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Forget the politics, it's just dreary and light on action
on 17 August 2014
Inspired by the SAS's spectacular solution to the 1980's Iranian embassy siege in London, there's a decent 50-minute episode of The Professionals trying to escape from Who Dares Wins, but unfortunately producer Euan Lloyd is much more interested in turning it into a big political statement than delivering a satisfying torn-from-the-headlines exploitation flick. Which is a big problem for someone with as bizarre and confused political views as Lloyd - this was, after all, a man who made a film about mercenaries killing innocent people to rescue Rudolf Hess from Spandau Prison because people should stop going on about Nazi war crimes that happened years ago. This time his target is the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament: he may change their name to the People's Lobby for legal reasons, but makes sure the symbolism is all at the forefront, even down to casting Kenneth Griffith as a Bruce Kent figure and shooting scenes at some of their ban the bomb rallies. In Lloyd's book the CND were a bigger menace than any of the legitimate terrorist groups he could have chosen for his baddies, a bunch of kill-crazy homicidal fanatics and bad performance artists backed by a consortium of those natural allies Arab terrorists, neo-Nazis, Christians, Marxists and the Labour Party and determined to start World War Three by firing a nuclear missile at the Holy Loch submarine base in Scotland "in the name of peace." And unfortunately all too often it's the Daily Mail politics which occupy centre-stage rather than action scenes, which are fairly few and far between, turning what should have been a decent Boys Own adventure film along the lines of his earlier The Wild Geese into something that even the UK Independence Party might think was a bit too silly for one of their party political broadcasts.
What makes it all the more curious is that the screenplay is by Reginald Rose, who wrote the hand wringing liberal classic Twelve Angry Men and that it attracted Judy Davis, still the darling of the left-wing Australian indie scene to play its fanatical psychotic rich-bitch villainess (though she promptly disowned the film afterwards, which makes you wonder if she ever bothered to read the script before she turned up for work). To be fair, when it forgets the politics Rose gives her and leading man Lewis Collins some decent dialogue when they're flirting, but it's hard to shake the phrase polishing a turd from your mind when it's back to the politics and the paper-thin plotting. What plot there is sees Collins SAS man - who naturally can afford the kind of London Mews house that goes for several million these days on a captain's pay - going undercover with Davis' group to find out what their plan is, which he resolutely fails to do because the film's more interested in Daily Mail editorialising than spy work. That their plan will involve a siege is self-evident from the start, settling for the American ambassador's residence (or the main administration building at Pinewood Studios as it's better known) instead of an embassy while Ingrid Pitt's comically short-tempered neo-Nazi uber-bitch holds Collins' wife and child hostage to ensure his co-operation. There is finally some action at the end - though not before yet more political debates that end with Davis openly declaring that she's an idiot - but it's not really exciting enough to compensate for all the jaw-jaw along the way.
This being the 80s and work in British films being hard to come by, it attracts a decent supporting cast: Edward Woodward, John Duttine and special guest hostages Robert Widmark and Robert Webber to try to help get a US distribution deal, and it's competently staged, but it often looks surprisingly cheap without ever being particularly cheerful. Ironically, back in the days when Super 8mm was still the way most people collected films to watch at home, a three-reeler 35-minute cutdown version was released that dispensed with all the padding and tedious politicking and worked rather well. The fact that you never missed the 90 minutes that were cut out pretty much says it all. The SAS deserve a better film than this. And so did audiences.
Arrow's 2012 Blu-ray reissue is a decent transfer, though the film was never particularly good looking or likely to impress on Blu-ray, and includes trailers, and audio commentarty by the director, booklet and, on the Blu-ray disc, a standard definition transfer of Collins' last film.
Boasting a meaningless title that seems solely designed to sound a bit like a then-recent Arnold Schwarzenegger hit, 1988's The Commander is the last of a trio of German-Italian mercenary movies that Lewis Collins made with Antonio Marghereti (aka Anthony M. Dawson) that began when he was still being talked of as a potential James Bond but seemed a straight-to-video afterthought after Timothy Dalton got the part (as did Collin's big screen career: this was his last feature). It's one of those by the numbers action films that manages to be both uninvolving yet surprisingly easy to keep watching - the action scenes aren't particularly good, the characterisation beyond basic (one of the mercenaries has a beard, another has a beard and a bandana, one has a hat and John Steiner `az a beret ahnd a Fronch aksunt) and the plot makes little sense, but it's a surprisingly good looking film that has a good eye for its Thai locations and enough colourful explosions spread throughout the film to keep boredom at bay. Collins is hired by Lee Van Cleef's shifty ex-mercenary-cum-drug-dealer to cause a bit of destruction in his main supplier's Cambodian compound to show him who's boss while Manfred Lehman's spy has that kind of only-in-the-movies overnight plastic surgery that leaves no scars, requires no healing and makes him look exactly like one of Collins' old comrades so he can tag along to find out the identity of a DEA mole that's conveniently on a CD-ROM in the compound that, among others, Donald Pleasance's spymaster wants to get his hands on before anyone else can get a look at it. There are no surprises and it's all very derivative - at one point when trucks are driving through the jungle you even get shots accompanied by synth scoring reminiscent of Tangerine Dream's work on Sorcerer a decade earlier - but it goes over old ground efficiently enough for it to wash over you inoffensively enough.
The extras-free slightly censored version (a cockfight has been cut) is a mostly decent 1.85:1widescreen print, though it suffers from some obvious DNR in places.