Monday, June 4, 2007

“We’re not JUST Vegas dancers. We’re trained commandoes.”

In a previous entry, I stated that if TV’s SOLID GOLD dancers had made a movie, that movie might have been JAILBIRD ROCK.

But whilst perusing the “DVD Blowout” standees at a local department store, I came across Kenneth Hartford’s HELL SQUAD (1987), a movie I’ve been desperately wanting to upgrade to DVD since the inception of the format, and one of the last remnants of my musty old VHS collection. As the DVD looks to be mastered from the VHS tape, this was more of a lateral move than an improvement in quality, but for a rare gem like HELL SQUAD, beggers needn’t be choosy. The world is fortunate to have this on disc at all. Only it probably doesn’t know it yet. Silly world.


HELL SQUAD is the really the movie the SOLID GOLD dancers would have made if they’d made a movie. And unlike JAILBIRD ROCK, I doubt they could have made this one any better than it already is.

Film history is littered with projects made by people who fancied themselves auteurs-in-waiting. People who thought they had ideas that could only find true release on celluloid, ideas that could change the way the world appreciates cinema, change the way the world thinks.

Those people did not make HELL SQUAD.


HELL SQUAD, on the surface, appears to be the kind of film someone wagered someone else they couldn’t make. And so they made it. And they won the bet. This isn’t a movie that was pitched to anyone other than a bunch of guys sitting around a poker table who probably though the guy behind the idea would forget the whole notion by the next morning.

Well, Kenneth Hartford didn’t forget his little notion, and HELL SQUAD shall forever remain his crowning achievement, a film so good, he’s not seen fit to make another film since. Although, in all honesty, anyone who’s seen Carlos Gallardo’s 1976 Phillipines exploitationer HUSTLER SQUAD will certainly know where Hartford got the idea.

Our story begins with the test detonation of an “Ultra Neutron Bomb,” a weapon capable of vapourizing out all living organisms without harming man-made structures like buildings and cars (ostensibly so future generations, or aliens, will have less digging to do to piece together a cultural history of the planet earth, but really because it saves a shitload of money in special effects make-up)

Moments later, at the Middle East Consulate, ambassador Mark Stewart (Jace Damon) argues the merits of the U.N. bomb with his anti-war son Jack (Glen Hartford), who plans to go back to the U.S. to warn the world, but no sooner is he out the door than he’s kidnapped by terrorists driving a pea-green ‘71 Plymouth Fury. Jack is promptly chained up, and a rather fey Arab in a big wicker Peacock chair (not unlike Charlie Lum!) demands the “Second Phase Fuel Formula” for the Ultra Neutron bomb. In 30 days. Or he’ll kill Jack.

Faced with the prospect of losing his peacenik son, and unable—for reasons not clearly defined—to call down the wrath of the American military complex or the Central Intelligence Agency, Stewart turns for help to his assistant Jim Rather (Walter Cox), who quickly puts into action an ironclad plan to cut through all the red tape, bring the ambassador’s son back alive, and wipe out the terrorist threat to the civilized world.

Showgirls, baby! Vegas showgirls!


In short time, Jim tracks down the lead dancer at the Imperial Hotel, Jan, played by the lovely Bainbridge Scott, a bottle blonde who looks and sounds like a hot young Cathy Moriarty, but with half the talent. Jan rounds up her girls, and Jim makes the pitch: $500 a week plus $25,000 each upon their return.

Accepting the challenge but kept ignorant of the true mission, they begin their training, which consists of an obstacle course with four obstacles (including tires and a wall), lessons in chopping wood, and firing F-16 rifles with little instruction on how to actually hold the weapons! Soon after, as the girls lounge in the pool in their bikinis, they’re numbers are whittled down to the eight who will complete the mission. Their cover? Dancers, of course, at a club in “Karajan,” an Arab country entirely represented by stock footage.

In no time at all, they’ve arrived at their hotel in “Karajan” which bears a striking resemblance to the Imperial Hotel in Las Vegas, but which one dancer takes great pains to remind us is (cough, cough) not the Imperial Hotel in Las Vegas.

