JULY 23 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : ONE ARMED EXECUTIONER
We begin along the waterfront of scenic Subic Bay, where a midget in a phone booth pleads with someone on the other end of the line. Seems that Mouse, the midget in question, is an informant, who is trying to sell information about a large drug shipment to Martinez, the head of Manila's Interpol contingent. But Martinez isn't buying, saying they have all the info they need to intercept this shipment, until Mouse says he can give them concrete proof of who's really behind the drug trafficking. Alas, before he can spill it, a car pulls up and the burly bearded driver gets out, a walking side of beef that goes by the name of Mike Jason (-- sorry, the credits are a little sketchy), who wedges the door shut on the phone booth, trapping the caller inside, before tipping it over the rail and into the bay, where it slowly sinks out of sight ... At Martinez's office, the phone line goes dead before Mouse could even scream.
Next, we change locales to a restaurant, where the owner, Wo-Chen, welcomes Ramón Ortega (Franco Guerrero) and his new wife, Ann (Judy Kay), just back from their honeymoon in the States. Here, we find out Ann writes children's books and that Ortega is also an Interpol agent, when he receives a call from Martinez. And while he heads for the phone, we find out that Wo-Chen was an Interpol agent, too, now retired, as he talks to Ann about the perils of being the spouse of an officer of the law. But the blushing bride swears she knew what she was getting into, and is all smiles and sunshine. (Oh, yeah ... She's toast.) Well, turns out big things are brewing and Ortega has to report in immediately. He apologies for cutting their evening short, but Wo-Chen says not to worry and promises to make sure Ann gets home safely.
Meanwhile, Jason makes his way to the palatial estate of Mr. Edwards, where he assures the Big Boss Man that he got to Mouse before he could squeak squeal to the cops ... Back in town, Ortega and his partner, Sanchez, report to Martinez, who fills them in on his abrupt conversation with Mouse before sending them down to the docks, where the police are just fishing the phone booth out of the drink. With no leads or clues on the murder, Martinez splits his team, and while Sanchez tries to find out what Mouse was on to, Ortega is put in charge of the assault team that's destined to greet the airplane carrying the latest drug shipment the following morning. With that, Ortega heads home and finds his wife in bed with another woman! No. Wait. Sorry ... That's just some hideous over-sized doll. Never mind ... Quietly slipping into the shower, as to not wake her up, turns out our boy didn't try hard enough as she just as quietly slips in beside him.
Wohoo! Shower scene! This is gonna be gre -- what the?! That's it? It's over already!? That lasted for, like, all of three seconds! *sigh*
The next morning, Ortega meets his strike team at the secluded airport. Armed with M-16s, as he reminds them that they need info -- not dead bodies, a small plane circles and comes in for a landing. When the pick-up men show up, the opposing factions all spot each other and a firefight erupts. Well, so much for that info ... And while Ortega goes after the plane, that's trying to take off again, the rest of his team is wiped out by the drug dealers. Our hero, meanwhile, cuts the plane off and blasts away at the cockpit until the pilot bails out, carrying a briefcase. They continue to exchange fire until Ortega's magic bullets blow the plane up, taking the pilot with it. And as the other dealers vacate, Ortega fumes as the briefcase, and the evidence, goes up in flames ... Later, the dead pilot is identified as one of Edward's top accountants. Apparently, Edwards is a businessman, who uses his legitimate fronts to cover up his illegal drug trafficking, and that vaporized briefcase had contained some vital documents that could have proven Edward's involvement. However, when Ortega apologizes for accidentally destroying it, Martinez offers that Edwards doesn't know that, and then orders his men to push this bluff on the local Kingpin, shake his tree, and see what happens.
