Monday, March 23, 2020

Random Movie Reviews, Volume 12

More Biker Movies: William Smith Edition 

Angels Die Hard (1970): William Smith gets co-lead billing alongside Tom Baker (not the Dr. Who guy), but man it takes a good while before you even realize he’s in the movie. Also the online plot synopsis on this one, about “bikers coming to the rescue of miners,” doesn’t really happen – in fact, the first hour or so of the flick is comprised of the bikers running roughshod around some small town in the Californian countryside. That being said, there’s more biker footage in this one than practically any other biker movie I’ve yet watched: copious sequences, set to music by various obscure rock groups, of bikers driving along the roadside in their tricked-out hogs and choppers. There’s a lot of cool equipment on display, and my favorite’s probably the trike with the drooping hood, which is driven by this dude that looks for all the world like a Satanic hermit.

While the biker footage is primo, the flick itself has that usual muddled low-budget vibe; dialog is captured by a single boom mic and sometimes the voices of the actors are either inaudible or so shrill that they send the levels into the red – William Smith in particular. And no character is properly introduced, no story set up. Blair (Baker) and Tim (Smith) roll their club into some hayseed town and run afoul of the portly sheriff, and one of the club’s put in jail overnight. He’s let go the next day, but crashes as he’s driving past the county line, apparently run off the road by a local – you can tell the budget was low because we don’t even see the crash, the producers clearly not wanting to actually destroy one of the choppers. Indeed it’s hard to understand initially why the guy even crashes, as it’s a clear day, there’s no other traffic on the road, and he’s just choppering along, giving the finger to the town sign on his way out…and a sudden freeze frame and we hear a poor recording of a vehicle crashing.

Speaking of freeze frames and whatnot, director Richard Compton makes up for the low budget and the unknown actors with lots of inventive angles and artsy directing touches. Some of it is in the vibe of TV director Sutton Roley (aka “the Orson Welles of television”), with stuff like the camera sitting behind latticework so that the actors are partially obscured, or the camera put up on a casket while the bikers carry it into the cemetery. These biker movies are such a strange breed, because often you can tell that the director at least wanted to try something unusual, no doubt inspired by Easy Rider, yet the script as ever is a mish-mash of jarring styles. I mean their biker brother is dead and they’re all dour and then suddenly the plot’s about them drugging up an uptight undertaker and wooping it up while a couple mamas dance nude (not that I’m complaining about that last part). But at least we get to see William Smith deliver a sermon, complete with his massive arms bared and his voice redlining the boom mic with a shouted “Brothers!” Plus he seems to have gotten his clothes from Billy Jack. 

It's curious because there’s no “plot” per se for the first hour of Angels Die Hard, which is pretty incredible when you consider that the film’s barely 90 minutes long. But at the hour point, after being hassled once again to get the hell out of town, the bikers get word of a mine collapse and decide to go to the rescue. This is due to Smith’s character, Tim, who overhears some local yokels talking about it; Tim chuckles at the plight of the miners when he hears of the collapse, then sobers up when he’s told it’s a little kid that’s been trapped in the mine. Curiously this for soft spot for children parallels the attitude of another biker character Smith would play, in The Losers (reviewed below).

But man, talk about a poorly set up and even more poorly executed plotline: the bikers race on over to the mine and we have some shaky camerawork showing the locals trying to pull on a rope that’s going down into the mine. William Smith hovers over the proceedings…then we see some random biker come up out of the mine, carrying the kid! Who the hell the biker was I don’t think is ever even stated, but it sure wasn’t Blair or Tim. This, the event which is stated as the entire plot of the movie on some websites, comprises about five minutes of the film’s runtime. After this we get another go-nowhere subplot where a local beauty seems to fall for Blair, but her boyfriend gets jealous and tries to intervene. Burly Tim beats him up but feels bad about it…then the kid runs to the cops and the locals come in with firebrands and shotguns. The finale is hilariously inept in its staging, with major characters gunned down in an almost nonchalant manner; the ending too leaves it vague who survives and who doesn’t – and I watched the climax twice and I’m still not sure who causes the villainous sheriff to crash.

