Monday, 30 November 2009

Ken Wahl

Over 10 years, three filmmakers attempted to turn Anthony Calzaretta, better known as Ken Wahl, into a B-movie action hero. Though not muscular or experienced in martial arts, Wahl’s good looks got him noticed, but most action movie directors just didn’t know what to do with him. That was until he starred in The Taking of Beverly Hills in 1991 as “Boomer” Hayes, an American football player reluctantly playing hero in life and death game against Die Hard-inspired villains intent on stripping the assets of California’s wealthiest residents.

Before taking the lead in Sidney J. Furie’s action underrated movie, Wahl had amassed a good deal of experience and fame, becoming a household name in the United States. In 1987 he was cast as the lead in the TV series Wiseguy, which ran until 1990, and The Taking of Beverly Hills was an effort to capitalise on that stardom. Sadly the film flopped and after he sustained a severe neck injury in 1992 he took only a handful of acting roles before disappearing from screens forever after a return to his most famous role in 1996.

Wahl’s screen charisma evolved throughout his career, when first cast as an action hero he was inexperienced and arguably too young for his role. He was only in his late 20s when he starred in James Glickenhaus’s weak James Bond knock-off The Soldier (aka Codename: The Soldier), playing an elite “man with no name”-type operative. Wahl’s not properly introduced until 25 minutes in (after a sluggish first act) and thereafter has very little to do except move from one action scene to the next. Playing like a padded out TV episode, it’s sloppily paced, weakly scripted and quickly forgotten. All the best bits are in its trailer. Though it is notable for featuring a pointlessly cast Klaus Kinski (little more than a cameo) and rising character actors Joaquim De Almeida and Jeffery Jones.

Five years passed before Wahl would get a second chance at playing the hero. But in those intervening years he gained a wealth of experience, not to mention a few pounds and a lot more hair. He was a bulky bruiser by the time he starred in the 1986 TV movie The Gladiator (directed by Abel Ferrara). He played a bereaved mechanic who turns vigilante to track down the driver who killed his brother. Now most notable as an influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (2007), The Gladiator offered Wahl a role that played to his strengths and limitations.

Sadly there was not much that was notable about Joseph Manduke’s Omega Syndrome (1987), in which Ken plays an ex-soldier who teams up with an old Vietnam buddy to track down the white supremacists who’ve kidnapped is daughter. At best an enjoyably routine thriller that coasts on Wahl’s bulky charisma. Thought it is, as in the case of The Soldier, notable for some moderately high calibre co-stars, including the iconic Doug McClure (you might remember him from 1974’s The Land That Time Forgot and 1984’s Cannonball Run 2), and rising character actors Xander Berkley and Colm Meaney. Also among the cast in Nicola Eggert, who would famously go on to star in Baywatch.

Great support casts are a feature of all three of Wahl's actioners and he was joined by an even more impressive cast for The Taking of Beverly Hills; Matt Frewer played his wisecracking sidekick, action movie icon Robert Davi his nemesis and Harley Jane Kozak (now an author) his love interest.

Wahl put Wiseguy behind him to focus on his film career and I doubt it’s coincidence that he chose a film directed by Sidney J. Furie as his next vehicle. The two had made a wartime drama called Purple Hearts (1984). While their second collaboration was much more tongue-in-cheek, it’s arguably one of the finer films from both star and director and deserved of the cult status it has amongst genre fans.

The Soldier, Omega Syndrome and The Taking of Beverly Hills are a trilogy that demonstrates how an action hero star persona can evolve. Many have a go heroes never get a second chance and on the evidence of The Soldier you would not have given Wahl one. But as new opportunities arose Wahl matured on screen, easing into the role of leading man. It’s a shame that fate cut short his career. Despite poor box office (it apparently grossed less than $1 million) I’m almost certain that had tragedy not struck The Taking of Beverly Hills would not have been his final adventure.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Matt Battaglia

Born in 1965, Matt Battaglia’s a typical All-American. He’s got the muscles and the square jaw, he even played with the NFL until a broken bone was discovered in his neck and he had to retire from the game. You'd think he'd make for a perfect action hero.

But while the blandly handsome Floridian has had an extensive acting career he's never made much of an impression on audiences. You need look no further than his not-quite-starring role in the B-movie Raven for proof of why this is.

According to the IMDB, Battaglia made his acting debut in two episodes of Burt Reynolds’ TV series B.L. Stryker in 1989 and also turned up in an episode of Evening Shade in 1990, the two share the screen as not-quite-equals in this action 1996 movie.

Raven is confusing for audiences because it is essentially a Burt Reynolds movie, only Burt’s playing the villain and he’s off-screen for a significant period of time. It’s left to Battaglia, playing a retired member of Raven’s mercenary special forces team, to carry the movie when he’s not around. He’s not up to it and only the sex appeal provided by Krista Allen (recently seen in The Final Destination) keeps us amused while we await Reynolds return.

