“Wrestling? I like wrestling. But I don’t like fighting. But I like wrestling!”
The movie CAGE is alot like the character Lou Ferrigno plays in it: brain damaged, childlike, clumsy, well-meaning, and hard not to like. The opening definitely had me concerned, though. In “VIET NAM 1969,” a bunch of army dudes run around in a field screaming and firing machine guns while the keyboards of composer Michael Wetherwax (SORORITY HOUSE MASSACRE) sort of imitate the RAMBO theme. B-movies about the Vietnam War don’t tend to be watchable, in my opinion, so thank God our boys get out of there quick.
Escaping in a helicopter, Billy Thomas (Ferrigno, between his last two Incredible Hulk TV movies) heroically saves his friend Scott Monroe (Reb Brown, UNCOMMON VALOR, ten years after his last Captain America TV movie) by having the strength to one-arm-dangle him under the copter even after being shot in the head with what, judging from the leak it springs in his temple, appears to be an adorably tiny bullet.
(Good makeup effect, though.)
The opening credits are a comically corny rehabilitation montage set to a ballad called “Don’t Let Go” by Jennifer Green. Without sound, Ferrigno and Brown pantomime a series of struggles and minor triumphs, from getting a medal to being frustrated with a puzzle to making it up a few steps.
Twenty years later (and not looking a day older) Billy has the mind of a child, and Scott still takes care of him while running his bar, Scott’s In Coming Bar. (Yes, the “incoming” seems to be two words on the sign, just like Viet Nam.) So ROAD HOUSE is not the only summer of ’89 movie about badasses in the bar business. As one might expect in this sort of movie, Scott got a “bank note” and is in danger of losing the bar. And then a mobster (I think?) named Tony Baccola (Michael Dante, KID GALAHAD) who’s trying to pay off a debt from betting on the underground cage fighting circuit in Chinatown witness Scott and Billy beating up a gang that causes trouble in the bar. So we know that eventually one or both of them are gonna have to become fighters.
It seems to me there’s less of the actual fighting than in most movies of this subgenre. That’s okay, because the fighting is mostly just pro-wrestling style anyway (though Scott does some kicks and a few of the fighters are martial artists). They wouldn’t have had a chance to see BLOODSPORT or KICKBOXER before making this, so the expectations were lower. Despite and because of its crudeness I found CAGE to be a really enjoyable version of the formula.
The best way to describe what’s special about this one might be to run down my top three surprising supporting characters.
3. Morgan Garrett (Marilyn Tokuda, FAREWELL TO THE KING) is a reporter I think (or is she a cop?) seen at the beginning clandestinely taking photos of people at the cage matches. She wears a fedora pushed down over her eyes and a suit that’s too big for her, like a child in a cartoon trying to pass as an adult. I think she might be supposed to be disguised as a man, though I’m not sure why that would be. Anyway she keeps very obviously unbuttoning her suit jacket and protruding a full sized non-secret camera with zoom lens.
In her first scene one of the fighters splatters a whole blunch of blood square in her face, getting in her mouth, and she runs out gagging! But the surprising thing about her is that she doesn’t exactly turn into the female lead. She’s introduced like one, then disappears for most of the movie, and then joins the good guy team at the end when she’s not very necessary. That’s fine – the more the merrier.
2. Tiger Joe, played by the one and only Al Leong (STEELE JUSTICE, ACTION JACKSON, DIE HARD), steps threateningly from behind a corner to light a cigarette as Morgan drives away from her spying, then goes into the boss’s office and whispers something to him. He always appears when Morgan comes snooping. He watches her from a car. He steps out onto a balcony and sees her sneaking away. He eyes her from the stands while she does her poorly hidden photo-snapping. We wait for him to drop the hammer on her… but then, unexpectedly (at least to me), a mobster recognizes him as a cop. He wasn’t catching her in the act in all those scenes, he was actually backing her up! Nice switcheroo.
So holy shit, Al Leong becomes a good guy, and stays with the good guys, and even has a bunch of dialogue! I never saw that coming.
1. Mario (Mike Moroff, SCARFACE, ROBOCOP, DEATH WISH 4, and I did not recognize him as the mustachioed henchman credited as “Shrug” in DESPERADO!) is the right hand man of Tony, and helps him manipulate Billy into cage fighting. Both characters are odd because they seem at first like the villains, but they have enough scenes just focused on dealing with their problems (and being threatened by other bad people) that I kept wondering if we were supposed to like them. The answer seemed to be a definitive no when Tony paid a street gang to burn down Scott’s bar and then sort of kidnapped Billy and convinced him he had to fight to pay for a new bar. Also, Tony has a temper and a few times snaps and yells cruel things at Billy. Surprisingly he doesn’t call him the r-word that we don’t use anymore, but he does call him the f-word that we never should’ve been using.