Eagle-eyed viewers will catch the occasional glimpse of Dixie Peabody (Dag in Bury Me An Angel) as a biker babe – briefly seen riding a chopper when the club heads for the funeral – and Dan “Grizzly Adams” Haggerty as another biker, but neither get any dialog and are mostly just in the background. Hell if you wanted to, you could pretend that Bury Me An Angel is a sequel to this one, as Dixie Peabody’s character isn’t even named, so if you were bored or drunk or high or whatever, you could pretend she’s also playing Dag in this one, and maybe Dag’s ill-fated brother is one of the bikers we never get to see (it’s not like any characters are actually introduced, after all)…and hell, Dan Haggerty also appears as a background biker character without any dialog in Bury Me An Angel, so that just ices the cake.

C.C. And Company (1970): Former football star Joe Namath (whose sideburns radicalized Grandma Simpson) briefly tried his hand at acting, and I believe this was his first starring role. Co-starring Anne-Margaret and William Smith, the movie seems to have enjoyed a bigger budget than most other biker flicks, but hasn’t been served well by history; the copy I saw was sourced from VHS, and there doesn’t seem to be a better version out there. Quentin Tarantino featured the trailer for this movie in his recent Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, so maybe this will result in someone doing a proper restored release. Definitely more of a mainstream picture than most other biker movies – there isn’t even any violence or nudity! – C.C. And Company clearly strives to capture the counterculture spirit of the day, with various “sticking it to the man” sequences in its 90-minute runtime. We even meet titular C.C. Rider (Namath) in the process of sticking it, helping himself to a self-made sandwich in a grocery store (including a Twinkie for dessert!) but only paying for a pack of gum on his way out. Later in the film he’ll steal a dirt bike from a used bike lot, giving the hapless owner five bucks as “down payment.”

But otherwise C.C. is a good guy, or at least we’re to understand he is, given that he doesn’t rape beautiful, busty Ann-Margaret when he and his two biker buddies come across her stranded limo in the desert. Instead C.C. comes to her defense, decking his two pals, one of whom’s ever-sleazy Sid Haig (in a Mongol helmet, aka “the Yul Brenner look”). Anne-Margaret’s character is named Ann, and she bats her eyes prettily at C.C. for saving her, even joking that they’d better hurry with the sex before the Triple-A repairmen arrive. C.C. just smiles and drives off, and finds he’s gotten himself in trouble with club president Moon (Smith), who really lords it up, sitting in a “throne” and kicking around the club mamas. Smith as ever gives his performance a tongue in cheek vibe, including a funny bit where he complains that C.C. doesn’t really jibe with the club, which by the way is called The Heads. C.C. continues to run into Ann over the next few days, and I think Tarantino nicked some of the dialog here – there’s a part where she says how it’s interesting they keep running into each other, and I think the hippie girl with hairy armpits says much the same thing to Brad Pitt’s character in Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood.

Eventually we learn that C.C. just joined the Heads a month ago; Moon’s mama hits on him one night, basically demanding he screw her because she’s “twenty-nine days overdue” for some C.C. lovin.’ C.C. tells her no, but changes his mind when she mocks him for being afraid of Moon. But again there’s no nudity afoot, even during the infrequent “bath” sequences where the bikers and their mamas hop in the river to clean off. His sights though are clearly set on Ann, and when he discovers she’s a fashion photographer (or designer…or something), doing a shoot for a motorcross race, he even gets a dirt bike so he can take part in the race and impress her. Pretty certain it’s not Namath himself in the race scene – which features an awesome climax of C.C. literally pulling his bike across the finish line – but he does clearly drive the dirt bike and a zebra-painted chopper in other sequences. And looks pretty cool at it, too. I’m due for a mid-life crisis so these movies really have me thinking about a vintage custom chopper.

But curiously C.C. And Company is more of a romantic comedy than a biker movie; the plot, such as it is, centers around the unfathomable concept that gorgeous, jet-setting Anne falls in love with grungy, jobless C.C. There’s even a part where she asks him how he “gets along” without work, and here we get a vague backstory for C.C. – he was a mechanic who fixed up the club’s bikes, and when they wouldn’t pay him he fought them…then decided to join them. One wonders why, as he clearly doesn’t get along with the nigh-socialist makeup of The Heads; when C.C. comes in third at that motocross race, Moon demands that he give the entire proceeds to the club. C.C. refuses, leading to a brawl between the two, after which C.C. manages to again score with Moon’s mama…and steal back his money from her purse.

