Monday, September 29, 2014

MIGHTY SAMSON


When I was a kid (and boy howdy, just how many of these blog posts have started out with those exact same words? I'm thinking about renaming this blog to "When I Was A Kid". But I digress....) there was a comic book entitled MIGHTY SAMSON. Published by Gold Key comics beginning in 1964, the series took place in a post-apocalyptic New York City, now named "N'Yark" by the handful of humans living there. Among the humans was the elder scientist/wise man Mindor (who was always drawn by artist Frank Thorne to resemble actor Anthony Zerbe), his oh-so-lovely daughter Sharmaine and the hero of the book, the Mighty Samson, a one-eyed, animal-skin-wearing super-strong man.

The series lasted 32 issues, which was a pretty good run for an original Gold Key title back in the day. It ended in 1982. The early issues featured stories by Otto Binder and artwork by Frank Thorne (yay!) and Jack Sparling (ugh!). Thorne's expressive, baroque, slightly rococo style was a joy to look at, at least it was for my young (and now old) eyes. But Jack Sparling's artwork, on whatever comic book he worked on, always struck me as ugly and unpleasant. Jack himself may have been one helluva guy but his artwork? Remember the movie MY LEFT FOOT? I think it was a documentary about Sparling's drawing method.

MIGHTY SAMSON was a rollicking sf/adventure series with Samson, Mindor and Sharmaine encountering various mutated beasties and tribes of other human survivors in the ruins of New York and the wastelands of the Eastern Seaboard. It was a fresh and exciting concept and I loved it.



Recently, Dark Horse Comics acquired the rights to once again produce a regular MIGHTY SAMSON comic book. The first four issues of the series have been collected in MIGHTY SAMSON: JUDGMENT (pictured above)  which I read the other day. The script by Jim Shooter extrapolates and expands the basic Samson set up by telling the story of two warring tribes of humans, one in New York City, the other in New Jersey. There's all sorts of political intrigue and power struggles along with bloody battles and the requisite mutated monsters. Into this conflict plops Might Samson who begins playing both ends against the middle and ends up in control of the New York tribe by the end of the story arc. Mindor and Sharmaine are along for the ride along with a number of supporting characters (good and bad).

The artwork by Patrick Olliffe is very loose and sketchy looking in a number of places. It's not bad but it's not Frank Thorne. I enjoyed reading MIGHTY SAMSON: JUDGMENT for the most part. It's a fresh spin on a venerable character and the story was well plotted and complex enough to keep me turning the pages. I didn't like it well enough to want to seek out other Dark Horse issues of MIGHTY SAMSON however. Nope, it just made me want to dig out some Gold Key issues of MIGHTY SAMSON (I have several)  and take a stroll down a disaster devastated and mutant monster populated memory lane.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

TARZAN/CARSON OF VENUS


I picked up this beauty in a recent trade with a fellow comic book collector (thanks Nelson!). It's the Dark Horse trade paperback collection of the four-issue series TARZAN/CARSON OF VENUS originally published in 1999.

I'm a fan of both of these characters although I must admit I've absorbed much more material featuring Tarzan (movies, books, comics) during my life than I have Carson of Venus. I read one of the original ERB novels years ago and I've got all of the books in the series on my bookcase shelf but the character hasn't had nearly as much exposure as Tarzan or John Carter of Mars. There was a short lived Carson of Venus comic book series back in the 1970s. It ran as a back up in issues of DC Comics' KORAK, SON OF TARZAN series. The stories were beautifully illustrated by Mike Kaluta (who also did superlative work on DC's THE SHADOW series from the same era).

The Dark Horse series finds Tarzan transported to Venus (in much the same way John Carter traveled to Mars and back). There, he meets Carson and they have a rip-roaring adventure. It's pretty standard stuff and you either dig this type of pulp interplanetary adventure yarn or you don't. Me? I loved it.

The script is by Darko Macan and the artwork is by Igor Kordey. Kordey's work is an amalgamation of Kaluta's art deco style and the work of underground comic book legend Rich Corben (especially on characters' faces). I know. Sounds weird. But it works.

I enjoyed TARZAN/CARSON OF VENUS. If you're a fan of either character or the works of ERB in general, check it out. You won't be disappointed.

