Skip to main content

W.A.R.A. Now, what the hell is that?

Sky Riders
(1976)

(SPOILERS) In Sky Riders, fiendish terrorists have kidnapped the wife and children of wealthy industrialist Jonas Bracken (Robert Culp) and, unsurprisingly, the authorities aren’t much use getting them back. In times such as this, what you need is an estranged husband, a bit of a maverick, the kind of guy who can get things done: step in, New York cop John McClane. Or, failing him, vagabond black marketer Jim McCabe (James Coburn). If nothing else, he’ll come up with a barking mad scheme to get his (sort of) family back. And it might just work.


McCabe’s plan is to rescue Ellen Bracken (Susannah York) and her two kids (one of whom is McCabe’s) from the remote mountain monastery where they’re held by hang-gliding in on a moonlit night. McCabe has never had a lick of hang gliding experience, but it’s okay as he’s persuaded the circus troupe training him up in double quick time to come along. Quite why they are so content to pick up arms and kill people (and get killed themselves) is just one of the many pertinent questions Sky Riders fails to address.


It’s okay though, as for the most part this very definition of high concept action thriller gets by through not hang (gliding) around for long enough to debate its own silliness. Credit is due to reliable B-director Douglas Hickox (his best known picture is Theatre of Blood, but he also delivered John Wayne-in-London cop thriller Brannigan and the Zulu prequel no one asked for, Zulu Dawn) for keeping the Greek locations scenic and the pace from flagging. Still, it’s that kind of pre-blockbuster era action picture that devolves into a climax with lots of random people shooting at each other (including, for some reason, the Greek police allowing Culp to pick up a machine gun and have a go; perhaps he slipped them a drachma or two?)


Weren’t ‘70s terrorists the worst, though? They could show up anytime, any place, anywhere, without any warning and armed with the most rudimentary of schemes and shaky of convictions. In this case the World Activist Revolutionary Army have a mission “to liberate the oppressed peoples of the world”, “fighting the tyranny of worldwide imperialism”. Which is all well and good. I suppose you have to start somewhere. 


But they haven’t really though this out, certainly not their nameless leader (Werner Pochath, who looks about 12; a bit like casting Matt Smith as a terrorist mastermind, Sky Pirates could have really used a big cheese with some oomph). As it is, Pochath is thoroughly undermined as soon as he divulges his ethos to Ellen (they must use force against force, commit murder for murder and allow no compromise) who gives him a slow clap.


Still, fair dues to them, they’re just doing their best. Which is why, after demanding $5 million from Culp, they proceed to add a whole arsenal of weapons to their list.  They have some semblance of order though, what with their pretty cool hideout (also used in For Your Eyes Only) and matching t-shirts.


If the terrorists are unimposing lot (Jason Voorhees hockey masks aside), so are the circus freaks. And, if you’re casting Robert Culp, you could at least make use of his sense of humour. Having both Coburn and Culp in a movie is a bit of a coup, but no one capitalises on it (initially there’s suspicion Culp might have been involved, but once the set up is established there aren’t any surprises in store). No less than six writers worked on the picture, which you’d never believe to look at it.


Besides Culp, there’s crooner Charles Aznavour as the obstructive Greek Inspector Nikolidis and cameos from Harry Andrews and Kenneth Griffith as chums of McCabe. The latter is particularly good value, ribbing McCabe over how Ellen looks ten years younger now she’s left him (“What a difference a good marriage can make, aye McCabe?”) He also evidences why kidnappers should always photograph their captives against a black backdrop.


The suggestion, left at that, is that Ellen was the unwitting goods in a transaction between Jonas and Jim; the former gets the girl in exchange for a 5-year sentence commuted to 2 for the latter. It’s not dwelt upon though, and while it’s clear that Ellen sees Jim as a real man, he’s still, come the last scene –as a real man would be – left on his own, shot up, and assuring her there’s no hurry for his kid know his true identity. So instead, Coburn makes chums with Aznavour as he’s stretchered out. Very Casablanca.


York wasn’t getting a huge number of memorable roles by this point in the ‘70s, albeit The Shout and Superman’s mum were just around the corner. She’s a very yummy mummy in this, and is very much in the Bonnie Bedelia mode of not putting up with any shit (but still need a man to save her). It’s easy to see why Coburn would go chasing after her and can’t even be mad he doesn’t get her back (“You always did put me through hell, baby”).


Mostly though, this is Coburn’s show. He’s a guy with a million dollar grin (after the introductory scene, he doesn’t flash it until past the half hour mark, though; things are that serious!) and struts white flared suits like nobody’s business. Indeed, at one point he’s wearing a shirt with collars the size of pterodactyl wings, and it looks like the most natural ensemble in the world. McCabe’s so damn rugged, he quips “I’ll walk back” after the last hang glider escapes the monastery without him. He doesn’t of course; he leaps on the landing skid of a helicopter and then gets shot full of lead. What a guy!


You can see Sky Riders in all its glory on YouTube (in widescreen too), often the sign of something even the studios can’t be bothered to defend, but it’s actually not a bad movie. Undemanding, daft, but with a solid cast and a director who knows what he’s doing. The big sell of the hang gliding stunts is probably the least of its attractions, but it’s a reminder of an all round happier time, when terrorists could be snuffed out just like that and the world had James Coburn on speed dial to get it out of a tight spot.











Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Garage freak? Jesus. What kind of a crazy fucking story is this?

