Tuesday, September 30, 2014

THE DOGS OF WAR: Blu-ray (UA 1980) Twilight Time

John Irvin’s The Dogs of War (1980) is everything one might hope for in an action picture. More than that; it is exceptional film-making. I find it difficult, if not impossible, to stop myself from gushing in my unbridled praise for this picture; an extraordinary adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s 1974 novel. Whether considering the riveting, steely-eyed performance given by Christopher Walken (perhaps his finest piece of screen acting to date), the powerhouse ensemble cast, including Tom Berenger (as the butch, yet playful, Drew), Colin Blakely (a superb English actor as the probing/ill-fated journalist, North) and Hugh Millais (the disreputable politico, Endean) or Jack Cardiff’s exquisite cinematography, The Dogs of War remains a proficiently gripping and woefully underrated masterpiece. We don’t get movies like this every day and lesser still since the dawn of the new millennium. Is it just me, or is anybody else tired of the cookie-cutter disposable sci-fi/superhero junk that’s being peddled as art these days? But I digress. The Dogs of War is a reminder why I fell in love with the movies in the first place.
Jack Cardiff’s contribution, in particular, deserves high-water marks. Cardiff is one of the movies’ irrefutable artists, a technical master craftsman in understanding the cinema secrets of painting with light. His work here is nothing short of splendid; the moody magnificence he brings to every frame revealing an essential quality of foreboding, instantly searing itself into our collective consciousness. Cardiff’s images are like fine works of art to be freeze-framed and then hung in a gallery. Yet, his painterly approach to virtually every movie he’s ever photographed is always in service to the story being told. In The Dogs of War, Cardiff juxtaposes the sweaty South African backwater of Zangaro, its limpid palms restlessly caught in a stiff ocean breeze, with the steely blue-gray stillness of a typical New York dawn; his depictions of a postmodern Europe, lazily caught in a sort of perpetually rain-soaked and out of season display of sad urban decay. Cardiff’s interiors are almost as compelling as these establishing shots. Far from providing us with mere visual suggestions and/or signifiers as to where we are, there is never anything pedestrian about Cardiff’s meticulously composed visuals. Each tells its’ own individual story. Cumulatively, they weave a tapestry of an alternate reality in which the movie and its characters not only exist, but thrive as otherwise they might not.  
Unlike most action pictures today, The Dogs of War takes its time to unravel its story; the action in service to the story instead of the other way around. Yes! Finally, a director who understands action as more than a handheld, nauseatingly bobbing around to screw with an audiences’ equilibrium; also, to distract us with unsteady movement from the fact their actors can’t sustain a scene. Badly done is badly done – period. However, the marriage between Cardiff’s images, Irvin’s direction and the exemplars of acting put forth by all concerned in The Dogs of War ought to be textbook and studied today. We might get better movies this way.  Again, I digress.
The plot, involving a sect of mercenaries for hire, invading a small South African backwater to put into place another puppet regime, meant to replace the despot already in power, is, perhaps pure pulp – or rather, so overused since The Dogs of War it seems old hat and convivial even to mention. But director, Irvin isn’t particularly interested in getting to the blood and guts of all-out combat that bookend this movie as he is in finding those hidden nuggets of truth to make these characters live as people for the audience, rather than cardboard cutouts or variations on an archetype all too oft and easily exploited in such movies, merely for the purpose of advancing the plot. Mercifully, The Dogs of War takes its time to appeal to the audience on a more cerebral level, its bittersweet finale very David Lean-esque in illustrating the shallowness of victory and the scouring of a man’s heart, unhappily to be replaced with the vacuity of life without hope, or even a reprieve in the arms of an ex (JoBeth Williams, briefly glimpsed as Jessie); trapped by those burnished memories, destined to haunt for all eternity the intangible fibers of his very soul. So the Mafia was right: revenge is a dish best served cold.
Better than any actor I know or could recommend, Christopher Walken allows us to burrow deep within his character’s motivations. Here is an actor of such rich and varied qualities it is astonishing how limited Walken’s appearances have been in good – nee, ‘great’ movies befitting his extraordinary talents. Walken has always elevated the tenor of any movie he has appeared in – even the bad ones. But given a rare opportunity like The Dogs of War, he unequivocally illustrates the intuitiveness – nee, intensity – of his craft; a shockingly honest, incurably unromantic, yet queerly sentimental strain running through his cortex. Walken can let the light shine in or show us the pain. Frequently, he does both. This feeling of being a chronic outsider, unloved and undervalued is set up right from the beginning when the widow of an old war buddy, killed in action, rather cruelly informs Walken’s Jamie Shannon he is the godfather of their newly born child in name only, and only because her late husband would have wanted it that way… “now, please don’t come back”.
However, Walken’s Jamie Shannon ought never to be underestimated. He’s one tough hombre, if with a decidedly tender underbelly. But Walken is an actor of extremes. He can turn his performance on a dime from sad-eyed strain, as he does in the moments immediately after his iconic visage is beaten to a bloody pulp, to calculating, heartless intensity during the penultimate confrontation inside the despotic stronghold of President Kimba (Ilarrio Bisi Pedro). Walken’s performances are never cut and dry. There’s always an element of conflict brewing from within. After all, Walken is a thinking man’s actor; delicious in his observations on humanity and more than capable of finding this elemental quality in his characterizations, even when circumstances dictate a complete surrender of such compassions.
Look into Walken’s eyes; those piercing orbs he manages to use like a pair of blinding x-ray searchlights capable of seeing right through any hypocrisy at a glance. At once, we sense the animal in Walken’s physicality; the man too, and never the twain of their incongruity, forcibly melded together, shall they meet in this lanky, lurching presence from Astoria, Queens. Walken moves with an internal fire and music. It’s a lyrical experience simply to watch him take a stroll barefoot to open the front door of Jamie Shannon’s apartment. But Walken gives us so much pleasure in his performance; so rich and appetizing to digest every nuance beyond the obviousness of his own physicality, peeling away the layers of the inner workings of his mind becomes a fascinating character study, befitting a Shakespearean tragic hero whatever his artistic milieu.
The Dogs of War would already be an extraordinary experience because of Walken’s participation. But director John Irvin isn’t content to let his movie become just another one man show – even if the individual is as brilliantly conceived and put together as Christopher Walken. So we get an outstanding ensemble of very fine actors to back him up. Colin Blakely is one of these standouts, though by no means singular in this distinction. Another is Winston Ntshona, as Dr. Okoye; the empathetic physician newly crowned by Walken’s mercenary, partly as remuneration for kindnesses shown him in a time of need, but also to exact his penultimate revenge on Endean, whom he likely holds personally responsible for Drew’s murder. Neither is on the screen for very long; Blakley marginally chewing up the scenery with a tad more screen time. And yet, each actor manages to carve his niche, enough for the audience to absolutely invest and care about what becomes of their characters later on.  
Herein, we must pause to give credit where credit is due; to an exceptionally fine piece of writing by Gary DeVore and George Malko; one of the most astutely observed page to screen adaptations. The Dogs of War is the beneficiary of their careful construction, a collaborative ability to provide every actor with memorable dialogue and at least one scene that speaks to their motivations, though never grows preachy, tiresome or obvious in its exposition; advancing the plot at a breakneck pace, while elevating both suspense and drama, making neither seem rushed, perfunctory or improbable. Think it easy? Try it sometime. At 118 minutes (102 in North America) The Dogs of War condenses what was a monumental work of cloak and dagger fiction into equally as compelling an exemplar of movie magic. We get characters that live and breathe, slickly packaged and neatly fitted into exhilarating action sequences, compelling drama and the ethereal satisfaction for having our thirst for good solid entertainment amply quenched before the bittersweet finale.  In the immortal words of George and Ira Gershwin; ‘who could ask for anything more?’
Perhaps to foreshadow the direction the movie is headed The Dogs of War opens with a harrowing escape aboard a DC-3; American mercenaries, Jamie Shannon, Drew, Derek (Paul Freeman), Michel (Jean François Stevenin), Terry (Ed O'Neill) and Richard (Harlan Cary Poe) barely making it out alive as civil war erupts all around them. Part of a reconnaissance mission into a nondescript Central American hellhole, their mission hasn’t been a success. In fact, the boys are lucky to escape with their lives. Some do not. Richard, in fact, is DOA in his window seat before the plane even lifts off the ground; Jamie insisting his friend’s body be allowed to make the trip back home for a proper burial. Richard’s widow (Isabel Grandin) is not as accepting of his valor, informing Jamie the only reason he has been asked to be their newborn son’s godfather is because Richard had wished it.
