Vice Squad

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1982

Embassy Pictures

Directed by Gary Sherman

Produced by Frank Capra, Jr./Brian Frankish/Frank Hildebrand/Sandy Howard/Robert Rehme

Written by Sandy Howard/Robert Vincent O’Neill/Kenneth Peters/Gary Sherman

Let’s be upfront about one thing right at the start of this review: there’s not a single thing original about the plot of VICE SQUAD. I’m willing to bet you that this same plot was used at least once by every single police and/or detective show during the 1970s and 1980s. Oh, they’d change it around some. Instead of a psycho hunting down a prostitute it would be a blind girl. Or a little black boy from the ghetto. Or an old man still grieving for his wife. And I do believe that there was an episode of “Hunter” which starred Fred Dryer as a Dirty Harry knock-off which was a loose remake of this movie. In fact, I further believe that Wings Hauser played a tamer version of his Ramrod character in that episode. But I’m working off memory here so don’t quote me, hear?

VICE SQUAD is one of those goofy 1980s movies that I had forgotten about until my friend Christofer Nigro recommend I watch it and about twenty minutes in I realized that I had seen this movie way back in the day in a 42end Street grindhouse. And it was the nuclear-hot performance of Wings Hauser that reignited those memories. And I’ll explain why in a couple hundred words. let’s get the obligatory plot summary out of the way first.

L.A.P.D. Vice Squad detective Tom Walsh (Gary Swanson) as his team are hot on the trail of Ramrod (Wings Hauser) a psychotic pimp known for his vicious treatment of the girls in his stable. Ramrod’s specialty in administering punishment involves a coat hanger and I’m not gonna go any further describing what he does with it. But he’s never killed a girl. Until now. Ginger (Nina Blackwood and yes, it’s that Nina Blackwood) calls her friend and sister prostitute Princess (Season Hubley who was still Mrs. Kurt Russell when she made this movie) for help. Ramrod is looking for her and she knows good and damn well what he’s going to do when he finds her. Princess advises her to stay low and stay out of sight until she can get to Ginger.

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When Princess does get to Ginger she’s in the morgue and Walsh isn’t happy about that. He’s even less happy that the uncatchable Ramrod has killed her. But he makes a deal with Princess. If she’ll wear a wire and record Ramrod saying something, anything incriminating, he won’t throw Princess in the slammer on bogus drug charges. And in the space of a couple of hours, Princess has indeed performed his mission and Ramrod is arrested and on his way to the hoosegow.

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I should mention here that events in this movie happen awfully damn fast. That’s because the events play out in what I think is roughly a 12-hour span of time from 6PM to 6AM. This is a movie that demands you keep up with what’s happening on the screen because it sure ain’t gonna slow down for you. Ramrod escapes from police custody with an easy savagery and then proceeds to go a horrendously violent hunt for Princess to exact revenge. Hunt is a mild term for what Ramrod does. He’s got the single-mindedness of a Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees married to the bloodlust of a Klingon grafted onto the survival instincts of a Comanche. Walsh and his team have to find Princess before Ramrod does but you get the definite feeling they’re fighting way out of their weight class.

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And that’s due to the performance of Wings Hauser. This is the performance that led to him playing whackos for the next two decades and its his own fault because he was so doggone outstanding doing it in this movie. Ramrod is a psycho but he’s even more dangerous because he’s a smart psycho. Combine that with his extraordinary animal cunning and he makes for a formidable adversary. And he steals the movie because it’s way more interesting watching Ramrod in his hunt for Princess than the cops hunting for him because we never know what this guy is gonna do next but we don’t want to miss a second of him doing it, whatever batshit insane thing it turns out to be.

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The rest of the acting in the movie is nothing to write home about. Season Hubley was never an actress that did much for me. She’s okay and that’s about it. Look for Fred “Rerun” Berry in a cameo and and our buddy Pepe Serna (from “Scarface” and “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai”) is here as one of Walsh’s team. And it’s too bad Walsh’s team wasn’t given more characterization as visually they’re an interesting crew and by giving them more quirky personalities and skills they might have presented more formidable opponents for Ramrod. But as given to us the way they are, they really don’t seem to present much of a threat to him.

