CANNON FODDER: Cult Action Films of the ’80s
By Ryan Jackson
Let me just come right out and say that I love exploitation cinema—what some like to call B-movies. I’m also an unabashed fan of awesomely bad, cheeseball action, whether it’s in big-budget studio fare or no-budget schlock. So when Johnny Shaw asked me if I would be interested in writing a piece for Blood & Tacos about the cult action films of the 1980s, of course I jumped at the opportunity.
When I sat down to write this piece, I made a list of my ten favorite B-movie action titles of that decade. I was somewhat surprised to discover that the notorious Cannon Group produced literally all of them. For those unfamiliar with Cannon, they ARE the ’80s in a lot of movie-geek circles and are responsible for some of the most beloved B-movies of all time.
A brief history: in 1967, Dennis Friedland and Chris Dewey formed the Cannon Group. While they ran it, they released numerous soft-core sex comedies. Ultimately, they discovered that the only type of sex film that turns a legitimate profit is of the hardcore variety. So Friedland and Dewey cut their losses and sold the Cannon Group to two Israeli-born cousins, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, in 1979.
Menahem and Yoram were to the ’80s what Bob and Harvey Weinstein were to the ’90s (albeit less successful critically and at the box office). Under new ownership, the company flourished. Cannon left the “titty era” behind and started churning out exploitation flicks of a different sort. The Cannon brand quickly became synonymous with the low-budget, balls-out action flick. The Golan-Globus era lasted for ten years, and in that span Cannon’s legacy was cemented. The company did produce some art house titles that garnered them some critical praise, but Cannon will always be known as the house built on the films of Norris, Bronson, Van Damme, and Dudikoff.
I’ve chosen titles from the Cannon library that I feel are worth a view. These films are, in my opinion, quintessential Cannon flicks. Movies in which, when the hero is called to action, he readily responds, “Show me who to punch or shoot.” The kind where lowlifes with high-caliber weapons are left riddled with more holes than the plot. These flicks are all about packing as much kick-assery on screen as possible. If you’re into that kind of thing, look no further.
Ninja III: The Domination (1984)
This movie is why I was a ninja for three consecutive Halloweens. Made during the ’80s ninja craze, Ninja III: The Domination is mindless martial arts mayhem with a little Exorcist sprinkled on top. The acting isn’t great, but fight sequences are actually quite good. The filmmakers were clearly aware of this, so the movie doesn’t waste its time exploring character. It’s pretty much non-stop ninja action from beginning to end, which is what makes it so fun to watch.
The movie opens with a ninja pulling off a daring assassination on a golf course, killing an entire staff of bodyguards, the mark, and his female companion. The cops show up, and the ninja proceeds to haul ass, and of course a foot chase ensues. The ninja manages to kill what seems like at least half the police force during his escape attempt before he is shot more times than Amadou Diallo.
Christie, played by the lovely Lucinda Dickey, is a telephone pole maintenance worker slash aerobics instructor who discovers the Swiss-cheesed ninja as he’s dying. The ninja gives Christie his sword and somehow manages to send his spirit into her body. At night, the ninja wakes inside her and takes over, turning her into sword-wielding, smoke bomb–throwing killing machine who goes on a blood-soaked rampage against the cops who gunned the ninja down. One of them manages to charm Christie by having absolutely no charm (and a whole lot of body hair). She falls for him, somehow, and they begin to date. The whole time this crazy ninja-possession shit is going down, he’s the one cop you hope gets killed, but sadly he does not.
In the final act, Sho Kosugi shows up fresh off a plane from Japan. Kosugi is the evil ninja’s nemesis (I’m assuming there is some kind of blood feud between their respective ninja clans). And apparently only a ninja can destroy another ninja. I’m not making this up.
Ninja III: The Domination is ninja porn at its best. Dickey is sexy and does a pretty good job kicking ass. And in the instances where she can’t, there is an obviously male stunt double to do it for her. Do yourself a favor and watch this now.
Cyborg is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi actioner starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. It is also everything a Cannon film should be. Van Damme plays Gibson Rickenbacker, a mercenary hired by a cyborg named Pearl to escort her out of the city and back to Atlanta. Pearl is carrying a cure that she downloaded into her cybernetic brain that can save the human race.
There’s just one problem: Fender Tremolo. Fender is a psychopath with all-white contacts who wants the cure. He’s also the leader of a gang of ruthless killers, the same who slaughtered Gibson’s family and left him for dead. The stage is set for the inevitable showdown. That’s pretty much all you need to know about the plot, because it’s all just setup for Van Damme to roundhouse kick shit in slow motion.