Time passes. Director, Irvin gives us a portrait of God’s lonely man; Jamie Shannon, left to a roomful of haunted memories and a fuzzy TV perpetually left on to keep him company.  Jamie is contacted by Endean, a corrupt British businessman with ‘interests’ in certain natural resources richly on tap in the forgotten African nation of Zangaro. “We’re depleting ourselves,” he coldly informs Jamie, “One day we’ll all go to war over rice.” Jamie resists the offer at first, but comes around to Endean’s way of thinking – especially for $15,000. He confronts an urchin in the streets (Kelvin Thomas) begging for change, electing to make the child his beneficiary should anything go wrong. But even Jamie cannot fathom the brutalities he is about to endure. Arriving in Zangaro’s capital, Clarence, and taking up temporary residency at the ironically named Independence Hotel, Jamie uses the disguise of being a professional birdwatcher, on assignment for an American naturalist magazine. Jamie is befriended by North; a British documentary filmmaker who, at present and along with his crew, are persona non grata. In fact, Kimba is keeping a very watchful eye on these foreigners in his midst.
The next day, Jamie is given a driver, Geoffrey (Gyearbuor Asante) to take him into the woods for his photographs; Jamie eluding this arrogant guide momentarily. Later, he casually meets the exotic Gabrielle (Maggie Scott), who offers to show him the town on a walking tour. Unaware she is Kimba’s lover, Jamie poses Gabrielle in front of the military barracks, thus garnering unwanted notoriety from Kimba’s guards. Kimba orders the nosy American tortured. His thug muscle apprehends Jamie from his bed at the Independence, brutally beating him to a pulp and leaving him horribly disfigured to rot in a prison cell until he is barely recognizable – even to himself.  At some point, Kimba thinks better of his decision, allowing empathetic Dr. Okoye to tend to Jamie’s wounds and broken bones before shipping him back home. It seems Okoye used to be Zangaro’s moderate leader, later imprisoned by the coup that placed Kimba in power. Okoye has spent the last four years in prison.
Time, again, passes. Jamie’s own doctor, Oaks (Shane Rimmer) advises him to seek another line of work. It sounds like good advice to Jamie too, who was once married, and now decides to make a half-hearted attempt to get back with his ex – Jessie. She is immediately receptive; her stuffy father, less so. Nevertheless, Jamie and Jessie meet at an out-of-the-way motel for old time’s sake, he suggesting perhaps they could both make a fresh start in Montana. His pitch is shot down, Jessie admonishing Jamie for not having changed a bit since their split. Arriving back at his apartment, Jamie is once again approached by Endean – this time with a $100,000 offer to put together a small commando unit to overthrow Kimba and install yet another corrupt politico, Colonel Bobi (George W. Harris) in his stead who promises to be more receptive to Endean’s demands.
Jamie explains the futility of an internal coup. But Endean is only interested in acquiring the country’s platinum resources from Bobi, who has already agreed to sign away the mineral rights provided he is installed as the country’s president. Frustrated and edgy, Jamie agrees to Endean’s proposal. To keep an eye on developments as Jamie reassembles his team from the good ole days, Endean puts a tail (David Schofield) on him. Jamie knows this, but tolerates the intrusion as he gets in contact with Terry, Derek and Drew. While Derek and Drew sign on, Terry declines the offer. North resurfaces. Accidentally/on purpose bumping into Jamie at a local pub, he attempts to probe Jamie for answers, but to no avail. Afterward, Jamie asks Drew to rough North up – just a little – enough to throw him off their scent. Regrettably, the ruse turns deadly when Endean’s man plots to run the pair down in the street, successful only at killing North and severely injuring himself when he loses control of his car, slamming into another vehicle. Drew and Jamie torture the man into divulging Endean’s entire scheme, Jamie force-feeding him a piece of broken glass.  Later, Jamie dumps the man’s body in Endean’s study as an ominous warning, that when it comes to political espionage, he is not playing any games.
Having laid the ground rules for the planned invasion, director Irving now gives us the fascinating machinations of an old-time palace coup as Jamie and his men amass their small arsenal of weaponry; Michel welding the guns into a series of metal drums disguised to contain common motor oil. Momentarily, Michel is stopped at the French border by the sortie in a casual roadside inspection that nearly turns deadly.  Meeting at the Liverpool Street Station to outline their final plans, Michel proposes a toast for everyone to come home safe and sound. Strictly under the radar, Jamie manages to procure Uzis, ammunition, rocket launchers, mines and other weapons from illegal arms dealers. He also arranges for their transport via a rusted out freighter, the Toscana; its captain (Pedro Armendariz Jr.) very reluctantly sailing the mercenaries into port. At sea, the Toscana is intercepted by black mercenaries trained by a former colleague, Jinja (Eddie Tagoe). Throwing in their lot, this small battalion makes landfall under the cover of night. Together, they launch a full scale attack on Kimba’s presidential compound with the element of surprise in their favor. Alas, during this skirmish Drew takes pity on a woman, presumably hiding under a bed inside the barracks. She turns out to be a soldier, however, and promptly murders him in cold blood.
Jamie is relentless in inflicting his reprisals on the men who beat and tortured him, showing no mercy as he invades and wipes out virtually every last remnant of the old regime, including Kimba, who pathetically quivers, his hands outstretched with bundles of horded cash, begging for his life before being shot at close range in the chest. Arriving late to this post-battle carnage with Bobi in tow, Endean is shocked to discover Jamie with Dr. Okoye in Kimba’s throne room. Asked to explain who this man is, Jamie coolly remakes it is Zangaro’s next president, before shooting Bobi in the head; thus ending Endean’s plans to manipulate the new government to his own advantage. When Endean cruelly informs Jamie, “This country was bought and paid for!” Jamie callously replies, “So buy it again,” before marching from the compound to collect Drew’s body. In the final moments, we see Jamie navigating a jeep through Clarence’s deserted streets; Derek and Michel silent while flanking Drew’s cold remains. After all, what is there left to be said amongst this batter comrades that they have not already begrudgingly reconsidered for themselves?
The Dogs of War is an exhilarating action/drama with a genuine flair for the thinking man’s perspective on the real human cost involved in combat. Few movies ever bother with this elemental fallout. After all, its’ much easier to begin a war story with a blaze of gunfire and rockets hurling through the air and end it on some trumped up high note with Old Glory gallantly waving in the background. Director, John Irvin doesn’t allow himself to succumb to these clichés, however, and the picture is stronger, bolder and more clearly delineated because of his restraint. In preparing this review I’ve read some fairly abrasive condemnations of this picture as not nearly bloody enough to hold the viewer’s attention. How sad…and how extremely telling of the attention span of today’s average (and thoroughly misguided) movie goer, who can think of no better way to occupy his/her time or enrich the palette of their own imagination.
The Dogs of War is a testament to some superior craftsmanship put forth by all involved. I’ll let the naysayers have their nay - and bray. All of the pistons are firing here, and to exceptional effect.  Again, the most compelling reasons to see the picture are Christopher Walken’s magnetic and riveting performance, John Irving’s deft direction and Jack Cardiff’s luminous cinematography. A better reason would be to expand one’s mind and perspectives, investing in some intelligent and stylish film-making; filling the recesses between the ears with more quality than compost. I rest my case: The Dogs of War gets my sincerest vote for an exceptionally fine way to spend a couple of hours.
If only I could say the same about MGM/Fox Home Video’s 1080p transfer, courtesy of Twilight Time. It isn’t awful, per say, but it sports some fairly obvious damage between transitions and some heavy scratches and water damage sporadically scattered throughout. Color fidelity is exceptional, although there is one or two scenes that look a tad washed out. Film grain is mostly consistent and looking fairly natural. Flesh tones look great and fine detail, particularly in close-up will leave you breathless. Again, I cannot understand MGM/Fox not taking the necessary time to clean up the age-related damage before scanning these elements to Blu-ray. We’re not talking about minimal damage here either, but some fairly heavy and obvious anomalies that truly distract from this presentation. TT gives us both cuts of the movie. The 118 min. international cut is preferred to the 102 min. theatrical version. Sure, it’s only 16 minutes we’re talking about, but they are of vital importance to our appreciation of the story. Evidently, someone else agrees because only the international cut comes with chapter stops. The DTS 2.0 stereo is fairly aggressive; dialogue mostly sounding natural and SFX giving the speakers an uncommon workout. Alas, apart from TT’s usual commitment to an isolated score, we get nothing more than a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: this film is a rare gemstone among early 80’s action movies. Very highly recommended for content. Generally recommended for the transfer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


CHE!: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1969) Twilight Time

A movie is usually in trouble when its screenplay does not take a side in a particular argument it is attempting to illustrate. Pro or con – one should always stand for something. But Richard Fleischer’s Che! (1969) is a doubly hampered affair; first and foremost, in its choice of biographical subject matter: Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (played with miraculous sincerity by Omar Sharif) and Fidel Castro (ferreted with uncharacteristic restraint by Jack Palance); a pair of Marxist revolutionaries perceived by the American power structure as a subversive threat to the democratic way of life. It’s an uneasy détente, Hollywood vs. the U.S. embargo on Cuba, attempting to tap into the 1960’s youth counterculture of free love, good drugs and pseudo-insurrectionary fervor sweeping the nation. As they say, ‘freedom’ is not free; the Michael Wilson/Sy Bartlett screenplay struggling to straddle an impossible chasm, dividing the audience right down the middle with its nonpartisan slush, reporting to be about two ambitious men of vision; one contented to exploit another’s doctrines for personal gain, the other a true liberator turned asunder by the betrayal of his own principles, and ultimately undone in the end by the will of the people he earnestly believes he is fighting to liberate.
