THE GLADIATOR is another movie I found on VHS by accident while browsing the video store. It’s a car vigilante TV movie, so I was surprised to find it with the Abel Ferrara movies. Yes, the director of KING OF NEW YORK and BAD LIEUTENANT also did a TV movie starring Ken Wahl and guest starring cheeseball ’80s top 40 DJ Rick Dees as his obnoxious boss. From about ’85 until ’88 Ferrara mostly worked in TV, doing some episodes of MIAMI VICE and CRIME STORY, plus this one in ’86. Seemed like something I should investigate.
Wahl plays Rick Benton, a stoic car mechanic working for Dees’s specialty car business. The only people in his life are his kid brother who he raised (Brian Robbins, director of NORBIT), his Vietnam buddy who works at the junkyard, and a customer he’s starting to date, talk radio host Nancy Allen. He works for rich people but chugs along in the kind of lower middle class existence not usually depicted casually in a TV movie. A couple nice touches I noticed: they eat on paper plates, and they wrap gifts with the Sunday funnies. You ever notice how presents on TV and movies are usually perfectly wrapped with shiny bows and sometimes even lids that just lift off? I could never pull that off. The Sunday funnies is more relatable. Good one Ferrara.
Rick’s little brother is learning how to drive, but he’s reluctant to take him out practicing due to protective instincts. When they do go out for a practice drive together they get violently rammed by a crazy dude in a black Dodge Charger who we, the omniscient viewers, know has been involved in some other fatal road incidents. Trying to get away from the Charger they end up hit by another truck and when Wahl wakes up in the hospital his brother is dead.
(Side note: these movie doctors really need to work on their bedside manner. Everytime somebody wakes up and asks what happened to their loved one who was also with them, the doctor gets flustered or mean, tries to avoid the question, says, “I didn’t want you to find out like this, but…” Come on dude, like you didn’t foresee this possiblity of the guy wondering what happened? What kind of a professional are you? You need to be prepared.)
Robert Culp is the cop investigating the incident, but he cynically tells Rick that this kind of shit happens every day and nobody ever catches them so give up hope you naive, starry-eyed dreamer. But hey don’t worry, we’ll try. So as you might guess Wahl gets disillusioned and, in kind of a cross between ROLLING VENGEANCE and Batman, decides to soup up his truck and go around patrolling for reckless drivers. He has a loudspeaker to announce he’s making a citizen’s arrest. He rams them off the road and then illegally calls in reports on the police radio frequency, saying “This is the Gladiator!” The only thing super-heroic he doesn’t do is wear a mask. (And unlike the guy in the Charger he doesn’t have tinted windows. But still no witnesses can agree what he looks like.)
Part of the fun is the gadgets he uses. When some drag racers refuse to pull over he pushes a button and a big arm comes out of the back of the truck, fires a grappling hook into the rear window of one of the cars. They stop and immediately start apologizing. He takes their keys and leaves.
Maybe the best one is the drunk driver he follows home. The guy makes it safely into his garage but suddenly the hook breaks through the garage door and hooks the car. In front of all the neighbors who come out to see what the commotion is, the Gladiator drags the car out to the street, rams it a bunch of times with his truck, then leaves.
I don’t know why I’m such a sucker for vigilante movies, because they always do the same shit. Some of the cliches this one includes: the cop who exasperatedly tells the media why you can’t take the law into your own hands, the witnesses to one of his crimes who righteously stand up for him, the radio show where people call in to debate whether the vigilante is a criminal himself or the best thing that ever happened to this city, the copycat vigilante, the girlfriend who criticizes the vigilante and he has to defend the vigilante while pretending not to be him, the part where he makes a mistake and realizes he’s gone too far so he tries to turn himself in.
On the other hand, there are a few subtleties in this one, which is definitely not something I hold my breath for in a TV movie. For example, there is every reason to believe that the guy who killed his brother is a vigilante just like him. Every incident we see with the Charger is precipitated by some traffic violation: somebody hits his car, or is drinking and driving or something. Little brother sped through a yellow light right in front of him, it seems like he was being judgmental about reckless drivers just like Rick was. This is kind of an interesting idea that seems more interesting because they never point it out in dialogue and when the guy is caught (SPOILER) the movie ends and we never get an explanation of who he was, or even see his face that clearly. So it’s nice that they leave that up to you to think about instead of spoon feeding it to you.
