Everybody’s Into Weirdness: THE LAST MATCH (1991)

Oh, the old "football players stage a jail siege" plot.

The Alamo Drafthouse is a brand built on weird. Beyond being situated in a town that has long aspired to remain eccentric in the face of all normality, it’s easy to forget that the original Alamo started as something of a private screening club, running prints of the odd and obscure into all hours of the night*. Though the company has obviously grown into an internationally recognized chain of first run movie palaces, the Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas remains committed to showcasing genre repertory programming, namely via its Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday showcases. This column is a concentrated effort to keep that spirit of strangeness alive, as programmers Joe A. Ziemba and Laird Jimenez (often pulling from the extensive AGFA archives) are truly doing Satan’s bidding by bringing ATX weekly doses of delightful trash art.

The fourth entry into this disreputable canon is the Italian “football players stage a jail siege” answer to Commando, The Last Match (1991)…

Year: 1991

Trailers: None (due to being projected from a Japanese VHS tape**)

Alternate Titles: Mad Touchdown

Gary Kent had never seen The Last Match, a movie he initially conceived decades ago, until last week.

As the retired Hollywood stuntman tells it, Kent was having lunch with a fellow man of danger when Buford T. Pusser himself, Bo Svenson (Walking Tall Part II and Final Chapter: Walking Tall), decided to join them. Kent was in the middle of describing a movie idea he had been working on, following a female friend’s incarceration for being tripping utter balls on LSD in public. The basic premise of his tale originated whilst dreaming about how he’d bust her out of the clink – a customary fantasy for a man who spent most of his days flipping cars, throwing punches and falling from tall buildings. The action star was smitten with the saga, but Svenson was also drunk as hell, so Kent never thought anything would come of it. Upon arriving home from lunch, the stuntman found his phone ringing off the hook. Svenson had somehow seen his way through the haze, and wanted to buy the script to exploit as a starring vehicle. Kent pounded through The Last Match in twenty-eight days; the promise of a $10,000 check with $40,000 delivered upon production’s start more than enough motivation for him to crank out what was already festering in his brainpan.

Kent’s original premise revolved around a soccer team. The sport was becoming more popular in the US when he penned the picture and he thought, “People would dig that”. Following a trip to Liberia, the daughter of the squad’s Captain is kidnapped and held for ransom by the local government, as they do not care for her liberal, women’s lib advocacy. After getting pushback when trying to gain access to the country, the player and his team decide to take matters into their own hands and devise a rescue plan (as is the habit of every kickass MLS franchise). From the sounds of it, Kent’s original vision wasn’t too far off from something akin to the The Dirty Dozen amalgamated with John Huston’s Victory!, complete with Svenson filling out a soccer jersey (which is somewhat hard to mentally picture, but whatever, he’s Swedish as shit so it’s not that much of a stretch).

Upon finalizing the script, Kent met the star for drinks. At the time, Bo Svenson apparently had an assistant whose entire job revolved around chauffeuring the beefy lug around, as he was a notorious drunk. That day, Svenson was drinking vodka (Svedka?), and if you’ve ever seen any of his movies, you know that it takes a lot of booze to get a man that large piss drunk. Kent confesses to attempting to keep up with the actor after given the check, knowing full well that celebratory rounds were in order. He failed, and sometime during the clear liquor massacre, Kent lost the draft; a mistake he was so embarrassed by that he had his son drive him out to Beverly Hills at two in the morning. Together the two perused the gutters, hoping the $10,000 would magically appear in some hobo’s spew pile. It didn’t, and Kent went back to Svenson, tail tucked between his legs, asking for another check, which the star gladly wrote.

That was the last time Gary Kent would think about The Last Match for years. It wasn’t until an acquaintance informed the stuntman that the movie had actually been made in Italy without his knowledge that he considered investigating the lost idea he had hastily jettisoned over too much vodka. Turns out Bo Svenson couldn’t find financing, and sold the story off of to producer/director/insane person Fabrizio De Angelis (with whom he had worked on two out of three Native American revenge pictures in the Thunder trilogy). Possibly best known for helping produce the Bronx Warriors and New Barbarians films in ’82 and ‘83, De Angelis was one of Italy’s more notorious rip off maestros, taking whatever pop motion picture style was en vogue and morphing it into trash cinema he could make a few bucks off of. Needless to say, Kent didn’t expect to be paid for his work any time soon.