At that very same moment, with some profanity suggestions from Milo, the Idiot, Edwards is ripping his men a new asshole for losing the latest drug shipment. When Ortega and Sanchez finally show up and ask why his accountant was sneaking into the country with cache of illegal drugs, feigning shock at the news, Edwards denies everything -- even when Ortega claims they found a ledger in a briefcase, and, as soon as they decipher it, promises Edwards that he will be going to jail for a long, long time. But, since they haven't done that yet, with no other proof, Edwards kicks them out. After they're gone, he rages at Jason and Milo, the Idiot, and orders them to do two things: one, retrieve the ledger at all costs, and two, teach that Ortega a lesson by making him an example of what happens to smug and nosey Interpol agents who stick their noses into his business ... So, later that night, Ortega's lesson begins when he returns home, finds his wife bound and gagged to a chair, and is quickly overpowered by three assailants and knocked out. Waking up tied to a chair, too, our hero is confronted by the nylon-stocking-masked crooks -- one of whom we easily recognize as Jason. When he demands the ledger, Ortega insists that he doesn't have it. He's telling the truth, but every time he denies having the records Jason smacks Ann around. This goes on until Ortega fesses up, and even though he swears that the briefcase and all of its contents were destroyed Jason still doesn't believe him. And to make him cough it up, our bad guy amps the abuse up even further by drawing a katana and uses it to cut Ann's top off. A desperate Ortega pleads with him to stop, but, when the cackling Jason still doesn't get the answers he wants, he buries the sword into Ann's chest, killing her. Obviously, Ortega wigs out at this development but still manages to notice that one of the attackers wears a strange ring before Jason orders the other two men to hold out his victim's left arm. (I'll pause to point out Ortega is left-handed.) When they do, Jason proceeds to lop it off at the shoulder with one fell swoop. Thus, with his wife dead, and himself partially dismembered, the crooks leave as Ortega goes into shock and passes out...
I tried, folks. I really tried. I honestly had every intention of reviewing Alves Batman En Robin, the Filipino version of Batman & Robin, for this update, where the caped crusaders battle the Joker, the Penguin and Cat-Woman in an orgy of wild action, mask-less villains and massive air-guitaring musical numbers that erupt from out of nowhere -- complete with bizarre lyrics in Tagalog recorded over old Beach Boys tunes. At least I think they do ... I got about fifteen minutes into it before I was laughing so hard I started seeing funny blotches of colors in front of my eyes and couldn't catch my breath. Verily, finding out I could only watch the movie in about ten minute increments, with the imminent fear of laughing to death a distinct possibility, it will take a while before I can get a full review of that posted.
Next, I tried to watch and review For Your Height Only, where the petite like a potato action star Weng-Weng plays a midget super-spy/ladies man. But again, when they started chucking their star around like a side of ham, or hung him on some wires with a fire-extinguisher strapped on his back to jet-propel him into the bad guy's lair, fearing that final, fatal, and laugh-induced stroke, I sought out less hilarious fare.
So, we'll fall back and backdoor into another film from the Philippines -- and the only other one I had, a Paragon Video Production that was rescued from a dusty bin of used VHS tapes for $1 some twenty years ago and hasn't been viewed since. Amazingly, the tape still worked, and so, without further ado, I present The One Armed Executioner; a fine tale of three-appendaged vengeance with extreme prejudice -- Filipino style!
Man, but I really used to get into these types of action movies from the '80s and early '90s. In my high school days, me and my buddies would watch anything and everything of this particular ilk -- and the wilder the better. If the video box had explosions, fast cars, or someone holding a 50-caliber machine gun, with belts of ammo wrapped across his chest, surrounded by beautiful women with large, silicone-enhanced breasts, it got rented. A strange phase, it was, where I bought into the warped morality of it all hook, line, and blood squib ... At some point, though, I grew tired of it. How many times can one watch the same story of a [rogue cop, ex federal agent, or Zen-master bouncer] who has been [wronged, framed, or swindled] by a former [partner, commander, or crime lord] and didn't want to get involved until his [wife, kids or best friend] is [killed, kidnapped, or abused] or his partner of ten years, who is about to retire, is [killed, maimed, or revealed to really be the bad guy]? And then, and only then, is vengeance duly dished out with extreme prejudice and a really, really, really bad pun.
As an experiment, take an action movie, any action movie from the last thirty years, and run it through the paragraph above. Sad, right? And I got so burnt out on this type of crap that I came to resent them -- and their stars. But sometimes, absence can make the heart grow fonder, and as I revisit some of these explodey oldies, I find myself having a pretty good time. Did The One Armed Executioner keep that streak alive? Read on...
