TO PROTECT AND SERVE: THE DAVID KEITH INTERVIEW

PART ONE: THE INTERVIEW

David Keith (publicity photo)

David Keith (publicity photo)

So, the press release for the independent action flick AWAKEN shows up in my inbox and, I’m thinking, “Okay… the premise sounds promising but, I’m so afraid it’s gonna be nothing more than a distaff version of Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme.” But, then, the clincher… the movie features one of my favorite character actors, David Keith. And… he’s doing interviews! How could I possibly turn this one down?

Obviously, I couldn‘t and… I didn’t. So, before we take an in-depth look at the movie, here’s my conversation with actor David Keith. While Mister Keith may not really be as intense as many of his characters, he is nonetheless a passionate performer and a compassionate human being.

THE MULE: It’s a pleasure to speak to you. Since you’re on a little bit of a schedule here, let’s talk about AWAKEN and then a couple of other questions. How did you become involved in this project?

DAVID: The producer, Natalie Burn, is an old friend of mine and she asked if I would do her a favor and come play a small role in the movie.

AWAKEN (Natalie Burn, David Keith) (publicity photo)

AWAKEN (Natalie Burn, David Keith) (publicity photo)

THE MULE: You said “small role.” It is a rather small role but, in my mind anyway, fairly pivotal to the story.

DAVID: Yeah… you can’t really harvest organs without a surgeon.

THE MULE: Right. I didn’t wanna give anything away. I guess I shoulda read the back of the box… it may very well tell us what the bad guys are kinda up to. I got the feeling that, possibly, your character wasn’t so much into the way things were being done, but you were just there to help where you could.

DAVID: Well, all he’s washed up. He’s probably lost his license, he’s a drunk and he’s just trying to live out the rest of his days, making some money. But, he does want to do it right. If it’s going to be done, he certainly has given up on the moral question of what he’s doing but, he doesn’t want these kids brought in dead, ’cause then the organs die. He wants to harvest the organs while the person’s still breathing. Dead makes it a little worse; that makes his job work better… you take a live organ over somebody who’s dead or beaten up.

THE MULE: So, this whole thing… there are bad-assess wall-to-wall. I mean, from, I guess, former bad-asses to current bad-asses to future bad-asses… everybody just kinda comes in and pretty much kicks butt and worries about the fall-out later. It’s gotta be fun to work on something that’s almost wall-to-wall action.

DAVID: Well, of course, I represent the part where there isn’t much action. Most of the fighting and action that you see went on when I wasn’t on set. Now, there were some fight scenes shot while I was waiting to shoot my scenes, so I saw a couple of those things. I was only there three or four days and those were the days that they were shooting my scenes, which was a lot more dialogue. I was involved in the dialogue scenes more than in the action.

THE MULE: Okay. So, you didn’t get to actually partake, so to speak, of any of the bad-assery.

DAVID: Not really. No.

LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT (David Keith) (publicity still)

LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT (David Keith) (publicity still)

THE MULE: Speaking of which, I’ve gotta tell you that one of my all-time favorite episodes of LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT is the one that you played the character “Hawk.”

DAVID: Yeah… I was kind of hoping they would make a spin-off of that character.

THE MULE: Yeah. It could have been a recurring character or a spin-off.

DAVID: I did do another LAW AND ORDER after that but, it was CRIMINAL INTENT and a completely different character.

HEARTBREAK HOTEL (David Keith) (publicity still)

HEARTBREAK HOTEL (David Keith) (publicity still)

THE MULE: You have done… so many great things through the years and, I guess, what may be the ultimate chick flick, AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN. Do you have any favorite roles or favorite movies or TV series that you’ve worked on through the years?

DAVID: Yes. My favorite role was Elvis Presley in HEARTBREAK HOTEL because I’m a frustrated rock star and I got to the singing myself, go into a recording studio and perform onstage. My two favorite television shows were THE CLASS, which was a sit-com, 2006 and 7 and that was just really a riot… an absolutely hilarious show that didn’t make it. And then, LONE STAR, which was probably the best writing of any project I’ve ever worked on… in any medium. And, that show… a few episodes on Fox and then it got yanked. It was brilliant. Basically, those were the shows that were pearls before swine, in my opinion. They were too smart for the average television audience.

THE MULE: That seems to happen a lot.

DAVID: Um-hm. It has to achieve a certain level of mediocrity in television if you’re going to be successful.

THE MULE: Maybe it’s because people just can’t commit to something like that. Know what I mean?

DAVID: They want to multitask. They need to be able to take phone calls while the show’s on or go get a sandwich. And, if it’s multifaceted and has any sort of depth or texture or tapestry to it, then it demands your full attention. If you make a television show that’s as good as a movie, you’re not gonna want to get up and go get your popcorn. That was the fate of both of those shows, I think. Too smart, too clever.

AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN (David Keith, Louis Gossett Junior) (publicity still)

AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN (David Keith, Louis Gossett Junior) (publicity still)

THE MULE: Too nuanced for their own good. So, where are you headed after this… after AWAKEN? Do you have anything else lined up?

DAVID: Well, I’ve had some minor medical issues that kept me out of show business for the past few months but, there’s always something around the corner. I’m enjoying being a Mister Mom.

THE MULE: That’s a completely different lifestyle, isn’t it?

DAVID: Right. I also work for a charity called National Association To Protect Children or protect.org. That’s basically what I do with most of my time now.

THE MULE: That’s great. I know you have another interview in a few minutes, so I’ll let you go. Just let me say that I like the movie… like watching the old stuff on TV or DVDs and I really appreciate your time.

DAVID: Alrighty. Thanks.

PART TWO: THE REVIEW

AWAKEN

(ARC ENTERTAINMENT/7HEAVEN PRODUCTIONS/ARCHSTONE PICTURES (89 minutes; Rated R); 2015)

Awaken_2D

Billie Kope (played by Natalie Burn, whose most high-profile appearance to date is probably THE EXPENDABLES 3), on a search for her sister, who disappeared in Mexico, finds herself alone and very confused when she wakes up on the beach of a remote island. As she begins to regain her bearings, she is surprised by the screams of a frightened young woman; nearly walking to a trap, she is saved and befriended by a group of people who have also been kidnapped and transported to the island for some nefarious reason. This group is populated by a number of well-known character actors, including Phillip Tan (as Todd), Edward Furlong (as Berto), Augie Duke (as Chloe) and Robert Davi (as Quintin). As Billie soon learns, her abduction (and those of the others) are linked to a sinister group of black ops soldiers, who are seemingly hunting them merely for the sport of it. What’s really happening is an intricate organ harvesting operation involving – and you had to see this one coming – her sister, Kat (Chrisa Campbell).

AWAKEN (Natalie Burn) (publicity still)

AWAKEN (Natalie Burn) (publicity still)

The plot – a twist on the Richard Connell short story, “The Most Dangerous Game” – is one that’s turned up over and over again in movies, television (including an episode of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, with Rory Calhoun starring as “The Hunter”), literature and comic books but, with enough of a spin to keep it interesting. Aside from the actors already mentioned, the cast is filled with recognizable faces (if not names): Vinnie Jones as the ruthless black op leader, Michael Pare as his second in command, Jason London as the head of the organ harvesting cartel and Michael Copon as the love interest/hero of the piece. Daryl Hannah appears as Mao, a “customer” searching for a liver donor with the proper chi for her daughter; her performance is over-the-top and cartoonish, the one weak link in an otherwise solid cast. Conversely, David Keith, as Walsh, the disgraced doctor hired to perform the surgeries, gives a nuanced, believeable performance as he struggles with what his life has become and, ultimately, with saving as many lives as he can to atone for his past (and current) indiscretion. Miss Burn (who is also writer, producer, casting director, as well as doing her own stunts) is definitely easy on the eyes, kinda like a cross between Lucy Lawless and Juliette Lewis, only… softer.

