Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Movie Review: THUNDER WARRIOR I-III
aka THUNDER (I-III)
Directed by Fabrizio De Angelis
The THUNDER series of loopy 80s Italian action films represent the initial directorial work of long-time exploito producer Fabrizio De Angelis (he begat Lucio Fulci’s string of classic 80s horror flicks) and are utterly half-baked and dangerously close to being bafflingly inept. But then why are they so damned fun? Well, they posses that wacky and wonderful ineptitude that permeates most of the genre output of Italy's failing 1980s film industry, a creaky, barely-held-together accidental aesthetic that time has proven to be overwhelmingly entertaining. There are few examples from this decade and this country that do not entertain so it should come as no surprise that these obscure titles fit that bill to a tee, despite their seeming cinematic retardation. The first, and to varying degrees it's sequels, is total blatant rip on the then recent action hit FIRST BLOOD but also looks back to such 70s revenge thrillers as BILLY JACK and WALKING TALL. That the hero is a Native American also suggests comparisons to legendary exploitation producer Dave Friedman's wonderful JOHNNY FIRECLOUD, but it would seem if anything that that fly-by-night production had a much greater budget and overall better acting talent to drive it onto Drive-In screens than this series, which is plagued by a "one take and go" mise-en-scene approach and horrendously bland acting from basically the entire cast. But as noted above these limitations bloom into something rather exiting if one is willing to let go of Hollywood and Arthouse born artistic expectations. But then if you are reading this, chances are you aren't that engaged by these particular aesthetic prejudices. So let's get it on, Thunder is waiting!
The opening film in this loose trilogy is entirely structured to match the narratives of the previously mentioned movies. Thunder is a wandering Native American tough guy, a warrior like his esteemed ancestors, who returns to his Arizonian homeland in order to marry his childhood sweetheart. Unfortunately he finds the situation there brimming with racial and cultural conflicts as a development project dooms his ancestral burial grounds. His defense of this territory leads him into open violent conflict with the developers as well as the local police force, all of whom are of course rabid racists intent on keeping the "redskin" in his place. Basically they "push him too far" and his reaction is devastating. This is the most successful aspect of all these movies, the protracted and fairly elaborate action scenes which boil over with sensational (if not entirely realistic looking, not a problem for me) violence. The bad guys are really, really bad. I mean cartoonishly bad. Only sheriff Bo Svenson shows any aptitude for honor, and even he gets in on the race-hate action here and there as Thunder keeps getting the best of his overmatched, buffoonish deputies. Loose narrative threads and willfully illogical situations abound as the movie steams ahead. The climax is particularly daffy as Thunder steals and drives a bulldozer from the desert and into the town at a snails pace. And yet somehow the impotent coppers never seem to be able to catch up with him. By the time they do reach him he's already destroyed both the bank that funded the blasphemous construction project as well as police HQ. Meanwhile Thunder escapes easily unscathed to fight another day. Wow. By no means a "good" movie this first entry is nonetheless an entirely satisfactory trash cinema experience and I was never less than entertained throughout. On the other hand there's the second film ...
In this brainscramblingly goofy sequel Thunder returns to the town he nearly destroyed and joins the very police force he fought tooth and nail in the first movie! What the ... ? Did I miss something? How did this happen? We'll never know. Like the first movie we aren't privilege to the backstory details as to how Thunder comes to return to this dusty, intolerant scrap of earth. But does it even matter? Not really, if you just laugh along and look to have a good, albeit stupid, time. Sadly, this one falters a bit with the slam-bang action stuff, bogging down with a silly plot about drug dealing punks and the corrupt cops they have underhanded dealings with. One of the cops, a particularly nasty number named Rusty (one of the few actors reprising a role from the first film) has really got it out for our hero and so frames him for his own crimes. Before we can even process this plot twist Thunder is rotting away in a harsh isolated desert prison and giving the diamond-tough prison guards none too easy a time dealing with his innocent ass. But the movie doesn’t really capitalize on these potentially juicy machinations, and again before we know it Thunder has broken out and is out looking for town-wide vengeance. The destruction he inflicts isn’t nearly as fantastic as in the first film and unfortunately the climax just kind of peters out without giving us enough of the mayhem we are jonesin’ for . But needless to say, Thunder comes out on top, with even Sheriff Bo Svenson offering a sympathetic viewpoint as the movie draws to a close. But then … there is a little insignificant and totally confusing twist at the end that had me howling with laughter as well as scratching my balding head. What exactly was going on there?
Apparently the first two were big enough hits that Director De Angelis and star Marc Gregory were able to squeeze out a third film. And Odin bless ‘em that they did, cause in many ways III is the best of all three, topping the others with more over the top, implausible and completely insane action and drama to drive you to dizzy distraction. Again, as with the initial entries, we are forced to suffer with Thunder as both he and his people have to contend with brutal and unchecked redneck oppression and uncooperative and unsympathetic police. The opening scene is completely insane. A self regulating paramilitary militia out on pointless maneuvers in the desert decides for no good reason to chase after two wild horses and gun them down in cold blood. Why they would do this is utterly mysterious, but as you might expect, protector of the downtrodden Thunder takes exception to the heartless abuse and confronts these drunk gun-toting morons. Sadly Thunder is outnumbered and gets himself a thorough ass-whooping. But things go a little too far when the militia decides to go after Thunder’s young hunting apprentice, who scampers frightened back to the shanty village where he lives with the rest of the local “Indians”. The militia then go all My Lai on the joint, firing indiscriminately and causing widespread damage and destruction. Not good. Thunder demands reparations, Sheriff John Phillip Law refuses, setting up the carnage to follow. Although the follow-through doesn’t quite manage the exhilaration of the first it is swathed in acceptable amounts of bad-ass-ness. It was a lot of fun, I must say. If only they had made more, I would have watched. Alas, this is Thunder’s last crusade. Enjoy it while it lasts, folks.
None of these movies are particularly well made, stylish or innovative in any way. They get by on sheer cheesy chutzpah and the undeniable charm that girds most 80s Italian exploitation cinema. As noted above Director De Angelis was a veteran producer and had his hand in many of the most extreme horror films that lurked out of the country in the late 70s/early 80s and this experience certainly serves him well. Action was, however, was the genre he most enjoyed making and it shows here. The movies, while consistent in violence and haphazard insanity, are fall less consistent in narrative and in acting performance. The most obvious casting inconsistency is the role of Sheena – Thunder’s loyal love interest, played non-effectively by different actresses in each movie. But at least it’s funny. As are the contrived and seemingly willfully implausible and contradictory story threads. But ultimately you can’t consider these films successful in any meaningful critically accepted way. But that’s OK. Sometimes you want crazed cheesiness. THUNDER WARRIOR I-III certainly does deliver that, so dig in!