Clint: “You guys got a name?”
Clint: “Got a cause?”
Stone: “Yeah. Inflation.”
As I’ve continually mentioned, whatever doldrums and cynicism the decade of Watergate left behind, films of that subsequent period seemed to relish (and happily succeed in a semi-profane manner) in jolting that out of folk. Hey, it was the 70s and there was bound to be a reaction. As it applied to a certain sports comedy, so it does with this. Truly a forgotten film that deserved better. Outré adventure with a dash of the sly comedic by an overlooked British writer-director who’s still churning out better than an average fare on TV and film than many realize.
And no, I’m not referring to the 1995 Hong Kong action-spoof (AKA Meltdown) starring Jet Li, either.
I speak of High Risk (1981).
Before getting into why I say that, for the Millennials reading this, some context for the time that prefaced their arrival. A delightful period for those of us who
lived survived it. As I espoused at a Keith & the Movies roundtable over the summer, “A particular span of time that proved to be one of the most tumultuous for many in the latter half of the 20th century. A decade filled with economic downturns, disillusionment, and the realization that things really could get a Hell of a lot worst. And did.” Frankly, it served as the springboard for the 80s. Don’t just take my word for it.
Eric Schlosser provided insight on the subject through one of the best historical tomes I read in the past year, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. While the journalist’s account primarily dealt with various aspects and byproduct of the political and military deployment of nuclear weapons by the U.S., he intuitively framed ‘the bullish Eighties’ in a passage. Keenly describing the cultural upheaval that came about as a response to the turbulent 70s byway of this country’s cinema:
“In Hollywood, the year 1980 marked the end of the highly personal, director-driven filmmaking of the previous decade. Aside from Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull and Robert Redford’s Ordinary People, due to open on September 19, the most notable movies were big-budget comedies, action pictures, and sequels like Smokey and the Bandit II.”
“In retrospect, it’s easy to say that a particular year marked a turning point in history. And yet sometimes the significance of contemporary events is grasped even in the moment. The United States of the 1960s and the 1970s, with its liberalism and countercultural turmoil, was about to become something different. The year 1980, the start of a new decade, was when that change became palpable, in ways both trivial and telling.”
I believe a film like High Risk couldn’t have arrived in another day and age. The problem was moviegoers were still shaking off the 70s to really enjoy it. Doubtless, some of the issues it raised as character motivation and plot point, hit a little too close to home. Ronald Reagan’s first year in office didn’t immediately turnaround the economy, as the film’s opening scene proved. The background L.A. radio newscast a revealing indicator of the time. So, too, the dialogue of daily woe featured by the tale’s players as they enter the vehicle for their seemingly boys-gone-fishin’ outing.
“It’ll be a hell of a weekend.”
Seeking a break from those drudge-filled, low-income remnants, the group’s leader (known as Stone), prompted by chutzpah of making a documentary on Cocaine, launches a cocksure plan. Take a weekend to head to Columbia and steal $5 million from the hacienda of an American-born drug lord. What could possibly go wrong? Note the parallels to John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972). Four city guys (and a crucial little white dog) out of their depth, look for adventure (screw the Cahulawassee!) in unfamiliar environs. Without the rape and sodomy angle, as that’s so last decade!
Only the Dobermans and an Andalusian see any (ahem) action in this movie.
“If we don’t go ahead with this, forget the dreams. We’re going to be busting our butts for the rest of our lives for a pension that won’t pay the bills.”
Of course, getting in is always easier than getting out of trouble. Another stellar 80s effort by the underrated Raffill would be his The Philadelphia Experiment, which my colleague Richard reviewed over the summer.
Our hearty band counting on an audacious plan no one in their right mind would ever conceive1. What can I say? Welcome to the American 80s where there was nothing (the economy, the middle-class’s livelihood, or a foreign country) we could possibly screw-up. Or, so we’re led to believe. Even the film’s heroes shrug off how easily they avoid trouble early on, waltzing into the drug lord’s villa and gathering the cash. Screenwriter and film director Stewart Raffill conjured the idea for this movie way before the decade really got going, but it’s proved a prophetic, action-filled romp.
A near-perfect analog of the 80s, if I do say so.
Raffill once said of his picture: “There’s a lot of fun and light moments in ‘High Risk’. I see the film being in the ‘Butch Cassidy’ mold. There’s humor, but the dangers, and the bullets, are real. Our heroes are not really competent enough to do what they do. They’re working class guys who gamble their all on a chance to make it rich, and as such, I feel that they will be that much more easily identifiable to out audiences. They are simply doing what we would all like to do — have an adventure that would make our dreams become reality.”2
“A bunch of gringos headed south, heh?”