In the movie’s penultimate realization, the ever-spouting platitude-driven Che Guevara is confronted by a lonely goatherd (Frank Silvera) only to be cruelly informed he is mistaken in the solemnity of his revolutionary quest. The old man wants freedom – but preferably leans toward a return to normalcy and a time when his goats were unaccustomed to the chronic echo of gunfire; enough to stop them from producing the necessary milk he needs to feed his family.  Made just two years after the real Guevara’s assassination at the hands of the CIA’s Special Activities Division, Che! might have been a fairly ballsy stab at retelling the circumstances of this polarizing figure in both Latin America and abroad. Instead, the film almost immediately degenerates into the sort of grasping pseudo-biographical claptrap on alas expects from Hollywood, mostly contented to remain episodic and fanciful in its marginal deification/peripheral condemnation of this man, the legend and his already fermenting legacy as a true savior of the people.
At 96 minutes, the real story of Che Guevara cannot – and arguably, is not – told; Fleischer forced to cleanse his story of its grittier details through a series of ineffectual flashbacks; the timeline jumping all over the place, but always from an outsider’s perspective, the audience decidedly kept at a distance.  The real Che Guevara was, of course, far more complex than his filmic counterpart; Omar Sharif frequently teetering on the brink of leaden political diatribes; flashing us his superior intellect, peppered in some brilliant military strategies. Alas, Che just cannot seem to reach his congregation with the right message to rise up and take a stand for their invested future. Guevara was, in fact, a devout Argentinian Marxist; educated as a physician and renown as the author of an intimate textbook on how to start and maintain a revolution; ultimate driven to rebellion by what he perceived as the capitalist exploitation of Latin America.  There is, of course, little to doubt Guevara as one of the integral architects of the Cuban Revolution. In fact, his stylized visage has long since become the ubiquitous logo for that counteroffensive victory against the seemingly insurmountable forces of the United States.
What exactly turned this seemingly proud academic into a radicalized freedom fighter…ah, these circumstances are never explored in Che!; nor do we get any of his back story to buttress either our admiration or contempt for this man as presented to us by Fleischer and Omar Sharif as something of a wounded animal; pitiable and physically drained from bouts of crippling asthma.  It is a grotesque mistake to recall Guevara as the injured loose cannon he is depicted as in Che! The movie never recovers from this misfire because Guevara was, in fact, a trusted cultural attaché to Guatemala’s progressive President Jacobo Árbenz; eventually overthrown by CIA-assisted rebels at the behest of the United Fruit Company.
The movie also makes virtually no reference to Guevara’s initial introduction to Raúl (Paul Bertoya) and Fidel Castro. Instead, within the context of the Wilson/Bartlett screenplay, Guevara emerges a grimy mess, fully formed in his khakis and beret, a wild thing stumbling out of the jungle, breathing heavily and taken under Castro’s wing as something of charity case. Nevertheless, the film’s Guevara eventually distinguishes himself by assassinating Hector (Paul Picerni), the first traitor to their cause. It’s the movie’s rather clumsy way of expediting years of pent-up frustrations and cue the audience that Che Guevara is a man to be reckoned with; someone who lives by - and is willing to die for - a certain fundamental set of principles he expects everyone else to ascribe…or else. Again, Fleischer cautiously brokers an opinion that is virtually noncommittal about Guevara’s politics. We get none of the intrigues that helped Castro and Guevara topple the corrupt, U.S. backed, Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista from power. In fact, Batista isn’t even in this movie. What?!?
It’s a little disheartening to embrace Che! as a testament to Guevara’s prowess as a military strategist and dedicated reformist, perhaps even more so because we tend to get Omar Sharif’s performance incrementally; told retroactively from the point of his consecration as a Latin American folk hero after his death. This status is, predictably, downgraded to that of a ‘common gangster’ in the movie’s penultimate candlelight vigil; Guevara misrepresented as a thinly veiled misanthrope who, perhaps, ventured toward his golden panacea with gusto but went about the liberation in the wrong way. Those knowing nothing of history are left to grapple with the movie’s reconstituted perceptions of Guevara as an embittered, emotionally distraught and disenchanted martyr, physically depleted to the point where he would willingly welcome death in front of a firing squad, rather than struggle for the principles that, by the end of Che! have been obscenely diluted into platitudes not even he believes in any more.
Where is Guevara, the tolerant, prolific writer on guerilla warfare (he practically wrote the ‘how to’ manual) and diarist of agrarian land reforms; who helped spearhead a national literacy campaign, diligently served as president of Cuba’s national bank and became the much admired instructional director of the nation’s exceptionally well-informed Armed Forces? Where is Guevara, the leading proponent for advanced socialism as a viable option to the ensconced capitalist model, viewed as having a decidedly Imperialist stranglehold of Cuba’s economic stability? Fair enough, Che! presents Castro as something of a blind-sided fop, knowing just enough to realize he doesn’t know it all – or, at least, enough to launch his revolution and run a country successfully without Guevara’s behind-the-scenes guidance and expertise. But we lose any impression of Guevara as Castro’s much trusted and as feared diviner of Cuba’s militia forces; the same troop that effectively ambushed and repelled J.F.K.’s disastrous blunder into the Bay of Pigs, precipitating the even more harried standoff between the U.S. and Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  
No, Che! is far more interested in perpetuating a counter-mythology to the real legend; one founded on the oft overused cliché of a good man losing himself to his principles, perennially thrust into die-hard anti-neocolonialist fervor that become counterintuitive not only to his cause célèbre, but also flies in the face of the will of the people he is supposedly fighting to liberate with every fiber of his being. Even without this rewrite to Guevara’s decidedly more altruistic ideologies, Che! is a tough sell as a motion picture for even more obvious reasons that have nothing to do with its’ politics; the visual medium of movies never quite able to convincingly capture the inner workings of the human mind; particularly one attuned to embrace proletarian internationalism as the new world revolution.
Guevara’s departure from the Cuban theater to foment his particular brand of insurgency abroad remains a stumbling block for the movie: first because it was an out and out failure in both Congo-Kinshasa and Bolivia, and second, because his mutiny ultimately led to his capture and assassination by CIA-assisted Bolivian forces. Ergo, if Guevara is our hero, then who is the villain of this piece? Hmmmm. How best to promote an historic figure, summarily deified by half the world and equally as abhorred by the other half? The movie never takes a side. Neither does it represent enough of the facts to allow the audience to make up their own minds. In place of subjectivity or even a vague stab at analysis, we instead get star power thrown at the screen; Omar Sharif at the tail end of that decade-long obsession for this sexy Egyptian with the dark and flashing eyes, who dazzled the world in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and continued to procure female admiration with solid performances in such megahits as Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Funny Girl (1968).
Sharif really is more at home in these aforementioned glamor pieces then he is in his scruffy goatee and jet-black unkempt mane. Uncannily, he occasionally looks the part with the necessary severity captured in those hard-boiled orbs. However, either out of respect for his subject or concern to be judged too much like the man himself, Sharif veers on the side of caution in resurrecting Guevara’s magnetic persona for the camera. Sharif all but shrinks from view, becoming the invisible man when forced to espouse the movie’s reconstituted doctrines. These ought to have stirred us to our essential core. Instead, they devolve into hapless prosaicisms about the futility of life and the brutal banalities of war.
Jack Palance doesn’t fare much better as the cigar-chomping Fidel Castro; too broadly painted as the enfant terrible of the piece; grown quite fat when comfortably ensconced in his Cuban penthouse with the ever-present Anita Marquez (Barbara Luna) stroking and stoking his ego. Hence, director Richard Fleischer manages an almost unfathomable misfire in Che!: taking two of the most widely talked about political figures of the 20th century and turning each from their enigmatic and emblematic larger-than-life personalities into abject milquetoasts.  If Che! does have a singular flaw – and it does – it remains this complete lack of spark. Neither actor is capable of transcending his performance into art. But it remains Fleischer’s inability to give us Guevara or Castro as anything better than two sides of a similarly occupied Janus-faced coin: commi #1 versus the commi-light.  
Che! is basically a character piece, begun with the death of its title character, laid out on a slab in a remote hut; Omar Sharif’s voice over providing the first inroad into the series of intermittent flashbacks. In tandem we are introduced to Capt. Vasquez (Albert Paulsen), Guillermo (Woody Strode) and Felipe Muñoz (Tom Troupe); disillusioned relics from the failed and fading revolutionary fervor, quietly bitter, but ever so slightly more apologetic about their own involvement in the events being depicted. Fleischer gives us a snapshot of the deplorable conditions in Latin America; the Wilson/Bartlett screenplay ever so careful not to suggest revolution as the answer – nee solution to Cuba’s socio-economic problems. The no brainer of a plot devolves almost immediately as we slip into the jungle terrain, always the proving ground for real men; Batista’s forces chronically on the heels of Castro’s insurgency, fighting from both land and the air; the rebels enduring mounting casualties that only strengthens the resolve of these stubborn survivors.
