Monday, December 21, 2015

Cannon Fodder: Operation Thunderbolt

(PG, Cinema Shares International, 124 mins., theatrical release date: January 27, 1978)

This entry in Cannon Fodder is going to be quite different from the norm, given the last two movies I reviewed were The Apple and Bolero. Let me explain before I launch into the review proper:

1) This is not going to be a film which was released under the Cannon Films label, but rather one of the pivotal movies which Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus produced before they bought Cannon. Consider this their humble beginnings, if you will.

2) Compared to the vast majority of Cannon's 1980s output, which could only be recommended to connoisseurs of trashy movies, this one actually is stepping upscale. Even with Golan himself directing, this is not going to be another Apple or Enter the Ninja. This is far more substantial due to its subject matter and the fact that it was made in their origin country before their "heyday."

3) Finally, this is one of those scant Golan-Globus productions which was nominated for an Academy Award, here for Best Foreign Language Film. Runaway Train picked up a few major nods (Best Actor, Supporting Actor and Film Editing), and a Dutch movie called The Assault that Cannon distributed in 1986 (Golan-Globus didn't produce it) won BFLF, a category in which Golan was nominated thrice more as producer (1964's Sallah, 1972's I Love You Rosa and 1973's The House on Chelouche Street).

The movie is Operation Thunderbolt (Mivtsa Yonatan), named after the Israeli military's nighttime maneuver which rescued over a hundred of their citizens from a Ugandan airport. The events circa July 4, 1976 were dramatized in two American TV movies released prior, Victory at Entebbe and Raid on Entebbe. Golan's film, however, boasted the support of the Israeli government, with a few in the cabinet making unbilled archival-seeming walk-ons, and Air Force, whose Hercules crafts were prominently displayed. His version was also the only of the Entebbe dramas to incorporate actual troops/captives from the ordeal, as well as weave in existing newsreel footage from on the ground.

What you get here is basically The Delta Force without all the jingoism (well...they left plenty in here, but I'll get to that), ridiculous action and "Airport '86" stunt-casting.

That later Golan film, of course, was loosely based on a recent hijacking crisis. In fact, based on the IMDb trivia page, it may have seemed that The Delta Force was shaping up to be to Operation Thunderbolt what The Last American Virgin is to Lemon Popsicle, retelling the same story but with a contemporary hook catering to Stateside audiences. That didn't exactly happen, blessedly, but The Delta Force hit much of Thunderbolt's beats, regardless, from the sweltering atmosphere of the hostages' dilemma to the victorious ending which involves the overlooked sacrifice of one particular soldier.

This pre-Cannon production also benefits from a gritty docudrama approach to the material, giving the true-life story a natural propulsion without too many questionable leaps in chronology or characterization. A lot of the tension leading up to the raid involves not just the predicament of the endangered Hebrews, but also the decision by the Israeli Prime Minister to forge ahead with the rescue project commandeered by Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu (Yehoram Gaon), the younger brother of future government leader Benjamin. This is one of the rare movies where the main characters don't spring into action mid-film because of the risk assessment and hesitation of the army's superiors. Golan actually creates an urgent mood which suggests he had real talent as a director which he may have taken for granted, or more likely was avalanched by his own crudities.

The plot begins in Athens, Greece via a connecting flight to Paris from Tel Aviv, humanizing the passengers in the simplest possible way as families bid their traveling kin weepy goodbyes. Although, to be honest, I think the only genuine emotion seems to be shown towards a dog named Bobo. The villains, about to board the same Air France jet, concoct a bogus power failure which allows them to smuggle their concealed arms aboard without suspicion. This coalition of Arab and German menaces, who take over the plane twenty minutes after takeoff, are led by Wilfried Böse, played with fanatical charisma by Klaus Kinski.

Kinski would later appear in Cannon's slasher obscurity Schizoid as a seedy therapist whose patients are being systematically butchered with scissors. If you ask me, his ghost also haunts Richard Lynch's performance as Rostov from Invasion U.S.A., but I might save that thought for later. The volatile Kraut performer was known for taking B-roles in non-Herzog trivialities such as these Golan-Globus products, but there's a structure to his performance that the movie fails to level, although Golan and Co. give it their best.