And yet Mario keeps showing real affection for Billy, and being protective of him, and before the big fight he puts his arm around him and gives him a pep talk comparing Billy’s relationship to Scott with his relationship to Tony. It’s manipulative but I think he means it sincerely, and when the boss compliments him for it he says “Sometimes you make me want to puke, Tony.” By the end, Mario and even Tony are standing up for Billy and trying to not let him fight, against their own interests. They also make a point of showing that Tony was very upset that someone died in the firebombing of the bar. For what that’s worth. But Mario is the one who made me think “You know what, I kind of like that guy.”
At first it seems like a cheapie that would be populated mostly by non-professional actors, but it turns out to be a great cast as far as b-movies go. You have an uncredited Danny Trejo as a mob bodyguard. There are shots that have both Trejo and Leong in them! His boss, Costello (special appearance by Al Ruscio, ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN, THE GODFATHER PART III) refers to him as Danny at one point, so in my opinion he’s playing himself.
In a larger role there’s Branscombe Richmond as Diablo. When last we saw Richmond he got punched out by James Bond in the LICENCE TO KILL bar fight and I recognized him as the sidekick from the Lorenzo Lamas show Renegade. Here he’s the stereotypical leader of a Latino gang that comes into the bar bullying people and saying “ese” and “pendejo” and “loco” and what not. “I don’t give a rat’s ass about my friends, ese. If they want a brew, give ’em a brew.” Edgy, streetwise talk like that.
He loses that bar fight too.
The boss of the cage fighting circuit is played by James Shigeta, very recognizable as DIE HARD’s Mr. Takagi, but here he’s the main villain instead of his first victim. Also there are a couple of wrestlers: one of the competitors is Tiger Chung Lee (RED HEAT) and a gang lady who makes the mistake of crossing Scott is played by Matilda the Hun from G.L.O.W., credited under her roller derby name Queen Kong.
And you don’t get a very clear look at him but sure enough I was right, Matthias Hues is in that cage for one of the fights, capping off the summer that began with him as the bare knuckle brawling antagonist Rhino Reinhardt in FIST FIGHTER.
Of course part of the life’s blood of a movie like this is the random weird little bits that wouldn’t happen in a more professional movie. For example, while Scott is talking to the sandwich-eating desk-jockey at the police department who doesn’t help at all, he turns the officer’s mug around to look at it, sees a horned skull and is reminded of an identical tattoo on one of the gangsters.
Is the cop connected to them? I don’t think so. It’s just a coincidence that happens to jog Scott’s memory. He’s just a cop who likes cool skull logos, that’s all.
There’s a bit of a fire motif. Mono (Daniel Martine, TIME BARBARIANS) from Diablo’s gang destroys Scott’s In Coming Bar with a molotov cocktail and cackles about it. Scott hunts him down and molotov cocktails him, setting him on fire. Scott aims his gun and Mono begs him to shoot, but he just smiles. Finally, there’s a scene where Scott, Morgan and Tiger Joe trick guards into opening a door by setting a fire under it. They need something to burn, so Morgan takes off her pants!
Billy is a, uh, slightly uncomfortable character, his brain injury having turned him into a manchild. He has no interest in “adult” life, but plays with a yo-yo, has to be told not to wrestle after watching wrestling, loves playing video games, has a (Rambo?) action figure with him at the bar. It’s weird to have the badass hero of an underground fighting movie repeatedly whining about people breaking the rules and not being fair, and after agreeing to take the big fight asking, “Can I have some ice cream first?”
Ferrigno is said to have lost 75-80% of his hearing from childhood ear infections, so it seems like the role might’ve been designed to give him an easier time with the dialogue. Wikipedia claims he did some serious preparation:
Is it just me, or does that sentence seem like something Ferrigno would submit himself after being mad at Reb Brown?
Fortunately there are enough other characters – most of them concerned with not exploiting Billy – for it not to be a constant cringe-fest. A cop first calls him “crazy,” then switches to “mentally handicapped,” but otherwise there’s not much discussion of his condition, let alone open cruelty about it. And it’s sweet (if one-dimensional) that Scott dedicates his entire life to hanging out with and taking care of his Army brother who saved him.
It’s legit exploitation with a rounded table spoon of saccharine stirred in. I love that it’s bookended with corny songs. The end credits one is a rock ballad called “I’ll Be There” by Jess Harnell, and unless Discogs made a mistake that’s the same one whose voice starred in Animaniacs and many other cartoons, video games and Disneyland rides.