Monday, September 22, 2014

TARZAN AND THE VALLEY OF GOLD


Coca-Cola was big in Mexico City in the mid-1960s. Really big. Huge. How do I know this? Because there's an action sequence early on in TARZAN AND THE VALLEY OF GOLD (1966) that takes place at a bullfighting stadium that is covered in billboards all sporting the Coke logo. There's even a giant Coke bottle that Tarzan (Mike Henry) topples and sends tumbling down the rows of the stadium where it smashes into and kills a sniper.

That bullfight arena scene has a low-rent James Bond feel to it. Tarzan, newly arrived in Mexico City, is garbed in suit and tie, there's a Cadillac convertible and several high powered automatic weapons used in this attempt to kill the ape man. After the assassination attempt, Tarzan gets a briefing from Mexican law enforcement officials that includes another Bond type plot gimmick: an exploding Rolex watch.

What does all of this hugger mugger at the beginning of the film have to do with anything? Not much as it turns out but that's pretty par for the course in this low budget B movie that tried to reinvent Tarzan as a Bond-style, globe trotting adventurer. Both the screenplay (Clair Huffaker) and direction (Robert Day) are slap dash although Mike Henry does make a fairly good Tarzan. He's tall, dark, handsome and magnificently muscled, all of which are prerequisites for playing the Lord of the Jungle.

I recall seeing TARZAN AND THE VALLEY OF GOLD when it was first released in the summer of 1966. It played a double bill (anybody remember those?) with the Japanese giant-monster epic FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD. I loved the way cool one-sheet pictured above. I loved both movies. I was ten-years-old. It was my Golden Age.

I watched TARZAN AND THE VALLEY OF GOLD for the first time since 1966 yesterday. It wasn't near as good as I remember it but I still dig the one-sheet, which is another sterling example of selling the sizzle not the steak. The story brings Tarzan to Mexico in an effort to find the fabled lost valley of gold and protect it from the rapacious Augustus Vinero (David Opatoshu) and his deadly line of explosive jewelry.

The lovely Nancy (JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS)  Kovack is along for the ride for no discernible reason other than that an attractive woman of some kind is needed since Tarzan's mate, Jane, is not in the film (or ever mentioned). Kovack was a last minute replacement for Sharon Tate (who appeared with Henry in several pre-production publicity stills). But there's no spark, no chemistry between Kovack and Henry. Sure, a romance would have slowed things down in what is essentially a kids' action/adventure film but there is a distinct lack of attraction between the two.

Vinero's hulking right-hand man is played by the ginormous Don Megowan, who memorably played the "Gill Man" in THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956), the third and final film in Universal's CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON series. He's a big, bald brute and if a Thor movie had been made in the 1960s, he would have made a perfect Absorbing Man (or Executioner). Megowan and Henry square off in a short and clumsily staged fight scene at the climax of the film. It's a pity and a waste of two impressive physical specimens. A bigger budget, a better script and a more imaginative director could have delivered a knock-down, slob-knocker of a fight between these men.

Filmed entirely on location in Mexico, TARZAN AND THE VALLEY OF GOLD cannot rise above some severe limitations behind the camera. Cheapskate producer Sy Weintraub took over the Tarzan film franchise in 1958 and delivered his first Tarzan film, TARZAN'S GREATEST ADVENTURE in 1959. He hired Henry (whose NFL career lasted from 1958 to 1964, with first the Pittsburgh Steelers and then the Los Angeles Rams) to star in three Tarzan films: TARZAN AND THE GREAT RIVER, TARZAN AND THE JUNGLE BOY and VALLEY OF GOLD. With the film series at an end, Weintraub decided to turn Tarzan into a weekly television series that would utilize the Mexican locations and production crew from VALLEY. Henry was offered the part but he declined. The role went to Ron Ely and the series lasted two seasons (1966-1968) on NBC TV. Ely's co-star on the series was young Manuel Padilla Jr. (from VALLEY) as Jai. Makes you wonder. Who the hell was Manuel Padilla, Sr.?

Mike Henry went on to co-star with Burt Reynolds, Sally Field and Jackie Gleason in the enormously popular SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT films. He wasn't a great actor by any means but I thought he made a serviceable Tarzan. There was a novelization of the film released, written by science fiction/fantasy/horror author Fritz Leiber. It was the first authorized Tarzan novel by anyone other than Tarzan's creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs.

 TARZAN AND THE VALLEY OF GOLD is for die-hard Tarzan fans only.

