As modern-day Hollywood rots into maggoty shrapnel, several major studios have taken a bold step forward in reviving their legacies. Warner Bros, MGM and others have quietly started making digital masters of their rarer archival prints and offering them to us undeserving nimrods on DVD. And we’re here to assess a sampling of ‘em twice a month, new and old, good and bad.
Today we squint the critical eye at:
KILL A DRAGON
Dir. Michael Moore / 1967 / MGM Limited Edition Collection
Jack Palance has eight big, hairy knuckles and they'll jump all over your face if you sass him. That's one lesson taught by Kill a Dragon, the other being something about a man in a dress and a bunch of nitroglycerin. Rectangular adventurer Palance plays Rick Masters, a fearless hunk of free-wheeling meat who divides his affections between wine, gambling, and women who don't like clothes. When a seaside Hong Kong community is threatened by a black-hearted explosives fiend, Masters and his colorful whiskey buddies gird their loins for some breezy, good-timey combat.
Most notable among these supporting heroic goons is anything-for-a-dollar toughie Aldo Ray. A barrel-shaped veteran of countless westerns and war films, Ray would work through the early '90s but was clearly already skull-deep in scotch by the time this '67 production came calling. He slurs key lines and attempts eye contact with any passing object, even doing some of this in drag. Palance is similarly detached, grinning and swaggering through every shot, and seemingly amused that he hasn't been kicked off the shooting set. Former Bond girl Aliza Gur is the closest thing the film has to a female lead, but that basically means she rolls around with Palance in bed and occasionally calls him a rude name.
There's not all that much to Kill a Dragon besides easy-going blue collar action melodrama, the TV-safe type to be enjoyed by grandpa and junior on a summer afternoon. But the party the cast was having off camera would most definitely be rated a hard R.
UNCLE JOE SHANNON
Dir. Joseph C. Hanwright / 1978 / MGM Limited Edition Collection
The entertainment industry has always traded heavily in escapism, offering us fantastical fictional avenues to escape from the pointless, godless agonies of the real world. But somewhere along the line, Hollywood also managed to transform the suicidally self-loathing alcoholic into a marketable stereotype. Features like The Lost Weekend and Cassavetes' Husbands are among the most widely praised movies of the last half century. Naturally, a few brutally powerful liver-wreckers slipped past the cinematic radar, and none are more effectively soul-crushing than Burt Young as Uncle Joe.
Most of us know tiny, fuzzy character actor Burt Young as the lovably disgraceful brother-in-law Paulie in all six Rocky films. Or maybe as Rodney Dangerfield's seemingly superhuman limo driver Lou in Back to School. Young has played over a hundred roles on the big and small screen, usually as a pugnacious anti-intellectual with a spring in his step and a zany name like Gimpy or Bobby "Love Machine" Pigpen. His skilled performance as Uncle Joe is a startling diversion from these lighter characters, and even more surprising is the fact that Young penned the incredibly downbeat script on his own (his only feature film writing credit).
This is the crushing spiral of one Joe Shannon. When the story opens, he's among the West Coast's top trumpet players despite his ethnic handicap. But after a terrible tragedy claims the lives of his wife and son, Joe loses his talent, his future and his will to live. He careens from one unhappy hour to another, occasionally tootling off a few sour notes from his dented horn to open mic nightclub frowners. At the final threads of his rope, Joe meets 10-year-old Robbie (Doug McKeon), an abandoned kid with a withering leg. As you'd expect, the two self-loathing cast-offs latch on to each other because they have no one else. But the film chooses likelihoods over miracles, and reminds us that the human spirit doesn't necessarily always triumph.
Most of the films covered in this column are aimed at the brain's most visceral centers, often landing on the lowbrow end of the video rainbow. This is the first straight drama to be written up. Even though it's imperfect, and the viewer is forced to endure a heapin' helpin' of Caucasian trumpet-tooting, Uncle Joe Shannon is unique in its powers of emotional destruction and well worth a watch. Keep the kleenex and earplugs at the ready.
Dir. Harley Cokliss / 1987 / MGM Limited Edition Collection
At 50 years old, the legendary Burt Reynolds laid down his easy charm and picked up a double-barreled shotgun. Malone is a humorless, semi-indestructible CIA operative who goes rogue to live a normal life. Of course, he knows far too much and the government must shut him down before his secrets falls into enemy hands. Worse yet, Malone has just stumbled across an insidious rural real estate scam masterminded by a well-armed militia of millionaire white supremacists. Cars will explode and fists will shatter bones and guns will shoot lots and lots of bullets.
All of this could (and should) be rudimentary '80s action territory, but some inexplicable, innocent magic elevates it to boneheaded perfection. The violence is unusually graphic, especially considering the film's Norman Rockwell-esque small town ideals. Every ounce of character development is machinated, but you still genuinely care about these characters. There's never a moment where you even consider that Malone will be beaten, but you'd be absolutely furious if he was.
There's a deeply satisfying purity in the good-vs-bad plot that's lost in today's overcomplicated, underdeveloped, twist-choked action thrillers, especially when everyone agrees that the very best movies of this type (Rolling Thunder; Death Wish; Boorman's Point Blank) are as simple as a chili dog. Superfluous plot-knotting is unnecessary when you have bona fide talent on both sides of the camera. Joining Burt on screen is the sad-eyed, talented Scott Wilson, character sloucher Tracey Walter, and recently departed, iron-jawed megaman Cliff Robertson in one of the very best performances of his impressive career.
The script was based on William Wingate's crime paperback "Shotgun" and allegedly reworked several times before production, including one draft by revered novelist/annihilist Rudy Wurlitzer. Director Cokliss (Black Moon Rising) would do little else, and this would be the final film produced by Leo L. Fuchs, so 12-year-old boys would sadly be spared the opportunity to point and giggle at the posters of future Cokliss & Fuchs collaborations.
...That's it for this round, but as always, there are plenty more to come. These titles, and kazillions more, are available affordably from WarnerArchive.com, Oldies.com and on Amazon. Give a few a shot, why don't ya.
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 nine yards. 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. Buy them and/or die alone!!