Director: Tony Zarindast
Writer: Tony Zarindast
Cast: Ted Prior, Carter Wong, Tony Zarindast, Tony Bova, Christine Lunde, Vincent Barbi, Debra Lamb
American action films of the 1980s hold up remarkably well as cinematic artifacts. On the one hand, the action is usually fun -- ‘splosions, fights, and car chases -- even if it isn’t well crafted. On the other hand, the substance of these films is heavily influenced by the Cold War, a brash, Reagan-era hyper-nationalism, and the specter of an unsuccessful Vietnam war. As a result, much of it is perfectly suitable for viewings both ironic and sincere. Some of the more unique films born out of this period, though, were made by Iranian filmmakers patchworking together the most shallow elements of the sub-genre as they saw it -- guns, muscular tough guys, beautiful women -- while working on micro-budgets for the home video market. The work of filmmakers like Amir Shervan (Samurai Cop), Jahangi Salehi (a.k.a. John Rad), and Tony Zarindast (this movie!), held a funhouse mirror up to the American action film. And if what was reflected back at us felt shoddy or clunky -- well, perhaps we should blame the blueprints these filmmakers followed, rather than those who did the emulating.
Out of the three aforementioned directors, Zarindast, born in the mid-1930s as Mohammed Zarrindast, was the most prolific, churning out roughly a dozen films for the American market between 1978 and 2012. He was also, I suspect, the president of his own fan club; he wrote, produced, and performed in most of his own films. The term “vanity project” gets thrown around a lot these days, but the term was invented for a cat like Zarindast. Hell, look at the size of the font for his director credit from the Hardcase and Fist trailer! If he could have made it bigger, I’m sure he would have.
The film starts with a prison bus rolling up to the gate of a high security facility, before the doors open and a couple dozen fresh inmates shuffle out. Bud McCall (Prior) is one such inmate, and even worse for him, a former cop. What he thought was a routine undercover narcotics sting turned out to be a cash grab by his dirty partner, Tully (Bova). When Bud refused to participate and take a cut of the proceeds, Tully framed *him* as the dirty cop. Worse yet, Tully’s on the Mafia’s payroll and has convinced the Don (Barbi) to have Bud whacked in prison to tie up the final loose end and prevent him from testifying against them. The man they pick for the job is Tony (Zarindast), who, as Bud’s former war pal from the war in Vietnam, is the only one in their ranks who can get close enough to Bud to do it. Tony’s conscience is torn in half by two worlds: the crime syndicate that gave him the good life, and the former friend who saved his life in the war.
Meanwhile, Bud is slowly adapting to the rigors of incarcerated life: getting to know new friends in the yard (e.g., people he arrested for crimes who now threaten his life), hashing out differences with the management (e.g., Warden Borden, who hates dirty cops), and negotiating his bunk with his new cell-mate, Eddy Lee (Wong). Even though Eddy gets the bottom bunk, he’s a good guy. They talk about the women they left behind out in the world -- an aerobics instructor (Lunde) and a stripper (Lamb), respectively -- and the two strike up a fast and mutually convenient comradery. You roundhouse-kick the guy trying to shiv me from behind, and I’ll punch out the guy who keeps stealing your pudding cup. Because isn’t violence the bedrock of all lasting prison friendships?
Can Bud stay alive in this hellhole long enough to exchange his testimony in the FBI’s case against the Mafia for freedom? Will Tony betray his loyalty to his mob bosses, or his loyalty to the friend who saved him from rotting in the swamps of Southeast Asia? Will Eddy crack up in prison before he’s able to reunite with his fire-breathing stripper wife? And how much dialogue will Tony Zarindast really get in this film?
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, the common cold, or unfinished lumber (splinters and all), but this is a bad film made possible by poor filmmaking. It is not bad in that “wow, look at all this overacting, and this script is bad, and your boom mic is showing, and look at all these continuity errors” sort of way, but rather in that “these story elements are solid, but handled clumsily, and the action scenes aren’t distributed evenly, and who is this person, and why is he doing that, and this filmmaker doesn’t really know how to engage the audience for any meaningful period of time” sort of way. This was a real bummer because I recently signed a six-figure publishing deal for at least three volumes worth of Eddy Lee fan fiction.
It’s a shame because the opening 25 minutes of the film are reasonably compelling. The opening scene cuts from Bud at the prison entrance to a flashback of his alleged “crime,” and then transitions back to the line of weary prisoners with a stylish fish-lens camera view. Shortly after being confronted with his moral dilemma, Zarindast gets arguably the best dramatic scence in the film. Slumped in a chair in his living room, he has one hand filled with a bottle of liquor, and fills the other with a gun. Racked by guilt, he unloads multiple rounds on his television, a lamp, and even a bottle of booze held by his attractive female companion! If his exclamation of "CHUT UP! You're nothing, don’t you understand?! I owe him!" doesn’t capture the depths of his despair, I’m not sure what words could. More or less, this film has the right parts in the model kit -- a friendship, some car chases, decent fight scenes, guns, 'splosions, an aerobics class, etc. -- but no idea how to put it all together.
If the gap between expectation and cinematic reality were to be expressed as a freakishly tall 1990s NBA center, this film would be Gheorge Muresan (7ft 7in / 2.31m). If you recall, he started off as an unpolished rookie, became decent by his third season, but completely fell off a cliff due to injuries. The elements on this film, on paper anyways, gave me high hopes for this film. Low-budget prison action flick featuring the star of Deadly Prey and the most distinctive henchman from Big Trouble in Little China and a certified legend of Hong Kong kung fu film? Where do I sign up? (Assuming there is some sort of sheet that requires a signature to express hypothetical interest in such a film?) There are plenty of people at whom one could point the finger for this mess of a movie, but since I’m using most of them to type this review, I’ll use my one free one to point at director Tony Zarindast and his obsession with 1980s American genre movies.
While the first act of the film suggests the makings of an obscure cult gem, the remainder sinks Hardcase and Fist as not much more than a limp afterthought. Prior nor Wong is able to rise above Zarindast’s sleepy story and filmmaking style, and the action scenes aren’t frequent enough to break up the the slog. Occasionally amusing, but not a critical watch.
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