VAULT OF SECRETS: Joe Don vs. Billie Jean!

Pleasingly plump ‘70s action goes head-to-head with the righteous wrath of ‘80s rebellion!

The world gets stupider every five minutes. In a strike against the new Dark Ages, several major studios have taken a bold step forward in reviving their cinematic legacies. Warner Bros, MGM and others are making digital masters of their rarer archival prints and offering them to us under-appreciative worms on DVD. And Vault of Secrets is on hand to assess a sampling of ‘em twice a month, new and old, good and bad.

GOLDEN NEEDLES
Dir. Robert Clouse / 1974 / MGM Limited Edition Collection

The unlikely combo of big boy Joe Don Baker, grumpy old man Burgess Meredith, and karate master Jim “Black Belt Jones” Kelly headline this amiably aimless rampage, which is loosely based on The Maltese Falcon. The homicidally charged opening introduces us to the Seven Golden Needles, mystical acupunctural instruments of age reduction, miraculous healing and – in the wrong hands – death. After the needles are pilfered by triad mercenaries, a bevy of colorful obsessives are hot on the trail. Joe Don is pulled into the chaos when his business partner is murdered, and our man embarks on a string of klutzy brawls and sweaty winks that somehow define him as a hero. Aiding him in the search is aged Hollywood dream queen Ann Sothern and Jim Kelly, who seems almost as confused by the plot as the screenwriter.

While dodging attackers in the claustrophobic Hong Kong streets, Joe Don grabs the nearest 2X4 and caves in an enemy’s windshield, a trademarked move brazenly borrowed from his own runaway 1973 hit Walking Tall. You’ll be infinitely more entertained when he abruptly grabs some sizzling meat from a street vendor’s cart, shoves it in his mouth and exclaims: “I’m hungry for this! I’m hungry for all this Hong Kong crap food! I can’t live without it!”

At the time, director Clouse was riding high on the chopsocky highway, having just helmed the unparalleled Enter the Dragon and the successful but, uh, paralleled Black Belt Jones. For this globe-spanning adventure, he teamed with Golden Harvest Productions mega-magnate Raymond Chow and packed the film with familiar faces, but somehow strayed from the spark that made his earlier works (i.e. Darker than Amber) really detonate. That being said, Golden Needles is a big, hairy barrel of shamelessly low-end whoopee.

THE PACK (Remastered Edition)
Dir. Robert Clouse / 1977 / Warner Archive

Three years later, Clouse and Joe Don Baker reunited for this decidedly kung-fu-free canine holocaust. Thanks to Jaws, man-eating ocean creatures were all the rage in late ‘70s cinema, but The Pack brings the beasts inland as a gaggle of starving, rabid pooches go bananas on an island full of helpless tourists. These dopey, tragically white humans are completely incapable of tying their shoes much less any manner of self-defense, and spend a good portion of the film tripping over pebbles and falling directly into the dogs’ foaming mouths.

Baker plays the marine biologist (!!??) who’s the residents’ last hope against mange-addled rage, and he’s joined by a cast of goofs and schlubs punctuated by talented, gnarled character actor R.G. Armstrong. The rest of the bipedal meat are portrayed as completely disposable stereotypes, though mostly ones that don’t exist in fiction or reality. For example, there’s the banking CEO with an undying big game hunting bloodlust, who hires a prostitute to seduce his roly-poly son. The “boy” is about 34 years old, but looks and acts like something that fell off Baby Huey.

All in all, The Pack is flesh-ripping, human-despising, formulaic-but-recommendable fun. The closing credits inform us that no dogs were harmed in the making of this picture…but they sure did do some brutal triple somersault/faceplant combos from burning roofs.

THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN
Dir. Matthew Robbins / 1985 / Sony via Warner Archive

Personal note: the long-awaited DVD release of this crucial ode to wild youth is a bittersweet event for me. I mean, yeah, it’s about damn time we see this beloved ‘80s classic in all its widescreen majesty. But on the other hand, Billie Jean has always been my ultimate go-to example of nostalgically important studio films that remain on VHS only. Still, considering over 40% of the movies released on VHS still haven’t made it to DVD or any other format – including great works by directors like Howard Hawks, Ingmar Bergman and Nicholas Ray – true film fans won’t be ditching their VCRs anytime soon. So let’s talk about this release already.

Billie Jean Davy (Supergirl’s Helen Slater) is a gold-hearted teen resident of Corpus Christi, Texas. Her best friend is her scrappy kid brother Binx (Christian Slater in his film debut). When a group of older bullies destroy Binx’s beloved motor scooter, sis takes it upon herself to make things right…and ends up having to skip town on a weapons charge. On the lam with her brother and friends (including voice actress Yeardley “Lisa Simpson” Smith in a great on-screen role), Billie Jean unwittingly achieves outlaw hero status. By the time they encounter lonely outcast tech nerd Lloyd (Keith Gordon), she’s a local legend…and word is still spreading.

 

Billie Jean experiences a revelation while watching Otto Preminger’s Joan of Arc bio-pic Saint Joan. Realizing the unlikely importance of her accidental mission, she cuts her hair short like the film’s lead Jean Seberg and steps out to address her crew. With Lloyd’s help, Billie Jean broadcasts messages to the media that explain her situation, always ending with her adopted mantra: “Fair is fair.” As the video statements spread, Billie Jean becomes an iconic force throughout the US. Teenage girls begin aping her militant new wave hairstyle and wetsuit wardrobe in an effort to channel Billie Jean’s power and resolve.

Supporting roles from Dean Stockwell and a sympathetic Peter Coyote are well played, but nothing can distract from the intensity of the kids’ quest. Blindly jaded modern viewers may scoff at the dated mall fashions and Pat Benatar theme track (which incidentally rules), but go ahead and let ‘em be wrong. Though the exact reasons are hard to pinpoint, something about The Legend of Billie Jean is so desperately sincere that a mid-‘80s studio film for dumb teens inadvertently becomes a stirring quasi-feminist masterpiece.

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...That's it for this round, but as always, there are plenty more to come. These titles and a whole mountain more are available for pocket change from WarnerArchive.com, Oldies.com and on Amazon. Give a few a shot, cheapskate!

NOTE: these aren’t shoddy DVD-Rs, but instead clean, gorgeous, high-quality DVDs in the films’ original aspect ratios, with fancy full-color covers and the whole deal. Many have never been available on any home format, and since the studios don’t have the pressure of selling thousands of units, they’re releasing the most varied and often electrifyingly bizarre titles in their vast libraries. You can either buy these or the complete Friends box set. Your choice!

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