Matty takes a deeper look at Fred Olen Ray’s classic CineTel actioners.
Moving to L.A. after his Florida-lensed regional schlocker The Alien Dead (1980), the sturdy financial returns on slasher flick Scalps (1983) and monster movie Biohazard (1985), as well as his ability to complete a picture quickly and cheaply, made Fred Olen Ray an increasingly attractive proposition for B-movie distributors looking for a bite of the drive-in and VHS cherry. While Moshe Diamant and Eduard Sarlui’s Trans World Entertainment bankrolled and distributed the bulk of Ray’s mid to late ‘80s output (with Vidmark and the director’s own American Independent bringing up the rear), it would be with Paul Hertzberg’s CineTel where the prolific filmmaker hit his artistic stride, unleashing the excellent twofer of ARMED RESPONSE and CYCLONE. And although this livewire pair are unrelated standalones, they make a tremendous double feature: each film is buoyed by a positive, almost life-affirming message of strength in the face of adversity that compliments the other perfectly.
Written by longtime compadre T. L. Lankford from a story concocted by him, Ray, and Hertzberg, Armed Response finds two generations of the Roth family banding together in a time of bloody crisis. Presided over by Lee Van Cleef’s mischievously cantankerous patriarch, Burt — a mouthy, widowed, hard-drinkin’ ex cop for whom familial bonds are paramount, even if he’d never openly admit it — the Roths have fallen afoul of Yakuza boss Tanaka due to Burt’s youngest son, Clay’s (David Goss), association with a shady PI called Thorton. Played with phenomenal smarm by Ray go-to Ross Hagen (Armed Response was the second of eighteen team-ups with the helmer), you know Thorton’s a slippery customer from the off. His introduction is among the coolest, most iconic moments in Ray’s oeuvre: accompanied by the wah-wah guitar and electronic drumbeat of Chase/Rucker’s score and dressed like a mack daddy, Thorton walks into an impressive crane shot that cascades down from the heavens (where the film’s bullet-laced title card is perched) and onto the neon-lit streets of Chinatown below.
Entering the Roths’ bar — a watering hole ran by Clay’s older brothers Jim (David Carradine) and Tommy (Brent Huff) — Burt’s got the grinning Thorton’s measure: he snarls when the dick mentions a business deal with Tanaka, rightly describing the oyabun as a gangster and a lowlife. But though as loyal and courageous, Clay lacks Burt and his brothers’ cynicism towards anyone who isn’t family, Jim’s mistrust compounded by his harrowing experiences in Vietnam. Instead, Clay wants to fly further from the nest and forge his own path. Thorton’s rookie partner, the junior Roth becomes his patsy when the snoop shafts Tanaka over. Hiring Thorton and Clay to oversee the safe return of a small statue — a MacGuffin that stands as Ray’s explicit nod to The Maltese Falcon (1941), a key influence in Armed Response’s Noir-ish tableaux — the exchange between them and the thieves (Laurene Landon and Dick Miller) goes south when Thorton decides to keep the bust AND the $1million ransom. It’s a great sequence. Tense, well done, and funny in a dark, what we’d now term ‘Coen-esque’ way, the sight of Landon going haywire with a whopping machine gun before being blasted square in the boob is jaw-dropping schlock cinema, and, as obvious it may be in terms of plot mechanics, Thorton hastily popping Clay in the gut is a mean little do-over.
Naturally, revenge follows — albeit not in the way you’d necessarily expect. Despite Thorton getting a sliver of rough justice from Jim who merrily slaps the piss out of him, Hagen’s duplicitous, slithering scumbag meets his end proper when a not-as-dead-as-he-thought Landon accosts him in a suicide mission that renders the swindled cash useless, and allows Ray to pay homage to that unforgettable underwater shot of Shelley Winters in The Night of the Hunter (1955). Rather, vengeance is aimed squarely at Tanaka. It’s a really nice touch; the general feeling that permeates Armed Response is that none of the characters bar Thorton understand what’s happened, each side, the Roths and Tanaka’s syndicate, jumping to conclusions and trying to second guess the other. As a director, Ray relishes these passages — something you’d perhaps consider surprising from the guy who gave us such gleeful, ‘does what it says on the tin’-type fodder as Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (1988) and Bikini Drive-In (1995). However, as fellow essentials Alienator (1990), Inner Sanctum (1991), Cyberzone (1995), and Over the Wire (1996) would go on to prove, Ray’s willingness to let us make up our own minds about a situation is an enduring trademark.
