Monday, May 27, 2013

Stop Trashing "The Junkman" (1982)

For my tenth birthday, my father took me to see a film that I had been dying to see for weeks called "The Junkman" (1982).  I had seen the crudely made TV advertisements for weeks, knowing nothing about the plot because the commercials never revealed that there was an actual storyline to the movie.  All I knew was that it was a car chase action thriller and that the booming, bombastic TV commercial narrator informed us that it was "from the maker of 'Gone in 60 Seconds'" (which I had not seen at the time), that we would "witness the destruction of over 150 vehicles," and that the film was "two years in the making."  The idea that the movie would feature wall-to-wall car chase sequences, and that many vehicles would be destroyed on-screen, was enough to get me to want to see "The Junkman."  I remember my father taking my brother and me to see it on opening night and I thought it was exciting and entertaining.  I do recall, however, thinking that there was a rather tacky and sleazy quality to the movie that might have been slightly off-putting at the time.  I guess I was instinctively recognizing how the movie was made by a scrappy independent filmmaker who was working outside the mainstream of Hollywood with energy and enthusiasm, if not exactly brimming with good taste.

A couple of years ago, "The Junkman" was released on DVD in a remastered version that looked as if the movie had been shot yesterday, but the distinctive rock and roll and country music soundtrack, featuring the likes of Hoyt Axton and The Belmonts, had been replaced with a bland synthesizer score.  Furthermore, as I understand it, mild cuss words were also looped out in the DVD version.  One of the worst changes creatively to the movie was the elimination of an evangelist whose sermon emanates from the radio of a brand new Chevrolet Citation driven by an elderly woman who finds herself caught in the middle of one of the film's major chase sequences.  In the DVD version, the radio sermon is completely eliminated, thus also eliminating the movie's cheeky sense of satirical irony.  The result was a blandly generic action film that completely white-washed all of the quirky elements that I remembered from that first viewing of the movie on my tenth birthday.

However, I recently came across the original version of "The Junkman" again and was surprised at how much I remembered from that initial viewing of the film over 30 years ago.  I particularly admired how the songs "James Dean and the Junkman" by Hoyt Axton, and The Belmonts' stirring and racy "Shake it Sally" were incorporated effectively into the action scenes.  The net effect of using these songs created a kind of Greek Chorus throughout the movie, wryly commenting on the car chase action unfolding on-screen.  Moreover, the action sequence featuring the elderly woman driver in her Chevy Citation was funny again now that I could see it with the radio evangelist soundtrack included as it was originally intended.  Taking these songs and soundtrack elements away from the DVD release of "The Junkman" effectively neutered the original version's crudely swaggering charm.

Which is too bad because "The Junkman" has a fanciful and ridiculous storyline that reflects the sense of humor and chutzpah of the film's star and director, H.B. Halicki, who also made the better-known "Gone in 60 Seconds" (1974).  In certain respects, "The Junkman" was a very personal film for Halicki, as the lead character of the story--auto-junkyard-owner-turned-award-winning action-filmmaker Harlan B. Hollis--was clearly based on Halicki's own life and also reflected his own dreams and ambitions as a filmmaker.  In "The Junkman," Harlan Hollis is overseeing a movie making empire operating out of his former auto junkyard-turned-movie studio.  He is busy putting the finishing touches on his latest action epic, "Gone in 60 Seconds," cooperating with doing a TV profile on his life by Independent Network News reporter Susan Clark (Susan Shaw), as well as planning his teenage daughter Kelly's (Kelly Busia) surprise birthday party.