 Or anyone who saw it when they were ten and wants to relive an afternoon from their childhood.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

DAREDEVIL: FATHER


There's so much emotional baggage to be found in DAREDEVIL: FATHER, that buyers should receive a matched set of two pieces of luggage when they purchase this book. One suitcase should read "Daddy", the other, "Eyes".

Those are the two motifs that dominate DAREDEVIL: FATHER, a six-issue mini series written and illustrated by Joe Quesada. The series was originally published in 2006. I read the hardcover collection of the material yesterday and I must confess that I rather enjoyed it. It's not the best Daredevil story I've ever read but it's certainly not the worst.

Matt Murdock agrees to represent Maggie, a young married woman who has cancer due to exposure to toxic waste generated by a local municipality. There's also a serial killer operating in New York. Nicknamed "Socket Johnny", the killer removes the eyeballs of the victims before killing them. Oh, and there's also a new team of super powered individuals, The Santerians, on the scene. Almost all of these plot elements are connected in some way but it takes Matt a long time to finally figure out just what exactly is going on. Hint: one of these narrative threads is a red herring.

The four main characters, Matt, Maggie and Sean (her husband) and NeRo (a mysterious young media star) all have major father issues. and two of the three characters have backgrounds that directly relate to Matt's childhood.

Quesada's artwork is powerful and dynamic. In some scenes he appears to be channeling Frank Miller. In other places, his Daredevil looks more like Dare-Hulk, a massive, heavily muscled figure that doesn't quite jibe with the trim and graceful gymnast physique that is usually associated with the character.

Bottom line: DAREDEVIL: FATHER is a well executed Daredevil story. It's got a nice mystery plot with a surprise ending that I didn't see coming. It's definitely worth reading if you're a fan of the character, Joe Quesada or both. Thumbs up.


Saturday, September 20, 2014

PROJECT PENDULUM


I'm a sucker for a good time travel story. Always have been. Always will be. So when I stumbled across a paperback copy of Robert Silverberg's PROJECT PENDULUM in a thrift store the other day, I couldn't resist buying it. After all the price was right. A buck.

I've read other books by Silverberg and I've enjoyed every one of them. He's one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time. In PROJECT PENDULUM, twin brothers Eric and Sean (one a physicist, the other a paleontologist) are chosen as the first test subjects of a time travel device. The mechanism, which is composed of a man-made, extremely small black hole set in opposition to an equal size, artificial "white hole", will send Eric into the future and then back into the past and then the future, and so on, at gradually increasing intervals of time from where the experiment begins at Time Zero in 2016.

Brother Sean will likewise travel through time on a swinging pendulum of shunts, first into the past, then the future, then the past, and on. When one brother is in the past, the other is in the future, each progressing farther and farther into both the past and the future on each respective swing. When both brothers reach Time Ultimate, the absolute outermost edges of time past and future, they began to move back to Time Zero in swings in the other direction with each twin now experiencing the various time periods and situations that his brother previously encountered.

It's a great idea, a terrific concept and it's extremely well executed. Silverberg never lets us get lost along the way of relating these parallel, separate trips through time. But the book is sorely lacking in any character development or suspense. Each chapter is short and things move along at a brisk pace. In fact, I finished reading this book (210 pages) in less than two hours. Each time period visited (past and future) made me want to read a longer story set in each year the brothers visit. In short, I wanted more, much more.

PROJECT PENDULUM isn't a bad book. But it's not an entirely satisfying one either. It's more a novella built around a really great concept. The bones of a great story are there but there's not much meat on them.

Monday, September 15, 2014

THE MAN WITH THE GETAWAY FACE


Ya gotta love a crime novel with a title like this one. THE MAN WITH THE GETAWAY FACE is the second Parker novel by Donald Westlake writing as Richard Stark. Originally published in 1963, the edition I finished reading yesterday evening (pictured above), was published by Avon books in the mid-'80s. I've had this book on my shelf for years but never read it until I got off on my recent kick of reading the Parker novels.

As the title says, Parker gets a new face at the beginning of the book courtesy of a plastic surgeon whose clientele is exclusively criminals. With his facial features changed, Parker sets out to join a small gang and plot an armored car robbery. As usual, part of the beauty of these yarns is watching how Parker puts his team together and how they meticulously plan and execute the robbery. Parker even spots the double cross that's coming and makes plans to eliminate it once the job is done. But as in all good heist stories, something goes wrong after the caper. It's a loose end from the beginning of the book that Parker didn't see coming and he's forced to deal with it in his own inimitable way.