In Armed Response, Tanaka is so convinced by Thorton that it was Clay who orchestrated the sting that he and his lackeys (Hills Have Eyes (1977) bogeyman Michael Berryman among them — four years before his ‘‘special guest appearances’ in Ray’s Haunting Fear (1990), Wizards of the Demon Sword (1991), and Teenage Exorcist (1991)) that he tortures Tommy to death, and kidnaps Jim’s wife, Sarah (model/actress Lois Hamilton, who’d sadly take her own life in 1999), and kid. Assembled with eye-watering intensity, it’s during Tommy’s torture — a nasty sort of accupuncture Tanaka calls “bone-scraping” — that Ray gives the don a shaded moment of reflection when Tommy cracks out the ‘I survived Vietnam’ card. “Here we are once again,” Tanaka sighs. “The evil yellow man torturing the valiant white hero.” It’s a vital utterance. Suddenly, his and the Roths’ conflict takes on a whole new meaning; Tanaka simply wants what’s his, and the xenophobia behind Jim’s readiness to blame Tanaka for everything else becomes apparent. The psychology is fascinating; a terse exchange with his spouse reveals that Jim’s tour of duty in ‘Nam has left him angry and jittery and riddled with PTSD. And reading between the lines, it’s hinted that Jim locating the bar in Chinatown might be a kind of weird, reluctant guilt thing, as if he felt the need to give back to another Asian community after he killed a Vietcong child soldier. Reactionary upon first glance, beneath the surface, Armed Response’s politics and cultural depictions are a lot more nuanced than its jingoistic brethren of the period.
But all that aside, Armed Response is best taken as a solid cut of B action. Scenes crackle with electricity; the threat of violence is ever present, and the flashes of it before the film’s rollicking closing stretch — a finger-chopping prologue, the aforementioned dust up with Landon and Miller, Carradine’s smattering of kung-fu — give the impression that shit is gonna blow, big style. And it does. Ray’s aesthetic might be noir but his gait — Armed Response’s tone and swagger — is pure western. Just look at its exciting extended finale which is, for all intents and purposes, High Noon (1952) in Chinatown (well, until Berryman hops into a motor and tear-arses around the City of Angels in a thrilling, cost-effective car chase). Bullet and bang-filled, it wouldn’t be out of place in a Walter Hill movie; Armed Response is a two-fisted tale in which men have gotta do what men have gotta do, and a story about how true power can be drawn from the people you surround yourself with. As Burt says when the Roths solemnly agree to railroad Tanaka, “it’s a family matter now”.
Alas, not everyone has that luxury. Sometimes, the only person you can rely on can be viciously taken away, forcing you to toughen up and confront your problems alone. It’s this that’s the thrust of Cyclone. The sort of movie that should be shown to the finger-wagging idiots who think T&A-centric auteurs like Ray are misogynistic and — sigh — ‘problematic’, Cyclone presents a woman finding the strength that she never knew she had. It’s a notion that Ray has touched on and returned to many times, with Commando Squad (1987), Haunting Fear, Inner Sanctum, Mind Twister (1993), Invisible Mom (1996), and a lot of his made-for-television ‘woman in peril’ thrillers all driven by the concept to varying degrees. Yes, the aesthetic appeal of beautiful, bodacious babes can’t be discounted but, dramatically, Ray loves female characters — particularly if their arc involves them transforming into a force to be reckoned with.
