Wednesday, October 1, 2014

ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA: Blu-ray (Alan Ladd Company 1984) Warner Home Video

Conceived over a span of roughly 20 years, meticulously shot on locations in New York, Montreal and Venice, but alas, unceremoniously butchered (‘re-edited’) for its North American release, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in America (1984) has been long since considered as ‘the one that got away’; a would-be four hour epic about the transient nature of man’s own brief span of years on this planet; his disillusionment with the follies of life, and penultimate acceptance of the tragedies endured and triumphs achieved along the journey. Never before, and arguably never since, has such a clear-eyed vision of what Leone himself coined, ‘the loss of time’ been so clairvoyantly accomplished on the movie screen. Once Upon A Time in America is undeniably a movie very close to Leone’s heart; a reflection fraught in bittersweet reminiscences for a time unflattering and un-glamorous, yet given over to Leone’s exquisite penchant for resurrecting life as art, and employing his own surrealist beauty to achieve a near-impossible coup. It seems grossly unfair to refer to Once Upon A Time in America as a ‘gangster picture’; its patina occasionally transparent as gushing praise for the Cagney/Raft/Robinson/Bogart pictures of the late 1930’s and early 40’s. And yet, like the other six movies in Leone’s all too brief canon, Once Upon A Time in America remains an ambitious masterwork with an extraordinary vision at its center, unlike any other ‘gangster’ movie before or since.
As was something of a habit with Sergio Leone, Once Upon A Time in America had a lengthy gestation; Leone already begun to ferment the kernel of an idea in his creative genius while still shooting Once Upon A Time in the West (1969). Leone briefly toyed with the idea of actually casting the aged Cagney as the elderly David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson (the part would eventually go to Robert DeNiro – a formidable ‘second choice’). Delays abounded, Leone dissatisfied with various drafts of the screenplay, based on Harry Grey’s ‘The Hoods’; the first, written by Norman Mailer, the ultimate ‘working script’ a compendium cobbled together by no less than eight writers (including Leone); most of them long-time and greatly admired colleagues from his early years (Franco Arcalli, Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Franco Ferrini, Ernesto Gastaldi, Stuart M. Kaminsky, and, Enrico Medioli).
By the time Once Upon A Time in America went before the cameras it had been over ten years since Leone’s last picture – a lifetime in the movie industry where an artist (even one as universally respected as Leone) is no better than the reputation of his last commercial success or flop. Hence, Leone found it difficult to find backers for this pet project, conceived as the last chapter in his trilogy of tomes to the America that was sadly, or perhaps mercilessly, is no more. In producer, Aaron Milchan, Leone was to discover something of a kindred spirit; certainly one who allowed him to make the movie he wanted, without the usual egregious input from a front office unaware, and unsuspecting of the artistic merits of any project. As Leone prepared to delve into this meticulously recreated living tableau, inspired by the photographic accounts of immigrant life taken by famed photographer, Jacob Riis, Once Upon A Time in America drew hushed curiosity from industry insiders; admirers, sycophants and detractors alike, all eager to embrace and/or criticize Leone’s latest project. No one then knew it would be his last.
Over the years rumors have abounded about the various casting choices, and indeed, Leone had bounced around all sorts of whimsical notions as to who would star in his opus magnum; the considerable passage of time between his idea for the movie and the actual shooting of it necessitating a revolving roster of endless possibilities and a few dalliances along the way, with actors who, with all due respect, had no hope in hell of making the grade; like Gérard Depardieu, who spoke zero English at the time, but professed a fervent determination to master the language – and with a Brooklyn accent no less. I shudder to think how Once Upon A Time in America would have turned out had he succeeded; Depardieu’s foray into English-speaking movies having since illustrated how impossibly heavy his own accent has remained. There were others in the queue; Jean Gabin for one; Richard Dreyfuss for another, and of course the aforementioned Cagney, who by 1982 was ailing and unable to partake. To say Leone saw every major and rising star of the time is an understatement; Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight and John Malkovich all interested in stepping up to the plate.
Ultimately, Leone went with Robert DeNiro and James Woods, the latter not an obvious choice since he had yet to carve a niche for himself in the movies. However, Woods was hardly a novice to his craft, having performed the lead in 36 plays and also briefly appeared on the big and small screens, underused, rather than prominently featured. In the wake of DeNiro’s iconic performances in other gangster movies we’ve come to take him for granted as the quintessential Mafioso. But Once Upon A Time in America would solidify this impression like no other contribution made by the actor before it – save, perhaps Mean Streets (1973); DeNiro assuaging into the role of God’s lonely outcast with a sort of sad-eyed slickness; careworn, corrupt and occasionally contemptuous. It’s a hell of a performance, DeNiro’s descriptive visage capable of looking perfectly in place as both the young rumrunner and the elder statesman on the lam and in hiding.