(By the way, IMDB trivia says the Dodge Charger was played by leftover General Lees from THE DUKES OF HAZZARD. Ironically, the driver would not have approved of the Duke boys’ reckless driving, and would’ve tried to run them off the road. But they would’ve gone off a jump over some water and got away.)
In that era it was more common to see car stunts on TV (or even movies) than it is now. So the car stuff is pretty good. There’s some nice shots from inside high speed cars and one spectacular flying, spinning, exploding station wagon. The final gladiatorial car battle in a junkyard is pretty tense and enjoyable with the two vehicles using their gadgets against each other (the bad guy has a trick where the hubcaps pop off and a spinning blade extends out of the wheels).
There are definitely some cheesy moments that remind you this is made for TV, and some awkward fadeouts for commercials. The music is by David Frank, after CODE OF SILENCE but before ABOVE THE LAW. He does some good action movie music sometimes (especially OUT FOR JUSTICE) but he also tends to use some cheesy saxophones. This is pretty typical for him, kind of a mix of ’80s keyboard rock and smooth jazz.
But it’s got a pretty raw look, shot on film (except for one humorously out-of-place shot-on-video insert of a car stunt they must’ve screwed up) and Wahl is actually quite good as the brooding hero. You know what, for some reason I never connected that Nancy Allen, Robocop’s faithful partner, is also that bitch that dumped the pigs’ blood on Carrie White. I guess people really do change.
If you’re looking for the usual Abel Ferrara movie, this is not it. But if you like this kind of thing and want to see how it plays with a slight touch of Ferrara (like me) this is a good one. It’s funny because it really starts out feeling like a driver’s ed movie (lecture about drunk driving, emotional mourning relatives, pep talk about defensive driving, warning to pay attention to the road and not putting music on, etc.). Then it turns into a DEATH WISH movie on wheels. No gore or nudity though, since it’s made for TV, so actually this could be shown in driver’s ed. It’s definitely tame compared to all that shit they used to play with the real highway deaths.
One thing that’s funny about that video box that led me to this movie: the description on the box talked about the psychopath that’s going around running people off the road, but it said he was known as The Skull. That was part of what got me to rent it, but it’s completely made up. Nobody ever refers to this guy as anything (or even seems to notice he’s out there) and there’s not a skull on the grill of the car or anything like that to even imply to us that he could be called The Skull. But if some genius hadn’t wanted to spruce up the plot description on the back then maybe I wouldn’t have rented it, so I thank that anonymous writer for his or her hard work.
And so I think it’s time for another ode to the dying institution of the actual physical video store. I tried to explain this in my review of MALONE starring Burt Reynolds, but I think I didn’t explain myself well enough. I talked about how much I loved the box art, and how it led me to the movie, and I made some comment about not coming across that on On-Demand. So of course it turns out MALONE actually is available On-Demand, and a couple people sent me the evidence.
On-Demand is obviously a good technology. It makes the movie available to more people, and whether or not it’s necessary on a movie like MALONE I’m sure the HD looks better than the crappy full-frame VHS I watched. I don’t really understand the Netflix thing (I like to pick out a movie and watch it then, not wait for it to come in the mail at a later date) but with the convenience of On-Demand it seems pretty obvious that it will eventually have to replace the old school video store. Same goes for music, I like to browse the music stores but I hear their business is going south too due to downloads and what not with the little pocket record collection pods people use.
But I like the browsing, I like the visual and tactile experience of finding the movies and music I want. I like finding and holding in my hand cool painted movie poster art or ridiculous photoshopping, reading the goofy descriptions on the back. Stumbling across some crazy shit I never heard of before, showing it to a friend and asking if they’ve heard of it. That was the point I was trying to make about MALONE. When I found this box:
I had to watch it. But I don’t think I would’ve watched it just based on this:
(photo courtesy of Chris H. in the comments, thank you sir.)
Maybe they’ll eventually start adding “cover art” to all these digital files of movies and music, and that will help a little. But for now I’m gonna savor the browsing experience. Finding stuff by looking around, not by search engine.
Thank you, VHS box, for telling me about THE GLADIATOR.