Sunday, November 23, 2008

CROSS MISSION (Fuoco Incrociato, 1987)

Watching Italian films set in Latin America or in the Third World is like stealing a glimpse at the end of the world. The Italians went to places in their collective imagination in the 1970s and 1980s that few others would dare or want to visit. At their best (qualitative standards may vary), these films have an apocalyptic or fin-de-siecle quality, an extremity that other viewers might see as evil. It's probably no accident that when Thomas Harris tried to imagine villains worse than Hannibal Lecter, he included an Italian film crew on the bad guy's side. Some people feel that way about it. But this is only a long way of saying that Alfonso Brescia's Fuoco Icrociato carries a whiff of that Italo brimstone, but distinguishes itself by taking off on its own milder tangent of madness.

With cannibals played out by the late 1980s, the thing to do in the jungle was mercenary movies. So the movie starts with General Romero leading a U.N.-authorized helicopter raid against a reputed drug plantation. The land is set afire, and the international media wants to learn more, particularly Helen, a reporter who doesn't like being stonewalled by the General's press representative. "Manana ain't good enough for us," she protests. Meanwhile, the aide dismisses rumors of a "contra" rebellion in the jungle.

With ominous Stelvio Cipriani music playing, a private plane lands at the local airport. An official greets William Corbin (I think that's the last name) and sets him up in the same Sheraton where Helen's staying. She learns from the desk clerk that Gen. Romero himself reserved William's room for him. Looking for a new angle on the story, she spills some casino chips on him as he relaxes at the roulette table. "Brigitte Porsh," our female lead, will attract men's attention naturally. They go out for a walk and get attacked by some guys for no apparent reason. William is surprised to discover that Helen can hold her own in the fight. "A girl has to know how to defend herself," she explains. Fully seduced, he agrees to secure her an interview with the general following his own meeting.

On their way to his compound, Helen raises some disturbing questions about Romero. William explains that the general calls himself El Predestinado just to make himself sound important. He confirms that El Predestinado possesses psychic powers by virtue of his mother having been a "macumba witch." So he's at least a crazy man, and this intelligence builds our interest in meeting him again.

On meeting Romero, William reveals himself to be some sort of gangster or representative of gangsters who collaborate with the general in the international drug trade. The raid at the start of the movie was all for show, and there are bigger, more lucrative plantations in operation. William warns him not to screw up or else he or his bosses will expose El Predestinado as a fraud -- at least so far as his drug-fighting prowess is concerned.

After dinner, Helen gets her turn with the great man. He scoffs at the so-called liberation movement while boasting of his drug-eradication program. And, yes, he is a psychic with "power I can transmit to other subjects." He actually sells himself short. He has the power to make another subject appear out of nowhere, a little familiar named Asteroth. The general fires a bolt of energy, and there the little guy is! This is one of the rare film appearances of the late Nelson de la Rosa, who's probably most famous for playing Marlon Brando's sidekick in John Frankenheimer's Island of Dr. Moreau remake. He doesn't do much apart from parade about a bit before El Predestinado makes him go away, but the psychic demonstration isn't done. Observing that mechanical lie detectors can give false results, the general announces that his hands are infallible lie detectors with the power to cure or kill. He claps his hands together and energy crackles between them while Helen watches in pure stupefaction.

"That's just the way he is," William explains straightfacedly as we cut to the couple driving back. If you, too, find that transition hilarious, then we share some of the same aesthetic sense -- or whatever that sensibility is that allows us to appreciate "bad" cinema. You'll also appreciate Helen's reply: "Whatever the truth is, he certainly has a complex personality."

The real story of the movie now begins. Our heroes' jeep breaks down, so they have to catch a bus and gripe about the fare. A roadblock soon exposes the fact that guerrillas are on the bus. A chase and gun battle begins. In the crossfire a little girl Helen befriended is killed. This drives her into a killing rage. She grabs an abandoned machine gun and starts blasting away at the government troops. There's some nice stuntwork here as performers fling themselves from moving cars onto the roadside to sell the shots. The army eventually captures the whole group. They subject William to rough questioning, and he tells them to let the general know his whereabouts. Romero slaps an underling around for mistreating his pal, then calculates that public opinion will turn his way if the world learns that an American and a reporter have been killed by the rebels. He decides to leave William and Helen to their fate.

The main guerrilla group learns of the capture and plan a rescue operation. They assume the American is friendly, leading one fighter to reflect on "Americanos -- you know, they have no worries about their own freedom, so they worry about other people's freedom." As this is not 2008, that's apparently meant as a compliment. They intercept our crew on their way to "the gates of paradise," a slave-labor camp where prisoners are worked to death.

Now the rebels start torturing the army guys, but William suggests a more rational approach. For reasons yet unclear, perhaps assuming that Romero has betrayed him, he suggests a more carefully planned attack on the camp. While Helen sneaks around taking pictures and one rebel chews a drug to make himself impervious to pain, William undergoes a lock-and-load, face-painting transformation until he stands in full regalia before the awestruck guerrillas, who must think him a god, or the next-best thing. "A marine!" one says admiringly.

The guerrillas are a co-ed group, and the women will actually lead the way for the attack. They tart themselves up to pass as prostitutes to seduce the guards, then clobber their johns as a full-scale assault begins. Amid explosions aplenty prisoners are freed while Helen pauses to snap pictures of corpses. By the time everyone realizes she's been left behind, reinforcements are closing in and Gen. Romero has personally captured Ellen.

William wants to rescue Helen and the rebels agree to help because "he has taken to heart our suffering" and it's a chance to "cut off the last head of the hydra." How much William himself is suffering is unclear, since he has a makeout session with Myra, the female guerrilla leader, before the final action begins.

Meanwhile, Helen undergoes torture. El Predestinado brandishes a whip and tells her "Every time you don't replay I will stroke my cat and it will purr." Here's a sample of his questioning technique:

Q. Why did you persuade him [William] to help the rebels?
A. I'll never tell!
Q. I'll answer for you. Because you are a whore! You spread your legs to persuade him!

Tiring of handling both sides of the interrogation, Romero summons Asteroth to give Helen a good zapping. Meanwhile, his men bring in a guerrilla who's surrendered with information about the rebel attack. The general decides to verify the information with his bare hands, as only he can, but he doesn't notice the rebel put something in his mouth beforehand....and here I'll stop, since I don't want to spoil the rest of the story for the curious. Can William overcome both the General's shock troops and his shock dwarf? Why is he doing any of this, anyway? Maybe this trailer prepared for Asian markets will give you some clues.

Cross Mission is available as part of Mill Creek Entertainment's Suspense Classics 50-movie, 12-DVD box set. The set is available in stores for as low as $14.95, so this one movie really puts you back approximately 30 cents. Who would say that it's not worth that price? It's a prime example of a "bad" movie by literary or thespian standards that nevertheless goes the extra mile of desperate creativity to entertain us. The only justification something like this has is to show us something we won't see every day, and adding that nutty supernatural element to the mix meets that imperative quite nicely. The Mill Creek edition is cropped, as are the majority of movies in any of their box sets, but has the unexpected extra of the theatrical trailer included before the movie starts. So I didn't get the surprise some audiences must have gotten when Asteroth appears, but on the other half, that trailer is why I went on to watch the movie before most of the others in the set.

No comments: