Brandon Lee kicks up a storm in “Rapid Fire,” nobody asked for “Christopher Columbus: The Discovery,” and director Alan Moyle should be threatened by “The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag.”
Nutshell: An art major still mourning the death of his father at the Tiananmen Square protests, Jake Lo (Brandon Lee) is caught in quite a pickle when he witnesses a murder committed by Chicago mafia boss Serrano (Nick Mancuso). Promised police protection in exchange for his testimony, Jake is instead delivered into enemy hands, with only one cop, Mace Ryan (Powers Boothe), able to be trusted. Attempting to break up a massive heroin shipment entering the city, Jake, Mace, and intelligence officer Karla Withers (Kate Hodge) team up to take down criminal activity, employing Jake’s skills as a martial artist to save the day.
1992: “Rapid Fire” was my true introduction to the big screen flex of Brandon Lee, who was an aspiring action hero in a crowded field of competitors at the time, possessing a regal family legacy (his father was icon Bruce Lee) that immediately turned heads. A charismatic man brandishing a Jeet Kune Do fighting style, Lee was ready to tackle Hollywood, and the studios were more than willing to provide starring vehicles for the actor, with hopes that a few junky efforts might reveal a new Van Damme or Seagal -- an easily marketable punisher, only with Lee, the goods arrived in the form of a handsome, intelligible, eager people pleaser awaiting his big break in the business.
As we all know, Lee’s final film, 1994’s “The Crow,” brought the talent the recognition he was pursuing, though only achieved with the tragic loss of his life. While “Rapid Fire” only triggered a hearty shrug at the box office, it was clear to see Lee’s reputation and star power developing. Even back then, the man appeared to be only a few movies away from achieving something special, perhaps even rivaling his father’s legacy of wildly entertaining fist-first distractions.
The Brichives reveal approval of “Rapid Fire,” sharing surprise with the Jeet Kune Do fighting style and Lee’s charisma, while the rest of the production suffered from a tight mummy wrap of formula and a tepid plot. I wasn’t knocked flat by the movie, but there was bright display of promise contained within the feature, making Lee an immensely likeable screen presence in need of seriously edgy material.
2012: The great thing about rewatching “Rapid Fire” is the opportunity to get lost in a dumb movie. Nonsensical and noisy, “Rapid Fire” is a charming reminder of the “Seagal Generation,” when studios were churning out action fluff on a weekly basis (does the name Jeff Speakman trigger any involuntary flinching?), hoping to strike oil with low-budget entertainment starring the bruiser du jour. It’s not a great picture by any means, yet there are highlights in “Rapid Fire” worth savoring, most centered on Lee’s martial art choreography, which makes good use of props and sets, keeping the violence fluid and occasionally surprising. In many ways, the effort acts as a precursor to the Muay Thai tradition shellacking screens today. However, the future only appears in flashes. The rest of “Rapid Fire” is strictly 1992, with goombah baddies spouting casual racism, automatic guns spraying the frame with bullets, and routine glass breakage, while a bluesy, jazzy score wails in the distance.
What “Rapid Fire” lacks in logic it makes up for in conviction. Lee is invested here as Lo, doing his best to instill the character with a sustained feeling of doubt between scenes of violence, keeping the character pleasingly cynical. Boothe treats the effort like his shot at an Academy Award, playing Mace with a snarling sense of duty, managing cop clichés with his own musk of Boothe-branded masculinity, turning the character into a father figure for Lo. Mancuso is the performance that requires a Kevlar vest, going way over the top as Serrano, attempting to make his every moment onscreen memorable by hamming it up as a beleaguered mafia goon. It’s such a broad performance, 3D without the need for glasses, and not nearly as amusing as Mancuso seems to think it is. Still, points for trying, as a feature like “Rapid Fire” needs all the mamma mia! motivation it can find.
I can’t decide what my favorite part of the movie is: the scene where Lo somehow magically flips backwards ten feet in the air to take down one of his enemies, or the love scene between Lo and Withers that’s intercut with Mace continuing his heroin investigation, also detailing the slaughter of major characters. Both are simply amazing. I wasn’t aware Lo could fly! And I think director Dwight H. Little (who’s still hacking away, believe it or not) was missing a few pages in his “How to Make the Screen Sexy” textbook when he was editing the picture. Because nothing is hotter than watching two lovers go at it while someone gets a throwing star drilled into their neck after begging for their life. Someone cue the Barry White and grab a mop.
Lee is fun to watch, though there’s an inevitable sadness to “Rapid Fire,” especially when it’s quite clear that action star was destined to enjoy a long career in front of the camera. Perhaps he’d be on his third TBS series by now (“Brandon Lee is ‘The Procrastinator’ -- give him time, he’ll eventually kick. your. ass.”), or maybe playing father-figures to a new round of beefy men trying their best to make a career out of pummeling baddies. It would’ve been nice to see Lee perfect his corny genre skills, but it wasn’t meant to be. “Rapid Fire” is far from perfect, but it does charm with its brutality, keeping the moviegoing event interesting even after 20 years.
