Here’s a VHS only action piece from director William Lustig, who I got some respect for due to the sleazy horror movie MANIAC and the badass Robert Forster revenge thriller VIGILANTE. (whoah, I never realized how similar those two titles are.) This one is closer to VIGILANTE although it was a work-for-hire deal for Lustig and not his usual New York-based independent filmmaking.
Basically this is the story of a regular guy whose kid is mistakenly kidnapped and he tries to get him back. I thought because of the title that he would have a list of people to get revenge on, but really he’s just going after this one guy who has his kid.
Like VIGILANTE alot of the fun is in the ridiculous way the story unfolds. There’s this mobster (Leo Rossi) who gets busted and the feds are trying to get him to turn over on his mentor (Rip Torn!). Torn has a badass hired killer to take care of any potential prosecution witnesses, so the feds have Rossi and his son cooped up in a suburban house. But the phone is tapped so the killer is dispatched to this address.
Meanwhile, our hero’s son is having trouble being picked on by bullies. His “Uncle Brian” (Harold Sylvester in a Steve James-style thankless role as the badass African-American friend who gets killed immediately) teaches him a few karate moves. Then he shuts the door too hard and the 9 on their address flips over to look like a 6. So the killer comes to the wrong house, shoots Uncle Brian and mom and kidnaps who he thinks is Rossi’s son.
Our hero, dad, comes home to the crime scene and is understandably upset. And he gets more upset when he happens to overhear that one of these feds (Charlies Napier) is not gonna go after the kidnappers but instead will lock him up to keep the mistake a secret until Rossi is able to testify.
So dad goes out for justice himself, and ends up getting Rossi as a mismatched partner. So the stage is set for a good b-movie, something Lustig has been known to deliver. But there are two fiends who conspire to obstruct Lustig from his goal: an actor named Jan-Michael Vincent and a disease called alcoholism.
Yep. The hero is played by Jan-Michael Vincent, who’s no Robert Forster in terms of presence. I guess people know him as the guy from AIRWOLF, but I never watched that show so I mostly think of him as a young motorcycle riding hotshot in movies like THE MECHANIC with Charles Bronson and DAMNATION ALLEY with George Peppard. Time and spirits have not been kind to his face between those movies and 1989, but he doesn’t end up looking grizzled. He just doesn’t look like a movie star. Maybe a little league coach. More importantly he must’ve been hard to get ahold of during moments of clarity. Scenes without him seem like a real movie but alot of the scenes with him are awkwardly pieced together with him obviously not in the same shots as the other actors. In one early scene he’s in his backyard laying on a bench trying to play it off as “just kickin it” as opposed to “too drunk to stand up.”
So poor Jan-Michael holds the movie back but the other elements are strong enough that I think it’s still kind of a gem, or at least kind of a smooth shiny rock you find on a beach. An agate. The best thing about the movie by far is the guy who plays the hired killer, Lance God Damn Henriksen.
I’m always looking for a good Lance Henriksen performance that I haven’t seen, and damn if this isn’t one of the better ones, up there with his villains in STONE COLD, HARD TARGET and maybe even NEAR DARK. I mean, the guy is introduced as a shoe salesman. We learn that he makes all this money doing hits for the mob but he doesn’t do it for the money, he just has a passion for murder. So he keeps it real and keeps his day job at the shoe store. There’s something creepy about that, I can’t quite put my finger on it. But next time some dude is shoehorning a pair onto you just think about how many people he’s killed. (This one’s “killed so many people he owns his own cemetery.” Not literally, I don’t think.)
And then as soon as Lance starts killing it’s clear that he’s even more of a badass than you’ve ever seen him play before. He seems to have ninja training. He effortlessly goes into a jail and kills everybody on both sides of the bars. He does martial arts, he’s good with knives, he’s acrobatic, he likes to drop from above. Okay, he’s kind of stupid about finding the correct address, but otherwise he’s a master killer.
It occurred to me while watching him fight Uncle Brian that this is kind of a glimpse at what it would’ve been like if he had played The Terminator like Cameron originally planned. In fact he might as well be a cyborg in the great final battle where Vincent drives around a parking garage with Lance hanging on. He grips the top of the car (Jan-Michael bites his hand), he hangs off of a swinging car door, gets bumped against walls and pillars, almost falls off the edge, hangs on the bottom. Man, how is Jan-Michael gonna get rid of this guy? I can’t imagine how he’ll be able to do it. Oh, by the way here’s a picture of the cover:
Another thing that puts this one over the top into unheralded agate territory is the hilarious behavior of the kid during the climactic showdown. Henriksen is carrying the kid under one arm, busting off shots at Jan-Michael, who’s dancing around behind some parked cars like a coward, and all the while the kid is yelling “Get him dad! Get him!” as if dad has the upper hand. Then as soon as dad has managed to shoot Henriksen the kid is happy and smiling and he says “Where’s mom?” As if he expected both parents to come along on this gun battle/car rampage. I guess she doesn’t really care about him, does she? What a terrible mother. Then moments after that they’re driving away and Rossi, who the kid has barely seen before, if ever, has his arm around him and they have big smiles on their faces. Not a traumatic event at all. Everything’s great now. Dad killed the bad guy. I’m not sure how, because he’s just a regular dude, and Lance Henriksen is a ninja. But he did it. You got him, dad!