R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Exploitation Celebration, Part 2

Sometimes I just can’t stop myself from going overboard. I’d planned on just doing one column on various facets of Exploitation cinema, because I’d watched a lot of these films in the last few weeks before and after Grindhouse premiered. Much like I’d done for my column that covered most of the Halloween series, I was just going to do quick looks at various subgenres including Revenge movies, Car Chase movies, Serial Killers, Zombies, and other Monsters, but got so wrapped up in the movies I covered that I didn’t leave myself enough room. So this week, I’m going cover a few more of these films, and if it takes a few columns to get this done, then so be it. I know the Summer movies are just around the corner, but I’m having so much fun I’ll worry about those movies when I come to them.

Revenge Is A Dish Best Served Cold (continued)

So even after my column was running long last week I had planned on topping this subject off, but didn’t even get to do that. That means this week you get even more Revenge movies, and then we’ll see where we go from there. So without further ado

Rolling Thunder Starring William Devane, Tommy Lee Jones, and James Best. Directed by John Flynn.

Now many of you will see this title and have no idea what movie this is. Unfortunately, despite the rantings of many fans, including Quentin Tarantino, this film has somehow stayed under the radar and has never had a release on DVD. It’s a shame too that this film isn’t the celebrated picture it should be, especially considering that its director, John Flynn, recently passed away. While your average Hollywood crap-fest clogs up the shelves of your local video stores every week, a great film like this one still goes unnoticed because no one has really had the chance to see it.

The movie stars William Devane (Secretary Heller on 24) as Major Charles Rane, a newly released Viet Nam POW, who spent years in a prison camp only to come back to a world to which he no longer seems to belong. His house is the same as when he left it, but his son, who was just a baby when he left, is now grown, and he finds that his wife has taken on a new lover in his absence.

The screenplay for the film is written by Paul Schrader, who you can tell has mixed feelings about these veterans who returned to a country that didn’t necessarily want them back. There’s such an odd mood to this early portion of the movie as Rane tries to adjust and keep a hold on his son, while his wife threatens to take it all away. Oddly enough, Rane doesn’t even try and attack his wife’s new boyfriend, Cliff (Lawrason Driscoll), but instead is very cordial toward him, only freaking the man out when the Major has him demonstrate a torture technique the Viet Cong used on him. This is actually kind of brilliant because it shows what the Major had to go through and just how tough he is without actually having to do extensive flashbacks to his time in captivity.

This is an extremely slow burn performance by Devane, who’s Rane has to wrestle with his demons while dealing with his family situation. We totally buy Devane’s performance here, whether because of his demeanor or body language; we just know he’s not a man to be messed with. One wonders what would happen to Rane if this film’s second act didn’t take place, but then after a band of lowlifes, including James Best from Dukes of Hazzard, kills his family and take his hand, you know that Rane has finally had enough.

Still though, Director John Flynn keeps the pace slow, building and building as Rane goes to Mexico and El Paso looking for the men he has to kill. The intensity is stifling by the time the Major goes to see his friend, Cpl. Johnny Vohden (a fresh faced Tommy Lee Jones), the man who spent years in the prison camp with the Major and who has also had problems adjusting to civilian life. The scene where Rane shows up to get Vohden’s help is masterfully staged by Flynn, as Rane’s friend doesn’t even need a word to know what’s going on and simply joins the Major on his quest for vengeance.

The last ten minutes of this film is a burst of film making energy, as Flynn stages Rane’s last stand against his attackers as a masterful display of violence. Because of the slow buildup for 90% of the movie, the movie seems to earn this ending and it pays off in spades. Few last acts are as satisfying as the one Flynn gives us here, raising this film to the status of one of the best Revenge movies ever made.

I’d almost say the movie is so good it shouldn’t even be here amongst the other Exploitation movies, but part of the pleasure of watching this movie is the fact that it was made on such a low budget, but manages to outgun most the blockbuster gutter trash that fills theaters. Like a straight forward Point Blank, Rolling Thunder deserves its place amongst the bad ass pantheon and hopefully will get its DVD due soon.

Lady Snowblood Starring Meiko Kaji, Toshio Kurosawa, Masaaki Daimon, and Miyoko Akaza. Directed by Toshiya Fujita
So you’ve seen Kill Bill and you want more screen vengeance and Samurai action. Well if you’ve already exhausted the Lone Wolf and Cub and Zatoichi films, then I would highly recommend Lady Snowblood, one of Tarantino’s main inspirations for Kill Bill in the first place. Filled with awesome sword fights and tons of dismembered appendages, Lady Snowblood’s pseudo-Spaghetti Western feel is a wonderful example of this time period in Samurai cinema.

Now as is usual in Revenge movies, the subject matter is a little unsettling. Based on the Manga by Kazuo Koike, the creator of Lone Wolf and Cub, the story takes place during the time when the Emperor of Japan was taking back control of the country, and many communities were uneasy about the new government and changing their way of life. The film begins as a husband and wife are attacked while traveling the countryside, mistaken for officials by a group of villagers. Killing the man immediately and raping the wife, she tries to take her revenge by murdering one of her attackers, but is subsequently jailed for it.

Obsessed with revenge, she gets herself pregnant by sleeping with prison guards and then her child is raised to take vengeance for her parents on the three remaining criminals.
The film’s star, Meiko Kaji, is the cold as can be Yuki Kashima, the assassin trained from birth for this one mission of retribution. Her solemn visage is a fixture of the movie, calculating and unmerciful as her sword cuts down the men that took away her family and childhood. It may hurt the performance a bit that the film has no lighter moments at all, but I think that the film makers were trying to establish her as a type of female version of Lone Wolf and Cub’s Ogami Itto.

Completely grim for nearly its entire running time, Lady Snowblood is one of bleakest swordplay films ever produced. Director Toshiya Fujita sets up very gritty sequences of bloodshed, as geysers of the red stuff go everywhere. Gore hounds will undoubtedly appreciate the film’s violence; especially one of Yuki’s victims getting literally cut in half. To his credit, Fujita gives the film a terrific look from picturesque snow scenes to grittier battles where the camera movement flies around, similar to that of the roving cameras of Kinji Fukasaku’s masterpiece Battles Without Honor and Humanity.

Some will probably find the film’s tone too grim though, as the movie is a pretty harrowing experience compared to many of its contemporaries, such as many of the Zatoichi films or even other Exploitation fare, such as Sex and Fury and Female Yakuza Tale. This makes repeated viewing more difficult as the film is unfortunately kind of a downer. Then again, you can see why Tarantino would idolize the film so, as the movie is such a spiritual counterpart to his own Revenge epic.

From it’s opening rendition of “The Flower of Carnage”, sung by its star Meiko Kaji, to its use of title cards and time shifts, no Kill Bill experience is finished without experiencing Lady Snowblood. While the film isn’t really “fun”, it is quite memorable and a great addition to any collector of Samurai films. If nothing else, this will definitely appeal to fans of Lone Wolf and Cub-style carnage.

This will conclude this portion of my Exploitation columns. I feel like I’ve dwelled on vengeance for long enough and I’d like to cover some other trashy movies before I could head first into the summer season. So in the next few weeks I’m going to try and cover some vehicular maniacs, Nazi zombies, and killer bears. See you guys next week.

Picture Credits: impawards.com, razyboard.com