Tom Jolliffe takes a time machine back to the booming straight to video action era of the 90s, and looks at some of the headliners…
Call me sentimental but the idea of a VHS player whirring away in its machine, having been carefully picked from the local video shop gets me all misty eyed. In the grand pantheon of film perusing, the long distant days of the video shop were probably the most enjoyable experience for film fans, something that will never be matched by modern streaming.
In my formative film years the video shop offered a candy store worthy array of wondrous possibilities and before the internet could advise me otherwise, the only thing I had to go on was the recognition of all the biggies I knew of (your Indiana Jones’, Back To The Futures etc), or the video covers. Artwork these days is often uninspired, lacking the eye catching majesty of 80’s and 90’s video covers (and particularly the action and horror genres).
Growing up I was a huge action fan. Everyone knew of Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, but the video shop (or a friend’s older brother’s video collection) promised even more options. This was a time, in the wake of the big boys, you had the level below with Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal vying to compete on the big screen (before all heading direct to video). Then below them were reams of ex-whatevers (usually sportsmen, martial arts champs, soap actors, and more) who were physically able and convincing as an ass kicking action hero. Some had a smattering of success, flirting with big screen, and some began and ended their careers as video specialists. In any case, there were masses, and it almost came a point of fascination to me to delve into the respective CV’s of many of them. If I saw more than two films in the action section with any particular star, the assumption was, they must be quite good. And so with respect to those ass-kicking badasses, whilst some didn’t particularly have the greatest acting ability, they had enough presence to maintain lengthy careers.
So, that brings me to a marathon for the ages, aided largely by films readily available on streaming sites like Amazon Prime and indeed YouTube (if you feel so inclined). I’m doing a run through of as many 90’s action video stars as I can think of and picking one film to watch from each.
Lorenzo Lamas in C.I.A. Code Name: Alexa
Lamas, best known as the jock in Grease, his role in 80’s US Soap Falcon Crest, or mildly popular mid-90’s action show Renegade (an enjoyable show in that kind of Baywatch, A-Team, Knightrider vein) stars here. I had other Lamas options available to me, from oddly artistic underground fighting film Final Impact, to any one of the cheap run and gun trilogy of Snakeeater films. Lamas, often with pantene perfect long hair (usually worn down, or in ponytail) was a kind of Chippendale, catalogue model equivalent to Steven Seagal. He forged a productive career in the 90’s as an action man having spent most of the 80’s as a soap pretty boy.
C.I.A. Codename: Alexa (which spawned a sequel) co-stars O.J Simpson (yes THAT O.J Simpson) and Lamas’s ex-wife and (at the time) regular co-star Kathleen Kinmont. One major plus point this film has is that it is from PM entertainment. A productive company who spent the 90’s firing out masses of enjoyably goofy, carnage filled action films which seemed to bely their meagre budgets and made for TV aesthetics (all appear in full frame). One of PM’s figure heads, Joseph Merhi (the other was Richard Pepin) directs this one, and by this point and beyond was an assured hand as a low budget action director.
The film is cheesy, almost coming across like a skit in It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (think their version of Lethal Weapon) but in every way, this perfectly encapsulates typical C-Level video action of the era. As was the PM calling card though, this packs in a lot of action and some impressive stunts. They were always a good showcase for stunt guys.
Lamas tended to flit between handsomely bland, outright wooden, and a fairly decent actor within his career (call it Wheel-o-Lamas). Occasionally he seemed to be in soap hangover mode, and he’s not brilliant here. Lots of pouting, wistful stares and ‘capture my good side’ kind of acting (for more engaging Lamas, check Final Impact). Still, he’s got a presence. Kinmont is actually pretty decent and gets a bit more complexity from her role than you might expect a woman to get in a 90’s straight to video action film. O.J Simpson actually comes across as the man with the gravitas in this film shot a couple of years prior to ‘that court case.’
Olivier Gruner in Automatic
Maybe it was the somewhat monotone voice or blank stare, but Olivier Gruner seemed to relish playing Cyborgs in some of his best roles. It probably would have been too obvious to opt for his most iconic role (and the one video that caught my eye more than any of his others and indeed many actioners full-stop) in Nemesis.
