Back in the seventies a trip to the British newsagent would have been an essential part of the education for any would-be young explorer. Because, among the weekly copies of Krazy, Beano, Dandy, Beezer and Topper, there was also far more action oriented fare. So, if girls had Bunty, Mandy, Jackie, Misty and Tammy, then boys would have the pocket Commando War Comics, Eagle, Tiger, 2000 AD and Roy of the Rovers. With a heady mix of football, sleuthing and war, junior adventurers were introduced to heroes such as Jimmy of City, Dan Dare or Judge Dredd. But, it wasn't all Fleetway and D.C. Thomson. Because, there were also plenty of American offering from the like of Marvel or DC Comics. Indeed, through a well oiled publishing machine that could set Gramsci's ghost whirling in his grave, it was the United States that introduced us to Captain America. Also to horror comics and the likes of Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk, The Silver Surfer and Supergirl. While these comic strips were fairly interesting to British readers, their adverts were compelling. Because, for us, like those little waxy comic strips that wrapped Bazooka Joe gum, they would provide us with a window on the lives of other kids, elsewhere in the world. Indeed through the promise of banana fingered baseball gloves, x-ray spectacles and freeze dried sea monkey pets, we felt a little closer to our exotic, and excitable, transatlantic brothers and sisters. Through these comics, the pre-internet world felt, to us, like a slightly smaller place. Indeed, it was through American comics that British kids got to learn about Mac. You see, introduced in comic strip form, Mac was the subject of a popular advertising feature. Mac, it seems, was just your average kid. All he wanted to do was hang out, at the beach, with his chick. But, alas for Mac, there is a bully there and he kicks sand in his face. Yet, to quote The Specials, poor Mac can Do Nothing. He is beside himself. He doesn't know where to turn. Luckily for Mac, help is at hand. It comes in the lumpy, chiselled, shape of Charles Atlas; a man so big he was named after a book. Of maps! Anyhow Charles, as the advert modestly informs us, was awarded the title of the world's most perfectly developed man. Indeed, not only perfect, but perfectly poised to help keep the huskies from walking off with everything. Eh? What the fu.... huskies!? Well, erm, it's in the ad! Anyhow, for a small fee, Mac could have an ironhard chest, slimmer waste, tireless legs and even a magnetic personality. As promised, he could become the hero of the beach. All without springs, weights or pulleys! So how could he do it? How could this little man take on the bully of the beach? Simple! All he had to do was, like a determined little Amidar, paint a fence. Oh ...and wax a few cars, sand some decking, catch a fly with some chopsticks, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Indeed, this may not even look like training. But, looks can be deceptive! It must work! After all, this is what Mr Miyagi claimed. And he was from the east! He was, therefore, blessed with Yoda-like insights. So, anyhow, who is this Miyagi fellow? Well, played by Pat Morita, he is a handyman-cum-guru (Fnar! Fnar!). And, like all the Okinawa Miyagis, he only knows about two things: fish and karate. He also tends bonsai, which he helpfully differentiates between banzai, and he has a wind-chime that looks a little like an owl. He was, also, just what Daniel needed at that point in time! Because Daniel, who is played by Ralph Macchio from Crossroads, is in danger of losing his Ali, a Dokken haired cheerleader played by Elisabeth Shue, to William Zabka's leg-sweeping narcissist: Johnny. This is because The Karate Kid is, pretty much, the cinematic adaptation of the old Charles Atlas ad, give or take, with a little trembly, Agadoo-esque, martial arts, as practised by the spindly Macchio. Unsurprisingly, there is a bit of Rocky in The Karate Kid. After all, It was directed by Rocky's John G. Avildsen. Indeed, the film, by coincidence, is a lot like Rocky. The two films share a number of themes. However, unlike Rocky, Daniel is an unlikely champion. For, despite spending hours standing, like Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson, one-legged upon a log, he doesn't look like a winner. "Get him a body bag, yeah!!!", shouts one especially enthusiastic heckler. They don't rate Daniel! Daniel, after all, possesses none of Stallone's hemorrhoid cluster physique. Nevertheless, The Karate Kid is Rocky-like. For example, it has themes such as deference to elders and the wisdom that comes from experience. It is also about working hard, playing by the rules and getting along. Structured around an Enter the Dragon meets Dodgeball type martial arts tournament, The Karate Kid is a film clearly designed to tickle the sweet spot of eighties American audiences. The film was, just like the cars at Casa Miyagi's refinery based dojo, incredibly polished. It was from an age that produced the likes of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Weekend at Bernie's, Pretty in Pink, Weird Science and Back to the Future. Like so many films of this era, The Karate Kid reminded audiences that, in America, anyone can make it. America can make it! This is further underlined with a score that reminds viewers that, group-hug America, "you're the best". The Karate Kid champions the outsider. It celebrates competition. So, while, in reality, social mobility had, across the west, already began to go into reverse in the wake of the oil crisis, the film, in essence, eulogises the ideals of the blue collar conservative. Albeit wrapped within the liberal veneer of a John Hughes-esque class themed romance. In the world of Karate Kid, trying hard leads to success. Especially when your opponent is willing, despite extensive training, to knock themselves out by running head-first onto your foot.
