Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Franco Columbu

Forever in the shadow of his close friend Arnold Schwarzenegger, bodybuilder Franco Columbu was determined to make it as an action star. He produced 4 vehicles for himself in less the 10 years, but because he lacks Arnie’s screen stature, literally and figuratively, he’s barely known beyond the bodybuilding community.

Born in 1941, a former Mr Universe and Mr Olympia nicknamed The Sardinian Strongman, Columbu retired from competition in 1981 but has always kept in shape. Even as his hair thinned he remained a physically impressive screen presence and played supporting roles in several of Schwarzenegger’s early movies. He was even a Terminator. But it wasn’t until 1993, that his film career gathered momentum.

Most international audiences might be vaguely familiar with Columbu as the fictitious director of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Jack Slater IV. This was the movie-within-the-movie the young protagonist of Last Action Hero (John McTiernan, 1993) was drawn into with his magical ticket. In a film full of winks and nods, it was a tip of the hat to a dear friend and just one of many gestures of support for his friend’s screen ambitions.

A year later Franco made his first real bid for stardom. While the title for his starring debut was Beretta’s Island (1994) it may as well have been Franco’s Sardinia. His character’s codename is Beretta but for most of the time he’s referred to by his real first name. Playing a prize fighter turned Interpol agent turned wine maker, the role is fantastical autobiography.

An opening prologue makes it clear that Franco’s intent was to not only to showcase himself but his beloved country of Sardinia. “Sardinia is my homeland. This beautiful island has always been a refuge for me; untouched by the destructive effects of greed and drugs. Several years ago I was disheartened to find that drugs had infiltrated my precious Island, bringing with them winds of evil that have poisoned even the children of the land. This film is dedicated to the fight against drugs, and to those who have worked to stop the plague of drugs in every country. These are the true heroes of our time and I salute each one of them with gratitude and respect.”

We see a lot of the island but it’s an unusual portrait. Following Hollywood conventions, the film is almost entirely in English and most of the actors are American. But action frequently pauses to show appreciation for the setting and the customs of the location; there is a heavy emphasis on an important local religious festival in the third act.

Franco is seen riding in a horse race and dancing with the elaborately dressed locals. At one point we observe a Catholic ceremony. Franco sits among a congregation in traditional dress. A procession begins and shortly thereafter the plot resumes only to stop again for a musical interlude. A singer performs for the crowd and Franco joins in. This same song recurs in subsequent films made between 1994 and 2001.

In an otherwise bland action movie, this pride in heritage would become a distinctive characteristic to all his movies. Something notably absent from the films of his iconic workout partner. Franco’s vanity projects each pay tribute to his homeland and the narrative thrust is always a threat to the country and its people.

Beretta’s Island is far from perfect, it has enough plot for 45 minutes and no more, so there’s a lot of padding. Director Michael Preece has a long history in episodic television and so was probably at the mercy of Franco as producer and writer in attempting to get the film to the standard 90 minute running time.

Inevitably it’s amateurish and indulgent. In addition to the travelogue moments already mentioned we get scenes of Franco working out. At the start, Schwarzenegger makes one of the most gratuitous cameo appearances in film history. He and Franco, who met way back in 1965, are shown working out together for three and a half minutes. Fans of Pumping Iron (George Butler & Robert Fiore, 1977) may get a kick out of it but it makes for boring viewing for the rest of us. The closing credits begin with the message “Thanks to my friend Arnold Schwarzenegger.“

The odds were stacked against Franco breaking out as the next big action hero. At 53 and only 5' 5" tall, with thinning hair a thick accent and little acting talent, he relied on his muscles to impress and it wasn’t enough. Subsequent films would rework the Beretta’s Island formula with equally limited success.

The differences between Taken Alive (Christopher Holmes, 1994) and its predecessor are few but notable. This time instead of playing a motorcycle riding wine maker he’s a moped riding sculptor called Enrico Costa. Franco is less heroic and overshadowed by actors such as Frank Stallone and Robert Ginty, whose characters are more complex.

Schwarzenegger didn’t appear this time but did endorse the film in the trailer with his usual enthusiasm. At the end of the film’s trailer the unmistakable Austrian accent can be heard saying “Hi, this is this is Arnold Schwarzenegger. I’m Franco Columbu’s buddy in Pumping Iron and in acting. I want to talk to you a little bit about Taken Alive. This is an action packed movie. Action from the beginning to the end. You know, my kind of a movie. And I want you to rent it, and I want you to buy it. Rent it, buy it, rent it, buy it. If you don’t do that, I’ll be back.”

This time Franco was not a man of action, rather a quirky local artist who gets mistaken for an agent, and this is one of the film’s main weaknesses. We are expected to accept that he’s naïve and simply found himself in over his head with government agents and kidnappers. It’s obvious things aren’t quite right and the fact that he goes along with things so far so casually is silly. At one point he gets frustrated and just heads home.

