Thursday, September 23, 2021

Frank Wheeler Jr. RIP

Ten years ago I was writing the mystery blog for a large book retailer and was overwhelmed with titles sent to me by publishers, publicists and authors out there hustling for themselves. There was zero chance I’d ever get to a quarter of them, but I felt the stacks of the unread calling to me in my sleep and in every moment that I was trying to do anything other than give them a fraction of the attention their creators had.

Most of them were terrible. They sapped my energy, made a lot of noise and clogged the pipeline that I wanted so badly to send a few under-served titles and writers through toward a larger audience and wider recognition. Once in a while though I’d get my hands and my eyes on something I could champion and it powered me through the next score of tepid thrillers I was running out of ways to say they weren’t worth reading.

Most of the good ones showed me things I’d never know about, introduced me to people and problems I was thrilled for the opportunity to observe, but grateful that they were entirely foreign to my own experience. Others I responded to because they catered to my personal tastes regardless of personal background and setting, but only a couple ever grabbed me from the beginning because I felt like I knew the author intimately; that we shared an outlook on the world, a history in the same psychic spaces and were steeped in the same spiritual broth. They didn’t know me, but I recognized them immediately.

One of those authors was Frank Wheeler Jr.

Reading his debut novel, The Wowzer, was one of my favorite experiences of that time. It was set in the Ozarks and populated with the type of psychopaths and fuckups, zealots and deadbeats that I find myself ever drawn to. The language was straightforward and sturdy, lyricism of an economic rather than florid variety and punchy as hell without the histrionics that sometimes accompany this brand of violence and viciousness. The plot too was dark (really went places, dark), unsparing and relentless. 

It was something rather than about something.

His second novel, The Good Life, even more so.

I had the good fortune of meeting Frank a few times and was even blessed to visit with him and his wife Marie in my home. The two of them made sense to me. I knew them before knowing them. They were my kind of people; sharp and curious, serious and sweet, self-possessed without pretense. They confirmed the things I’d sensed when reading him – we’d taken different paths in life, but our roots were entangled.

When they visited St. Louis for a Noir at the Bar event it felt like we had been friends for a long, long time, and I looked forward to many more books from Frank and visits with the two of them, but I’m learning that it usually doesn’t work the way I want it to regardless the intensity and pitch of my desire.

Cancer took Frank last week. He died surrounded by family only a few months after a surprise diagnosis at the age of 43.   

I miss my friend. He was never vociferous and didn’t have an inclination toward self-promotion, so it was not unusual to go long stretches without contact, but the news has hit me hard. I knew him, but I want to know him. I want to make him cringe with my terrible jokes again. I want to goad him until he adds the perfect punctuation under his breath with an impish smile to my tasteless musings and makes me laugh till I cry. I want to share another knowing look while our wives are embarrassed for us. I want to get suddenly serious and sober and trade whispered confessions about how fiercely we love them and don’t deserve our good fortune.

I want to fail all the field sobriety tests you’d give me at parties again. I want to bust your balls about that video of you getting tazed during a police training course. The look of disappointment in your eyes as the volts hit you, the way you clearly regret everything as you seize up and crumple to the floor… I never got tired of watching that shit and bringing it up at every opportunity to embarrass you.

I love you, man. I’m glad that I knew you.

Frank's family are setting up a page in remembrance and I will link to it when it is ready. Here is the memorial page. 

Please keep Marie in your prayers.

I know that Frank was well-regarded in the writing community by those that he knew, and I think he enjoyed most of you, but I don't think you can ever spread the love too thick. I'm sorry that I don't express it often or well enough, but please know that I love you too. 

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Just Dew It

Took a bracing dive into the chilly, revitalizing waters of the oft-maligned genre of extreme-sports crime-thrillers over the last couple of weeks preparing for an episode of the Watch With Jen podcast. Jen Johans keeps having me back on her cool-ass podcast even though it's become my role to seriously bring down the brow-level. If I get invited back again after going on about the genre's Martin Scorsese/Robert DeNiro relationship Rob Cohen and Vin Diesel have then I guess anything is possible.

On the episode we focused the conversation on four films; BMX Bandits, Point Break, Cliffhanger and Drop ZoneListen to the episode here. 

BMX Bandits
seemed like an appropriate place to start with the genre, though examples go back earlier, because the 80s are synonymous in my mind (and probably in the minds of many others around my age) with the hot rolling-action of BMX (Rad) and skateboards (Gleaming the Cube) which were featured in endless, feverishly re-wound and re-cued loops on Saturday afternoons in certain households I know of. An appropriate starting place too because director Brian Trenchard-Smith had been working in and refining the genre for a decade by the time BMX Bandits became a breakthrough hit that might have saved his career (after the critical and financial failure of his gloriously gory and marvelously messy totalitarian people hunt movie Turkey Shoot)

Trenchard-Smith's early career leaned heavily on his stunt man muse Grant Page whom he never tired of lighting on fire, dropping from high places, hitting with a car or sending to get his ass kicked by various martial artists of the day in fare like Deathcheaters, The Stuntmen, Kung-fu Killers, Stunt Rock, and Danger Freaks. Director and stunt man/star would sometimes promote their projects with live demos of pyrotechnics and vehicular assault and the director's appetite for stunt work even lead to casting himself as a punching bag for Jimmy Wang Yu, in his hang gliding Dirty Harry flick The Man From Hong Kong. Eventually he distilled his sensibilities to a pleasing formula blending outrageous stunt work and scripted narratives peppered with dumb fucking jokes and jaunty pop soundtracks which could be marketed as R-rated action or family-friendly live action cartoons.