When a disoriented Ortega wakes up in a hospital, surrounded by his friends and colleagues, he reaches for his left arm, feels the bandages and bloody stump, his memory kicks in, and he freaks out -- swearing revenge on those responsible. Eventually, Martinez manages to calm him down, and promises they're doing all they can to bring Ann's killers to justice. But that night, a mysterious figure enters Ortega's darkened hospital room, and as the patient fitfully sleeps, the intruder, who we notice is wearing a very familiar ring, torments him further by reminding him how his wife died ... The next morning, when Mr. Ring Man meets Edwards at his super-secret drug lab, hidden deep in the jungle, he's put in charge of cutting the latest shipment of high grade junk. Back at the hospital, Wo-Chen encourages the vengeance-addled Ortega to look at things philosophically. (C'mon ... you've still got one arm left!) But Ortega is having some major guilt issues, and, to make matters even worse, Martinez threatens him again, saying Interpol has no room for one-armed agents with a hard-on for personal revenge. In other words: the Edwards case is hands off. (And the use of a plural there was very cold indeed.) After they leave, Sanchez worries about his partner's future, knowing he'd never settle on a desk job or take a pension; but Martinez assures him they can work something out.
Time passes, and Ortega is discharged from the hospital. Rudderless, and wandering the streets of Manila, he winds up in a bar to drown his sorrows. And here, with the help of Maria, a friendly prostitute, he works through a bottle of Jim Beam until the crummy bartender rolls him for his money and tosses them both out. Taking Ortega to a hotel room, while putting him to bed, Maria finds more money hidden in his shoe. At first, she takes it, but then puts it back before leaving him to sleep it off ... Upon awakening, Ortega starts canvassing the local jewelers and pawn shops, looking for the distinctive ring he saw on the killer; but, more often then not, he just winds up back in a bar and drinks himself into a stupor. Lather. Rinse. Repeat ... Wandering the streets by day, aimlessly looking for clues, drawing attention from everyone because he's still wearing the same clothes and is getting a little ripe; and at night, Ortega cries himself to sleep, confessing to his dead wife that he failed her yet again when nothing turns up.
Since Ortega has kind of fallen off the map, Sanchez seeks out Wo-Chen for some help. Turns out Wo-Chen has been looking for their friend, too, with no luck, and fears Ortega is trying to go after Edwards before he's ready. When a confused Sanchez says his old partner never will be ready with only one arm, Wo-Chen has other ideas ... That same night, while faltering around drunk, Ortega is mugged and the rest of his money is stolen. Stumbling back to his favorite watering hole, looking for Maria, who isn't there, he tries to buy a drink on credit only to be given the bum's rush. Luckily, one of the other patrons recognizes Ortega and calls Wo-Chen.
Later, as he stumbles along, several men hustle Ortega into a waiting car, who then dump him off at Wo-Chen's Martial Arts Academy, where Operation Sober-Up quickly commences ... Wo-Chen's intentions are to train Ortega in a style of fighting that compensates for his handicap. But when things get off to rough start, the trainer questions the trainee's resolve for revenge because he's to busy wallowing in so much self-pity. Eventually, with the power of montage, Ortega's reluctance is whittled away as his taskmaster pushes him through several obstacle courses to heighten his senses, all the while spouting off some Yodian philosophy about using the force (-- or something). And once he's tuned-in, Ortega is shown how to defend and attack with only one hand, and, once shown something that kinda resembles the Vulcan Death-Grip, the pupil comes to realize that maybe a one-armed man can open up a can of whup-ass.
But even with all that progress, Ortega still spends his nights thinking about Ann, and how he feels responsible for her death in spite of Wo-Chen's insistence it was the bad guys, not Ortega, who killed her. Staying on topic, when the elder asks if his pupil recognized any of those attackers, Ortega describes the ring he saw: a chalice with a serpent wrapped around it. Saying he'll look into it, Wo-Chen sends his friend to bed for a good night's sleep because, tomorrow, Phase Two of the training begins, where he'll be run through the wringer again, and taught how to shoot and reload with only one hand ... About a thousand rounds later, Ortega starts hitting what he's aiming at. More time passes, and we see Ortega deftly moving through the forest obstacle course, bounding and flipping around. (What the? Is he training for the Gymkata or what?) At the finish line, Wo-Chen throws four apples into the air. In response, Ortega draws his pistol, does a backward flip out of a tree, and nails all four targets before they can hit the ground. With that, Wo-Chen says he's finally ready to go after Edwards and the men who killed his wife.