The makers/marketers were obviously keen to exploit Reynolds presence in this low budget production and Battaglia doesn’t get his name or face on the poster. As far as fans are concerned, discovering the ageing icon (in the title role) is not the hero and that we are expected to root for an uncharismatic hero is a huge disappointment.

There’s a profound sense of déjà vu when you watch this film, not simply because it’s formulaic, but because it’s basic plot is so similar to that of John Woo’s Broken Arrow, released the same year. While in that film John Travolta stole a nuclear weapon, in Raven the macguffin is a decoder that gives control of a nuclear arsenal. Coincidence?

One of many B-movies from Stu Segall Productions during the 90s, Raven may have given Battaglia his only heroic role in a feature film but this is not the end of the story. Two years later he landed the lead in two only modestly high profile TV movies based on Jean Claude Van Damme’s Universal Soldier (1992). Reunited with Reynolds, he was profoundly miscast in the role of Luc Deveraux in the dreadful Universal Solider 2: Brothers in Arms and Universal Soldier 3: Unfinished Business. Like the soldiers themselves, audiences memories has since been erased. Van Damme returned for a direct theatrical sequel in 1999 and Battaglia's off-shoots long forgotten.

In the 10+ years since producers tried to turn him into an action hero, Battaglia has had a solid career as a supporting player on television and made numerous film apprearances. He even returned to action to take on Steven Seagal in the prison-set, Under Siege wannabe Half Past Dead in 2002. But his most high profile role to date is one from behind the scenes, as co-producer on the prestigious film Brothers. Starring Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman and directed by Jim Sheridan.

To learn more about Battaglia check out his website at

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Matthew Tompkins

Any action fan will look at the artwork on Maverick Entertainment’s release of Killing Down and get an immediate sense of déjà vu. It’s an unashamed rip-off of the poster for John Cena’s The Marine. But the comparison between both films ends there. Derivative though it may be, the design is exciting and makes this a must see, but actor/stuntman Matthew Tompkins’ debut as an action lead is a much more tame affair than that wrestler’s.

A paranoid conspiracy thriller set in 1993 (the screenplay was originally written in that year) with grand aspirations and a low budget, Killing Down exceeds expectations. Especially compared to the majority of films on the Maverick label. Sitting comfortably somewhere between The Bourne Identity and Way of War (if you haven’t seen it it’s a dreadful Cuba Gooding, Jr movie), director Blake Calhoun’s gently paced but absorbing film intrigues right away.

The first few minutes are disturbing and downbeat, introducing a potentially unstable hero. Haunted by memories of his torture and the death of a beloved friend in 1987, Steven Down is a broken man, obsessed with finding his torturer. Exposition is severely restricted and we are forced to have reservations about whether we really should be rooting for this tough guy. At least for the first half.

Sadly Calhoun drops the ambiguity and evolves the intriguing premise into something more predictable, with Down becoming just another conventional hero. But that criticism aside there’s a great deal to enjoy in Killing Down. Not least Tompkins’ performance. Despite being an unknown, this actor’s credits are many, including co-staring roles in 6 episodes of Chuck Norris’s Walker: Texas Ranger and the TV movie Logan’s War: Bound by Honor (1998).

Though not a standard action flick there’s plenty in here to keep fans happy. Tompkins was also the film’s fight choreographer and Down gets to prove his hardman status early after a couple of lowlifes try to steal his motorbike. Later he finds himself hunted by assassins, leading to a number of gunfights and martial arts sequences that arguably equal anything in B-movies like Art of War 2 or 3.

Unusually, Tompkins is not the top credited star in this movie. That honour instead was reserved for leading lady Sheree J. Wilson; best known for co-starring with Chuck Norris in Hellbound (1994) and Walker: Texas Ranger. Notably she had previously co-starred with Tompkins in the short film Midnight Expression in 2003.

Made in 2006, Killing Down was not released on DVD in the USA until January 2009. A future in action movies did not beckon, though he landed a key role in Dolph Lundgren’s Missionary Man (2007). But since making the film he’s continued to keep himself very busy. He reunited with Calhoun, Wilson and Natalie Raitano of TV’s VIP (who played his wife in the movie) for the web series “Pink” and co-directed the drama The Fragility of Seconds in 2008.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Francesco Quinn

A character actor, whose career has taken him from historical dramas to guest starring roles in popular television shows, Francesco Quinn’s career made a short detour into the action genre in 1989, when cast in Indio.

Quinn was 27 when he played a half-Indian U.S. Marine waging a one-man war in the South American jungle. If it sounds a touch familiar, that’s because it’s a blatant knock-off of the Rambo films.