Our first glimpse of a living/breathing Che Guevara is as a dirty, little asthmatic, stumbling up a path toward Castro’s makeshift camp; Castro employing Guevara as his personal physician and dentist. Soon, however, Guevara proves his metal, particularly after he shows no mercy towards the traitor, Hector; putting a bullet between his eyes where it is suggested Castro might have contemplated letting the defector live, albeit in captivity. Nothing says guts like splaying somebody else’s all over the nice clean jungle foliage. In short order, Guevara – not Castro – is commanding the rebel army; his edicts of ‘fight or die’ becoming impenetrable doctrines punishable by death. Castro is decidedly impressed with Guevara. The same, however, cannot be said of Guevara with Castro. Increasingly, Guevara becomes disenchanted, particularly after Castro backs down after the Bay of Pigs. To Guevara, it appears Castro has already begun to sell out. He is not a man of revolutionary principles for reform, but rather just a variation on the oppressors Guevara seeks to overthrow en route to his own Latin American Shangri-La; a people’s republic by, of and for the half-starved and intellectually stifled common populace. These wretches, so we are led to believe, know nothing of freedom and are even less inclined to embrace it as an alternative to their miserably impoverished lives.
Departing Cuba for Bolivia, Guevara quickly realizes his monstrous misfire; his inability to convert more than a handful of defiant rebels to his cause leading to considerable frustrations that gradually strip away his façade as a benevolent man of the people. In essence, Fleischer is endeavoring to show us a Guevara less prone to establishing freedom for freedom’s sake than freedom for his own, or even, as a viable alternative to the currently ensconced government he seeks to remove from power. The movie’s Guevara is a man struggling from within and unable to impart his dreams to the simple-minded peasantry in any sort of meaningful way.  Herein, Fleischer really deadheads the impetus of the Che Guevara mystique. After all, who would follow this bush man mercenary into battle when not even he can promise he believes in its fermentation – much less, it’s success?
It’s a tough sell indeed, one Guevara hopes to market to Castro with glowing letters of his fabricated victories abroad in the hopes Castro will back him with more supplies and troops. Alas, as Guevara’s numbers dwindle and begin to succumb to physical exhaustion, starvation and sickness they inevitably turn against him and the people; pillaging villages for food and medical supplies and becoming the enemy instead of future liberators. And Guevara, pushed into an impossible corner, is not above turning to violence to get his points across; in effect, becoming a dictator, perhaps worse than the ones already in power. Hence, his capture and penultimate execution is almost a cathartic release for the film; a means for Fleischer to escape having to explain his perspective on Guevara’s legacy as a freedom-fighting nationalist. Guevara’s surrender to the military, emotionally defeated as he willingly delivers himself in front of a firing squad (his brutal assassination taking place off camera) leaves the audience with the distinct impression Che Guevara has had a belated epiphany about the error of his ways; the proverbial light bulb going off too late to save his own life, but perhaps soon enough to suggest to the audience that his way was not the right way to achieve independence.
If you can buy into this denouement, then I suppose Che! functions as a remedial work covered in a thin veneer of grossly immature and only half-realized morality.  Frankly, it’s neither; Fleischer and Omar Sharif quite unable to provide us with the essence of the man without betraying their capitalist principles; Hollywood decidedly not yet ready to embrace communism as a viable alternative. That love affair would take another three decades to properly ferment under its more popular and polarizing disguise as liberalism. No, Che! is a fundamentally flawed biopic, too brief and much too undecided in its opinion of the man at the center of its supposed controversy.
Omar Sharif gives us a sad-eyed expatriate; a man out of step even in his own time and quite unable to get the rest of his followers up to speed to make any difference at all. His Guevara is an undecided, caught, instead of leading in the fight against brutality. It’s that disillusionment that ultimately unravels Guevara’s confidence and leaves him at the mercy of the Bolivian government, rife for capture and execution. Movies in general have an impossible hurdle to scale when the hero of the piece fails to meet our expectations. 
Alas, Che! was not well received, either in its own time or even today. It’s not all that difficult to pick out the reasons why. Fleischer has Guevara and Castro living in the jungle (the Fox ranch standing in for South America), filling his meager run time with anemic montages dedicated mostly to guerrilla defeats; their victory over the U.S. at the Bay of Pigs skipped over, even depicted as ephemeral wish fulfilment. After all, who in 1969 could have clairvoyantly foreseen a Cuba still dominated by Castro’s reign in 2014!  The sing-song approach to the flashbacks is lethal to the film’s storytelling; the central first person addresses from various former rebels, now sufficiently aged and contrite about the error of their ways, providing an apathetic snapshot at best.
Perhaps adopting the more laissez faire ‘change is good’ mantra from the 1960’s might have done something for Fleischer’s lethargic faux epic. Instead, we get half-apologetic critiques of Guevara’s principles, herein distilled into a few key declarative statements that seem more brazenly self-aggrandizing than serving a higher purpose. Again, are we meant to admire or abhor Che Guevara? Fleischer gives us no clue as to the motivations behind his picture. It’s strictly a middle of the line excursion into the action/drama genre, but without the added strength of an actor capable of making us feel anything for this historical figure, except a sort of disappointed apathy. Poor Che; silly revolutionary. Didn’t his mama ever teach him tequila was a man’s drink? That doesn’t really work and Che! dissolves into a minor piece of fictionalized history; a story without much substance and worse – leaving us without even apocryphal empathy for the man of the hour.   
Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray is solid if unexceptional, just like the movie. The DeLuxe color palette is occasionally wanting. Scenes photographed outdoors fair better in terms of contrast and overall color saturation. The source material is remarkably free of age-related debris. I don’t suppose Che! was given a lot of playtime after its initial debut and meteoric belly flop at the box office. But Twilight Time’s limited edition disc has been competently rendered.  Film grain is a problem; fairly minimal to practically nonexistent throughout most of the movie/thoroughly heavy to downright distracting during a few key sequences and the movie’s penultimate moments leading to Guevara’s assassination. There’s also some sporadic built-in flicker. Nothing terribly distracting, but nevertheless present and to be accounted for without honor, if distinction. The 2.0 DTS lossless audio is surprisingly resilient; Lalo Schifrin’s underscore given its appropriately patriotic due on TT’s isolated score option.  Extras are limited to a six-minute vintage featurette, two trailers and a TV spot, plus Julie Kirgo’s liner notes.  Bottom line: pass on content. Recommended for transfer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Monday, September 29, 2014

THE KILLER ELITE: Blu-ray (United Artists 1975) Twilight Time

The last act finales of director, Sam Peckinpah’s life and career are decidedly not what he would have wished for; a free fall into the oblivion of drug and alcohol abuse that, in hindsight, impugned his usual clear-eyed vision for bringing nail-biting big-time entertainments to the screen. Alas by the early 1970’s, Peckinpah’s own fatalism, coupled with his bitter resentment at Hollywood’s sudden disinterest in the trajectory of his career – when, only a few short years before, he had been hailed by its sycophants as its latest auteur – was cause enough for Peckinpah to steady come to despise the purpose for his creative outlets. Ironically, it’s a total lack of purpose that submarines The Killer Elite (1975); a movie begun with high aspirations, perhaps, but virtually imploding almost immediately after its attention-grabbing prologue. The Killer Elite is, frankly, a mess; a compendium of too many good ideas given short shrift by Peckinpah’s increasing dissatisfaction with his life’s work in general and this movie in particular.
Part of the friction stemmed from Peckinpah’s inability to hammer out a cohesive screenplay during preproduction; Marc Norman’s original draft handed over to Academy-award winning writer, Stirling Silliphant – whom Peckinpah grew to dislike after Silliphant’s provisions for revising Norman’s claptrap included Peckinpah having to cast his wife, Tiana Alexandra as the movie’s love interest. In Silliphant’s screenplay Asian exile, Tommie (Alexandra) pursues James Caan’s ruthless and avenging assassin, Mike Locken. Perhaps owing to the realization Alexandra was hardly an actress, Peckinpah begrudgingly tolerated her involvement, but then went about minimizing her impact wherever possible. In the final edit, Alexandra is hardly in the picture; her part reduced to a walk-on; decidedly not what she had signed on to play. The aspiring starlet would create her own bad press when, unaware her mic was still turned on between takes, she made the rather offhanded and off-colored comment to a friend, that working on Peckinpah’s set was having to endure the company of people she otherwise would not have even considered taking a ‘shit’ on.
