• Grindhouse Experience Presents: Mercs



    Released by: Video Asia
    Released on: 10/21/2008
    Directors: Various
    Cast: Various
    Year: Various
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    The Movies:

    Video Asia have been releasing some interesting collections of different genres through their ‘Grindhouse Experience’ line of DVD boxed sets and while these are all very likely unauthorized releases, mostly taken from rough VHS sources, they do offer a fair bit of bang for the buck. Their MERCS collection brings together a fine collection of ten different eighties era war films, most of which are Italian and/or Filipino, in one handy dandy package and while the quality might suck, the movies are fun. Here’s a look:

    STRIKE COMMANDO

    Bruno Mattei’s 1987 tells the story of Sgt. Mike Ransom (Reb Brown), a commando whose team gets wasted while behind enemy lines in Vietnam. When he learns that there’s a bunch of evil Russians operating in the area he decides he and a rag tag group of Vietnamese freedom fighters will take them down until his superior officer finds out that he’s alive and what he’s up to. Ransom gets captured by the Russians and is tortured but eventually makes it out alive to finish the mission that he and his dead teammates started.

    A blatant rip off of Rambo: First Blood Part II, Strike Commando is amazing in that way that only the best of Mattei’s films can be. So completely incompetent in pretty much every way possible, it moves along at a good pace and throws in every cliché you can think of, from the Asian love interest to the kid who warms Ransom’s cold heart by asking him to tell him about Disneyland, where candy grows on trees. Throw in an evil Russian super soldier named Jakoda, who refers to Ransom as ‘Americanski’ and who kills anyone who gets in his way along with some squibtastic shoot outs, exploitative torture scenes, gratuitous helicopter action, a wonderful eighties synth score, more tough guy dialogue than you can shake a stick at and a lovely jungle setting and you’ve got one Hell of a movie. A terrible movie, mind you, but yeah, this one is amazing.

    MANNIGAN’S FORCE

    Directed by John Ryan Grace and released in 1988, this war film set in the Philippines begins when a crack American commando team, lead by a guy named Jack Mannigan (George Nichols), takes on a nasty dictator and his military thugs. Lots of people get shot at an after party held in a village where Mannigan is trying to explain to his chick that he can’t take her back with him. Then we fast forward a few years where a group of political types are enjoying a slide show made up of pictures of Mannigan looking tough and flexing. This is so that they’ll understand what a hard ass he is. Once they’re convinced, they decide to have him get the same group of guys back together so that they can go back to the warzone to free some American prisoners of war. He’s not down with the idea until they offer him a million dollars.

    Wow. This is just as amazingly bad as the first film, maybe even more so when you take into account how horribly shot this picture is. The lighting is terrible, the acting atrocious, and the dialogue side splittingly funny, though never intentionally. George Nichols should have gone on to bigger and better things, he’s obviously very tough and not at all ashamed to show off his chest hair or fire two guns at the same time, all good qualities for an action hero. The first fifteen minutes or so of the movie are awesome, featuring some Peckinpah inspired slow motion gun play and plenty of accompanying carnage, though from there it starts to doddle a bit, losing its pace in the middle only to find it again in the last twenty minutes or so, but throughout it all you have Nichol’s amazing macho man posturing, which makes this picture endlessly amusing even when it has no right to be.

    DEATH RAIDERS

    This Filipino picture from 1984, directed by Segundo Ramos (who also did Suicide Force which stars the same lead), begins when an evil military big-wig kidnaps a local politician and his pair of daughters, after which he marches them through the jungle and basically holds them hostage at his secret hideout/fortress. The government wants to get their man back but are worried that sending in the army will find them dead so they bring up a team of special forces types dubbed The Death Raiders and lead by Captain Barone to sneak in and get the hostages out. Unfortunately for the military big-wig kidnapper, his own son disagrees with his politics and stars to make life difficult for him just as Barone and his crew show up and shoot their way through a seemingly endless supply of enemy soldiers.

    Fast paced and plenty violent, this is an enjoyable enough picture in its own right as long as you’re able to look past the cheap production values and just enjoy the chaos. The last half hour of the film is chock full of shoots outs, burning buildings, explosions and carnage but even before that there’s a weird energy to the film, from its bizarre rape scenes to its uber-macho dialogue, made all the more screwy by some ham-fisted acting and macho chest beating.

    OPERATION NAM

    Also known as Cobra Mission, this 1986 effort from Fabrizio De Angelis is set ten years after the end of the Vietnam War. A group of four American soldiers - Richard (Oliver Tobias, Roger (Christopher Connelly), Mark (Manfred Lehmann), James (John Steiner) decide to head back into the jungles of Southeast Asia to save some American prisoners of war who are still being held there. Not wanting a PR disaster, the government keeps their mission a secret and sends them into the thick of things where they receive some help from a kindly old priest (Donald Pleasance) who hooks them up with all the hardware they’ll need and helps get them on their way. When they find a Vietcong soldier torturing an American, they follow him and soon find the holding point they were looking for, but as luck would have it not all of our heroes are as stable as they might have initially seemed, and making matters worse is some undesirable government interference.

