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.