Sunday, March 21, 2010

Hammerhead (1987)

Once, Hammer (Daniel Greene), Jose (Jorge Gil), Carlos and Greg (Jeff Moldovan) were "the Storm Riders", the most popular mercenaries in Jamaica, until one day Hammer just stole away to become a cop in the US, leaving behind his friends as well as his girlfriend Marta (Melonee Rodgers).

Six years after Hammer has left, a frightened Greg appears on the cop's turf, begging for Hammer's protection from some mighty dangerous people he has angered back in Jamaica. Before Greg can explain what is what, a hired killer (Frank Zagarino) drops a freight container on him. The following chase and a shoot-out in a well populated area end with the killer's escape and Hammer getting sent on holiday by his boss. It seems that wildly firing your gun in public place, without a care for the health of civilians, is against some obscure rules and regulations. Who knew?

Hammer decides to use his vacation time for a trip to Jamaica. Once there, he soon gets in contact with Jose - who is our odious comic relief for the evening, but is atypically useful in a fight - and Greg's girlfriend DD (Deanna Lund). Their old friend Carlos has disappeared. It is obvious to our brainy hero that he must be either in the hands of Greg's enemies or already dead. Together with Jose, Hammer begins to commit a series of crimes from reckless driving to torture to illegal entry to murder - all in the name of finding out who killed his old friend. Not surprisingly, the local authorities are a bit non-plussed by his actions, their scorn however is going to be the least of Hammer's problems, since Greg's mysterious killers don't take too kindly to random armed madmen trying to disturb their plans.

Somehow, Hammer still finds time to rekindle the affair with Marta and learn that he has a little daughter with her. It's a situation ripe for an abduction.

In 1987, the Italian genre movie industry was barely alive. Budgets were low, acting talent willing to work for the little money that was still there was scarce, and so even an old hand at making movies like Hammerhead's Enzo G. Castellari had to work with whomever he could get. In Castellari's case, this means he had gone from working with actors like Franco Nero and Maurizio Merli to dragging bodybuilders like Daniel Greene in front of the cameras. Unless you are very enthusiastic for men built like ruminants, that is not the sort of change it's easy to get behind.

While Greene is as dreadful an actor as his musclebag status threatens, he is not the worst of his kind. Where many of his colleagues usually don't even try to do any acting, Greene seems to throw himself into his role with a relish. The outcome isn't exactly pretty, but I find it difficult not to root at least a little for someone so obviously doing his best. Greene's not an actor, but at least he is likeable.

The less said about the rest of the cast the better. They are there, they mangle their lines, they die a bloody death, and mostly that's perfectly adequate for the film, unless you think a bit about the film's story and start to imagine it slightly re-written and re-cast with the competent and charismatic actors it would have been cast with ten years earlier. It is not difficult at all to imagine the film as a tense and slightly depressing crime and violence epic about trust and betrayal between four friends, deeply cynical and not ending well for anyone. All the elements for it are there, but Castellari is experienced enough not to go in this direction with the actors at hand.

This leaves the dramatic part of the film deeply unsatisfying, yet Castellari does try to put as little emphasis on this side of the movie as possible. Instead, he does what his talents and the talents of his actors are most suited for, and shows as much action and violence as possible.

Even at this point in his career, on a dwindling budget that prevents doing anything truly spectacular, Castellari knew how to deliver a riveting action set piece. There are car chases (of course including the sad end of a fruit stall), a human hood ornament scene, shoot-outs, as well as some raw and exciting punch-outs. The only things missing for the discerning friend of Italian action film of the decade are a helicopter and exploding bamboo huts, but the film does feature an exploding safety deposit box, so that's alright, too.

Since this are the 80s, the action has an higher cheese factor than that found in earlier Castellari movies. I was quite surprised to realize that the director's still 70s-gritty shooting style and the 80s silliness do work well together, producing a friction that's more riveting than I had expected.

Just four years after he had made this film, Castellari would find himself in TV hell, with everything still interesting about his work gone. That, however, is a different story, and one that shouldn't ruin the pleasures Hammerhead still can provide.



Pauline said...

All right, the last paragragh. How do you know that stuff? You, my friend, are entirely too awesome. Thank you.

Pauline said...

Seriously, paragraph I think...

houseinrlyeh said...

Thanks, Pauline!

I learned about Castellari's TV work through painful experience. He is responsible for a bunch of dreadful TV movies with Bud Spencer and Philip "Miami Vice" Michael Thomas. Truly terrifying stuff.