Friday, January 1, 2016


Herbert L. Strock directed enough episodes of television shows like “Cheyenne,” “Sugarfoot,” “Bonanza,” “Maverick,” “Colt. 45,” and “Bronco” to know his way around westerns.  The low-budget oater “Rider on a Dead Horse,” (*** OUT OF ****) starring John Vivyan, Bruce Gordon, Kevin Hagen, and Lisa Lu, is an ironic, entertaining, black & white sagebrusher about avaricious prospectors, savage Apaches, a cunning bounty hunter, and a desperate Asian woman who wants to go to San Francisco.  Some critics have compared it with a Spaghetti western because the villain shoots first and doesn’t ask questions afterwards.  One of characters is a bounty hunter without compunctions.  The action occurs largely in stark, rugged, inhospitable terrain like Euro-westerns in Spain, and greed is a pervasive theme as it is in Italian westerns.  The title tune is rather lame.  Frank V. Phillips’ cinematography is crisp, clear, and evocative.  Like Strock, Phillips confined himself primarily to television shows for the most part of his career.  He lensed his share of western television shows, too.  Lucy Lu plays an English speaking girl from Canton who claims that he knows how to handle men.  She has been living out west for three years.  A current of racism courses through this western.

The two gritty prospectors—Barney Senn (Bruce Gordon of “The Buccaneer”) and Adam Hayden (John Vivyan of “Imitation of Life”)--are pretty handy with their six-shooters. Barney is particularly good with his revolver.  After he pays off their African-American partner, Sam Taylor (Charles Lampkin of “Twilight of Honor”), Barney brandishes his Colt’s revolver and shoots Sam in the back without a qualm as the unsuspecting African-American rides away with two bags of gold.  Barney doesn’t display a shred of remorse for murdering poor old Sam in cold blood.  This western draws its grim title from its title sequence that depicts Sam’s corpse clinging to its horse as the steed gallops throughout the credits before gravity detaches Sam’s body from the animal.  Afterward, a cautious Hayden inquires if he is next.  Barney seats his six-gun in his holster and reminds Hayden that he would be lost without Hayden.  “Why I couldn’t go ten miles in this broken country without getting lost.”  They carry out forty pounds of gold a piece.  Hayden and Barney break camp.  Hayden explains that Apaches have been watching them since they came out to prospect for gold.  He points out smoke signals rising from mountain tops between them.  Hayden recommends that they strip everything that they can live without to stay ahead of the savages.  They unload their rifles and smash them.  I didn’t think that was very smart.  Not only do these hombres shatter their long guns, but they also turn their horses loose and set off on foot to the town of Lost River.  

Later, greed gets the best of them during their journey to evade the Apaches.  They tangle with each other in a tough fistfight when they spot Sam’s horse.  The fistfight is imaginatively staged with perspectives from each man’s point of view during the slugfest.  After their fight, Barney wings Hayden, leaves him for dead, and rides off to town.  A thirsty, woebegone Hayden stumbles through the desert and encounters a friendly Asian girl, Ming (Lucy Lu of “One-Eyed Jacks”), at a railway work camp.  She is an entertainer.  She nurses him back to health because Hayden assures her that he has money.  Ming wants half of Hayden’s money.  She tells him that her name means ‘Perfect Flower.’  Meantime, murderous Barney cuts a deal with Jake Fry (Kevin Hagen of “Gunsmoke in Tucson”), a bounty hunter of sorts, to help him capture Hayden and see him strung up.  Barney double-crosses Hayden, frames him for Sam’s death, and tells Jake that Hayden has a thousand dollars on his head.  Jake decides to set out in pursuit of Hayden.  Hayden tells Ming, “A man with a gun is all the law he needs.”  Reluctantly, Hayden agrees to buy Ming a ticket for San Francisco.  What sets Ming apart from most women in westerns is her ability to stand up for herself and take what she wants.   Before Ming and Hayden set off for Lost River, Hayden demands that she return his firearm.  What Hayden doesn’t know is that Ming has removed the bullets from his gun.

As they are trudging through desert, Hayden sneaks up on Jake and gets the drop on him.  Unfortunately, Hayden discovers that he is packing a pistol without bullets, and Jake—“just a business man”—takes Hayden into custody.  Ming knows that money is the only thing that “impresses” Jake.  Hayden explains that they extracted $200-thousand out of their gold mine and Barney back-shot Sam.  Jake cuts another deal with Hayden and decides to ride out after Barney and the gold with dynamite as their secret weapon to use against the Apaches.  At the same time, he lights a fuse to a stick of dynamite that will blast Hayden to death.  Resourcefully, Hayden manages to defuse the TNT and reconfigure it to blast open his cell block door.  When Ming tries to stab Jake, the bounty hunter forces her to leave, and she finds Hayden who has escaped from Frye’s calaboose.  Hayden gets the drop again on Frye and leaves him with one bullet but enough dynamite to blow half of the Apaches off the mountain.

“Rider on a Dead Horse” reminded me of existentialist westerns like Budd Boetticher’s Randolph Scott oaters and Monte Hellman’s two Jack Nicholson horse operas.  The finale is reminiscent of “Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”  “Silver River” scenarist Stephen Longstreet derived his savvy screenplay from James Edmiston’s story who wrote the westerns “Day of Fury” and “Four Fast Guns.”  The dialogue is serviceable and sometimes clever. Uneasy alliances between men and women who don’t trust each other shift back and forth throughout this gritty western that turns out to far better than you’d think.


