Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Fireback (1983)

A young Rob Liefeld watched this movie and his
destiny was changed forever...

Richard Harrison was one of a number of muscle-bound American actors who made his way to Italy in the 60s to capitalise on the swords-and-sandals boom. In the subsequent decades he appeared in a number of genre films, from spaghetti Westerns to Eurospy movies but these days he is most well-known (much to his chagrin, I'm sure) for his string of Godfrey Ho "directed" ninja films in the mid 80s. Ho was a thrifty man and would film a few scenes of Harrison and edit it together with some randomly scrounged fight footage to create Ninja Terminator, Ninja Champion, Ninja Kill and dozens of other titles containing the word ninja. These films are all pretty much an incomprehensible mess.

Fireback is one of a few films Harrison and a bunch of other actors (Mike Monty, Bruce Baron, Jim Gaines) made for Silver Star in the Phillipines. It was one of director Teddy Page's first films with Silver Star and for the rest of the 80s he managed to turn out a couple of cheap war films a year It predates Harrison's ninja films, but disappointed ninja enthusiasts should be aware that Harrison does dress up in a ninja uniform in the last scene, which I'm sure Godrey Ho stole and spliced into a dozen other films.

The film begins at a US military outpost in Vietnam and Jack Kaplan (Harrison) is there to demonstrate a new multi-barrel superweapon that combines a built-in radio, automatic rifle, 30 caliber machine gun, grenade launcher, bazooka, mini missile, infrared scope and the ability to paralyse enemy troops with laughter when they see it. It probably weighs about 300 pounds and I'm not sure why anyone would need a bazooka and a mini missile, but still it puts the "firepower of one platoon in your hands". I bet you can't wait to see it in action. Well tough shit, because the Viet Cong immediately attack and Kaplan is captured before he can fire a shot.

With a senior weapons expert captured and dwindling morale, things are looking pretty bleak for the US forces. They are so starved for equipment that a senior military officer is forced to order the rescue mission out of a shoddy makeshift office in somebody's living room. Nevertheless, the mission is carried off without a hitch and Kaplan is rescued. As he recovers in hospital he is unable to contact his wife Diane (Ann Milhench) and becomes increasingly worried. He expresses concern to a friend who casually tosses him his keys and says "Here's my car." Now that's a good buddy.

When he arrives back home he finds that his wife is indeed missing and sets out on a mission to find her. His first stop is a strip club where a bunch of goofy losers clap out of time while a stripper dances seductively without actually stripping. Kaplan, in a pimping disco suit, is instructed to find the Man with the Golden Hand (aka Dennis). First he talks to Digger, a jive-talking black guy clearly dubbed by a white guy (he says "I thought you were in Angelsville, man!") and is told to speak to a club owner named Eve. So he goes to see Eve and she tells him to see a guy named Bart McNeil. McNeil is killed before he get any information, but eventually he is put onto the trail of a guy named Johnson.

The film just goes on and on like this, with Kaplan following clues from location to location in search of his wife, beating information out of anyone he comes across. After a while it gets kind of surreal. While he is following the trail of clues a series of assassins are sent out to kill him. These include a blind (or is he?) man with a sharpened cane, a guy in a spiffy leather cap/neckerchief combo, a would-be bomber played by Harrison's own son and a ninja named Shadow (the 80s). Naturally they are all wildly unsuccessful.

It turns out the one behind his wife's disappearance is a guy by the pimptastic name of Duffy Collins (Bruce Baron). Even though there is nothing remarkable about his appearance or identity, his face is obscured until the very end. He gives a big emo speech saying "I offered her flowers, but she wouldn't accept them" and "I tried to be nice to her, but the more I tried, the more she rejected me". That sounds awfully to familiar to my own love life but while I would deal with things by curling into ball of self-loathing and depression, Duffy kidnaps her (entirely in slow motion) and when he discovers Kaplan is still alive, chains her up in a basement dungeon and murders her so that nobody else can have her.

Eventually Kaplan finds his wife's body (still chained up for some reason) but so do the police and with all of these bodies piling up they are pretty quick to blame Kaplan. The police chief (Mike Monty with absurdly yellow hair) orders his men to bring him in by any means necessary, warning them that Kaplan "can make an ordinary soft drink straw into a weapon" and you don't want to know what he can do with one of those bendy straws. Luckily for them Kaplan doesn't have access to any straws but he does manage to get a hold of a rifle and a bunch of pipes. He uses them to create a superweapon which appears to be a rifle with a bunch of pipes glued onto it.

When Kaplan conducts his brutal assault on Duffy's property we get superweapon blueballs again: Kaplan carries it around with him but he doesn't actually fucking use it, instead relying on a pistol. When he gets overwhelmed he flees, one of the bad guys remarking that "he's heading into the jungle". You know, those jungles they have near population centers in the United States. Once he's in Rambo mode in the jungle he finally decides to use his superweapon, which has a built-in harpoon gun, to silently kill a couple of approaching enemies. Eventually the bad guys give up and the seriously injured Kaplan holes up in a cave.

Even though a whole search party with M16's can't kill him, Duffy decides to call in an assassin because that's worked well so far. He calls the ninja Shadow again (I think he's the only one still alive) and even lends him his horse, you know, for navigating through the jungle. Unsurprisingly, Kaplan kills him (too dark to make out how exactly) and takes his ninja outfit so he can sneak back into Duffy's property. Unfortunately he fails to take into account that he is a strapping 6 foot white guy while Shadow was a tiny Asian man, so Duffy immediately sees through his disguise. Luckily Duffy is a terrible shot so Kaplan still manages to kill him with a series of brutal slow-motion stabs. The film abruptly ends on a freeze-frame of Kaplan in the middle of a particularly rage-filled stab, and a title card explains his post-movie fate, Animal House style:

"Jack Kaplan went into hiding after killing Duffy Collins but he was apprehended by the authorities after a month of close surveillance. He was tried in court and was sentenced to life imprisonment. After a few years in the national penitentiary, he developed a heart ailment and later died of a heart attack. He was 42."

So John "Bluto" Blutarsky became a senator, William Munny prospered in dry goods in San Francisco and Jack Kaplan died of a heart attack in jail. Thanks, movie! Actually, I think more revenge/action movies should include a sobering title card detailing the incarceration and death of the hero. It would kind of bring things into perspective if we found out that, say, after Death Wish Jack Kersey was charged with murder and sent to jail, where he was shanked in the shower at age 54. Kind of ruins the sequel potential, though.

This is a pretty weird film. Badly dubbed dialogue and an abuse of slow motion during dramatic scenes provide a few moments of unintentional hilarity. Apparently Harrison wrote it himself in one night, so I doubt anyone was particularly interested in turning out a watchable product. Still, it's good times for anyone who wants to see Harrison stumbling through the Filipino jungle on a delirious rampage of revenge. With a plot that lurches schizophrenically from one plot point to the next and music that comes from the fevered dreams of a madman, I felt like I was right there with him.

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