You know, pumpkins, a tragic sort of hole opened up in American cinema when Cannon Films finally went under in 1993. No more Menahem Golan . . . no more Yoram Globus . . . no more Viceroys . . . no more slurpings at the narthex. All is quiet.
“But Uncle Mikey, Cannon Films made nothing but low-budget films. And you’re the champion of high-end artsy-fartsy—“
“—quality movies. Why would you, of all people, miss Cannon?”
It’s not really all that complicated and I’ll try to nail it down here. It is of course true that Cannon specialized in low-budget films. Especially during the year when it was run by the Golan-Globus team. But you’ve got to keep in mind that low-budget doesn’t automatically mean bad. More often than not it can mean the opposite. I once said that I would rather see a cheap special effect handled well than an expensive special effect handled poorly. This pretty much applies to my appreciation of films overall. I would much rather sit through an excellent low budget film (e.g. Cassavetes’ “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie”) than a horrible big budget film (e.g. Berg’s “Battleship”).
Now . . . I’m certainly not going to sit here and claim that every film out of the Cannon stable was worthwhile. I’m crazy but I’m not stupid. But Cannon Films (as well as the equally defunct and much missed American International Pictures) filled a niche in our cultural necessities by providing a way for low-budget films to exist. And low-budget films can sometimes entertain us in ways that the big-budget monster productions can’t. The lions and whales are indeed impressive, pumpkins . . . but sometimes we like to look at the sparrows and squirrels.
(Memo to myself: a possible book with the title of “Zen and the Low-Budget American Movie”.)
Let’s focus here on a Golan-Globus Cannon production from 1987: Albert Pyun’s “Down Twisted”. No one is certainly going to claim it on a Top 100 List of Anything. In the paleontology of cinema Pyun sits in the spot once occupied by Bert Gordon or William Castle. Pyun is the man who has brought us things like “Alien from L.A.”, the 1990 “Captain America” (the one with the Italian Fascist Red Skull), “Kickboxer”, Kickboxer 2: The Road Back”, “The Sword and the Sorcerer”, “Omega Doom” . . . if I had the task of marketing an Albert Pyun DVD collection I would title it “Films to Watch When Nothing Else is on Television”.
But for all his cheesiness, Pyun possesses the interesting ability to make intelligent people like at least one of his films. I know someone, for instance, who’s enamored of his 1991 film “Dollman”.
For me it’s “Down Twisted”. In fact I must be one of perhaps five people in North America who possess a VHS copy of the film. It enjoyed (!) a very limited theatrical release after it was made, and wasn’t available for home video release until 1990. It’s only made the most spurious of appearances on cable and, as of this writing, there are no plans to release it on DVD.
“Wow, Uncle Mikey, it must be a real stinker.”
Well . . . yeah, it’s pretty much a time waster. But if all your cable provider is coming up with is the 842nd running of “Bio-Dome”, or “Godzilla vs. Megaguirus” (and dear Encore: you do know there are another thirty or so Godzilla films out there, don’t you?) then “Down Twisted” is a fair way to enjoy some popcorn on a rainy afternoon.
Four people worked on the screenplay (which is an automatic “uh oh” in Uncle Mikey’s early warning system), and one of them was Pyun himself. But one of them was also Gene O’Neill, an Edgar Award winning writer, so maybe that explains the ingredient which brings me back to this film.
Or not. It is, after all, rather simple and familiar. An unscrupulous American art collector (Norbert Weisser) is after a sacred golden relic which is located in a tiny Latin American country. He hires six thieves to steal it and bring it to him in Los Angeles. But a double-cross ensues, and an innocent waitress (Carey Lowell) is caught up in the search for the supposed key to the location of the relic.
As I said: simple and familiar. It’s the old “You have the (insert name of Valuable Goal)” . . . “No, I don’t have it” . . . Slap, Stab, Shoot, Threaten, Bop, Lie, Kidnap, Cheat, Murder . . . “Oh wait, here it is!” plot which has cropped up countless times. But “Down Twisted” isn’t Donen’s “Charade”, Leone’s “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”, Zemeckis’ “Romancing the Stone” (whose plot it comes closest to resembling), and it certainly isn’t Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon”.
