Fifty/Fifty

1992
dir. Charles Martin Smith

Remember that dream you had where Peter Weller used a bazooka to save you from a school of sharks? You better start looking for a residual check, because they made it into a movie. A damn awesome one, too.

Weller plays a cold-as-ice mercenary named Jake who heads the security team of a brutal South East Asian dictator. When a former gun-for-hire buddy named Sam (Robert Hays) washes up on the beach after leading a failed invasion, the dictator becomes suspicious and orders the execution of both men. After a swift escape, Jake and Sam head to Singapore for some rest, but are interrupted by a wormy yet well-intentioned C.I.A. agent named Sprue (a greasy performance by director Smith) and blackmailed into turning around and taking out the dictator for good.

While hesitant at first, the buddy mercenaries soon befriend a small rebel village and a Seven Samurai-type situation arises as they protect the locals while also preparing them to do battle against the dictator. In a move generally atypical of Cannon action movies (or Cannon movies in general, really), some fairly palpable drama is thrown into the mix as Jake learns from the rebel leader’s niece that money isn’t the only thing worth fighting for.

That isn’t the biggest affront to Cannon values, however. One of the most striking aspects of Fifty/Fifty is that, unlike the company’s popular jingoistic meathead rallying calls Invasion U.S.A. or the Missing in Action series, it has something that approaches a sense of global justice. When the American president calls off the assassination in exchange for the dictator’s friendship, Jake and Sam decide to go rogue and take him down themselves. Missing in Action’s Braddock probably would have murdered the first local baby he could find and offered its blood to the dictator as a token of their alliance.

It’s got Robocop, Robert Hays in the only movie worth seeing him in that doesn’t include “Airplane” in its title, fun buddy-movie dynamics, one of the wackiest grenade-induced gore-splosions ever, and it may or may not have been ghostwritten by Noam Chomsky. It may be called Fifty/Fifty, but it doesn’t deal in halves. This one’s one hundred percent, dude.

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Link

1986
dir. Richard Franklin

I have a theory that the most successful ape-centric movies, such as Monkey Trouble or any entry in the MVP: Most Valuable Primate series, are not movies at all, but documentaries. Or perhaps more specifically, documentaries with hack scripts and sad actors crowded around them to make them look like movies. While most would wrongfully argue that Dunston Checks In is not a documentary, how else would you classify a movie in which the lead actor doesn’t even know it’s being filmed? When Dunston squirts perfume in his mouth or punches Pee Wee Herman’s face he isn’t doing so out of some obligation to move the plot forward or illustrate a character trait, to him it’s simply what he felt like doing at that moment in his life. That shit was real to him, regardless of the fact that the camera happened to be documenting it for my entertainment.

Admittedly, this theory falls apart when, using the above logic, you realize that every post-motorcycle accident Gary Busey movie would have to be a documentary, too. I’m not sure if the world is ready to move Surviving the Game to the documentary section just yet.

Tossing aside any questions of classification, Link, like the ones mentioned before, is a movie with a hack script and sad actors that happens to have a monkey doing some shit in it. The sad actors this time are Terence Stamp, who plays a British professor studying the relationship between humans and primates, and Elisabeth Shue, who plays an American student who takes a job looking after the professor’s massive home. The actors aren’t completely horrible, and they are kind of fun to watch as their depression becomes almost visually rendered onscreen after awhile.

As far as the hack script goes, it’s not entirely awful and there are one or two fun twists, but it’s far too boring to have been written by Australian horror master Everett De Roche (Patrick, Long Weekend). Every animal-horror cliché is covered as Link, a forty-year-old orangutan and the professor’s main subject, goes on a primal rager when he discovers he’s about to be put down. When the professor goes missing, his young student must find a way off the massive estate before Link murders her too. Two of De Roche’s previous collaborations with director Richard Franklin included the amazing Road Games and the undervalued Psycho II, and it’s unfortunate that Link contains none of the storytelling wit or imagination found in either of those films.

What it all comes down to, though, is the fact that monkeys aren’t really scary. As proven by Dunston and MVP, a monkey’s natural state is usually high hilarity. Perhaps if viewed as a nature documentary, with some intrusive actors pretending he’s some sort of horrible beast and handlers trying to get him to make the scariest faces possible, serious humor could be found. Link as a horror movie, though, is pretty dull.

