Movies Till Dawn: Vintage Guilty Pleasures and Nostalgic Nonsense

Code of Silence” (1985, Kino Lorber) Chuck Norris keeps the karate to a minimum in this crime drama, which pits his taciturn Chicago cop against drug lord Henry Silva and a corrupt faction of fellow police. Intended as a vehicle for Clint Eastwood, this is a Norris film that can be enjoyed without ironic distance, thanks to brawny, city-savvy direction by Andrew Davis (“The Fugitive”) and an abundance of character mugs lending verisimilitude as flatfoot types, including Dennis Farina, Bert Remsen and Ralph Foody. Though the kung fu faithful are acknowledged with a couple of action set pieces, including one on a moving elevated train (oh, and there’s a police robot, too), Norris appears invested in his average Joe role; the sizable box-office returns for “Silence” seemed to indicate that his audience liked this direction as well, but he was soon back to cartoon antics like “Invasion U.S.A.” and eventually, safe-as-milk TV action on “Walker: Texas Ranger.” Kino’s Special Edition Blu-ray includes commentary by Davis, who receives effusive praise in interviews featured on the disc with co-writer Michael Butler, co-stars Ron Dean and Molly Hagan, and composer David Michael Frank.

Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3” (1990, Warner Archives Collection) Second sequel in the never-ending franchise spawned from Tobe Hooper’s 1974 horror landmark; “Chainsaw 3” covers the same territory as the original – city folk run afoul of a feral cannibal family and its saw-wielding scion/head executioner, well played here by R.A. Mihailoff – but adds some perverse quirks that suggests the vein of sicko humor that runs through the first “Chain Saw.” Chief among these is a new family, led by giddy-creepy cowpoke Tex (a pre-fame Viggo Mortensen), with Joe Unger (hook-handed cook) and the late Miriam Byrd-Nethery (voicebox mom) lending the looniest support; they’re opposed by an equally unhinged Ken Foree (the ’78 “Dawn of the Dead”) as a survivalist intent on wiping out the clan. Most of the splatter in David J. Schow’s script was trimmed before release – the result of a struggle over ratings between director Jeff Burr, New Line Cinema and the MPAA – and Burr’s direction is more workman-like than Hooper’s flourishes of experimental freakout, which leaves the family’s antics as the chief appeal. And while they can’t reproduce the berserk energy of the original cast, the performances here come close in a way that few of the other sequels – including Hooper’s own “Chainsaw 2” – have managed to accomplish. Warner Archives Collection’s Blu-ray offers the unrated cut and showcases the special effects by KNB EFX as an extra; Burr, Mihailoff and Gregory Nicotero (“The Walking Dead) are also included in a making-of featurette that details the film’s abundance of production woes.

Judgment Night” (1993, Warner Archives Collection) Emilio Estevez, Stephen Dorff, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Jeremy Piven find that the shortcut they’ve taken to a boxing match in Chicago has put them in the crosshairs of murderous gang leader Denis Leary. Time has not been kind to this action-thriller, which suffers from stock, shallow characterizations, dialogue and ideas about urban life (and the now persona non grata Piven will probably be a detraction for some). But director Stephen Hopkins (“The Life and Death of Peter Sellers”) and his regular cinematographer Peter Levy, make good use of the locations, Peter Greene (“Pulp Fiction”), as Leary’s henchman, is a plus in any capacity, and the soundtrack, which pairs alt-rock and hip-hop favorites from the period (Sonic Youth and Cypress Hill, Teenage Fanclub and De La Soul), will undoubtedly twang a few nostalgic nerves. Warner’s DVD-R is widescreen.

The Billy Jack Collection” (1967-1977, Shout! Select) For a brief period in the early 1970s, “Billy Jack” (1971) was a bona fide, if contradictory cultural phenomenon: a liberal-minded drama that advocated peaceful change through bone-crunching martial arts, and one that reaped millions at the box office through self-distribution (thus helping to set the template for American independent film) and not by studio means. It shouldn’t have worked, but the core premise – Native American Vietnam vet Billy Jack (writer-director Tom Laughlin) defends the students of a small town progressive school from local bigots – the abundance of action and a relentless advertising campaign (anchored by a cover of “One Tin Soldier” by Coven) all struck a chord with both drive-in and counterculture audiences, who minted Billy Jack as a pop culture mystic/ass-kicker on par with Bruce Lee and El Topo (though some noted that Billy Jack’s formula of peace, love and roundhouse kicks was as quasi-fascistic and brutal as the “establishment” types he opposed). Laughlin’s success was short-lived – the inevitable sequel, “The Trial of Billy Jack” (1974) was a commercial hit but a critical flop, and “Billy Jack Goes to Washington” (1976) was an outright disaster – but Billy Jack remains a unique artifact from a turbulent period in history and Hollywood. Shout! Select’s Blu-ray set packages all three Billy Jack films (devotees, please note that the 110-minute cut of “Washington” is included) with its origin story, “The Born Losers” (1967), which pits its hero against freak bikers and dirty cops. All four films feature vintage commentary tracks from Laughlin (who died in 2013), his wife/co-star/co-writer Delores Taylor and their son, Frank Laughlin, as well as trailers and promotional galleries.

At the Earth’s Core” (1976, Kino Lorber) Entertaining juvenile fantasy with Peter Cushing and Doug McClure as 19th century adventurers who employ a proto-steampunk drilling machine to burrow to the center of the Earth; there, they discover a lost world populated by dinosaurs, as well as a primitive tribe of humans and their monster bird oppressors. Third of four British-made adventures (including “The People That Time Forgot“) based on novels by “Tarzan” creator (and Tarzana founder) Edgar Rice Burroughs, all directed starring McClure and directed by Kevin Connor (“Motel Hell“), who overcomes the picture’s limitations – goofy-looking monster suits, rear-projected jungle landscapes, clunky dialogue – through pacing, a thoroughly game cast (especially Cushing and Caroline Munro, who does her best with a largely ornamental role as the tribe’s princess) and understated humor. Kino’s DVD includes interviews with Connor and Munro, who details her long screen career (including Adam Ant’s “Goody Two-Shoes” video), as well as a vintage making-of featurette and the original trailer; the less said about the commentary track, in which Connor is bulldozed by the moderator’s bad puns and constant interruptions, the better.

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About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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