classic Gordon's War. After years of waiting, and even breaking down and buying a bootleg DVD version off of eBay with picture quality worse than my video tape, Gordon's War is finally getting a legitimate home video release. The not-so-good-news is that it is being released as part of a double feature with Off Limits, a movie I was less-than-impressed with the first time I watched it. But the good news to offset the not-so-good-news is that the price for both movies is low, and you can always skip Off Limits if you want to.
Directed by actor Ossie Davis, who helped usher in the new era of black action film in 1970 with Cotton Comes to Harlem, Gordon's War is a gritty tale of vigilante justice that should have been remembered as one of the better blaxploitation films. Instead, it has lapsed, more or less, into obscurity. Thankfully, this new release offers a chance for the film to be rediscovered, which it richly deserves.
Paul Winfield stars as Gordon Hudson, a Green Beret returned home from the Vietnam War who discovers that his wife has died of a heroin overdose. Filled with the sort of rage that was only found in the best of 1970s cinema, Gordon decides to do something about the drug business that has destroyed not only his life, but has wrought untold misery on Harlem. He recruits three of his buddies from 'Nam--Bee Bishop (Carl Lee), Roy Green (Tony King), and Otis Russell (David Downing)--and together they form a ruthlessly efficient vigilante army out to topple the drug business in Harlem. Targeted anyone and everyone they can, Gordon and his gang open up a can of Green Beret-flavored whoop-ass on the unscrupulous dealers of Harlem, which doesn't set well with the bad guys. Soon, all of the local dealers, the Mafia and even the shadowy corporate entities that really control the dope business are out to crush Gordon and the others. And that's when the real fun begins.
Released in 1973, Gordon's War came along during the height of the blaxploitation cycle in Hollywood. And though there is no mistaking the genre the film richly deserves to be a part of, Gordon's War has as much in common with other black actions films like the Shaft series as it does two-fisted tales of revenge and vigilantes like Death Wish (which wasn't released until a year later). In fact, because Gordon's War is so much better than many of the other blaxploitation films of that time, it really deserves more to be mentioned along with other classic revenge flicks like Death Wish, Rolling Thunder, and William Lustig's masterpiece, Vigilante.
Best known as a character actor, Winfield gives a great performance in one of his only action films. He doesn't seem like the likely choice for the part of Gordon, but he brings with him a level of acting that helps give the character depth while elevating the movie. Winfield is surrounded a by a great supporting cast, including Lee and King. Lee is best remembered as Eddie, Ron O'Neal's partner in crime in Super Fly, and King has a long list of credits as tough guys, including a scene-stealing performance in the long-forgotten crime thriller Report to the Commissioner.
Davis directs with a much more assured hand than he did with Cotton Comes to Harlem--a fun film that is uneven at times. Davis is at the top of his game with Gordon's War, delivering a consistently entertaining film that works as both a drama and an action thriller. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Off Limits, which shares precious gigabyte space on this DVD.
Released in 1988, after both Platoon and Good Morning Vietnam ushered in a new era of movies set in and around the conflict in Vietnam, Off Limits is a prime example of one of the subgenres to emerge after blaxploitation drifted into obscurity. That subgenre is of course the interracial buddy movie that came into its own with films like Silver Streak and 48 Hours, and was then done to death in flicks like Lethal Weapon. As it stands, the interracial buddy movie has been done far better and it has been done far worse, but that doesn't make a case for Off Limits, for while it isn't as bad as something like Another 48 Hours, it still is a pretty unimpressive movie.
Fresh from his star-making performance in Oliver Stone's Platoon, Willem Dafoe teams up with Gregory Hines, fresh off his other teamed-with-a-white-guy movies, White Nights and Running Scared. Defoe and Hines star as Buck McGriff and Albaby Perkins (both of which sound like the names of 1970s era porn actors), a pair of plain-clothes military policemen patrolling the dangerous streets of Saigon in 1968. Buck and Albaby stumble across a doozy of a case when a prostitute is murdered by an unidentified officer in the Army. Soon, our valiant heroes uncover a series of murders--all hookers--in a string of crimes that points to not only a serial killer, but a possible military cover-up. Digging deeper and deeper into the case, the two find themselves the targets of multiple attempts on their lives, as someone wants the truth to remain a mystery.
Having been thoroughly unentertained by Off Limits when I first saw it more than twenty years ago, I was in no hurry to watch it again. But seeing as how it is on the same disc as Gordon's War, and it's my job to review the disc, I had to watch Off Limits again. And you know what? It still sucks after all these years.
Seriously, with the exception of Gregory Hines's performances, Off Limits has very little to offer. The story is pure by-the-numbers-cops-chasing-killer mumbo jumbo that's been done plenty of time before and since (not to mention better). The script is uninspired and predictable, and when all is said and done, the movie is unexceptionally forgettable. Fortunately, you can skip Off Limits altogether and just watch Gordon's War.
Both Gordon's War and Off Limits are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture quality on both films ranges between good to acceptable. The image and color levels on Gordon's War are good, but there was at least one minor print defect that I noticed. Off Limits seemed a bit dark to me, but is just as likely how the film was shot.
Both Gordon's War and Off Limits are presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital. The sound levels and audio mix on both films are acceptable.
Gordon's War features an audio commentary with actor Tony King and cinematographer Victor J. Kemper. You have to be a pretty big fan of the movie to get much out of the commentary, although both offer some decent tidbits about their careers and the making of the movie. King talks about how he got into film from professional football, while Kemper talks about how his experience working on the film opened his eyes to the world around him. Not a great commentary, but certainly interesting at times. There is also a trailer and TV spot for the film. Off Limits features an audio commentary with Willem Defoe and director Christopher Crowe. I can't lie...I didn't listen to it.
Gordon's War is one of my favorite blaxploitation movies. If you're a fan of gritty 1970s action flicks or blaxploitation, then it is definitely worth checking out. And if you're bored, you can always watch Off Limits. Or you can watch Gordon's War again.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]