Tuesday, February 25, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: Chrome and Hot Leather (1971)

I've seen this movie kicking around on Netflix for a while now, as well as Amazon Prime Instant Streaming, and since it falls into a time period I'm currently interested in (early 1970s) I decided to check it out.

It's 1971, and Mitch, a Sargent First Class in the Green Berets, is looking to return home and marry his fiance. He and three of his Green Beret buddies (one of whom, oddly, is played by Marvin Gaye) are out drinking after running some recruits through a combat exercise, when Mitch learns that his fiance and one of her friends was killed in an automobile accident.

We see the accident before he learns about it, in a scene where the Wizards, a large biker gang led by T.J. (played by the indomitable William Smith), encounter Mitch's girl and her friend driving down the highway. Casey, one of the Wizards, starts harassing the girls, and when they make a sudden turn off the road, she wipes out a couple of bikes. This enrages Casey, who goes after the girls and smashes their car's windshield with a chain (it's a really nasty-looking weapon, reminiscent of a medieval flail). The attack causes the girls to go off the road and over the edge of a cliff, and they crash. Another driver comes along and the bikers take off, but the good samaritan gets to the girls just in time to for Mitch's fiance to whisper "devils...devils". She's not referring to the name of the gang, but rather, their insignia - a smiling devil-face on the back of their cuts (aka, vests - I watch a lot of Sons of Anarchy).

Between the good samaritan's account of the bikers leaving the scene, and his fiance's last words, Mitch puts two and two together and starts trying to track down a biker gang called the Devils. Unfortunately, bikers don't take kindly to a bunch of medal-wearing, spit-and-polish military types going around asking questions about other gangs. Mitch and his buddies get the runaround, and it is clear that they'll need to find another way to track down the Devils.

This is where the movie gets interesting. See, Mitch and his friends are Green Berets, trained in unconventional warfare and out-of-the-box thinking. First, they go and buy themselves Kawasaki dirt bikes (not traditional "choppers", which is important later on during an off-road chase scene). Then they ditch their military uniforms for civilian biker attire. Next, they take a map of the area and break it down into quadrants, each man taking a quadrant of the map and agreeing to meet back after their reconnaissance mission at a predesignated time and place. 

As usual, I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but suffice to say, Chrome and Hot Leather was a pretty entertaining movie. Mitch and his fellow Green Berets carry out their mission of vigilante justice with military precision and special warfare-style tactics. There's a great moment when a couple of the GBs sneak up on some bikers in the dark and take them down, commando-style, that had me grinning. Later on in the film, there's a huge brawl between the GBs and the bikers, and although it is definitely a Hollywood-style fight, it's awesome to see the Green Berets go through the bikers like a scythe through wheat, clearly displaying superior unarmed-combat skills and dropping every biker with one or two carefully-placed blows.

The most interesting aspect of the film is how the "justice" is handled at the end. When I first started this movie, I was expecting a biker-gang version of Rolling Thunder, but instead the film takes a different turn, one that I feel is actually a lot more realistic. Mitch and his fellow soldiers are just that - soldiers - highly-trained, disciplined, and with strong moral values. Although they no doubt went through hell in Vietnam, the war is over for them, and as much as the action junkie in me wanted to see it, there is no "kill-crazy vets go on a bullet-blasting rampage!" in this film. These are guys in full control of themselves and their emotions. Coming at the tail end of the Vietnam war, I actually think this is a really interesting, perhaps even brave, decision on the part of the film makers, to portray these veterans without PTSD or other hang-ups, and show them in the best possible light.

So, if you have Netflix or Amazon Instant Streaming, I recommend checking this out. It was a little cheesy in parts (especially the almost comedic scene where the GBs learn how to handle their dirt bikes in some mud flats), but overall, a pretty cool and unusual addition to the "vigilante war hero" subgenre.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: BRONSON - Blind Rage by Philip Rawls

I ordered a used copy of this somewhat rare volume way back in September of 2012, after reading a great review of the book by pulp reviewer extraordinaire Joe Kenney over on his incredible Glorious Trash Blog. So as to not duplicate effort too much (i.e., I'm feeling lazy this morning), I'll link to Joe's review of this title, and his review is definitely worth reading. I read the book incredibly quickly - I think I zinged through it between one long Friday evening and a lazy Saturday morning. The action moves fast and the writing, as Joe states, is quite good for what is an extraordinarily trashy, lurid piece of 70's vigilante escapism.

