Tuesday, August 23, 2016

MOOM PITCHER REVIEW BY BILL SHUTE! KILL A DRAGON starring Jack Palance, Fernando Lamas and Aldo Ray (1967)!!!

Producer Aubrey Schenck had a very good run of B-movies from the mid-1940’s through the early 1970’s. He knew what qualities were exploitable, what phrases would push the buttons of potential ticket-buyers, which actors possessed name value and worked inexpensively yet had that certain something which could make relatively flat dialogue come alive, what fads in popular culture were still semi-hot, and most importantly how to make a film inexpensively. He was around in the 1940’s when one could make films based on the fame of radio stars (such as IT’S A JOKE SON and THE FAT MAN) and still working in the 1970’s when Filipino T&A horror films ruled the drive-ins. He knew that there was an audience out there (people like me) who would automatically go see a film with a title like HOT CARS, or WAR PAINT or UNDERCOVER GIRL or UNTAMED YOUTH or BIG HOUSE U.S.A. or VOODOO ISLAND or ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS, or BOP GIRL GOES CALYPSO or FRANKENSTEIN 1970, or SHIELD FOR MURDER, or THREE BAD SISTERS with no questions asked. He was old enough to have worked with people like Wallace Ford and Mack Sennett yet around long enough to give Tom Selleck his first starring role! He probably would have been a great guy to have a beer with!

In the mid-1960’s there were many second-string spy and international crime films following, at fifty paces, in the footsteps of James Bond. Matt Helm films with Dean Martin and European-made spy films with American actors were playing regularly and successfully at the drive-ins and small-town theaters which were the bread and butter of the independent producer such as Schenck, and KILL A DRAGON seems to be his attempt to cash in on that market. One wonders whether Schenck either knew about or had met legendary offshore producer Harry Alan Towers, as KILL A DRAGON could easily be a Towers production and follows his formula (seen in films such as CODE 7, VICTIM 5 with Lex Barker): a few name stars who are either workaholics or down on their luck, a colorful third-world setting where the film could be made cheaply with a lot of location shooting and thus fewer sets to be constructed, and an exploitable title which vaguely fits into some popular film genre of the day. We have all that and more with the 1967 United Artists release KILL A DRAGON.

The basic plot is that a large amount of nitroglycerin was left on a sunken ship, and by the laws of maritime salvage, after a certain period, it’s available to whoever can claim it first. A local businessman from a small island off Hong Kong and his crew have claimed it and salvaged it, but local organized crime lord Fernando Lamas has other ideas and threatens the community unless he gets the cargo. They then turn to adventurer-for-hire Jack Palance (first seen bedding a woman, reminding you of the James Bond/Matt Helm roots) to assist them against Lamas for a cut of the cargo’s value. After accepting the job, Palance then turns to Aldo Ray for assistance, and Ray is kind of the comic relief in the film, playing a local tour guide who is clued in to pretty much everything that’s happening in the area. Of course, no one plays a tough guy better than Jack Palance (the man was originally a boxer and also he was the understudy for Marlon Brando in STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, and then took over the role when Brando moved on to films), but this film also has a witty, sarcastic edge, and Palance handles that well too. The inimitable Fernando Lamas barks orders and threatens the locals convincingly, always with a touch of class of course, and he dresses in outfits that look like he’s going to guest star on the Dean Martin Show when he finishes his crime-boss chores for the day. His and Palance’s characters have a long mutual history, being on various sides of past conflicts, sometimes together, sometimes against each other, so there’s a nice tension and camaraderie between the two of them. Aldo Ray probably made RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP right after this, and while he may be remembered today for guest appearances in z-grade films of the 70’s and 80’s, the man is a fine actor who was a major star at one time, and even in the lowest budget indie slasher film or whatever, he retained his gravitas (it’s a shame that Fred Olen Ray’s adaptation of THE INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN with Aldo Ray in the Lon Chaney, Jr. role was never completed).. He might have been phoning it in, but in the manner of a true professional who CAN phone it in and still be effective. His scenes help to lighten the tone between the more intense sequences, and he even appears in drag in a scene I can’t begin to describe. An action film with light touches seems to build up goodwill in the audience in a way that leads the audience to forgive the film’s faults. That I’m not focusing on the film’s flaws is a testament to Aldo Ray’s entertaining performance.