BMX Bandits
also benefits from the undeniable screen appeal of its 15 year old star, Nicole Kidman whose big red mane cannot be contained by any bike helmet nor outshone by any of the brightly lit and  colored costumes, bikes and backgrounds. She stands tall over her teenage costars and holds her own against the cold-blooded, but pitifully inept, gang of thieves she and her biking buddies run afoul of while up to some spirited hi-jinx on their titular two-tired machines.

Eight years later the genre hit would its high-water mark with Kathryn Bigelow's mucho-macho-masterpiece, Point Break whose mix of kinetic action and modern savage ethos took Keanu Reeves' first year feeb Johnny Utah over many an edge on a spiritual inward spiral fraught with moral and masculine panic following twin father figures with obvious-ass names like Bodhi and Pappas (Angelo, no less). This shit is so on the nose you have to cross your eyes to see it, but maybe it really does take a woman to go so boldly where all men have gone before and make it seem fresh and vital and invigorating. 

On the episode we talk some about Bigelow's fascination and skill working with classically masculine tropes as well as Gary Busey's extreme sports trilogy (Big Wednesday, Point Break, Drop Zone) and Lori Petty's place in the world of big-wave riders (macho assholes with a death wish).

Next up we wonder if all the cool kids jumped off a cliff; would you? as we examine why calling Renny Harlin's Die Hard 2: Die Harder follow up CliffhangerDie Hard on a mountain is both fair and not a drawback. In the wake of John McTiernan's seminal action trend-setter as the "Die-Hard-on-a/in-a_____" subgenre was starting to really peak (Passenger 57, Under Siege, Toy Soldiers - soon to be followed by Speed, Sudden Death, Executive Decision, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, Air Force One, Con Air and Paul Blart: Mall Cop to name a few) Cliffhanger took the isolated hero against a bevvy of baddies formula and substituted the Rocky Mountains for Nakatomi Plaza and then pit rescue rangers Sylvester Stallone, Michael Rooker and Janine Turner against a murderous gang of thieves who crash land on their beat after pulling off a spectacular mid-air heist of millions flown out of the Denver Mint. 

The sinister six, led by the psychotic Qualen (John Lithgow delivering a performance worthy to accompany his turns in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, Blowout and Raising Cain atop a Mt. Rushmore of Lithgow villain roles) force the the rangers to be their guides through the treacherous terrain on a quest to recover three suitcases full of cash and when Sly gets separated from the group he puts his climbing skills to use to thwart the thieves and scuttle their stratagem. 

Hold on to your honey and cling to your kindred Cliffhanger is gripping grandiose entertainment full of fantastic footage of mountain top action and terrifying tumbles into the void as well as explosions aplenty and knasty knife fights that apparently had to be trimmed to avoid an NC-17 rating (news to me). It sits atop the pile of many popular at the time genres (aside from extreme-sports crime thrillers, and Die Hard on a/in a____, Cliffhanger and Alive coming out the same year and on the heels of K2 made mountain survival movies a popular genre for a few years there followed by Vertical Limit, Seven Years in Tibet and two Die Hard in a Ski Lodge offerings, Crackerjack and Icebreaker, as well as another extreme sports crime thriller Extreme Ops!). 

From the aerial photography and location shooting to the stunt work and soaring Trevor Jones score recalling his one year earlier efforts with Last of the Mohicans, the budget shows in all the right ways on this one.

Drop Zone
finds U.S. Marshal Wesley Snipes on a personal mission to recover Michael Jeter, a fugitive who escaped on his watch, and avenge his fallen partner (and brother) played by Malcolm-Jamal Warner. He's got to do it on his own time thought because everybody else believes his fugitive died along with his partner and several passengers when the flight they were on experienced a hull breech and sudden loss of pressure. But Wes suspects his prisoner was sprung by a group of daredevils posing as passengers who blew a hole in the aircraft, strapped his prisoner to them and jumped.

He's right, you know. A hotdogging skydiving crew led by Gary Busey's ex-DEA operative have a plan to break into high security areas from above and get Jeter's nine-fingered hacker inside to plant viruses and extract top secret info they can turn around and sell to drug cartels around the world. 

But Snipes gets in with a ragtag crew led by Yancy Butler's firebrand bad girl and including Grace Zabriskie mama bear, Kyle Secor's wild card, Corin Nemec's newbie and Rex Linn (making a second essential crew appearance in the episode after his turncoat Treasury agent in Cliffhanger) and gets close to his quarry pretty quick. 