However, unlike Joe, I'm just not feeling the love for this book. Most of my problems center around Bronson himself. The back cover copy claims the character used to be a "Knee-Jerk Liberal" who feels that criminals are simply poor misunderstood unfortunates in need of some TLC. However, none of this comes up in the book itself, and it is clear that the publisher is stealing the character from Brian Garfield's DEATH WISH, or more pointedly, the first DEATH WISH movie (naming the main character "Bronson" is a bit of a giveaway). Within the first five or six pages, our "Knee-Jerk Liberal" is already cold-bloodedly plotting how he's going to hunt down and exterminate all those responsible for his family's murders. He goes to a pawn shop and buys a silenced nine-millimeter automatic (funny how he manages to score one of those in 1975 at the first pawn shop he visits...), then almost immediately (it might be that very same night) starts hunting and killing off members of the gang affiliated with his family's killers.

As Joe points out in his review, Bronson has no problem killing anyone, and this is where it starts to get somewhat ridiculous. Supposedly he's doing this because he doesn't want to get identified, but of course within a few days of his rampage, the papers and the police are already fingering him for the murders since - surprise! - when you drop off the grid and then the criminals associated with your family's murder start dying, you're a suspect. In fact, since most of the killing Bronson does in his home town is with the same pistol he's used to kill a number of people who're clearly not in any way part of the killer's gang, if he'd gone to trial any sympathy related to his revenge killings would quickly go by the wayside. For a guy smart enough to wipe off his fingerprints everywhere he goes, and to at least occasionally pick up his cartridge casings, it is clear he hasn't thought a lot of this through. And, of course, if he wanted to be really thorough, he should have iced anyone who provided him with the weapons and information he uses in his rampage (the reporter, the pawn shop owner, the guy who sells him his car). But of course, one would never kill "real" people, those with jobs and who are productive members of society. Hookers aren't really people, right Bronson?

In retrospect, after reading through the book, it feels more like 190 pages of pure vitriol aimed at the "scum of society", and that means gays, minorities, and pretty much anyone else down on their luck. Although the elderly black woman who serves as his informant early on isn't depicted all that negatively, Bronson doesn't even hesitate to gun down in cold blood the young black men who visit her house while Bronson is there after he's discovered her dead (and of course, they're all armed). Sure, they're going to assume he killed her, but instead of using this as an opportunity to show some restraint on the character's part, the author just has him pulling the trigger. And, further on, Bronson and Teresa (his underage Chicano lover) are accosted by a Chicano gang that immediately attacks them in the parking lot of a diner, and they later go after the couple again in the middle of the highway during a blizzard (???). As for the way in which the author handles homosexuality, every gay man in the novel is depicted as some simpering, lisping, limp-wrist who comes onto Bronson like a runaway freight train. Honestly, it reads way too much like the archetypal anti-homosexual viewpoint that a gay man will try to pressure any straight man into having sex, no matter their personality (of which Bronson is entirely lacking) or looks (and we don't even know really what Bronson looks like, since he's essentially a cypher, an empty vessel we're supposed to pour our indignant selves into while reading).

In fact, throughout the book, Bronson has all the personality of your typical first-person shooter POV character, moving from target to target and killing / torturing in all matter of creative ways. I actually had less of a problem with the torture killings than I did with other aspects of the book, mostly because at least the people he tortures are directly responsible for the misery in his life. Again though, there is so little emotional justification - or emotion AT ALL - that I have essentially zero sympathy for Bronson. No, I don't need maudlin reflections on an idyllic white-collar suburban paradise now laid to waste, but Bronson might as well be the Terminator, for all the emotion he displays - and I also stick by that with regards to his relationship with Teresa, which I felt was extraordinarily wooden and stapled on, more of a "Yeah, I love you too - now shut up with your womanly caterwauling!" than anything else. Call me a Knee-Jerk Liberal, but I was pretty disgusted by a scene in the car where Bronson beats the crap out of Teresa for saying something about his family that he took offense to, and she tells him it's okay that he beats her up, as long as he doesn't hate her, and then she proceeds to tear his clothes off and have sex with him, because she's so turned on! 