Sometimes, the best thing a remake can do is remind you how inspired the original was.  Kathryn Bigelow’s rambunctious FBI procedural crime thriller “Point Break” (1991) followed a rookie G-man as he investigated a dauntless quartet of bank robbers on a crime spree that sported latex masks of past presidents.  Zesty dialogue, dynamic performances, striking surfing footage, and slam-bang shoot-outs propelled this invigorating film through its formula.  “Invincible” director Ericson Core, who started out as a cinematographer on actioneers like “The Fast and the Furious,” “Daredevil,” and “Payback,” has helmed a remake every bit as adrenaline-laced as Bigelow’s vintage venture.  Indeed, Core and veteran second unit director Mic Rodgers have staged stupendous stunts galore that are ten-times more electrifying than those Bigelow came up for in her tense Los Angeles based beach saga.  Comparatively, Core and “Law Abiding Citizen” scenarist Kurt Wimmer have shown the good sense to expand their remake beyond the confines of Los Angeles and set it in a larger-than-life, international arena.  Furthermore, the feisty villains in the remake hail from different countries just as their audacious felonies occur in picturesque parts of Italy, Germany, Hawaii, Switzerland, Venezuela, and French Polynesia.  If you cannot getaway to these exotic locales, “Point Break” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) is the closest thing you’ll get beyond an atmospheric National Geographic documentary.  The second best thing that this remake does is deliver realistic, death-defying, style stunts that will have you cringing in fear or clutching the armrests of your seat with white-knuckled fists.  

Extreme sports junkie Johnny Utah (Luke Bracey of “The November Man”) and his best friend, Jeff (Max Thieriot of “Jumper”), have embarked on a freestyle motocross in the rugged Arizona desert.  They straddle their dirt bikes with reckless but nimble abandon along the spine of a treacherous mosaic of knolls while a helicopter shoots video of their suicidal shenanigans.  The montage of these daredevils careening toward the end of the spine and then leaping their bikes like Evel Knievel across a gap to skid to a stop atop a towering monolith of rock the size of a small helipad is harrowing.  Unfortunately, Jeff skids too far, cannot recover, and plunges to his death from the mountain-top.  Jeff’s demise thoroughly devastates Johnny.  Johnny quits, goes back to school, and then graduates from law school.  Seven years later, our hero enters the FBI and finishes the obstacle course at Quantico as if it were a picnic.  Nevertheless, Johnny’s boss, Instructor Hall (Delroy Lindo of “Malcolm X”), isn’t sure Utah will fit in as an FBI agent after he completes probationary period. 

Meanwhile, an eccentric gang of thieves that has been ripping off millions from companies around the globe with ties to American conglomerates has the Bureau stymied.  This intrepid quartet storms the tenth floor of an African diamond company with their bikes and clean sweeps a fortune in jewels.  Afterward, they launch their bikes from the tenth floor and deploy parachutes as they descend.  These fearless Robin Hood robbers surprise the unsuspecting poverty-stricken natives of Mumbai and shower them with a million dollars worth of diamonds.  Later, these thieves raid a cargo plane in flight and release two giant pallets of paper currency in the skies above Mexico.  A blizzard of paper descends onto more unsuspecting but ecstatic natives.  The FBI is hopelessly baffled by both robberies.  Johnny Utah barges into Hall’s office and argues that the felons are extreme athletes.  According to our hero, these criminals are trying to complete a gauntlet of ‘Ordeals’ set up by an environmentalist-guru, Ozaki Ono, who died before he could finish them himself.  As it turns out, the ring leader of the gang, Bodhi (Édgar Ramírez of “The Bourne Ultimatum”), was the man who was with Ono when Ono died.  Roach (Clemens Schick of “Casino Royale”), Chowder (Tobias Santelmann of “Hercules”), and Grommet (Matias Varela of “Easy Money”) are in cahoots with Bodhi.  Hall sends Utah to scrutinize these guys with veteran FBI agent Pappas (Ray Winstone of “The Gunman”) supervising him.  

Johnny manages to infiltrate the gang after he nearly drowns during a surfing accident.  The same thing happened to the Keanu Reeves character in the original.  Instead of the gang’s moll saving his life, Bodhi rescues him.  Our rookie FBI agent is clearly impressed by Bodhi and classifies him as a Zen warrior in search of Nirvana.  Predictably, Utah’s sympathetic attitude puts him at odds with his cynical superiors.  Our protagonist accompanies Bodhi’ bunch on an ‘Ordeal’ where they don flying suits and glide through a craggy mountain pass as if they were acrobatic squirrels on aerial maneuvers.  The camaraderie between heroic Luke Bracey and villainous Édgar Ramírez isn’t as compelling as it was between Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze in Bigelow’s earlier film.  Bodhi surprises Utah because he isn’t interested in keeping the loot as much as giving it to the less fortunate.  Utah struggles to convince the Bureau that Bodhi and his cronies consider themselves crusaders rather than criminals.  Furthermore, they indulge in their insane antics to see when they will reach ‘point break’ where their fear will make them cowards.
Altogether, the new “Point Break” is only half as good as its superior predecessor.  The chief problem is that Core bogs the story down in the eight ‘Ordeals’ that Bodhi and his crew must perform.  Literally, the stunts overshadow the story!  Unfortunately, the movie degenerates into a surfeit of sensational looking Guinness Book of World Records stunts.  Core sacrifices any sense of narrative cohesion because he repeatedly puts the plot on pause to indulge in the aerobatics.  Eventually, the new “Point Break” reaches its own point break, and you find yourself wishing that the filmmakers would stop delaying the inevitable finale.  The last bank heist delivers a genuine surprise as our hero imperils himself to capture the villain, but by then “Point Break” has worn out its welcome.  Although it doesn’t surpass the original “Point Break,” this energetic remake will keep you poised on the edge of your seat.