This leads into the finale, which has Moon and the Heads holding Anne hostage until C.C. can raise a thousand bucks. Instead C.C. manages to challenge Moon to a race, which is also ridiculous, something the script at least acknowledges with Moon’s flustered reply to C.C.’s challenge (“I mean, what is this??”). The ensuing race seems to go on forever, and climaxes with Moon suffering a spectacular crash; it’s unstated whether he survives, and the last we see of him his mama is cradling his limp ragdoll of a form. After this it’s on to a Happily Ever After for C.C. and Ann! Overall C.C. And Company is somewhat fun at least in its bright ‘60s colors and fashions, and has some good dialog in spots (when Moon’s girl makes a passing query on C.C.’s skills in bed, he laconically replies, “I manage to hang in there”). I don’t think it’s worth watching more than once, though.

Chrome And Hot Leather (1971): This might be one of my favorite biker movies yet, but for an exploitation flick it’s surprisingly tame on the, uh, exploitation angle; the violence is minimal and, even more shockingly, there’s no nudity! Otherwise it is a well-made grindhouse bikersploitation piece which comes off like the film version of a men’s adventure magazine yarn: badass Green Berets take on a biker gang. In fact if I’m not mistaken that is a storyline that shows up in at least one of the men’s mag stories excerpted in Barbarians On Bikes. The concept is actually well handled, though lacking in the blood and thunder you’d expect from such a setup, with even the final conflagration featuring smoke grenades and tear gas instead of full auto hellfire. There’s even an annoying tendency toward quick cuts during the plentiful fistfights, with director Lee Frost cutting the frame seconds before fists connect with faces. My assumption is this was intended to make the fake punches look “real,” giving the action a sort of pop, but unfortunately it just looks like something off Benny Hill.

The flick opens with what will be the only death in the movie: two pretty young women are driving around the California countryside when they encounter a pack of bikers: The Wizards, who are led by brawny T.J. (William Smith, who chews scenery like it was a protein bar – the dude’s seriously ripped in this one, by the way, and also receives top billing). One of the bikers, Casey (Michael Haynes, who looks so much like Ben Stiller in a bad wig and fake moustache I laughed out loud a few times), comes on to the women and demands they pull over. When they try to escape, inadvertently knocking Casey off his bike, he hops back on and hits ‘em with his chain, causing the car to careen down a canyon and roll a couple times. The Wizards take off and both girls have been killed in the crash.

Unfortunately for the bikers, the blonde in the car was the fiance of Green Beret drill sergeant Mitch (lanky Tony Young, the epitome of the Marlboro Man look). Without dithering over the point – again, I love how lean these vintage action movies are – Mitch rounds up three other Green Beret sergeants to dish out some payback: Gabe (Larry Bishop), Al (Peter Brown, but I spent the entire film thinking it was Monte “The Seven Million Dollar Man” Markham), and Jim (Marvin Gaye – the Marvin Gay, not just some random actor with the same name). Soon enough they decide to go undercover and do what the cops can’t: find the biker scum who killed Mitch’s girl. This entails buying bikes (red Kawasaki dirt bikes, but as it develops they have a reason for wanting dirt bikes and not choppers), learning how to ride them (a humorous sequence), and getting some biker duds with sergeant stripe patches and visored sunglasses.

Meanwhile the Wizards run around the countryside and fight each other; there’s a balance of power between TJ and Casey. As mentioned Smith receives top billing so there are a lot of otherwise-unnecessary subplots or scenes with him, clearly there so as to give him more screentime. Because really TJ makes for a poor villain; Casey’s the only killer in the gang, and indeed TJ tried to stop him from chasing after the girls in the opening sequence. There is an intentional sense of humor here which makes up for this, most notable in the rapport between TJ and spaced-out gang member Sweet Willy (Bob Pickett), including a very funny bit where TJ tries to lean on Mitch (undercover as an outlaw biker who just wandered into the Wizards’s bar). When an oblivious Sweet Willy continues to play pinball, Smith calls over to him, “Can’t you see we’re trying to menace someone?”

It’s little touches like this that make Chrome And Hot Leather so much fun. Also Mitch and his comrades are given enough personality to be memorable and fun to watch working together as a team. Marvin Gaye does very well in his role – his character’s the one who makes the random demand for red dirt bikes, perhaps as a payoff for an earlier line that he never even had a bicycle as a kid – but there’s a total miss when his first line is, “What’s happenin?” It should’ve been “What’s going on?” which would’ve made for such a lame in-joke that it would have instantly become legendary. Hell, he could’ve even hummed a few lines of the song afterwards. That being said, Gaye does provide a song to the movie, but otherwise the score is composed of the fuzzed guitar rock you’d expect.