Seems that while Ortega was training, Wo-Chen's network also tracked down the ring. Of Hong Kong origin, the piece of jewelry shows the symbol of a healer. Figuring it must be a doctor, Ortega suddenly remembers the tormenting voice in his hospital room, and then makes the astounding leap in logic and pegs his doctor as one of the killers! Sneaking into the hospital, he finds his target, whose wearing the damning piece of evidence. Soon in a deathly, one-armed chokehold, Dr. Ring Man confesses that Jason was the one who killed Ann, and where to find him. Pleading for his life, the doctor points out that after the others left, he stayed behind and stopped the bleeding, thus saving his life. But when Ortega lets him go, the disingenuous doctor attacks him, earning himself a fatal chop to the windpipe.
On the same trail, when Sanchez finds the doctor's body and reports it to Martinez, they piece together that the deceased must have been involved in Ann's murder. They also deduce that Ortega must have killed him and redouble their efforts to find him. And if they'd look in Jason's penthouse suite, they'd find him sneaking into the back entrance. Inside, Jason is getting a rubdown from the third man that helped kill Ann, we'll call him Third Guy, until they're interrupted by Ortega. A brawl ensues, and while Ortega punches out Jason, Third Guy grabs a katana. No matter; Ortega quickly dispatches him, and then disarms and corners Jason (-- his sweaty chub rolls undulating in the moon light), who, despite his current predicament, promises that Ortega is a dead man. In reply, his attacker sticks the katana into his stomach. But said stomach is big enough that Ortega doesn't hit anything vital, allowing Jason to play possum until Ortega leaves.
With only the Big Man left to deal with, Ortega steals a boat and makes his way to Edward's estate, where he stiff-arms his way through most of the guards, but meets fiercer resistance the closer he gets to the house. As Edwards joins the firefight, Ortega's gun soon falls silent. But Edwards, ever the chicken, sends Milo, the Idiot, to make sure Ortega's dead while he escapes by boat. Milo, meanwhile, and several other guards approach Ortega, only to come down with an acute case of lead poisoning. But before he dies, Milo, ever the Idiot, gives up the location of Edwards' super-secret drug lab to the wrathful Ortega.
Finding Jason waiting for him at his super-secret drug lab, Edwards decides they better get while the getting's good -- but it's already too late. A chopper roars into view, and seeing that it's Ortega and Wo-Chen, Edwards orders his men to shoot them down ... Circling the compound, Ortega drops several grenades, taking out the gun towers and the only bridge off the island. Still intending to retreat, in an odd scene, Edwards and Jason steal their own drugs at gunpoint from the workers processing it. *shrugs* With the bridge knocked out their only escape is through the jungle, so, with an armed escort, they retreat into the bush. Meanwhile, pressing the attack, Wo-Chen drops Ortega off, who continues his assault on the compound, systematically taking out all the guards, and then spots the retreating bad guys. Realizing they've been spotted, Edwards tells the others to set up an ambush while he and Jason press on. But, Ortega uses the force and senses the trap, and the ambushers are soon the ambushees. And while Ortega mops them up, the last two targets circle back to the docks; but when they reach the getaway boat, Edwards takes the drugs and knocks his henchmen into the drink before hitting the throttle. Seeing this, Ortega heads back for the chopper that quickly catches up with Edwards' boat. And as we, as an audience, tense up for Ortega to drop into the boat for the climactic death duel with Edwards while the boat races for some unseen waterfall, our hero simply drops another grenade into the boat that promptly explodes.
Despite the openly apparent fact that Edwards bailed off before the boat exploded, Ortega tells Wo-Chen to circle back and find Jason, whom they spot crawling along the beach, because he has one more score to settle. When Jason claims to be unarmed and tries to surrender, Ortega flips him a gun and turns his back to him. Jason only hesitates for a moment, but Ortega hears the click of the gun being cocked, spins, and caps the villian in the leg, causing him to drop the weapon. Knowing he's screwed, Jason screams at Ortega to just get it over with. When asked how it feels, he cackles not as good as killing Ann, which gets him another bullet in the privates. And as Jason grabs at what's left of his genitals and rolls over, Ortega puts two more slugs in his back for good measure.