To conclude, I can see this book reading well for its target demographic circa 1975, but it doesn't age very gracefully. I'm not looking for all the psychological self-reflection Brian Garfield put into DEATH WISH (here's my review of that book if you're interested), but the character of Bronson is so non-existent, I felt the only depiction of his character - and by that I mean, inner character - was in his actions, and those don't create a very sympathetic protagonist.

Friday, February 14, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Hardman #1 - Atlanta Deathwatch by Ralph Dennis

Despite its somewhat unfortunate series name (right up there with The Penetrator, I think), this opening volume in the HARDMAN series is some pretty solid, gritty, sleazy, hard-boiled goodness. I decided to pick up Atlanta Deathwatch after author Lee Goldberg repeatedly sung the series' praises on Facebook, and I was able to acquire a copy cheaply via Amazon. Sadly, it being forty years old and not printed on the highest-quality materials, my copy is pretty fragile. The first page or two fell out while I was reading it, and I had to be careful in holding the book open by the middle of the pages lest the pages start separating from the spine at the bottom of the book.

Hardman (that's actually his last name, not just the series title) is an ex-cop, kicked off the force for dating a woman later revealed to be involved in an organized crime money laundering scheme. Hardman himself was a "clean cop", but once given the boot, he turned to any job that paid the bills. As the story opens, he's tailing a co-ed named Emily Campbell, whose father is a politician concerned that she's getting mixed up with a bad crowd. Hardman follows her to a blacks-only bar, and winds up getting the crap beat out of him by a couple of black guys who show up in a car after Hardman gets eyeballed by one of the bar's occupants. Strong-armed into dropping the job, Hardman bows out and goes to work for another employer, taking a trip to NYC where he picks up a briefcase full of heroin!

Turns out Hardman will do pretty much anything for cash, and his partner, Hump Evans, a towering black ex-football player, feels the same way. They've been making the NYC drug run regularly along with their small-time "problem solving" gigs. When Hardman and Evans get back to Atlanta, they find out Emily Campbell has been murdered, and soon all signs point to a former boyfriend, Eddie Spense, a troublemaker with a history of violent tendencies and bad behavior. Soon, Hardman finds himself working for a Black Mafia kingpin known only as The Man, a shadowy figure who, we discover, has been romantically involved with Emily for a while now.

The plot from this point on gets fairly complex, and I don't want to give away any spoilers, so I'll end the synopsis here. The book cover erroneously labels Hardman as a PI, and at one point Hardman's former partner comments on how he shouldn't really be doing PI work, since he isn't one. The legally ambiguous nature of Hardman's activities is one of the more amusing aspects of the novel. Early on, Hardman's former partner warns him that he better not find Hardman carrying a gun, but then later on has no problem with it when Hardman kills someone trying to kill him first, and at the end of the novel, Hardman even goes on a raid of sorts with Hump Evans and another plainclothes officer, the three of them armed to the teeth. I do like how Hardman has one foot on either side of the law, and - typical for these kinds of sleazy, hard-boiled stories - everyone seems to be more or less okay with that arrangement.

There's a whole laundry list of little gems to be found in this story. Hardman and Hump are always - always - drinking, everything from beer to wine to Scotch to cognac. There's one scene near the end of the book where they're on a stakeout, tailing one of the conspirators, and passing back and forth a half-pint bottle of Hennessy. This being the 70's, and these two clearly having cast-iron livers, no one ever gets so much as a buzz on, the cognac merely providing warmth on a cold night-time stakeout. Practically every time they return to Hump's apartment, the two of them break out a bottle of J&B scotch or a few beers. After all, what good is a paid sleuth if he's not half-sauced all the time?

I also dig the way the story handles guns. Weapons are described very simply, but everyone's got a basic, functional piece tucked away somewhere. Hardman carries around an old Colt .38 Police Positive, and Hump has a .38 Hardman once pocketed off a drunk - a "clean" gun, so to speak. Hump also has a fancy double-barreled shotgun given to him as a gift in his football days. Eddie Spence has a .45 automatic - possibly taken while he was in the Navy - and random hoods have .32 caliber "Saturday Night Specials". Then there's pump shotguns here and there, plus a "machine pistol" described as WW2-era German, probably an unlisted "souvenir" MP-40. The "world" so to speak of the novel gives the feel that everyone has access, somehow, to a "piece" tucked away in a shoebox or a sock drawer somewhere.