An obvious question when you see a movie like CAGE is “Who the fuck made this?” Director Lang Elliott, like Billy and Scott, is a Vietnam veteran, but I don’t think he ever did cage fighting. He got his start in the movie business as an associate producer on THE FARMER (1977), which sounds similar to CAGE: a war hero turned farmer is trying to save his farm from the bank, he runs into a gambler, gets mixed up with mobsters and gets hired to kill the mobsters to pay off the farm.
Elliott then produced a bunch of Tim Conway movies in the ’70s and ’80s and directed THE PRIVATE EYES (1980) and DORF AND THE FIRST GAMES OF MOUNT OLYMPUS (1988). So his only non-Conway directorial works to date are CAGE and CAGE II (1994). Screenwriter Hugh Kelley did the CAGE series and Ronny Yu’s insane kangaroo movie WARRIORS OF VIRTUE, which I promise to write about in the not-immediate future.
All of Elliott’s bios list him as “original founder of TriStar Pictures” (I found no other source that agreed with that) and President & CEO of Sunn Classic Pictures, a film company started by Schick Razors in Utah that he and some friends seem to have bought at a fire sale. Sunn Classic – which is known for THE LIFE AND TIMES OF GRIZZLY ADAMS and some x-file shit like THE OUTER SPACE CONNECTION and THE LINCOLN CONSPIRACY – has a not-recently-updated websight that’s almost like outsider art in its crudity of design and writing. It has a bio of Lang Elliott, Ph.D that credits the CAGE movies with building “a billion dollar industry with the creation of televised Cage fighting,” which I’m gonna go ahead and call bullshit on since earlier in the summer we had a cage fight in FIST FIGHTER and an octagon in NO HOLDS BARRED. It also says he’s doing a remake of CUJO, which by the time it was listed on IMDb became “CUJO: CANINE UNIT JOINT OPERATIONS.” And by the way, sandwiched right in the middle of a bunch of stuff like that it says that Elliott helped FBI agents go undercover as a film crew for 8 months in the early ’70s to infiltrate a criminal organization and foil a plot to assassinate Richard Nixon. So there’s that. I was gonna try to figure out which Tim Conway movie was actually an FBI sting operation, but the timeline doesn’t really seem to check out – Elliott didn’t start producing until ’77.
The Sunn Classic homepage also teases this completely appealing and professional reunion of the CAGE writer-director team:
which at various places on the sight is referred to as a “motion picture,” a novel and audiobook arriving in 2015, or a book that is already “a winner at the Hollywood Book Festival.” Also there are copies printed through Lulu in 2008 for sale on Amazon for $350. Or at least they’re there as of this writing. They might get snatched up before you read this. It sounds powerful:
The setting may be today but the time-honored virtues of education, discipline, friendship, obligation, control, respect, pride, honor, loyalty, truth, love, unity, history and maturity pursue the enthusiastic wannabe lad through one exciting adventure after another until he finally realizes that he must give up his uncontainable directives to behave badly, and live by the pronouncement that his human friend has endeavored to impart to him, “The truth shall set you free – then all of heaven will watch over you.”
A 2002 Forbes article painted Elliott as an eccentric huckster who talks a big game about movies but makes his money from selling tax liens. At that time he was promoting a company called AmeriDream, which was going to be a chain of smoothie stores until they decided it was a “mini-major” movie company. He said they were going to build a studio/theme park in Bermuda Dunes, California (similar to a plan he’d had in the ’90s, but with a company called Sierra Entertainment in Las Vegas).
Here’s an SEC report that describes CAGE director Elliott, screenwriter Kelley, star Brown and composer Wetherwax as the principles of AmeriDream. It also describes the company’s past as McSmoothie’s, Inc. and estimates a $5 million budget for the feature film DORF: U.S.M.C. But I think it says they only had $35. I also found this BusinessWire article about the company attending the American Film Market. One of the projects they were promoting was a TV series called Animal House For Kids.
I feel I could go down this rabbit hole forever, so I’m gonna cut the research off here before I turn into the guy from ZODIAC. (Not the Zodiac. The other guy.) I’m fascinated by these businessmen who somehow get people to invest millions into their ambitious plans for ridiculous sounding movies and theme parks and shit that you and I could’ve predicted with 100% certainty they would never happen just based on the company’s font choices. They could be scams or they could be failed vanity projects but I usually suspect they’re somewhere in the middle. They’re people who underestimate how hard it is to create art and overestimate their understanding of what the people want. They really believe that their ingenious idea FOODFIGHT! is gonna be the next TOY STORY. Elliott and company seem to have spent decades trying to sell people on movies, books and theme parks that never materialized, and yet they just kept pitching.
But before all that, back in ’89, when it came to trying to make a pretty entertaining Lou Ferrigno movie, they pulled it off.