VICE SQUAD, from left: Lydia Lei, Kelly Piper, 1982. ©Avco Embassy

So should you see VICE SQUAD? I would highly recommend it. It’s a fine example of 1980s exploitation trash that so joyously revels in it’s own sleaze, scuzz and seediness. It’s not a pretty picture and it’s not supposed to be. But if does have that terrific Wings Hauser performance and some really tight directing from Gary Sherman that insures you will not be bored. I’ve provided a link below where you can watch it on YouTube and my recommendation is that you save it for a Friday or Saturday night and make it your Midnight Movie then. Enjoy.

Foxy Brown

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1974

American International Pictures

Written and Directed by Jack Hill

Produced by Buzz Feitshans

Costumes for Pam Grier Created and Designed by Ruthie West

Music Composed, Conducted, Arranged and Produced by Willie Hutch

FOXY BROWN wasn’t the first Pam Grier movie I saw. That would be “The Arena” released that same year. It actually was a couple of years later that I saw FOXY BROWN. Every couple of years you could count on one of the grindhouses on Manhattan’s 42end St. hosting a Pam Grier Double or Triple Feature and that’s when I saw it. Right from the first time I saw it it became for me THE Pam Grier movie. At least until I saw “Jackie Brown” in 1997

But when people ask me which one of Pam Grier’s classic movies from the Blaxploitation Era they should watch first, I always say FOXY BROWN. It was made after “Coffy” which it shares a lot of similarities to and in fact, FOXY BROWN was intended at first to be the sequel to “Coffy” which was a tremendous hit for American International Pictures. But for me, there are scenes in FOXY BROWN which forever stamped Pam Grier as the first female action star and she pulled it off with not only her breathtaking beauty and unbelievably gorgeous body but true acting talent. This is why I think Pam Grier has had such lasting power in the film industry whereas other women, black and white working in the movies at the same period didn’t last. Right from the start Pam Grier had an earthiness, a believability to her performances, no matter the situation her characters were in.

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This is the movie that has the classic scene where Foxy Brown pulls a small automatic pistol right outta an afro wig big enough to make Angela Davis jealous and shoots two bad guys dead.  There’s something about the way Pam does it that makes you buy the scene with no doubt at all. And then there’s the scene where she gets into a brawl in a lesbian bar. It starts with a woman squaring off on Pam, claiming that she’s a karate expert with a black belt. Without batting an eye, Pam snatches up a bar stool and wallops the piss outta her. Pam stands over her downed opponent, throwing the stool over her shoulder, proclaiming; “I got my black belt in bar stool.” Again, the way she delivers the line and her body language more than sells the scene. You easily believe that Pam Grier knocks out lesbians with bar stools all the time.

Foxy Brown has got two men in her life that are both involved in drugs at opposite ends of the spectrum. Her brother Linc (Antonio Fargas) has gotten into deep trouble with a drug syndicate run by Steve Elias (Peter Brown) and Miss Kathryn (Kathryn Loder). Using a modeling agency as cover they run drugs and use prostitutes to keep local judges, police officials and other public servants off their backs with sexual favors. Michael Anderson (Terry Carter) is a DEA agent who has spent two years in deep cover trying to get the goods on Elias and Kathryn to no avail. Anderson is forced to have plastic surgery to change his appearance and with a new identity and face, he and Foxy make plans to go away and start a new life.

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But Linc figures out who Michael really is and in order to get himself off the hook, rats out Michael who is then killed by the syndicate. Linc is then himself killed by Elias and that sets Foxy off on her roaring rampage of revenge. Foxy infiltrates the drug syndicate by posing as a prostitute. But her true identity is soon found out and that’s when things really get cranked up in more ways than one.

