The crappy international action movie is also the place where a lot of wannabes and never-were's went to jumpstart their careers – and cash a quick two party, out of town paycheck to boot. Figuring that, if they had to bang their head against a wall of indifference toward their talent and potential, they might as well do it someplace with ancient or exotic beauty, these box office bottom feeders soon found themselves on sets where crews crowed at each other in ethnically diverse dialects, and craft services was a daily adventure in dysentery. The resulting movies are almost always a hoot to behold, tax shelter Towers of Babel where pyrotechnics speak the universal language of mindless destruction.
Thanks to those titans of the tepid over at Troma, we get to witness one of these throwback ballyhoos in all its detonation delirium. Skeleton Coast, named for the African locale where most of this muddle takes place, is not a very lively actioner. Indeed, most of the time, the plotting and the performances feel like they're in need of a jolt of Geritol, a.s.a.p. But as those lovable Farm Film Report critics Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok would argue, who cares about the story and the stage stiffs, just as long as stuff blows up 'real good'. At least Skeleton Coast gets most of its TNT based tantrums right. The rest of the film is just a farce.
First, Smith and company meet up with Captain Simpson, head of the Diamond Security Secret Special Police Force, a man who enjoys nothing more than drowning potential smugglers alive. One firefight later and Smith's mighty marauders are stranded in the desert. Naturally, they find a conveniently available airplane and, after another gun battle, it's time to take to the not-so-friendly skies. Smith and his specialists are next shot down by Sekassi, the leader of the rebels. The guerilla guy agrees to help the Colonel reclaim his son in exchange for the fortress itself. Using a sly scheme in which they dress like Cuban soldiers, Smith does find his badly beaten boy. But then the problems only amplify. Seems a nasty Nazi type named Schneider is on to their Latino charade, and wants the infiltrators dead. Naturally, more ammunition is spent in a final flee for freedom.
Skeleton Coast has a veritable who's who of actors in prominent and or exaggerated cameo roles, giving those of us with a self-considered pop culture savvy a chance to pick out the performers and link them to the title or role they are best known for. Within the first five minutes, you'll see Ernest Borgnine, Oscar winning Marty man himself, have a long conversation with Inspector Clouseau's desk jockey nemesis, Chief Inspector Dreyfus, a.k.a. Herbert Lom. Later on, we get a chance to catch up with our has-been heavies, including a surprisingly sober seeming Oliver Reed (who gets two scenes as Simpson and then disappears) and a spry and sinister U.N.C.L.E. Robert Vaughn.
As the tendrils of talent unspool out from around the old star center, we pay a visit to the merry band of mercenaries, including Daniel Greene (the hunky male lead in Elvira: Mistress of the Dark) and the rest of his ragtag crew of commandos: Leon Isaac "Penitentiary 1, 2 & 3" Kennedy, Peter "Rain" Kwong (from Big Trouble in Little China, don't you know) Arnold, Mr. Mummy himself, Vosloo and Larry Taylor, King Marlenus from the Gor films. Toss in a buxom blond babe (the easy on the eyes newbie Nancy Mulford) and a rather odd looking double crossing femme fatale (Robin Townsend) and the stage is set for some off the beaten track thespianism.
Too bad Skeleton Coast doesn't make better us of its players. More or less forced to go through the motions of the meandering script (a scrapbook of search and rescue formulas from the pen of actress turned writer Nadia Calliou) while waiting for the next set piece of mindless destruction, the cast appears to be coasting on a combination of sunstroke and per diem drunkenness (all except Ollie Reed, of course). They never once let the lack of characterization or meaningful dialogue dry up their 'far away from home' good time. Of the featured faces, the Reed man makes the most of his minor time onscreen, chewing away at the scenery like he has a mouthful of aspirin to consider. Robert Vaughn gets a single showy speech in which he fondles a tennis ball (?) and Lom is allowed to pitch an overactive hissy when he learns the money his character made for being a snitch was counterfeit. But it's old Ernie B that steals the show, playing the only ex-Marine with a bank account the size of Somalia, and a goiter of equal mass to match.
Waddling around like a turtle turned sideways and delivering all his lines like he's channeling a far more flummoxed version of that loveable salty sea dog McHale, Mr. Borgnine actually believes he is starring in some high powered thermonuclear war epic, accenting every scene he's in with a crazed look of bloated battle fatigue, even if all he's been required to do at that particular moment is walk across a sand dune. He gets a couple of real handkerchief in hand weepers when he finally hooks up with his soiled sonny boy, and the torrent of tame tears just reeks of Ernie pouring on the old Tinsel Town water works. While not quite as bulbous as he'd become in films like Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders, but far from his days as a member of the Wild Bunch and/or the Dirty Dozen, Tova's main squeeze (and Ethel Merman's worst nightmare) is just so happy to be hacking it with his fellow freelancers that you'd never know there was a journeyman joke of a plot hanging around, waiting to be wound up every once in a while.
Director John "Bud" Carlos, whose canon of crudity includes such certifiable cheese as Kingdom of the Spiders (William Shatner battling big bugs – gotta love it) the aliens in prehistoric time traumatics of The Day Time Ended, and the goofy 'no one asked for it' sequel Outlaw of Gor, instantly falls in love with the sweeping desert vista of his awkward, arid locales. In turn, he gives us many magnificent views of pristine sand dunes and far off sunsets, momentarily making this movie seem somewhat normal. But then he reverts to his incredibly unoriginal passion – the fabulous fireball – and we get lots and lots and lots and LOTS of explosions. The ground opens up in concussive squirts. Trees split in seismic splendor. Vehicles void their flammable essence and erupt in glorious showers of flames and metal. Men are launched and bodies burst, creating a kind of C-4 symphony that all big burly boys just wet their stinky sweatpants over.
When he sticks to the stunts and the scenery, Carlos is quite adept. No, his films aren't the kind of action adventure romps you'd expect to recommend or even enjoy, but he does provide enough visual splendor and mindless violence to give you the FEELING that you've seen something epic. When it comes to actors, Carlos gets confused. He lets them loose, never once trying to shape or solidify their performances. Worse, he commits one of the cardinal sins in low budget b-moviedom. He gives us a semi-stunning female freedom fighter, chest heaving under tight fitting camouflage, yet NEVER ONCE do we see said talent topless. Not allowing the testosterone-fueled fans of such films an opportunity to see a fetching femme's frontal features sans frilly underthings is just moral, socially, ethically, factually and spiritually wrong. These kind of narratives cry out for a tit shot every now and then, if only to keep the dudes awake in between battle scenes. But neither Nancy Mulford as Sam, nor Robin Townsend drops blou for the betterment of the movie, and its all Carlos' fault.
The result then, is kind of a mixed bag, a decent diversion filled with bangs and booms (but no boobs, darn it) and drizzled with the occasionally hammy hi-jinx of its mixed fame cast. The last minute plot potholes, purposely placed to keep the running time near the necessary 90 minutes (Skeleton Coast has at least 4 different endings – count them, won't you?) causes this otherwise ersatz-straight ahead storyline to stumble. Besides, we never really care who lives and who dies, who gets rescued or who gets crotch rot, for that matter. If you've been weaned on the Van Damme/ Norris/ Seagal school of action, films in which the acting and logic are the last things on the director's dynamite-oriented mind, then you'll probably have fun with this South African flamer. And just like that vaunted graveyard that pre-deceased pachyderms seek out to die in, you'll witness a genuine cinematic cemetery of celebrity in Skeleton Coast. Such stunt casting almost saves this otherwise awkward action film.