Friday, January 29, 2016

Cannon Fodder: Mata Hari (1985)

(R, Cannon Films, 108 mins., theatrical release date: September 1985)

"Bolero 2: Emmanuelle 4.5." That is my pet name for Mata Hari.

The last time I reviewed a shameless softcore period piece starring an over-the-hill sex symbol, I felt like giving up on The Cannon Group entirely. There's only so much idiocy and bad judgment one can take from Golan & Globus before you rue the day you decided to investigate their track record for yourself. And the next time I revisit Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, I'm going to wince from the experiences of watching Bolero, The Apple and now Mata Hari uncontrollably.

With Bo Derek no longer interested in keeping ties with Cannon, the tacky twosome turned to her Dutch doppelganger, Sylvia Kristel, to satiate their opportunism. In the wake of 1981's Lady Chatterley's Lover, which reunited her with the director who stripped her to fame back in 1974...well, that D.H. Lawrence adaptation didn't get released in America until May 1982. Preceding Lady Chatterley's Lover theatrically was Kristel's appearance in the movie which kicked down the doors for glut of teenage sex movies to come, Private Lessons.

The multilingual model with the 164 I.Q. went Hollywood as the duplicitous French servant who romances/titillates a 15-year-old rich boy. Private Lessons was a sleeper hit even with Kristel being body-doubled, thus the European embodiment of adult-minded erotica became another oversexed pawn in a more disreputable liaison. Kristel's popularity encouraged Louisa Moritz, Joan Collins and Jacqueline Bisset to also act out variations on this cougar cliché. By the time a real movie of quality, Risky Business, arrived to put its predecessors to shame, Kristel came full circle with a "special appearance" as a sex education teacher in Private School.

As I mentioned previously, Cannon thought about making a follow-up to The Last American Virgin which would've had Kristel getting conquered by the three boors. It never happened, mainly because I would imagine the idea of Lawrence Monoson finding solace in Sylvia Kristel's bosom would've been a straight-up copy of Private Lessons. And we already had that with My Tutor and They're Playing with Fire, the latter starring Eric "Philly" Brown himself opposite Cannon regular Sybil Danning.

Instead, in 1985, Hot Chili became Virgin's unofficial sequel by virtue of having Joe Rubbo and Louisa Mortiz star in it (as well as plagiarism from all of the previous Lemon Popsicle movies). Sylvia Kristel, meanwhile, found herself in a more typical refuge for aging if bankable screen sirens working under Golan-Globus: The Out-of-Costume Drama.

The legend of Mata Hari, the sensual entertainer who was tried and executed for enemy espionage during WWI, became the basis for Kristel's second Cannon vehicle. Whereas Bolero invoked and sullied the prestige of silent film star Rudolph Valentino, Mata Hari makes hash of a role which was previously handled by Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich (see Dishonored) and Jeanne Moreau. Poor Kristel may look beautiful in the buff, director Curtis Harrington pitching in a handful of titillating diversions from the mind games surrounding Lady MacLeod. But she cannot command the screen in any other manner besides undressed, and this '70s sex kitten is reduced to a dust bunny in the 1980s.

There's no tragedy in the unraveling of how Mata Hari is played by both the French and German armies at the moment their top commanders catch her eye in a museum. There's nothing to invest in the estranged friendship between these sporting rivals, Karl von Bayerling (Christopher Cazenove) and Georges Ladoux (Oliver Tobias). And any chance for engaging with the various assassinations, mutinies and counterattacks is thrown way off balance by both a sloppy script and the film's awareness of its own sexploitative sensationalism.

So when Mata Hari makes love to a solider on the train to Berlin, they are rudely interrupted by a poison blow dart landing in the stranger's back. Her interrogations lead her to cross paths with nefarious Fraulein Doktor (Gaye Brown), who specializes in psychological manipulation at the cost of Mata Hari's romantic interests with von Bayerling. The disgraced dancer is then pinballed between working for von Bayerling and Ladoux, all the while antsy viewers anticipate the latest flash of skin from Kristel, whether it be from masturbating in the bathtub (replete with keyhole-peeping imbeciles) or a topless fencing bout against a spitfire contessa.

