SEPTEMBER 25 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : A PIECE OF THE ACTION
Sidney Poitier has done it again. What he has done again is his hit movie "To Sir, With Love." But he has done it with a difference, an obvious social purpose and a new name: "A Piece of the Action."
This movie, which opened yesterday at the Criterion, 86th Street East and Eastside Cinema theaters is, at heart, a candy-coated training film, four-square in favor of industry, honesty, courtesy, matrimony and culture; dead-set against wasted lives, ignorance, defeatism, sloth, senseless impudence, drugs and organized crime.
The candy-coating consists of a caper plot that enmeshes Mr. Poitier and Bill Cosby as a pair of independent, ingenious and hugely successful thieves with angry and vengeful underworld victims and with crooked and manipulative police.
Set inside the candy-coating is the training film: "To Sir, With Love," recycled for domestic identification and trans-shipped from a school in a London slum to a black-operated community center in a rundown neighborhood in Chicago.
There, Mr. Poitier and Mr. Cosby, each blackmailed by an unknown man who apparently knows enough about their crimes to send them to prison, find themselves reluctant volunteer members of the staff.
Mr. Cosby works in the administrative end, where he finds a good deal of amelioration of his plight in the form of Lila French, the center's director, vivaciously portrayed by Denise Nichols. And Mr. Poitier, thanks to a coin flip, finds himself in a familiar classroom.
Here are 30 rambunctious young black men and women for whom he and Mr. Cosby must find jobs although they are clearly less than prime candidates for employment.
Well, Mr. Poitier has been here before. As star and director, he knows precisely what to do with them, He uses them for little performing tours de force—to frighten and wound with their toughness; to amuse with their street talk, their irreverence, their flippancy; to wrench tears with their vulnerability; and, of course, to bend to his will, absorb his lessons about self-esteem and consideration for others and ultimately to serve as illustrations that adversity can be overcome.
When all the didacticism threatens to reduce the pace to that of sludge, Mr. Poitier takes advantage of several options: he can concern himself and Mr. Cosby with unraveling the mystery of their blackmailer (it gives away nothing to reveal him to be James Earl Jones, playing a retired policeman whose late wife founded the community center); he can strike a slightly grudging blow for matrimony by arranging for an unexpected visit from the dismayed, religious parents of the woman he has been living with; he can espouse culture by tossing in a dressy night on the town that takes him, Mr. Cosby and their dates to a performance by the Dance Theater of Harlem; or he can stir up suspense by looking in on the Mafia types who are determined to kill him for robbing them.
In short, Mr. Poitier has provided something for just about everyone, including those who might be concerned about the question of all this moralizing coming from a character who is introduced as a criminal.
"A Piece of the Action" is firmly on the side of the angels. It is possible to criticize its lack of originality and its transparent slickness; but these are flaws that must be balanced against its evident craftsmanship, its entertainment and its social conscience.
The PG ("Parental Guidance Suggested" rating seems primarily attributable to the street language.
A PIECE OF THE ACTION, directed by Sidney Poitier; produced by Melville Tucker; screen-play by Charles Blackwell; story by Timothy March; director of photography, Donald M. Morgan; music and lyrics by Curtis Mayfield; songs by Mavis Staples; presented by the First Artists Production Co. Ltd.; distributed by Warner Bros. At the Criterion, 86th Street East and Eastside Cinema. Running time: 135 minutes. This movie has been rated PG.
SEPTEMBER 25 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : OUTLAW FORCE
Outlaw Force (1988)-**1\2
Directed by: David Heavener
Starring: David Heavener, Paul L. Smith, Robert Bjorklund, Devin Mills, and Frank Stallone
"A Story of what happens when a bullet comes between a man and his family."
Billy Ray Dalton (Heavener) is a simple family man and a “Cowboy of the modern day”, to quote Tesla. He loves his rural lifestyle, he loves fried chicken, and he fully lives up to his cowboy persona, putting on live Western stunt shows during the day and pursuing his country music career at night. One day some middle-aged punks roll into town and decide to start harassing the town’s gas station owner, Gumby (Patterson). When Dalton stands up for Gumby, the punks then murder Dalton’s pregnant wife and kidnap his pre-pubescent daughter , Holly Lynn (Cicero) to sell into human trafficking and child porn. Must make sense by punk standards. Either that, or they really, really hate Gumby.
