Sunday, August 23, 2009

Fernando di Leo's The Violent Breed (1984)

"Children, don't be frightened...I'm here to take you home," says CIA operative, Kirk Cooper (Henry Silva). Cooper's leading a secret mission to free some hostage children, smack during the middle of the Vietnam War, along with his operative buddies, Mike Martin (Harrison Muller) and Polo (Woody Strode). Surreptitiously, the crew gets in successfully, rescues the children, and takes out the enemy. Unfortunately, Silva's Cooper takes a bullet in the chest. Mike and Polo stop to do some roadside surgery on Cooper on the way to the rendez-vous. Before exiting, Polo takes Mike and Cooper's rifles and tells them that he's staying in Vietnam. Mike and Cooper split. "Why didn't he kill us?" asks Mike. "That was a mistake," answers Cooper.
Cut to modern times, e.g. 1984, in New York for Fernando di Leo's The Violent Breed (1984), one of the last films from one of the finest Italian directors of his time. The opening war sequence set up a very intriguing story, at least on paper: Silva's Cooper has risen to the top of the CIA, while Strode's Polo has become very successful in Southeast Asia. Polo runs a ring located near the Cambodia/Thailand/Laos borders, where he buys arms from the KGB to sell to Cambodian guerrillas who use the arms against Chinese-trained Vietnamese. Polo takes his profits to buy drugs in Thailand and sells them to the mafia, who distribute the drugs in the US. Muller's Mike is in the middle and is the typical di Leo protagonist: happy-go-lucky by nature but caught in between the exertion of power from both sides (here Cooper and Polo). When the pressure of the powers comes upon him, Mike, in di Leo fashion is going to play a bit: be evasive when confronted, confrontational when it's unexpected, violent and/or loving when necessary, and live life as if it's his last day. So when Silva summons Mike in for a game of handball and shop talk, Mike asks Cooper: so what do you want me to do about Polo? Deliver a message for me, says Cooper.Mike is sleeping with sexy Sharon Morris (Carole André) and doesn't tell her what he does for a living. Sharon's sunbathing when Mike tells her that he's going to be gone for a while, can't tell her where he is going, or when he is coming back. Expectedly mad, Sharon tells Mike that she won't be here when he gets back. Mike flies off to Bangkok to meet with his contact, Madame Fra (Danika La Loggia) of the local whorehouse which supplies Polo's camp with ladies; and isn't Mike surprised when down in the lobby of his hotel, Sharon meets Mike for a beer. Mike's expectedly mad and takes out for his mission. While at the whorehouse, Mike meets a pretty local prostitute and takes a bath. The next morning, on foot and in his jeans and t-shirt, Mike walks to Polo's camp, only to get ambushed and captured. Polo walks in on Mike and asks him as if he's seen him just yesterday, "What are you doing here Mike?" Mike wants to make an offer.
During the 1980s action films with political and social themes were nothing new (e.g. Ted Kotcheff's First Blood (1982) or Joseph Zito's Missing in Action (1984)). Di Leo's cinema is full of his unique socio-political views, not least of all, his total disdain for conformity and authority. Silva's always shown smiling and on the phone and well-dressed, while Polo's always with a machine gun, often in a hurry, and a man of few words: in one scene, a henchman picks up Polo from a business meeting with the Russians en route to meet the captured Mike. In the jeep, Polo spies some locals on the side of the road and the two have this exchange:
Polo: Who are they?
Henchman: Oh, farmers who don't like working in the fields or try to sell their own or just don't produce much.
Polo: Well?
Henchman: They're supposed to be shot.
Polo: What are you waiting for?
Henchman: Your order.
Strode's Polo stands from the passenger seat of the jeep and guns down the locals. It's a defining scene for his character, but you can also get the sense of how di Leo views those in power (also it's a two to three shot take showing di Leo's mastery of a low budget). Mike, with his murder eminent by Polo and/or the Russians, asks for a beer, preferably a cold one. He also asks Polo, unequivocally and sincerely, you want to untie me? Mike doesn't question Polo or Cooper's motive: they're two sides of power of the same coin. Mike's really like everyone else just caught in the middle of the two's struggle and it's typically meaningless to try to win. The offer that Mike wants to make is unknown as to whether its genuine. Even if the offer's genuine, it probably is not going to matter. Mike's acceptance and/or rejection of his role in this power struggle can be seen by the viewer in the film's final scene.
Not only did the 1980s bring socially- and politically-minded action films, the cinema also did and was expected to, bring the action sequences. The bigger the better the explosions and more bullets, the merrier. The Violent Breed falls short in this area and is probably why it is one of the least regarded in di Leo's canon. Save the opening rescue sequence, where the characters are wearing the local threads from the army surplus store and playing soldiers, a brief martial arts exhibition by Mike on some unexpected guests outside his Bangkok hotel room, and the final sequence, where Mike takes on Polo and company, the action sequences lack the money for the big explosions. The action of The Violent Breed can't quite compare to its Italian or American contemporaries.Silva and Strode are reunited from their earlier di Leo collaboration, Manhunt (1972), where they played a pair of nasty hitmen. Muller and Strode made two films together in 1984, this one and one of the better films to come out of the Italian post-apocalyptic wasteland, Romolo Guerrieri's The Final Executioner. The Violent Breed is only for the diehard di Leo fans.

1 comment:

Mr.LargePackage said...

I remember when I came back to the U.S. from Vietnam. I tried to walk through this one town, but this cop wouldn't leave me alone. Then I got arrested, but I escaped and I ran out into the woods where I held off the entire police force. Then I laid siege to the town, then I cried. Wait, I am confusing my life with John Rambo's. Again. And that is large and in charge.