Friday, May 13, 2016

Recommendations :: A Two-Punch Action Combo from Arrow Video :: Nico Mastorakis's Hired to Kill (1990) and Gordon Hessler's Pray for Death (1985)

A wild mash-up of The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Dirty Dozen with a significant feminine twist, Hired to Kill (1990) finds a wet-work specialist named Ryan (Brian Thompson) hired by a shady organization that operates outside the CIA’s purview to rescue an imprisoned revolutionary in some banana republic when the puppet government they set up proves even more corrupt than the one they helped overthrow in the first place. And the only way to do this and fool Fakeastan’s chief of security (Oliver Reed and what’s left of his liver) is to send Ryan into this island nation undercover as a fashion designer with a half-dozen sexy female “models” he rounds up out of several prisons and asylums, former operatives gone bad, an ex-Mossad assassin, and an ex-partner among them, for a staged photo-shoot. And after he whips these new recruits into shape via several training montages, Hired to Kill then spends the middle portion of the film gawking at all that eye-candy before things go completely bonkers when Ryan and his howling commandos finally raid the prison and all hell breaks loose – and breaks loose quite spectacularly.

When I reviewed Nightmare at Noon (1988) awhile back, I went into the history of Nico Mastorakis and his Omega Entertainment and lamented over how you just don’t see these kinds of high octane independent actioneers anymore. Oh sure, they try to but no amount of digital blood splatter and lame stunts can hold a candle to what you used to find in the action aisle at the old Video Kingdom. Apparently, Mastorakis was only supposed to be the writer and producer on Hired to Kill but the initial director, Peter Rader, got *ahem* distracted by one of the starlets and was soon shown the door when the production started to lag. The stone-faced Thompson does fine in a rare good-guy role (-- and there's once scene with Reed where he must maintain his cover that is worth the price of the disc alone), but the film really works due to the overcompensating efforts of Michelle Moffett, Barbara Niven, Jordana Capra, Kendall Conrad, Kim Lonsdale, Jude Mussetter, and Penelope Reed as our kick‘n’ass strike-team; all part of a tight and snappy, no-nonsense package that knows what the audience wants to see – blood, boobs, and things going boom, and knows when to get out after 90 or so minutes.

Arrow Video’s new release of Hired to Kill looks fantastic. It also includes a moderated audio commentary with the film’s editor, Barry Zetlin, which covers most of his career where he worked with the likes of Charles Band, Roger Corman, and the Go-Go Boys at Cannon Films. There’s also two interviews, one with Mastorakis and another with star Thompson, who talk about making the film, the nepotism that got Thompson the role in the first place, and both confirm that Reed was bombed out of his skull for the whole shoot; and each address the tragic helicopter accident that claimed the life of stuntman, Clint Carpenter, during filming. Also included is a digital copy of the shooting script, plus liner notes by critic James Oliver. Again, a great package for a highly entertaining slice of 1990s action pie that I heartily recommend. 

At the urging of his homesick wife, Akira Saito (Sho Kosugi) moves his family to America to open a new restaurant. Unfortunately for the Saitos, they are kinda sold a false bill of goods by a doddering old fart who (over)sells them on some property in a seedy neighborhood. And turns out this previous owner is so oblivious he has no idea his derelict property is also being used as a dropsite between some mobsters and a couple of corrupt detectives who were supposed to leave a stolen necklace there but decided to pull a double-cross. And so, when the chief goon goes to retrieve the jewels, a sadistic creep by the name of Limehouse (James Booth, who also wrote the script), but can't find them, of course they think the new owners must be the ones who stole them and are determined to get them back no matter who gets hurt. They start by kidnapping the youngest son and don't believe Saito's claims of not knowing what they're talking about. (Both kids were played by Kosugi’s real children.) The cops, of course, prove worthless, but what these crooks don’t realize is their intended victim just also happens to be a deadly ninja – who apparently learned all his lethal skills from Sam from Quincy (Robert Ito), who has no qualms about taking the law into his own hands when he's finally pushed to far.

Now, to say the plot of Pray for Death (1985) is kinda convoluted would probably be the understatement of the year. Actually, the plot is pretty simple; it’s the execution where things went staggeringly awry. (Though I will say that Maurice Binder, 007-esque knock-off opening sequence was truly amazing. As was the bait and switch ninja TV show that opens the film.) The 1980s saw an inexplicable dry-fart explosion of ninja movies and you couldn’t see one of these things without tripping over Sho Kosugi, who first appeared as the bad guy in Enter the Ninja (1981), then the good guy in Revenge of the Ninja (1983), and then the one-eyed sort of good guy in the nigh inexplicable Ninja III: The Domination (1984), all for Cannon Films. And one would almost swear, what with the cast, the loopy leaps of plot logic, and that the all too familiar plot is essentially Death Wish II (1983) with ninjas that Pray for Death was another Go-Go Boys turd-burger but you’d be wrong. No, Pray for Death along with Rage of Honor (1987) were two films featuring Kosugi and directed by Gordon Hessler for Trans World Entertainment. Most of the problems with this film can be laid at the feet of the script. There is some juice toward the end with a running fight through a mannequin factory (-- why a mannequin factory? Basically because why not...), and a final confrontation that involves a chainsaw but this might prove too little too late for some viewers.

Again, Arrow Video spared nothing when it comes to bonus features on the special edition Bluray of Pray for Death. Here, you’ve got the option of watching the theatrical cut or the unrated version. (I thought I clicked on the unrated version but what I saw was relatively clean and bloodless so that’s me shrugging right now.) There’s also two interviews with Kosugi, a recent conversation and a vintage archive interview with a ninjitsu demonstration from the film’s premiere back in 1985. Personally, I think watching Kosugi work, a true martial artist, is always worth the time and find most ninja movies to be a total hoot. The action that follows in Pray for Death is plentiful, sure, but the execution is exceedingly sloppy with characters that are required to be “that” stupid to make the plot work. Thus, as an action film Pray for Death fails rather miserably; but as an unintended comedy there’s plenty to enjoy. And just how in the hell many henchman did the bad guy have anyway?!

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