2 FILMS: ONE'S A CRIME DRAMA, THE OTHER'S JUST A CRIME
Philadelphia Daily News (PA) - November 5, 1985
Author: JOE BALTAKE, Daily News Movie Reviewer
"To Live and Die in L.A." A crime drama starring William C. Petersen, Willem Dafoe and John Pankow. Directed by William Friedkin from a screenplay by Gerald Petievich and Friedkin. Based on a novel by Petievich. Photographed by Robby Muller. Edited by Bud Smith. Music by Wang Chung. Running time: 105 minutes. An MGM/U.A. release.
"Death Wish 3." A revenge drama starring Charles Bronson. Directed by Michael Winner from a screenplay by Michael Edmonds. Based on characters created for a novel by Brian Garfield. Edited by Michael Kagan. Music by Jimmy Page. Running time: 93 minutes. A Cannon release.
Both films are in area theaters.
First the bad news, then the bad news. Some weeks are like that.
For starters, gun-toting, bullet-pumping he-men are back on the screen, in not one but two new movies, and one of them has the forboding title of "Death Wish 3." I spent most of Friday seeing both films, in which cars crash, blow up and fly through the air, people are garroted, bludgeoned, spiked and terminated and in which the aggressors always enjoy the best sex imaginable. (There's a message here, I guess.)
I've read that there's a correlation between violent movies and anti-social behavior, and now I believe it: I came away from these movies in the worst mood possible, and I'm really not up to writing this review, so if you interrupt me, you're dead meat!
Now, with that said, let me make it clear that not all the news is bad. William Friedkin's "To Live and Die in L.A.," despite its graphic violence and overall inhumanity, is a damned good little movie, an intelligent, melancholy policier that's as fatalistic and as tinged with mood (and moodiness) as the very best foreign crime dramas have been.
Coupling it with Michael Winner's absurd "Death Wish 3" probably isn't totally fair, but the fact is, both movies are doing and saying the same things and also leave the same awful aftertaste. There's also the unfortunate coincidence of their being released at the same time.
The only real difference is that Friedkin's film is as stylish and as grown up as Winner's film is poorly made and infantile: "Death Wish 3" was made for the yahoos and no one else; "To Live and Die in L.A." was made for yahoos and those few perceptive moviegoers who can see beyond the carnage, see it for what it is (movie-fantasized reality) and savor the tight, tough, unsentimental story at the movie's core. (It really is unfortunate that Friedkin's film wasn't made in a foreign language and presented with subtitles.)
Let's dispense with "Death Wish 3" first. It falls somewhere between the original 1974 film that, despite its wretched vigilante stance, had genuine substance and dramatic charge (it made sense) and the sequel of two years ago, which is about as unwatchable as any film can get.
The new film is so deliriously unreal that it's almost funny - almost. In this go-round, Charles Bronson's Paul Kersey is back in New York, only this time the great city looks like a bombed-out war victim. It is overrun with punks who trample over old people and, naturally, frustrate the police. Kersey is recruited to splatter the creeps with his Wildey .475 Magnum pistol.
"It makes a real mess," Bronson explains, something that he's been doing as an actor on screen for nearly three decades now.
His film is actually a ripoff of a deservedly obscure Stephen Verona movie called "Boardwalk," which cast Lee Stranberg and Ruth Gordon (and others) as old Jews being terrorized by punks. These films are romantic in that they seriously convey the dubious notion that anyone who fights back, wins.
Not so in "To Live and Die in L.A.," a stark drama that has no delusions about right versus might. Directed by Friedkin in an unrelenting visceral style (a la "Miami Vice") from a Gerald Petievich novel, this movie is about L.A. counterfeiters and the patrol-car tensions between two plainclothes agents who are at odds, with each other and their superiors, about how to handle the case.
Richard Chance (William L. Petersen), your token hothead, sexed-up type, has a personal vendetta: His former partner was slaughtered by the film's flashy villain (Willem Dafoe). Chance's new partner (John Pankow) is a nervous, by-the-books type whom we suspect will mess things up in this cat- and-mouse game.
But "To Live and Die in L.A." has as many surprises (one of which is genuinely shocking) as it has dead bodies. This is an intense, vital and honorable movie. It doesn't glorify Chance's tactics the way another movie would (in fact, a more complacent agent solves the case), and it doesn't pretend to have the answers.
It is a contemporary horror story of justice miscarried, a harrowing experience, that has no surcease and not even the catharsis of promised reforms. And in William L. Petersen, it has the most sexually charged actor to come along in a long time. Don Johnson and his "Miami Vice" are kid's stuff compared with Petersen and "To Live and Die in L.A."