All the President’s Men (1976)
It’s fairly routine to find that films lavished with awards ceremony attention really aren’t all that. So many factors go into lining them up, including studio politics, publicity and fashion, that the true gems are often left out in the cold. On some occasions all the attention is thoroughly deserved, however. All the President’s Men lost out to Rocky for Best Picture Oscar; an uplifting crowd-pleaser beat an unrepentantly low key, densely plotted and talky political thriller. But Alan J. Pakula’s film had already won the major victory; it turned a literate, uncompromising account of a resolutely unsexy and over-exposed news story into a huge hit. And even more, it commanded the respect of its potentially fiercest (and if roused most venomous) critics; journalists themselves. All the President’s Men is a masterpiece and with every passing year it looks more and more like a paean to a bygone age, one where the freedom of the press was assumed rather than a…

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

The head is missing... and... he's the wrong age.

Twin Peaks 3.7: There’s a body all right.
First things first: my suggestion that everyone’s favourite diminutive hitman, Ike “The Spike” Stadtler, had been hired by the Mitchum brothers was clearly erroneous in the extreme, although the logistics of how evil Coop had the contingency plan in place to off Lorraine and Dougie-Coop remains a little unclear right now. As is how he was banged up with the apparent foresight to have on hand ready blackmail tools to ensure the warden would get him out (and why did he wait so long about it, if he could do it off the bat?)


Launching right in with no preamble seems appropriate for his episode, since its chock-a-block with exposition and (linear) progression, almost an icy blast of what settles for reality in Twin Peaks after most of what has gone before this season, the odd arm-tree aside. Which might please James Dyer, who in the latest Empire “The Debate”, took the antagonistic stance to the show coming back and dismissed it as “gibbering nonsen…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You’re the Compliance Officer. It’s your call.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
(SPOILERS) The mealy-mouthed title speaks volumes about the uncertainty with which Tom Clancy’s best-known character has been rebooted. Paramount has a franchise that has made a lot of money, based on a deeply conservative, bookish CIA analyst (well, he starts out that way). How do you reconfigure him for a 21st century world (even though he already has been, back in 2003) where everything he stands for is pretty much a dirty word? The answer, it seems, is to go for an all-purpose sub-James Bond plan to bring American to its knees, with Ryan as a fresh (-ish) recruit (you know, like Casino Royale!) and surprising handiness in a fight. Yes, Jack is still a smart guy (and also now, a bit, -alec), adept at, well, analysing, but to survive in the modern franchise sewer he needs to be more than that. He needs to kick arse. And wear a hoodie. This confusion, inability to coax a series into being what it’s supposed to be, might explain the sour response to its …

I freely chose my response to this absurd world. If given the opportunity, I would have been more vigorous.

The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
(SPOILERS) I suspect, if I hadn’t been ignorant of the story of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee selling secrets to the Soviets during the ‘70s, I’d have found The Falcon and the Snowman less engaging than I did. Which is to say that John Schlesinger’s film has all the right ingredients to be riveting, including a particularly camera-hogging performance from Sean Penn (as Lee), but it’s curiously lacking in narrative drive. Only fitfully does it channel the motives of its protagonists and their ensuing paranoia. As such, the movie makes a decent primer on the case, but I ended up wondering if it might not be ideal fodder for retelling as a miniseries.

Oh look, there’s Colonel Mortimer, riding down the street on a dinosaur!

One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975)
(SPOILERS) There’s no getting round the dinosaur skeleton in the room here: yellow face. From the illustrious writer-director team who brought us Mary Poppins, no less. Disney’s cheerfully racist family movie belongs to a bygone era, but appreciating its merits doesn’t necessarily requires one to subscribe to the Bernard Manning school of ethnic sensitivity.

I’m not going to defend the choice, but, if you can get past that, and that may well be a big if, particularly Bernard Bresslaw’s Fan Choy (if anything’s an unwelcome reminder of the Carry Ons lesser qualities, it’s Bresslaw and Joan Sims) there’s much to enjoy. For starters, there’s two-time Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Ustinov (as mastermind Hnup Wan), funny in whatever he does (and the only Poirot worth his salt), eternally berating his insubordinate subordinate Clive Revill (as Quon).

This is a movie where, even though its crude cultural stereotyping is writ large, the dialogue frequen…

You may not wanna wake up tomorrow, but the day after that might just be great.

Blood Father (2016)
(SPOILERS) There are points during Blood Father where it feels like Mel is publically and directly addressing his troubled personal life. Through ultra-violence. I’m not really sure if that’s a good idea or not, but the movie itself is finely-crafted slice of B-hokum, a picture that knows its particular sandpit and how to play most effectively in it.

Sometimes the more you look, the less you see.

Snowden (2016)
(SPOILERS) There are a fair few Oliver Stone movies I haven’t much cared for (Natural Born Killers, U-Turn, Alexander for starters), and only W., post millennium, stands out as even trying something, if in a largely inconspicuous and irrelevant way, but I don’t think I’ve been as bored by one as I have by Snowden. Say what you like about Citizenfour – a largely superficial puff piece heralded as a vanguard of investigative journalism that somehow managed to yield a Best Documentary Feature Oscar for its lack of pains – but it stuck to the point, and didn’t waste the viewer’s time. Stone’s movie is so vapid and cliché-ridden in its portrayal of Edward Snowden, you might almost conclude the director was purposefully fictionalising his subject in order to preserve his status as a conspiracy nut (read: everything about Snowden is a fiction).