Tough, fast, grim and gritty THE MAN WITH THE GETAWAY FACE is a first-rate crime novel. I couldn't read it fast enough. Highest recommendation.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT


Let's face it. Quatermass is a dick.

 At least, he is as portrayed by American actor Brian Donlevy in the British science fiction film THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1955) (released in the U.S as THE CREEPING UNKNOWN).

The first Quatermass adventure was was originally written by Nigel Kneale as a six-part serial that was broadcast on BBC-TV in 1953. The "mini-series" proved to be enormously successful and the material was developed into a film by Val Guest (director/writer) and Richard Landau (writer). The film is an important "first" for two reasons. It's the first science fiction/fantasy/horror film to be produced by the legendary Hammer Studios and thus qualifies as the first official Hammer horror film. It's also the fist in a trilogy of films that include QUATERMASS 2 (1957) (released in the U.S. as ENEMY FROM SPACE (or "Enema From Space" as we referred to it when we were kids)) and QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1967) (known in the states as FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH). All three films are highly recommended but let's look at the first entry (which I watched again the other day with my movie buddy Kelly Greene) a bit more closely.

Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) is a brilliant scientist who has financed, built and launched his own private rocket ship. The ship, carrying a crew of three men, crash lands back on earth outside of London at the beginning of the film. Emergency crews quickly respond. One spaceman emerges from the ship in a near catatonic state. When Quatermass and others enter the ship, they find no sign of the other two crewmen, only their empty space suits.

It soon develops that the sole survivor has become infected with an alien entity which causes him to consume the life forces of other living things (people, animals, plants) in order to sustain itself. After ingesting a variety of life forms, the space man transforms into a gigantic, one-eyed, multi-tentacled monstrosity which takes up residence inside Westminster Abbey. It's there that the creature is destroyed after which Quatermass strides off into the night determined to build another rocket ship and send men back into space. We see him do this in a brief scene that fades out at the end of the film.

Although he helps save the day, Quatermass is also responsible for putting the citizens of London in jeopardy in the first place. After all, it was his space ship and his crew who encountered the alien. The trouble is, Quatermass treats all of this a minor inconvenience that must be overcome quickly so he can get on with the business of science.

Donlevy's portrayal of the character makes Quatermass come across as rude, brusque, belligerent, impatient, arrogant, and selfish. He's far from likable and not the least bit sympathetic. He's like a dark Reed Richards, a man so obsessed with exploring the unknown that he completely disregards the consequences that may occur as a result of his recklessness. In short, he's a dick.

THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT succeeds despite Donlevy's unsympathetic portrayal of the title character. The story is compelling enough to overcome the decision to have an American actor play a British scientist with a gargantuan ego and immeasurable hubris. The black and white photography is crisp and atmospheric with many scenes shot on location on the streets of London and the surrounding countryside. The special effects are serviceable and there's a real sense of the uncanny at work here. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 8, 2014

YOU SAY YOU WANT A REVOLUTION


I bought this one at Half Price Books on Saturday and read it in one sitting later that afternoon. Gotta admit, I've got mixed feelings about THE SHADOW VOLUME 2: REVOLUTION.

Let's start with the good stuff. Cover art by Alex Ross is always a plus. How many covers has he done for Dynamite over the last few years? Glad to see they're keeping him busy as he is, in my opinion, the best comic book cover artist currently working.

The folks at Dynamite are smart enough to recognize that The Shadow works best when the material is kept as a period piece. The Shadow belongs to the '30s & '40s, not the 21st century. So, kudos there for the '30s setting.

Now comes the not so good. For some reason, it's been decided that the "power to cloud men's minds" that The Shadow employed on the radio program of the same name is an actual, bonafide super power of some sort. It's also a power that The Shadow is capable of losing. I don't like this. Clouding men's minds worked well on the radio, a medium in which the listener's imagination had to fill in the gaps and make the stories come fully alive. Here, The Shadow is like Obi Wan-Kenobi whispering "these aren't the droids you're looking for."

I'm beginning to think that it's an editorial mandate at Dynamite that the interior art in all of their comics be inferior to the cover art. In addition to the work of Alex Ross, this volume has a cover gallery of alternative and variant covers of the six issues reprinted within and the artwork on all of them is uniformly superior to the actual story art.