“Well, I read on the plane over here that there’s a water shortage,” sez dancer/commando Gail. “Plenty of oil in this country, but little water, so I suggest we fill the tub and all get in at once.”

So do I, Gail, so do I.


Anyways, the bathtub giggles are soon interrupted by mysterious telephone orders to head out to “Kajmal” to pick up some jeeps at a storehouse crawling with nasty Arabs. Donning their standard military issue uniforms of red berets, tight shirts tied at the belly and khaki short-shorts, the girls engage their swarthy enemies (”Terriss!” as Bainbridge calls them) in a pitched gunfight that leaves not a single Arab standing.

It’s at this point that the girls retreat to the giant hotel bathtub to wash off the stink of battle. But their scrubbing is short-lived, as another mysterious phone call sends them back out on another mission, this time to a military encampment in which two of the ladies commandeer a tank so as to better blow the shit out of everything and kill even more Arabs than they did the first time. It’s only after they’ve decimated the place that they realize the ambassador’s son isn’t there.


It’s at this point that the girls retreat to the giant hotel bathtub to wash off the stink of battle. Again. The phone rings with another mission, but Jan, now savvy, refuses the mission.

Since this is an undercover op, the Hell Squad takes their kick-kick-thrust-turn-kick routine to the Arabic bar that serves as their cover and which coincidentally resembles the Fez Club in L.A., where they promptly one-up the local bellydancers with a tight display of their Vegas glitz.


It’s at this point that the girls retreat to the giant hotel bathtub to wash off the stink of dancing in a bar full of drunks who’ve never seen Vegas showgirls before, but before they even get in the tub, they’re sent out on another mission, only this time, there’s no target to destroy.

So what do they do? They head back to the bathtub, where they sing their battle hymn:

Hell Squad, Hell Squad, we’re the best
Don’t ever put us to the test,
We’re a hell of a fightin’ machine,
We are tough and goddamn mean!”

The festivities are interrupted by yet another phone call that sends them out after another non-existent target.

Thus, after a long day of pointless missions and bathing, the Hell Squad hits the sheets, but their slumber is short lived, as armed terriss break in to their room and march them off to an audience with a nasty shiek called The Shiek, played by Marvin Miller.

Marvin Miller!

Now, you may not be familiar with his name, or even his face, but you might know Miller’s voice, which graced not only the narration of the second GODZILLA movie, GIGANTIS THE FIRE MONSTER (1955, aka GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN), and the first Gamera movie GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE (1966) but also the Japanese import cartoon PANDA AND THE MAGIC SERPENT (1958), the Japanese disaster epic SUBMERSION OF JAPAN (1973; aka TIDAL WAVE), as well as voices for UPA’s GERALD McBOING BOING and MR. MAGOO shorts, not to mention Frank Capra’s famous Bell Laboratories shorts OUR MR. SUN (1956), HEMO THE MAGNIFICENT (1957) and, most famously, the voice of Robby The Robot in the sci-fi classic FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956), a gig he repeated decades later in Joe Dante’s GREMLINS.

HELL SQUAD was Marvin Miller’s final film.

In it, Miller adopts a sort-of Northern Afghanorussian hybrid accent which he uses to intimidate the Hell Squad—who are all chained in their underwear and lingerie to the wall of his torture room which is probably not unlike the ones used by Uday Hussein back in the day. He also uses a tiger on a leash, but in punctuating his angry words by stomping his feet, he stomps on the tiger’s tail and the tiger eats him, allowing the Squad the opportunity to break free of their chains and fight their way out. Lingerie kung-fu ensues. Seriously.

Lingerie Fu!

Hitching a ride in the middle of the desert with a the only helpful Arab in the entire film, the girls arrive back at their hotel, but before they even set foot in the tub, the final call comes in. This time, it’s the real deal. The mission to save the Ambassador’s son.

“Wear swimsuits and snorkels,” commands Jan.

Exotic Locales!

