Saturday, June 27, 2009
The Best Always Have Style
On the long list of films that I’ve never gotten around to seeing for no particular reason, I can now cross off LONE WOLF McQUADE. An oddball mish-mosh of different styles ranging from Leone westerns, DIRTY HARRY and maybe a little Peckinpah & Hawks, it’s probably one of the best Chuck Norris vehicles I’ve seen…not that I’m any expert on Chuck Norris or anything. Released in April 1983, at times it’s so enjoyable on its own pure, drive-in movie level that it made me wish that Norris had continued to make movies in the 80s for actual studios (I should revisit CODE OF SILENCE sometime) instead of winding up as part of the assembly line at Cannon. Of course, as the 80s continued the big studios weren’t making this kind of film very much anymore, but even so LONE WOLF McQUADE feels like it’s exactly what it was trying to be. And Barbara Carrera is in it, always a plus for me.
J.J. “Lone Wolf” McQuade” (Norris, of course) is a Texas Ranger who prefers to work alone which leads to him getting yelled at by his captain (R.G. Armstrong) in the Texas Ranger equivalent of “In this department we do things by the book!” as he is assigned a new partner (Robert Beltran, later of STAR TREK: VOYAGER) to watch over him (Armstrong does in fact say, “Meet your new partner,” at which point Norris gets annoyed). After learning that his ex-wife and daughter are moving to another part of the state, he gets mixed up in a gun-running investigation that leads him to black marketer Rawley Wilkes (David Carradine, R.I.P., so cool that he puffs cigar smoke at a guy holding a gun in his face during his first scene) as well as local rich widow Lola Richardson (Barbara Carerra) who takes an immediate interest in him because--well, I guess because he's Chuck Norris.
It’s not the most intricately laid out plotline to summarize, but that’s ok. Beginning with an extended sequence after the credits that holds the first appearance of any dialogue until several minutes of screentime have passed, LONE WOLF McQUADE speeds along at a nice clip throughout, moving so fast that it wasn’t until pretty deep into the movie that I realized that the film felt more like a bunch of scenes coming one after the other than any sort of actual story. But the action is good and with a decent amount of intentional humor it somehow figures out the right tone for this type of genre film. No doubt about it, this is the Chuck Norris who can mow down an entire gang of horse thieves in the first scene all by himself, the one which all those “Chuck Norris Facts” jokes are made about. As much as is going on, it never tries to insert any sort of drama that we don’t need in this movie and many of the characters seem to be enjoying each other’s company so much that it does lend a certain Hawksian flavor to things— when Norris and Carradine are introduced, it’s hard to believe that these two guys have never met before and even Norris and his onscreen ex-wife (at least, I think she is—it’s never entirely clear) seem to get along better than any such couple in history. Directed by Steve Carver (BIG BAD MAMA and CAPONE, among others), it’s not in any way a revolutionary action film but considering all the ways that these types of things are genuinely lousy it’s to the credit of the guy who made it that he was able to bring skill, flair and a sense of fun, with even the nastier plot turns never becoming too grim (kinda violent for a PG though, even without a lot of blood squibs, not that I’m going to get too upset about it). To help with the spaghetti western vibe (clearly an affectionate tribute though it never tries to simply copy them) there’s also a terrifically enjoyable score by Francesco De Masi who actually scored a bunch of those films back in the day. There’s also a plot point in the second hour, where Norris and a Fed played by Leon Isaac Kennedy fly over a long stretch of desert looking for something that feels lifted right out of the search for the nuclear warheads in THUNDERBALL—even a little of the dialogue sounds the same. It’s a fun movie, ideal for chips and beer and without ever becoming a parody it seems aware of its own absurdity—with a cackling dwarf crime kingpin in a wheelchair it has to be-- that it manages a neat balance between being a straight action film and wanting to have a good time with things. Yes, Norris and Carrera kissing while lying in mud while a garden hose sprays water all around them is completely ridiculous, but I kind of think that the film knows this. The lack of attention to plot sometimes catches up with it—Carrera is introduced as an ultra-cool Hawks chick (possibly an item with Carradine) who rides horses and can take care of herself in a tough bar but as her romance with Norris develops she soon just becomes The Girl (who cleans up Norris’s messy house as well), with the film not really knowing what to do with her. Maybe Carerra wasn’t a great actress (“This is not my idea of fun!”), but…aw, let me have this one. I still like her.
Norris, a regular guy who doesn’t want to drink any beer as fancy as Heineken, is pretty much Norris, coming off as likable and determined, willing to let actors like Carradine, Armstrong, Beltran, Kennedy and L.Q. Jones slightly overshadow him in the charisma department as long as he gets to be in the center of the screen and kick all the ass that he can. Carradine, driving a Mercedes with a license plate reading “CARATE”, is so cool in his first scene that it’s almost too bad that he has to be a bad guy but he’s pretty damn effective as an ultra-evil guy as well. Carerra, driving a Rolls Royce with the license plate “LOLAS”, may be a little stiff at times but she exhibits more flair here than she did in certain other roles and seems fully aware of what her character’s place in the film is, even if her place in the plot isn’t always clear. Beltran is likable in one of his first film appearances and William Sanderson, unrecognizable thanks to some huge glasses, is very good as a jittery informant, a good example of how the film lets a minor character make an impression. Yes, this film isn’t about the actors, but to its credit I got the feeling that Carver never minded pausing in the plot to let them add their own quirks like when Beltran stops to keep from walking under a ladder or Carrrera singing to herself as she vacuums up McQuade’s place. Bits like this throughout add to the good vibes and make the film more likable in the end.
There’s lots of fighting and there’s some pretty big explosions as well—one involves Norris and Sanderson (at least I think it’s them) actually in the shot which looks pretty crazy but it’s still kind of cool. And there’s also the big scene near the end where McQuade is in a truck and—actually, no point in giving it away, but it’s a neat moment of me saying, “Wow, did he just do that? Did they actually think they’d get away with that?” And they do. I’m not going to try to claim the LONE WOLF McQUADE is any better than it is, but it is entertaining whether someone is planning on laughing with it or at it and an enjoyable genre piece of the sort that unfortunately isn’t made anymore. And certainly not with Barbara Carrera playing the female lead.
“Get me a beer, kid.”