Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Tough To Kill (1978)

Om nom nom

Coming straight off the heels of Emanuelle and Last Cannibals, Joe D'Amato took a break from softcore porn and punched out this sporadically entertaining if grim action flick. It takes it's cues from the cynical men-on-a-mission films of the era (The Wild Geese was clearly a big influence; one of the characters even notes "You were at eachother's throats like wild geese!") and it takes place in a nihilistic, dog-eat-dog world where everybody is out for himself etc. In that respect it's a lot like Rolf (aka The Last Mercenary), but while that film had a guy getting his fingers dipped into a poop-filled toilet, this film has a guy getting his whole body dunked into a huge tub full of human feces. Point: Joe D'Amato!

Martin (Luc Merenda) is a tough-as-nails mercenary who, after some mysterious business involving a slip of a paper in a safe deposit box, signs up to a regiment of mercenaries in some unnamed African country. The outfit is lead by Major Haggerty (Donal(d) O'Brien from Zombie Holocaust and 2020: Texas Gladiators), nicknamed "Ex-Lax" for his tendency to make new recruits shit their pants. Haggerty runs a tight ship (as he puts it "I'll be leading this unit as long as I'm able to break the spine of presumptuous young upstarts like yourself") but his methods are fairly unorthodox. For instance he has an obstacle course full of remote control fans and flamethrowers; and he likes to test the leadership abilities of his troops by forcing them to play chicken with live grenades.

For some reason a local native named Wabu (Percy Hogan from Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals) sneaks into the base and latches onto Martin. After Wabu proves himself worthy by not flinching when Martin pulls a gun on him, Martin bestows upon him the generous honour of becoming his personal servant. As this would suggest, Martin's not the most racially progressive guy around. During his last assignment in Angola he didn't even bother to learn the local language ("I didn't talk to 'em; I only shot 'em") and when he fucks up an obstacle course Haggerty demands he leave the whites-only unit and serve with the Africans, a shameful fate that Martin simply cannot live with. Instead he opts to take part in Haggerty's grenade-focused officer's exam, a test he passes with flying colours.

As a selfish, unrepentant asshole, Martin fits in nicely with the rest of his unit. These include Polanski (Wolfgango Soldati), a Polish mercenary who keeps a pet white rabbit in his pocket at all times, and Leon, a cowardly blowhard and Haggerty's second-in-command, who stands out as a particularly racist shithead even by the standards of the team. They, along with a couple of other nondescript side-characters, agree to volunteer for a suicide mission, but only on the promise of a hefty bonus, a generous insurance policy and an even split of the shares of any casualties. Martin has additional motivation, though. Turns out that Leon, Haggerty's second-in-command, is actually a war criminal and Martin has contacts that will pay a million dollar bounty for his return. Haggerty is well aware of this fact and intends to collect the bounty himself, but they let it slip to the rest of the team and soon everybody wants a piece.

Unsurprisingly their ill-defined mission to liberate a bridge from "the enemy" goes tits up to the moon, and the team is forced to escape into the jungle. It's a slow trudge back to civilisation and everybody is acutely aware that each casualty means a greater share of the reward. When they run out of food Polanski ruefully agrees to cooks up his pet rabbit, but as a final act of retribution he laces it with the team's cyanide pills. Leon wolfs it down singlehandedly and pays the price, but luckily the bounty is one of those dead-or-alive deals. When Leon's rapidly-decaying corpse becomes too much of a burden Martin makes the grisly realisation that the head itself will be sufficient proof to his employers. Insert your own head pun here.

Naturally the cast is whittled down to a few starring players through natural and unnatural causes, including a mano-a-mano battle between Haggerty and Polanski that sees Donald O'Brien running around the jungle in his underwear. The survivors manage to make it back alive and collect on the reward, but I really didn't expect a cynical third-act twist that shows the white man doesn't have a monopoly on fucking people over. In any other film it would have been fairly obvious, but I've grown so accustomed to the racism that is ingrained into 70s exploitation films that I honestly didn't see it coming. You got me, D'Amato.

On a technical level this is middling D'Amato, which is probably 10,000 leagues under what most people would consider watchable. I guess I considered it watchable though, since I watched it. The usual caveats apply: bad acting, terrible sound quality, bad dubbing, etc. There is some nice location shooting. The score is by Stelvio Cipriani, who did the music for Nightmare City and James Cameron's first (and some might say best) film Pirahna II: The Spawning. The main theme is a funky piece of jungle-disco that is catchy at first but loses it's luster after it is used over and over again, frequently in scenes where it is completely inappropriate.

Aside from the full-body poop-dunking though, this film is somewhat lacking in the tasteless exploitation that is synonymous with Joe D'Amato. Explosions are entirely off-screen, the infrequent gun battles are almost completely bloodless and the beheading takes place completely out of frame. We never even get a good look at the severed head, and I was hoping for at least one shot because judging by the reaction shots it was pretty ripe by the end of the film. The DVD I watched was an abysmal VHS transfer though, complete with several seconds of test pattern preceeding the film, so I wouldn't be surprised if some violence or sex was cut out somewhere along the way.

Do not expect the manly, explosion-filled action film promised by the awesome cover. It's pretty manly (there's only one woman in the entire film and she only has one line of dialog - telling the hero how awesome he is, naturally) but it really isn't that kind of film. It's about the journey, man. An uncompromisingly bleak journey where you have to drag around a rotting corpse while violent, racist assholes try to fuck you over for a buck. I kind of liked it. It would make a good date movie.

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