And we get a mixed bag of stories to boot. The title arc, "Revolution" is a four-parter in which The Shadow finds himself in the middle of the Spanish Civil War where he teams up with no less a historic personage than George Orwell to do battle against the insane El Rey and his vicious, female second-in-command, The Black Sparrow. The script is by Victor Gischler, with art by Aaron Campbell. The story is so-so and the art is serviceable if unspectacular and rather generic.

"Revolution" is book-ended by two done-in-one, stand alone stories, each of which are better than the longer main feature. The first story is again scripted by Victor Gischler with much better art by Jack Herbert. It's the best looking story in the whole package. The final story is another Gischler script with passable art by Giovanni Timpano.

I give this one a B. I love The Shadow and I'm always happy to read new material featuring the character. I love the fact that it retains the '30s milieu of the pulp classics. The covers are all nice but the stuff behind those covers could have been better.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

GOD SAVE THE MARK


After recently reading and thoroughly enjoying two Parker novels by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake), I decided to read a book written under Westlake's real name. I've had a paperback copy of GOD SAVE THE MARK (1967) sitting on my shelf for years so I decided to start with that one.

There's a blurb on the cover that reads "Winner of the Mystery Writers of America 'Edgar' Award". I wasn't sure if this referred to the novel itself or to author Westlake. Turns out, the novel did indeed win the Best Novel of the Year Edgar Award in 1968. The other nominees that year were A PARADE OF COCKEYED CREATURES by George Baxt, FLYING FINISH by Dick Francis, LEMON IN THE BASKET by Charlotte Armstrong, ROSEMARY'S BABY by Ira Levin (much more of a horror novel than a mystery) and THE GIFT SHOP by Charlotte Armstrong. I haven't read any of those but I must confess, I found it hard to believe that GOD SAVE THE MARK was chosen as the best novel for that year.

Oh, it's not a bad little book at all. It's the story of one Fred Fitch, a man who is a perpetual mark for any and all con games, large and small. He's been conned so many times that his best friend is Jack Reilly, a detective in the NYPD bunco unit. A legendary conman has been murdered and he's left a small fortune to his nephew, our hero, Fred Fitch. Fred didn't even know he had an Uncle Matt but as soon as he's named the heir of the fortune, a colorful cast of characters start popping up out of the woodwork. They all want to get their hands on Fred's new found gains and Fred desperately tries to stay one step ahead of them and figure out just who is conning who,

It's fast paced, breezy and fun. Fred narrates the tale and he has some great comic asides. If this had been made into a film at the time it was published, I can easily see Jack Lemmon starring as Fred. The trouble is, it's not much of a mystery. It was fairly easy to figure out that all is not what it seems, even if I wasn't exactly sure how it all fit together. I will admit that the solution to the two murders in the story did come as a bit of a surprise. So there's no great detective work and we don't get any insight into the behind-the-scenes art of the con since everything is told from Fred's point of view.

GOD SAVE THE MARK isn't as good as the two Richard Stark/Parker books I've recently read. I've read a couple of other Westlake novels, 361 and THE COMEDY IS FINISHED, both published by Hard Case Crime. Those two are also vastly different from GOD SAVE THE MARK. That was the genius of Westlake/Stark. He could write a variety of types of crime/mystery novels in several different styles and tones. He was very good at what he did and I'm going to continue reading his books (both as Westlake and as Stark).

Saturday, September 6, 2014

16 BLOCKS

I watched 16 BLOCKS (2006) yesterday. It's a serviceable, generic cop action film. Nothing spectacular but it's nicely done.

Bruce Willis stars as a middle-aged, alcoholic New York City police detective. He's got a bad leg, he's burned out and all he wants to do is go home and sleep off his hangover. Instead, he's assigned to escort a prisoner (Mos Def) 16 blocks uptown where a grand jury awaits his testimony. Mos Def is going to drop the dime on a crooked cop (David Morse) and the crooked cop and his crooked buddies don't want that to happen. So they set out to stop Willis from getting his charge to the courthouse. I have to wonder why they'd go to so much conspicuous trouble when they surely could have arranged to have Mos Def killed while he was still in custody at the precinct house.

There's all sorts of vehicular mayhem, gun battles and foot chases throughout New York City as Willis becomes determined to deliver Mos Def safe and sound even though it seems that almost the entire NYPD is against him. Along the way, the two men learn much about each other and develop mutual respect. Does Willis succeed? What do you think?