    Featuring a strong cast and some really good action set pieces, this is one of the better made films in the set that’s maybe even a bit more interesting than you’d probably expect thanks to its odd political/anti-imperialist stance on the Vietnam war. The film benefits from some solid direction and strong performances from all the key players (Pleasance in particular is a lot of fun in his role) and it moves at a good pace. Action fans will find enough carnage and gun play here to keep them satiated and hey, wow, Gordon Mitchell and Enzo G. Castellari (who I probably wouldn’t have recognized had I not watched the Eagles Over London bonus features a night or two before!) both show up in supporting roles. Weird.

    FIREBACK

    Richard Harrison stars in this Filipino production from 1983, directed by Teddy Page, where he plays an American weapons expert named Jack Kaplan sent to Vietnam to show off a fancy new weapon. When he arrives, he’s attacked and captured by some Vietcong . Shortly after, he’s rescued and returns home to find out that his wife has been kidnapped and so he does what any good husband would do – he goes undercover to get her back and beats the shit out of a lot of people along the way. It all ends with an awesome freeze frame with a text blurb that explains what happened to Harrison, because nothing leading up to that really made much sense and presumably this was the writing team’s attempt to get themselves out of the corner that they’d painted themselves into.

    If you’re a fan of the Richard Harrison/Godfrey Ho ninja films made in the years following this production then you’ll be happy to find yourself in similar territory with Fireback. It’s got pretty much everything but the kitchen sink thrown in for reasons known only to the filmmakers – jive talking black guys, random bits of nonsensical dialogue, a ton of unnecessary slow motion, and plenty of gratuitous facial hair. It’s a terrible film with very little in the way of redeeming qualities, at least in the traditional sense, but it’s got plenty of ‘what the fuck’ moments that make it fun to watch even when it makes very little sense.

    RAIDERS OF THE MAGIC IVORY

    An Italian production shot in the Philippines in 1988 by director Tonino Ricci, this film follows a soldier of fortune named Sugar (James Mitchum), which is only a slightly cooler name for a soldier of fortune than Lenny, who is sprung for the horrors of prison by another soldier of fortune type named Mark (Chris Ahrens). Why? To help him find a magic ivory tablet that a Chinese businessman is willing to pay him a cool quarter of a million dollars for, that’s why. With the Chinese guy’s thug assistant in tow, the pair head into a jungle thick with Vietnamese soldiers intent on shooting at them to find the fabled tablet, making their way through various nefarious locations with ominous names and lots of skeletons. After mixing it up with some cannibalistic monks they find the treasure and split, saving a hot chick on their way back to the spot where they’re supposed to get picked up. But that nasty Chinese businessman just isn’t as honest as they foolishly believed him to be…

    Not as bloody or nasty as some of the other films in this collection, Raiders Of The Magic Ivory is passable entertainment thanks to a dorky performance from Mitchum, whose complete lack of enthusiasm is impressive in and of itself. The sets that the team find themselves going through are interesting enough and a couple of stand-out action scenes are fun, and the magic tablet is an neat touch, but this is a fairly predictable picture.

    THE LAST MERCENARY

    Also known as Rolf, a much cooler title to be sure, this 1983 effort written and directed by Mario Siciliano stars Antonio Marsina as Rolf, a mercenary living somewhere in the Middle East and making a living as a helicopter pilot who seems to cry far more often than your typical tough guy should. He’s not so popular with the local authorities but is happy enough when his old friends from the war show up and try to get him to help them with a drug smuggling operation. Rolf isn’t down with drug smuggling, however, as his dead prostitute mother was an addict. When he declines their offer, his luck turns from bad to worse as they beat the crap out of him and shortly after, murder and rape his girlfriend. After some wonky flashbacks Rolf decides to gear up and get his revenge by coercing the bad guys into meeting him in the woods where he uses tricks he learned from Rambo to knock them off one at a time.

    The sleaziest picture in the set, The Last Mercenary is a pretty dark film that makes no qualms whatsoever about wearing its exploitative heart plainly on its sleeve. It rips off Rambo pretty blatantly and feature some graphic violence, nudity, torture and sadism. It isn’t always logical and it isn’t always good but it’s definitely entertaining and trashy with some unexpected themes of religious redemption running throughout that are completely out of place in this otherwise gory and somewhat nasty picture. Rolf even gets his own theme song that plays over the movie, which is always a plus.

    SOLDIER OF FORTUNE

    An Italian picture from 1987 directed by Pierluigi Ciriaci stars General Hospital hunk Daniel Greene as Miles, a mercenary who has to take a professor out into the middle of nowhere to check out a Russian MIG fighter that’s crash-landed out there so that they can sneak it away before the Russians find it. Of course, the Russians are pissed about this so they send a bunch of soldiers after them. Miles shoots at them a lot and poses with big, poofy hair until he winds up in a weird cave where Miles runs into an ex-girlfriend of his and a weird giant sphere that is filled with all of the world’s knowledge. Oookay. It was created to be sent into space for reason but since its in a cave obviously that didn’t happen so now Miles has to stop it from falling into Russian hands. Thankfully, the ex-girlfriend can psychically communicate with the sphere which comes in handy when the two need to call upon its mighty powers to smite the Russians and return safely to Miles’ commanding officer, Donald Duck (Bo Svenson).

