Friday, July 1, 2016

Past Misdeeds: The Devil's Express (1976)

a.k.a. Gang Wars

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Luke (awesomely named Warhawk Tanzania) leads a successful martial arts dojo in New York. Among his pupils are as diverse people as the white cop Sam as well as Rodan (probably not related to the kaiju, played by Wilfredo Roldan), the drug-dealing thug leader of a street gang called the Black Spades.

Luke seems to have become quite successful in the growth of his own martial arts as well, at least he has earned the honour to travel to China to attain a new rank by getting his ass kicked by an elderly master. Luke seems to have some hope for instilling a bit of spiritual growth in Rodan, so he takes him on his Chinese adventure.

After a bit of fighting and losing, the New Yorker only needs to do some meditation in the woods to level up to level nine. He chooses Rodan to protect his body while he's doing the silent soul-searching stuff. Unfortunately, Rodan is easily bored, and instead of protecting his friend, he's all too soon roaming through the woods until he finds a cave full of century old corpses. Unknown to the freshly awakened Luke, he also steals an amulet one of the dead wears around his neck.

Both men don't realize that their indiscretion has awakened the amulet's owner, who is annoyed enough to possess some poor random Chinese guy and stow away on the same ship to New York the martial artists take, obviously with bad intentions in mind.

Back in New York, Rodan steers his gang into a war with a Chinese gang called the Red Dragons, while the demon, although seemingly pining for the return of his amulet, moves into the subway system and starts to kill people.

At first, the police think the gang war and the subway murders are somehow connected, but Sam - who is quite bright for a cop in a blaxploitation movie - soon realizes that there must be more to the latter than meets the eye. He also tries to get Luke's help in containing the gang situation, but the martial artist is of course too much in love with his own machismo and the evils of The Man to be of any help.

Luke is only getting active when the demon finally kills Rodan. At first, he tries to avenge his friend on the Red Dragons, but when a random wise old man explains to him who really killed his friend, he decides to catch himself a demon.

There's not much that could be sounding more grindhouse than a combination of blaxploitation, American martial arts and horror flick, promising a very special sort of dubious movie nirvana. Of course, "sounding good" was often as far as films made for the grindhouse circuit came to the word "good" at all, so I went into watching The Devil's Express with some reservations regarding its quality. I was positively surprised.

Sure, Barry Rosen's film isn't exactly what one would call a good film, but it takes the elements of the three (four, if you add the surprise visits in cop movie territory) genres it plunders with enough enthusiasm and earnestness to win my heart.

It's certainly a film with its share of problems. The acting - with the exception of the guy (possibly Larry Fleishman) who plays the Italo-American cop with excellent clichéd gusto and a schizophrenic bag lady - is rather wooden, but carries with it the sort of authenticity you get by casting semi-professional actors and amateurs. And I can hardly blame Warhawk Tanzania for not being as awesome as his name.

Compared to even the most mediocre martial arts movies from Hong Kong or Taiwan, the fighting (I wouldn't really speak of fight choreography in this case) isn't much good either, but are there any US martial arts films with good, or even just competent, fights? At least the fights aren't lackluster, because everybody on screen is really trying to get into it like Bruce Lee, just without the required training.

The movie's plotting isn't much to gush about either. The script doesn't even seem to be able to decide who its protagonist is - Luke? Sam? both? - and therefore jumps merrily back and forth without developing much momentum.

Additionally, the film's running time is padded out by random inserts of not exactly important scenes. However, in this film the padding is where the fun lies, since here "padding" doesn't mean the usual travelogue footage or scenes and scenes of people explaining the plot to each other, but wondrous moments of exploitative art. Sudden bouts of grindhouse social realism (the things that just happen to land on camera when you film outside in a big city without a permit), an utterly random love montage between Luke and a nameless woman, a kung fu fighting waitress, or the rambly monologuing of a bag lady unite to become something quite special.

In these moments, The Devil's Express isn't so much a cheap shot at making money by haphazardly throwing a movie together, but a near-magical evocation of a particular place at a particular time. This is something you couldn't get in a more carefully constructed picture that (understandably enough) would need to keep out all the randomness Rosen's film (probably unconsciously) embraces. Of course, not too many low budget films of this type manage to incorporate as many of these moments of magic/unconscious art as this one does.

I also have to stress that some scenes belonging to the film's main plot line are pretty great, too. The scenes in "China" are very creatively realized, and while you'd never believe them to take place in China, Rosen gives them a very different feel from the city scenes. I think it is the quality of the light that's mainly accountable for that effect.

First and foremost, The Devil's Express is an extremely fun movie. I can take a lot of delight in a film that goes out of its way to keep the promises of fun it makes, even if it is a little sloppy, a bit cheap and very silly, so I felt right at home with it.

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