AWAKEN (Daryl Hannah) (publicity still)

AWAKEN (Daryl Hannah) (publicity still)

The action sequences tend to work better than the rest of the story, especially the dialogue which occasionally borders on the soap-ish (as in operas). The one exception is the final shoot-out, which like Miss Hannah’s acting, comes across rather like cartoon violence (but, honestly… I do likes me some mindless cartoon violence). Having said that, AWAKEN does manage to engage and hold your attention; the actors are certainly nice to look at (with the possible exceptions of Jones and Daz Crawford as Stitch). The movie works equally well as an action/adventure dude’s night-in, as a chick flick or even as a date night feature. Some of the concepts may be to advanced for kids younger than twelve and the R rating is due to the violence. My recommendation? Suspend all semblance of believability and strap yourself in for a fun ride. AWAKEN is available in digital, DVD and Video-On-Demand.


PLASTIC

(DVD and Digital; ARC ENTERTAINMENT/GATEWAY FILMS (101 minutes/Rated R); 2014)

PLASTIC

To be quite honest, I was going to give this one a pass; on first blush, it just didn’t seem to be my particular cup of tea (either Raspberry or Cherry Vanilla… or, maybe, a simple English Breakfast Tea). To say the least, I was dead wrong. PLASTIC is a thrilling roller coaster ride of deceit, theft, violence, sex, drugs and a thumping electronic soundtrack. The film is based on (or inspired by) a true story but, then, aren’t they all?

The story revolves around four university con artists working a brilliant and seemingly flawless credit card scam. Ringleader Sam (played by Ed Speleers, who looks genetically produced from equal parts Eric Stoltz, Topher Grace and Rick Astley; he apparently, occupies an abbey located downtown) has gone to great lengths to insure the loyalty of his three co-conspirators (he hacked into their e-mails and used the information he found to either blackmail them or play on their sympathies). Fordy (Will Poulter), ostensibly, the group’s second in command, is the cool-headed realist, biding his time before he makes a move on Sam; Rafa (Sebastian De Souza) is a big dreamer stuck in a dead-end job; Yatesey (Alfie Allen, who stars in that one show about thrones) is the loose cannon, who would like nothing better than to excise Sam from his life (and, possibly, this earth). Yatesey and Rafa decide to freelance, attacking a man and stealing a briefcase in his possession. The owner of the briefcase, a gangster named Marcel (a delightfully evil Thomas Kretschmann), has gone to great extremes to protect his property, including placing tracking devices and cameras in it, which, of course, leads him (and two very large assistants) right to the boys’ lair (or dorm room, as the case may be). Marcel gives them until the end of the day to acquire a long list (about £60,000 worth) of items with their stolen card information, or else. They manage to fill Marcel’s wish list and discover that the “or else” is a shallow grave in the middle of nowhere. The lads make a deal with Marcel to obtain two million bucks in two weeks in exchange for their lives.

PLASTIC (Sebastian De Souza, Alfie Allen, Emma Rigby, Ed Speleers, Will Poulter) (publicity still)

PLASTIC (Sebastian De Souza, Alfie Allen, Emma Rigby, Ed Speleers, Will Poulter) (publicity still)

That deal sends them looking for help. The help is a girl both Sam and Yatesey had previously met at a bar. Sam remembered that Frankie (Emma Rigby, who is a dead ringer for Jill Ireland… plus, the Red Queen looks really good in a bikini) works for a credit card company as a data processor in overseas accounts. Sam’s plan is to be empathetic to lure Frankie into the scheme; her father is very ill and the family is drowning in medical bills. Once the girl is on board, she tells the guys that the best plan would be to go to America because, according to her inside information, she knows of several high-budget card holders that spend a lot of time and plenty of cash in Miami. So, using other people’s money (as they have since the beginning of the story), they head for the sunny beaches of Florida. Infighting, mistrust, jealousy and greed are at work, eroding the plan virtually from the time they land in Miami; The two low men on the totem pole, Yatesey and Rafa, plot against Sam, looking to get their fair share; initially, the plot takes the form of Yatesey using one of the fake cards at a strip club after Sam specifically tells the team to be careful how they are used. Of course, when the card is refused for “suspicious use,” the junior partners (including Fordy) run afoul of several very large bouncers.

PLASTIC (Emma Rigby) (publicity still)

PLASTIC (Emma Rigby) (publicity still)

From that point, things take a decidedly dark turn. As more and more people and ancillary businesses are drawn into the conspiracy, an international noose begins to tighten around the throats of the five thieves as police and Marcel seek justice in their own ways. From the scene in the strip club, the crosses and double-crosses begin to stack up, eventually pitting too rival criminal cartels against each other, with Sam’s team squarely caught in the middle. Hilarity, as they say, ensues. To say more would be undermining the purpose of this review, which is to get you to watch (purchase) this movie. Let’s say that the climax of PLASTIC is a thrill-a-minute, action-packed and wholly implausible ending… but, then, it based on a true story.

PLASTIC (Graham McTavish and Malese Jow) (publicity still)

PLASTIC (Graham McTavish and Malese Jow) (publicity still)

The R rating is for the violence, strong language, some nudity and drug use. Though it does drag in some parts, the payoff is definitely worth the price of admission. Bonus points are awarded, by the way, for the casting of Malese Jow (she plays Beth, the secretary and arm candy of one of the sleazier business-types that gets sucked into the scam). The role is small, but Malese has a way of commanding every scene she’s in. The DVD has a “Making of… ” special feature which is quite entertaining in its own right. The producers briefly interview a man named Saqib Mumtaz who, in 1997, was a member of the fraudulant group the film is based on; I would guess that, from the interview, the character of Rafa was based on Mister Mumtaz. Overall, a great movie, though you may wanna keep it away from the kiddies.


UNDER WRAPS

(DVD and Digital; ARC ENTERTAINMENT/KICKSTART PRODUCTIONS (47 minutes, Rated PG); 2014)

UnderWraps_2D

I recently reviewed a “kiddie” movie called AVA AND LALA, a really bad example of what passes for “family-friendly” viewing these days (it actually received positive reviews from several Christian sites, even though the Ava character has virtually no redeeming values and exemplifies many non-Christian traits, such as disrespect to others, covetousness and hubris). Still cringing from that experience, I approached UNDER WRAPS with a sense of trepidation. Just a few minutes into the flick, I found myself mumbling, “Now, this is more like it!” UNDER WRAPS is, thankfully, standard-issue American style animation and storytelling (though most of the production team and animators are British or Indian), with plenty of adventure, action, comedy, thrills, chills and a message that everyone can relate to.

UNDER WRAPS (publicity still)

UNDER WRAPS (publicity still)

The story centers around twelve-year-old Danny (voiced by Nick Wolfhard) and his wi-fi starved older sister, Eleanor (Kazumi Evans), whose archeologist parents (Brian Drummond and Brooke Shields) have dragged them halfway around the world on an Egyptian expedition. Danny is excited to help his parents; they, unfortunately for him, think he’s too young and… uh… too “hands on” to take into the tomb. In his quest for adventure, he tends to act before he thinks things all the way through, leading to plenty of broken relics, groundings and, of course, releasing a curse that turns his parents into mummies. Unlike Ava from the previously reviewed AVA AND LALA, the kids learn their lessons early on as, through the course of the flick, they learn the importance of family, working together to reverse the curse before the sun sets and their parents become permanently mummified.

UNDER WRAPS (publicity still)

UNDER WRAPS (publicity still)

The curse is accidentally activated when Danny drops and breaks a relic he took from the tomb, setting into motion a fun, fast-paced adventure through the Howard’s hometown. As he and Eleanor take charge (and try to hide their rapidly deteriorating parents), they are stopped by a pair of marginally inept police officers (Brenda Crichlow, Colin Murdock). The officers continue to show up at the worst times possible, leading to some of the funniest moments of the movie. One of the funniest moments occurs when the kids go shopping for the ingredients needed to stop the curse. The cops, of course, take their coffee break in the same grocery. By this point, the parents have become the children, not listening to instructions to remain in the vehicle and out of site. They do neither and are soon wreaking havoc in the store. Drake Bell voices an excitable kid in a squid costume who, after being set upon by Mister Howard, gets no sympathy from anyone because, “That’s a mummy… mummies don’t eat brains. Zombies eat brains.” The mummified Howards, naturally, win the award for best costume.

UNDER WRAPS (publicity still)

UNDER WRAPS (publicity still)

Along the way, the siblings are set upon by a monstrous mummy (who looks a lot like Iron Maiden’s mascot and cover boy, Eddie), who is looking to retrieve the broken artifact. Eleanor and Danny finally decide that they may be in over their heads as sundown approaches and take their parents’ assistant, Peter (Matthew Lillard), into their confidence. This leads to a final confrontation as the four Howards, Peter, the two cops and the Pharaoh mummy converge for a final showdown. It should be fun for the younger kids to follow the clues throughout to figure out how the story ends.

UNDER WRAPS (publicity still)

UNDER WRAPS (publicity still)

The movie is rated PG. It does feature some rude humor and the Pharaoh mummy can be a pretty scary thing for really young kids; the action sequences are fairly mild and funny enough to be enjoyed by everybody in the family. UNDER WRAPS would be a good Halloween “scare” for kids above, say, the age of eight, particularly tweeners. The messages of responsibility and working together as a family will not be lost on that age group.


AVA AND LALA

(DVD and Digital; ARC ENTERTAINMENT (80 minutes, Rated PG); produced 2012, released 2014)

Ava & Lala 2D

So… this is what I get out of this movie: A bunch of Asian dudes are sitting around in – uh… are opium dens still a thing? – and one of ‘em says, “Hey, let’s make, like, an anime version of that Disney thing with the monsters… ‘cept let’s make ‘em animals.” “Dude, that would be, like, so wicked! What if they kicked each others’ butts up and down, like POKEMON… but with more drugs. We can put it up in the sky and call it, like, Cloud World or something,” exclaims another. A third coughs and giggles, “Huh… yeah, but with more drugs! And George Takei.” “Oh, absolutely,” concurs the first, “You gosta have some George Takei, dude! Oh! Oh! Let’s make everybody, like, martial arts masters like in that KUNG FU PANDA movie. Also… I think there should be more drugs.” (For some inexplicable reason, that’s the way Asian dudes talk in my head; that’s probably how I sound in their heads, too). And, thus was born AVA AND LALA. By the way, George Takei is totally unrecognizable in all that – what is that thing supposed to be… a muskrat? An anorexic hamster? – makeup. I mean, if it weren’t for his voice… uh… what? Ooh! It’s a cartoon! Never mind about the George Takei thing, then.

AVA AND LALA (publicity still)

AVA AND LALA (publicity still)

Ava is an obnoxious, rude little girl who cares about nothing except herself; Lala is a liger (part of the way a lion and not all together a tiger) that looks like one of the bit players from WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. Ava sneaks out of her house, sees Lala trying to hide, chases him (presumably because he didn’t want to be seen or bothered in any way), falls over a cliff, is saved by Lala, wanders into the mouth of a “cloud whale” and is, thus, delivered to a world in the clouds, inhabited totally by animals. One of the first animals they meet there is a grumpy old bear with a heart of gold who looks a lot like someone in a Tom Arnold costume; Mister Bear (or Uncle Bear… he’s called “Mister” in the movie, “Uncle” in the synopsis), freaked by the appearance of a human (and monumentally annoyed by this particular human), tells the pair that Ava must leave the world within three days or become an animal herself. There’s also a wicked tiger with massive supernatural powers who is seeking the death of all humans (like Ava… a sentiment that I wholly encouraged until the very end of the movie) and the supremacy of the entire universe. Along the way, Ava, Lala and the totally not-down-with-this Mister Bear meet up with a variety of animals: A tough bulldog enforcer, his minions (including a boar, a wolf and other such mean and nasties), and – my favorite – a herd of kung pao chicken… wait… that ain’t right. A flock of kung fu chickens… yeah… that’s it.

AVA AND LALA (publicity still)

AVA AND LALA (publicity still)

Okay… look, here’s the deal: AVA AND LALA has some fun, even scary and exciting, moments; the problem is, as much as I love animation, I’m not a big fan of anime (the post-apocalyptic brutality of NEON GENESIS EVANGELION being one of a few exceptions), especially computer animated anime and the story and plot are way below my age level. So, what’s a reviewer to do? Why, call upon his six year old niece and a couple of her friends to give him the skinny on what’s really up with this kinda-sorta family-friendly kid’s flick.

AVA AND LALA (publicity still)

AVA AND LALA (publicity still)

Unfortunately, they pretty much share my opinions (though they won’t openly admit to the same weird dream sequence that I had with the Asian guys) about most of the movie. First, they couldn’t believe that someone as jaded as Ava could actually exist; how could a person, especially a little girl who is so loved by her father, be so consumed with self-importance that she would laugh at her father’s doting and defy him at every turn and, even when her only friend is facing certain death, she is so easily diverted by something shiny, something that she didn’t have, but wanted. All of this, by the way, knowing that she was losing her humanness (I can’t call it humanity because she doesn’t appear to possess any attributes that would apply) and Lala and Bear were her best chance of returning to Earth. Throughout the movie, the girls were wondering if Ava would ever learn her lesson. It isn’t until the very end of the movie, when her life is inextricably linked to Lala’s survival that she finally does the “heroic” thing and saves him from certain doom. Oops! I just spoiled the ending, didn’t I?

AVA AND LALA (publicity still)

AVA AND LALA (publicity still)

AVA AND LALA is rated PG for, according to the people who decide such things, rude humor and some action. However, other concerns involve the over-the-top violence in the final third of the movie: While it is fairly mild by adult standards, the kids were really frightened, especially by the murderous General Tiger. Apparently, this is a pretty popular franchise in its country of origin, China (which explains all of the gasping and grunting noises… remember the original US airings of SPEED RACER?), under the title YUGO AND LALA, where it saw theatrical release in 2012. I just don’t see the appeal; neither do the kids I used as “more age appropriate eyes.”


POSEIDON REX

(DVD and Digital; ANDERSON DIGITAL/ITN DISTRIBUTION/TITAN GLOBAL ENTERTAINMENT (79 minutes/Unrated); 2014)

Poseidon Rex Key Art

Okay… let’s get this out of the way right now: POSEIDON REX is no SHARKNADO or SHARKTOPUS. Personally, I found those “SyFy Originals” unwatchable, at best. Here, while the acting (particularly by the leads, Brian Krause, Anne McDaniels and Steven Helmkamp) is histrionically over the top (as is the dialogue, which may account for the acting), you can at least conceive of some of this stuff actually happening… well… maybe not. But, still…

POSEIDON REX (publicity still)

POSEIDON REX (publicity still)

The special effects are hit and miss: The CGI gunfire is bad… really bad; the creature – a sea-dwelling cousin of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, though bigger and meaner, with tiny flippers for arms – is, alternately, awesomely believable in the underwater sequences or appears to be a cartoon overlay that never quite matches up with the surrounding terrain when it’s out of the water. And, even though the characters seem to contradict themselves from one line to the next, it’s still better than those horrid movie remakes of STARSKY AND HUTCH, GET SMART and THE DUKES OF HAZZARD. By the way, if the military represented here (some unidentified branch of the United States Armed Forces and the Belize Coast Guard) is the best and brightest, we are all doomed to be eaten by gigantic beasts of some variety. This movie is kinda like a train wreck or watching the Chicago Cubs… as devastating and horrible as it is, you just can’t look away.

POSEIDON REX (Brian Krause and Anne McDaniels put the pinch on a newly hatched P-Rex) (publicity still)

POSEIDON REX (Brian Krause and Anne McDaniels put the pinch on a newly hatched P-Rex) (publicity still)

POSEIDON REX is a great movie to put on when you and your friends are just hanging out, looking for something mind-numbingly incoherent to fill an hour-and-a-half. Like all of those cheesy 1950s monster and science fiction movies, this is the good kind of bad, a bizarre mish-mash of THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (the template for director Mark L Kester), GODZILLA (GOJIRA, the original), KING KONG (the one from 1976, with Charles Grodin in the title role… or was it Jessica Lange? Oh, wait… never mind), JURASSIC PARK, GREMLINS, THE DEEP and CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. There’s even a hint of A-TEAM (the original television series with Mister T) in there as, with plenty of firepower on display, no one is seemingly capable of hitting the broadside of a barn (or a forty foot tall sea behemoth). So… suspend belief (in good acting and dialogue), disengage those brain cells and give POSEIDON REX a try, but… be warned: THERE WILL BE A SEQUEL!


BATMAN – THE COMPLETE 1943 MOVIE SERIAL COLLECTION

(SONY PICTURES HOME ENTERTAINMENT/COLUMBIA PICTURES; 2005) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULT

BATMAN 1943 cover

The 1943 Columbia Serial Release of BATMAN is given the DVD treatment in celebration of the DVD release of the highly successful Christopher Nolan reboot, BATMAN BEGINS. Actually, it’s more like a monetary feeding frenzy, with every company with anything even remotely related to Batman throwing it against the commercial wall to see what sticks. Thus, the tag-line for this two-disc set is, “See how Batman really began.” Which, I suppose, is an accurate assertion if you’re speaking about filmed versions. While the character debuted in DETECTIVE COMICS in 1939, this cheaply made serial was the first film to feature the Batman and his young protoge, Robin.

Lewis Wilson as Batman (publicity still)

Lewis Wilson as Batman (publicity still)

Cheaply made,” did you say? So, we should probably avoid it like the plague, right? Nope… not at all! Cheap doesn’t always mean bad. In the case of BATMAN, while there are some dubious directorial decisions and some cringe-worthy dialogue that definitely wouldn’t pass any kind of censor in this day and age, overall it is a fun ride and a look back at a movie Batman that’s more in line with what creator Bob Kane had envisioned in his early comic book appearances. If you’re far too politically correct to take it as a piece with some historical significance, realizing that it is very much of a different time, you may want to give BATMAN a pass. If you look at it as a period piece, the racial references may not sting as much… doesn’t make ‘em any more right then than it does now, but it was quite a different world 60 years ago. The most blatantly egregious comment comes from the narrator beginning at about the halfway mark of Episode 1: “This was part of a foreign land transplanted bodily to America and known as ‘Little Tokyo.’ Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs, it has become virtually a ghost street… “ There is so much wrong with those lines but, again, we have to remember that Japan was one of the Axis powers that the United States and its allies were fighting then. The “rounding up” that is referred to is our government’s solution to the hysteria that gripped most of the country: They forced approximately 110,000 American citizens and immigrants of Japanese descent (mostly on the West Coast) into “War Relocation Camps,” as possible saboteurs or enemy combatants. Anyway… history lesson over. We all understand how bad this stuff was.

Douglas Croft and Lewis Wilson as Robin and Batman (publicity still)

Douglas Croft and Lewis Wilson as Robin and Batman (publicity still)

Aside from the obvious “rah-rah, we’re the good guys” war mentality, the 15-part BATMAN serial did feature some cool sci-fi elements, some over-the-top action sequences and the first appearance anywhere of the Batcave (herein called the “Bat’s Cave”). Batman is working for the government as a secret agent while, as Bruce Wayne, he affects the lazy, disinterested attitude of the filthy rich. Lewis Wilson looks the part, rather it be Bruce or alter ego, Batman. The costume is pretty good, even if the cape and cowl are a bit problematic, particularly in the fight scenes. Likewise, 17-year old Douglas Croft is solid as Wayne’s ward, Dick Grayson, and his masked crime-fighting persona, Robin. The two work off each other quite well, the odd changing in and out of costume together in the back seat of a car aside. Shirley Patterson, her high hair and big hats play Bruce’s love interest, Linda Page. She’s pretty hot except for the fact that she’s something like 85 years old and has been dead for 10 years. But, I digress, as is my wont regarding such things.

Gus Gillmore (in helmet) and J Carroll Naish as Doctor Daka (publicity still)

Gus Gillmore (in helmet) and J Carroll Naish as Doctor Daka (publicity still)

J Carroll Naish, as the evil Doctor (or Prince, depending on the episode) Daka, is as inscrutable as most “occidentals” seem to think all Asian master criminals or detectives are. Of course, you couldn’t use a real-live Japanese actor for the role, seeing as how they couldn’t be trusted. Before I start getting hate mail from the humorless politically correct among you, that was sarcasm! Anyway, the one remaining business in “Little Tokyo” is a “Japanese Cave of Horrors,” which purports to show scenes of Japanese atrocities heaped upon the world and their own people. It’s really a front for the good… uh… the not-so-good doctor’s spy organization, his “League of the New Order.” This League is populated by a bunch of felons and wrongly accused parolees (’cause they’re mad at the justice system for putting them in prison, naturally) to undermine several key US industries. If the innocent (or a patriotic crook) refuses to join the cause, Daka turns them into electronically controlled living zombies (and everybody knows that those are the best kind). Except in the case of interchangeable stooge number three who, after one screw-up too many, decides that patriotism is the way to go and stands up to the mad doctor. After a couple of racial slurs and a guarantee that the good ol’ US of… will prevail, he turns his back on the evil… well, maybe ornery is more apt… cabal and ends up alligator food. Such is life (or death)! Speaking of “interchangeable,” that’s as apt a term as any, because I couldn’t tell them apart if my life depended on it: dark hair under a hat, thin little Erroll Flynn moustache, the standard hood-speak of every crime movie of the time. If so many of them didn’t have to be in one room at the same time, I’d swear that they were all played by the same guy. By the way, the maniacal little giggle that emanates from from Daka when the guy drops in on the ‘gators is awesome!

So, we’ve got radium-powered ray guns, remote control zombies, a trap door with alligators on the other side, a self-painting car and a public phone booth with a secret door and a poison gas nozzle. Those are the least of the Batman’s worries, though, as he’s tossed off a skyscraper, dropped down an elevator shaft, has a mine collapse on his head, is trapped in a burning building, sealed alive in a casket and is generally ill-treated at the end of every cliff-hanging episode. This ain’t rocket surgery, kids, but it is fun!

BATMAN Serial Poster

BATMAN Serial Poster

Now, a couple of oddities that you may enjoy watching out for: Wilson and Croft use the other’s character names rather randomly. In the span of less than a minute, Batman calls Robin, “Dick” and Bruce calls Dick, “Robin”; Robin hardly ever uses “Batman,” it’s almost always “Bruce.” Alfred is a putz, used for comic relief. He is, nonetheless, very involved in the Dynamic Duo’s escapades, usually as chauffeur (the Batman uses the same ride that Bruce Wayne does, so I guess it just makes sense that they should also have the same driver, huh?), but occasionally as bait. Batman loses his cape more than once in the fight scenes, only to have it reappear when the camera angle changes; it also causes him trouble by wrapping around his arm or head while he’s throwing a punch. That’s probably why there are so few Marvel super-heroes who actually wear capes (I can think of Thor, the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, Storm of the X-Men and, occasionally, the Black Panther). Also, while the costume is really fairly accurate and looks good (most of the time), it isn’t exactly form fitting and tends to droop and sag in areas. Probably the weirdest thing about the Batman suit is the Underoos – they start right under the bat insignia, making our hero look like a 90 year old with his pants hiked up to his chest. The entrance (and exit) of the “Bat’s Cave” is a grandfather clock. Bruce and Dick use it often to sneak up on Alfred and make his life miserable. Bruce appears to be not only lazy, but shiftless,as well. Even so, his attractive, hard-working girlfriend sticks around and seems to generally like the guy. Must be the money (or whatever he’s packing in them giant-size Underoos). You’ll also notice that a lot of the stunts (I’m assuming they used actual stuntmen) look awfully painful! Remember, kids, they didn’t have CGI back then – that wall that Robin slammed into was a real, solid wall. I bet they had a gopher on set just to pass out aspirin after a fight scene.

Like I said before, this ain’t rocket surgery, so disengage your brain for a little while and enjoy a trip back to a simpler (if less tolerant) time with BATMAN – THE COMPLETE 1943 MOVIE SERIAL COLLECTION.