Mini Review: Hell Ride (2008)
by Steve Habrat
In 1966, Roger Corman’s American Internation Pictures (AIP) released The Wild Angels, an outlaw biker gang movie that gave birth to a brand new exploitation subgenre. With The Wild Angels a hit and biker culture breaking through into the media, AIP quickly started churning out more of these rough-and-tough biker films that featured up-and-coming stars like Peter Fonda, John Cassavete, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, and Larry Bishop. While Bishop never quite achieved the A-list status as some of the other actors that made appearances in these films, he remained a cult icon that obviously caught the eye of exploitation mega-fan Quentin Tarantino. In 2008, Tarantino encouraged Bishop to write, star, and direct a throwback to the outlaw biker films of the 60s and 70s, even offering to executive producer the picture if Bishop would agree to make it. The result of this collaboration is Hell Ride, a jumbled and awkward nod to the exploitation genre that gave Bishop his start. The only thing that keeps Hell Ride from being tossed into the junkyard is the presence of fellow genre stars Michael Madsen, David Carradine, and Dennis Hopper, who try their damndest to make sense of the script and add some extra slicked-back masculinity to all the blood, sex, and violence. It also slightly helps that the film boasts a fairly authentic late 60s/early 70s visual style and a gritty Ennio Morricone-esque score.
Hell Ride introduces us to Pistolero (played by Larry Bishop), the grizzled president of the motorcycle gang called the Victors. We learn that in 1976, Pistolero’s beautiful girlfriend, Cherokee Kisum (played by Julia Jones), was brutally murdered by the Deuce (played by David Carradine) and Billy Wings (played by Vinnie Jones), two high-ranking members of a rival motorcycle gang called the Six-Six-Six’ers. Many years pass and the Six-Six-Six’ers gang falls apart, but Pistolero still craves revenge. After a veteran member of the Victors is murdered in the same manner as Cherokee Kisum, Pistolero begins to suspect that the Six-Six-Six’ers are reforming and attempting to make a comeback. Seeing his chance to exact his revenge on the Six-Six-Six’ers, Pistolero rounds up the Gent (played by Michael Madsen) and Commanche (played by Eric Balfour), two fellow members of the Victors and close friends of the heartbroken president, to help him wipe the rival gang out once and for all. With several members of the Victors either switching sides or turning up dead, Pistolero races to track down the Decue and Bill Wings before they can reach him. In the process, Pistolero learns that Cherokee Kisum had some secrets of her own, and that one of his new gang members may have a connection to the slain woman.
If you’ve seen the trailer or glanced at the poster for Hell Ride, you’ve noticed that Tarantino’s name shows up in big bold text on both, making it seem like he played a major part in the film’s production. About five minutes into the actual film, you’ll realize that is far from the truth. Where Tarantino is capable of delivering a casual cool that seems effortless, Bishop’s tough-guy style just seems forced and uninspired—amazing considering that this guy’s career began in these types of macho outings. Visually, Bishop understands how to make the film feel like a forgotten exploitation film from the 70s. It switches from gritty black and white shots of leather-clad bad-asses rocketing down dusty highways to vibrant LSD trips out in the rocky deserts. Strewn throughout the retro visual style is a plethora of sex, drugs, roaring steel, and violence, all set to a Morricone-esque score that gives the film a slight spaghetti western feel. The orgies, beheadings, ambushes, and motorcycle porn all seem appropriate, especially since Bishop is trying to pay tribute to a hardened exploitation subgenre. But where he really looses his grip on the project is with the characters, convoluted plot, and the cringe-worthy dialogue. It’s especially painful because these guys are veterans of the B-movie circuit.
In addition to writing and directing Hell Ride, Bishop also leads a legendary cast deep into the sizzling desert. A good majority of Bishop’s performance finds him mumbling his dialogue, staring down his opponents over his slouching sunglasses, or squeezing girl’s butts in a lame attempt to show he’s a real lady-killer. Madsen brings his Elvis-like cool to the role of the Gent, but he struggles with flimsy dialogue and a lack of anything substantial to do aside from standing around. Balfour does a surprisingly decent job at trying to hang with these grizzled beefcakes, as his character is the only one with anything resembling depth. The legendary David Carradine’s is reduced to being strapped to a chair and carefully growling bland dialogue at Bishop. Dennis Hopper seems to be having a grand old time back on his hog, but weirdly, Bishop seems like he is constantly restraining him when he should be letting him go full crazy. Rounding out the cast is Vinnie Jones as the wildly profane Billy Wings, a ruthless villain that is largely absent until the final stretch. Overall, for all the talent involved with Hell Ride, the entire project comes off as cheap and amateurish, which is perplexing because it should have been a rock-solid, testosterone-fueled thrill ride. To make it worse, the plot is like a tangled ball of yarn that Bishop can’t even sort out. This rusty clunker would have been better suited as a brief three-minute faux trailer in Grindhouse. It would have been a hell of a lot more fun.