There's also a lot of racial tension in the story. On more than one occasion, the "partnership" between Hardman and Hump is questioned, with people typically thinking Hump works for Hardman, rather than with him, but Hardman always makes it clear that they are partners, on equal footing. Hump is also shown to be Hardman's equal in terms of his ability to come up with ideas and angles to the investigation - he's not just a big bruiser, he's smart, too. Things also get complicated when Hardman and Hump deal with The Man, especially with respect to The Man's status with his own men and how they view his dealings with this white ex-cop and his black partner. There's another layer of tension when it is clear not all of The Man's underlings liked the idea of their boss in love with a white woman. I could list many more examples, but suffice to say, the novel handles race in a pretty sophisticated way, especially given it was written in 1974.

I will agree with a couple of comments I've seen on Facebook, that the HARDMAN series looks superficially like a "Men's Adventure" series, especially the look of the cover, the series title and names for the individual books - everything looks like it could be a much more action-oriented series. However, the level of violence is pretty low, and actually a lot of the book's body count takes place off-camera. This is much more of a hard-boiled PI / cop mystery thriller than Men's Adventure. Still, I found the book highly enjoyable, and a very fast read once I got into it - I read the last two-thirds of the book in one evening. I'll probably pick up the next book in the series, although I'm not sure when I'll get to it, but if Atlanta Deathwatch is typical of the series, it'll be a fun, sleazy ride.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Fargo #3 - Alaska Steel by John Benteen

Click the Cover to Visit on Amazon
Click the Cover to Visit on Amazon
John Benteen (aka, Ben Haas) knocked another one out of the park with this, the third installment of his long-running FARGO series. This time around, we find Neal Fargo - ex-soldier and Rough Rider, now mercenary adventurer and gun-for-hire - standing in as a Hollywood extra on the set of a Western film (a nice bit of self-referentialism here, I must say). Another old comrade of his got Fargo a bit part as a gunslinging heavy in a cowboy picture, but Fargo being Fargo, he turns down an offer by the filmmaker to get into the movie-making business full-time.  Of course, he's also a little annoyed that he has to slow down his quick-draw so he doesn't pull faster than the hero of the picture, although the movie star who "kills" Fargo on-camera later asks him to demonstrate how to perform some fancy pistol tricks, rolling and spinning a Peacemaker in a way that'll please the crowds.

However, the pistol-spinning comes to an abrupt halt when Jane Deering, a young and sexy Hollywood starlet, drops by looking to invite Fargo to her home later that night to discuss business (and have sex). Fargo of course accepts, since the only thing he enjoys more than making money and shooting guys in the face is having sex with gorgeous women. Deering has a simple business proposition for Fargo - travel to Alaska and acquire confirmation that her estranged husband is dead. Deering is savvy enough to understand that Hollywood (even circa 1914) is just a meat grinder for talent: young, beautiful, naive people go in, and come out prematurely aged, washed-up and kicked out to pasture as the studios move on to the next big name. But Deering's husband was wealthy, and if she can find proof of his death somewhere in the wilds of the great white north, she will inherit his fortune. Fargo agrees to take on this assignment, although he is reluctant to bring Deering along with him, since she insists she's as tough and capable as any man.

What follows is a great action-adventure story set in the wild and unruly world of early 20th century Alaska. I was especially eager to read this particular novel because, as a native-born Alaskan myself, I was curious to see how Benteen (Haas) portrayed the territory and its people in these largely lawless, pre-statehood days. Overall, I wasn't disappointed. Even today, Alaska is a place for the independent of mind and spirit, for people who are self-reliant and take satisfaction from being in control of as much of their lives as one can be in the 21st century. But a hundred years ago, it really was one of the last North American frontiers, a place where the unwary could be killed by the savage winter cold or the teeth and claws of even more savage predators, by knife or gun or whiskey bottle or icy stream.

