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.

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