Christopher Columbus: The Discovery
Nutshell: A man of science and adventure, Christopher Columbus (Georges Corraface) is eager to take his dream to find a new world to the seas. Unfortunately, religious leaders (including Marlon Brando) and royalty in the form of King Ferdinand (Tom Selleck) and Queen Isabella (Rachel Ward) show great reluctance in trusting Columbus’s vision. Fighting doubt and dismissal, Columbus finally receives his chance to set sail, gathering a ragtag crew of criminals (Benicio Del Toro) and complainers (Robert Davi) to guide three ships across the ocean in search of wealth, land, and, for the captain of this voyage, validation.
1992: Having just survived a year with two movies based on “Snow White,” it makes sense to revisit a time when Hollywood burped up two Christopher Columbus pictures to cash on the 500th anniversary of the Spanish explorer’s discovery(?) of America. Of course, there was no real demand for such a cinematic party, much less two productions, but nobody asked ticket buyers beforehand if they would pay twice to see essentially the same story offered in two distinct artistic approaches. “Superman” producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind arrived on the scene first with “Christopher Columbus: The Discovery,” while Ridley Scott’s glossy “1492: Conquest of Paradise” (a pretty but painfully glacial feature that’s strangely achieved a reputation as some type of unheralded classic) would arrive in October.
To the surprise of no one, both efforts tanked at the box office. Why? Well, would you want to sit through two movies about Christopher Columbus? No, of course you wouldn’t! How about just one? No, of course you wouldn’t!
Because the theatrical run of “The Discovery” was so short, I only caught the movie in bits and pieces during shift breaks and cleaning times while on the job, which as more than enough to grasp the Salkindian push to amplify a tepid story of exploration(?) with some star power, once again backing up the Brink’s truck to yank Brando out of seclusion, hired to play an inquisitor who challenges Columbus’s plans to set sail for the greater glory of Spain. Brando’s casting didn’t exactly create the waves of publicity the Salkinds were aiming for, but it certainly presented the film with an eye-catching marquee opportunity it didn’t otherwise possess. With Tom Selleck booked as King Ferdinand, it’s clear all the money for casting was deposited in Brando’s checking account.
Keeping a positive attitude about the release, distributor Warner Brothers went wide, expecting a Salkind spectacle to attract a sizable audience ready to finally embrace the screen legacy of morally questionable man of dubious history. I distinctly recall entering the “Discovery” theater on opening day, only to find two people in a 500-seat house. Ouch. “Superman” this most certainly was not. It wasn’t even “Santa Claus: The Movie.”
The Salkinds struck out big time, with “The Discovery” their last blockbuster enterprise. In fact, I’m pretty sure this is the last time they even spoke to one another, as a barrage of lawsuits issued post-release surely made family gatherings awkward.
2012: There are not a whole lot of positive thoughts to share about a movie that eats up 45 minutes before Columbus even sets sail, and another 35 minutes before he finds the “new world.” That’s an enormous amount of screentime to devote to arguments, doubts, and accusations, not to mention sea-based arguments, doubts, and accusations. It’s a repetitive feature emboldened by a tone of nobility that’s uncomfortable to watch, as though the Salkinds were doing God’s work by dramatizing this story for the screen. Although it doesn’t turn Columbus into a deity, the effort, directed by Bond stalwart John Glen, comes close on occasion, confusing later scenes when the explorer’s destructive intent is investigated.
“The Discovery” is basically a television movie, holding little cinematic sway outside of a pronounced score by Cliff Eidelman. It’s not an awful effort, with Corraface earnestly stomping around the locations, trying his best to convey an ambition about Columbus that fogged his reality, forcing him to scramble to keep on task, watching his crew slip into insanity as the voyage floated on endlessly. Corraface has conviction instead of nuance, which helps in a picture that’s basically filmed community theater, with the rest of the ensemble delivering flat work at top volume, hoping to be seen and heard while stuck battling chaotic screen elements. I’ll give Del Toro points for trying, laboring to internalize emotions in a feature that doesn’t reward such detail, yet his work as a bastard Spaniard eventually morphs into silliness. And that’s saying something with Selleck falling asleep under a horrible wig, and Brando mentally counting all the snickerdoodles he can buy with his multimillion dollar paycheck.
For added fun, there’s Catherine Zeta-Jones in a supporting role as Columbus’s ladylove.
“The Discovery” is a total bore, making the viewer feel the pain of the voyage by practically shooting in real time. The screenplay is padded with inconsequential confrontations and philosophical discussions, endeavoring to build a momentum to the big reveal of paradise. Sadly, the drama never catches fire, cycling through the same beats of uncertainty and blame to a point of screen stasis. The opening driving montage of “Manos: The Hands of Fate” has more of a filmmaking zip. Over and over the crew goes batty and accuses Columbus of fraud, easily making the tropical visitation in the third act the best part of the movie. Of course, with the new land comes the discovery of the natives. And with the discovery of the natives comes boobies.
