Devil's Express (1976)

PLOT: A New York City martial artist and his protégé travel to China for a retreat that will sharpen their skills and minds. When the student lifts a shiny souvenir from a mysterious cave, the unleashed bad juju threatens to destroy them all.

Director: Barry Rosen
Writers: Barry Rosen, Niki Patton, Pascual Vaquer, CeOtis Robinson, Bobbi Sapperstein
Cast: Warhawk Tanzania, Wilfredo Roldan, Larry Fleischman, Aki Aleong

No pairing of city and era was as versatile and evocative for a genre movie filming location than New York City in the 1970s. Its dilapidated tenements were perfect for a post-apocalyptic near-future. Need a seedy area to situate your drug-dealing and prostitution morality play? Times Square is your place. If the mise-en-scène for your crime-thriller needs to suggest the hidden dangers of traveling alone, pick any subway platform or public park on the map. Alleys, basketball courts, and dodgy underpasses: the list goes on. Director Barry Rosen got plenty of mileage out of NYC for 1976’s Devil’s Express -- originally released as Gang Wars but known as Death Express in the UK and referred to as Phantom of the Subway during production -- where it somehow doubles as both ancient China and modern-day Hong Kong. Young filmmakers, take note: access to an urban botanical garden goes a long way in your storytelling.

In ancient China, a group of holy men are out picking berries in the forest or something when they realize they’d totally forgotten about the sacred blood ritual scheduled that day. They place an amulet on the heavy wooden crate they’ve been lugging around before setting it below the ground in a spooky cavern. While their lower backs might be thanking them, their arteries are not. The lead holy man strikes down his friends before offing himself and following all of THAT, a cryptic title card announces to the audience that yes, Devil’s Express is a Phantom Production. You’re goddamn right it is!

Fast-forward several hundred years later to modern-day New York City, where a martial arts master named Luke (Tanzania) is training a friend from the police force. Don’t be getting any funny ideas though -- Luke is a righteous dude who trusts the police as much as he trusts gangs or undershirts (i.e. not very much). When his hot-headed student, Rodan (Roldan) starts talking vengeance after his crew’s latest gang rumble, Luke tries to chill him out -- the pair is scheduled to travel to Hong Kong for advanced training in both meditation and combat. The body and mind won’t work well if the spirit is in conflict.

Unfortunately, Rodan’s stress carries over into Hong Kong and Luke picks up on it and chides his student for the unnecessary distraction. Rodan gets his ass handed to him during sparring, and is jumping out of his skin during an isolated meditation session. Channeling his inner whiny teenager, he takes off into the woods and stumbles upon a spooky cavern. As Luke is deep in meditation, his student is stumbling around in the cavern’s darkness before finding the ancient amulet. He pockets it and gets defensive with Luke before they return home via transition airplane insert shot. Unfortunately for them (and the greater NYC area) whatever is inside the crate is adept enough to hitchhike on a cargo ship to follow them. Before too long, the bodies begin to pile up below the subway, and Luke might be the only one who can stop the force that his student has foolishly unleashed.

Call your immediate family members. Send your friends a text message filled with the happiest emojis. Send an updated meeting agenda for your annual performance review to your employers. Because you all need to have a conversation about Warhawk Tanzania. Your grandparents will fall in love with Warhawk’s deliberately enunciated dialogue about righteous behavior. Every one of your ex-lovers will go apeshit for the skin-tight gold-lamé overalls he wears for the final act of the film. All of your afro enthusiast friends will take careful notes. He’s no Jim Kelly on the charisma scale, but he should have been in so many more blaxploitation films with a martial arts bend. It’s kind of a shame so little is known about him. (Was his birth name really Warhawk? Is he still alive? What’s his favorite omelette? These are the top three questions in my Excel file full of them). Sure, he’s not a great actor, but every second of this film when he wasn’t on-screen, I felt like screaming into a loaf of rye bread shaped like a pillow. Warhawk Tanzania gets me pretty emotional, you guys.