For one thing the quality of actors in the film is barely up to B-list quality. Okay, I’ll admit here that I rather like Carey Lowell. She was maybe the one bright spot in “License to Kill” (one of the dreariest James Bond films ever made) and, while not a Hepburn or a Bacall, can easily manage to keep a screen occupied. Here she plays the archetypical Innocent Victim Turned Spunky Heroine and she does a fair to partly cloudy job of it (producing a particularly entertaining turn near the end when she pretty much has to take control of the situation; wearing a business suit and a hairstyle short enough to qualify her for pre-World War II German cinema). Of all the female characters in the film she’s certainly head and shoulders above, say, Linda Kerridge (who plays one of the thieves and who certainly outdoes Lowell in the Sultry Department . . . but I have absolutely no sympathy for any character stupid enough to draw down on Latin American cops in an airport lobby).
And Lowell’s character of Maxine certainly rates higher than Trudy Dochterman as Michelle (the whiny, backstabbing bitch who’s responsible for Maxine getting in the mess in the first place). As a character, Dochterman’s only purpose in the film is to underline the truism that you can choose your friends, but sometimes you have to take what you can get for a roommate.
Speaking of stupid: Thom Mathews plays Damalas (one of the other thieves). He’s also the Designated Badass in the movie . . . which apparently translates to mean he doesn’t have to be concerned about standing out in the broad daylight in the street while calmly attaching a silencer to his pistol. Okay, so the street happens to be in some Latin American fleaspeck of a town. A little subtlety here, folks? Huh?
But you see what I mean? Not a Peter Lorre or a Sydney Greenstreet or Cary Grant in the bunch. A collection of brain cells that would hardly show up on a microscope. But, when you stop to think about it, the religious relic which is the Big Prize in the film hardly seems worth the effort of more accomplished and together thieves. Okay, so it’s solid gold. Big whoop. As a target Alvin & the Chipmunks would’ve had an easier time stealing it than the people Weisser’s character hires.
Let’s be fair, though. The movie isn’t about an efficient and well-staged heist. It’s simply an excuse to have everyone running around and escaping one another, and giving Carey Lowell’s character a chance to fall in love with the Male Lead.
Which brings me to Charles Rocket, who plays Reno. I have to admit that I’ve pretty much managed to miss out on most of Rocket’s career. I do know he was a “Saturday Night Live” grad (trepidations going up and down my spine), and what few comments I’ve managed to locate on “Down Twisted” mention how it was good to see Rocket in a dramatic or action-filled role. I certainly can’t extrapolate from this film how much of a success he would’ve enjoyed had his dramatic repertoire broadened. All he does here is play a quintessential “Bad Boy” (which Michael Douglas did so much better in “Romancing the Stone”, or Harrison Ford in the “Star Wars” films, to name a few). In fact, given his performance, and the way the plot worked out, I found little reason for Lowell’s character to develop any sort of a romantic attachment. Frankly, considering all that her character was put through, had I been Lowell I would’ve taken the pistol from Mathews’ character and put a hole in Rocket’s head without a qualm. Mary Astor certainly developed a reason to fall in love with Humphrey Bogart, as did Audrey Hepburn with Cary Grant und so weiter . . . but a similar dynamic doesn’t exist in “Down Twisted”. At least not to my satisfaction. It was making more sense to me when Lowell was smacking Rocket all over the place; and then boom, they’re all lovey-dovey.
(Okay, maybe I need to be a L.A. waitress who ends up kidnapped and running for her life in a foreign country before I pass judgement here. But I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon.)
So a lot of “Down Twisted” doesn’t really make an awful lot of sense. All that’s really left to enjoy is watching Lowell try to keep alive (and perhaps Kerridge doing her smoldering act), and tuning into the rather nicely arranged soundtrack (which includes songs by both Oingo Boingo and Fine Young Cannibals). As I said, it’s a popcorn-eater . . . a nice little patch of action to fill the time with until Encore finally purchases some new Godzilla films. “Down Twisted” certainly isn’t easy to find. But opportunity has an odd way of appearing at the strangest times.