You’ll hear some complain about FOXY BROWN as they don’t like the gratuitous nudity Pam Grier displays throughout the movie and that she’s raped at one point in the movie. They argue that those scenes as well as her posing as a prostitute contribute to the objectification of black women. Is it objectification? Maybe yes. Maybe no. Me, I take FOXY BROWN for what it is: an action adventure revenge yarn where it’s a black woman as the protagonist instead of a white man. And a very satisfying one at that. And it’s one of the true classics of the Blaxploitation Era. There’s a dozen movies that I think should be seen if you call yourself a student or fan of Blaxploitation and FOXY BROWN is definitely one of them.

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What I’ve always loved about her as with most of Pam Grier’s movies, she doesn’t wait for men to rescue her. She rescues herself, such as in the scene where she’s being held captive at a farm which is the drug manufacturing plant for the syndicate. She’s raped, drugged with heroin and still manages to turn the tables on her captors and blow up the farm. She does enlist the help of an all male neighborhood watchdog organization obviously inspired by The Black Panthers but that’s because they’ve got the guns and ammo needed to help her shut down the syndicate. And the scene where she asks the brothers for their help doesn’t rely on her sexiness or vamping the men into helping her. They quite wisely and intelligently ask her what her motivations are and she tells them. They talk as equals.

But in their supporting roles, the men are very good. You can’t ask for better than Antonio Fargas and Terry Carter. They build solid characters in a short amount of time and so we feel for Foxy when they’re killed. I also like how there’s different types of black men in this movie. We don’t just see pimps and pushers. Sid Haig also shows up near the end of the movie and it’s always a blast to see Sid Haig and Pam Grier together in a movie as they’re good friends in real life and it shows on screen. Their chemistry crackles that good.

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While Peter Brown is just your standard generic honky bad guy, I really like Kathryn Loder. She’s got this really strange expression in her eyes and her body language is such that you instantly get that Miss Kathryn may be a criminal genius but she’s got some bad wiring upstairs. Her performance is almost as much fun as Pam’s to watch. They make for well matched opponents.

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If you haven’t seen FOXY BROWN yet then you just oughta. Get yourself FOXY BROWN, “Coffy” (as for all intents and purposes they’re virtually the same character) “Jackie Brown” and make it a Pam Grier Night. Trust me, you won’t be sorry.

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 Rated R

94 Minutes

Pray For Death

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1985

Transworld Entertainment

Directed by Gordon Hessler

Produced by Don Van Atta

Written by James Booth

Sho Kosugi made PRAY FOR DEATH after the popular and successful “Ninja Trilogy” he did for Cannon Films: “Enter The Ninja” “Revenge of The Ninja” and “Ninja III: The Domination.” And if you don’t mind taking some advice, I’d suggest you also watch PRAY FOR DEATH after watching the “Ninja Trilogy.” Or better yet, watch it before the trilogy. Not because it’s a bad movie. It’s actually quite good, in fact. But the movies in the “Ninja Trilogy” are designed to be Saturday afternoon chop-socky action adventures with plenty of outrageous action and goofy plot twists. They’re light entertainment, nothing more. PRAY FOR DEATH is a much darker film, a movie about the dreams of an immigrant family turned into a nightmare. There’s a wide streak of sadism infesting the movie and except for one scene the violence isn’t played for fun. For the most part this is a bloody revenge story and the ending doesn’t shrug off the tragedy that befalls this Japanese family.

Akira Saito’s (Sho Kosugi) wife Aiko (Donna Kei Benz) desperately wants to return to America where she was born and raise their two sons Tekeshi (Kane Sosugi) and Tomoya (Shane Kosugi) there. Akira is somewhat reluctant but he’s just been told that he has to wait three years for a promotion that he really wanted and he doesn’t want to wait. He and his wife agree to start their own business in Los Angeles.