Essentially a pulpy superhero origin pic, propelled by an element of Knight Rider-indebted sci-fi, Cyclone sees Heather Thomas’ Terri avenging the muder of her inventor beau, Rick (Jeffrey Combs, who once lived in the same apartment block as Ray and was cast in this and The Phantom Empire (1988) as a result), by a gang of arms dealers after the revolutionary fuel converter inside the eponymous military motorbike. Penned by Ray’s Alienator scripter Paul Garson with input from Lankford, as written, Terri isn’t a shrinking violet by any means. While keen to avoid confrontation, Terri isn’t afraid to stand up for herself when she absolutely has to, as evidenced early on when she kicks the proverbial out of a trio of cat-calling yobs who’ve tracked her from the gym to the garage of a pervy rip-off merchant (another sum’bitch who sorely tests Terri’s good nature). However, compared to her ultra-confident bezza, Carla (Ashley Ferrare), what belief Terri has in herself is shattered after Rick’s tragic demise.
A quick but savage slaughter, Rick is stabbed in the head with an ice pick as he dances with Terri at a gig in a nightclub. The band playing are shock rockers Haunted Garage, who’d provide similar service in David DeCoteau’s Nightmare Sisters (1988), and whose frontman, the inimitable Dukey Flyswatter, is no stranger to cheap n’ cheerful genre fare, voicing the Imp in DeCoteau’s Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (1988), and writing the scripts for Jackie Kong’s Blood Diner (1987) and Ray’s Star Slammer (1986). A sonic, brain-searing blend of the aural and the visual, Haunted Garage’s pounding music enhances the cruelty of Rick’s execution; as spectacle, it’s another Ray all-timer. Incidentally, Flyswatter would also appear in Surf Nazis Must Die (1987) alongside Star Slammer and Armed Response’s Dawn Wildsmith: the former Mrs. Fred Olen Ray who, in Cyclone, puts in a nifty turn as one of two henchmen employed by Martin Landau’s chief weapons-flogger. The other — the bleached blonde bastard with the icepick — is essayed with lip-smacking verve by legendary stuntman Dar Robinson. Responsible for breaking nineteen world records, setting twenty-one world firsts, and innovating the decelerator rig for high fall gags, Cyclone was among Robinson’s final credits before his untimely death age 39 on the set of Richard Fleisher’s Million Dollar Mystery (1987) after a motorcycle stunt went wrong (an eerie twist of fate considering Cyclone’s bike-heavy set pieces).
Terri’s acceptance that she must protect Rick’s game-changing government project — and, as such, her realisation that she’s got bollocks bigger than most guys — comes in a heart-wrenching double whammy that expertly demonstrates Ray’s skill at crafting scenes that teem with emotion, something that’s become more pronounced in recent years with his sugary Christmas movies. The first is Rick’s bittersweet goodbye, when Terri activates a pre-recorded video message from him that gives her the skinny on how to use the Cyclone. The second is an evocative, Michael Mann-ish cruise down Sunset Strip as Terri centres herself, Ray fading a procession of world-passing-by images over the top of each other as Jim Paluzzo’s soft rock number ‘Riding on the Edge of the Night’ swells on the soundtrack. It’s Cyclone’s ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ bit; or, to bring the film closer to Armed Response, the ‘family matter’ moment in which Terri declares war on those who’ve wronged her and her love.
With her inner warrior awakened, Terri refuses to yield to the villains even when she’s tortured. Whereas Ray used his similarly designed sequence in Armed Response to give his antagonist ruminatory pause, in Cyclone, he uses Robinson’s electro-zapping of Terri to underline how much she’s grown as a person. She’s now fearless and as hard as nails, and the film’s explosive, laser-blasting last act when she finally lays waste to Robinson and Wildsmith is a magnificent, fist-pumping conclusion for her. The fact it’s orchestrated with a surgeon’s precision by a firing-on-all-cylinders Ray is the icing on the cake.
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