16 BLOCKS is an action movie leavened with a character study of two men (one a career cop, one a career crook) both in need of redemption. Director Richard Donner keeps things moving at a brisk pace and the location shooting in New York City and Toronto give the film a gritty, realistic urban vibe.

It's not a great film but I enjoyed it.

Friday, September 5, 2014

THE H MAN


I watched THE H MAN (1958) with my buddy Kelly Greene the other day. It's a Japanese science fiction film directed by genre master Ishiro Honda. Known in Japan as BEAUTY AND LIQUID MEN, the film was released in the United States by Columbia as THE H MAN.

The story concerns some sailors who are exposed to atomic radiation following the detonation of a hydrogen bomb. The fallout turns the men into a weirdly glowing green jelly like substance. In short, THE H MAN is the Japanese version of the American film, THE BLOB (1958). The ship bearing the men arrives in Tokyo bay and the H men venture into the city, dissolving various gangsters before finally being put to the torch in the sewers.

THE H MAN is a weird mash up of a standard science fiction thriller with a hard boiled crime film. Much of the action takes place in the police station and at a nightclub (a visually spectacular one, I might add) that is run by gangsters and drug smugglers. There's a pretty young nightclub singer, a nerdy scientist who has figured out the secret of the H men, clueless cops and vicious gangsters.

The trouble is, it takes forever to wade through the crime elements of the plot and get to the H men, who don't make an onscreen appearance until more than thirty minutes into the film. If I had tried to watch this one on television when I was a kid, I would have turned it off before I ever got around to the H men sequence. It would have struck me as boring and talky and hey, where the hell is the monster?

Despite the narrative flaws, THE H MAN  is beautifully shot in color and Toho-Scope (the Japanese version of CinemaScope). Director Honda (who helmed the masterpiece GOJIRA (1954)), made THE H MAN in between THE MYSTERIANS (1957) and VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE (1958). He was a busy man in the late '50s.

I'll give THE H MAN credit for trying to be something different. It's not a bad movie at all and I did enjoy watching it. But it's not as exciting and fun as any of the other Japanese kaiju films. Chalk up THE H MAN as a noble effort and a film worth seeing once if you're a fan of the Japanese cinema of the fantastic.


 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

PARKER


How's this for serendipity? I finished reading FLASHFIRE, a Parker novel by Richard Stark a couple of weeks ago. I loved it and posted a very positive review of the book here on my blog. I mentioned in the post that the novel had been adapted into the film PARKER (2013) and that I would be on the lookout for it.

I  was in Walmart the other day, browsing through a giant bin of Blu-Ray DVDs and what did I find? Yep, you guessed it, PARKER. I bought it and watched it yesterday.

Overall, the film was a fairly faithful adaptation of the novel. Oh, sure, things are changed a bit. There are characters in the film that weren't in the book (including an ancient looking Nick Nolte as Parker's mentor). Nolte, who would have been a not-bad choice to play Parker in a film forty years ago, has a few scenes with star Jason Statham early in the film and then disappears entirely from the rest of the movie.

Jason Statham makes a serviceable Parker. He's big, well-built and tough with rugged good looks. But he's got an accent which Parker doesn't have in the books. He's not my ideal version of Parker. That remains the great Lee Marvin, who played the Parker analogue "Walker" in John Boorman's magnificent POINT BLANK (1967). But since Marvin is long gone, Statham will fill the part nicely for the 21st century.

Jennifer Lopez is an interesting choice to play Leslie, the greedy real estate agent who becomes Parker's partner-in-crime. In the book, Leslie wasn't a Hispanic woman but Lopez does a good job bringing a deft touch of light comedy to the role and she's certainly easy on the eyes.

Parts of the film (scenes and dialogue) are lifted verbatim from the book. The heist at the beginning of the film is staged at the Ohio State Fair and is on a much larger scale than the robbery that opens the book.

Still, the screenplay follows the general gist of the novel fairly well. Characters and scenes are compressed and changed slightly to make everything more connected than it is in the book. And the violence is off the charts. There are several brutal fight scenes and gun battles but that's what we've come to expect from a modern action film.

Director Taylor Hackford does a good job of keeping things moving. PARKER is a gritty crime film that unfortunately bombed at the box office. It was released early in the year which is a traditional dumping ground for films that studios don't have much hope for. The fact that it underperformed at the box office means it's unlikely we'll see another Parker adventure with Statham in the lead. That's a pity because I'd certainly love to see another one.