Hell Ride is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Death Race 2000 (1975)
by Steve Habrat
One of the better cult films to be produced by legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman would have to be the 1975 dystopian satire Death Race 2000, an ever colorful grindhouse thriller that appears to have no shortage of eye-grabbing characters, gory death scenes, and black humor. Amazingly well spoken for this type of sleazy genre pic, Death Race 2000 is clearly a drive-in cheapie fueled by razor sharp satire, but it also gets by on the spirited lead performances from David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone, both who seem to be having the time of their lives as the rival racers. Maybe the charms come from the DIY approach that hovers over the entire project, from the cars that look like they had painted styrofoam additions super glued on to them, to the red candle wax blood that erupts from heads mowed over by smoking tires, to the hilarious backdrops that look like giant billboards painted up to look like a futuristic city. It all feels like it was made in a week and if you’re familiar with how Corman liked to work, you probably wouldn’t doubt it. Under director Paul Bartel, the cheap production design is never allowed to overshadow the white-knuckle action, thrills, and wit that rocket at you at about 150 miles-per-hour. However, the film does a tailspin in the final five minutes, with a blowout ending that just doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the movie. It has been said that the filmmakers weren’t sure how to conclude the film and it sure is obvious once you see how they warp everything up.
In the year 2000, the United States has been destroyed by a financial collapse and is ruled over by a Bipartisan Party, which has unified church and state. It has become the United Provinces; a fascist police state ruled over by the mysterious “Mr. President” (Played by Sandy McCallum). The public is kept entertained by the brutal Transcontinental Road Race, a gladiatorial battle that finds five colorful racers battling to score points by running down innocent civilians with their spruced-up race cars. The star of this show is the fan-favorite Frankenstein (Played by David Carradine), the government’s champion that is part man and part machine due to the horrific wrecks from past races. As the nation gears up for the 20th race, Frankenstein finds himself stuck with a new navigator, Annie Smith (Played by Simone Griffeth), who he is immediately suspicious of. As the three-day race commences, Frankenstein finds himself pitted against his jealous rival, “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo (Played by Sylvester Stallone), who will do whatever it takes to beat the fan favorite. In addition to competing against “Machine Gun” Joe, three other racers, Ray “Nero the Hero” Lonagan (Played by Martin Kove), Matilda the Hun (Played by Roberta Collins), and “Calamity” Jane Kelly (Played by Mary Woronov), are all out to dethrone Frankenstein. As the race gets underway, the five racers find themselves attacked by a mysterious rebel group led by Thomasina Paine (Played by Harriet Medin), who are determined to put an end to the savage race once and for all.
Death Race 2000 begins with a montage of jingoism, as marching bands and fans clad in red, white, and blue congregate for the massive race set to The Star Spangled Banner. It seems harmless enough until Bartel slips in an image of a man waving a swastika flag in support of Matilda the Hun. From there on out, Death Race 2000 is a rubber-burning satire on America’s fixation with violent entertainment and the media that enthusiastically sells it. The announcers happily explain the point system directly to the viewer; smiling as they explain how many points a rundown infant is worth compared to a pancaked man or woman. Things get even more twisted as the widow of the first victim of the race is brought onto live television, simultaneously sobbing and laughing as she is rewarded with a lavish vacation, all because her husband was the first to be gruesomely rundown in the street. It is not hard to see that Death Race 2000 is skewering the media’s love of all things blood and guts, all as Frankenstein reminds us that it is all about giving the fans what they want. Bartel does lighten the mood with a few scenes of black humor, mostly coming from Stallone’s “Machine Gun” Joe and his constant frustration with both Frankenstein and his busty navigator Myra (Played by Louisa Moritz). The highlight scene comes when an innocent fan (who is minding his own business) mistakes the cocky “Machine Gun” Joe for Frankenstein. Joe retaliates by chasing the man down a river and flattening him. Now THAT is some black humor.