Motivation to be heroic only comes at the finale, when one of the bad guys steals his rent money. He strips off his shirt and kills a few people only to be told that the victim has found happiness in the arms of her captor. He does get the opportunity to prove himself at the explosive finale but that’s it.

With Franco playing such an incidental hero, a damsel that’s in no distress, a villain who turns out to be quite a nice guy and a very cynical ending, in which the crooked politician at the heart of the story gets away with everything, Taken Alive is surprisingly unconventional. Perhaps this is why Columbu chose to revisit the character and make him more conventionally heroic.

Opening with an action sequence that establishes Enrico Costa as a government agent (!), the plot of Doublecross on Costa's Island (1998) then moves forward 6 years to find Costa sculpting in his native land. It’s here that a sense of déjà vu overcomes viewers. While Franco does reprise the role of Enrico Costa, the film is not a sequel, rather a reedit of Taken Alive with a new but familiar sounding title and new footage.

Franco produced and directed Doublecross on Costa's Island, which combines a version of Taken Alive’s kidnap plot with a new one in which Costa is hunted by various assassins. Gone is the original film’s plot device of an incriminating videotape and with it most of the scenes involving Ginty’s corrupt politician (here his name is misspelled Gintry). In their place are many more scenes of Franco in action.

In the original film Costa played an innocent local partnered with a government agent, but here almost the reverse is true. It is Costa who is the trained agent and Barbara Niven’s special agent becomes a tourist thanks to some of her key scenes being removed and the redubbing of others. This trick backfires in the climax when she grabs a shotgun and boldly confronts kidnappers. The behavior seems extremely out of character.

While half the film consists of recycled footage the differences between the two edits are significant. The added scenes mainly feature Franco and supporting actor William Smith, upgraded to villain as “the guy who pulls all the strings in Washington”, so it’s no surprise that the actors who didn’t reprise their roles play a much smaller part than before.

Inevitably the mixture of new footage and old causes the plotting to get a bit confusing. The intersection of the two plot threads is handled very poorly, with Costa’s search for the kidnapped woman coming from out of nowhere. One moment he’s dodging bullets and the next he’s playing tour guide and saying “by the way we need to look for a woman who’s lost in the hills” in a voiceover. Bad editing aside, the second is definitely the more action-packed version of the Enrico Costa adventure. There’s much more gunplay, more cars are dropped down cliffs and Costa is even set on fire.

At 60, Franco made his final foray into the action genre with Ancient Warriors (2001). Directed by Walter Von Huene, whose varied career included a stint as Schwarzenegger’s acting coach in the second half of the 90s, the film showed Franco playing a different kind of character and a supernatural side of Sardinia.

Once again there we get the impression there are an awful lot of Americans in Sardinia and everyone speaks English. Here Franco’s character Aldo Paccione seems to be one of the only natives.

After playing the lecherous narcissist Beretta and the quirky Costa, Franco shows a more mature side as a loving husband and father. A military leader haunted by the death of his father in the prologue, Aldo is a shadow of his former self, but when more evil Americans, led by uber-villain Richard Lynch, threaten Sardinia and his family he gets back into action.

Unfortunately this is another film in which Franco, despite being producer, allowed himself to be overshadowed by much more experienced co-stars. Far too often his character is absent. Seasoned co-star Daniel Baldwin shares the burden of carrying the film, at least for a while, though he seems to practically disappear as the film moves on. As it turns into a men-on-a-mission movie a variety of other characters are introduced.

Aldo is the main character driven by the desire to find the man with the terribly scribbled snake tattoo who killed his father. As a consequence his wife is shot and there’s more than one attempt to kill his disabled daughter. A variety of supporting characters rally to help him, including the obligatory wise-cracking black guy and a girl who looks like a model (because she is). Franco occasionally runs around firing two pistols but he’s a less effective hero than in any of his earlier films. Given his age that’s not a surprise.

As usual the plot is a mishmash of elements, the main one involving Lynch’s character’s search for the secret of eternal life amid Sardinia’s caves. It is in this element of the story that the mythical ancient warriors of the title play their brief part. Imagine a really cheap hybrid of The Expendables (Sylvester Stallone, 2010) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981). But even with this new supernatural addition to the Columbu film formula it’s the weakest of the quartet. Less narcissistic, no scenes of bodybuilding and clothes kept on in the finale, but less interesting.

Now approaching 70 years of age, the chances are that Franco won’t be picking up another semi-automatic weapon and chasing evil Americans. Although we shouldn’t rule it out. With Schwarzenegger apparently planning on a return to action following the excited response to his Expendables cameo, who knows. Considering how supportive the Austrian Oak has been of the Sardinian Strongman’s aspirations we could even get a reunion someday. But let us hope that it’s not another long montage of weight lifting.

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