I thought I had only one more movie to cover in The Last Summer of ’80s Action, but then I realized I’d forgotten about THUNDERGROUND. Like one of the first movies in the series, FIST FIGHTER, this is a WWF-wrestler-featuring bare knuckle brawler movie that I never heard of until david j. moore told me about it a while back and I ordered a VHS copy. It’s pretty much straight to video, but IMDb claims it got a release in Minnesota on September 1, 1989. Good enough excuse to squeeze yet another underground fighting movie in here.
It opens in “HOBO JUNCTION, TENNESSEE, 1989,” where a crowd of hobos gather around a campfire and a kid named Casey, who rips them off in Three-Card Monty (a strange game – the only winning move is not to play). Casey’s hat makes this look so Depression Era I honestly rewound to make sure I read that year right. Yep, it says ’89 all right, but it’s obviously inspired by period pieces. It’s about people who ride the rails and pull petty hustles just to get a little bit of money to get to the next town.
One of Casey’s scams is actually being a girl (Margaret Langrick, the daughter from HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS). Apparently she needs to pretend to be male for her other racket, betting on bum fights. When she sees a big dude named Bird (Paul Coufos, Days of Our Lives, CHOPPING MALL, DRAGONFIGHT) ride in on a train car she convinces him to fight Rhubarb (Pete Dempster, TC 2000), “the toughest bum there is,” and then bets against him… but he wins. She doesn’t have the money, tries to run off, is discovered to be a woman and almost raped, but Bird – telling the others he gets to go first – helps her get on a train and escape.
So it’s a buddy movie or a PAPER MOON or whatever where they travel together and she pulls little cons to get them a car and get them gas and what not and also she tries to be his James Coburn and arrange some fights for him. In fact their destination is the site of HARD TIMES, New Orleans, where she hopes he can fight somebody called “The Man.”
“Who the hell’s this ‘Man’ everybody talks about down here?” Bird asks.
Well, he’s Jesse Ventura. But we’ll get to that later.
It’s a road trip movie with lots of driving montages, showing some pretty cool locations – diners made out of metal sheds, TEXAS-CHAIN-SAW-esque gas stations, benches advertising po’ boys. Cinematographer Curtis Petersen (TALONS OF THE EAGLE, DEATH WISH V, IRON EAGLE IV) gets a couple cool camera moves and a whole bunch of nice yellow-tinged sunny shots that shine through despite the limitations of VHS. Where’s Vinegar Syndrome when you need ’em?
They have a few character quirks. Bird can’t swim. Casey is reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Bird loves to drink Jim Beam, which Casey thinks is holding him back. At one point she tastes it and says, “Ew, how can you drink this stuff!?”
“Practice,” he says.
An interesting part in the context of the genre is when she tells him “You ain’t never gonna beat The Man if you don’t stop juicin,” and he says “You really think it’s that simple, don’t ya? Quit drinking, get in shape, maybe do some road work, lift some weights, go out and beat the snot out of some legend, get rich and retire, it’s as simple as that, huh?”
Basically he’s calling bullshit on the entire formula of this type of movie. But you have to consider the possibility that he’s being cynical and stubborn and she has to convince him to believe so he can actually do this and make their dream come true.
Except… not exactly. He does beat The Man (SPOILER). But his attempts to quit drinking do not seem definitive, and weirdly he’s never seen lifting weights or practicing in any way. There’s one part where he’s pushing the car, but it’s in the context of a travel montage, not a training one, so I think that’s about running out of gas. Of course training montages are a part of the joy of this genre, so I miss not having one. But I guess I sort of get a kick out of the oddness of a movie that implies that success in fighting is entirely about just being a big guy who shows up and fights without any preparation of any kind. Ordinarily these are full of platitudes about working impossibly hard and perhaps learning a secret finishing move or having some sort of philosophical or attitude breakthrough. THUNDERGROUND seems uninterested or unaware that anything like that exists in the world.
Like my man C.J. Thunderbird in FIST FIGHTER, Bird seems a little out of his time, a big hairy stoic guy, strong but not sculpted. He has a Chuck Norris beard but I doubt he could ever kick waist high – he’s strictly a pound-a-motherfucker’s-face-in-with-a-giant-fist type of individual. Once again I’m enjoying the story while being very aware of the action limitations of a not-particularly-distinguished bare knuckle brawler movie. I suppose there are a whole bunch of ROCKY and CREED movies that prove fights with just fists can be dramatic, but these don’t get to that level.
