Surly Larry & Mo: The Death Merchant (1991)

Dave checks out the other film from the early ’90s that features Lawrence Tierney and a shootout in an abandoned warehouse.

“A complete fucking lunatic” is how Quentin Tarantino described the experience of working with Lawrence Tierney. “He just needed to be sedated. By the end of the week everybody on set hated him – it wasn’t just me. And in the last twenty minutes of the first week we had a blow out and got into a fist fight. I fired him, and the whole crew burst into applause.” [1]

Cast as a villain in the Oscar-winning The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), a Hollywood career was there for the taking for Tierney. Sadly, his unrelenting passion for brawling put pay to him joining the A-listers. Continuous scuffs and scrapes in the years that followed go a long way to explaining why, twelve months prior to Reservoir Dogs (1992), Tierney wound up slumming it on THE DEATH MERCHANT.

This overly ambitious archaeology-cum-spy thriller finds the pugnacious New Yorker starring as Ivan Yates: an unscrupulous businessman who’s struck a lucrative deal for the sale of a highly-desired missile guidance system microchip. Alas, this powerful bit of tech has been smuggled into the country within an ancient Egyptian urn which has since been stolen in a daring moment of double-crossing by Yates’ closest allies. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the Department of Cultural Affairs have dragged their double-denim clad star man Jason Cardwell (Robert Viharo) out of retirement for one last case, leaving his peers open-mouthed in adulation and boasting to the less-informed that he’s “an expert in [pause] dealing with this sort of thing”.

Its irritating fondness for a captioned location encapsulates the length to which The Death Merchant is overreaching in its ambition, with former stuntman James Winburn’s film suffering from a distinct delusion of grandeur. Three Days of the Condor (1975) this ain’t, and ultimately its po-faced absence of self-awareness is its downfall.

Karl Holman, the film’s Austrian-born writer, had tinkered around film sets in his homeland on genre fare like Eis (1988) and Meatgrinder (1989),while indulging in his main passion for directing motocross videos. In fact, The Death Merchant was his sole dramatic endeavour until he unexpectedly snagged a job as story editor on the short-lived TV series The Net – a small-screen spin-off from the Sandra Bullock movie that pulled in a nine-figure box office gross.

Finding distribution through Arena Home Entertainment in the U.K. and David A. Prior’s AIP Home Video in the States, The Death Merchant is a remarkably flaccid programmer for the latter to pick up. Granted, there’s a degree of salvation to be found in the performance of Ivan J. Rado (fresh from Subspecies (1991)), and if that fails then at least the cantankerous Tierney is a fine watch in whatever poverty row show he turned up in.

USA ● 1991 ● Thriller ● 87mins

Lawrence Tierney, Melody Munyon, Martina Castle, Ivan J. Rado ● Dir. James Winburn ● Wri. Karl Holman

[1] As told to Francine Stock during the Alfred Dunhill BAFTA Life in Pictures interview, 11th January 2010

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