Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Losers


The Losers
Aka: Nam’s Angels
Directed by: Jack Starrett
USA, 1970
War/Bikers, 95min
Distributed by: Dark Sky Films


One of the things that I remember from decades ago when the video wave hit us, was that apart from the cheap, exploitation horror, action, kung-fu and soft core porn that was released there was a bunch of flicks that all where set in the Vietnam war. There was a pretty fair amount of films that took place in a jungle hell where combat was impossible and the tone was constantly dark and damning, almost as an anti-war statement in themselves. Two of them that still conjure up some vague memories are French director Chalude Bernard-Aubert’s Charlie Bravo 1980 and Jack Starrett’s The Losers 1970.

Jack Starrett was an actor and director of and exploitation flicks back in the seventies and eighties. He’s one of those actors who you know that you have seen when you see him, be it as Gaby Johnson in Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddles 1974, as the sinister Officer Galt in Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood 1982 or in one of his many guest appearances in classic TV serials like Hill Street Blues, The A-Team or Knightrider. But it’s his films that are in focus here, and among them you will find stuff like his biker flicks Run, Angel Run, 1969 and The Losers, also know as Nam’s Angels 1970, both starring William Smith in the lead role. Smith who would later go on to gain fame as the great villain Falconetti in Rich Man, Poor Man 1976 partially directed by Bill Bixby, and yeah, that is the same Bixby who later starred as Bruce Banner/The Hulk.

Starrett also ventured into Blaxploitation genre with Slaughter 1972 starring Jim Brown and Cleopatra Jones 1974 with Tamara Dobson in the lead, two pretty amusing movies with some great performances. It’s also worth checking out Race with the Devil 1975, which Starrett took over from writer and director Lee Frost after he was sacked, starring Peter Fonda and the great Warren Oates which is all about car chases and Satanism.

Apart from being a great character actor an interesting director of cheap exploitation movies and some pretty successful TV shows, Starrett was also a raving alcoholic, and this eternal battle with the bottle finally wrecked his kidneys, and in the late eighties he passed away at the young age of 52.

Starrett’s The Losers may at first simply look like a classic low budget exploitation flick – which it indeed is – but it also has quite a lot of interesting things going on for itself above being a really fun and shit kicking war and biker film hybrid. Being something of a crazy mix of The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Bunch, The Wild Angels, The Losers takes the characteristics of the sleazy biker film and sets them in motion in the midst of the pessimistic awareness of the Vietnam war. It makes a good mix, packs a pretty ferocious punch and manages to engage me all over again even though I have some recollections of how the film all comes burning into it’s climax ninety minutes later.

In a nutshell The Losers is all about a bunch of bikers, the Devils Advocates, who are brought in by the military to take on a risky and dangerous rescue mission. Cutting straight to the chase, the movie starts with two scenes of random assault and bloodshed in the Vietnamese jungle. All to make the point that war is hell and pseudonymous with pain and suffering to all. The band of bikers arrive at their destination and are greeted by the platoon leaders, one who happens to be Major Thomas [Dan Kemp], brother of biker gang leader Lincoln [William Smith]. After mocking the Yamaha motorbikes that they are to use on their daring mission, where they aim to customize the bikes so that they are suitable for the combat to come. Alan Caillou’s screenplay and Starrett’s direction get’s pretty interesting at this point as the characterization of the biker’s starts to take place. It becomes apparent that the band of angels all have a history in Vietnam, and each holds a piece of back story that will matter to their arc’s in the movies narrative. Apart from once being soldiers and being discharged at one point before becoming the Devils Advocates back in the States, they all have personal reasons for returning to Nam like Dirty Denny [Houston Savage who died in an unfortunate biker accident a year after the movie] who wants’ to reclaim the cash that Mama-San [Paraluman] has stolen from him before he was sent back home to the US. And it’s within these back stories that we find the two main subplots elegantly crafted to get us engaged in the bikers and they’re pending mission. Duke [Adam Roarke] has a girlfriend that he finally get’s to be reunited with and intends to bring back to America after the mission, Limpy [Paul Koslo] also finds love in Nam before the mission and when his date turns out to have an infant child with an American soldier, Limpy too decides to take her away from all the fighting and to the safety of suburban life in the US. With all the character establishing set, the bikers customise their rides with the aid of master mechanic Diem-Nuc [Vic Diaz] with among other things Swedish 9mm machineguns, and start laying out the plans for their mission.

The mission is a very complex rescue assignment where the bikers have to ride into enemy territory and rescue CIA Agent Chet Davis [played by Starrett himself] from the camp he’s held captive in. Even there there’s an interesting little catch, as Davis and Link have a tense relationship to each other as Davis once had Link put in prison for five years. Against all odds the bikers set out on their mission and being a movie in the Vietnam War genre, we already know that there’s going to be a series of violent deaths before the movie is over.

Character wise the movie is interesting, as the group become a fascinating mix of archetypal bikers that we’ve seen in former movies of the genre, and surprisingly tender and emotional characters like Duke and Limpy, and even leader Link. And being a movie in the exploitation sphere it’s pretty easy to guess that the positive emotions evoked will be hit the hardest by the polarized negatives waiting in line for them. I appreciate that they have chosen to single out Duke and Limpy to portray two very sympathetic characters, and in a small way it actually works, we invest in these two characters and become affected by their fates. This also rings true for the Link character brought to life by Smith, there’s a scene where he picks up an invalid child and let’s him ride his bike showing a gentler side to the classic Hells Angel character, then there’s a complexity to him as he takes on a task to rescue a man he actually hates.

Scripted by Alan Caillou the movie is surprisingly based on somewhat real events. Supposedly Hells Angel’s president and lead figure Sonny Barger at one point in time wrote a letter to President Lyndon Johnson suggesting that the Hells Angels actually could be sent to Nam as a secret guerrilla platoon... Obviously the President rejected the proposal, but it provided Caillou with an idea for his movie. In 1994 The Losers became part of pop culture as it is seen in a brief scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and the biker gang The Devil’s Advocates lived on to fight again in Michael Levesque’s Werewolves on Wheels 1971.

Starrett and Smith changed Caillou’s original ending into a more darker one, which most likely is why they spent so much time establishing characters and making them sympathetic – even if it’s in minor way, and the during the escape from the camp the crash that Limpy has is actually a real crash that he had when they where trying out the bikes and cameras.

With the little recollection that I have of seeing this movie back in the eighties, it’s surprisingly a great little action piece with a really dark brooding tone, which in many ways still is pretty entertaining. Interesting characters, even if still pretty shallow, but at least an attempt was made to give them some depth and value to hang on to. But all in all the movie is a great little exploitation flick that get’s to the point pretty fast and then makes the most of those Philipino sets to portray that what we fiurty years later already know, that war is hell, and in reality there are no heroes.

Image:
1.85:1

Audio:
Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono

Extras:
Photo Gallery, Radio Spots, Theatrical Trailers, and a commentary track with William Smith and Paul Koslo which is pretty fun as Smith obviously has no real recollection of the movie at all.



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