Parental guide: Both films are rated R for their violence and language.
"Rolling Thunder": Twisted Violence
Washington Post, The (DC) - October 29, 1977
Author: Gary Arnold
John Flynn's crisp, laconic direction and evocative use of Southern Texas locations - the San Antonio area, with particularly effective, sinister excursions to border towns like Del Rio - transorm "Rolling Thunder," now at area theaters, into a more distinctive exploitation movie than it deserves to be. The screenplay, which originated with Paul Schrader, the writer of "Taxi Driver," is miserably vicious, a hybrid of "The Wild Bunch" and "Death Wish" in which a returning P.O.W., an Air Force major who spent eight years imprisoned in North Vietnam, sets out to massacre a gang of hoodlums who break into his home, shove his right hand down a churning garbage disposal and shoot his wife and son.
The premise is twisted in a way that could serve as a textbooks example of pornographic violence. All the major's ordeals - physical and emotional, as a prisoner and a returning serviceman and family man - become pretexts for kinked-up, brutal sensations and a final orgiastic shooting spree.
There's no point in responding to the hero's situation with ordinary sympathy or human interest, because these amount to sucker's responses in this context. Flynn directs the homecoming encounters between William Devane as the major, Hordon Gerler as his son and Lisa Richards as his wife, who has become romantically involved with another man, with such admirable stillness and concentration that one could be fooled into believing that the film intends to deal with his readjustment problems conscientiously. In retrospect, one may recall this as the neatest single illusion in the picture and wish John Flynn a more appropriate subject for stylistic concentration the next time around.
it doesn't take long to discover that the humanistic murmurs are setting up nihilistic knock-out punches. Bringing on the murderers spares a screenwriter the drudgery of trying to resolve the estrangement between the major and his wife. At the same time it's presumed to give a melodramatic warrior a "mission" worthy of his training and value system. Yet there's no conviction behind this mission of vengeance, no sense of values that might deserve to be protected or offenses that might deserve to be punished.
On the contrary, the hero and a fellow P.O.W. who joins him, played by Tommy Lee Jones, are justified on the basis of professionalism rather than motive. We're supposed to accept the platitude that they're emotionally dead and have been since their capture during the war. The major has become a stranger to his family, and while he's offered a girl friend who might be some consolation - Linda Haynes, who resembles a careworn Tuesday Weld, makes an appealing impression as a cocktail waitress whose down-to-earth aspirations and apprehensions correspond to the audience's - he must reject her, or else miss the climactic shootout.
The major's comrade leaves a household conceived as the meanest of lower middle-class sancturaries, a haven for prattling women and unheroic men. In its simultaneous contempt for the homefronts the heroes ostensibly march out to avenge or protect and for the scummy adversaries they'll face, the movie exposes an emotional and moral blackout far more genuine than the perfunctory daze ascribed to Devane and Jones, both very capable actors. This picture was conceived by someone - presumably Schrader - who glorifies violence, yet only responds to it as a transcendant, abstract pictorial spectacle, an esthetic thrill, like the nomcombatants who derive more satisfaction from combat than professional soldiers.
There are some exceedingly ugly notions in "Rolling Thunder," and they're never mitigated by the kind of character exploration and embiguity that strengthened "Taxi Drive." For example, the major is depicted recalling nightmarish scenes of torture and then reenacting some of those scenes, with a hint of of masochistic gratification. His severed hand is replaced by a prosthetic device that becomes even better than a hand for the purposes of this story, because he can file the to a point and use it as a deadly weapon.
The big showndown self-sconsciously justaposes sex and violence. The setting is a Mexican bordello, so naked actresses scurry about trying to stay out of the line of fire while the actors pretend to have it out. Speaking of having it out, Jones is depicted being undressed by a whore seconds before the shooting starts, and he comes out of her room with an automatic rifle in one hand while zipping up his fly with the other. "Rolling Thunder" is undoubtedly Spawn of Peckinpah, but some of its kinkier wrinkles might shock the originator himself.
'The Choirboys': An Out-of-Tune Precinct
Washington Post, The (DC) - December 24, 1977
Author: Gary Arnold
Among the Los Angeles patrolmen characterized - or, to be precise, caricatured - in "The Choirboys," now at area theaters, the term "choir practice" is a euphemism for an all-night drunken toot in MacArthur Park. At some stage the original author, Joseph Wambaugh, and the director, Robert Aldrich, must have envisioned a profane popular comedy patterned after "M*A*S*H," with the choir practicesserving the same purpose for overworked, pressured and sometimes brutalized urban cops that the binges and practical jokes served for the battle surgeons in Robert Altman's film.