Mitch gains the graces of the Wizards, long enough to hop in the sack with sexy Susan (Kathy Baumann), who just happens to be Casey’s mama. As mentioned there’s no nudity; when Susan disrobes for Mitch her body is completely hidden save for her shoulders and head. Even when they’re rolling around in bed she’s careful to keep herself covered by the sheets. This leads me to believe that Baumann either had a no-nudity contract or the producers were shooting for a more mainstream market than other biker films of the day. That’s not to say Susan isn’t slapped around and roughed up, though; they skipped on the nudity and the violence but the producers at least still delivered on that bikersploitation staple. Casey storms in on the two post-boink, knocks out Mitch, and slaps Susan around good and proper. This leads to another of those otherwise-random scenes with William Smith, where TJ asks Susan if she wants to stay in the gang after he’s kicked out Casey. A scene which ultimately has no impact on the plot…other, that is, than to give Smith more screentime.

The finale unfortunately drops the biker angle. Mitch and team head back to base and, in another comedic scene, order up a bevy of training weaponry, from smoke grenades to a mini-rockets. They put their Green Beret training to use and segregate the Wizards in a remote canyon and rain smoke grenades and tear gas missiles on them, then run roughshod on them on their dirt bikes while wearing gas masks. This leads to yet more fistfights, which is also how Mitch handles Casey, the murderer of his fiance – unsatisfyingly, there’s no fatal comeuppance for Casey. Instead it’s off to jail with TJ and the rest of the gang – including even Susan! But otherwise Chrome And Hot Leather moves at a steady clip, featuring fun characters and a self-mocking tone, and it’s a shame there was never a sequel. The whole “Sergeants” dirt bike gang was ripe for more exploitation.

The Losers (1970): Like Chrome And Hot Leather, the plot of this biker flick seems to have been ripped from the pages of a contemporary men’s mag: bikers in ‘Nam! This one’s even more in the men’s mag realm than the other flick, with plentiful violence and nudity; the opening sequence alone features spectacular blood quibs at work as we see the Viet Cong massacring various people. Likely this rugged pulp feel is courtesy veteran adventure writer Alan Caillou, who handled the script. However this one’s really more of a war movie than a biker movie, and the budget was also a factor because the fireworks are saved for the climax. This means that characterization takes more of a precendence than in other biker flicks…but at the expense of the fun, pulpy sort of stuff we expect from a true biker movie. Hell, there aren’t even any Harleys – let alone any choppers – in the film. The bikers ride dirt bikes! (Another similarity to Chome And Hot Leather). As one of them puts it: “That’s a girl’s bike!”

William Smith stars again as a biker boss: Link, who heads up the Devil’s Advocates M.C. We don’t get much background on Link, but there seems to be some particular reason why he’s so driven to rescue a CIA agent who is being held by the Red Chinese in Cambodia. Also we’ll learn he has a bit of a sensitive side; there’s an odd but touching bit where he picks up a poor little hunchbacked kid in a Vietnam village and gives him a quick ride on his bike. That being said, we clearly see Link blow another kid away in the climactic action sequence…so, uh, he’s an anti-hero at least. In fact Smith doesn’t get much opportunity to do anything emotive until late in the movie, with most of the runtime being given over to his fellow club members: There’s Duke (Adam Roarke), who seems to have taken this CIA job so he can hook back up with his Vietnamese girlfriend and bring her home as his wife; Limpy (Paul Koslo), who is of course named for his limp and also finds love here in Vietnam; Speed (Gene Cornelius), who wears a swastika bandana and doesn’t really do much but make racist comments; and finally Dirty Denny (Houston Savage), who comes off the most “true biker” of the lot, here in ‘Nam to check up on the whorehouse he opened and to in general raise some hell.

The movie opens in ‘Nam (aka the Philipines – and yes Vic Diaz shows up!), and there’s no flashback or anything to their previous life in the US, where we could actually see the Devil’s Advocates in biker action. Instead they show up and are given their orders, then it’s off to some godforsaken village where they can plan out the assault of the fortress in which the CIA asset is being held in Cambodia. The asset is named Chet Davis (director Jack Starrett himself), and our heroes know going in that they’ll be greatly outnumbered by VC and Chinese soldiers. But the place is only accessible via dirt bikes, so they go about the business of arming and armoring their motorcycles; Limpy gets an armored trike which looks cool but not nearly as sci-fi as depicted on the film poster. However way too much runtime is given over to various subplots; love is truly in the air for these grungy bikers, with both Duke and Limpy falling in love with local gals. Limpy’s subplot in particular is goofy because the girl in question is just some random hooker he picks up in Dirty Denny’s old bordello…and she has a kid! Sure we get some toplessness here, and I’ll never complain about that, but it’s hard to buy these badass bikers getting so lovey-dovey. Even harder to buy that Limpy’s new girl is actually the old girlfriend of their army contact, Capt. Jackson (Bernie Hamilton)…and that Jackson’s the father of the hooker’s kid!! This goofy-ass subplot reveal isn’t even much exploited.