When Hollis is driving to attend a James Dean Festival in Cholame, California, from his ranch in Paso Robles, he is ambushed by a quartet of assassins, two chasing him on the ground by car and two from the sky in airplanes.  One of the pursuers is the beautiful but sinister, raven-haired assassin known only as Blackbird (Rita Rickard).  The resulting chase involving Hollis, his pursuers, innocent bystanders, reporter Susan Clark and her news crew, and law enforcement personnel takes up nearly a third of the film's 98 minute running time.  Hollis is able to eliminate most of his pursuers, but not before his Cadillac Eldorado crashes into a house and is blown up by a grenade dropped by one of his aerial pursuers.  Hollis is declared dead, but has actually survived the crash and explosion.  An injured Hollis is discovered by Susan Clark and her news crew, who team up with him to uncover who among his associates called for his assassination.  The remainder of the film concerns their efforts to bring Hollis' enemies and remaining assassins to justice while averting a plot to detonate a bomb at the premiere of Hollis' movie "Gone in 60 Seconds" at Hollywood's Cinerama Dome.

A fast-paced, entertaining action thriller that defies virtually all definitions of what constitutes a good movie, "The Junkman" works as a celebration of Southern California's early 1980s car culture obsessions.  There is a lot of great documentary-like footage of the James Dean Festival, that Hollis is driving to when he is ambushed, that gives the movie a flavorful background and setting.  Other Southern California motifs such as the Goodyear Blimp, the Los Angeles-area KNX 10.70 news radio station, the Cinerama Dome, and Independent Network News (which used to air on Channel 13) are also put to good use and help further illuminate the film's context and setting.  Halicki himself is a sympathetic and likeable hero as Harlan Hollis, a self-made man who is also a caring and concerned father to his teenage daughter Kelly.  At one point, before the action has really started, Hollis tells Kelly that "When I was growing up, there were thirteen kids in our family.  And sometimes there just wasn't enough to go around.  So just remember, you have a lot of advantages that most kids don't.  So appreciate what you have, and realize these advantages bring responsibilities.  Don't take things for granted."  As such, the Hollis character has substance, which is why it's easy to root for him when he is suddenly attacked and pursued by assassins whose motives and intent appear elusive at first.

As a director, Halicki stages great and impressive action sequences that belie the film's low-budget and are even more impressive in the context of current modern-day cinema, which rely far too heavily on CGI effects to create a sense of spectacle.  What makes "The Junkman" exciting is the sense of authenticity and immediacy that characterizes the chase scenes.  There are no rear-screen projection in any of the action scenes, which allows one to fully appreciate how the cast and stunt personnel of the film worked hard, and put themselves in harm's way, to stage and participate in "The Junkman's" action scenes.  I particularly like the exciting shots taken in the front of the assassins' vehicles driving at high speed that give you a sense of how dangerous these pursuit sequences were.  I also like the breathtaking images involving two rows of California Highway Patrol Chevrolet Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds, which I believe were newly issued at the time, driving side-by-side almost in formation as they attempt to close in on the assassins' pursuit of Hollis.  I just remember as a 10 year old kid finding the central action sequence in the film so exciting, that I was blissfully happy and glad that my father agreed to bring me to see "The Junkman" for my birthday.

What I now appreciate about "The Junkman" over 30 years later was director Halicki's interesting and contrasting pair of female leads, real-life Los Angeles area newscaster Susan Shaw as television reporter Susan Clark, and the unknown Rita Rickard as the impressively intimidating villainess Blackbird.  Susan Shaw reported for KCOP Channel 13 in Los Angeles and was a ubiquitous presence for local area television viewers in the 1970s and 1980s.  Shaw--who as I understand it now works in the public sector in public affairs consultancy, development and fundraising--always had a likeable, intelligent quality as a newscaster and she puts that quality to good use playing fictional Susan Clark, reporter for the real-life Independent Network News syndicated news broadcasts.  I remember as a kid being startled to see Shaw acting in this film, but welcomed her presence as she makes Susan Clark a sympathetic, ethical individual in the course of "The Junkman."  Shaw turns out to be a decent actress and has a couple of funny scenes with Bruce Cameron and Jack Vacek playing the exasperated-but-loyal members of her TV news crew who all work together to help Harlan Hollis uncover the identity of the people out to kill him.