With his father dying, Johnny Hondo is summoned to the hospital. Johnny is a soldier; his dad a general. However, if Johnny were expecting a vote of confidence then, on this day, he would be sorely disappointed. "Johnny, I want you to do what Ross tells you.... the mission. I know there is no chance that you will succeed. None!". Father reaches for the revolver that is stashed beneath his hospital bed. "This", he explains, "has served me well". At this point, the old man may as well suggest that his son, upon return, purchases some agricultural real estate. The mission, as it transpires, takes Johnny to Afghanistan. While there, he must recover a yellow school bus. Sound familiar? A school bus in a war zone? Well, it should ring a bell! Because Afghanistan: Last War Bus is a sequel. Indeed, it repeats the formula from the original, Vietnam based, Warbus. Albeit with a different cast. And a different bus, erm, probably. Nevertheless, on the whole, this is a film in the same ballpark. Think Rambo, think The Gauntlet. It's that sort of thing. Yeah, it's a bloke film! You see, women don't play much of a role in Afghanistan: Last War Bus. Soldiers, townspeople, etc... all men! So, to paraphrase James Brown, this is a man's world. Indeed, very much so. However, there are a few seconds of cool niqab girls-with-guns action to, briefly, break up the sausage-fest. Still, mustn't grumble too much! Because, for all the male bonding stuff going on, the film does have plenty going for it. Not least the presence of a few cult favourites. You see Johnny Hondo is played by the one, the only, iconic and brilliantly awful Mark Gregory! That's right! Only Mark fucking Gregory. Mr. Trash himself! You know, Trash? Bronx Warriors? Nope? Well, he was also in a series of First Blood meets Billy Jack films: The Thunder Warrior trilogy. Anyhow, surprisingly, he is pretty good in this. It seems as though, over the course of the decade, Gregory had upped his game somewhat. Indeed, he certainly seemed, here at least, to possess a confidence that was so lacking in his early roles. He even manages to lose that ever-so-tiptoed walk. Instead, like a man with a mission, he strides purposefully into the action. So, erm, who else? Oh yeah! Bobby Rhodes, the star of both Demons films, is in this! Not, of course, to be confused with Bernie Rhodes, the subject of Special Aka's Gangsters. That song, by the way, was inspired by by Prince Buster's Al Capone which opens with a line states that guns don't argue! Bobby, here, would agree. They don't! Nor, too, do rocket launchers. Anyhow, also in the cast, we find the prolific John Vernon. He adds a touch of class, and experience, to proceedings. The result, though, is nonsense from start to finish. But, it's nonsense in a good way. Because, despite the film coming in for some real harsh criticism in some quarters, this is very much in brain-holiday territory. You are not going to learn anything about the Soviet occupation here. Nor anything about the role of women in late seventies and early eighties Afghanistan. You see, veteran scribe, Dardano Sacchetti, isn't out to make a Chuck Norris-esque propaganda piece. He sidesteps that particular tiger trap. So, here, agenda is largely put aside. Yet, despite sitting, largely, upon the fence, the film does have a Cold War setting. This is underscored by the addition of a female agent, played by Savina Gersak. Here she rocks a rocking Brigitte Nielsen look. This is as seen in communism vs capitalism boxing-fest, Rocky 4! Oddly, and inappropriately, though, she chooses to wear stiletto heels in a combat zone! But, don't bother wasting time dwelling on this point that much. After all, Savina is only in the film for a few seconds. She is more of an adjunct to the central premise. This is because: the star is Hondo! Hondo is a one man war. He is prepared to take on all comers. Russians, Mujahadeen, fellow Americans who betray him. It's all the same to Hondo! He is an equal opportunities killing machine. Because this is a world of killing for fun. For here, we are talking about Macaroni combat in its purest and silliest. This is simply bad-ass bread and butter for those who enjoyed Inglorious Bastards, 5 For Hell, Double Target or Commando Leopard. So, if you dig those, you'll probably dig this. After all, this is pretty much the required tone for this material. We are not talking about Apocalypse Now here. Nor Beach Red or All Quiet on the Western Front. We are talking about a film about a war being waged from a yellow school bus. So, what if a bus against The Red Army is implausible? Like, whatevs! Because from the slow motion explosions to the obligatory A-Teamesque, pimp my ride, mechanics montage, this is a tsunami of silly brilliance. Squared! It's obvious that director Pierluigi Ciriaci wants you to have fun with this. So just as long as you have a tolerance for dialogue that mostly consists of "look out!", "get down!" or "arghhhhh" then you, my friend, will have a blast. Besides, among all the exploding barrels and sandbags the budget even stretches to a couple of Jeeps and a helicopter. Oh, and a tank! One tank. If you are gonna bother being all po-faced about it, for example wondering why Johnny Hondo chooses to disguise himself as John Motson, or whatever, then you are better off looking elsewhere. After all, there is far more serious Cold War themed stuff out there. Police Academy: Mission to Moscow maybe.
