Comfortable and Furious

Blast of Cannon: Part 1

You’ve probably heard of MGM and United Artists, but what about the very lovely Cannon Films?

It was a studio that took on the Hollywood big boys in the 1980s. For a glorious, plate-spinning few years it became the world’s largest independent movie production company, cranking out up to six low-budget pictures a month. How the fuck was that even possible?

It wasn’t at the start. The company began in the late sixties, receiving a big boost in 1970 with the Oscar-nominated, bloody terrific Joe. It then proceeded to mess up the rest of the decade with just about no hits whatsoever. Luckily, ‘salvation’ was around the corner when a pair of passionate Israeli nutters called Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus took control in 79. Already hugely successful in the Tel Aviv film industry, these cousins were cinephiles, ambitious businessmen and brilliant salesmen. They were neither politically correct nor ethically upstanding with a business model built upon hoovering up shit scripts and rapidly turning them into cheapo flicks. 

The pair would usually try to capitalize on whatever was hot (e.g. breakdancing), rip off a big hit (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Seven Samurai), pitch unwritten screenplays to distributors on the basis of a hastily designed movie poster, conjure up stuff ripped from the news headlines (Sahara, The Delta Force), make pictures back-to-back on the same sets to reduce costs, or try to turn successful flicks they hadn’t previously made into a franchise (Death Wish, Texas Chainsaw, The Exterminator).

Golan, in particular, was an extraordinary, hands-on personality, forever brimming with eccentric ideas. Not that he had much patience or discipline in honing a project. Or as one observer says in the entertaining doco Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films: “He had this uncanny ability to just make up shit and then we’d shoot it and that’s the movie you see.” Hence, a flick like Ninja III: The Domination in which a female aerobics instructor becomes possessed by a dead male ninja, thus combining martial arts, The Exorcist and Flashdance.

Unsurprisingly, this manic, Frankenstein-like approach, in which the cousins flew by the seat of their pants while trying to hang onto the coattails of others, resulted in an avalanche of schlocky B-movies where everything was turned up to eleven. Actors did their jobs, only to be later appalled at the ton of nudity the cousins added. Writers fared even worse, often having scripts radically altered. There’s no doubt those wheeler dealers Golan and Globus were capable of low tricks and perhaps worse, but at least every penny under their control ended up on the screen. They had some fans within the industry, but wider respect for their line of attack was often paper-thin or non-existent. No wonder they were called the Go-Go Boys and the Bad News Jews.

Not that anyone who worked on a Cannon pic forgot the company’s distinctive ambience. In Electric Boogaloo, Bill and Ted actor Alex Winter describes Cannon as a weird bubble. “Everyone in it had this sort of wink and a nod: We do love the movies, but we wanna make money and we don’t care about your work conditions or the quality of the product. It was kind of a weird carnival. Movies are an unreal environment at the best of times and the Cannon movies were like that times a hundred.”

Now while Cannon dabbled in the odd science fiction musical and even some Shakespeare, its core output remained ninjas, superheroes, cash-ins and mash-ups, Bronson and Norris, schizophrenic outlandishness, OTT action, soft-core trash and legendary bombs. Critics were unimpressed to say the least, especially as the company’s lowbrow output often had such a wildly uneven tone (e.g. the memorable The Last American Virgin which is part goofy sex comedy, part sobering teen heartbreak, itself a remake of the first Lemon Popsicle film).

Cannon’s nutso style worked for the first half of the 80s with some highly profitable pics like Death Wish II and Missing in Action, but their sky-high ambition and too-rapid expansion proved fatal. Yes, there were a handful of Oscar nominations, but 1987 proved a disastrous year in which cinemagoers stayed away from the panned Masters of the Universe, the snigger-inducing Over the Top and the loathed Superman IV. The cousins had started off churning out films for a million bucks or less but $25million budgets were becoming the norm. By the late 80s the company was essentially a pyramid scheme with the (hoped for) future success of flicks financing current projects.

Despite official probes and unfavorable news reports Cannon, of course, refused to admit its monetary woes. “I can’t be worried because I’m too busy making movies and I’m so excited and so into it,” a defiant Golan is caught saying in Electric Boogaloo. “I believe that we know what we’re doing and that our future is safe.”

It wasn’t to be, despite the odd breathless promo promising film fans ‘new talent and established box office names’ and another ‘decade of blockbusters’. The Golan-Globus partnership finally derailed in 1989 with the company biting the dust five years later. Not too many film snobs, rivals, industry commentators and bitter, trampled-upon employees shed a tear.