While the working relationship between Alexandra and Peckinpah would go downhill from there (indeed, Peckinpah excised virtually all of her key moments from the screenplay - she's afforded only one brief close-up) James Caan and Peckinpah would develop a healthy mutual respect for one another to endure long after the cameras stopped rolling. Not so much between Peckinpah and the movie’s costar, Robert Duvall; who refused to play a pivotal moment where his character, George Hansen takes a rooftop potshot at Japanese diplomat, Yuen Chung (Mako) as he disembarks from a plane. Peckinpah ran into considerable stalemates when shooting this sequence; airport security believing such a breech would shed unflattering light on airport security in general. In one of the movie’s most ridiculous misfires, Hansen’s bullet manages to accidentally kill an unsuspecting bystander; the airport sequence devolving into a chaotic display of bad martial arts sloppily executed and even less gracefully hacked together in the editing room: in hindsight, the beginning of the end for The Killer Elite’s cache as an action/thriller. 
Peckinpah had, in fact, begun The Killer Elite under a dark cloud. His previous picture, Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) was an abysmal box office flop. Although The Killer Elite would turn a profit, it was hardly the little dynamo; perhaps because Peckinpah utterly gave up on his storytelling somewhere along the way, simply focused on finishing the film to collect his paycheck. The kerfuffle over Duvall’s refusal to ascend the tower from which his George Hansen supposedly fires into the unsuspecting crowd (Duvall had a genuine fear of heights) soured Peckinpah on the actor almost entirely. In Silliphant’s original screenplay, the dramatic impetus for the film’s climax was to have been a showdown between Hansen and Locken; adversaries ever since Hansen all but destroyed Locken’s ability to function as a paid assassin by wounding him in the elbow and knee.
This plot point became lost – or rather muddled – in Peckinpah’s chronic tinkering with the script; Hansen unceremoniously dispatched by the slightly psychotic, Jerome Miller (Bo Hopkins), so nicknamed the ‘patron poet of all manic depressives’ by Locken who, upon his lengthy rehabilitation, is rife with vengeance for his arch nemesis. This, alas, is denied him when Miller puts a bullet through Hansen. Regrettably, like most of the story elements, this one makes absolutely no sense at all; the machinations behind Locken’s cloak and dagger wrapped up in the barest of scenarios; that the secret organization of assassins both he and Hansen used to belong to is involved in an in-house 'house-cleaning' perpetuated by its wily puppet master, Lawrence Weyburn (Gig Young).  
There are, in fact, far too many good ideas wasted in The Killer Elite; the movie’s Bruce Lee-ish decade-long fascination with Ninja warriors carried to its absurd extreme herein. Considering the Ninja are supposed to be a superior sect of combatants, their poise, stealth and agility is remarkably off in this movie; their small army of vicious Kendo-wielding mercenaries easily dispatched by Locken, using a common walking stick as his weapon of choice; also, shot at random and cast over the sides of abandoned warships by the ragtag team Locken has assembled on the fly to keep Yuen Chung alive. This consists of the aforementioned Miller and a garage mechanic, Mac (Burt Young) who, in one of the movie’s most lethally ill-conceived moments of ‘suspense’ suddenly pulls over the taxi he, Locken and Miller are using as their getaway car, to diffuse a car bomb affixed to its undercarriage. Exactly how Mac deduces the bomb is there remains a mystery never entirely explained away.
One of the most unintentionally laughable aspects of The Killer Elite is that while it reports to be a story about the best of the best engaging one another in their rogue vocation, mano a mano, the reality is that virtually none of these paid assassins is even marginally competent in their work; their cumulative ineptitude painfully illustrated in the movie’s Chinatown sequence. Peckinpah gives us a pseudo-send-up to his Wild Bunch with Locken and Mac evacuating Yuen Chung and his daughter, Tommie (also a Ninja) from a second story apartment. It’s a painfully silly sequence to wade through; Mac refusing to drive away until Locken jumps in the backseat, the taxi surrounded by machine-gun toting cutthroats, who spray the entire area with a small arsenal of firepower but never manage to hit the vehicle with a single squib. This inane display of uber-violence is matched in its absurdity only by Peckinpah’s staging of the penultimate showdown aboard the mothballed fleet moored at Suisun Bay; Locken taking care of business by affording his corrupt superior, Cap Collis (Arthur Hill) a bullet in the knee and elbow – remuneration for his own ‘forced retirement’ from this mysterious league of un-extraordinary gentlemen.  
The finale to The Killer Elite is, frankly, a joke, and a thoroughly unfunny one at that; the Ninja assassins bearing down on Locken, Mac, Miller, Tommie and Yuen Chung, their sword-play no match against Miller’s machine-gun; Locken forced to engage a few of these highly prized warriors with a common walking stick as his only weapon of defense. Peckinpah shoots this sequence with a thorough lack of edginess or even a fleeting proclivity for carnage in slow-mo; something his filmmaker’s reputation is known for elsewhere and equally has thrived upon. But the action herein is kept at a distance; its’ staged maneuvers never catching fire as visceral, spur-of-the-moment acts of aggression.
Perhaps part of the problem with The Killer Elite is that there is virtually no camaraderie between its characters, an extension of the lack of mutual respect endured by all concerned on the set; Peckinpah diving headfirst over the edge of his story without having yet to fully realize it on paper – much less on film, the mechanics never entirely worked out in his own head. Moving forward without a plan or purpose, Peckinpah shoots what is on his mind at that particular moment, but without first considering where the resulting footage will fit into the film’s continuity as a whole. To some extent, Peckinpah was driven to complete his movie by a desire to prove to Hollywood he wasn’t washed up. The Killer Elite is, in fact, a much more commercial project than, say, Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia; its star power alone returning Peckinpah to his old-time milieu of guts, glory and guns; albeit, without the budget he would have preferred to get the job done. The Chinatown sequence illustrates these cost-cutting measures; shot in mid-day, the streets bizarrely void of any and all foot traffic except for the few necessary vehicles and stunt personnel essential to keep the action moving along. But Peckinpah’s refusal to adhere to either the Marc Norman or Sterling Silliphant screenplay effectively sinks the project.
There is, of course, another aspect to this sad last act in Sam Peckinpah’s life and career as yet to be mentioned; namely, his increasing addiction to cocaine. There is little to doubt Peckinpah’s bitterness toward the system helped to fuel his chronic alcoholism. In hindsight, one can more clearly deduce how this outward self-abuse was merely symptomatic for what had been gnawing at Peckinpah from the inside for a very long time – dating all the way back to the blacklist. Tragically, in the late 1960’s Peckinpah’s self-destructiveness switched from booze to cocaine, misguidedly billed as ‘harmless’ as champagne. Peckinpah’s film-making genius greatly suffered from his increased substance abuse; his inability to provide causal links to his narratives, coupled with his progressively more cantankerous temperament toward cast and crew; his general disgust for the system, and, his contempt for those calling the shots from inside the front offices, while he was toiling in the trenches to will another masterpiece for them from the ashes of his former glories; all of these specters seem to have conspired to deprive Peckinpah of a sense of security – both from within and without. Alas, every true visionary requires this in order to produce his art with confidence.
Peckinpah exhibits little confidence in The Killer Elite; and regrettably, even less of his usual panache for staging gritty action sequences; his métier to keep the audience motivated between the film’s incongruously hacked together and thoroughly mangled story line. When it was released, the critics were quick to pounce; Pauline Kael’s vitriol reserved for Peckinpah and Robert Duvall, the latter heavily criticized for having ‘no personality’. Aside: I have never thought much of Kael’s personality either, except to state she was usually at her best when thinking up thoroughly vindictive diatribes to augment her critiques of movies she would have preferred to see, rather than the ones she actually saw.  

It is therefore begrudgingly that I concede Kael isn’t all too far off the mark in her observations on The Killer Elite. However, Duvall’s perceived 'lack' is not his own doing; Peckinpah losing interest in Duvall’s character after his ominous debut. Duvall remains absent from whole portions of the story and only periodically resurfaces. He’s given small, inopportune moments to shine and makes the least of these – again, mostly because there isn’t much latitude for maneuvering or finding his niche. And Duvall’s career before and since The Killer Elite has, unquestioningly, disproven Kael’s snap assessment about the actor lacking personality as simply a myth.
The Killer Elite opens with a daring title sequence vaguely reminiscent of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958); a bomb planted in the shadowy recesses of an abandoned warehouse by Mike Locken and George Hansen; private contractors for a secret intelligence agency: ComTeg. Peckinpah sets up the premise of a rogue element operating with ‘untouchable’ status and the complicity of the U.S. government. Locken and Hansen escape moments before the hellish blast with Vorordny (Helmut Dantine); a cryptic East European defector. After delivering their captive to other ComTeg operatives, Locken and Hansen blow off some steam with an orgy. I suppose there’s nothing like a roomful of slightly inebriated, bare-breasted hookers to keep a man’s killer instincts primed – other appendages optional.  Hansen delights in discovering a doctor’s note tucked inside a desk drawer belonging to Rita (Carole Mallory), the tart Locken has taken to bed, vaguely detailing a vaginal infection she has, undoubtedly, passed along to Locken during their flagrante delicto.