The extraordinarily dangerous environment is well-envisioned in this novel, but equally impressive is the amount of action and intrigue that takes place in the story. I won't give away any spoilers, except to say that Fargo and Deering stumble into a situation much more deadly than they'd ever imagined. There are a number of good fights in this book, from fists to knives to pistols and rifles, and of course Fargo's infamous double-barreled shotgun gets a good workout. There is a large battle at the end of the book that feels like something out of the battle for Berlin, 1945. In fact, the only criticism of the book I might have is that the final battle is a little TOO huge and bloody - but of course, that's just crazy talk.

If you've made it to Alaska Steel, you're no doubt a Fargo fan like myself, so I know I don't have to sell you on it, but rest assured, this is another excellent volume in what has quickly become one of my favorite action-adventure series. Pick it up, because you won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

GUEST BLOGGER: Sean McLachlan Discusses Post-Apoc Novel RADIO HOPE

Click the Cover to Visit on Amazon
Click the Cover to Visit on Amazon

Sean McLachlan's new novel, a post-apocalyptic story titled RADIO HOPE, is now available on Amazon for the Kindle. I was lucky enough to read an advance copy, and I thought the story was spectacular - strikingly realistic, but with enough action and adventure to satisfy even the most demanding bullet-junkies.

Here, Sean discusses some of the thought processes behind creating The Toxic World of RADIO HOPE.

Constructing A Destroyed World

One of the rewarding things about a career in writing is that you get to try new things and extend your creative boundaries. My first novel, A Fine Likeness, was a historical horror set in the American Civil War. I used many real characters and situations, and even bits of real dialog culled from contemporary newspaper accounts.

My second novel was a radical departure. Radio Hope is a post-apocalyptic tale. No zombies, no alien invasions, just regular people living with their grandparents’ mistakes. I had to extrapolate a series of disasters from our current world situation to get the toxic, ruined world that was the setting for my novel.

Writers tend to lump themselves into “plotters” and “pansters”. I’m about in the middle of the spectrum. While I do tend to think out the world situation and the basic plot, I leave plenty of room for winging it. I had the three main characters and the setting—New City, the last settlement that could really be called a town. I also traced out the fall of civilization, but many of the details of how civilization fell came to me while I was facing the keyboard, and sometimes those details filled out my world’s background.

For example, I knew that New City was going to be threatened by a bunch of zealots called the Righteous Horde. I didn’t want them to show up until near the end because the story isn’t so much about their attack as it is about how the threat of their attack brings out all the best and the worst in the settlers, and highlights the divisions between citizens and noncitizens. So I wanted to have New City know the Righteous Horde was coming but have plenty of time to stew in the knowledge that their days might be numbered.

Then I asked myself, “Why isn’t the Righteous Horde galloping over the plains and swooping down on an unsuspecting New City like a Mongol army?”

Simple solution: no horses.

So where did all the horses go? My subconscious informed me they got killed off, along with a large chunk of the human population, in the Biowars. Part of humanity’s fall into chaos included deadly biological warfare that killed hundreds of millions of people along with several major species of animals. Horses were one of them, as were cows. It killed off the dogs too. How could my subconscious do such a thing? Because icing Man’s Best Friend will tug at my readers’ heartstrings as much if not more than destroying most of humanity.

The fall of civilization didn’t happen overnight, and so there are bits of high technology still lying around. Most, of course, have since fallen apart, and the lack of electricity except in a few places lucky enough to have solar panels means that most future inventions are useless. I do leave a few hints of advanced tech, though—advanced medicines such as blanket antivirals and weapons like the DShK-4, which is obviously a later model of the Chinese DShK. Actually there are a lot of Chinese-made weapons lying around, but I can’t talk about why that is because I don’t want to be found guilty of Blame. In New City that could get me branded and exiled. . .

So while the future is bleak, it’s a fun place to play if you’re a writer. As you build up your setting often the demands of the story will dictate details. You get to mix the old and the new, science fiction and the 19th century. People wear homespun and grind their grain in handmills while looking up at the bright dot of the International Lunar Base and wondering if humanity will ever make it that far again.

Sean McLachlan is an archaeologist turned writer who is the author of several books of fiction and history. Check him out on his blog Midlist Writer.