I was actually quite shocked to see so much nudity in a PG-13 film, with the Salkinds playing the National Geographic card with the MPAA, allowing the indigenous ladies to parade around topless, including an extended turn by actress Tailinh Agoyo, who bravely straddles the line between anthropology and titillation with her bare breasts. If you think I’m fixating a little too hard on bare skin, you watch 120 minutes of bad acting from hairy men in awful, constricting costumes and tell me Agoyo isn’t the highlight of the picture.
Actually, no. I take that back. Selleck’s wig is the highlight of the feature. I also enjoyed its previous work as Divine’s merkin in “Pink Flamingos.”
I think it’s going to a be a long time before anyone attempts the Columbus story again, so perhaps a thank you is in order for the Salkinds and Ridley Scott, who effectively drained all interest in this suspicious slice of history with a pair of cruddy movies. Huzzah!
The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag
Nutshell: A meek librarian in Missouri, Betty Lou (Penelope Ann Miller) is routinely frustrated with life, unable to find satisfaction at work or at home with her demanding, demeaning cop spouse, Detective Perkins (Eric Thal). When a local creep (an unbilled Stanley Tucci) is killed by the Cajun Mafia, led by brute Beaudeen (William Forsythe), Betty Lou takes the rap, hoping the murder charge will force the local community to pay attention to her. Processed as a murder suspect, Betty Lou enjoys her blast of fame, learning how butch up from cellmate Reba (Cathy Moriarty). When Beaudeen makes his way into town, Betty Lou and Perkins frantically assemble the clues to catch the real killer, rekindling their broken marriage along the way.
1992: Why I’d even bring up the immensely forgettable “The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag” is because of Allan Moyle. This being his follow-up to the punchy teen dramedy “Pump Up the Volume,” I was mildly geared up to see what was clearly a more jokey departure for the filmmaker, hopeful that my newborn fandom would be met with a second Moyle triumph that broadened his creative horizons.
Obviously, a dippy Disney comedy opening in the dead zone of late August wasn’t a good sign. But “Volume” was just amazing, and Moyle earned my trust in his storytelling abilities.
Oh, how I was wrong to have such faith.
Strangely, I wasn’t offended by the lack of successful jokes in “Handbag,” but the film’s descent into violence. The Brichives make note of a few quirky moments that work in the effort, but the “Handbag” entry underlines a strong reaction to the picture’s edgier tangents, displaying borderline outrage with a movie that hardly earned such agitation. Chalk it up to a substantial feeling of disappointment, with an enormous amount of moviegoing hope washed away by a roughhouse comedy starring perhaps the least effective comedy actress of the 1990s, Penelope Ann Miller.
I have no clue what Moyle was trying to accomplish with this turkey.
2012: I’ll give the film this much: it has the balls to kill off Stanley Tucci in the opening five minutes. I wish more movies had the guts.
I get the feeling that the original “Handbag” script by Grace Cary Bickley was wildly different than the picture that ended up in theaters. Moyle’s movie is much too disjointed and overplotted to successfully pull off its comedic intentions, slavish to this murder puzzle of last names and motivations, with too many characters buzzing around the story, leaving little room for Betty Lou. As a mystery, it sucks, afraid to truly erect a question mark worth the extended investigation, failing to generate any doubt surrounding Betty Lou’s participation in the crime. As a comedy, it blows, with little attention paid to jokes and timing, finding Moyle attempting to extract laughs from chaos, keeping the cast broad and loud, figuring noise will somehow invite laughs. As a quaking fist of female empowerment, it’s wasteful, not going far enough with Betty Lou’s destructive act of defiance, eventually softening the divide between the married couple when Moyle needs some romance to warm up a frosty effort.
Again, perhaps Bickely’s writing was more complex, or interested in the mechanics of Betty Lou’s trigger-finger liberation. The final product whiffs every at bat it receives, unable to congeal in the manner the creator possibly intended.
As for the violence that disturbed me in 1992, some of it retains its potency two decades later. Because nothing says, “Hey gang, tie your giggle bib on tight” than…
Watching Catherine Keener’s face slashed by a knife when her character verbally crosses Beaudeen!
Or seeing Xander Berkeley get a blade drilled into his ear!
Oh, the laughs this movie has. It’s fun for the whole family.
“The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag” is a terrible picture, absent rhythm and purpose, straining hard to remain charismatic and mysterious while it engages in pure nonsense, crudely arranged by Moyle in a career-killing feature. At least we still have “Pump Up the Volume.”
Even Julianne Moore’s big face can’t save it. And that sucker has saved a TON of movies.
And for those playing at home, this garbage is currently available on Blu-ray. “The Abyss” remains undated, with no release in sight, but one can easily purchase “The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag” in 1080p today.
Coming next week…
David Lynch returns to the old neighborhood.
Nicolas Cage makes an intentional comedy.
And sometimes dead is better…again.