However, B-movie aficionados knew they’d lost something special. This is best demonstrated by Death Wish 3, an excessive flick that will forever remain a bullet-riddled, explosion-scarred monument to Golan and Globus’ wonderful, risk-taking, cheesy insanity.

Cannon’s slashers

As far as I can tell, Cannon only made three pure slashers in the 79-89 period. This is a surprise in that the company not only loved jumping on bandwagons but liberally sprinkled a fair chunk of its output with nudity and explicit violence. On paper, Cannon and slashers seemed like a marriage made in blood-drenched heaven.

Their first stab at the sub-genre was 1980’s Schizoid. Some women in LA are getting stabbed by a hat-wearing nutter wielding a pair of long-bladed scissors. Klaus Kinski heads the cast, this time playing a widowed shrink, and the victims happen to be members of his therapy group. Is our Germanic friend up to his old misogynistic tricks?

Schizoid features rather unimaginative kills, not much nakedness, a pathetic electronic score and some borderline negligent cops. Of interest is the suggestion Kinski’s been having an incestuous relationship with his teenage daughter and… well, not much else. The writing, direction and acting are basic, but somehow I didn’t mind this passable effort. Given the extremes that Golan and Globus were later capable of, the groovily-titled Schizoid isn’t mad enough.

Next up was the festive New Year’s Evil, released just three months later. Here the disguise-donning killer is slaughtering women at the moment midnight strikes in each of America’s time zones. Why? Because it’s a slasher movie and there’s gotta be a gimmick. Well, that’s not strictly true. The killer does give a reason. “I’m fed up,” he tells the Final Girl. “You’re just like every other lady in my life… Ladies are not very nice people.” Such dialogue more than suggests this flick isn’t top notch, but it’s an entertaining piece of drivel with a couple of nice twists. It chucks in everything from angry bikers to incompetent cops (again) and the skilled manipulation of an elevator to a middle-aged mom presenting a punk music show. Indeed, the regular songs (e.g. Dumb Blondes) from unconvincing bands in front of a badly dressed, moshing audience only adds to Evil’s tasteless surrealism. In its own way, shoving music and serial murder together without any real thought is distinctive and bold (or an early indication of how Cannon was establishing a slightly unhinged take on things).

Finally the subtly named Hospital Massacre (aka X-Ray) appeared in 1982. This one feels more like a typical early 80s slasher. It features a slew of red herrings, a fair old number of gorily inventive kills, and a disguised, heavy-breathing maniac who spends his time either defying the physical laws of the universe or being intensely stupid.

Former Playboy model Barbi Benton (I think you have to be with a name like that) pops along to her local hospital to pick up some routine test results only to be trapped inside and stalked by the lovelorn killer. Happens all the time. Not that I’m victim-blaming, but the silly cow really should have listened to her new boyfriend while being dropped off outside. “Isn’t this the hospital where they had all that trouble last year?” he asks. “Some patient ran amok or something.”

Her dismissive response? “Pur-lease…”

So there you are, this place already has a cloud hanging over it. Mind you, as not brilliantly run medical facilities go, you still have to say this one’s letting the side down. A couple of its floors are being fumigated or painted. Others are strangely deserted. Elsewhere it’s filled with random blokes who stare at our busty heroine with undisguised hostility; medical staff who veer between surliness, unprofessionalism and farce; privacy screens that are backlit so an apprehensive young woman can sexily undress in silhouette; and patients that run the gamut from a confused ladyboy and an amorous drunk to the obviously distressed and mentally ill. As Bill Murray opined in Tootsie: “That is one nutty hospital!”

Still, if you hate such places, with their antiseptic aura of distress, decay and death, you might enjoy hanging out at this hospital. Sure, it requires a massive suspension of disbelief and yes, you’re much better off with a sinister classic like Coma, but Hospital Massacre still boasts a punchy score that regularly wanders into Omen territory, a head in a box that predates Se7en by thirteen years, and a creepy medical examination that’s a little like the start of those doctor/patient pornos I’ve never seen on that YouPorn website I’ve never heard of.

Enter the Ninja (1981)

The whole ninja craze passed me by in the 1980s, despite being the perfect age (i.e. a teenage boy). Not sure why (perhaps I was too busy hula-hooping in my bright pink hot pants), but I preferred renting slashers and vigilante stuff to masked chopsocky high jinks. In fact, I’ve still seen precious few examples of the bone-snapping joys of ninjutsu. Hence, it was with some interest that I sat down to watch Enter the Ninja, a box office hit that kicked off a ninja craze and probably resulted in those goddamned pizza-eating turtles.