The movie does have some badass moments. One of them takes place in a sewer when Van Damme holds himself up by his legs in a full splits between walls above a pirate’s head while holding a knife in his mouth. There is also a hilarious scene when the cyborg takes off her wig and exposes her cybernetic brain. The effect looks like something out of the TV show Small Wonder. All in all, Cyborg is pretty much The Road Warrior without the cars. The hero’s name is even Gibson. But, honestly, who needs cars when you have JCVD?
Death Wish 3 (1983)
For those unfamiliar with the Death Wish films, I suggest you start with Death Wish 3—in my opinion, the gem of the series. It’s gloriously violent and extremely over the top. Charles Bronson once again plays the trigger-happy vigilante Paul Kersey. He comes to New York City to visit an old Korean War pal, only to discover that the gang of street punks who terrorize the neighborhood have murdered him. The cops wrongly arrest Kersey for the crime and throw him in jail. There he unknowingly clashes with the leader of the street punks, Manny Fraker, played with lunatic zeal by Gavin O’Herlihy.
The police captain knows that Kersey is innocent, but he also knows about Kersey’s penchant for blowing away bad guys with a big gun. Tired of seeing his men killed in the streets, the captain makes a deal with Kersey, allowing him to go free as long as he murders the gang of street punks. Kersey agrees, because, well, he loves to kill him some scumbags.
Once Kersey is settled into his dead friend’s apartment, the fun really begins. When Kersey and the fed-up tenants go head to head with the punks, the body count becomes impossible to keep track of. Bronson turns in his usual emotionless performance. Whether he’s shooting a punk in the head or watching his girlfriend (who would be more believable as his granddaughter) meet a fiery demise when she’s blown up in his car, he’s consistently wooden. The street punks, however, seem to rape, rob, and kill with a sense of glee.
Death Wish 3 is a film that dares you not to enjoy it. In fact, I dare you not to. And did I mention that you get to see Counselor Deanna Troi’s boobs (as portrayed by the boobs of Marina Sirtis)?
Invasion U.S.A. (1985)
If you haven’t seen the movie, I suggest you read this only after you experience the awesomeness that is Invasion U.S.A. It opens on a fishing boat full of Cuban refugees floating aimlessly in the ocean. A U.S. Coast Guard ship sails up, and the captain smiles from the deck, welcoming the Cubans to America. The captain reaches out to help an old man on board, but as he pulls him up he draws his pistol and shoots the geezer in the head! The crew of the coast guard ship then opens fire, cutting down men, women, and children alike. The captain and crew then board, open the lower deck, and haul out a shitload of cocaine. And that’s just the opening scene!
Our captain, it turns out, is really a Russian terrorist by the name of Mikhail Rostov (played by Richard Lynch). You see, Rostov is planning a full-scale invasion of the United States, and he is using the drugs to buy a stockpile of weapons. Only one man out there can stop Rostov: Matt Hunter, a gator wrasslin’, ex-CIA, terrorist-killing machine equipped with twin Uzis, played by none other than Chuck Norris.
This is the setup for Invasion U.S.A. I honestly don’t know where to start with this one—I guess by saying Richard Lynch plays a complete psychopath. Within the first fifteen minutes, he kills the Cubans, shoots a guy three times in the dick, and throws a coke whore out a window. Around 30 minutes in, he strikes an entire suburban neighborhood with a rocket launcher at Christmastime, killing families and literally destroying the whole block.
The film’s violence is only matched by its absurdity. Hunter is arguably the most badass character Chuck Norris has ever played. He may be the hero of the film, but make no mistake, Hunter is a stone cold killer. He murders terrorists without blinking an eye and would beat the shit out of Walker, Texas Ranger, if he ever had the chance. But Richard Lynch is the real star. As Rostov, he gives a legendary B-movie bad guy performance and steals the Chuck’s thunder. If you watch only one of the movies I’ve recommended, it should be Invasion—specifically, to witness Lynch’s portrayal of maniac Mikhail.
Ryan Jackson writes stories where people die at the end. Lots of people. Ryan is currently working on a screenplay that is either going to make him tons of money, or end up in a drawer somewhere collecting dust. And yes, people die in it. When he’s not killing people on the page he can be found at his blog: http://halfricanamericanpsycho.tumblr.com and his twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/RyanJackson. He has stories on The Flash Fiction Offensive and Plots With Guns.