Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Napoli Violenta (1976)

Sometimes, extreme circumstances require extreme responses, and they do not come much more extreme than those used by the hero of Napoli Violenta, an action packed Italian crime flick, or “Poliziotteschi” from the 70s. What the film lacks in subtlety, characterisation or morality, it more than makes up for with outrageous violence, a protagonist who seems at times to be as unhinged as the villains, and some audacious directorial touches.

No nonsense cop Inspector Betti (played by genre favourite Maurizio Merli) is transferred to Naples, and immediately sets about confronting crime and corruption in his own two fisted manner. Soon his violent tactics are making as many enemies in the police as in the criminal underworld - will it be just a matter of time before one side puts him out of action?

The Italian exploitation film business in the 70s and 80s usually followed a standard approach, no matter what the genre. Enterprising producers would spot a Hollywood hit, appropriate some of the stylistic and thematic elements, (and often shift the action from America to Italy), hire a competent journeyman director, willing to turn his hand to anything, and make something cheap and quick to cash in. In this case, Umberto Lenzi was behind the camera, a man who had already made Westerns, Comic Book adaptations, Giallo, Sword-and-Sandal, and Spy films, and would later achieve a degree of notoriety when Cannibal Ferox turned up on the British Governments “Video Nasty” list in the 1980s.

Napoli Violenta clearly has its roots in the Dirty Harry series of films, with a violent, unflappable, borderline psychotic anti-hero (not five minutes in and he is beating up a car thief), as much at war with his superiors as with the criminals. The script juggles several plot strands, with protection rackets, thieves, a crafty bank robber and the mob all vying for attention, meaning there is rarely a dull moment. Betti is a man defined by his actions, the sort of guy who will shoot first, hit second, and maybe ask questions later, if the suspect is still alive. He is occasionally given to moments of regret - when one crook fatally impales himself on a spike, Betti certainly looks regretful - regretful that he did not do the job himself. The lurid violence is could perhaps be seen as a forerunner of Lenzi’s later efforts in the horror genre, but here it is more lively and “comic book” in tone, and certainly less grim and depressing than the likes of Cannibal Ferox.

With his big hair, big moustache and macho attitude, Betti is the epitome of 1970s masculinity, and while the character is a little one dimensional, Merli has more than enough charisma, even with the ropey dubbing, to hold your attention. The ever-reliable John Saxon makes the most of his small role, but the rest of the cast are competent without being memorable, meaning that apart from Merli and Saxon, it is the outrageous action and violence that gives the film life and energy. 

One aspect that sets Napoli Violenta apart from many others of the same era and genre is the occasionally inspired directorial flourishes, most notably during the chase sequences. I get the impression that rather than spend a lot of time and money on the correct paperwork, Lenzi, like Betti, just decided to take whatever action is necessary to achieve a result. So, as motorcycles race through the streets of Naples, we follow the action on the bikes via hand-held cameras, watching what looks like real people dive for cover, making for heart stopping viewing, and giving a feel of genuine guerrilla film making.

The picture painted of Naples is that of a dense, chaotic and vicious city, where the creed is kill or be killed, and anyone showing weakness is doomed. This is something that Inspector Betti understands, as do his superiors, and the police chief is happy to ignore what Betti gets up to, if it gets results. By making the champion of law and order a violent man with no regard for due process of law, a vigilante with badge, the director skirts close to almost celebrating an authoritarian outlook. This is not something that is really sustained throughout the film through any other references or symbolism however, and it should be remembered that this film came out during the height of a period known as The Years of Lead, a time where politically motivated violence, kidnappings and assassinations were rife. However, none of the crime in this film is political, so perhaps it is more a case of giving contemporary audiences clearly defined roles of hero and villain, and providing them with the escapism of seeing an incorruptible John Wayne style hero prevail.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Never Too Young To Die (1986)

The success of the James Bond franchise has spawned many spoofs and rip-offs over the years, all trying to cash in on the glamour and gadgets. These range from more mainstream films, such as the Matt Helm series, featuring Dean Martin, to more off-the-wall efforts such as For Your Height Only, starring the 2ft 9in tall Filipino actor Weng Weng, and Never Too Young to Die definitely belongs on the latter end of the scale. This is mostly due to an outrageous, unforgettable turn from KISS bass player Gene Simmons as a cross-dressing super villain/nightclub singer. Throw in cameo appearances from both a bona fide James Bond, in the shape of George Lazenby, and Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund, as a computer geek, some truly awful 80s music, and plot twists and turns that range all the way from stupid to incomprehensible, and you have a film never fails to entertain
John Stamos (a big TV star in the USA, not so well known in the UK) plays Lance Stargrove, the teenage son of secret agent Drew Stargrove (Lazenby). Stargrove Sr dies while trying to stop evil villain Velvet Von Ragner (Simmons) from poisoning the nation's drinking water. Lance sets out on a vengeance mission, teaming up with his father’s glamorous sidekick Danja Deering, and his college roommate Cliff, who, fortuitously, happens to be a nerdy genius with a stash of deadly gadgets and weapons.

The children-taking-over-from-the-grown-up-spies is a minor sub genre in itself, and the basic premise in this is no less stupid, and requires no more suspension of disbelief than in films like Spy Kids or Teen Agent. In addition, to the writer’s credit, they did go with the classic Hitchcock “MacGuffin”, in this case the hunt for a computer disc that is somehow vital to Ragner and his plans. Despite this, however, the wheels soon come off the film pretty quickly, thanks to – well pretty much everything, from the plot, the endless continuity gaffes, the soundtrack, the wooden acting, the overacting, and Lance Stargrove himself.

Marvel as our hero outwits teenage wrestling bullies, by pointing at one guy's chest, asking "What's that?", and then prodding him in the face when he looks down. Gasp as his roommate shows off his sub-Bond gadgets, while never questioning how dangerous it might be to keep a homemade flamethrower in their dorm, or how stupid an idea it is to put a bugging device in chewing gum. Cringe at the painfully awkward attempts by Danja to seduce the son of her former colleague by constantly hosing herself down while he eats a variety of different fruits. Wince as he attempts to tackle Ragner by biting his nipple. Be warned though - your head may explode when you hear the lyrics to his theme song.  (“…Stargrove, flying like you've never flown, Stargrove, running through a danger zone…”)
The real star of the show is, of course, Gene Simmons, channelling Tim Curry in the Rocky Horror Picture Show, completely dispensing with his regular macho rock star persona, wearing less makeup than when he appears with KISS, but still clad in a gold corset, with a feather boa around his neck. 

Like all good villains, Ragner has a secret lair, in this case, a biker bar / nightclub, where he is the main act, and his minions, dressed like extras from Mad Max, can gather together and be addressed as “turd balls” by him. He is also a master of disguise, by which I mean everybody except the people on screen can see that it is actually him underneath a poorly fitting wig and beard, pretending to be one of the good guys. And he dispatches his enemies by stabbing with an exceptionally long fingernail, or “giving them the finger”. While too shrill and hysterical to be genuinely menacing, the performance is always underpinned with a slightly unwholesome air, as if Simmons if not actually acting too hard in order to play a sleazy megalomaniac.
Director Gil Bettman had previously made TV shows such as Knight Rider and The Fall Guy, and the whole thing certainly has a small screen feel to it, with a cheap look and often flat, generic visuals. Thankfully, the goofy script, and mind-blowing villain make for great dumb, delirious fun, and a trash classic.