By the time Mata Hari has been row-boated to Java by the amorous von Bayerling, learns about the magic of invisible ink and makes her way across German battlefields to rescue her mortally wounded paramour, Fraulein Doktor has constructed a time-bomb which Mata Hari races to defuse. Of course, she is captured by the French and awaits her inevitable martyrdom in the firing line. Yet the plotline is overstuffed and so portentous that it stomps all over any chances for tension or pathos. What should be a resonant conclusion turns out to be one more bogus filmmaking choice, which is nothing new in the dumpster files of Golan-Globus.

Despite his renown in independent horror circles, Curtis Harrington wound up on the opposite side of the coin compared to Tobe Hooper. Whereas the Texas Chainsaw Massacre auteur invested his trio of Cannon productions with all manner of perverse idiosyncrasies, Harrington (Queen of Blood, What's the Matter with Helen?, Ruby) fails to liven up the movie enough to distract viewers from the locked-down locations (Budapest badly doubling for all European locales) and perfunctory cinematography (by Cannon regular David Gurfinkel of The Apple and Revenge of the Ninja). Under his auspice, Harrington gives Mata Hari a chintzy look which is not helped by the unwieldy performances and the undependable plot.

I mostly concluded that Mata Hari was basically a romance novel heroine writ mythical, torn between two lovers and helpless against the dogs of war. Take out the erotica and all that's left is but a Stephenie Meyer prototype. If you want a shorter, sexier take on this material, watch the middle vignette of Second Time Lucky instead.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Cannon Fodder: Revenge of the Ninja

(R, Cannon Films/MGM/UA, 90 mins., theatrical release date: September 16, 1983)

"Eureka!" After reviewing six movies for this Cannon Films series, I've struck crude.

Yes, Golan & Globus have a deathless reputation for vulgarity, and I'm not going to deny that much of what I've seen has been excruciating. But the part of me that can appreciate entertaining trash, including a couple of Tobe Hooper's mid-1980s work-for-hire projects bankrolled by Cannon, enjoys Revenge of the Ninja for what it is. I think I've found my first official "guilty pleasure" of the bunch.

And boy, should I feel ashamed, because Revenge of the Ninja is a doozy with a capital F.

In case you don't know, Menahem Golan himself directed 1981's Enter the Ninja, which clearly wanted to be a B-movie introduction to the ancient Japanese practice of ninjitsu. Going back to the DVD commentary for 42nd Street Forever, Volume 3: Exploitation Explosion, which I previously invoked in The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood, schlock scholar Chris Poggiali mentions that it was originally called "Dance of Death" and was a self-scripted vehicle for Mike Stone, a martial arts icon on the level of Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee. The production was shut down and everyone, including Stone and director Boaz Davidson, were fired, and Golan hired Italian superstar Franco Nero to take over the lead role (Stone was re-hired to be Nero's stuntman).

Even with the combined star power of Nero, British sex symbol Susan George and American journeyman Christopher George, all three of them were officially slumming by 1981. Enter the Ninja instead broke through Sho Kosugi, a Tokyo-born black belt who officially became the "Master" of his practice and the lynchpin of Cannon's entire series of Ninja action quickies, the second of which is Revenge of the Ninja.

Cannon, of course, were not the first to adapt intense physical combat for the grindhouses of the world. Warner Bros. imported The Shaw Brothers with 1973's Five Fingers of Death and also distributed Enter the Dragon, both kicking off the chop-socky craze which sent shock waves throughout low-budget cinema. By 1985, Cannon were grooming Michael Dudikoff as the "American Ninja" and Dragon director Robert Clouse directed Gymkata for the Warners, which incidentally turned out to resemble what would happen if Enter the Ninja was made for a major studio.

In Golan's dreary film, Kosugi took a supporting role as Hasegawa, the arch-enemy of Nero's noble Cole ("He is NO NINJA!") who would be hired by Christopher George's Venarius to assassinate the heroes. These foes were color-coordinated to match their personalities of "white ninja" and "black ninja." Naturally, Hasegawa is vanquished and Cole achieves vengeance for the murder of his war buddy Frank Landers.