Akira has another reason for wanting to leave. His family doesn’t know that he’s a ninja and for years he’s been living with the guilt of killing his own brother who tried to steal gold from the ninja temple where they were trained. Akira wants to put his ninja life behind him and thinks that a fresh new life in a fresh new country will do the trick. The Saitos go to L.A. and purchase a restaurant from widower Sam Green (Parley Baer). The boys busy themselves acclimating themselves to American life while Akira and Aiko renovate the restaurant. They’re so busy that they have no idea that the abandoned cigar store next door is used by a pair of crooked cops for their dirty work. They’re supposed to hide the priceless Van Adda necklace there but one of the cops decides to double-cross his boss Mr. Newman (Michael Constantine) and keep the necklace for himself.

Newman’s viciously psychotic enforcer, Limehouse Willie (James Booth, who also wrote the script) goes to pick up the necklace and finding it gone, sees Sam Green and his packed up car and makes the incorrect assumption that Sam must have taken it. Now, it must be said that even though Limehouse Willie’s job all throughout this movie is to recover the necklace he honestly doesn’t seem all that interested in doing his job. He much would rather beat people to death and terrify them. Limehouse Willie, after killing Sam (hell, he just doesn’t kill the poor old bastard. He pounds him to death with a iron pipe, pours gasoline on him and sets him on fire) figures that the Saito family must know where the necklace is and proceeds to raise hell with them.

He kidnaps Tomoyo, breaks Takeshi’s nose, threatens to burn off Tomoyo’s face with a blowtorch, strings up Akira, tortures him by slashing him across the chest with a razor sharp knife and this son of a bitch is just getting started.

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Of course the Saito family doesn’t know anything and of course Limehouse Willie steps up his game until he kills the one person he shouldn’t have killed. That’s when Akira decides it’s time to put and end to this bullshit and once again takes up the way of the ninja to enact his revenge.

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If the events of PRAY FOR DEATH had happened to a Caucasian, native born American family I don’t think the movie would have the resonance that it does. Akira Saito and his family are immigrants who come to American with hopes, plans and dreams and almost from the time they set foot on American soil they’re ill used by almost everybody. Sam Green is virtually the only American who shows them any kindness and he’s killed off rather quickly for his kindness. Saito and his family can’t even walk down the street of their new neighborhood without being physical and verbally assaulted by street toughs. Akira can’t get help from the police to protect his family from Limehouse Willie. And while we know that Akira will eventually resort to using his ninja skills it comes far too late to keep his family whole.

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Understand me that we’re not talking about High Art here. But what we are talking about is a movie where Sho Kosugi makes a sincere effort to tell a solid story about a dangerous man seeking to live a peaceful life according to the laws and values of a new country that holds promise for him and his family. He’s no Steve McQueen but he does a serviceable acting job as both family man and avenging angel of death. For pure fun and kick-ass entertainment check out Sho Kosugi’s “Nina Trilogy.” But if you want to see a decidedly darker side to him, watch PRAY FOR DEATH.

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92 Minutes

Rated R

Death Wish

1974

Paramount Pictures/Columbia Pictures

Directed by Michael Winner

Produced by Dino De Laurentiis and Bobby Roberts

Screenplay by Wendell Mayes

Based on the novel “Death Wish” by Brian Garfield

Considering how ridiculous and downright cartoonish the later movies in the series were, I can easily see how a recommendation of DEATH WISH would bring snickers and outright guffaws from modern day movie fans. Hey, I can’t sit through “Death Wish 3” without collapsing into fits of laughter while “Death Wish 4: The Crackdown” and “Death Wish V: The Face of Death” are simply embarrassing. By the time Charles Bronson made those last two movies he was plainly way too old to be trying to play the action hero.

But the first DEATH WISH still holds up for me as a powerful piece of filmmaking. Maybe because I remember how the issues of urban crime, white flight, racism and vigilantism were raised, debated and discussed in magazines, newspapers and TV talk shows thanks to DEATH WISH. The movie was actually extremely controversial when it was released. Urban crime was a growing plague in American cities back in the 1970’s and there was a very real fear that the vigilantism advocated by DEATH WISH would be embraced and possibly even acted out by the audiences that packed the theaters showing the movie.

Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is a successful architect living and working in New York with his wife Joanna (Hope Lange.) They return home after a wonderful Hawaiian vacation and resume their lives. It’s a life that is forever destroyed when three hoodlums break inside Kersey’s home. In a truly brutal and graphic scene, the three hoodlums trash the apartment, one of them (Jeff Goldblum) beating Joanna with a blackjack in bloodthirsty glee and then all three savagely raping Kersey’s married daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan) and leaving without anybody seeing them. Paul is called to the hospital and meets his son-in-law Jack (Steven Keats) there. Carol’s mind has been shattered by the horror of what happened to her and Joanna is dead. The police are professionally sympathetic but without Carol able to look at mug shots or tell them exactly what happened there is little to no chance of them catching the criminals.

To help him deal with the shock, Paul’s boss sends him to Arizona on a working vacation to help design a residential development for a wealthy businessman, Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin.) Jainchill takes Paul to a gun club to unwind and is amazed that Paul is an excellent marksman. Paul reveals he was taught how to shoot as a boy by his dad. But when the elder Kersey was killed in a hunting accident Paul swore never to touch a gun again. But recent events in his life as well as discussions he has with Jainchill about liberalism, urban anxiety and where do law-abiding citizens take it upon themselves to defend themselves if the police can’t prey upon Paul’s mind. Upon the completion of the job, Jainchill gives Paul a present: a .38 Smith & Wesson.

Back in New York City, Paul begins a nightly ritual of taking aimless walks in dangerous neighborhoods and riding in empty subway cars, deliberately setting himself up as a target for muggers who he guns downs. New York City is soon set afire by the series of killings done by “The Vigilante.”

NYPD Detective Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) is assigned to the case. But it soon become apparent to him that the Powers That Be don’t really want Paul Kersey brought to justice. The number of violent crimes such robberies, rapes and muggings at night are dropping dramatically. And New Yorkers, as they are wont to do have made a hero out of The Vigilante. The last thing the District Attorney wants is a martyr for the press. But Paul is taking more and more risks and it’s only a matter of time before he’s either caught by the cops or catches a bullet.

DEATH WISH is a movie soaked in urban chaos. There’s a scene where Paul asks his son-in-law, “What do you call people who are faced with a condition of fear and do nothing about it except run and hide?” And that was a very real fear in the 1970’s when it seemed as if anarchy ruled the cities and all of our civilized institutions were breaking down. During the Arizona scenes it’s as if Paul is visiting NRA Heaven which makes his return to the concrete jungle of New York even more psychologically unsetting and helps plunge him into his nightly shooting sprees.

This is undoubtedly the best known movie and role Charles Bronson played. It certainly was the most successful and profitable of his movies. There are other movies I think Bronson has done better acting: “Once Upon A Time In The West” “The Dirty Dozen” ”The Mechanic” ”Master of The World” ”Mr. Majestyk” “Breakheart Pass” “The White Buffalo” and I could easily name half a dozen more. But you mention Charles Bronson’s name and the first movie that comes to people’s mind is DEATH WISH.

The violence in this movie is handled in a manner that I find appalling even by today’s standards. Maybe because it’s presented in an almost documentary-like, matter-of-fact manner. The movie was charged with being racist as the criminals who attack the two women were white but most of the thugs Paul kills are black, which adds another level to the horror we’re seeing on screen. And I think that’s why DEATH WISH still carries a wallop even today. Charles Bronson isn’t playing an invincible, wisecracking superman. He’s an ordinary man who deals with his overwhelming grief and rage in the only way that makes sense to him. He’s committed to his plan and he goes through with it even though it takes a toll on him. He starts drinking more. He throws up after killing a mugger. He rages at his ineffectual son-in-law because he’s got to take out his anger on somebody and the killing still isn’t enough.

But even after all that, we’re left with that final chilling, scary scene where Paul Kersey, having relocated to Chicago comes to the aid of a woman being harassing by a gang of punks. Paul points his hand like a gun  at the punks and gives them the scariest smile I’ve ever seen Bronson give on screen. It’s then that we realize that there’s a lot more to Charles Bronson’s performance and a lot more to DEATH WISH.

93 Minutes

Rated R