Tag Archives: Joe Spinell

The Little Dragons (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Karate kids save girl.

Zack and Woody (Chris and Pat Petersen) are two young brothers taking a class in karate. While on a weekend camping trip with their Grandfather (Charles Lane) they meet and befriend a cute young girl named Carol (Sally Boyden) as well as her parents (Rick Lenz, Sharon Weber). Unfortunately Carol also catches the eye of two backwoods hillbilly brothers (Joe Spinell, John Davis Chandler) who along with their hick mother (Ann Sothern) concoct a scheme to kidnap her and hold her for ransom. Zack and Woody then use their newfound karate skills to save their new friend when the local law enforcement proves to be inept.

For a film directed by Curtis Hanson, who gained a cult following for the many horror films that he directed, I was really hoping for something a bit more than just the bland family entertainment stuff, but this couldn’t even come up to that humble level. This stale, B-level movie is devoid of much action and as an adult I was quite bored and could only imagine that children of today would be even more so. Despite the title not much karate action is seen and it’s questionable, with the little that does get shown, whether kids could really pull of the stunts that they do with me feeling that in real-life they probably couldn’t.

Films aimed for kids should then have kids as the main attraction and yet we mainly see the boring adults who are clueless while uttering a corny (supposedly funny) lines here and there. The Petersen brothers have photogenic faces, but not enough acting talent to propel it. The bad guys are just broad caricatures from Deliverance that are neither scary nor humorous. Even in a family film there still needs to be a villain that conveys menace and tension, which goes completely missing here.

To some extent it was fun seeing veteran character actor Charles Lane as a kindly old man as he was usually of the crotchety variety in most of his other roles. Spinell hams it up as a backwoods yokel and earns his acting medal by playing a part outside of his normal realm, but the otherwise limp story and technical approach is a waste of talent and time.

Alternate Title: Karate Kids USA

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: July 18, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 29 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Curtis Hanson

Studio: Eastwind

Available: DVD-R, Amazon Video

Cruising (1980)

cruising2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Cop infiltrates gay underground.

A serial killer is attacking gay men who frequent New York’s S&M bars and young cop Steve Burns (Al Pacino) is chosen to go undercover as a gay and infiltrate these ‘leather clubs’ in order to bring out the killer. However, the job requirements demand that he must be completely isolated from the rest of the force and not carry a gun, which eventually causes a strain on his personal life particularly in his relationship with his girlfriend Nancy (Karen Allen).

The film, which is loosely based on actual events that occurred during the late 70’s and captured in Gerald Walker’s novel of the same name, was considered quite controversial at the time of its production. Protestors who felt the film accentuated the gay stereotype tried to create loud noises during filming and even shine reflective lights on the actors in an attempt to mess up the scenes. In retrospect it is hard to imagine that director William Friedkin is in anyway homophobic as just ten years earlier he did the brilliant adaptation of The Boys in the Band, which remains to this day one of the better films dealing with gay issues. The story certainly does wallow in ugly elements, but also makes the point to describe this as an extreme subculture and  not reflective of the gay lifestyle as a whole, which in my opinion made the film seem more enlightening to New York’s gay underground of a bygone era and less propaganda as its critics ascertained.

To some degree I liked the explicit uncompromising approach, but after a while it became one-dimensional and predictable. The scenes of the killings are unnecessarily prolonged and some of the segments showing large groups of men having sex at a bar come off as overly-stylized and looking reminiscent of a homoerotic scene from a Fassbinder film.

Friedkin does manage to add a few unique touches including having a well-built black man wearing nothing but a jock strap enter the room during police interrogations and violently slap suspects who he felt weren’t telling the truth, which according to one of the film’s advisors was an actual technique used by police at the time.  The way the movie captures the monotony and frustrations of investigating a complex case such as this and leaving open that there may have been more than one killer is also well done and helps elevate this a bit from the usual formulaic cop thriller.

Pacino gives a gutsy performance including one scene showing him tied up in bed naked during some kinky S&M play, but the character’s motivations are confusing particularly the way he so quickly accepts this difficult assignment that most others would be very reluctant to do. The fact that his experiences ends up affecting him psychologically isn’t compelling since that becomes a foregone conclusion right from the start.

Paul Sorvino is perfect as the police captain. His gray hair dye was a little overdone, but his limp was great. Allen has a good moment at the end when she tries on Pacino’s leather hat and coat that he brought home with him and Joe Spinell makes the most of his small role as a corrupt cop who harasses gays only to end up patronizing gay bars on his off hours. You can also spot Powers Boothe in an early role as a hankie salesman and Ed O’Neil as a police detective.

The idea of exposing the dark side of police life is no longer original or interesting and the film’s shock value has lessened through the years and thus failing to leave any type of lasting impression or message.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: February 15, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 42Minutes

Rated R

Director: William Friedkin

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The First Deadly Sin (1980)

the first deadly sin

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Aging cop tracks killer.

Based on the best-selling novel by Lawrence Sanders the story centers around Edward Delaney (Frank Sinatra) a cop only weeks away from retiring who becomes obsessed with tracking down a serial killer who hits people on the back of their heads with a sharp edge hammer as they are walking down the street. The problem is he has only a few clues to go on and his wife Barbara (Faye Dunaway) is in the hospital suffering from a mysterious illness that causes him additional stress and strain.

The film takes a refreshingly different approach to police work than what you will usually find in most Hollywood cop pictures. Instead of emphasizing exciting car chases and thrilling shoot-outs it instead analyzes the meticulous and often times tedious work that goes into following up every little lead while working inside a rigid system and under superiors that aren’t always supportive.  For the most part this is done quite well and at times it is even enlightening, but the whole first half is spent with Delaney trying to figure out what type of weapon was used in the killing even though we the viewer know what it is since we are shown the actual murder at the very beginning thus making the first hour seem quite derivative.

Having the film cut back and forth between scenes of Delaney and the killer doesn’t work. The psycho is played by David Dukes probably best known for playing the man who tries to rape Edith Bunker in a classic episode of ‘All in the Family’. He is a good actor, but scenes showing him alone are clichéd and at times even unintentionally funny. Director Brian G. Hutton should’ve cut them out completely as having the viewer come to realize who it is along with Delaney would have deepened the mystery angle and made it overall more intriguing.

The scenes with the sick wife don’t work either. For one thing we never find out what the mysterious illness is, which is highly frustrating and annoying. It also doesn’t make the plot or character any more interesting. Dunaway is a superior actress and she makes the most of the role’s limitations, but I felt an actress who was more Sinatra’s age would have made it more realistic instead of casting a woman who was 27 years younger.

I have always enjoyed Sinatra in his detective roles, but the character here isn’t as caustic as in some of his older films. For the most part he is pretty benign and even kind of boring. Joe Spinnell though makes the most of his bit part as an overzealous doorman who believes in rigidly following the rules and taking great pride in his doorman duties, but quickly willing to bend them the minute he is given some bribe money.

The final showdown between Delaney and the killer is quite unusual and much more low-key than you might expect. I enjoyed the twist that comes with it, but it lacks a strong impact and the film would have been better served had it had just a little more action.

This movie is also famous as being Bruce Willis’s film debut. He can be seen at the 1Hour 34Minute mark coming into a bar as Delaney walks out. He has a cap over his head and covering his eyes, but you can clearly see just by looking at his mouth that it is him.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: October 3, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 52Minutes

Rated R

Director: Brian G. Hutton

Studio: Filmways Production

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video