First Blood is referenced not only in its basic plot but also in character names and casting. Quinn’s character Daniel Morrell is named after First Blood author David Morrell and Brian Dennehy plays the villain.

Director Anthony M. Dawson (real name Antonio Margheriti) imitated Hollywood with films such as 1985’s Commando Leopard starring Lewis Collins, but this is certainly one of his most proficient. This Italian production has decent production values and was shot in English.

Son of Anthony Quinn, Italian-American Francesco seems a touch miscast as a half-Indian warrior who turns his Marine training against corporate villains ruthlessly exploiting the rainforest, but more than looks the part and is a decent actor. Such cannot be said for Marvelous Marvin Hagler.

The acclaimed middleweight boxer is given top credit on the film, likely because of his high profile at the time it was made. It certainly isn’t because of his less than marvelous performance. Hagler appears fairly late in the film and in only a handful of scenes.

His role seems to be a combination of that of Richard Crenna’s Col. Samuel Trautman from the Rambo movies and Steve James’ brawny Sgt. Curtis Jackson in the American Ninja movies.

Filmed in Borneo, Argentina, Brazil and The Philippines, Indio is packed with action. Daniel Morrell rampages through the jungle laying elaborate traps and triggering huge explosions. It’s a movie with the kind of eco-sentiment we later came to associate with Steven Seagal.

Quinn was not destined for a future as an action star, apart from a co-starring role in Loren Avedon’s Deadly Ransom (1997) he’s otherwise been engaged in more challenging roles. Indio 2: the Revolt was made in 1991 but Quinn played no part. Instead Dawson turned to Hagler once again.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Carl Weathers

Synonymous with the role of Apollo Creed, which he played in the first four Rocky movies between 1976 and 1985, Carl Weathers true potential as an action star was first realized in a supporting role in 1987 action classic Predator alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Producer Joel Silver must have liked what he saw because only a year later Weathers, a former football player with a muscular physique and plenty of charisma, was the lead in his own movie; the cult favourite Action Jackson.

Craig R. Baxley’s 1988 feature cast Weathers as a Detroit city cop called Jerico Jackson. Nickname: Action. Occasionally absurd, with a lot of moments of comic relief and cartoon violence, it’s a great example of over-the-top 80s action cinema and a great vehicle for Weathers. It’s also notable for its supporting cast, which not only includes Predator co-stars Bill Duke and Sonny Landham, but also Craig T. Nelson, Robert Davi and the then unknown Sharon Stone.

Unfortunately the film flopped, critics pointing to its over familiar clichés and uneven blend of comedy and extreme violence. It was 4 years before Weathers got a second shot, going from playing Action Jackson to Hurricane Smith. The result isn’t quite the lazy rehash the title would suggest, but that’s not saying much.

Despite being backed by Warner Bros., Colin Budd’s 1992 feature hasn’t got quirks or charisma and feels like a cheap B-movie. The story is more straightforward but rather tedious. Weathers plays a Texan construction worker who travels to Australia’s Gold Coast to find his missing sister and upsets some local villains and that’s it.

The support cast are all unknowns except for Jürgen Prochnow. He’s proven himself a reliable villain in later films such as The Replacement Killers, Gunblast Voka and The Elite, but even he can’t elevate this thriller above average.

Running just over 80 minutes, the story is thin and resolution largely unsatisfying. Thankfully there’s an action packed final 10 minutes that includes a speedboat chase, assault on the villain’s lair and a fight in a helicopter that redeem the tedium.

Weathers went on to play the action hero in the series Street Justice, but was cancelled after two seasons, and co-starred with Hulk Hogan and Shannon Tweed in two Shadow Warriors TV movies. But since the turn of the millennium he’s been largely relegated to supporting roles in comedies. Most notably appearing as Police Chief Benjamin 'Ben' Benson in bizarre action homage Phoo Action in 2008.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Rick Yune

Korean-American character actor Rick Yune first made an impression on audiences playing bad guys in The Fast and Furious (2001) and Die Another Day (2002), but it was several years before he’d step into a heroic role.

After disappearing from cinema screens, guest starring in a small number of popular television shows, he made a return to features as the lead in 2008’s action movie The Fifth Commandment.

Some actors, Jason Scott Lee for example, seem to find themselves in this genre purely as a result of their careers are not going so well, but for Yune it seemed a very conscious choice to move in this direction. The Fifth Commandment was written and produced by Yune with the clear intent of relaunching his career.

With prior experience in the genre and a black belt in Taekwondo (he qualified for the Olympics when he was 19), Rick (short for Patrick) does seem at ease in the film and his brooding presence works for the anti-hero he’s playing; an orphan raised as an assassin.