Still, there’s one bout that finds its way into a literal pig sty, and afterwards most of the onlookers climb in and have a mud fight. That rarely happens in ROCKY movies. The other most dramatic preliminary fight is the one against Mojo (credited as Michael D’Aguiler, not in IMDb – unless he’s the Michael D’Aguilar who’s also a stuntman in RENEGADES), a former gator wrestler carried in on a chair wearing a mardi gras mask. Bird does that thing where he seems to have lost and they want him to throw in the towel but he insists he can fight, even with only one good hand. And then he gets knocked over and gets up and gets knocked over and gets up several times until they call it and everybody disperses and he’s left in the rain crying and yelling “I’m not finished yet! Come back here, you sonofabitch!” And Casey embraces him. Couldn’t be much more melodramatic, and I like it.
A couple good character actors from BLADE RUNNER show up as dudes facilitating fights. William Sanderson (DEATH HUNT) plays a character named “Ratman” at the beginning. M. Emmet Walsh (MISSING IN ACTION) plays Wedge, who Casey goes to in his ratty apartment full of trash and stale pizza and he’s in his boxers and he gets rapey. When Casey tells him she and Bird are partners he says “I would guess of the horizontal variety.” So it’s one of his typically sleazy characters.
The coolest appearance – Jesse Ventura (THE RUNNING MAN) as The Man – is saved for last. We first see him wearing a blue suit and fedora, sitting in a candle-lit tomb, explaining the conditions for fighting him which include no ref, no rules, no interruption, no spectators, and to the death. I like how well they establish him as an interesting character without giving much information. I wouldn’t call him honorable, because he’s really into this “no rules” thing, but he seems to be in it entirely for some kind of personal super warrior fulfillment thing. He’s not in it for the money, judging from the low bet he accepts. And he seems perfectly willing to die.
Also it’s kind of amazing to see Ventura, who had been strictly a wrestling commentator for quite a while at that point, doing such a physical role. No PREDATOR style helicopter gun, just fists and knees, and it’s easily the best fight of the movie. In contrast to the meticulously sculpted, waxed and oiled muscles of Hulk Hogan in NO HOLDS BARRED earlier in the summer, Ventura has a hairy body and even bares his Mean-Gene-esque bald-on-top hair situation.
Speaking of baldness, IMDb and Wikipedia list Michael Ironside as being in this, but he’s not on the actual credits, and I didn’t notice him. This does seem to be a Canadian production, but I doubt he’d be playing some hobo extra or something after he’d already done SCANNERS, VISITING HOURS, TOP GUN, NOWHERE TO HIDE, HELLO MARY LOU: PROM NIGHT II, etc. I’ll feel stupid if he had some cameo and I missed that it was him.
I’m a little iffy on the love story. When she takes off some clothes in front of him he’s repelled, then sort of peeks. Much later he kisses her, then immediately snaps out of it and thinks it was wrong. She keeps telling him it’s her decision, and at the end he apparently accepts that. And she is 18. But they’ve spent the whole movie treating her like a kid sister. She hasn’t been kissed or tasted alcohol before and she’s gonna be with this big hairy drunk who just killed a man with his fists? I guess that relationship is another thing that plays like a year long before 1989.
This is actually a sequel. Bird was introduced in BUSTED UP (1986), which I haven’t seen yet. One of that movie’s producers, David Mitchell, takes over as director here – he’d previously helmed the Jim Carrey made-for-TV skiing comedy COPPER MOUNTAIN (1983) and another action movie starring Coufos called CITY OF SHADOWS (1987). His later works continue to alternate between action – (MASK OF DEATH starring Lorenzo Lamas, LAST TO SURRENDER starring Roddy Piper) and snow sports (SKI SCHOOL 2, DOWNHILL WILLIE, SHRED, REVENGE OF THE BOARDING SCHOOL DROPOUTS). Mitchell co-wrote this with BUSTED UP writer Damian Lee, who is also director of FOOD OF THE GODS II, ABRAXAS GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE, STREET LAW and many other films.
THUNDERGROUND fits right into the summer of ’89 because it’s got a blues soundtrack like ROAD HOUSE (also some zydeco and stuff), it features RED SCORPION‘s Walsh and NO HOLDS BARRED‘s Ventura, and it’s a competitive fighting movie like FIST FIGHTER, NO HOLDS BARRED, THE KARATE KID PART III and CAGE. It’s not the best summer of ’89 movie in that category – not even the best idiosyncratic low budget super obscure one – but it has personality. I liked it.