While it was shooting, Once Upon A Time in America was to acquire a rather unflattering reputation as a runaway production given over to Leone’s excesses. Lest we remember, the film began shooting in 1982, just two brief years after cost overruns and a lengthy shoot on Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) had bankrupted the venerable independent film-maker’s studio, United Artists. And to achieve the sort of verisimilitude Leone was ultimately after took time – and money; eating up a lot of both and, on occasion, trying everyone’s patients; Leone shooting and re-shooting until it was exactly right to satisfy his camera eye; his cinematographer, Tonino Delli Colli recalling how one day all he and Leone photographed was 26 takes of a single master shot: extras parading up and down the street before the inevitable shift of natural sunlight forced Leone to concede he already had it in the can. “I don’t think Sergio wanted to finish it,” DeNiro would later profess, “I don’t think he ever wanted to stop shooting…I understood that.”
Incredibly, Leone was left mostly to his own accord, achieving a level of artistry unheard of in the cost-cutting 80’s, unaccustomed to such lavishness; the resultant footage truly a throwback to another era in film-making when the impeccable visualization of every single frame was of paramount concern. Viewing Once Upon a Time in America today, the film has not dated – perhaps because it was always intended as a period piece out of step and sync with its own time. Even so, it bears the hallmarks of another time and place entirely, as though Leone has somehow managed to rewind the counter of his life, step back in a magical time machine and make it back to 1969 as he always hoped to and had earnestly begun.
Alas, what ought to have been Leone’s crowning achievement (the movie was, in fact, hailed as a masterpiece when screened at Cannes), ironically, in America, became something of a grand disappointment. The picture’s lithe continuity was destroyed after Warner Bros. executives, utterly baffled by Leone’s daring to juxtapose moments from the past, present and future out of chronology, elected not only to pare down Once Upon A Time in America’s run time to a staggeringly truncated 139 minutes – and this, after Leone had already been convinced to cut the film from 270 to 229 minutes (working from a surplus of nearly 10 hrs. of footage) – but also rearranging the footage into what was then perceived as a more linear format. In retrospect, these decisions proved lethal; the cadence, mood and flavor of the piece utterly evaporated.  
Viewed in its proper order of continuity, that is to say, Leone’s cut, Once Upon A Time in America has been interpreted as an opium-induced hallucination. In this regard, the movie’s non-linear timeline makes perfect sense; one man’s bittersweet and understated indictment on his squandered youth and misguided, lifelong – though ultimately fruitless – investment in organized crime. Leone’s impressions of the ‘immigrant experience’ are perhaps the most honest ever committed to film; imperfect, occasionally playful snapshots of the squalor in both pre and post-Depression era America; tracing the elemental decline of the unfulfilled promise of the ‘American dream’ and its inevitable backlash and fallout chronicled in the passage of the years, the loss of loved ones and the blight of urban decay, mirrored in the heart and mind of our aged protagonist.
Leone, who had established darker themes in his revisionist spaghetti westerns, carries over similar ideals into this more contemporary tale; in essence, illustrating the futility of man’s desire to change and rise above his own fallibility.  It’s a very astute observation when you think about it; as not much has changed in man’s evolutionary chain; the ever-evolving technological aspects of our society merely advancing man’s opportunity to pursue the same tired, old and easily corruptible ambitions of his ancestors. At its core, Once Upon A Time in America is still very much a version of these ensconced principles; like the solitary ‘man with no name’, unprincipled and merely passing through this vast landscape of time and space without making much of an impact on it; Leone trades in the towering buttresses and craggy, cavernous rock formations of Monument Valley for a metropolitan ‘wilderness’; amoral, decadent and unruly – a wild thing that cannot be tamed by these teeming masses who have come to America under that false promise, the proverbial bubble in their dreams for a new beginning about to be burst. 
In 1997, American audiences at last saw an approximation of Leone’s vision for Once Upon A Time In America; re-screened at 229 minutes to universal acclaim. Now, Warner Bros. has elected to go back to the wellspring yet again, this time reinstating nearly 20 additional minutes of footage. I find it somewhat facetious to refer to this 251 minute re-edit as ‘the director’s cut’ – since, Leone’s original edit ran 270 minutes. Still, there is little to deny this version replicates more fully Leone’s original intensions for the movie; getting closer to satisfying the completionist’s verve to absorb every possible nuance and moment in its fullest flourish. At 229 minutes Once Upon A Time in America was already a masterwork. At 249 min. it has evolved into an enrichment of Leone’s innate love for storytelling so obviously imbued within every fiber of his being. At 270 minutes, undoubtedly, the movie would have ranked right up there with cinema perfection itself.
