Wednesday, March 10, 2010

DEATH FORCE (aka Fighting Mad, 1978)

Cirio H. Santiago's trash epiphany from 1978 is not to be confused, by using its re-release title, with Jonathan Demme's film from two years earlier. The Philippine film made little impression Stateside under its original label, but was put back in theaters in 1982 to exploit co-producer Leon Isaac Kennedy's success in Penitentiary and his wife and co-producer Jayne Kennedy's recent Playboy magazine layout. The print advertising for "Fighting Mad" inevitably fudged the details a little, giving the unwary reader the impression that Mr. Kennedy (originally billed only as "Leon Isaac") is the hero of the picture when he's actually one of the villains.

(Check out that double-bill to the left. Cirio H. Santiago and Sonny Chiba on the same program for one price! Too bad I was too young back then.)

The real hero is played by James Iglehart, who may be best known to American cult film fans for his appearances in Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and The Seven Minutes. He plays Doug Russell, a Vietnam vet wrapping up his tour of duty with a side project that involves smuggling contraband in coffins. It's not drugs, but gold, and it means a big score for Doug and his accomplices, Morelli and Magee (Leon Isaac). But Morelli, a veteran criminal for whom 'Nam was a vacation, figures that the payoff splits easier two ways than three. As he pitches it to Magee:

Morelli: That man's going back to a wife and kid. He ain't ready for what we're getting into. You could be going home to that lady. He could be just another war casualty.

Magee: You asking me to kill one of my own kind?

Morelli: Oh, don't give me that brother shit. The only brother's the man on the dollar bill -- and he ain't black.

It's a pretty convincing argument. One moment Doug's sunning himself on the deck of their boat, and the next he gets stabbed, gets his throat cut, and gets dumped into the ocean. For Morelli and Magee it's on to LA, where they wage a two-man mad-dog war on the organized crime establishment, quickly muscling their way to the top while Magee tries to make his move on the allegedly widowed Mrs. Russell (J. Kennedy), a struggling nightclub singer. Hear her sing and you'll see what I mean by "struggling."

Meanwhile, Doug washes ashore barely alive on an island somewhere in the South Pacific. Now, what might you find in such a place at this time in history? That's right: Japanese soldiers who don't know that World War II is over. Their unit is down to one officer and one kvetching enlisted man. Rather than kill the enemy on sight they endeavor to nurse him back to health in the hope that he'll make a Man Friday for them. Both men happen to know English, though of course they can't have kept track on changes in the idiom.

Doug [reviving from delirium]: Those mother-humpers...

Officer: You said that in your sleep. What does that mean?

Doug: Nothing...some 'friends' of mine....

Enlisted Man: Hmmm, they do that to you? They ain't no friends. We your friends. We mother-humpers!

Discipline's broken down on Occupied Island, as the poor grunt Ichikawa back-talks to his superior all the time. He tells his commander that, had they stayed in Japan, he'd be a general by now, but the commander comes back by noting that by now he'd be Emperor. All the officer really has left is the personal discipline of the samurai, which he improbably imparts to the recovering Doug. As our hero regains his strength, the Japanese teaches him some martial arts and shows him how to chop coconuts with a sword. With this comes a moral lesson: "It's not for you to learn how to fight," the officer says, "but learn how to live."

"Where I came from, learning how to fight was learning how to live," Doug replies. So while the Japs have fatalistically reconciled themselves to spending the rest of their lives on the island, Doug lets himself get captured by the Philippine Navy. Before you know it he's back in LA, still carrying the samurai sword his mentor gave him, i.e. armed for payback. Now it's his turn to wage a one-man guerrilla war on Morelli and Magee, who prove much less effective now that they command scores of goons than they were on the offensive. While Morelli instigated the whole affair, Magee ends up the final antagonist, holed up in a heavily guarded Mexican compound with Doug's wife and son held hostage as our hero blazes a trail of severed heads toward the final showdown.

Santiago is a master chef of cinematic junk food. He keeps things going at a good clip throughout, constantly intercutting between the villains' conquest of LA, Magee's menacing courtship of the now-jobless Mrs. Russell, and Doug's samurai training. He makes sure that not too much time passes without some action or bloodshed, and he knows to save the best (or worst) for last. He knows that the one thing that can top an hour's worth of machine-gun mayhem is some serious head-cutting. The effects are awful, of course, but Santiago builds enough momentum to get you caught up in the spirit of the exercise. When you're ready to see heads roll, heads will roll. What more can you ask from exploitation cinema? In this case, I have to give the Filipino filmmakers credit for a perhaps-unusually sympathetic portrayal of Japanese soldiers, and for an idiosyncratically sentimental soundtrack featuring a love theme sung by J. Kennedy and a cute motif for our Japanese friends.

Mill Creek Entertainment presents the film as Fighting Mad (with an obviously spliced-in title card a la Death Proof) in its 50-film Martial Arts box set. As you can see, the presentation leaves a bit to be desired, and it's a bit of a stretch to call this a martial arts film (or at least to put it alongside kung fu and ninja movies), but somehow this seems like the way that Death Force was meant to be seen. I wouldn't mind seeing a properly-restored DVD, but I can safely recommend this item to fans of Seventies trash as is.

1 comment:

dfordoom said...

I highly recommend Santiago's T.N.T. Jackson.