Dalton leaves the country and heads into the big, bad, mean and dangerous city streets of Hollywood. We then learn that Dalton is an ex-Green Beret and expert marksman, and he will stop at nothing to get revenge and save his daughter. Meanwhile, Inspectors Wainright (Smith) and Grady Purella (Stallone) (did Heavener come up with that name?) are following the case. The “funny” part is, Purella is a glasses-wearing, rulebook-citing, suit-wearing liberal college boy who loves yogurt and Wainright is an obese, rule-flouting, disgruntled, slovenly dude who loves nothing more than to chomp into the nearest burger. They’re the original odd couple! With the help of Jesse (Mills), will Dalton emerge victorious, or will his plans and his musical career fall at the hands of the evil Washington (Bjorklund)?
David Heavener wrote, directed, co-produced and stars in this “cowboy Death Wish” and makes the most of its rock-bottom budget. His buckskin fringed jacket is even more awesome than Steven Seagal’s. And Heavener was first with that style. Frank Stallone shows his range as an actor - compare his role here with his character from Fear, 1988 - totally different. None other than Fritz Matthews is credited with special effects, but he doesn’t appear in the movie. Paul Smith as Wainright is a triumph, especially with lines like “leave the detective-ing to us”.
Sure, the many scenes of Heavener singing may seem gratuitous - but who can argue with such gems as “This Honky’s Gonna Honky Tonk Tonight”? Interestingly enough, the film seems to get more competent as it goes along - as this was Heavener’s first directorial effort, perhaps he was learning quickly on the job.
An amazing highlight of - not the film itself- but the TransWorld VHS tape - is a TV commercial that runs before the movie. It’s a “special TV offer” for the Outlaw Force soundtrack, available on cassette or LP! Remember when they used to advertise for 2-record sets on TV with a 1-800 number and it had a blue background? Call today for “David Heavener” at a certain P.O. Box in Marina del Rey, CA. Now you can have such songs as “I am the Fire” and the aforementioned Honky...right in your own home! What a great commercial! Heavener fans (I assume they’re out there) will want to check out the movie and commercial so get the TransWorld tape!
SEPTEMBER 25 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : OUTLAW FORCE
Outlaw Force is one of the biggest vanity projects I've ever seen. Not only does David Heavener (star of Loner and The Border of Tong according to the back of the box - though I can't find any references that suggests these movies actually exist) star in Outlaw Force, but the opening credits reveal that he also wrote, produced, and directed it. And the end credits reveal that of the eleven songs on the soundtrack, Heavener wrote and sang seven, and wrote two more. The only other vanity project I can think of that has one man surpassing all of this work is Student Confidential, with Richard Horian directing, screenwriting, producing, acting, writing/performing the songs on the soundtrack, as well as editing! Though while Student Confidential had a number of unintended laughs to make it entertaining enough to watch, Outlaw Force is pretty much a big bore.
Heavener plays country singer Billy Ray Dalton (what's with all these "Billy _____" names that people in the south name their children, anyway?), which gives him the excuse several times in the beginning of the movie to burst into song, including one ditty called "This Honky's Gonna Honkytonk Tonight". Heavener's singing actually isn't that bad, though the songs are dubbed in so ineptly, the effect becomes comical. When Billy isn't singing, we see the "tender" side of his character, seeing him as the loving husband and father of his wife and young daughter. Billy may be loving, but he hasn't raised his daughter to talk well, because every time she speaks, it sounds like she has a mouthful of oatmeal, making it difficult to make out what she's saying. And when we do understand her, we quickly wish she'd shut up; she leads a prayer at the dinner table that's so nauseatingly sweet and precious, I almost blew chunks right there and then.