Modifying Kent’s script so that it revolved around a hulking squad of football players (complete with former Buffalo Bills QB, Jim Kelly, making an appearance), De Angelis (directing under his usual pseudonym, Larry Ludman) keeps the basic plot, yet strips it of any semblance of character development. Immediately after winning a “big game”, star player Cliff Gaylor (Oliver Tobias) receives a phone call from his daughter, Susan (Melissa Palminsano), who is touring some unnamed foreign hellhole with her boyfriend, Robert (George Floyd). While attempting to pass through the local airport, some shady weirdo in sunglasses decided to slip a rather conspicuous baggy of white powder into her carry-on, immediately getting the girl detained by the authorities. Now they’re threatening to lock Susan up in a Midnight Express-style gladiator academy, and she’s terrified she’ll never see her father toss touchdowns again.

Cliff jets off in hopes of freeing his daughter, but of course receives resistance from nearly every authority figure he meets. The American Diplomat (Charles Napier) has his hands tied for one reason or another, and the only lawyer who will take the case (Martin Balsam – sweating profusely as if he’s frantically trying to figure out what the fuck he’s doing on this set) is a corrupt sleaze ball who only wants money in exchange for acting like he’s powerless to do anything. Out of luck and places to turn, Cliff calls on his teammates who, under the guidance of their Coach (Ernest Borgnine), magically appear at the end of the interminable second act, ready to storm the prison and bust Susan out before it’s too late. That’s right, a professional football team become soaring agents of freedom, stomping their way through the gates of third world Hades as they execute the deadliest Hail Mary known to man.

Much how Blood Games found an Israeli filtering American sports iconography through the lens of the rape/revenge movie, The Last Match almost feels like an Italian trash cinema take on American foreign policy, suited with football uniforms, machine guns and bazookas. Like Rambo returning to Vietnam in First Blood: Part II (which also featured Charles Napier as an impotent twit) in order to helicopter out mythical POWs, these Under Armor-clad hooligans are exporting their Red, White and Blue ethos in an effort to save a little girl lost in a world of abusive brown folks. There's a fever dream essence to how De Angelis stages the climactic siege in the film's final twenty minutes; a huddle that breaks out into full formation as these men kill everything in their path. Raiding the stronghold, the team inexplicably dons their pads and helmets – a sequence capped by the punter booting a grenade-filled ball into a helicopter (a gag so good Kent claims it was his – only it was a soccer ball in the original draft). Vaya con dios, motherfuckers, we're headed back to Miami (but did the production ever really leave?). Calling the shots the whole time: Ernest Borgnine, wearing a coach’s headset like the jolliest cross between Don Shula and General Patton you’ve ever seen.

Too bad this half-assed political posturing is slightly undercut by the fact that all of the locals (including the prison's most vicious guard, played by consummate leather-faced exploitation rage-monger, Henry Silva) admit that their homeland is a massive pile of shit. It's probably best that Kent never saw the movie until now. Frankly, the man was a lovely gracious, sport about the whole affair, thanking the audience for showing up while shaking his head at the ludicrousness we had collectively witnessed. There's a reason The Last Matchwas lost to time and hidden away from its progenitor for years and years: it's a movie so bad that even God's gift to grandfatherly character actors can't save it with his usual charming, hammy presence. However, one fact still remains: somebody still owes Gary Kent $40,000.

*For an oral history of the Drafthouse’s beginnings, I’ll refer you to Zack McGhee’s wonderful “My Favorite Movie” Podcast, where he interviews old school DH programmers Lars Nilsen and Zack Carlson, as well as current Wednesday night ringmaster, Laird Jimenez. They’re GREAT listens, full of knowledge, wit and insight.

**Courtesy of Zack Carlson, of course.

Tonight on Weird Wednesday: The Invasion of the Bee Girls

Previous WW Features: Penitentiary, Skatetown USA; Blood Games