One of the film’s strong points is the location shooting. Many of the indoor scenes seem to be shot in existing buildings, leading to the occasional room tone in the medium shots. However, this is more than compensated for by the interesting visuals and the large local supporting cast of Hong Kong people.

If you take away the scenes of Palance bedding women (there’s a running joke about him “celebrating his birthday” each time he’s involved with a rendezvous, in one scene telling Lamas that he’s had two birthdays that week!), this plot could have come right out of a western, with Aldo Ray filling the Smiley Burnette role, and with cattle being rustled or water rights being threatened. It matters little. Genre films do not require original plots....give Eugene O’Neill a call if that’s what you’re looking for. It’s all about atmosphere, and a good pace, and interesting location shooting, and actors like Palance, Lamas, and Ray chewing the scenery in such a way that the person in the back row of the drive-in and with a cracked speaker attached to their car window will not just know exactly what’s going on but also pick up on the tone of the character’s sarcasm and machismo. While Palance and Lamas play the material relatively straight, they do hoke it up enough to remind you that this is a movie with generic good guys and bad guys, not some serious exploration of someone’s psyche. Producer Schenck had worked previously with talents such as Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Mamie Van Doren, all of whom were expert at fleshing out a hackneyed script with their larger-than-life presence, and KILL A DRAGON’s three stars do that quite well. If the viewer left the theater feeling satisfied, it’s largely due to their presence (and the location photography).

The one flaw of the film that can’t be explained away that easily is the sloppiness of the fight scenes, always a sign of a quick production which lacks the time to choreograph fight movements, but that’s never been a problem for me. Remember, these films were made before VHS and DVD’s and cable boxes that record films. By the time you notice how sloppy the fight scene is done, it’s over and you’ve moved on and forget it. It’s not like today where you can stop the DVD and watch the scene again to verify how sloppy it was. Pre-1980’s film-makers understood that and took advantage of it. Despite the Asian setting, there is not really any martial arts action in the film, just fist-fights and chases and brawls and explosions,

Maybe because of the foreign setting, this film reminds me somewhat of the Euro-spy genre. Occasionally I feel like I’m watching one of the German ‘Kommissar X’ films, which were set in various exotic locales, and of course, as mentioned above, it also has the flavor of a Harry Alan Towers production. In fact, it would make a great double-bill with Towers’ Asian-set FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS, which came out the same year.

Speaking of double bills, United Artists released this on the same bill as the amazing NAVAJO JOE starring Burt Reynolds, a totally over-the-top Euro-western which is one my all time fave spaghetti westerns. Just imagine for a moment that you are some poor overworked guy (and I’m guessing this double bill would have had a largely male audience) at the end of a grueling week, looking forward to veg-ing out on Friday night at a rural drive-in or some small-town theater whose heyday had been 25 years previous and still had posters on the wall from old Roy Rogers and Johnny Mack Brown films. Imagine how satisfying these films would have been in that context. Charismatic leading men like Burt Reynolds and Jack Palance, colorful villains, interesting foreign location filming, wild musical scores (KILL A DRAGON has an odd mod-lounge theme song that works the word “psychedelic” into it, which somehow fits the odd, screwloose, everything-but-the-kitchen sink approach of the film), good pacing.....why, these films had everything the B-movie action film fan would want!

KILL A DRAGON was not meant to be analyzed; it was meant to be disposable action entertainment which left a pleasing taste in the mouth and which made a profit for its makers so they could deliver something else six months later which would also make a profit, and the genre-film perpetual motion machine would keep cranking them out. Something which would pay Jack Palance’s mortgage until he could get his next meaty role in an “A” picture. There’s not one pretentious or artsy millisecond in this film. Like a good pulp action story or a paperback original crime novel or a 1961 garage-band rock-and-roll instrumental 45, it exists in its own world and satisfies the same need as an ice cold beer after mowing the lawn in 100-degree weather. Enjoy it, savor it while you’re consuming it, and move on. Jack Palance, Fernando Lamas, and Aldo Ray were professionals who could read the phone book and be entertaining. That’s what they did for a living, and they did it well. That’s why they are stars and most of us are not. A dollar admission for KILL A DRAGON in 1967 was a dollar well spent. 

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