That night, while Billy is at the bar belting out his songs, a group of drooling scum (that Billy humiliated earlier when they were tormenting a gas station owner) break into his house, raping and killing his wife, and kidnapping his daughter, taking her back with them to L.A. Shortly afterwards, the police tell Billy that building a case would be impossible "without witnesses". What the hell?!? The four are seen leaving a bunch of physical evidence behind during their vandalizing of the house and the torturing of Billy's wife! With this and other police stupidity around this part of the movie, it's no wonder that Billy grows a beard in three days, straps on his six-shooters, dons his coat and cowboy hat, and drives to L.A. to teach those punks some good ol' wild west justice.
A vanity project is usually asking for trouble, and this movie is no exception. Heavener looks good dressed in his cowboy duds, and does show a little acting talent - not a great deal, but certainly enough to pass for a B-movie. Still, he made the right decision to have his character stay quiet a lot, in an attempt to make a kind of silent hero a la Chuck Norris or Charles Bronson, but he goes a little too far by actually speaking less than those two actors usually do in a movie. The character's personality, however, is the key to why Heavener isn't successful here. I don't know about you, but the idea of a hero drinking bottles of cola with shelled peanuts mixed in doesn't exactly appeal to me. And I was wondering how the hero, wearing that getup, was able to outrun a police car...why the length of his beard kept shrinking and regrowing throughout the movie...how he was able to fully recover from a bullet wound in less than 24 hours...and why he seemed to have a fetish for crotches, kicking two in the movie, and putting a bullet in a third. He makes a feeble attempt at some detective work in his first few hours in L.A., but he seems to gain psychic powers later in the movie, for that seems to be the only explanation as to how he subsequently figures things out.
The gang members are hateful enough I guess, with their drooling and brutality towards innocents, though I really couldn't tell one gang member from the other. They also seem to have psychic powers at one point, somehow finding the one fast food restaurant in L.A. the hero is eating in at that moment. Paul Smith ("Bluto" in Popeye) shows up near the middle of the movie as a police inspector. Now, I could put aside the fact that cops aren't allowed (I think) to grow beards, and that Smith was way too fat to be a cop. But his character is a waste - he is labeled as some kind of Dirty Harry type by his captain, but spends most of his screen time behind his desk or a wheel of a car. His connection with Heavener's character is so weak, and pretty much inconsequential, that he could have easily been written out of the movie. Smith doesn't even get to punch out the whiny liberal partner he's saddled with.
The main reason why the movie sinks is due to the very poor direction by Heavener. To but it bluntly, the movie is very sloppily made - the picture quality always seems slightly out of focus, and the movie is so underlit, even some of the daytime sequences look like they were shot with a day-for-night lens on the camera. You can't always hear what a character says, due to the muddy sound, though nobody usually has anything to say that's either informative or interesting. Characters literally stand still, waiting for a fist to hit them on the face and knock them down. The idea of a big stunt is showing someone climbing up or down a building. Heavener, obviously working with very little money, uses other money-saving techniques that are absurd. One scene has him practicing shooting cans off a fence. He shows his hero shooting off the cans on the fence by taking a close-up shot of a can, stopping the camera, removing the can, turning the camera on again, and dubbing a ricochet sound on the soundtrack. And the climax (taking place in - what else? - an abandoned building) builds up no heat or suspense of any kind. In fact, the movie would have absolutely no atmosphere if it weren't for the fact that the idea of a grizzled cowboy stalking the streets of a modern city for revenge brings in some edge from the beginning.
While watching Outlaw Force, and trying to prevent my eyes from closing, it reminded me of another vanity project that I watched years ago, that actually had some similarities to this movie. That movie was called Cole Justice, with Carl Bartholomew starring and directing (and I think also writing.) The movie was a saga about a bearded college professor in his 50s who lectures on westerns in the day, and at night dresses in cowboy gear to become the vigilante killer dubbed "The Cowboy Killer" by the imaginative media. I remember this hard to find movie being inevitably silly, but filled with a passion for the genre, and to this day I still remember a great deal about this movie while I've forgotten much better movies. I can't remember if it was good enough to rent, but it was certainly a heck of a lot better than Outlaw Force.