Böse, a self-described "freedom fighter" revolting against West German money being used to covet Palestine, is unusually diplomatic and collected for such a blatant heavy. He only fires his automatic in the air as crowd control (we never see him butcher anybody), tries to avoid profiling when a passenger claims his name is "Cohan" and is less brutish in his methods of interrogation and coercion than his comrades. Kinski is so restrained that he makes his two weakest foils, Sybil Danning and Mark Heath, come off as amateurs.

Danning is relegated to a harsh Ice Queen archetype, glowering behind unflattering, oversized shades. Her performance is so rote, even hard-up camp junkies would do better revisiting Chained Heat or Howling II to get their fix. But at least she doesn't commit as egregious a sin as Heath, who burlesques Idi Amin Dada to the breaking point where he directly invokes Hitler in his vocal inflection. Not even Kinski and Danning stoop that low. Even though I haven't seen either the other two Entebbe films in order to compare their portrayals of Amin (putting the Oscar-validated Forest Whitaker aside, of course), Heath allows both the late Julius Harris and the still-living Yaphet Kotto easy resting.

I truly believe Mark Heath may have cursed Operation Thunderbolt's chances of winning that foreign movie Oscar just as Norbit did for Eddie Murphy's esteemed performance for Dreamgirls.

Even with its honorable intentions, no-frills pacing and grasps at authenticity (an error involving a black Mercedes did blow the soldiers' cover), Operation Thunderbolt labors under the same fatal flaws which have given Golan-Globus movies a uniformly bad name. Firstly, the film is horrendously unsubtle. There are too many indignant references made to the Nazi genocide of WWII within and without Entebbe, and Golan shamelessly zooms in twice upon a concentration camp tattoo. These simply don't wash. Golan dilutes what is meant to be a "political issue" into cheapjack Anti-Semitism by calling repeated attention to another horrifying, shameful event which has nothing to do with the motives of these terrorists.

Not only was the real-life Wilfried Böse indignant about being referred to as a "Nazi," but one of the actual survivors would go on record to rebuke the hostage situation as purely discriminatory against the Jewish people.

Golan does engender a righteous anger in visual terms, and it's hard to deny the torment faced by the Israelis. But the film is dogged by a kind of noble prejudice that is principally no different from anything Cannon made with Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris. Arabs, Ugandans, Germans, and the French are routinely caricatured and mocked for their callousness; meanwhile, Golan takes a moment to show a woman digging for her British passport from between her legs. Such frequent chasms of taste are poison in the movie's heady brew.

Another blow to the movie's painstaking credibility is the unavoidable corniness of the pro-military theme. Jerusalem-born Yehoram Gaon, a multi-media superstar of the Israeli arts, plays the upstanding hero Yonatan as compellingly as the amoral Kinski. You can still tell he's fulfilling a well-worn cliché from the very first moment he interacts with his fiancée. Declaring his allegiance to the Army over his yen for schooling, Yonatan reads Alistair MacLean and quotes JFK before the impending attack. A born leader or so it seems, but Golan doesn't construct a single training montage worthy of Yonatan's intellect, the opening simulation rendered ludicrous through recycled footage of two grunts darting toward the camera and opening fire. All the while, the sweep of Dov Seltzer's Morricone-style theme song is further diminished by the ridiculous sound of a jaw harp.

Put mildly, this is not The Guns of Navarone, which must have made quite an impact on Golan & Globus seeing how they lured J. Lee Thompson, already busted down to exploitation by the dawn of the 1980s, into a workmanlike late career of lurid Charles Bronson swill (10 to Midnight, Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects) and imitation adventure gruel (King Solomon's Mines, Firewalker).

And yet, Operation Thunderbolt is nowhere near as worthless as what one would expect from the Cannon cousins. It's got two solid performances (Gaon and Kinski), lots of palpable hysteria and a rousing, if ultimately somber, re-enactment of the famous raid. The movie earns its ambiguously victorious finale in a way that Lemon Popsicle doesn't, chiefly because there is more scope to the proceedings and color to the characters. Despite its biases and hypocrisies, Menahem Golan, for once in his directing career, has made a movie that is less of a tank and more of an ATV.

Golan would only get stupider and sillier from here, as would his assistant directors Boaz (Going Bananas) Davidson and Sam (Ninja III: The Domination) Firstenberg. It's amazing to think that Cannon were responsible for a halfway-decent movie that didn't involve lowering your standards, especially as I ponder the cosmic karate kick that is my next entry.

I'm talking 100% grade-U.S. of A. Chuck steak, served raw in a minotaur's skull.

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