The venture shared the impertinent “Me Decade” movie-making spirit, that’s “fer sure.” Thinking the characters (and audience) would buy in, no questions asked, that’d be the 80s mindset. As usual, genre films handle social-economic commentary way better than most contemporary drama almost every time. The Master Gunfighter a prime example from the 70s. Robert Rodriguez’s supremely cheeky Machete (2010) another, proving the concept remains as potent as ever even in the new millennium. Influential, too, as High Risk foreshadowed Romancing the Stone by three years3.
With good ol’ American bravado, this undervalued actioner had a better cast than any could have expected, or even hope for, from such a small indie production.
Featuring not one or two, but three Academy Award winners — albeit via previous or later work. They may have been slumming by the 80s, but these old pros always showed up for duty when roll was called (arthritis and all). Anthony Quinn (Viva Zapata!, Lust for Life) stealing the most scenes as the downtrodden revolutionary turned bandit providing the most headaches along the way for our naive Yanks. James Coburn (Affliction) and Ernest Borgnine (Marty) performing yeoman work as the Hefe and the cynical gunrunner supplying the needed tools for our wide-eyed fools, respectively.
“For christssake, we’re on Welfare.”
Not to say the rest were exactly chopped liver. Though he’s likely a Trivial Pursuit question nowadays (Josh Brolin’s dad or Barbara Streisand’s husband), James Brolin was a charismatic lead back in the day, mostly for his television roles. But The Car (1977), The Amityville Horror and certainly Capricorn One (1978) bear his same charm in feature films. Heck, he could have been the next James Bond in Octopussy (1983), if Roger Moore hadn’t signed back up as OO7 again. Such are the breaks sometimes. He’d put in another solid effort as the ambitious and flawed leader of the madcap clusterf*ck.
The ever reliable Bruce Davison as Dan, and Cleavon “Sheriff Bart” Little, who looked damn fetching in a dress by the way, as Rockney, provided much needed contrast to Stone’s Reagan… err, cowboy antics throughout the risky endeavor. Rounding out the intrepid, if a bit inept, foursome, the versatile Chick Vennera provided the most unexpected performance of the cast as Tony — speaking way better Spanish than I ever could. Add in a sharp-witted cameo by the original Bionic Woman, the appealing if too little used Lindsay Wagner, and you ended up with a troupe, like the rising tide, that lifted all boats.
Surely beyond the quick buck expectations producers had in mind for High Risk, which fell through at the box office like a rock because it opened right before another action film you might have heard of — Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Sadly, the film has languished over the decades into obscurity. Originally, I caught the film before President Reagan took his second oath of office. Care of a recommendation by the ever reliable folk over at the local video rental store I once haunted. Honestly, its VHS tape is still the best medium to screen, especially compared to the awful resolution of the cheap Gemstone Entertainment disc I own. If there’s a film that really needs a proper DVD or Blu-ray, it’s this flick. At least a decent MOD. Break it out of the dilapidated jail this finds itself in. Use a rusty chain and broken down truck, if necessary.
Though few have heard of, or even seen, High Risk, it’s well worth seeking out. You can even watch the movie online via YouTube if need be (no studio gives a crap). Stewart Raffill’s diverting feature remains an underappreciated action/heist film. Done with unforeseen flair and inventiveness beyond most in the genre (it’d be a direct-to-video gem if released today) by an independent filmmaker who produced the era’s quintessential ‘B’ movie. A product of its time, the film proudly wears its earnestness on its sleeve, and offers a sly wink for what fostered it to those noticing.
In fact, I’ll boldly state Raffill’s forgotten work has one of the most surprising and fun climatic scenes on film, in my opinion.
All I’ll say is the sequence involved a smuggler’s best friend, the venerable Douglas C-47 Dakota. The weed-emblem proudly on the plane’s side, care of the mellow drug-runners of ‘Adios Airlines’ Stone hired at the beginning of the film. With all due respect to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, without question The Stones’ “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” was never needle-dropped into a movie better than here. It’ll have you cheering. Believe me, and “Do not trust Roberto Reyes.”, whatever you do. Quoting an IMDB reviewer who nailed it: “This was action-movie making at its finest! Great movie… seek it out and prepare to be blown away!”
“Pinches, gringos. All those millions. I had them, now they’ve got them. They don’t even need them! They got everything. They’ve got houses, cars…airplanes. And women. Beautiful, blonde women.
You know what bothers me the most? I’m a general! They’re not even professionals!”
- Raffill’s plot was based on actual Soldier of Fortune magazine articles. “A producer came to me and said I like your movie [The Adventures of the Wilderness Family (1975). He said, ‘I have the money to make a movie, but we have to get started in three weeks.'” ↩
- IMDB ↩
- Both films used picturesque Mexico locations as stand-in for their Columbia setting. High Risk was more edgy comparably. Still, they do share a scene where characters had to cross a narrow and wobbly bridge suspended across a deep gorge, with people shooting at them, as one of their main action sequences. ↩