If you've read FLASHFIRE, you'll enjoy watching PARKER and playing the inevitable book-to-film comparison game. As always, the book is better but if you're a fan of the series, you'll enjoy the film.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

BACKFLASH


Today's short essay topic: describe how you would plan and execute a robbery of a casino ship in the middle of the Hudson river. You've got to get and getaway with over $300,000 in cold, hard cash. Oh, and security measures will not allow any guns to be brought on board. Ready? Go.

That's the  problem facing super thief Parker in BACKFLASH (1999), number 18 in the series of crime novels by Richard  Stark (in reality Donald Westlake). I finished reading this one yesterday evening. It's one of those books where once I got to a certain point in the narrative, I absolutely could not stop reading. I inhaled the last one hundred pages in one sitting and believe me, I couldn't turn the pages fast enough.

 The book is divided into three acts. The first focuses on the planning of the heist and the recruitment of the players in the caper. The middle third is the actual execution of the robbery. It's an ingenious plan involving a fake politician and his two bodyguards, an invalid girl in a wheelchair and her chauffeur. The final act is the getaway which, in the tradition of all great caper stories, goes wrong when various outside players decide to cut themselves in for a piece of the action. It's up to Parker to tie up all of these loose ends and as he does so the body count starts mounting.

BACKFLASH is wonderfully entertaining, a fast paced, gritty crime thriller in which we're solidly on the side of the bad guys. We want Parker and his gang to be successful and get away with the money but Stark has to put them through the wringer before it's all over. Highest recommendation.

Monday, September 1, 2014

DARKMAN


Hey kids! Let's play spot the influences in Sam Raimi's DARKMAN (1990), which I watched yesterday. This B-movie pulp adventure yarn is part classic Universal Studios monster movie, part Stan Lee-Jack Kirby Silver Age Marvel super-hero comic book. It's a wonderfully entertaining mash up that features nods to The Invisible Man, The Phantom of the Opera, Dr. X, The Shadow, The Incredible Hulk and The Chameleon (the old Spider-Man foe). Is it a great film? Hell no. But it is a ton of fun to watch.

DARKMAN was director Sam Raimi's first big budget film for a Hollywood studio (appropriately, Universal). Raimi made a name for himself as a genre master with his break out hit THE EVIL DEAD in 1981, followed by CRIMEWAVE (1985), and EVIL DEAD 2 (1987). With DARKMAN, his fourth full length feature film, Raimi put his kinetic, over-the-top visual sensibilities on display in a tale of dark revenge.

Liam Neeson (before he became a bonafide action film star) is a scientist experimenting with artificial flesh. His girlfriend, Frances McDormand, is a lawyer standing in opposition to a crooked real-estate developer played by Colin Friels (a dead ringer for University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban). Larry Drake is Durant, one of Friels goons. In order to put the squeeze on McDormand, Durant and his men beat up Neeson and blow up his lab, leaving the good doctor for dead. That was their first mistake.

Neeson survives the explosion but he's horribly disfigured. He somehow manages to salvage most of his lab equipment and, setting up shop in an abandoned foundry, sets out to put his artificial skin technology to use in exacting his revenge against Durant and his henchmen.

There are some well-staged action sequences (including a helicopter chase with Neeson swinging on a cable beneath one of the choppers) before the final showdown at a construction site. At the end of the film, Neeson disappears into a crowd of people, dubs himself "Darkman" and appears on screen as Bruce Campbell (Raimi's go-to guy) in the final shot of the film.

DARKMAN is all hyperbolic, pulpy fun. Produced one year after Tim Burton's seminal BATMAN (1989), DARKMAN employs a BATMANesque score by composer Danny Elfman. Raimi further cemented his reputation as a comic book film auteur with his three Spider-Man films: SPIDER-MAN (2000), SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004) and SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007). DARKMAN did well at the box-office, prompting a slew of spin-offs and tie-ins including a Marvel Comics series, video games and action figures. Two direct-to-video sequels followed, THE RETURN OF DURANT (1994) and DIE, DARKMAN, DIE (1996).

I saw DARKMAN in the theater when it was first released and loved it. I hadn't seen it since then until I watched it yesterday afternoon when I enjoyed it again all over. Recommended for both horror film and comic book fans.