While the action and satire are both finely tuned, Death Race 2000 achieves its cult classic status through must-see (and when I say must-see, I mean it) performances from Carradine and Stallone. Carradine rocks as the partly mechanical man Frankenstein, who dons a leather mask and zooms from coast to coast in an alligator race car complete with massive fangs. You can tell that Carradine is having an absolutely blast strutting around in his black leather outfit that is complete with a cape that he enjoys twirling around. He is the ultimate man of mystery, at least to his die-hard fans. You’ll thrill as he is always one step ahead of his plotting rival “Machine Gun” Joe, a mush-mouthed brute bitter over living in Frankenstein’s shadow. Outside of Rocky, this is probably the best Stallone has ever been (Okay, he was decent in Rambo). He just looks so outrageous speeding down a winding country road in a car with two tommy guns and a giant knife mounted on the front. He nabs most of the black laughs while bickering with his bombshell navigator Myra, who acts like a giant space cadet. As far as Frankenstein’s navigator Annie Smith is concerned, she is mostly there to get naked and seduce him behind closed doors, but wait for a surprising twist with her character near the end of the film. Another stand out is the deliciously evil Matilda the Hun, who is absolutely wicked as she shouts about the master race while tormenting her fellow racers. And I can’t forget Don Steele as the massively annoying announcer Junior Brace, who just beams over carnage of the race, and Joyce Jameson as the obsequious television personality Grace Pander.
Death Race 2000 may toss around a few heavy ideas, but it never fails to remember its audience. Being an exploitation movie, Death Race 2000 provides tons of gratuitous nudity and violence, which is interesting because the film appears to be wagging its finger at violence for entertainment. There are plenty of gruesome deaths, which are all accompanied by the trademark 70s candle wax blood. In between these nasty moments, there are plenty of adrenaline pumping chases, fistfights, and even a nifty sequence that finds Carradine’s Frankenstein trying to outrun a rebel fighter plane unleashing bullets and bombs. Death Race 2000 also can’t resist stripping almost all the ladies of their clothing, especially Moritz and Griffeth, which will please most of the male viewers. Overall, Death Race 2000 could have been a victim of its own cut-rate production, but the less-is-more approach really allows the film to come alive. It may botch it in the final moments with an unlikely and frankly unsatisfying climax, but it is something you will ultimately forgive because the other seventy-five minutes are just so cool. Come for the nonstop action and stay for the seriously awesome performances from Carradine and Stallone.
Death Race 2000 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003)
by Steve Habrat
After disappearing from movies for six long years, Quentin Tarantino finally returned in 2003 to the cinema scene with one of his wildest films yet. Enter Kill Bill: Volume 1, a globetrotting epic that blends together blood-drenched kung fu, anime, squinty spaghetti westerns, sleazy revenge flicks, and, you guessed it, more pop culture references than you can shake a Hattori Hanzo sword at. After his rather docile blaxploitation feature Jackie Brown, it was great to see Tarantino embrace a whirlwind of crazy again but Kill Bill: Volume 1 remains a film that turns many viewers off, especially if they are not in on what Tarantino is trying to do. Kill Bill: Volume 1 is another love letter to the exploitation films Tarantino marveled at as a kid, but the film is also a nod to the influence Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo had on the creation of the spaghetti western. Kill Bill: Volume 1 stands as more of a vibrant kung fu movie than a spaghetti western (the spaghetti western is alive and well in Kill Bill: Volume 2) and it puts a lot more emphasis on artery spurting action sequences than in-depth story. Despite all of its energy, Tarantino still slips in some knockout emotion, especially near the end when we begin to learn more about Uma Thurman’s mysterious and bloodthirsty Bride. Until then, Tarantino keeps you glued to the candy-colored action and boy, those action scenes are exhilarating.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 introduces us to the Bride (Played by Uma Thurman), who was a valued member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad led by Bill (Played by David Carradine). It turns out that the Bride grew tired of working as a hitwoman and decided to distance herself from the group and find love. On the Bride’s wedding day, her old coworkers burst into the El Paso wedding chapel, gun down her friends, family, and fiancé, and then proceeded to beat her to a bloody pulp. After the savage beating, Bill proceeds to shoot her in the head despite a last gasp plea that she is pregnant. The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad assumed they killed the Bride but instead, they put her in a coma for four long years. After snapping out of the coma, the Bride makes a list of all who were involved with the massacre, tracks down Japanese sword maker Hattori Hanzo (Played by Sonny Chiba) in the hopes that he will create a new weapon for her to unleash her fury, and then sets her sights on former colleagues O-Ren Ishii (Played by Lucy Lui), who is now head of the Tokyo Yakuza and controls her own personal army called the Crazy 88, and Vernita Green (Played by Vivica A. Fox), now a housewife with an array of weapons stored around her home. Nothing will stand in the Bride’s way and she will not stop until every last one lies dead in the dirt.