UPDATE: Marvin Meyerhoffer sent along this trivia:
"Heavener brought a UMatic copy of Outlaw Force by my place for my opinions advice (I was working in local TV at the time... had featured him in a couple of music shows). I knew this was a B minus effort when I saw one gal drop her blouse to expose her breasts...no rhyme or reason for this, and I pointed it out to DH. "Well, they're in love..." he said, "they're gonna make love." I replied, "The boob shot is just for the sex element," I said, "And she's as flat-chested as a refrigerator. Cut it." He didn't. The film premiered at Showcase Cinemas here in Louisville to a full room. I shouldn't have been there, and I damn sure shouldn't have invited one of my TV news reporter friends to cover the occasion...I realized this when he smiled at me, shook his head and left for the station ten minutes after the title hit the screen. Oh, I could write a book..."
UPDATE 2: Matt Thompson wrote in with this:
"I was reading your review of Outlaw Force and I noticed your confusion of the main character putting shelled peanuts in a soda. I think I read in another review that you're from the Great White North, or "Canada" as you like to call it, so you may not be familiar with this Southern practice. In the thirties and forties, when Coca-Cola was first mass produced to the New Dealed-up South, it was common practice to put peanuts in the bottles. The acid in the Coke reacted with the salt on the peanuts and the soda would fizz.
"It's not done so much today by the youngsters, of course - Southerners are quiet so easily pleased anymore, I suppose - though I catch my mother of 55 still doing it from time to time. Of course, if you are familiar with this, please disregard this email."
UPDATE 3: I got this e-mail from Michael Prymula:
"Hey, you were wondering about whether Border Of Tong or Loner existed? Well they both have entries in IMDB and they're found under the alternative titles of Massacre and Ragin Cajun respectively, and they both have DVD releases in the U.S. in case your wondering, oh and if you want to see a good David Heavener (yes, such a thing does actually exist!) then I would recommend checking out Fugitive X: Innocent Target, it's a pretty competent Most Dangerous Game rip-off, it's professionally made so well that it almost looks as good as a PM film (Ok maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but it's still looks way better then you'd expect a Heavener film to look) and Heavener also acts much better, that films available very cheap on Amazon."
SEPTEMBER 25 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : OUTLAW FORCE
Let me get this out of the way. OUTLAW is rubbish. You can forgive a film its faults if it is well meaning or has something of merit to say. It might have some good performances, be well filmed or show flashes of inspiration. It might even be so bad it is enjoyable. The only positive thing I can say about this film is that Danny Dyer's character lives in a nice flat.
A group of disillusioned males, emasculated by a lawless society take the law into their own hands and become a group of fight-club vigilantes, pursued by the media and corrupt police. In intent, at least, there are some good ideas, but story doesn’t seem to know what point it wants to make. Are these men heroes? Are we meant to identify with them? Unable to answer these questions, it flails around for 90 minutes searching for a point.
Apparently this film is about the state of law and order in Britain today and how a group of people by taking the law into their own hands, end up corrupted by it. It is intended to be Nick Love's most political film after his other “Guy Ritchie light” films - the FOOTBALL FACTORY and THE BUSINESS. Certainly there is a political message here although it is so confused that you wonder where he gets his politics from.
It is such a male-orientated world that women have no place in it. One is stabbed after two lines and another one’s only role is to look appalled and upset. The sub-plot (if you can call it that) involves the media and their glorification of the vigilantes but a couple of badly-filmed and acted scenes do not make a sub-plot and the message, if there was intended to be one, is lost.
The script is a mix of swearing and cliché. The acting is leaden and doesn’t stretch or do justice to any of the talent involved. Sean Bean plays a soldier, Danny Dyer a salesman and Bob Hoskins a down-beat policeman – not the most imaginative casting. These people deserve better than this garbled, politically immature nonsense.
Sadly even the directing is substandard. Action scenes are a mess and any possibility of tension in these scenes is soon lost in a jumble of jump cuts and poor angles. Love seems to not even have sympathy with his own material.
There are definitely ideas that I can identify with – but this film is so badly executed that I neither recognized nor sympathized with anyone in this film. Whatever the intentions of all involved, this sad mess of film has nothing intelligent to say.