For the purposes of expediting a summary of the film’s plot, this review will attempt to explain it in a more linear fashion, something I strongly suspect Sergio Leone would have absolutely hated. Yet, to try and write any viable or even valid critique about Once Upon A Time In America as it occurs on the screen is, I believe, to equally bastardize the director’s vision with sing-song shifts back and forth to mark these transitions. Leone does, in fact, begin his story in the middle; David 'Noodles' Aaronson (Robert De Niro) eluding Mafia hit men, but unable to expunge his memory even under the powerful influences of opium inside an Oriental flophouse. We’re in the 1930’s, Noodles slipping in and out of his drug-induced stupor as he grapples with the various aspects of his delinquent youth that, indirectly – or perhaps directly – have made him the sloppy mess of a man he is today.
The opening sequence to Once Upon A Time in America has a dreamlike quality; albeit with more of a nightmarish slant; the assassination of Noodles’ girlfriend, Eve (Darlanne Fleugel); the discovery of charred bodies being pulled from a fire, the pummeling to a bloody pulp of Fat Moe Gelly (Larry Rapp) by a trio of Mafia hit men attempting to snuff out Noodles’; a hidden briefcase inside a locker at the train depot, alas - emptied of its stash. In this initially chaotic fantasia of images, Leone gives us what is perhaps the greatest singular snapshot of a failed hoodlum; a sort of text book example for all the reasons why crime really doesn’t pay – except in dividends of grief, sorrow and abject misery.   
We advance to the 1960’s; David having successfully eluded the Mafia for nearly four decades, now returned to his old haunt, discovering Moe still the proprietor of a bar he inherited since his father’s time; very little changed in the memories he holds dear from his imperfect youth. We regress to the turn of the century; Young David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson (now played by Scott Tyler) an awkward ruffian, lives in New York’s Jewish ghetto community. His days are spent roughing up rummies for a few bits of spare change, along with his fellow mugs; Patsy (Brian Bloom), Cockeye (Adrian Curran) and Domenic (Noah Moazezi). Fat Moe (Mike Monetti) works in his father’s deli. Moe’s sister, Deborah (Jennifer Connelly) is a rather priggish, though ambitious young girl with dreams of becoming a professional dancer. She has little interest in David, who finds other ways to satisfy his burgeoning sexual urges; chiefly, with Peggy (Amy Ryder), the trollop living in his tenement. Peggy is not terribly discriminating when it comes to giving it up. Hell, she can be had for the price of a creampuff.   
Noodles and his gang inadvertently meet up with Max Bercovicz (Rusty Jacobs) - a bigger operator on every level, who helps them frame Officer Whitney (Richard Foronjy), the policeman standing in their way.  Whitney gets caught with Peggy; Max taking a compromising photo to mark the occasion and use as leverage in their blackmail.  Afterward, Max convinces the boys to take up with him and together they quickly set themselves up, using common, though clever thievery to procure the luxuries only someone else’s money can afford. Alas, this fledgling organization is in direct conflict with Bugsy (James Russo); a ruthless Mafia point man. To mark his territory, Bugsy murders Domenic in cold blood. The assassination sets Noodles off – our first glimmer of his soon to be famous temper. In retaliation, Noodles not only stabs Bugsy to death, he also wounds Officer Whitey.
Spending the rest of his youth incarcerated for murder as a juvenile, upon his release in the early 1930s, Noodles (now played by DeNiro) discovers his ever-devoted pal, Max (now played by James Woods) waiting for him on the outside. Better still, in Noodles absence, Max has taken over their modest crime syndicate, parleyed into a fairly lucrative bootlegging operation. True to their friendship, Max makes Noodles his partner. He rejoins the rest of the old gang who run a popular speakeasy. Noodles is also reintroduced to Deborah (now played by Elizabeth McGovern). She’s as distant and aloof as ever, having invested her time in advancing her career. There’s no getting around it. As a priggish girl, Deborah was mildly unattainable. As a young lady of culture, she’s evolved into a respected dancer/actress completely out of Noodles’ league, likely to have all of her childhood dreams fulfilled – and not about to let Noodles stall any of her plans for continued success.