Its extended intro involves a white-clad ninja called Cole (Franco Nero) battling a load of darker colored ninjas in Japan. It’s a good example of grown men being silly, especially when his adversaries start catching the arrows fired at them. After five minutes of having their asses kicked, you do start to wonder why they don’t pull out a gun and shoot him instead of leaping around in front of waterfalls and indulging in fancy sword play. I guess I’m not entering into the spirit of things. Wait a sec, it turns out they’re pretending and the slightly too old Cole is merely completing his awesome ninja training. Still, that doesn’t explain how arrows can be caught.

Cole then pops over to Manila to see an old army buddy, a mate who’s neck-deep in aggro as some oil-seeking gangsters are trying to force him off his beloved land. Are you surprised our mustachioed beefcake hero starts righteously kicking ass left, right and center? This is undemanding, increasingly contrived comic book stuff. There’s blood, but no real nastiness, rape or torture, even if a solitary Jap ninja does his best to reenact his country’s WW2 atrocities in the Philippines. Indeed, there are so many attempts at comedy that I’m tempted to label this flick as tongue in cheek e.g. the chief bad guy has a babe-filled swimming pool in his office; a tubby, limping shortass with a hook for a hand is one of the gangsters; a street hustler covers his bases by selling porno pics and crucifixes; and an acidic but ultra-polite henchman remains loyal even after being shot by his boss. Shame a bra-less Susan George has nothing to do except be bra-less.

Like a lot of Cannon’s stuff, Ninja is tonally uneven and a million miles over the top. On the whole, I was mildly amused by its relentless daftness, especially the way Cole’s fighting style included breakdancing moves. I wouldn’t be in a hurry to sit through its two sequels, though.

Give me Enter the Dragon any day.

Hercules (1983)

When I was a kid there were only three TV channels. This meant we got a lot of American imports like Starsky and Hutch, The Six Million Dollar Man, Happy Days, Charlie’s Angels and The Dukes of Hazzard. In the late seventies The Incredible Hulk showed up. Now I’m on record as saying superhero stuff blights modern cinema, but at least I have a soft spot for this elegiac TV pilot. This is because it mixes fascinating subject matter (hidden strength, blind rage, bad luck, grief, torment, an elusive search for an answer) with Bill Bixby’s subtle and believable performance (“Mr McGee, don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry”). David Banner’s initial, rain-lashed transformation into the Hulk while changing a tire in an electrical storm is also iconic. Plus, I love its haunting, piano-driven end theme, Lonely Man.

And, of course, The Incredible Hulk introduced the world to the six-foot-five Lou Ferrigno.

This is a man whose impressive, sculpted physique resulted in me trying to split my shirt by flexing my biceps in front of the girls at school. I’d love to tell you I grew out of that none too convincing impersonation, but I was still attempting it more than a decade later whenever I got drunk at the pub. Eventually I broadened my knowledge of Ferrigno by watching his intense rivalry with Schwarzenegger as they fought for the Mr. Olympia crown in the amusing 1977 bodybuilder doco, Pumping Iron. This determination to win occasionally involved a sweating, grunting Ferrigno in a state of undress chanting Schwarzenegger’s name.

By the late seventies both stars appeared set for bigger things. Now I think we all know how Arnie’s film career turned out, but how about Lou? I guess you have to say it didn’t go quite as well. His first effort was the sensibly chosen Hercules, a pretty similar role to Arnie’s long-haired, fairly dull starring turn in Conan the Barbarian released a year earlier. Conan did well, resulting in a sequel and a 2011 reboot. Lou’s virginal effort also did all right financially, but hardly ever gets a mention these days. Is this deserved?

Well, yes. Hercules is not a good movie. They say meeting the Star Child in 2001 is best watched tripping your tits off, but I’d suggest ingesting a tab or two is the only sensible course of action before attempting this demented sword and sorcery flick. Hercules is fueled by madness, a choppy mess that blends sci-fi, fantasy, mechanical monsters, poor model work, tacky costumes, relentlessly clunky dialogue, lifeless performances, obvious budget limitations and a Tom Baker-era Doctor Who level of special effects.

Jason and the Argonauts, it ain’t.