Do you long for the days when gangs could rumble in alleys and public parks while attracting nary a glance from law enforcement or civilians? This film captures New Yorkers, young and old alike, at record-high levels of DGAF as stunt players and martial artists rough each other up in various city locations. Throughout it all, there are random daytime passerbys pounding the pavement in the background of just about every shot the filmmakers captured. I’d imagine that the 1970s NYC population was pretty numb to the presence of film crews at this point, but the solid fight choreography here should have undone their indifference.

For such a low-budget film, the fight scenes are quite solid, highlighted by a steady rough-and-tumble quality in different settings. We get loads of alley fights, a fight in a bar between a female bartender and a male gang member, and a fairly entertaining man vs. monster climax that will have you doing double-takes from the choppy editing and supernatural overtones. It appears that Barry Rosen, whose only directorial credits were this film and 1976’s non-action movie The Yum Yum Girls, wisely turned things over to his on-set martial artists. Many of them appear to be students of various skill level, but there’s some observable technique and combinations at work.

If you can believe it, Devil’s Express was the brain-child of at least five different screenwriters. I have no idea how they collaborated, but I’d like to think that the genre influences were delegated one per writer; one person injected the scary stuff, another handled the martial arts, and so on. Five different people each throwing a delicious homemade recipe at the same wall to see what sticks. Usually, films with this many cooks in the kitchen are a goddamn mess. Does that make any of those dishes any less delicious? Even when eaten off of a wall? Of course not! If the food slides off the wall and onto the floor, we’re having a different conversation, but all of the cinematic elements work fine individually and become suitably wacky when combined. People are out there eating Mountain Dew & Doritos donuts for fuck’s sake. There are bigger problems in the world than a blaxploitation-chopsocky-gang-war-whodunit-monster movie.

If you’re a fan of trashy genre hybrids like Raw Force and can tolerate a flimsy plot and a lack of technical polish -- and if you’re here, you clearly can -- Devil’s Express is up your spooky, poorly-lit alley. The great thing about films like these is the madcap pastiche: martial arts, blaxploitation, gang warfare, police procedural, and man-in-a-suit monster movie tropes all live comfortably side by side for a tidy 82 minutes. The end result is a bouillabaisse of 1970s independent exploitation filmmaking that will have you hunting down a pair of gold-lame overalls faster that you can say “Warhawk Tanzania!” A recommended if uneven curiosity.

This one is available on YouTube under one of its many titles (I’ll leave it to you to find your way) but I’d advise you to track down the Code Red DVD release. Their high-definition release made use of the original negative and the film looks miles better than what you’re likely to find on any streaming service or grey market copy.

4.5 / 7


Tough and Deadly (1995)

PLOT: An elite CIA operative is drugged and kidnapped during a botched mission. Let this be a lesson to everyone: keep an eye on your drink at all times.

Director: Steve Cohen
Writer: Steve Cohen, Otto C. Pozzo
Cast: Billy Blanks, Roddy Piper, James Karen, Lisa Stahl, Phil Morris, Richard Norton, James Lew, Sal Landi, Dale Jacoby

After their entertaining 1993 collaboration, Back in Action, Roddy Piper and Billy Blanks went back to the well just two years later for another action romp with a generic title. They easily could have kicked up their feet and cashed those sweet DTV checks. But led by a more experienced director, flanked by a stronger supporting cast, and adorned in 200% more denim, the pair actually ups their game in Tough and Deadly. It’s too bad the filmmakers steered away from literalism when branding this film, because I think “The Violent Adventures of Amnesiac Martial Artist and Guy with Dynamically Changing Facial Hair” would have moved a lot more units than the vague title they went with.

A covert company man with the code name of Quicksilver (Blanks) awakens in a hospital room days after being beaten and drugged during a mission. (He would have been left for dead but he regained consciousness and killed his captors). Due to the drugging and multiple kicks to the face, he can’t remember squat. Private investigator and former cop, Elmo Freech (Piper), initially mistakens him for a potential bounty when they cross paths in the hospital, but he takes him under his wing to help him recover from his injuries and loss of memory. Freech puts a roof over his head, food in his stomach, and even gives him a sweet temporary name, “John Portland,” he determined by throwing a knife at a map. Like you do.