Upon returning to what's left of the compound, our hero finds Wo-Chen and Martinez waiting for him. Seeing the carnage that Ortega is capable of, and its end results, Martinez offers his old job back. But Ortega turns him down, saying simply his work is done.
Though The One Armed Executioner commits some of the sins I complained about earlier, it has done nothing to turn me back off the genre. The brainchild of writer, producer, and director Bobby A. Suarez, Ramon Ortega and his fist of vengeance joins a long list of ass-kickers for Suarez's Filipino based BAS Films. Starting with 1977's Six Million Dollar Man knock-off, Bionic Boy -- where nine year old martial arts champ Johnson Yap, now better, stronger, and faster after nearly being squished by a bulldozer, avenges his parents death, who were squished by said bulldozer, by bionically taking out the local Mafioso -- Suarez had himself an impressive ten year run of oddball Interpol-fueled actioneers. The following year's They Call Her ... Cleopatra Wong marked Suarez's directorial debut. A mash-up of Hong Kong action and secret agent espionage, Cleopatra Wong's most iconic moment is when star Doris Young, re-christened Marrie Lee, dons a nun's habit and dishes out some four-barreled shotgun fueled justice on some dastardly counterfeiters. Both Cleopatra Wong and the Bionic Boy returned in an all-purpose sequel, Dynamite Johnson, where, thanks to the magic of cinema, turns out Wong is the Bionic Boy's aunt/handler, and together, they battle a fascist arch-villain and a very impressive cardboard dragon. Cleopatra Wong was set to return in another sequel, The Destroyers, which was scuttled when the financing fell apart. Undaunted, Suarez slapped together the quick and dirt cheap Pay or Die, where Wong and her team, consisting of her prissy sensei, a 300lbs. psychic, and a female impersonator, break up a kidnapping plot. Not long after that, Young officially retired, so Suarez turned to her frequent co-star, Franco Guerrero, for a trio of actioneers, The One Armed Executioner, American Commando and culminated with Warriors of the Apocalypse, a post-apocalyptic tale of pygmies and lost tribes of Amazons.
Guerrero makes a fine action hero and can hold his own against any odds, despite having one armed tied behind his back. (Is that what that ever present bulge was?) Sporting a knock-off Bruce Lee haircut, he wears all those polyester leisure suits rather deftly. And poor Jody Kay. Not only does she get skewered here, but she went on to get her head lopped off in House of Death. As for the film itself, the action is -- well, somewhat leisurely but still comes off as furious, and is much tighter and less padded than Suarez's earlier films. The villains are sufficiently vile and extremely one-dimensional; every blood squib is right between the eyes; two bullet hits can cause an airplane to explode; and a simple fragmentary grenade is packed with enough explosives to bring down a small cathedral -- and each explosion is so devastating, it distorts time, causing motion to visibly slow down so we can see the two prerequisite bodies roll slowly away in the blast's shockwave. But best of all, there wasn't a single quip or bad pun to be found in the whole damn movie; and for that I'd like to say Thanks.
All kidding aside, credit must be given to Suarez from some original thinking and ideas. I like the fact that it takes Ortega a while to recover from both the physical and emotional trauma he endures. Suarez subtlety shows us how long Ortega has been on his drunken bender by the degeneration of his appearance. And it's only by chance that Wo-Chen finds him, so this movie could have easily turned into The One Armed Reprobate. As the hero of our piece, Ortega is an amazingly complex character. He wants revenge but doesn't know where, or how, to begin. And when Wo-Chen first charges him "You want revenge? You must earn the right to take it" only an idiot would think that after losing an arm Ortega could march into the bad guys den and take them out. Again, he has to work hard to overcompensate for his handicap and it doesn't come easy as over half the training footage is of Ortega failing miserably. But as time subtlety passes, Ortega masters the one-armed combat technique -- and even after that he still relies heavily on Wo-Chen to set his revenge into motion.
Yes, it could have been paced a little better, the soundtrack toned down just a notch, and they really should have made sure that the bad guy was really dead. Beyond that, The One Armed Executioner is a fun, competent, and raucous entry in the good-guy-wronged-out-for-revenge canon. Best of all, it encourages me to get my butt back in the Action Aisle at the video store, making it a good choice for anyone else who was burnt out, too, and trying to ease their way back in.