Anyone stepping into a video shop in the early eighties could be forgiven for thinking that this was some dawning of a great new era of Italian film. After all, the shelves groaned under the weight of this stuff. There were titles such as The Last Hunter, Thunder Warrior, Anthropophagus, Endgame, Tenebrae, Zombie Flesh Eaters, Cannibal Holocaust, and so on. For a time, Cult cinema all'italiana, it seemed, was the future. It was absolutely everywhere! But, of course, appearances were deceptive. For all was not well beneath the surface. In truth, for Italian Kings of the Bs, this was the beginning of the end. Because, while VHS brought a new audience, for the likes of Enzo G. Castellari, Antonio Margheriti and Andrea Bianchi, cinema was the raison d'être. After all, these were the directors of the second features. Prolific and incredibly resourceful, they would rush out titles to appear on the bottom half of cinema double bills, or to play during the quiet summer season. Talented as they were, they were not really best placed to compete, head to head, with the big Hollywood studios. So, for them, the eighties were not a golden age. It was the age of the decline. Indeed, by the end of the decade the world of Italian cult cinema was a husk. Television was in the ascendancy. Even relocating production to the United States, or anglicising the pseudonyms of directors, couldn't hide what was happening here! For, where once there was originality and style, eventually there were only cheap knock-offs. Sure, a new generation, featuring the likes of Ricky Tognazzi or Michele Soavi, looked incredibly polished. But their work was taking a different direction altogether. For the old guard, it was a time of diminishing budgets and declining production values. Even the once revered Dario Argento failed to regain past glories. While, for Lucio Fulci, a supernatural smörgåsbord of cars, nuns and Nazis, once staples of any psychotronic diet, simply served to conjure apparitions from an age now passed. Yet, despite this, there were still a few notable successes. For so many of these, take a bow Signore Bruno Mattei! Because, throughout the eighties, Mattei would, among an unrelentingly eclectic filmography, make a couple of wildly entertaining Rambo clones. Indeed, seldom could so much fun be mined from headbanded beefcakes blowing up palm trees, straw huts and foliage while shouting "die motherfucker"!!! However, for every Strike Commando there was an After Death, for every Blastfighter there was a Black Cobra. Or three! And for every Devil's Honey, there was a Devil Fish! Yet, for its numerous flaws, Devil Fish really deserves a great movie! Because, it is not short of great ideas. So, in featuring a coelacanth-headed, octopus thing, with the nous of a dolphin, Devil Fish had the potential to be one of the great monster ideas of the age. After all, the Beast with MacGowan Teeth could even, budget permitting, reproduce by a process of prokaryotic-like fission! Although, of course, we don't get to see this happen! Instead, it is illustrated, in all its 8-bit glory, with what looks like some blocky fried eggs. So, the idea of the creature itself is, to paraphrase Inspiral Carpets, cool as fuck! However it simply needed a story and a budget to realise its potential. Sadly, it got neither of these things. The result is that Devil Fish is simply arse-end sharksploitation. It proves to lack the flair of The Last Shark, or Tentacles, for example. Like so many of its mid-decade exploitation contemporaries, Devil Fish, also known as Devouring Waves, or sometimes Monster Shark, fails on so many levels. Indeed, not even the presence of the often brilliant Dagmar Lassander, who here is cruelly called a slut, can really save the day. Where there should be some creature feature fun, we are left, on the whole, to simply marvel at talking and sailing. Although there is plenty of radar and ATARI 2600 styled echo sounder action as scientists hold conversations with speech synthesising computers that say things like "ark says dee nighed". Although, to underscore that there is an aquatic theme to all this nonsense, much of the dialogue is conducted in front of oceanographic charts, fish tanks or wall-mounted shark jawbones. Even when our creature puts in a rare appearance, it is in the form of an occasional, rubbery, floppy, tentacle. Although, to be fair, the film does conclude with a little misty, splashy, shaky footage of a bit of the monster's toothy face. In the dark! Still, now and then, at least we get to hear fish/mollusc thingamajig growl. That's right! The fucker growls! Although, to be honest, it sounds an awful lot like the bottom of a barrel being scraped free of barnacles. Which, in this instance, it probably is. Given his cinematic pedigree, and indeed his esteemed lineage, perhaps viewers should have expected more of director Lamberto Bava. But instead we are treated to some implausible, generic, conspiracy bullshit. Because, the normally dependable Gianfranco Clerici, Dardano Sacchetti, Sergio Martino,and Luigi Cozzi, simply go through the storytelling motions. Nevertheless, on the plus side, Monster Shark is one of the greatest fishtopus movies ever made. Besides, it even features the peerless Michael "Tiger Sharp" Sopkiw! The man is a legend! But is this is enough? Well, no! It isn't. In truth, even more forgiving horror fans may struggle, at times, with all this. For, beyond a few brief moments of post-fish-attack dismemberment, there is even hardly anything here, at all. Even for the gorehounds who tend to be the staunchest defenders of eighties Italian stuff. It needed more monster. It also needed a better, less clam-faced, monster.