Whilst Nemesis was a great example of Albert Pyun’s erratic and engaging direction in (reasonably) well funded unrestrained mode, Gruner had an array of pretty solid action films of the era. Savate, which was a breakout film for specialist directer Isaac Florentine (who these days seems to fight over Scott Adkins with Jesse Johnson) was a decent old west kickboxing film, and Sci-Fi actioners like Savage and Velocity Trap also marked enjoyable outings.
Automatic is actually one of Gruner’s most solid. It’s an enjoyable largely single setting action film where Gruner plays an android who breaks programming to protect a female employee being raped by an executive (accidentally killing the attacker). The company sends a hit squad to eliminate the rogue android and the female witness. Gruner’s pretty effective, physically for sure but also in playing the android. He’s suitably mechanical (and that’s not meant as a sleight as it’s so easy to over or even under play a cyborg).
Roddy Piper and Billy Blanks in Tough and Deadly
A two for one special here. Sure, both Piper and Blanks had separate and enjoyable action flicks in the 90’s. Piper, is somewhat unfortunate. His acting career should probably have seen him much higher in the action standings. He was charismatic, physically game, and had a dash more acting ability than many of his contemporaries, and above all…he was in They Live. THEY LIVE!! Sadly for Piper the cult following that the film has gained, didn’t attach quickly enough to forge the longer big screen presence he deserved. Nor did the odd (but oddly brilliant) Hell Comes To Frogtown.
As for Blanks, having been around and about as a stunt guy and bit part man in everything from Lionheart, to Bloodfist, to his most high profile (albeit brief) role in Last Boy Scout, he eventually managed to forge a decent career as an action lead prior to re-inventing himself as the man of Tae Bo. See TC 2000, Balance of Power and indeed another Piper team up with Back In Action (also ace).
In an era when buddy films were still in vogue (including a second Lethal Weapon sequel) this one stood out in the video shop shelf as one to rent. Firstly, it had wrestling legend Roddy Piper on the front alongside Billy Blanks. They were in running pose. Billy has his abs out on display (trademark…Tae Bo) whilst Piper is rocking double denim. It just screamed ‘this is awesome’ and the film itself pretty much lives up to that. It’s fairly standard reluctant partnership fare, but Piper elevates it. He’s an excellent burnout here, and Billy Blanks, while an awkward actor, is an on screen physical force of nature. The combination is brilliant, and given they repeated it fairly well in Back In Action, you do wistfully wish that the Piper/Blanks combo was repeated a few more times in the 90’s.
Frank Zagarino in The Revenger
Frank Zagarino is probably most associated with the Project Shadowchaser series which saw him play an android in three films, before playing an Alien in the fourth (which was kind of a sequel, but not really, but kind of, but…my head hurts…). He never took off to the stratospheric heights of a Gary Daniels or a Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson, but nether-the-less, there are some choice action flicks in his catalogue including Trained To Kill, Armstrong and Cy Warrior (a classic entry into so bad it’s good italian made action). He also has the distinction of having made a film in North Korea called Ten Zan – Ultimate Mission (which was one of several cheap Italian productions Zagarino made).
Zagarino never quite had the presence of many of his rivals and whilst physically crafted via Zeus himself as per many rivals, didn’t come with the M.A world titles that guys like Wilson had. He was a fairly solid actor in some of his straighter roles too in fairness. Zagarino isn’t too bad in The Revenger, which is a cheesy (it opens on an odd montage of Zagarino pumping iron to a porn-tastic soundtrack) and run of the mill action thriller that meanders thanks to a lack of budget (and thus enough set pieces) but what the film does have in its favour is the villain…
Oliver Reed in the midst of career oblivion and taking on any old shite for a paycheck, almost majestically flits between phoning in, sleepwalking and then bursting out in full scenery chew in this film. It’s one of Zagarino’s career highlights, BECAUSE he gets to act opposite Reed. Reed clearly thinks he’s better than this and at the same time probably doesn’t care. It’s a paycheck gig in that long stretch of time when Reed was virtually blacklisted. Still even at his worst, he was still magnetic.
I will return in Part II for more action maestros from the 90’s video realm. Until then let us know your favourite 90’s straight to video action films. Hit us up on social media @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.