Shaw handles the comedy sequences of the movie well, including an amusing scene where she argues with her news producer (Dan Grimaldi) while she is on the air during a news broadcast.  The Susan Clark character is given a fairly substantive role in "The Junkman," participating in the center piece car chase while Hollis is pursued by his assassins, rescuing Hollis after it appears he has been killed in the explosion, investigating Hollis' associates, and helping to disarm the female assassin Blackbird in the finale at the Cinerama dome.  It's a better part than most actresses get nowadays in mainstream blockbuster movies and it's enhanced by the fact that she never ends up becoming Hollis' love interest.  At the end of the day, she's there to help solve who is behind the assassination plot, and doesn't end up becoming just "the girl" in the film.  Susan Shaw brings a human dimension to "The Junkman" so that the movie isn't merely made up of one car crash after another. 

As an interesting contrast to Susan Shaw's fair-haired warmth, Rita Rickard cuts a tall, striking figure as the ruthless assassin Blackbird.  With jet-black raven hair, wearing seemingly incongruous librarian glasses, and uttering not one word throughout the film, I always vividly remembered Rickard's character in "The Junkman" and wondered who played her and whatever became of her.  At times, she reminded me of Barbara Steele with regards to the intensity and mystery she brought to the role.  Her silent assassin was more impressive than some of the female villains in James Bond movies.  What I particularly liked about Rickard's work in "The Junkman" was the cool, level-headed calmness she brought to Blackbird.  There was no air of neurosis or rage or bitterness attached to this villainess and, as such, she came across as a collected and reasoned thinker who could get herself out of any jam.  Rickard also avoided making Blackbird a camp figure in the movie, which helps to accentuate the character's sinister quality. 

I liked the sequence when Blackbird's enormous Ford Thunderbird is sideswiped by Hollis' Cadillac Eldorado and falls headfirst down a ravine.  With the car upside down, we see Blackbird's gloved hand reach out from the window of the Thunderbird and, one by one, set on the ground outside the car her glasses, her purse, and her gun, before she slides out the window, calmly changes clothes, and sets her car on fire to leave behind no clues, all scored to The Belmonts' sexy song "Shake it Sally."  It's the sort of scene that James Bond villainesses should have, but rarely get, in order to demonstrate their ability to surmount any challenge.  I also like how director Halicki further underscores the differences between Susan Shaw's fictional Susan Clark news reporter, and Rita Rickard's Blackbird assassin, by giving Rickard no dialogue at all.  Whereas the Susan Clark character makes her living by openly communicating verbally with television viewers, Blackbird makes her living in a world of subterfuge and mystery, where less is more and her actions speak louder than words.  Halicki further heightens the contrast between both women by making the appropriate decision to allow reporter Susan Clark to be the person who ultimately defeats Blackbird's efforts to assassinate Harlan Hollis at the end of the film.  In so doing, Halicki demonstrates how he was actually capable of creating interesting characters to serve the plot of his movie, as well as staging exciting action scenes.

While I wouldn't call "The Junkman" a masterpiece, it's at least an interesting and entertaining curiosity from the early 1980s that is action-packed, excitingly photographed, well-edited, competently produced and decently acted (for the most part).  It delivers what it promises in terms of action and suspense, but also provides a few interesting characters along the way to help maintain audience interest throughout.  It is a movie that deserves a far better critical reputation than it has enjoyed through the years.  As mentioned, Susan Shaw and Rita Rickard provide interesting contrasts as the two female leads, and Halicki proves to be a decent action hero.  It's also an extremely personal movie from director Halicki, demonstrating his hopes and ambitions as a filmmaker and allowing him to examine his interest and obsessions, particularly man's continuing love affair with the automobile.  It's just too bad that "The Junkman" is not easily accessible in its original 1982 theatrical version, with the original music and sound effects soundtrack intact, so that modern-day audiences can experience this idiosyncratic and quirky movie in the same way as I did when my father took me and my brother to see it on my tenth birthday. 

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