Not nearly as chatty as Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown, Kill Bill: Volume 1 puts the pedal to the metal and jumps right into the bone-snapping action. The film opens with a thunderous confrontation between Vernita Green and the Bride. Sure, there are a few moments where the characters trade clever lines of dialogue but Tarantino seems more hell-bent on spilling as much blood and guts as he possibly can in just under two hours. At the time of its release, Kill Bill: Volume 1 was certainly Tarantino’s biggest and most polished film yet. When compared to his first three features, it is clear to see he had a lot more money to work with (the budget was $30 million). With that much dough in his hand, Tarantino dares to get flashy, especially at the climax of the film. The last portion of the film jumps to Tokyo in a swanky restaurant/bar/nightclub called the House of Blue Leaves, where the Bride confronts O-Ren and her Crazy 88. This showdown finds the Bride hacking and slashing her way through a seemingly endless army of hotshot gangsters in Kato masks as blood gushes like geysers from their wounds. It is hilariously extreme to the point where Tarantino had to scrub away the color and present it in black and white so the film would nab an R rating (it has also been said that Tarantino did this to pay tribute to the television airings of classic kung fu films, which would switch to black and white to mask some of the gore). It is the shining moment of Kill Bill: Volume 1, complete with the Bride dressed in a yellow motorcycle suit that pays tribute to Bruce Lee’s 1972 film The Game of Death.
Then we have Thurman, who plays the Bride with such ferocity that you would think that this was the last role she will ever play. I love the way that Tarantino drenches her in mystery, even censoring her name in a wicked tribute to Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. It is great the way he provides little morsels of information to tease and hook us for the big reveals of her character that will come in Volume 2. Yet Thurman remains one tough and scowling cookie, more so in this installment over the second, where he really fills her emotions in. She’s the ultimate hardass who never seems to break a sweat even as she is surrounded by hissing bodyguards. As the Bride bops around in her Pussy Wagon (a bright yellow pick up truck she steals from a perverted orderly), she encounters Daryl Hannah’s Elle Driver, a one-eyed femme fatale who is clearly a nod to Christina Lindberg’s character in Thriller: A Cruel Picture. We basically get a sample of her vile character but she is certainly an evil piece of work. There is also Fox’s Vernita Green, a smooth-talking lioness who gets into a living room brawl with the Bride. Fox is basically given an extended cameo, as Tarantino seems more interested in Lui’s O-Ren, the ruthless head of the Yakuza. He spills O-Ren’s back-story in a shockingly violent anime sequence that will captivate even those who don’t have much interest in anime. There is also Sonny Chiba’s wise and scene stealing Hattori Hanzo, Chiaki Kuriyama’s pint sized ball-and-chain assassin Gogo Yubari, and Carradine’s heard and only briefly seen Bill.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 is ultimately a mash up of everything Tarantino loves. It is loaded with toe tapping songs from a wide-ranging collection of artists. He opens the film with Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang” droning over a silhouette of the Bride and has her flying off to Tokyo as the Green Hornet theme trumpets her arrival. He makes reference to countless grindhouse and exploitation films, mostly ultra-violent kung fu that he is always raving about in interviews. In addition to being a massive sampler, Kill Bill: Volume 1 is also Tarantino’s most cartoonish film. It is almost like witnessing a comic book suddenly springing to life, which is why I think some people tend not to really care for it. Overall, if you’re open to what Tarantino is trying to do here, you will be left wiping the drool off your chin when the credits role. Not one moment of the film ceases being cool and you can practically hear Tarantino giggling with glee at some points. If you’re new to Tarantino’s work, this is probably not the best place for you to start but for those who love his work, you’ll be thrilled to find him in full form again. Kill Bill: Volume 1 is a roller coaster ride from beginning to end.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.