Choke Canyon (1986)

Rogue physicist Dr. David Lowell (Stephen Collins) is convinced he is able to develop a clean, infinite source of energy out of sound waves. To prove that particularly interesting theory, he has set up a lab with awesome blinking doodads in beautiful Choke Canyon. There, he’s waiting for the passing of Halley’s Comet because he’ll need to somehow use the comet’s soundwaves for his experiment. Or something – the film’s rather vague about its ridiculous nonsense science, so we’ll just have to take it at its word. Alas, Lowell has leased the canyon from the evil nuclear energy corp of one John Pilgrim (Nicholas Pryor), and Pilgrim really needs the place to illegally dump a huge ball full of nuclear waste there. You’d think the film would go for an “evil nuclear energy corp wants to destroy progressive green science” but that’s not happening.

First Pilgrim’s people – as mid-level henchman-managed by Lance Henriksen himself – try to buy David out, which he of course declines, for the time and place for his experiment isn’t optional (oh, please, don’t ask me why). Then they come back to rough him up, shoot up his lab with submachine guns and probably frighten him into submission, but only manage to make our hero even more determined, if now without a lab. To correct that, Lowell gets on his (non-metaphorical) horse, blows up parts of the facility (or as we know it, a couple of sheds) supposed to house the illegal nuclear waste and tries to blackmail Pilgrim into buying a new lab for him.

From there, things escalate further quickly: Pilgrim calls in The Captain (Bo Svenson), a man with “methods” as well as a flying circus job when he isn’t working as a heavy for an evil corporation. His day job will be important for the film’s biggest set piece. Lowell puts The Captain in a barrel; The Captain brings a mortar. Finally, Lowell kidnaps Pilgrim’s daughter Vanessa (Janet Julian) – who will of course change sides soon enough because what’s hotter than a little kidnapping, right? – and threatens to blow her up(!) which actually gets him his new laboratory, but certainly no peace, so the film will just have to culminate in a big chase scene between The Captain’s air carnival biplane and Lowell and Janet in a helicopter carrying the big ball of nuclear waste beneath them, followed by a tiny little punch up. The practice of physics is clearly more physically demanding than our teachers let on.

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Yes, all of these things really happen in Chuck Bail’s Choke Canyon, and the film truly is as bonkers as this makes it sound. Fascinatingly, despite making no darn sense at all and being the sort of family-friendly action film where automatic weapons, mortar and nuclear waste are applied in various violent ways without anybody ever actually getting hurt, the film doesn’t seem to be meant as an action comedy. It does play most of this awesome and inspired nonsense as straight as you can, which of course does make it much funnier than it otherwise would be, as well as even more bonkers.

Speaking of bonkers, among the awesome elements I didn’t mention when talking about the film’s plot (such as it is) is Lowell’s dress sense, which turns him into more of a cowboy scientist than a rogue scientist, what with his long coat, the appropriate cowboy hat, as well as a disturbingly close relation with his Bollywood approved anipals, a horse and a goat. For the record, I have not the faintest idea why the man has a goat in his lab, but he has, and he clearly loves it very much. In this context, the rather wrong love story between our hero and Janet looks comparatively healthy. After all, Choke Canyon teaches us, what’s a bit of kidnapping and threatening to blow someone up among hot young things?

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Then there’s the final fist fight between Lowell and The Captain, a scene that isn’t satisfied with just showing to guys beating each other to a pulp but also finds Lowell having to shout computations between punches, because of course The Captain comes for his revenge exactly in time for the big experiment. An experiment which for its part generates much pulsing of Lowell’s doodads (and probably his equipment too), a cheap light show, and the scientific revelation that Lowell’s theory works, “if only for a moment”. Well, he’ll have time enough to iron out any wrinkles in his computations, given his need for Halley’s Comet.

Now, all of this awesome, inspired nonsense doesn’t really sound like the kind of thing US low budget film makers are usually up to, nor feels much like it when you’re watching it. I’d really rather call this a nominally American movie, for while director Bail (a veteran of stunt work, as well as a bit of acting) certainly is American, and this was visibly shot in Utah, the film’s producer and co-writer is Greek exploitation film impresario Ovidio G. Assonitis (working for a company with a decidedly Dutch sounding name), one of the other co-writers is Sheila Goldberg, who was responsible for the dubbing scripts of various Italian genre films, and the final writer is the glorious genius we know as director, writer and all-purpose provider of the bizarre Alfonso Brescia, which is about as European exploitation style as any writing team can get. No effort is made by anyone to write (if “write” is what you do to produce a script like this) anything in a more American style.

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As a fan of Brescia’s peculiar sensibilities in particular I’m not complaining, mind you, preferring the man’s combination of the shamelessly bizarre with the outright silly played seriously to most other approaches to scriptwriting I can imagine; particularly since Brescia-style madness seldom is boring.

The great joy about Choke Canyon though is how the Italian writing approach and the mildly off acting (probably caused by the actors’ confusion about what the hell it is that’s going on in the script) collide with the not terribly cheap looking, and generally impressive shots of the desert and rock landscapes, and Bail’s very accomplished version of the classically – by 1986 probably rather old-fashioned to a contemporary audience – American way of shooting stunts and action, mixing approaches to low budget filmmaking that don’t mix all that often, providing the best of both worlds for a precious one and a half hours.


Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

Don’t hunt what you can’t kill: John Woo’s ‘Hard Target’

When Nat Binder (Yancy Butler) comes to New Orleans looking for her long-time estranged, now missing, father, she didn’t expect to find out he was homeless. She certainly didn’t suspect he has become the victim of one of the hunts for the ever popular Most Dangerous Game non-American (possibly even European!) bad guys Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen) and Pik van Cleaf (Arnold Vosloo) hold for their rich perverted clients. Their particular shtick is that the hunt’s designated prey consists exclusively of former military personnel who have fallen on hard times; don’t worry though, they’re certainly not going to play fair when helping their clientele getting their victim.

Given how little Fouchon and his cronies care for human life (or a sensible way to keep their hunts secret, now that I think about it), Nat would probably have a rather short life too, if she didn’t fall in early with former special forces super Cajun Chance Boudreaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme, whose accent is totally not Belgian, no sir), a man quite able to turn the tables on these particular hunters. Well, he was born on the Bayou, etc.

Oh, I still remember how cranky I was when John Woo’s move to Hollywood turned out the way that it did, with the director seemingly trading downwards in every aspect of filmmaking, and quickly turning all his stylistic idiosyncrasies into mere tics and shtick. Now, more than twenty years later, it has become quite a bit easier to look at the resulting films with a more fair eye, and to possibly even enjoy them.

Sure, the part where Woo’s films were now seemingly crapping doves without any good reason (turns out when you overuse a metaphor this much, it ends up signifying nothing whatsoever) is still there, but when I start to let myself be dissuaded by a handful of random dove appearances, I really should stop watching the kind of films I do. But then, Woo’s particular style of dance-like ultra-violence and slow motion melodrama always was and is a thing teetering on the border of self-parody, as directorial styles following the dogma that style is substance (which I am wont to believe in too) inevitably must be; it’s a question of individual taste where awesome stylized gun opera starts and where the silly nonsense begins, or if there’s indeed an difference between them that matters.

Re-watching Hard Target after a decade or so, I realized how close the film actually is to Woo’s Hong Kong work, or rather, how much those films traded in the same kind of silliness and excess. I also realized I’m now very much willing to just go with the sort of world where doves teleport in at the slightest provocation, where crossbow bolts inevitably fly around in slow motion, where gun hands are positioned in the most improbable ways, and where things explode or catch fire for the slightest of reasons, even when the film these things happen in was made in the USA. In fact, I’m at a point in my always regressing taste where I find stuff like this absolutely lovely, and wouldn’t have the film any other way. Particularly when these tasty morsels come with an added dose of kitschy (but not necessarily untrue) poverty porn, the (true) insight that all rich people are evil while the poor have dignity and interesting haircuts, as well as a scene where Wilford Brimley rides in with bow and arrow like a particularly absurd version of the cavalry, and shoots as if he were trying out for the role of Old Man Hawkeye. Indeed, that’s all included in the film – even the Brimley stuff that somehow didn’t manage to give 17-year old me (who took these things far more seriously in exactly the wrong way than I do now) a hernia when I watched it way back when in 1993. The resulting film is indeed pretty darn great.

This does – of course – have a lot to do with some other things Woo still was perfectly capable of when he went to the US. Namely, shooting damn great, tight yet overblown (or is it the other way around) action sequences that never bog down in self indulgence so much they are ever anything less than riveting. Woo has an eye for the set piece, a heart for the melodramatic impact of the physical action, for turning a potentially clichéd shoot-out into something memorable by just the right choice of scenery and props, and a – one suspects intrinsic – knowledge of just the appropriate rhythms between camera movement, the bodies of his stunt actors and actors, and editing. There’s absolutely nothing that isn’t great about the action here.

Woo even finds it in his heart to indulge his star’s greatest weakness, and let’s JCVD do That Kick again, and again, and again. It seems to have been an excellent way to get the man to relax in front of the camera too – at least Van Damme does some of his better acting work here. Why, even his one-liner delivery is for once spot on and even charming. The rest of the cast (except for Yancy Butler who has very pretty eyes and exclusively acts by widening them and letting her mouth pop open and shut randomly) is rather great too, with Henriksen giving one of his patented villain performances with great gusto, and Vosloo working as the perfect foil, while Brimford is appropriately absurd (that’s a compliment), and everybody else dies quite enthusiastically.

So, I’m sorry to add another failure to the list, past me, but you were wrong again. Hard Target is pretty damn great.


Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?