A short while later, Hansen and Locken arrive at the safe house to relieve the other operatives protecting Vorodny. Locken elects to take a shower; Hansen waiting until the operatives leave before crudely assassinating the defector with a single gunshot to the head.  Hence, when Locken emerges from the shower he finds Hansen waiting for him with gun in hand. A quick shot to the knee and elbow and it’s over. Perhaps out of friendship, Hansen has allowed his former partner to live – barely; Peckinpah moving into the meticulous, time-consuming and not altogether purposeful montage illustrating Locken’s surgery, therapy and gradual recovery from his life-altering wounds. Locken will never be the man he was. The doctors, in fact, have little hope his leg will ever be able to sustain his natural body weight, much less function as a purposeful appendage for walking, running, climbing stairs, etc.
Locken is indifferent to these reports, also unwilling to accept he will remain a cripple the rest of his life; stirred in his recovery by an empathetic nurse, Amy (Kate Heflin) who eventually moves him into her wharf-side home and restores Locken back to a shadow of his former self. Locken pursues his rehabilitation with some martial arts training therapy; his former superior, Cap Collis encouraging him to forget about ever stepping back into the role as a paid assassin. But even Collis is impressed by Locken’s return to form; enough to reconsider him for a job after a contract is put out on the life of a visiting Japanese diplomat, Yuen Chung and his daughter, Tommie. It seems Hansen is up to his old tricks, having turned rogue and working for the other side assigned to kill Chung. His first attempt, using a high-powered rifle from the rooftop at the airport, is badly bungled; Chung’s bodyguards engaging a sect of killer elite ninjas at the baggage check; their badly beaten bodies tossed onto the conveyor, and, much to the shock and chagrin of airport security.  
Having honed his martial arts skills with the use of a walking stick, Locken now recruits his buddy, Mac and weapons expert, Miller to protect Chung, simultaneously plotting his own revenge against Hansen. The middle act of The Killer Elite is Peckinpah’s weakest attempt to cobble together an internal power struggle within the ComTeg organization between Cap Collis and Lawrence Weybourne. In the meantime, Locken, Mac and Miller barely manage a daring escape from Hansen and his small army of mercenaries, careening in a taxi cab through the uncharacteristically vacant streets of Chinatown with Chung and Tommie in tow. Seemingly having a sixth sense about Sam (Tom Bush), the mechanic who worked on the taxi in the hours preceding their evacuation, Sam now discovers a bomb clinging to the undercarriage of the taxi. Diffusing the device (it inexplicably failed to detonate on its own...killer elite, my fanny!) – Mac hands the bomb to the police officer who pulled them over. Perhaps meant as a moment of humor – or even as a narrative bridge between action sequences - this scene is abysmally beneath Peckinpah; too Keystone Cops and not enough poetic irony to suit the rest of the movie.
We flash forward to the docks where Locken has taken Chung and Tommie; the troop lying in wait for the dawn to confront the Ninja assassins. Regrettably, they are found out by Hansen who, much to Locken's dismay, and only after a rather drawn out scene of exposition (designed to explain away some of the glaring loopholes in the plot) is immediately dispatched by Miller with a single gunshot. At dawn, Locken, Miller, Mac, Chung and Tommie board one of the rusted out hulls of the many former warships moored at Suisun Bay for their penultimate showdown. It all unravels with a perilous sense of ennui and abject predictability; Locken exacting his revenge on Collis: gunshots to his knee and elbow – divine retribution, indeed. In the assault that follow, the Ninjas are wiped out; Chung confronts the lead Ninja assassin and dispatches him with ease; Tommie and Mac do their part to rid the decks of imminent danger, Miller is killed, and Locken walks away from the bloody carnage, presumably, with more missions left to complete.
The Killer Elite is a minor disaster, marginally salvaged by the presence of James Caan; also by Philip Lathrop’s cinematography, taking full advantage of the San Franciscan landscapes. In particular, Jame Caan, despite a lack in any genuine sense of his character’s motivations, nevertheless, lends his formidable presence to this project. It isn’t enough to save the film, but it serves as something of a mild distraction from the incongruities in the plot. Tragically, there is a pervasive futility to the exercise as a whole, Peckinpah’s disinterest woefully transparent. Formerly, the salvation in Peckinpah’s use of violence had always been to illustrate or, at least, draw out some deeper meaning – nee clarity – to complement the story.
The uber-ferocity exhibited throughout The Killer Elite isn’t of this ilk at all; just a lot of noisy squibs going off in conflicting directions while never managing to hit their mark – not even once. Hansen can’t pick off an easy mark on a relatively empty tarmac, and, from the proverbial God spot with a high-powered rifle and a clear shot. Locken clumsily stumbles around as Hansen’s death squad opens fire in mid-day Chinatown, unable to have even one of their bullets pierce the metal of Mac’s taxi or flatten a tire. The screaming Ninjas who appear seemingly out of thin air at the airport baggage check, and later, aboard the ships moored in Suisun Bay, are taken out with a few light whacks of Locken’s wooden cane (it never breaks), enduring some obviously staged pratfalls that leave them anesthetized and flinching. These misfits are the killer elite? Really?!?!   
The Killer Elite arrives on Blu-ray via Twilight Time’s exclusive third party distribution with MGM/Fox Home Video, and in a very fine-looking 1080p transfer. This one appears to mimic the previously issued 'region B' Wild Side Home Video presentation in France. TT’s 'region A' edition looks spectacular; free of age-related debris, and with some impressively saturated colors. Flesh tones look quite natural. Contrast has also been superbly rendered. Even the scenes taking place at night or inside darkly lit corridors are sharp with strong detail emerging throughout, showing off Philip Lathrop’s cinematography to its best advantage.  The Wild Side Blu-ray contained theatrical and extended cuts of the movie. Twilight Time gives us the extended cut only, plus the home video debut of Noon Wine (1966); Peckinpah’s foray into television with a marginal western drama co-starring Jason Robarts and Olivia DeHavilland.
But back to The Killer Elite transfer for just a moment. The audio has been remastered in 1.0 DTS and, apart from its obvious mono limitations, is clean, clear and accurately reproduced.  Noon Wine is a bit of a disappointment. It ought to have been sourced from film, but instead looks as though it was minted from a tape transfer. We get color bleeding, haloing and other anomalies, making for a pretty uneventful and occasionally horrendous presentation.  TT amplifies the extras with a fantastic audio commentary from historians Paul Seydor and Garner Simmons, who are accompanied in their reminiscences by TT’s own Nick Redman. This trio also provides some insightful backstory on another commentary track for Noon Wine. Both are a great listen, in fact, and much better than either movie deserves. We also get the truncated ‘Passion and Poetry’ making of, plus a theatrical trailer and TV spots. None of these extras are in hi-def.  Bottom line: if you are a fan of this movie, TT’s Blu-ray is definitely a fantastic upgrade from MGM’s old Frisbee of a DVD. It wasn’t even anamorphic! Bottom line: The Killer Elite isn’t vintage Sam Peckinpah, but the transfer quality is up there with the best.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

SALVADOR: Blu-ray (Hemdale 1986) Twilight Time

Oliver Stone’s movie career has been the stuff of controversy. Perhaps, Stone wouldn’t have it any other way. Whether critiquing the emasculating neuroses of shell-shocked veterans, or tackling volatile conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of the president, Stone’s ‘nothing ventured/nothing gained’ attitude, coupled with a telescopically focused belief in his own opinions, and, his keen film maker’s eye laying bare the hypocrisies of our time, has yielded a veritable treasure trove of cinéma vérité.  A self-professed ‘wild man’, Stone has been oft’ misjudged - and harshly – for his maverick ways. Critics have ranged in their appraisal of his film making prowess from exaltation to indifference to open hostility. Audiences, however, regard him as one of the leading clairvoyants in our postmodern age; bucking trends, probing history and putting forth alternative perspectives that engage, as well as enlighten. There is an edginess to Stone’s art. Passionate, clear-eyed and possessing an innate mistrust – nee contempt for authority – especially, toward injustices perpetuated for political gain – Oliver Stone has, at times, been the lone voice for the social, moral and constitutional redemption of the United States.  
Salvador (1986) remains Oliver Stone’s mislaid gem; channeling the director’s penchant for politically charged in-your-face drama set against a broader canvas of civil unrest. In some ways, Stone’s métier is not unlike that of the immortal David Lean; albeit, with a darker, grittier edge. All but ignored upon its release, snubbed at the Oscars (3 nominations but no wins) and virtually eclipsed in the public’s estimation by Stone’s other monumental contribution of the year – Platoon (1986), Salvador’s reputation, like its’ director’s, has only ripened with age. The film is, in fact, a powerful indictment on the crisis in El Salvador and America’s financial involvement that helped to perpetuate a despicable high command, responsible for the murder of nearly 75,000 civilians.  The Stone/Boyle screenplay begs a burning question: how can a country survive when the proponents for legitimate peace are allowed to be dismantled in favor of a puppet regime funded by America?