Made in Thailand by prolific action director Jesse Johnson, The Fifth Commandment (“honor thy monther and father”) is a stylish movie with shades of Bangkok Dangerous and The Bodyguard and some cartoonish touches.

Dania Ramirez fails to arouse much sympathy as the heroine Chance Templeton (Yune) must protect but there is some great action, including yet another variation on The Terminator’s police station assault.

Yune doesn’t quite convince as a hero, even a conflicted one, and seems he’s destined to play bad guys (he’ll next be seen back on the big screen as a villain in Ninja Assassin), but The Fifth Commandment is a stylish modern action B-movie that’s much better than its terrible cover art would suggest.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Dan Andersen

Beefy, but not particularly charismatic or gifted as a screen fighter, Dan Andersen failed to make much of an impression on audiences in his 2001 action debut, Extreme Honor.

In what seems to be his one and only role to date (according to the IMDb) Andersen plays ex-Navy Seal John Kennedy Brascoe. Apparently he's the best of the best, but does little over the course of 85 minutes to convince us he deserves such an accolade.

Distributors apparently had no confidence in Andersen when it came time to release the film. His face and name are nowhere to be seen on the cover art for the DVD, instead it was falsely marketed as a star vehicle for Olivier Gruner. It was even retitled The Last Line of Defence 2 in the UK, making it an in name only sequel to Gruner’s sci-fi flick Interceptor Force.

A major problem with the movie is definitely its story, in which Brascoe robs a wealthy villain to save his son from Leukemia. It does its best to avoid genre cliches, but the heist plot is so weakly executed that it fails to satisfy as either action movie or thriller.

There's also a major lack of action in this supposed action movie! But director Steven Rush does almost succeed in distracting you from this shortcoming, as well as those of his lead, with an amazing supporting cast. There are appearances from Martin Kove, Michael Madsen, Michael Ironside, Charles Napier and Antonio Fargas.

Extreme Honor is at best a mildly diverting curiosity, Andersen seems like a nice guy but clearly not cut out to play an action hero.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Duane Martin

Little more than a vanity project for the charismatic Duane Martin, Ride or Die (2003) is nonetheless a low-budget triumph.

Essentially a cheaper retread of Keenen Ivory Wayans’ 1994 action comedy A Low Down Dirty Shame and 1989’s The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Craig Ross, Jr’s film looks great.

Made for an extremely modest budget of $2 million, limitations have been overcome and favours called in to make this a high quality production. Martin’s not a household name but in a career stretching back to the early 1990s he's clearly made a lot of friends.

Not only does Vivica A. Fox co-star and Meagan Good but features cameos by Gabrielle Union and Stacey Dash. The film even boasts Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith among its Executive Producers. Martin had appeared in Woo with Mrs Smith and Deliver Us From Eva with Union and Good.

As Private Investigator Conrad “Rad” McCrae, Martin is perhaps not as funny as he thinks he is but a very likeable lead. The problem is he’s too generic, making you think fondly of those he’s following in the footsteps of.

Ride or Die (aka Hustle and Heat aka Rap Connection) is enjoyably routine and an amusing way to spend 80 minutes or so. But as cool as Duane Martin thinks he is it's the beautiful woman and the absurd final act in which one of the villains is killed with an exploding tampon that make this a must see.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Götz Otto

Former James Bond henchman Götz Otto had a stab at playing hero in the brilliantly titled Gunblast Vodka (2000).

Made in Poland and dubbed into English, the film is ample evidence that Otto is far more suited to antagonistic roles.

The German was miscast as an Israeli cop relocated from assignment in New York to track down a damsel in distress (Angie Everhart).

Otto threws himself into his action debut, fighting off assassins while naked (7 years before Eastern Promises) and firing a gun while being pulled along on his back aside a car. The latter an utterly pointless moment that's not as fun as it should be.

Director Jean Louis-Daniel is playing with the conventions of the action film, this is far from your typical action movie, but one can’t quite tell if this is intended as arthouse or music video-inspired B-movie.

Reminiscent of the more colourful films of both Albert Pyun and Michael Oblowitz, the film emulates and exaggerates Hollywood clichés but never entertains as much as it should.

As curious as Russia’s Velvet Revolution, Gunblast Vodka’s off-kilter approach to the genre seems entirely half-hearted, like so many Hollywood imitators.

Fellow German Jürgen Prochnow (playing the villain once again – albeit with bleached hair) doesn’t seem to be having much fun either. Local actor Mariusz Pujszo seems to be having more fun than anyone else as Otto’s geekily stylish and creepy partner.

Since Gunblast Vodka was released Otto has appeared in Der Clown and Ant and Dec vehicle Alien Autopsy in addition to numerous German film and television roles.