Turns out, the Ambassador’s son is being held in a castle from an old Roger Corman movie, and the girls have to swim across a lake—well, crawl, really, since it’s barely deep enough to cover their knees—to gain access to the castle. After that it’s smooth sailing: crawl through some tunnels, harpoon some Arabs, grab the Ambassador’s son, crawl back across the lake, light a convenient trail of gasoline that blows the castle to smithereens, then jiggle down an airport runway in their bikinis to catch up to the rescue plane as the terriss shoot at them from a pursuing jeep.


Stunts! (take that, Jackie Chan!)


Make no mistake. HELL SQUAD is drive-in trash. But it’s clear the filmmakers never intended it to be anything better, nor were they trying to mock any genre conventions. Clearly they had a little bit of money, access to Vegas locations and a a few willing strippers (these girls ain’t real Vegas showgirls) plus a legendary voiceover artist and character actor with one foot in the grave.

Evidence that HELL SQUAD’s tongue is firmly planted in cheek—as if the whole concept wasn’t enough—can be found in this high-lahr-ious sketch routine that occurs when Jan literally unmasks a cross-dressing traitor in their midst.

Jim: How did you know it was Ann…or Andy?
Jan: It had to be someone in our immediate group. Quite frankly, Ann…or…or Andy was the only one beyond suspicion, besides yourself Mr. Ambassador
Various Hell Squad Members: Well, thanks a lot Jan. That’s really great. Really, Jan.
Jan: I’m sorry gang, but thanks to those weird midnight phone calls, I wasn’t even sure of myself!
Jim: Well, how did you finally zero in on Ann or…Andy?
Jan: When I went to the ladies room right after Ann…or ANDRE had left.
Hell Squad Member: The ladies room?
Jan: Yeah, the toilet seat was up
(music sting)
Jan: Well? Everybody KNOWS that a man has to lift the toilet seat to go to the bathroom! Listen you girls, take Ann…or ANTHONY…downtown to police headquarters…
Ambassador Mark: Wait a minute! What IS your name?
Ann or Andy: FRED!


Never gets stale.

The largest boom mic encroachment EVER!

Somewhat surprisingly, HELL SQUAD didn’t exactly ignite the careers of its principal cast or crew. Not only was it Marvin Miller’s last film, it was also Kenneth Hartford’s, although by all accounts, he’s still alive, and probably still happy that he won that bet. Bainbridge Scott went on to appear in 1990’s DEATH CHASE, directed by David Prior, a middling hack better known for employing has-beens than breaking out up-and-comers, though he would have better luck with some Canadian chick named Pamela Anderson four years later in RAW JUSTICE. She then turned up a couple of times on TV’s MURDER SHE WROTE in the early 90’s, and hasn’t been heard from since. Of all the girls playing the Hell Squad, only one, Maureen Kelly, went on to an appearance on the TV show ROSEANNE. Walter Cox stayed in B-movies for several years.

There was one other bit player in HELL SQUAD who went on to some measure of fame:


He’s the Korean guy on the right. His name’s Phillip Rhee and after this, he would go on to co-star with Korean Bruce Lee clone Jun Chong (aka Bruce Le from Umberto Lenzi and/or Lee Doo-yong’s BRUCE LEE FIGHTS BACK FROM THE GRAVE) in Lee Doo-yong’s SILENT ASSASSINS (1988), which also starred Linda Blair and Playboy Playmate Rebecca Ferratti, who was allegedly paid quite well as one of the infamous female “guests” to Prince Jeffri of Brunei (along with Hong Kong starlet Yolinda Yan and others). Rhee would soon after make his name with a series of four BEST OF THE BEST films throughout the early 90’s before dropping off the radar.

Come to think of it, though, probably the most interesting person in the cast is the woman who plays Ann before she’s unmasked as Andy, Jennifer West. While she’s a moderately better actress then nearly anyone in the Hell Squad, she’s probably better known for her lengthy career in hardcore porn, often under the name Sally Ballgargle.

I got this last bit of info from the Internet Movie Database.


No, really.

Now Playing at a Bargain Bin Near You!

Related Link:
HELL SQUAD at Amazon

“Get that finger outta your ear. You don’t know where that finger’s been."

If you forced me to pick one thing that drives me nuts about Hong Kong cinema, it would be actors playing cops on public surveillance missions constantly pressing their fingers to their conspicuous earphones and mumbling to themselves as they scan the surrounding area.