The boys are hired by big time Mafioso, Franki Manoldi (Joe Pesci) to assist his mobster brother, Joe (Burt Young) in smuggling some diamonds from Detroit. Noodles is not entirely certain Max should partake in this venture; a suspicion confirmed when the exchange of money for diamonds at an abandoned ship's graveyard turns bloody and murderous. Following the gruesome assassination of Joe and all his men, Max confides in Noodles he was told in advance by Franki to murder his brother and collect the precious cargo for himself. At the same time Max, Noodles and the rest of the gang are prospering from their bootlegging operation, Max also hooks up with corrupt union boss, Jimmy Conway O'Donnell (Treat Williams); the boys providing thug muscle for hire.
Everything seems to be going their way. However, from this moment forward, Noodles and Max will steadily begin to grow further and further apart; their mutual interests diverging on a basic ideology. Noodles believes they should work for themselves and remain small but owe their destiny to no one. Alas, Max has allowed greed to clutter his mind; his ambitions preceding sound logic. He thinks the only way to rise to the top is to organize with a more prominent criminal element; erode it from the inside and gradually rise to the top by any means necessary.
To suit his flashier lifestyle, Max takes up with Carol (Tuesday Weld); a sadomasochistic creature who previously helped the boys rob the jeweler for whom she works, encouraging Noodles to beat and rape her as part of the scam; supposedly to throw her bosses off the scent of the fix. Actually, Carol fairly enjoys herself with Noodles and shares in the loot later on. Solvent for the first time in his life, Noodles decides to pursue Deborah once again. Too bad he hasn’t the faintest idea how to go about it; still the gawky preteen in his own mind and feeling ever so much more emasculated by the airs Deborah puts on to both impress and humiliate him in tandem. Tragically, each has underestimated the other; Deborah allowing Noodles to wine and dine her at a palatial seaside resort, only to put the brakes on when he attempts to get frisky in the backseat of their chauffeur-driven car. Unable to take ‘no’ for an answer, Noodles forces himself on Deborah, taking from her what she is unwilling to give and leaving her tearstained and demoralized afterward with no hope now of Noodles ever making Deborah his wife.
The last act of Leone's saga plays fast and loose with the narrative timeline. Noodles and his pals become embroiled in a botched stickup job on the U.S. Federal Reserve - the aftermath only briefly glimpsed in the prologue; the charred remains of presumably Max, Cockeye and Patsy lying on the cold wet pavement.  Prior to this grizzly end, Max and Noodles had taken a vacation to Florida where each learns prohibition has been repealed, thereby putting an end to their lucrative bootlegging and speakeasy. Leone now leaps ahead to 1968. Having discovered a briefcase containing the stolen treasury money, Noodles, now a middle-aged man, reunites with Deborah backstage. She has become a successful film and Broadway star in the interim, but has since married Secretary David Bailey - currently suspected of city corruption. Noodles tells Deborah he has been invited by Bailey for a house party. Nervously, Deborah pleads with Noodles not to go. Instead, Noodles learns Deborah has a son, also named David (also played by Rusty Jacobs who played young Max); the presumed implication being Max and Deborah have had an affair and young David is their lovechild.
Arriving at Bailey's Long Island estate, Noodles is in for an even bigger shock when he discovers Secretary Bailey is actually Max. Having escaped the rap for the Federal Reserve holdup, he has lived obscurely with a name change; his lie for half a century about to be exposed; exploiting his contacts in organized crime to advance to his political rank. Unable to accept his inevitable demise, Max encourages Noodles to shoot him in his study, even providing him with a foolproof plan of escape so the crime can go unpunished. Instead, Noodles refuses, recognizing that if he were to comply with Max's request he would forever destroy the second half of his life as surely as the first half was turned to excrement by their association.
Walking away from the estate in the dark, Noodles takes notice of a garbage truck parked nearby. The truck begins to follow him down the street and from behind it there emerges a shadowy figure - presumably, though perhaps not entirely - Max (Leone is particularly evasive about showing us Max's demise). As the truck passes by Noodles, the shadowy figure is momentarily obscured from his view and afterward has altogether vanished. If this is Max, then we must assume he has thrown himself into the rear compactor as a final act of insane self-destruction. We return to the opium den first seen at the start of the film; Noodles shown to a bed by the proprietor who also helps him begin his hallucinogenic descent. Noodles reclines on his back with a queer, faintly disturbing grin; Leone freeze-framing on this ambiguous moment as the credits begin to roll.