I found a good bit of The Losers to be hard going. There’s an interminable bit where Dirty Denny goes nuts in his old bordello and raises hell; apparently this wasn’t far from the actor’s normal life, with “Houston Savage” often getting in trouble in the Philipines. He was mysteriously murdered about a year after this film was released – eerily enough, in much the same way his character in the film meets his fate. And yes, that Dirty Dozen riff in the film poster is pretty much a tip-off, as it’s clear going in there will be some biker casualties. Starrett really unleashes hell in the finale, with the armed bikes running roughshod over the Cambodian village. But there’s a definite “war is hell” vibe that gets in the way of the fun, with as mentioned shots of innocent kids getting gunned down in the melee. Indeed the film ends with a maudlin montage of various bloody deaths from the film while sad music plays, the producers clearly trying to decry man’s inhummanity to man…but meanwhile check out this cool machine gun on my motorcycle! As John Lennon declared years after starring in How I Won The War, it’s impossible to make an anti-war film. Sort of like how Hollywood elites are so anti-gun…yet fetishize guns in their damn movies.

Even worse is the finale, which I found incredibly frustrating. For one the assault on the village peters out too quickly. We have some explosions and racing around and some casualties for our heroes, and then Link gets into the tent in which Chet Davis is being held. And proceeds to start arguing with him. With egregious stuff like Link complaining about how bikers back home just want to “feel free,” and Chet Davis bluntly stating that he “represents America.” And meanwhile a minor-scale war’s still going on out there in the village! Davis proves to be a very ungrateful rescuee, trying to run away from Link and get him killed. Hell, during a later firefight he even tell Link he hopes he’s killed. Apparently in the backstory Davis got Link and his men arrested for being bikers or somesuch; I sort of lost the thread on this because I was so irritated by it all. The finale is also goofy with the US army showing up and sort of shooting at the VC and whatnot while Link, Davis, and the surviving bikers make their slow way to the border, with Davis again going out of his way to get the bikers killed. Anyway I’ve meant to watch this one for years, even got the DVD over a decade ago, but have only now watched it – and I really only liked some of it. And finally I think I’m bound by law to also point out that Quentin Tarantino featured a brief clip of this movie in Pulp Fiction; it’s the movie the annoying French girl was watching in the Bruce Willis segment of the film.


John Nail said...

The biker movies always promise more debauchery than they deliver, and more often than not William Smith is what makes them watchable. I watched C.C. and Company last year and while I found it relatively entertaining, and thought Namath's performance wasn't as terrible as I'd been lead to believe, I was puzzled as to why Prime had it listed as R-rated when what I saw barely qualified as a PG (I thought I heard Smith mutter an F-bomb in the final scene, but that's as raunchy as it got). In fact, I've seen some DVD copies that list it as a PG movie. Well, it turns out it was originally R-rated, with a bit more nudity. I wasn't able to find an uncut DVD, but I did find the uncut version streaming:

If you skip to the 14 minute and the 1 hour marks, you'll notice those scenes show a bit more than we see in the current DVD. Like you, I hope Once Upon a Hollywood motivates someone to release an uncut Blu-ray.

Joe Kenney said...

Hi John, thanks a lot for the link to the uncut CC & Company! I never would've guessed Ann-Margaret got nude in this. They really cut out that entire scene at the hour mark in the version I watched. So this solves the mystery of why the film was rated R (plus the nudity at the 14-minute mark). Nekkid Ann-Margaret means I must re-evaluate my low rating of this film!

Grant said...

I feel like the only one on earth who avoids the subject of Charles Manson (and most fictional characters modeled on him) not because it horrifies or offends me, but because it's becomes such a cliche. Which is one reason I have no interest in seeing ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.
But speaking of cliches, one of these reviews just gave me another reason, with its reference to "the hippie girl with the armpits" - when you've seen that joke once, you've seen it enough times!

Do you have any plans to review THE SAVAGE SEVEN?