Tuesday, August 13, 2019


While spending a relaxing weekend in Houston to catch the end of the thoroughbred season at Sam Houston Race Park, I was resting on the patio of my hotel room, sipping some stout-barrel-aged Texas whiskey, and had a strong desire for a Charlton war comic-book. Alas, I had not brought any on the trip (oh, I could read some Public Domain ones online, I suppose, but I prefer a physical comic to a digital one, unless I can’t get it any other way). However, thanks to the collectors/archivists who post the most marginal off-shore genre films on You Tube, I not only got the ultimate war comic book, I got a living, breathing three-dimensional feature-film length war comic book, one so ragged and misanthropic and brutal that it would never get past the Comics Code Authority, or ANY authority for that matter. But thanks to the market for war-exploitation films in the third-world video market, someone in the Philippines thought that if they made a film like this cheaply enough and had enough foreign markets lined up for video rights, they could make a profit on the project. Acknowledgement is made to the production company DAVIAN INTERNATIONAL (which I vaguely remember from the Filipino war-action films of kickboxer Dale Apollo Cook, who was originally from my former home state of Oklahoma) for getting BATTLE RATS into the can for us to savor.

Sometimes war films are made by people who have actually served in the military, people who try for some kind of accuracy and who try to capture the feelings and life situations and inner turmoil of the troops on both sides of the conflict….and the civilians in the middle. Such films (THE BIG RED ONE, for instance) would be at the exact opposite end of the spectrum from BATTLE RATS, which takes the most over-the-top and cartoonish elements of something like Chuck Norris’ MISSING IN ACTION or Sly Stallone’s RAMBO, and then takes those elements and blasts them off into the exploitation-film atmosphere. This film is to MISSING IN ACTION (or a Michael Dudikoff knock-off of it) what H.G. Lewis's JUST FOR THE HELL OF IT is to BLACKBOARD JUNGLE. That is, take all of what a 12 year old who tortures frogs on the way home from school would consider the “good parts” of such SE Asian-set war films, and do low-budget, completely over-the-top scenes “inspired” by that, throw a few Anglo names and faces into the cast, pretend that the Philippine Islands are Vietnam or Thailand, and let it rip for 85 minutes (or whatever length the video distributors required of a “feature film”) of machine-gunnings and explosions, accompanied by grunting and F-words. The end result is truly lightning in a bottle. The experience of watching this film is totally punk in its effect----I was reminded of Punk-sploitation albums like WORTHLESS TRASH by THE VACANTS, or maybe a more low-brow version of FEAR, minus the ironic stance, but channeled into a war movie, not two-minute anti-social punk noise-blasts. I’d love to slip this film into someone’s Netflix feed who was expecting the latest creation from Lena Dunham…or whatever is nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, after the shitty Barefoot Wine has been poured and the cruelty-free snacks from Whole Foods have been micro-waved….and instead, BATTLE RATS comes on at maximum volume, with the sound a second or two behind the action, and the print full of splices. Now THAT I’d love to see!

The “plot” involves a crack American unit in the Vietnam War, put together from a rag-tag group (and the accents are all over the place….I didn’t know so many Aussies, New Zealanders, and Irish fought in the American Army then!), that specializes in tunnel warfare, set up to match the Viet Cong mastery of that technique. Of course, the one thing the Americans have on their side is a testosterone-fueled gonzo attitude toward EVERYTHING.

Director BEN YALUNG helmed about a dozen of this kind of film in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and like a lot of poverty row filmmakers, he’s quite ingenious at getting interesting-looking set-ups that don’t rely on money being spent. This is NOT one of those war films shot in a few limited areas, used over and over (Larry Buchanan’s HELL RAIDERS being an example of that, though that film has many other good things going for it). The tunnels are an unexpected and fascinating setting, which did not cost much to build, and provide claustrophobic sweaty excitement. However, as Herschell Gordon Lewis proved with BLOOD FEAST, if you provide outrageous gore and audience-alienating violence from left-field, the viewers are not going to be concentrating on your editing and mastery of two-shots and low-angle photography. Interestingly, star Jack Gilbert aka Brent Gilbert (who was from New Zealand, according to his son, who commented on a blog review of the film) also worked for legendary Hong Kong cut-and-paste Ninja filmmaker GODFREY HO (one of my heroes), and the film also has other connections to ‘Filmark International’ and to Joseph Lai’s IFD Films and Arts.

A film like BATTLE RATS is a welcome antidote to the numbing sameness of the films being foisted upon the public today by the prestige streaming services and your local multi-plex. There are still obscure z-grade straight-to-video action films being churned out today, many shot in Eastern Europe, and a little Googling can find you some blogs dedicated to sniffing them out, the way a pig sniffs out truffles.

No comments: