Rolling Thunder Triple Feature (DVD)

Betrayed by those they trusted…destruction for all!

Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder line was a series of home video releases in which he shared some of the classic exploitation flicks that inspired him as a filmmaker, It never really took off as a brand. That’s all right, though. It might be a short list, but Rolling Thunder did introduce some obscure gems to new audiences. Here’s three of those forgotten flicks on a single disc, in case you missed them the first time around.

Mighty Peking Man
An earthquake awakens a giant monster deep within the jungle. Heroic adventurer Johnny Feng is hired to travel into the wilderness and catch the beast. Still smarting from a bad breakup, Johnny is eager to get out of the country. Then, he not only encounters the monster, but the monster’s adopted “daughter,” a beautiful blonde jungle girl named Samantha. Eventually, the giant ape reaches civilization, where buildings are toppled, helicopters are swatted, and tanks are stepped on.

Detroit 9000
In 1970s Detroit, a black man is making waves by running for office. When his campaign announcement is the scene of a high-stakes robbery, a white cop and a black cop must set aside their differences to track down the culprits.

Switchblade Sisters
A girl gang, the Dagger Debs, rule the streets. There are rivals to contend with, not to mention all the boys in their lives. The real battle, though, isn’t with guns or knives, but within shifting loyalties among the gang, so best friends will become enemies by the time it’s over.

You could argue that one of these films doesn’t belong, what with two gritty crime flicks and one goofball giant ape movie. Yeah, you could argue that, but I’m totally happy with the lineup, pretty much because Mighty Peking Man is one of my all-time favorite so-bad-it’s-good movies. Give me Mighty Peking Man in a collection with any two other movies and I’ll be happy, just because I’ve got Mighty Peking Man.

Produced by the legendary Shaw Brothers studio, Mighty Peking Man might be an oddity in many ways, but it nonetheless captures what we love about Hong Kong action cinema. Let me explain: Hong Kong action doesn’t have to mean kung fu. The films coming out of Hong Kong during that industry’s heyday were all kinds, including crime thrillers, historical epics, and, yes, martial arts. The thing was that these Chinese filmmakers looked at what was successful overseas, from both Hollywood and in Japan, and they put their own spin on it—first culturally, and second with a sense of extremism, taking the intensity and the craziness of others’ movies, and cranked them up, no matter how low their budgets. Mighty Peking Man is quite obviously a rip-off of King Kong, originally pitched to compete with the 1976 Dino De Laurentiis remake, even though it ended up not being released until a year later. It takes the basic King Kong formula and puts a Hong Kong action spin on it. That doesn’t mean there’s a lot of kung fu or John Woo bullet ballets, but it’s Hong Kong action in its attitude. It has that same sense of extremism that put the best Hong Kong blockbusters on the map.

Keep in mind, though, that you’re not going to see Mighty Peking Man on any “best of” lists that include Hard Boiled, Fist of Legend or Police Story. Truly of its era, Mighty Peking Man is as camp as 1970s camp can only be. Does the giant ape suit look fake and moth-eaten? Boy does it. Are the buildings, tanks, and helicopters obvious models? And how. Do the several hippy-dippy slow-motion-walk-on-the-beach romantic montages go on way too long? You better believe it. The movie has been dipped ankle-deep in the river of ’70s camp, and yet it has that Hong Kong action extremism, so that it takes all that camp and dials it up. The corniness of the man in the ape suit knocking over buildings is made super corny. The lovey-dovey romance is made unbearably lovey-dovey. The movie is corny and cheesy and phony, but good God is it entertaining.

With his anime-stud hair and his derring-do attitude, Danny Lee makes for a convincing action hero as Johnny Feng. Hoping for an international audience, producers cast Swedish supermodel Evelyne Kraft as the jungle girl Samantha, and her cavorting throughout the entire movie in her loincloth bikini is obviously one of the flick’s biggest selling points. Notice how she doesn’t just sit in the giant ape’s hand, she poses on its hand. Nonetheless, her character is interesting. She’s a reversal of the classic Fay Wray trope. Instead of being an outsider pursued and frightened by the monster, she begins the movie as the monster’s companion. She cares for the monster right from the start, instead of being terrorized by it. We’ll just ignore how, despite being raised in the remote jungle with no sign of civilization, her hair and makeup are perfect.

I guess I should say something about the other two movies. Switchblade Sisters is a much-loved B-movie, courtesy of legendary exploitation director Jack Hill (Spider Baby). To be honest, the plot meanders horribly, and there’s very little continuity from one scene to the next, which is frustrating. The fun factor outweighs this complaint, though. The fight scenes are filmed in a rough, you-are-there style, with the highlight being a rumble turned all-out gunfight in a roller rink. Actress Bobby Lee steals the show as gang leader Lace, delivering a number of memorable one-liners with her harsh, shrill voice. This somehow works for both this character and the movie’s tone.

I had never seen Detroit 9000 before watching it for this review. Knowing of its reputation as a Blaxploitation classic, I sat down expecting to be all ironic about it, only to discover that it’s a solid, well-written detective flick. Racial issues are front and center, and there’s a lot of hand-wringing over whether the culprit will be revealed to be a white guy or a black guy, but the movie never struck me as being hateful or mean-spirited. At its heart, it’s a crime flick, and goes through the crime flick motions smoothly. The movie’s centerpiece is a big action chase near the end, where a small handful of crooks are mercilessly hunted down by what seems to be every cop in Michigan. It’s a brilliant exercise in over-the-top excess.

All three films benefitted from a full-on restoration for their original Rolling Thunder re-releases, so all three look absolutely gorgeous now, with bright, vivid colors, natural flesh tones, and deep, rich blacks. The audio, stereo for Mighty Peking Man and mono for the other two, is decent but not fully immersive. All three movies on one disc means we lose the original bonus features. The Jack Hill/Quentin Tarantino commentary on Switchblade Sisters is one of the best commentaries ever made, and it’s sorely missed on this disc. This disc has no extras of any kind.

Three movies, all great fun. If you didn’t snag them the first time around, and if the bonus features aren’t a big sticking point for you, then check this one out.

The Verdict

Mighty not guilty.

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