Once Upon A Time in America is fancifully told. Even its title suggests a fairytale. Like the best from the Brothers Grimm, this story is imbued with transient episodes of madness and elation; the mediocrity of daily life forever in danger of succumbing to omnipotent and peripheral darkness. It clings to the edges of uncertainty; only occasionally and all too briefly permitted to bask in the stark and unflattering pall of broad daylight. The only way this film’s ephemeral timeline works is if we assume the story being told is entirely the product of Noodles’ opium-induced hallucinations and/or fertile imagination. Having seen the original truncated and re-edited North American print on its initial theatrical release back in 1984, I recall how nothing about Once Upon A Time in America then made any sense. But in reassembling the movie the way Sergio Leone would have wanted it we get an even more phantasmagoric experience; the pieces never neatly fitting together.
Perhaps, this too is Leone’s well-fermented point: that the circle of life is built with imperfect spokes to support its wheel; the youthfully impertinent desire to control our own destiny gradually getting away from us and spinning out of control until we become mere travelling companions on its inevitable ‘journey’ instead of commanding the view from the driver’s seat. As a dream remembered, Once Upon A Time in America makes perfect sense; the audience not entitled to have all the pieces of the mystery; simply the ones marginally necessary to connect the dots between the past, present and future.
Warner Home Video's reissued 2-disc Blu-Ray is a minor revelation. I have a confession to make and it’s that I remain a little disappointed with this release; my dissatisfaction having nothing to do with the quality of the reinstated ‘lost’ sequences into the original 229 minute cut of the movie. To be clear, Warner has given us a second opportunity to own the 229 minute assembly; also the extended 251 minute ‘director’s cut’; both remastered in 4K. Framed correctly in 1.78:1 the 1080p image reveals the same level of startling clarity and sharpness as before. Colors are richly saturated with very accurate flesh tones. The presentation of the extended cut tends to favor a less vibrant palette; I’ll presume in keeping with Leone’s intent, but also to minimize the jarring effect between the footage culled from stellar original camera negatives and the less than perfect 35mm work print footage reinserted. Fine detail is superbly rendered and contrast is bang on. You’re going to love this hi-def presentation.
As per the reinstated footage: basically a few choice scenes that augment and expand upon our appreciation for the story and its characters; these have been culled from inferior 35mm work prints; the worse of all possible source materials to begin ANY restoration; regrettably, the only viable option in existence. Through a grant from The Film Foundation and additional funding provided by Gucci, Warner Home Video has achieved some fairly miraculous results with this imperfect material. Honestly, there is nothing else the studio could have or should have done to improve upon what’s here. Yes, it doesn’t match the quality of the rest of this presentation and – yes – those with discerning eyes and monitors will undoubtedly poo-poo the advancement of grain, the obvious loss in color saturation, and, the marginal loss of fine detail; also the wan tonality and contrast. But we’ll simply go on record as saying it’s damn fabulous to have more of Leone’s original vision back up on the screen rather than the cutting room floor after much too long an absence. There – enough said.
Moving on: we get the same 5.1 DTS audio as before; the inserted elements only available in 2.0 and suffering for obvious reasons. Still, it’s a forgivable concession. What is not forgivable, in my opinion, is the continued short shrift given extra content. The theatrical cut retains Richard Schickel’s rather lumbering audio commentary. The new ‘extended cut’ gets no such consideration. I would have been contented if Warner Home Video had simply paused the Schickel track to accommodate the 22 minutes of added footage (although, ideally it would have been prudent of them to recall Schickel in simply to record some fresh observations on this reinstated footage). 
We get the same 20 minute ‘excerpt’ from the feature length documentary; Sergio Leone: Once Upon a Time. I’ll just go on record as saying I’m not a fan of truncated documentaries or excerpts of anything. What ought to have occurred here was a third disc option, containing the full documentary and preferably, a brand new ‘making of’ bringing together the likes of Bob DeNiro, Liz McGovern, James Woods and some of the other surviving cast members. With so much PR buzz about this release, fans deserved at least this much!
Warner has handsomely packaged this disc with a pseudo-suede booklet filled with factoid tidbits. I’ll admit, the booklet provides more info on cast and crew than other similar offerings included with the likes of Casablanca, Citizen Kane and multiple Oz reissues; but its’ still a junket offering at best instead of a comprehensive ‘look back’ piece to be treasured for generations yet to come. Bottom line: recommended and given an ‘A’ for effort on the extended cut. Given an F- for practically everything else.  Buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
229 min. version - 4.5
251 min. director’s cut -  5+


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)