"The Choirboys" belongs to the tradition of service comedies, but I doubt if anyone will hail it for doing a service for either cops or movie auidences. If the filmmakers had ironic or satirical intentions, the finished film totally obscures them. There's no contrast between cops at work and play. The whole movie suggests a dirtyminded "McHale's Navy," with scenes pivoting on gross set jokes alternating with scenes pivoting on grosser sick jokes.
Some of the jokes are so raucously or goofily low-minded that you may laugh out of a kind of shocked weakness. At a certain level there is something funny about the idea of a drunken slob creeping under a glass-topped coffee table to get a peek up a women's skirt or the idea of a jumper being provoked to her doom by a cop who tries to use reverse psychology and dares her to "go ahead and jump."
However, once commiting your entertainment in this direction, it may be impossible to change. Towards the end "Choirboys" attempts to get serious about the sordidness that it has been wallowing in for gratuitious, episodic laughs, and this switch seems both deceitful and laughable. It's much too late to take a different tack, and at the fadeout the mood returns to cackling facetiousness. The promotion for this movie should probably be built mately, neither the filmmakers nor the characters feel any credible pain. They're just rowdy fraternity boys in blue.
Wambaugh, who did the original adaptation of his own best-selling novel, has been busy disowning the film. He succeeded in having his name removed from the screenwriting credits and placed an ad in movie trade papers complaining that Aldrich had done him wrong. It's difficult to see how. The comic vulgarity originated in the novel, and surely no one could imagine the director of "The Dirty Dozen," "The Longest Yard," "Hustle" "The Killing of Sister George" and "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" suddenly developing a delicate touch.
It's more likely that Wambaugh came to the realization that visualizing this colection of tales told out of school could be more embarrassing and misleading than simply publishing them. "The Choirboys" is a vaudeville of precinct scandals and follies that may not mean the same thing to cops that they mean to civilians. Although he supplied the pretext and context, Wambaugh may not care to associate himself with the misconceptions about police work and psychology that could result from the film version.
"The Choirboys" takes a fairly obnoxious place among a burgeoning genre of Hollywood films determined to revel in raunchiness. "Slap Shot" set, the pace earlier this year. Now we have "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," "Saturday Night Fever," "The Gauntlet" "The Choirboy" and even "The World's Greatest Lover" straining to keep up, The spectre of television must be partly responsible: To a certain extent these movies recommed themselves because they'll need to be expurgated for telecasting.
Charles Durning has the most prominent role in a large, able but largely wasted cast as the hard-bitten patrolman "Spermwhale" Whalen, suggesting a cross between Spencer Tracy and Los Costello. Not too surprisingly, Burt Young creates the most human and appealing impression as a motley-looking but gentle natured vice cop. Tim McIntire also gets something distinctive into the boobytrapped assignment of the resident redneck bigot. Robert Webber cops the booby prize for his teethgrinding closeups as, naturally a mealy-mouthed brasshat.
REVIEWS MOVIES\ NINJA' A FISTFUL OF MARTIAL ARTS MAYHEM\ REVENGE OF THE NINJA - DIRECTED BY SAM FIRSTENBERG, WRITTEN BY JAMES\ R. SILKE, STARRING SHO KOSUGI, KEITH VITALI, VIRGIL FRYE, ARTHUR ROBERTS,\ MARIO GALLO, GRACE OSHITA, ASHLEY\ FERRARE, KANE KOSUGI, AT THE PI ALLEY AND SUBURBS, RATED R.
Boston Globe - September 17, 1983
Author: Jay Carr Globe Staff
"This is no job for the police. Only a ninja can stop a ninja." That quote sums up " Revenge of the Ninja ," a brainless, but peppy, martial arts outing
from Golan-Globus, the people who gave us "Hercules."
This one is set in Salt Lake City, a possible first. An art dealer talks a ninja into bringing his mother and tiny son there after the rest of the family has been wiped out by a gang of bad ninjas in Tokyo.
When the dealer helps the ninja by whipping a pistol out of his pocket and gunning down a few heavies, his mother says: "I do not trust this man, my son."
Neither does anyone else in the theater, except the hero, an honorable type played by Sho Kosugi. He opens a gallery specializing in dolls which, unknown to him, are loaded with heroin. This brings the angry Mafia into the picture. Not only are they no match for a single ninja, but they're played with exceptional awfulness.