To get a taste of its cheap and cheerful nature you only have to watch Hercules wrestle a grizzly, a pedestrian encounter that mixes stock animal footage and a man in a bear suit. But, hang on, this is a Cannon flick so our muscle-bound hero can’t just defeat the carnivorous beast. That would be understated. Or worse, unimaginative. Instead, Hercules hurls it away so hard it ends up in outer space to become The Great Bear constellation.

To sum up, Hercules is best consumed by retarded children or anyone who happens to have some LSD handy.

Missing in Action (1984)

Do you understand the appeal of Chuck Norris? This is a long-working actor. A martial artist with a cult following. A very successful man. He’s doing a bit better than me, you know? And yet trying to grasp his cinematic allure is about as easy as figuring out the solar mass of a stellar black hole. I struggle to see the difference between the-not-exactly-tall-or-muscular Chuck doing his tough guy schtick and the dancing plastic bag in American Beauty. Both have the same level of charisma, although I guess it’s easy to tell them apart as Chuck’s the one with the beard. Believe me, I’ve tried with this guy, having sat through all that deadening, ninja-flavored early stuff like The Octagon.

So as you can probably tell, it was with some trepidation that I sat down to be entertained by the exquisite subtleties of his substantial box office hit, Missing in Action. Colonel James Braddock (Norris), who was MIA for seven years, is sent back to Ho Chi Minh City at the request of the president to annoy the Vietnamese army brass at a top-level conference. “You’re a goddamn embarrassment,” one senator tells him, and I don’t think he’s talking about his acting. Within ten minutes of groan-inducing contrivances, Braddock has turned into some sort of half-Spiderman, half-bearded avenger, hell-bent on rescuing those noble Yankee soldiers still being held in the Southeast Asian country’s secret POW camps.

Braddock is the personification of steely dignity, a man who prefers guns and male bonding to all else. At one point he threatens to slip out of character by undressing in front of the opposite sex. Gosh, is he gonna go beard to bush with a lady? No, ‘fraid not, it’s merely a ruse to exit his hotel in a different set of clothes so he can get into another man’s bedroom and penetrate him with his penis substitute (i.e. knife). Later he’s invited into bed to sample the pleasures of two naked tarts, but declines without hesitation to instead fondle some high-powered phallic weaponry.

Braddock eventually teams up with an old army buddy Tuck (the always welcome M. Emmet Walsh), who’s memorably introduced in a Bangkok cathouse being chucked off a balcony onto a disintegrating table as an onstage hooker pumps out a startlingly thin version of Da Ya Think I’m Sexy? From here everything becomes increasingly corny, but at least we get a smattering of nudity; the odd comic interlude; hopeless, semi-blind guards being instantly knocked unconscious; and Braddock breaking an ax handle with one chop as well as out-jumping a rocket propelled grenade aimed straight down his throat.

Missing is a good example of Cannon trying to beat its rivals to the punch. Fully aware of the eagerly anticipated Rambo: First Blood Part II, they managed to get Missing out six months before that 1985 juggernaut. I have to say I liked the action-packed Missing, especially its uncomplicated narrative and disinterest in anything other than Braddock’s point of view. The Vietnamese are just bad guys, there to hiss and get mown down by Chuck.

Simpler, more fun movie-making times.

Exterminator 2 (1984)

One of Cannon’s business quirks was to latch onto successful flicks it didn’t make in the first place and produce a sequel or two. Death Wish II was an early success, prompting Cannon to have a go with 1980’s minor hit, The Exterminator. Its sequel isn’t as nasty or good, but it’s not hard to see why it has its fans. No severed heads here, but the company ups the flamethrower quotient to a typically absurd degree. I love no one noticing our fucked-up hero John Eastland (Robert Ginty) wandering the streets in a welder’s mask with his dirtbag-toasting equipment encasing his body. His MO these days involves listening to a police scanner to enable him to get to an active crime scene before the cops. Not bad when you’re weighed down by half a ton of gear.

In his first bit of street cleaning, four laughing perps, who’ve just terrorized and dispatched a pair of corner shop-owning old coots, run outside to find their way blocked. “Who the fuck are you?” the ringleader understandably asks. Not that Eastland answers. Well, it’s hard to chat while wearing a steel, glass-fronted mask. Needless to say, the clueless cops turn up to find some smoking remains.