Bonus: Be prepared for the most literal use of “Apeman” by The Kinks ever.

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52 Pick-Up

1986
dir. John Frankenheimer

Although you probably don’t know his name, if anybody mentions “the L.A. slime ball from Scrooged” or “Billy’s weirdo boss from Gremlins 2,” an image of John Glover’s face slowly begins to soak into your mind. Someone even less cool than me says he’s best known these days for portraying Lex Luthor’s dad on “Smallville,” but if I had it my way he would be remembered always for his genius performance in 52 Pick-Up.

The film itself is a routine affair, albeit with a few unique elements to hold your interest throughout its tired plot. Harry Mitchell (Roy Scheider) is blackmailed by three masked thugs into giving them $105,000 in exchange for a tape featuring him with his mistress. His wife (Swedish wildcat Ann-Margret) has a promising political career that would be ruined if he went to the police, so he instead consults his lawyer. Convinced that if he paid the blackmailers they would still harass him, Harry confesses his affair to his wife and refuses to pay. When the blackmailers then frame him for murdering his mistress, Harry devises a plan that will turn the blackmailers against each other.

What follows is the type of muscular, fast-paced thriller that director Frankenheimer himself perfected in the 60s and 70s. It’s fairly straightforward, if not a bit more lurid than one would expect, with multiple scenes involving Harry going to sleazy strip clubs and adult theaters in search of his targets. The salaciousness Harry encounters around every corner and his muted reaction to it do a good job of evoking the shame and regret he feels. The violence is also quite sensational throughout, with the mistress’s prolonged murder scene in particular being quite effective.

The script’s insistence on devoting as much time to the criminals as to the victims pays off while making the most of a boring plot. Witnessing the blackmailers lose grip on both the situation and their minds as Harry closes in on them is a lot of fun, but spending more time with the criminals also means that we get to see more Glover, who plays the group’s sociopath leader. The strangely cheerful narrations he delivers while Harry watches the blackmail tapes are priceless, and he manages to imbue his character with the same sense of twisted joviality throughout the rest of the movie.

He somehow not only out-acts the rest of the actors (including the ever-reliable Scheider), but at some point near the beginning of the third act, well after he has become the movie’s singular driving force, he manages to out-movie the entire movie, effectively becoming the number one reason to watch it.

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Cobra

1986
dir. George P. Cosmatos

Cobra is the action movie equivalent of a Brian Eno composition; it demands very little of you yet somehow manages to remain completely enthralling from beginning to end. Much like Eno’s ambient soundscapes, Cobra demands so little of its audience that in my opinion a viewer doesn’t even have to actually watch the movie to have really seen it. I’m not even sure if I just watched it, yet I vaguely recall spending the last eighty-seven minutes in a neon-soaked, Coors-drenched world with some dude named Marion ‘Cobra’ Cobretti.

If this minimalist, no-attention-required approach is embodied in any single element in Cobra, then it is surely in its namesake character. Cobra, played by Sylvester Stallone, has no real characteristics beyond the fact that he drives a 1950 Mercury, wears aviator sunglasses, and explodes bad guys. In the movie’s opening moments, he is called for support during a shootout in a grocery store and, to the annoyance of his morally-superior colleagues, he quickly takes out the gunman. The shooter is soon linked to a cult-like group that has been murdering people indiscriminately, and when a model (Brigitte Nielsen) becomes a witness to one of their crimes Cobra makes it his charge to protect her.

In true Cannon fashion, the plot and characters are stripped to their bare essentials, leaving all killer and no filler. Why does Cobra hate authority and protocol so much? What drives the cult to such blood-spilling extremes? Refreshingly, none of these questions are answered, and what we are left with is a kind of standard-bearing, perfect example of an action movie, the kind of movie that plays in your head when someone utters the words “action” and “movie.”  Cobra is the movie that characters in other, “better” movies watch in order to escape their own overwrought and tiresome complexities.

Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd commented often on minimalism’s ability to strip art of metaphor and meaning so that the work itself could be appreciated for its own merits. There would be difficulty in tagging Cobra as a minimalist action movie since the action itself is quite maximal (standouts include a fairly amazing car chase and a massive shootout that leaves an entire small town obliterated), but Judd’s philosophy is undoubtedly felt throughout the movie.

No metaphor. No meaning. Just Cobra.

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