A ninja, by the way, is a killer who augments his knowledge of martial arts with lots of lethal gear. No self-respecting ninja would think of leaving the house without a suitcase full of dirks (throwing stars), swords, darts, shrapnel and other hardware.
The film's reason for being, no less than the ninja's, is killing.
Kosugi, helped for a while by a karate-wise cop (Keith Vitali), takes out virtually the entire population of Salt Lake City, with the possible exception of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, before his ultimate square-off against the Darth Vader-like art dealer in a volleyball court on the roof of a high-rise.
Ashley Ferrare provides decorative interludes, and Kane Kosugi, the hero's son in real life as well as the movie, is one cute little ninja.
" Revenge of the Ninja ," in short, contains all the blood-spattered violence you could hope for, unless you feel that transforming killing into an art form by introducing ballet and technology to it is perhaps a trifle decadent.
MOVIE: ' REVENGE OF THE NINJA ' IS ANOTHER MARTIAL-ARTS OFFERING
Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA) - September 19, 1983
Author: Rick Lyman, Inquirer Movie Critic
It would be hard to think up a genre more ridiculous than martial-arts movies.
Singing cowboys? The Bowery Boys? Blondie movies?
They don't even come close.
It's not that there's anything ridiculous about the martial arts - they've just been trashed by movie-makers hungry for a buck. It's just that everyone who has attempted to make a good, intelligent martial-arts movie has fallen on his face (John Frankenheimer's The Challenge is the most recent attempt). So instead we get cheap rip-offs of terrible originals.
I sometimes wonder what true martial-arts proponents, people who train for years to fine-tune their skills and their discipline, really think of these abominations. They should be howling mad.
One particularly silly offering, Revenge of the Ninja , opened Friday all over the area. Though it's a cut or so above most of the Hong Kong-made martial-arts junk, the difference is so slight, it hardly seems worth mentioning.
If you plan on wringing any enjoyment out of it, it might prove helpful to take a few karate chops to the head on the way into the theater.
The Ninja, in case you've been hiding in a shoebox for the last couple of years, is a 400-year-old Japanese sect of specially trained, nearly invincible assassins. They travel in packs, move like the wind and pounce like tigers. They know 1,000 ways to kill, we are told, though most of them seem to involve knives and other sharp instruments.
The point is, they're so tough they don't need hand grenades. They laugh at guns. A howitzer might shake their concentration, but only for a moment.
There have been Ninja books, Ninja movies; there's probably a Ninja candy bar.
A martial-arts movie stands or falls on the strength of its fight scenes. Usually the hero is called upon to defend himself against a dozen or so villains. He jumps over the top of them, twirls, lashes out, kicks them in the throat.
There's a goofy, ballet quality to most of the fight scenes in bad martial- arts movies - the characters move in slow motion and then lurch forward. It resembles fight scenes as Busby Berkeley would stage them, so overchoreographed they're reduced to the level of the ludicrous.
The fight scenes in Revenge of the Ninja are particularly phoney. Several times the hero is surrounded by a half dozen bad guys who are stupid enough to come at him one at a time.
They shoot an arrow at him - he catches it in his left hand. They shoot another arrow - he catches it in his right hand. They shoot another. What does he do? Why, catches it in his teeth, of course.
Our hero is Cho, a Tokyo resident who moves to Los Angeles to open a Japanese art store when Ninja assassins wipe out his family. (They'd have gotten him, too, but there were only 20 of them.)
Cho is himself a Ninja. "Most people think that Ninja are all bad," he says. "Not so."
In L.A., Cho hangs up his sword and goes into the art business. What he doesn't know is that his partner, Belden, is really an international heroin dealer using the art gallery as a front. And besides that, Belden is secretly a Ninja (a bad Ninja). Pretty soon even the Mafia is involved and it's chop, whack, powee!
The fights are phony, the sets are tacky and the lines are silly ("You cannot escape your karma, my son").
If there really are any Ninja out there, I have a pretty good idea who their next targets are going to be.
And believe me, it'll be no occident.
REVENGE OF THE NINJA
Produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, directed by Sam Firstenberg, written by James R. Silke, photography by David Garfinkel, music by Rob Walsh, distributed by MGM/UA Entertainment Co.; running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.**SINGLEG*Cho - Sho Kosugi
Jackson - Keith Vitali
Belden - Arthur Roberts
Kane - Kane Kosugi
Parents' guide: R (violence, nudity)