But a lackadaisical Eastland only gets half of them, leaving the other two to tell tales to their leader X, played by Mario Peebles. It has to be said X is a highly amusing adversary, looking like he spends more time in the gym and beauty salon than sticking it to The Man. Once told of Eastland’s outrage, however, he throws away his moisturizer and goes nuts. The teased hair and light purple vest are immediately ditched for a flat top and some togs from The Road Warrior before giving a rousing Churchillian speech to his ‘children of the streets’.

“I am declaring war,” he tells them, apparently not bothered that one of his soldiers is a mustachioed roller-skater. “My destiny and yours should be to fight for what is ours. I am the Messiah and you are my warriors. Together we shall take what I want. I want everything, including this Exterminator.”

Next evening they’re robbing an armored van of half-a-million bucks, downing a police helicopter and buying a shit load of heroin from the Mob. Fuck, this is a man of his word.

Despite its high body count, explosions and many shots of flame-engulfed victims, Exterminator 2 lacks the first flick’s grittiness. Not sure why, but it might have something to do with its ridiculous fashions; a fair few unintentionally funny scenes (such as a roller-skating street abduction, bouts of breakdancing and all the happy nightclub stuff); the cheap and cheerful electronic score that continually undermines any attempt at tension; and X’s inability to project menace (although at least he’s impeccable at spelling his name right whenever he spray-paints it on a victim). Ginty, previously so good in his blue collar ordinariness, mostly looks lost at sea in this sequel as he’s saddled with a ditzy, Broadway-chasing pole-dancer girlfriend and a cheery, garbage truck-driving best mate, both of whom are begging to be offed.

Exterminator 2 is a fun romp that can’t help having a camp feel. Or as one carnation-adorned Mob boss proclaims upon strolling into X’s HQ and gazing upon his new spandex-clad business partners as they stand around holding flaming torches: “Jesus Christ, what is this? This is ridiculous.”

Bolero (1984)

Poor Bo.

With the exception of Madonna, it’s hard to think of any actress who’s had a more ridiculed film career. Still, I like Bo and her amazing cheekbones, having enjoyed their leg-losing debut in the whacky whale flick Orca. I also thought both her relaxed, hypocrisy-free character and restrained performance in the pretty good 10 were a pleasant surprise. That 1979 flick was the artistic highpoint by some way, though, because pretty much everything else she touched went tits up.

To be fair, Bolero is not some serious attempt at an erotic statement. Its light touch is evident straightaway so treating it as anything other than a bit of nicely photographed fluff does seem unfair. Saying that, it is vacuous beyond belief. During its first half there’s also a pronounced dearth of nudity, titillation and coupling. Neither is it smutty nor sleazy. There’s only a snatch of snatch, making you wonder who the hell it’s aimed at. I can’t even recall any double entendres. Yes, it picks up on the home straight, but not enough to satisfy a bullish Golan. He wanted to replace the tepid attempt at romance with much more graphic fuck scenes. For once he failed to get his way, leaving Bolero’s most memorable aspect to be the sheer boredom etched on the face of Oscar winner George Kennedy (Dragline in Cool Hand Luke). It’s like he can’t quite believe he’s stumbled into an even worse movie than Death Ship.

It’s sad to think people once had to hand over their hard-earned cash for stuff as bad as Bolero, The Bitch or Cannon’s earlier effort, Lady Chatterley’s Lover in a bid to get their jollies. The internet has since annihilated any demand for such ‘sexy’ cinematic shenanigans. Soft-core shite, designed around the perfect body of someone like Bo, has become almost as pointless as pixelated porn unless it’s got a decent storyline, dialogue and characterization. Sadly, Bolero, which caused a none-too-impressed MGM to sever its distribution deal with Cannon, doesn’t have any of these attributes.

Bo plays a rich college graduate in the 1920s determined to lose her virginity in the most romantic way possible. In other words, she’s ruled out a boozy night out at The Dog and Duck followed by a kebab-clutching knee-trembler in a back alley. Her first attempt involves hopping over to Morocco to do it with an opium-affected sheik. He licks honey from her naked belly, but ends up with a gooey face that looks like he’s covered in snot. Then he slips into unconsciousness. Perhaps he felt that was the best way to deal with the screenplay.

Next, Bo’s off to Spain to try again with a toreador. This time she gets blissfully porked but her new lover promptly goes and gets himself gored in the groin. What a load of bullocks. At least it enables Bo the chance to offer a pep talk as he nurses his wounded pride. “That thing is going to work,” she says, pointing between his legs while offering her umpteenth empty-headed grin. “I guarantee you this.”

Honestly, you’re better off with Confessions of a Window Cleaner.