There are perhaps few genres of film more American than the "b-movie," especially that coveted b-movie that finds itself the perfect blend of almost-competent writing and directing, but thoroughly infused with an ironic, unintentional humor and/or just plain baffling happenings within the runtime. Shout! offered up earlier this year a two-disc, four-film offering of some movies that fit that bill with the "Action-Packed Movie Marathon: Volume One." Now while there's no denying the films offered in that release filled a certain void in the less-than-picky filmgoers palette, nothing offered comes close to sheer excellence of just one film offered in their Volume Two follow-up. Gathering together a true cavalcade of cinematic castoffs, any b-movie fan, from the grizzled veteran who has seen it all, to the eagled-eyed newcomer, should take heed of at least three films offered up in this set.
Now, let's get the worst out of the way, and the worst comes our way via 1976's "Scorchy" (also known as "Race with Death" a true turkey that likely trapped thousands of viewers with its titillating poster. The film is an incomprehensible mess form start to finish with Stevens playing Jackie Parker an undercover detective hell-bent on busting a Seattle drug ring, all the while sporting a wardrobe that would give "Willie Dynamite" a run for his money. Running a miserable 98-minutes, I struggled to make sense of what "Scorchy" was offering on-screen the entire time I watched it and thankfully, it mostly vanished from my mind, leaving only a haze of inept cinematography, dirty production design, and various smatterings of genre clichés and rip-offs from far superior films. Strangely, the film shares a minor plot detail with another film in the set, "Bamboo Gods & Iron Men" although the connection is purely surface level and rather inconsequential. I honestly felt bad for Stevens while watching the film, seeing a minor, but successful star of the 50s-60s reduced to the tacky pandering of "Scorchy's" script. The film is by all accounts a waste of time and the lone disappointment of the set.
While even more ineptly produced than "Scorchy," 1974's "Bamboo Gods & Iron Men" is a relatively pleasing martial arts comedy/blaxploitation film, that's also a shining example of the Filipino b-movie boom. Beginning like any other martial arts film would, "Bamboo Gods & Iron Men" takes a sharp left turn by introducing our protagonist who turns out to not be a wizened kung-fu master or even earnest pupil of the arts, but, tough-talking African American heavyweight boxing champ, Cal Jefferson, who finds himself on his honeymoon in Hong Kong. First things first, for a boxing champ, even one on something as intimate as a honeymoon, you'd think you'd still have some sort of entourage or bodyguards, but then again, that would keep Cal from getting involved in a series of pseudo-serious slapstick action sequences that involve smuggled artifacts, a rape scene that serves no purpose but to introduce a co-hero that's also a mute, and a nefarious villain who has his own share of suit-clad henchmen to carry out his bidding, often in overly dramatic fashions. The film is rather devoid of martial arts action and more often than not, filled with slapstick shenanigans that earn some honest laughs the more our hero plays the straight man role to a true comedy of errors. It's far from a film you'll find yourself revisiting often, but "Bamboo Gods & Iron Men" never outwears its welcome on an initial viewing.
Robert Mitchum was a bonafide legend of the silver screen; to be as nice as possible, his sons Chris and Jim were legends for all the wrong reasons and sadly widely unknown to a mass audience. My first exposure to the works of the elder Mitchum's offspring was Chris Mitchum's Indonesian produced early 90s action film "American Hunter." Fortunately for me, as entertaining (for all the wrong reasons) as "American Hunter" was, his brother Jim's 1976 country-meets-city revenge film "Trackdown" is schlock heaven. The film is a classic tale of a country girl leaving home to make it in the big city, only to meet dopey local, Chico (Erik Estrada), before becoming the victim of a gang rape, then getting hooked on drugs, entering the world of moderately priced call girls and beaten to death by a wealthy client. Enter her brother, Jim (Jim Mitchum), a ticking time bomb, who tears a swatch of violence through Los Angeles' mid-level underworld. Mitchum's performance is the single reason to give "Trackdown" a chance and when the end credits roll, the same reason you'll want to own the film. Despite the horrible things that have happened to his sister, Jim's response is calm to the point of drowsiness, even when his threats and actions border on the sociopathic side of the spectrum. Mitchum's performance is best described as proto-Chuck Norris, with his character driving a truck into a building after not getting the answers he wants, only to deliver a deadpan one-liner to astonished onlookers. When Mitchum's not the focal point of the plot, the subject matter can get pretty dark, stretching to the bizarrely sadistic execution of a character via a kitchen oven. "Trackdown" from a technical standpoint, does competently enough to continue moving forward, but manages to retain that strange feeling that can't help but make you laugh for all the wrong reasons.
Finally we come to the single reason this entire set should be on yourself, 1988's "Bulletproof" an action vehicle for, wait for it…Gary Busey. "Bulletproof" was once sold to me with the simple pitch of "Busey's reoccurring catchphrase in the film is ‘butthorn.'" If that's not enough to sell you, well, I really wonder what you're still doing reading the review. Busey is the titurally named "Bulletproof" Frank McBain, ex-CIA operative turned detective who sets the course for the film by scaling the rafters of a shadowy dockside warehouse, before startling gun smugglers (one of whom is played by a young Danny Trejo) with the immortal line "your worst nightmare, butthorn" before jumping from a height of no less than 30 feet into a perfect tuck and roll. One shootout, gunshot would to the shoulder, and exploding ice cream truck later, and we get into the true meat of "Bulletproof," a high tech supertank (it has a working coffee maker in it after all) stolen by terrorists south of the border and the only man who can get it back, is naturally, McBain. Never mind the incomprehensible set-up for the film's main storyline (in fact, one supporting player asks why there isn't a greater security detail assigned to such a high value target), "Bulletproof" gives us everything we could ask for in a b-movie: an over-the-top hero, scenery chewing villains, questionable dialogue (need I mention the word "butthorn" again?), and a weird scene of Gary Busey lying on a bed with a saxophone having a romantic flashback to the day he played the same saxophone on a beach. "Bulletproof" embodies everything wrong with the flood of 80s action schlock and everything right with Gary Busey. Most of all it's a film that's never failed to make me smile over the years, no matter what mood I'm in.
"Bulletproof" and "Bamboo Gods & Iron Men" are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers, while "Trackdown" and "Scorchy" come listed as 1.33:1 non-OAR offerings. Truth be told, "Trackdown" looks more like a non-anamorphic 1.66:1 offering if anything else. "Bulletproof" looks the best of all the films, but even then there's some compression issues (actually, this is a factor on all four films) and overblown colors. Detail in "Bulletproof" is average at best, which leaves the rest of the films looking not quite as hot. "Bamboo Gods & Iron Men" has a somewhat washed out look to the picture, although that's likely more a result of the low budget origins, while "Trackdown" looks like a no-frills 70s film and "Scorchy" looks a few steps above a high-end VHS release.
With the exception of "Bulletproof" all films are presented with Dolby Digital English mono tracks. "Bulletproof" comes with a Dolby Digital English stereo track, that frankly isn't that much more impressive than the mono offering of "Trackdown." The mixes for all four films are generally acceptable with "Bamboo Gods & Iron Men" suffering from the occasional muddled mix.
If "Bulletproof" isn't a good enough reason to give this set a purchase, think of "Trackdown" and "Bamboo Gods & Iron Men" as sweeteners. While nothing can redeem the mess that defines "Scorchy," the low price tag and generally acceptable technical quality of the release, makes it a must own for all genre fans. Highly Recommended.