Salvador had an inauspicious beginning; Stone casually bumping into renegade photojournalist, Richard Boyle and discovering an oil-stained manuscript kicking about the backseat of his rather filthy car. Inquiring as to its contents, Stone was informed by Boyle he had written down stories of his time in El Salvador; his recollections of the people and bloody civil war sparking Stone’s imagination. Boyle assured Stone no one was interested in the manuscript. After all, he had shopped it around to various publishers but to no avail. Stone, arguably, a sucker for the underdog was immediately intrigued. By 1985, Boyle was regarded as something of a ‘has been’; his methods for covering a story too ‘out there’ for any legitimate media service to put him on their payroll. What Boyle had, in fact, written was the brutal rape and murder of humanitarian worker Jean Donovan and three nuns; names changed in the movie to Cathy Moore (Cindy Gibbs) and Sisters Stan (Dana Hansen), Burkit (Sigridur Gudmunds) and Wagner (Erica Carlson) at the hands of the Juntas; also, about America’s involvement in propping up of a known corrupt administration with financial support, for no other reason than because they were not communists; thus, considered the ‘lesser’ of two evils.
Moving Richard Boyle into his guest house, Oliver Stone hammered out a manageable screenplay in three weeks, shopping the property around with little success. Undaunted, Stone prepared to throw in his own capital behind the project; Hemdale Entertainment signing on to produce and distribute the film. For authenticity, Stone pursued Robert E. White, the former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador from 1979-81; the years Salvador – the movie – takes place. However, perusing an early draft of the screenplay, White was appalled by its blend of crude comedy and ultra-violence which he found irrelevant and strangely perverse. Opting out necessitate a name change; Stone further muddying the waters by making his rechristened Ambassador Thomas Kelly (Michael Murphy) the ineffectual fop of the piece.
Stone’s initial plan had been to shoot Salvador with Richard Boyle playing himself; the entire production set in its authentic locale, with Stone bribing the regime with a phony screenplay in which the Juntas were represented in as the people’s salvation; Stone believing wholeheartedly the ploy would result in a loan out of military equipment and forces at no further expense to the production, thus giving it a big budget look. In the preliminary stages, Stone also attempted to coax his star, James Woods to fly into El Salvador with Richard Boyle as his tour guide. The two men, however, had met earlier at a house party in Los Angeles where Woods took an instant dislike to Boyle. Furthermore, Woods was a severe germaphobe; the prospect of suffering a tour of this third world nation under less than hygienic conditions immediately souring him on the prospect.   The last straw for Woods was rather portentous of things to come; Salvador’s technical adviser shot at point blank range by rebels while on a tennis court. After that, Woods understandably refused to go anywhere near the front lines for the sake of his art. There are really only two ways to regard Stone’s fervent – if misguided – hope to shoot Salvador within the country’s war-ravaged borders; either as brave, renegade film-making of the highest order, or an utterly idiotic daydream of a ‘wild man’ clearly unable – or at least, unwilling - to factor in the real-life perils he would be subjecting his cast and crew, merely to follow his dream project down the proverbial rabbit hole to its inevitable conclusion
Eventually, Stone and his crew settled on Mexico as a viable alternative. Even then Salvador proved anything but a pleasant shoot. Extras lying on a hillside, pretending to be corpses, were left to wilt in the stifling 110 degree heat and humidity for hours; James Woods inadvertently knocking a fair size rock loose from a pile of debris that rolled down the hill and struck an extra in the head. Also, Stone frequently came in conflict with the female agent overseeing the production on behalf of Mexico’s Censorship Board; chastised for his fairly abysmal portrait of this Latin American dystopia, riddled in gunfire and strewn for miles with rural blight, married to the filth of human waste. Meanwhile, in Hollywood Stone and his pet project were cumulatively being viewed as a firebrand; unfavorably laying blame for the horrific atrocities squarely at the feet of Ronald Reagan’s administration. Alas, those expecting a textbook example of how it all came to pass in the real El Salvador – under the tyrannical reign of Roberto d’Aubuisson (rechristened Major Maximiliano ‘Max’ Casanova and played with atypical severity and aplomb by Tony Plana) – would be wise to reconsider a few points. For Salvador would remain a tale of extremes, viewed through the photo lens and eyes of a pair of burned-out grotesques; photojournalist, Richard Boyle (James Woods) and reformed disc jockey, Dr. Rock (James Belushi).
As such, the nuggets of wisdom and kernels of fact to be mined from Salvador became more impressionistic; Stone giving us the Cole’s Notes version of this country’s socio-economic implosion, but (and it’s a big ‘but’) with his own liberalized slant. At times, this tended to eclipse reality with only the vaguest hint of verisimilitude. Yet, like Stone’s greatest works, Salvador is exceptionally clever at mixing up the two. Cast a crew would find no solace; the manufactured chaos paling in comparison to the animosities mounting behind the scenes. James Woods became antagonistic towards Jim Belushi; his contempt for Richard Boyle having already fermented into rank disgust. Woods was clearly unhappy with the working condition. But he had little – if any – respect for Boyle and only marginally tolerated Belushi, who frequently tried to lighten the mood by cracking jokes. On film, this antagonism bode well for the strained ‘friendship’ between Boyle and Rock. Behind the scenes it was a lethal concoction elevating everyone’s blood pressure – if ambition, to get the damn thing finished on time and under budget.
At one point, Woods dramatically announced he was through with Belushi, Stone and the film; throwing down his gear and marching off the set in the direction of the U.S. border; Stone chasing after his star in a jeep three miles up a back road to plead for his return to finish the job. At the same time, the Mexican censors were ordering Stone to remove half of his ‘set decoration’ garbage to tone down his representation of the deplorable living conditions which they believed cast a negative light on their potential tourist trade. Conscious of the fact his $2 million budget could be stretched only so far, Stone begrudgingly complied with this latter request, mostly to get the censors off his back. Eventually, the breakneck pace of production and Stone’s meticulous attention to every last detail, coupled with his added daily responsibilities of playing ringmaster to these warring temperaments, wore Stone down. By his own admission, he wrapped production on Salvador emotionally and physically depleted; even desperate to simply get the footage in the can and state’s side for the editing process to begin. This too proved something of a challenge; Mexico withholding the film negative until they believed proper compensation had been paid. “It was a nightmare’s nightmare,” James Woods would later remark while shaking his head.   
Our story begins in Richard Boyle’s seedy San Franciscan apartment; Richard - lazy, half asleep (or perhaps sleeping off a hangover), leaving his wife (María Rubell) to grapple with a disgruntled landlord demanding overdue rent money. Oliver Stone goes to great lengths to setup our first impressions of Boyle as a genuinely unsympathetic, emotionally cut off and fairly ridiculous screw up. His residence and his car are variations on a sty; his attempted con of a female police officer after he’s caught speeding with a suspended license, segueing into our first introduction of Boyle’s best friend, Doctor Rock; an over-the-hill disc jockey who hasn’t quite outgrown his penchant for late night carousing.  Boyle attempts to find a media outlet that will fund his expedition to El Salvador to cover the war. He is unsuccessful in this pursuit, but elects to go down to South America anyway, taking Rock along for the ride, and using his connections to be reunited with corrupt politico, Colonel Julio Figueroa (Jorge Luke).
Aside: in the original cut of Salvador, Figueroa treats the boys to some ‘hand’ and ‘blow’ jobs courtesy of his small harem; Boyle – ever the wily diplomatist – finagling some invaluable information from his old contact while having his ego stroked (other appendages optional). In the final version we cut to Boyle’s chance meeting with photojournalist, John Cassady (John Savage); competing cohorts from their old skirmishes in Cambodia; swapping drinks between shots or shots between drinks…whichever way they choose to sentimentally recall the atrocities their eyes have seen. More too are in store for the pair at El Playon; a vacant hillside where the death squads continue to dump their rotting carrion for the vultures to pick apart. The Stone/Boyle screenplay trips around, clumsily in fact; and next to San Salvador’s main cathedral where humanitarian worker, Ramone Alvarez (Salvador Sánchez) is attempting to help loved ones identify their missing relatives from mug shots taken after their assassinations. Boyle is seemingly disinterested in their suffering; using the opportunity to tag along with the guerillas who are preparing for their counterattack high in the mountains.
Boyle’s failed attempts to broker favor with the U.S. military overseen by Jack Morgan (Colby Chester), a cardigan-wearing yuppie pinup analyst for a U.S. State Department, and Colonel Bentley Hyde Sr. (Will McMillan), leads to a tenuous détente. Boyle is, after all, a loose cannon; willing to cajole and/or insult to make his point. He carpet hauls pinup reporter, Pauline Axelrod (Valerie Wildman) as a ‘Park Ave. glamor-puss/blowjob queen’ who’s ‘kissed all the right asses’ to advance her career as a media darling when, in fact, she’s not much of a reporter and isn’t really interested in cracking a nail to get beyond the spin put out by the U.S. State Department.  As sweet revenge, Rock spikes her champagne cocktail with acid; Axelrod, looking haggard, yet spun, flubbing her lines during a TV broadcast a little later on.