Along with Freech’s business partner, Mo (Stahl), the pair beats the shit out of random assholes all over the city in their quest for information. Slowly, Portland’s memories begin to return. He remembers that he’s a great martial artist, that weak coffee is a terrible way to start the day, and that the bathroom is a great place to randomly remember things while staring at yourself in the mirror. He loves East Coast rap (Freech likes country), prefers a glass of OJ to a shot of liquor, and seems to reliably match his pants to Freech’s shirts without any effort at all. The CIA eventually comes calling to collect their “rogue” asset, and some other assholes are trying to nail Portland dead as well. Also, the mafia. Drugs. Corruption. All the boxes are checked off.

Blanks is off the chain in this film, and I can only assume that if there is a heaven, there’s a wall of LED TVs showing him getting in bar fights set to country music playing on loop there. Piper likewise looks great during the action scenes, throwing body blows and taking hits like few others in the action film biz can. This pair works so well, and everyone around them plays his or her part to perfection. As a CIA honcho, James Karen delivers expository details in grave tones without it feeling overly forced. Richard Norton, James Lew, and Dale Jacoby all play believable thugs. Even Phil Morris, Seinfeld’s Jackie Chiles, gets in the mix as a crooked CIA agent on the wrong end of a Blanks-brand ass-whooping. Stunt performers get blown up and fly through the air, warehouses explode for no particular reason, and one henchman has the good fortune of getting kicked into a giant pile of cocaine.

Steve Cohen got great performances from his cast, put the right pieces in place for some great action scenes, and has terrific command of this film’s pace. But I’ll be damned if I let homeboy off the hook for Piper’s wild variance in beard length and style. From short stubble to long stubble and even what appears to be a goatee, virtually no hair on the star’s face was safe from his beard trimmer during this production. Now, this would have been forgivable if it progressed in a logical fashion -- from long to short, or vice versa -- because we don’t normally knock films for not showing the hygienic practices of the characters over the time span depicted in the story (e.g. “John McClane hasn’t brushed his teeth in five days? FUCK THIS MOVIE”). All that would have been required of Cohen was some careful planning and editing. Instead, it looks like they set the “Piper Beard Length” meter to random during the production and walked away for pancakes.

In the second of just two film collaborations between Richard Norton and Billy Blanks -- the other was 1990’s China O’Brien II -- they tear shit up during two separate fights in two different living rooms that will have you clutching the arm of your love-seat with excitement. Why these fighters chose carpeted living rooms as the mise-en-scene for two of their only screen fights, we may never know, but I’ll venture a guess. Norton was 45 years old at this point, Blanks was 40 -- maybe they just wanted cushy places for their tired bones to land? Like most of the fights in this film, the Norton-Blanks ones were really well done, but they’re elevated further by the level of talent throwing the strikes. The fact that these two bad-asses only crossed paths twice in nearly 25+ years of doing DTV action movies would qualify as a goddamn war crime if not for the fact that according to “law,” such an act requires something like torture, pillaging, or child soldiers. (No, not these ones.)

It’s rare that real-world events are a determining factor in which film to review next. However, given Roddy Piper’s passing over the summer, I felt a strong urge to see him on the screen, looking strong and having fun. He’s not nearly the unhinged, dangerous dynamo that he was in Back in Action, but Elmo Freech is a character with different circumstances and demands a different sort of performance. Piper plays him with the right level of physical energy when the action scenes call for it, but the character has an undercurrent of world-weary concern and tenderness to him, which Piper conveys quite believably. The dynamic between Blanks and Piper is also different this time around -- the former is aloof, the latter is assured -- but both put the same good-natured and brotherly charisma to good use.

I won’t beleaguer the point: Tough and Deadly is a lot of fun. To put it in perspective, if it were a sea creature with which I was going to be slapped across the face, it would be halibut: solid, low-fat, and overfished. What -- that didn’t help? OK, then. The actors are having fun, the directing is competent, the humor delivers occasional laughs, and the choreographed violence is well-paced and nicely edited. If you’re watching these films and settling for anything less, you need to get your priorities in order. Eat this halibut on DVD or VHS if you can find it.

Amazon, Ebay YouTube.

5.5 / 7

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