Sam Firstenberg, who was the other assistant director on Operation Thunderbolt besides Davidson to become an in-house director for Cannon in the 1980s, takes the reins here and delivers the relentless fighting and skewering which Golan tamed for Enter the Ninja. Revenge of the Ninja is beginning-to-end violent in that vicariously seedy manner which may not make the critics rave (and I'm feeling pretty half-hearted on this, myself), but gets the job done for boisterous patrons of all-night Sonny Chiba marathons.

Yes, this is a movie which Christian Slater's Tarantino-born action nerd from True Romance might love.

The setup is "Lone Wolf & Cub at Utah": after his family is gruesomely ambushed on his sacred family cottage, noble ninja Cho Osaki (Kosugi) spirits his mother (Grace Oshita) and newborn son Kane away to Salt Lake City (which I suppose is meant to double for L.A. based on the bear flag) at the behest of his friend Braden (Arthur Roberts). Cho hangs up his swords and shurikens to open a doll museum, unaware that his business partner Braden will eventually be smuggling heroin inside these trinkets with intent to unload for Eye-talian mob boss Caifano (Mario Gallo). Or at least until Caifano stiffs Braden on a full payment in advance and orders his goombah squad to intimidate Braden away from shopping around.

Incensed, Braden calls upon his extensive ninjitsu studies to declare war on Caifano's crew, assassinating picnicking henchmen and one-eyed informants with the same tools Cho has sworn off. Lt. Dime (Virgil Frye) and martial arts-trained officer Dave Hatcher (Keith Vitali) try to persuade Cho into helping them crack the case, but it will naturally take a few shady twists of fate, including the kidnapping of Kane (now a kindergartener played by Sho's real-life son, Kane Kosugi), to snap Cho out of his pacifism and confront Braden in a one-on-one battle: "Only a ninja can stop a ninja."

Cannon productions have gained cult renown for being brazenly ludicrous, and Sam Firstenberg is responsible for many of these "highlights," including Ninja III: The Domination and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. Revenge of the Ninja doesn't skimp on the insanity, from the violent prologue which lingers over the massacre of women and children to a pair of hilarious fight scenes pitting Braden's blonde moll, Catherine (Ashley Ferrare), against the father-and-son Osakis. The first, in which she attempts to seduce Master Cho, prompts this glorious exchange:

Cho: "If you want to work out, you forgot to wear pants."
Cathy: "You really think I forgot?"

Later on, after Braden activates the hypnotic eyes of his metal mask, Cathy is forced to capture Kane, who resists with instinctive force. This leads to plenty of cartwheels, high kicks and even a staff duel between them, with lots of chuckle-inducing abuse aimed towards Kane. He wins the battle with help from a concealed blade, sparing Cathy's life, but she carries him off to Braden, regardless, like an irate market patron carting off her colicky child.

To list further outlandishness would risk spoiling the entire movie (there are two gangs of Benetton bullies who oppose the Osakis), as Firstenberg tries to spare us any dull moments. Knowing he has a bona-fide craftsman in Sho Kosugi, Revenge of the Ninja is pumped full of risky stunts and sparring contests. There are tawdrier elements thrown in for spice, such as the slasher-style murder of Caifano's nephew and his girlfriend as they screw in a hot tub (they are killed in such a position that it would require a jackhammer to separate them), but Revenge of the Ninja is at its best throwing Kosugi into stamina-siphoning danger whenever the threadbare plot threatens to hit a patch.

Kosugi's stoic demeanor is easily the most interesting aspect of the film acting-wise, as is the perverted glee of Professor Toru Tanaka as he piles on Cathy. The rest of the cast is either blandly competent or outright amateurish between physical feats.

Because this is a case of Israeli opportunists seizing upon Japanese culture, Revenge of the Ninja isn't as cartoonish as Shogun Assassin or The Story of Ricky, which are even bloodier and ballsier distillations of individual honor. Firstenberg is aware that he's making a glorified comic book of an action movie, but there's still a leaden quality to characterization and plot progression that demands more ingenuity than he and writer James R. Silke can manage.

This is still an improvement over Enter the Ninja, though, on the basis of its liveliness, if not its aesthetics. This is a movie where young and old, American and Oriental, male and female, black, white and Latino, are counted on to raise a kung fu fist. Sho ‘nuff!