Realizing the severity of the situation, Boyle plans to get his girlfriend, Maria (the luminous, Elpedia Carrillo) and her children, including a younger brother named Carlos (Martín Fuentes) out of El Salvador. At the same time, he meets up with humanitarian case worker, Cathy Moore and the good sisters, Stan, Burkit and Wagner. Boyle is flirtatious with Cathy, who doesn’t really take him seriously. Cathy is, in fact, a valued contact to Ambassador Kelly and later also becomes something of a point person for Boyle to make his impassioned plea for a passport to get Maria and her family out of El Salvador. Boyle is even ready to marry Maria to make the extradition legal. Alas, she refuses his generosity, partly because she will not be a martyr, but also because she truly loves Boyle with all her heart. A rift develops in their relationship when Carlos and Rock are busted as subversives for possession of marijuana; Boyle bribing the authorities with a gold watch and TV. They let Rock leave. But Carlos is never heard from again; his badly beaten body later discovered. In the meantime, Maria convinces Boyle to see Archbishop Romero (José Carlos Ruiz); a passionate cleric who sincerely preaches for peace and has been marked for assassination by Major Maximiliano. Romero is publicly gunned down in a cathedral packed with parishioners; Max appearing before the press a short while later, supposedly to denounce the mysterious assassin and violence against the church. To quell the public outrage, Max has Alvarez arrested for the murder; earmarked as a communist sympathizer and sentenced to death.
Boyle appeals to Hyde and Morgan to put an end to the fighting by convincing Ambassador Kelly to pull out all military aid from the ruthless winning side. Boyle’s wish will be granted – not by any noble intervention, but by a heinous act that incites the international media to take notice. While on a routine trip to the airport, Cathy and the sisters are run off the road by Max’s death squad. They are violently raped at gunpoint before being shot execution-style and buried in unmarked shallow graves. While Pauline puts a spin on the story; that the nuns perhaps ran a roadblock and were mistaken as rebels, Ambassador Kelly knows better, warning Hyde that as of this moment all U.S. aid is being suspended indefinitely. 
 As Maria prepares to pack and evacuate her home, presumably for the mountains, Boyle is called away by Cassady on an errand to cover the guerillas’ invasion of a nearby town. The guerillas are few in number – roughly 4000 strong – but hearty in spirit. Despite their crippling losses, they take over the military stronghold, assassinating their oppressors at gunpoint, including Max’s army lieutenant (Juan Fernández). Pushed by Hyde and Morgan into reconsidering his suspension of aid, Ambassador Kelly, who is being forced into a resignation by the U.S. government, effectively signs the death warrants for a good many rebels. Tanks, planes and helicopters run buckshot over the ill-equipped guerillas. In attempting to cover the story, Cassady is shot in the throat, handing over his film rolls to Boyle before dying in his arms.
Boyle tries to smuggle the undeveloped canisters out of the country in his boot; Rock having paid for forgeries of passports for Boyle, Maria and her children. Alas, the ruse is discovered by the Junta border patrol, who beat and torture Boyle, threatening to castrate him. Rock gets to a telephone and demands Ambassador Kelly intervene. At the last possible moment he does, and Boyle, Maria and her children are allowed safe passage into the U.S. They slip past customs undetected. It all seems like smooth sailing, until a routine border security check stops the couple’s bus as it crosses state lines into California. Boyle is powerless to prevent the inevitable; Maria and the children are taken away as illegals while Boyle is arrested for resisting arrest. In the movie’s epilogue we learn Maria was deported, but rumored to have survived and escaped to Guatemala.
Almost from beginning to end, Salvador grips the viewer with its bittersweet irony: that virtually most – if not all – of the bloodshed in this war-ravaged territory is needless and could have been avoided without America’s meddling intervention on the wrong side. At one point, Richard Boyle confronts Colonel Hyde on this very bone of contention, Hyde attacking Boyle’s point of view as communist backtalk.  “You know…” Hyde informs Boyle, “…if you were in Vietnam you’d be working in a reeducation camp pulling turnips.” In what is probably the best moment of electrically charged dialogue in the film, Boyle comes back with “I never really like turnips very much, Colonel. And you don't see me applying for Vietnamese citizenship, do you? Is that why you're here, Colonel? Some kind of post-Vietnam experience? Like you need a rerun or something? You pour a hundred twenty million bucks into this place. You turn it into a military zone, so what?  So you can have chopper parades in the sky? You let them close down the universities. You let them wipe out the best minds in the countries. You let them kill whoever they want. You let them wipe out the Catholic Church. You let them do it all because they aren't Commies! And that, Colonel, is bullshit!”
What Boyle doesn’t get, of course, is that it’s open season on the press in El Salvador; particularly such loose cannons as he, who have zero cache with their own diplomatic corps and are equally disdained by the rogue government in charge. What saves Boyle in the end is not his conman’s shell game; not his ability to clear-cut a path of logic through this convoluted military operation; nor even his own wits, diluted by a chronic addiction to TickTack – the country’s 100 proof alcoholic beverage; cheap and lethal in its ability to pickle the human mind. No, Boyle is brought back from the brink by the one faction he might never have guessed would stick its neck out for his safety: outgoing Ambassador Kelly as his final act of amnesty; also by Rock, a man Boyle – and the screenplay initially treat as his inferior; lacking intelligence and a genuine purpose in life.  Nevertheless, it is Rock who gets his act together midway through Salvador (something Boyle never manages to do), and steps into a position of ‘take charge’ authority. Phoning in his favor to the American Embassy in the eleventh hour ultimately saves Boyle’s life. Boyle? He remains a screw-up; a social outcast, incapable of existing without a crisis to buoy him, even in such gruesomely inhospitable conditions.
The irony is that while Maria dreams of a better life in America, Boyle lives more honestly when he places himself at the edge of his own darkest daydream of a destiny – Maria, Rock and Cassady be damned. The aspiration to be the sort of photojournalist he can admire; the kind John Cassady already was and might have gone on to be, is just a diversion for Boyle;  a crutch to convince himself he isn’t as morally bankrupt as he actually is and forever likely to remain. In Cassady’s absence Boyle greedily elects to smuggle out his last rolls of film.  But would Boyle have been honest about where this footage came from? Hmmmmm. His failure to accomplish even this smallest promise prevents us from ever knowing the real truth about Richard Boyle. It also earmarks him as a pathetic excuse; not only as a journalist, but also as a human being; exactly the sort deservedly laughed off by Cathy and vehemently abhorred by Pauline Axelrod.
And yet, James Woods gives us a disquieting quality of confused nobility in his characterization; not easily earmarked as humanity, integrity, bravery or even professionalism.  Woods’ Oscar-nominated performance is, in fact, Oscar worthy because he slices through these complexities, examining Boyle’s tumult from within, while allowing the audience to see this struggle brewing. Here is a guy who really doesn’t know – or even ‘want to know’ how to be a better human being. He just hopes to get by. But he also wants to be great at it – a con’s con. Defining greatness within such a mediocre pursuit is as difficult as peeling a turtle. Boyle’s skin, though seemingly thick at the outset, is actually much more transparent and brittle once Woods’ gives us this varied portrait of a despicable rogue who doesn’t even see the validity in legitimately seeking redemption for his own personality. 
Salvador arrives on Blu-ray via Twilight Time’s third party distribution with Fox/MGM Home Video. It’s a flawed 1080p transfer, particularly the last reel where the image becomes inexplicable softly focused and considerably grainier. The scene where Boyle and Maria fake their way through customs in the U.S. is marred by an unhealthy purplish/green tint and haloing, also looking decidedly out of focus. Overall, color saturation isn’t quite as rich as expected; flesh tones wavering between fairly accurate and piggy pink. Contrast gets milky. But there are some impressive fine details to be had, particularly in close-ups.  Fair enough, Oliver Stone shot Salvador on a shoestring; Gilbert Taylor’s cinematography meant to evoke a pseudo-documentarian feel. But the picture still looks marginally washed out, with a few scattered age-related artifacts sporadically popping up. We’re given two DTS soundtracks; the original mono and a new 5.1. Surprisingly, things sound more natural in mono; the overdubs of dialogue becoming more transparent in the 5.1. Undeniably, Georges Delerue’s underscore sounds more magnificent in 5.1 DTS. Alas, dialogue and SFX is center channel anchored. Bottom line: this is an unconvincing stereo presentation.
TT gives us its’ usual isolated score option in 2.0 DTS – a superior rendering of Delerue’s contributions and worthy of a listen. Ditto for Oliver Stone’s astute observations in an audio commentary – ported over from the old MGM DVD. The most impressive extra is also a holdover from the old DVD. Into the Valley of Death: The Making of Salvador is an hour-long chronicle on the making of the film, featuring some fairly astute observations from Stone, Richard Boyle, U.S. Ambassador Robert E. White, James Woods and James Belushi. Add to this a half hour of deleted/extended scenes, and a trailer, and this disc is nicely packed to impress. I just wish MGM had done more with the transfer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)