    Wow. Just wow. What the Hell did I just watch? This starts off as a pretty standard war movie with guns and shooting and Russians and professors and stuff but once it heads into the cave it almost turns into a sci-fi picture with the weird sphere and psychic chick. The movie is a mess, completely inconsistent and terrible in idea and execution, but it’s screwy enough that you can’t help but watch it through to the end, just because you’ll really have no idea where it’s all going. I guess that’s faint praise.

    WARBUS

    Another Italian film shot in the Philippines, 1985’s Warbus begins when a band of do-gooders are attacked by Vietnamese soldiers. A few make their escape in a yellow schoolbus which is then carjacked by Sgt. Dixie (Daniel Stephen) and a pair of Marines. The missionaries and the soldiers decide to team up and work together to make it out of enemy territory alive, but unfortunately they’re running out of gas. A quick raid at an enemy camp turns sour when one of the missionaries tries to take off and leave the soldiers but the other team members manage to stop this before it becomes such a big deal and before you know it everyone’s back on the bus again until they find themselves stuck on one side of a bridge with a big batch of bad guys on the other side. They make their way across and run into a few more predicaments and eventually manage to call for help just in time for the enemy to catch them and launch a full scale attack.

    Directed by Ferdinando Baldi, Warbus is actually pretty cool stuff once you get past the fact that, well, it’s about a bus in a war. You don’t always think of excitement when you think of buses, but maybe this movie will change that for you as it’s chock full of tough guys with headbands, explosions, sinister Asian stereotypes and loads of violence. As brainless as the picture is, it moves at a very fast pace and it’s never dull thanks to some well shot action scenes and decent locations. It all adds up to the obligatory helicopter-heavy ending that seemed to be so popular in these movies, but there are enough big orange fire clouds and explosions that you can look past the layers and layers of clichés.

    TIGER JOE

    Last but not least we have this 1982 offering from the late, great Antonio Margheriti, no stranger to Italian war film fans, though unfortunately this picture isn’t as good as his other commando movies despite the presence of David Warbeck. The movie follows three soldiers – Tiger Joe (David Warbeck), Midnight (Tony King) and Lenny (Luciano Pigozzi) who are selling guns to Cambodian rebels bent on taking whoever is in charge out of power. While behind enemy lines, Joe gets shot only to land on his feet by winding up in the care of a woman freedom fighter (Annie Belle). They fall for each other and she wins him over to their cause while Midnight and Lenny (which is an odd sounding pairing, right?) head out into the war zone to try and find Joe.

    Shot with leftover bits and people from the earlier The Last Hunter, this is a fun movie if far from a classic. There aren’t as many explosions and wacky violent set pieces as the director’s other pictures are known for but we get a good cast, a decent score, and plenty of footage of the Filipino jungles to help make up for that. Warbeck saves the picture, cruising through the film with an interesting sense of smug self worth and showing very little chemistry with the lovely Annie Belle which makes for some enjoyably awkward moments. It’s an odd picture and it definitely has the feeling that it was put together very quickly, for very little money, and to make the most out of what Margheriti had accomplished with The Last Hunter.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Anyone familiar with past Video Asia/Grindhouse Experience boxed sets will know what to expect here. That’s right, more VHS sourced transfers of varying degrees of quality, compressed to fit two films per side on the double sided discs that make up this set (well, to be fair, the third disc is single sided, but it’s still got two films crammed onto it). So on top of source problems like tracking problems and tape roll issues, there are plenty of compression artifacts to contend with as well. Colors are faded across the board and sharpness and detail levels are poor. On top of that, Mannigan’s Force, Raiders Of The Magic Ivory, Soldiers Of Fortune and Tiger Joe all have burned in Japanese subtitles. Tiger Joe is presented in a really strange letterboxed format, where the widescreen image appears at the top of the fullframe presentation with the bottom half of the screen left black for the subtitles to appear in, while the rest of the films are all standard fullframe.

    It’s a shame that more care wasn’t put into the presentation, as many of the darker scenes are pretty difficult to make out and tough to watch. Lighter outdoor scenes almost always fare better, but yeah, lots of room left for improvement here.

    Each of the ten films in this set is presented in an English language Dolby Digital Mono track. Quality is on par with the video for each film in the set, meaning that when the tape source is stable enough the dialogue is fine, but when tracking problems and roll occur, things become an unintelligible mess. Thankfully, you can generally understand things without too much difficulty. A few garbled lines here and there aren’t enough to ruin the content, though you can’t help but be disappointed in this aspect of the release.

    Each side of each disc features a static menu and chapter selection for each film. That’s it.

    The Final Word:

    Until someone decides to give these films proper releases, this set is an affordable way to own ten reasonably obscure eighties action imports. Dubious legality of this release aside, the ten films are a lot of fun and provide plenty of action, scruffy anti-heroes, explosions, stereotypes, and shoot outs. This isn’t high brow or sophisticated, but it doesn’t need to be. It delivers pretty much exactly what you’d want; it’s just a shame that the audio and video quality is so lackluster.