Whether they’re pretending to read a newspaper, hawk fish balls or sweep the sidewalk, there’s always that moment where the actors simply must fidget with their earphones. This is hardly specific to Hong Kong pictures, but since the actors in many Hong Kong movies—especially no-budget duds like KUNG FU POLICE—often play these scenes on open streets in plain sight of hundreds of oblivious real people scurrying around them while the camera crew shoots from a van parked nearby, the urge to do something with their hands must be overwhelming, if only to mask the embarrassment of having to stand in the middle of a crowded sidewalk in their own street clothes with a two-dollar earphone stuck in their head!

KUNG FU POLICE has many such scenes, but unlike other, better cheapo Hong Kong police procedurals, the filmmakers can’t even be bothered giving the actors something to actually do as they mill around a Wanchai intersection looking all surveillance-y and stuff, so they press those earpieces like crazy!

No newspapers. No fish balls. Just fingers in ears.

It starts off with this guy…
Picture 17.jpg

…then cuts to the star of the show, Jackie Lui, lookin’ smooth.
Picture 18.jpg

Then we go to David To, who actually IS doing something else to blend into the crowd. He’s standing beside a guy that looks a lot like Wong Yat-fei (not pictured) handing out leaflets. These appear to be real leaflets for an actual place, so it’s kinda cool that they threw a t-shirt on the guy and stuck him out there for verisimilitude. But then, up goes that finger…
Picture 19.jpg

Then it’s over to this guy, who nods while holding his fingers to the earpiece, presumably acknowledging a command to look the other way, then looks the other way and, without touching the earpiece, appears to talk to himself. I’m going with the shot of him touching the earpiece for the sake of consistency:
Picture 20.jpg

Then we’re back to David, who’s now moved to the edge of the road, so he can finger his ear and lean on the railing. Gettin’ tired, I suppose:
Picture 21.jpg

Then we cut back to Jackie, who’s become rather engrossed in fingering his ear, to the point that he is no longer surveilling the landscape, which could have been just the break villainous jewel thief Karen Tong was waiting for. Alas, no. We’ll later learn she’s not even in the neighborhood.
Picture 22.jpg

We return to this guy once more to find he’s resumed his fake job of handing out leaflets, but again, important news over his earpiece has necessitated a rather obvious swing of his arm up to his head. If Karen were anywhere in the vicinity when all this is taking place, she would have been long gone to another part of town by this point:
Picture 23.jpg

Jackie again. He’s back to scoping out the busy Wanchai intersection, but must once again press his earpiece in tight lest he miss any vital information about the robbery his unit has been informed will take place somewhere in the vicinity. This time, he responds to something he pretends to hear in his disconnected Walkman earphone:
Picture 24.jpg

Then we’re treated to a shot, which occurs rather quickly, of the lone female member of Jackie’s team performing aural on herself. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a simple cutaway to a couple of actual Hong Kong folks having a chat. But then up pops that finger:
Picture 25.jpg

And finally, the money shot. We’re shown the robbery taking place nearby, but NONE of the cops sees it. They are notified that it’s going down when Red T-shirt guy gets the call…

…on his cell phone:
Picture 26.jpg

This represents about half the ear-touching shots that occur in this single movie, but you get the idea.

Not that this production isn’t burdened with other problems, what with all the ambient noise, poor night lighting, dreary shot composition and creepy Candy Lo impersonations by two wholly non-descript supporting “actresses” who are so non-descript I can’t remember their names.

In case you’re still interested, Jackie Lui is a cop and Karen Tong is a jewel thief newly escaped from prison with Big Plans to stick up jewel dealers who are walking home from work because that’s cheaper to shoot than scenes in actual rented spaces like jewellery stores that can’t be faked in the producer’s apartment or the production offices. Anyways, Jackie’s tai chi classmate owes Karen a few robberies, and his sifu’s daughter has some kind of relationship with him that only exists in her vacant little head. And that’s about it, really.

Most definitely a movie to approach with lowered expectations, but since my purchase of the VCD allowed the production company to make back their entire expenditure, the dirty work’s been done.