I saw Drop Zone at least four times during its theatrical run and am ever-fond of its goofy enthusiasm to entertain, but I'll be the first to admit that it pales considerably when viewed in quick succession with Point Break and Cliffhanger (The Godfather and French Connection of extreme-sports-crime-thrillers). 

It's directed by John Badham who's an underrated figure in event movie entertainment (Summer season's leadoff hitter to Spielberg's cleanup spot). He's probably best known for Saturday Night Fever which is inaccurately thought of as the disco movie (rather than the fairly bleak Bay Ridge Brooklyn coming of age saga) and he contributed some personal favorites to the golden age of crime comedies in the 80s and 90s (Stakeout, The Hard Way, Bird on a Wire) and sold a lot of popcorn balls with nuggets of  social issues to chew on (the surveillance state in Blue Thunder, racism and anti-worker capitalism in The Bingo Long Travelling All Stars & Motor Kings [produced by fellow future extreme sports actioneer Rob Cohen], and for kids; the nuclear age in War Games as well as Short Circuit - kinda Blade Runner for tots). 

Likewise Drop Zone poses as a dayglo joyride (night-glow actually, the 4th of July night jump is pretty spectacular with all the lit-up colored jumpsuits) but contains strains of meaty questions like; how cool would it be to jump out of a plane? What about a really big one from like super high up? What if your jump instructor was hot? What if hot doesn't quite cover it - what if she wore an Evel Knievel one-piece? What does it mean to gift wrap a rival jumper? and could you really murder somebody by dragging them into power lines from above? It's not got the A-plus effects and score and everything that Point Break and Cliffhanger deliver, but it does have a handful of genuinely thrilling moments in the jump sequences, unfortunately chopped up by cheaper green screen footage and a B-script, but actors who're aware of the project they're working on and deliver appropriate performances - over the top and falling fast.

Instead of watching Drop Zone alongside Point Break or Cliffhanger, consider watching it on a double bill with the film it was in a race to get into theaters with, Deran Sarafian's Terminal Velocity. We touch on the Charlie Sheen skydiving espionage thriller in the episode (Jen says it makes Drop Zone look like The Godfather), but however snide I sound about it, I do find it a pleasure fountain as it leans even harder into the what if you wanted to bone your jumping partner and I mean, like what if you reallllllly wanted to? line of intellectual consideration. Do Sheen's character (a party hard stoner boner awesomely named Ditch Brody) and Nastassja Kinski's rogue Russian spy ever get down? Eventually. Like there's a five minute sequence of falling out of the sky locked in the trunk of a sports car, a mid-air gun battle (make that a fun battle) and some ridiculous fumbling for keys to the trunk whilst stilllllll falling out of the sky. They don't just fall to the ground; they fall into the Grand Canyon for an extra long way down. Plus lemme just put bleach blond Christopher McDonald and a skydiving James Gandolfini as the heavies in your brain and let you act accordingly.

Many more films and sub-sub-genres I'd like to have had the opportunity to go on about in the episode, but Jen's saint enough to indulge me as long as she did. So this is the place, I guess, for the rest. 

Before Point Break became the gold-standard for big ideas and expert execution Clint Eastwood adapted Trevanian's novel The Eiger Sanction about an assassin who must infiltrate an international team of mountaineers on an expedition to climb the peak because all he knows about the identity of his target is that they're on the team. This one seems like an attempt to get Clint his own 007-esque franchise and has action skipping around the globe, a mysterious/nefarious albino spymaster who runs operations from inside a dimly red-lightbulb-lit command center and Clint getting propositioned by exotic women (and men) everywhere he goes. It's amusing to me that 50 years ago Clint started doing movies where everybody tells him he's too old for this shit and he just never stopped. It takes a long time to get to the climactic climb and the footage ain't quite Cliffhanger, but there's some good shit on that mountain and I kinda wish we'd got a couple sequels.

There was an extreme-sports direct Bond-challenger attempting to give the stuffy international espionage genre a new millennium/nü-metal makeover that did get a couple of sequels though. The rad Rob Cohen/Vin Diesel engine xXx opens with a suave, tuexedoed 007 stand-in finding himself decidedly out of his element and in over his head among the new-capitalist punk underlords of Eastern Europe and gets hisself dispatched with extreme prejudice quick-like at a Rammstein concert. Enter Samuel L. Jackson's auspiciously monikered agent Augustus Eugene Gibbons who can tell right away that Western super powers have got to get with the times or get down with the sickness and let the bodies hit the floor because they're old and out of touch with how these new baddies think. 

His unlikely brilliant idea is to extraordinarily render America's own anarchist underground to a top-secret locale and hold extreme tryouts for the new Avengers and it's Diesel's Xander Cage who floats to the top coated in non-stick spray-on cool and who can barely be bothered to save the old world order, but does enjoy the perks; especially the opportunity to rub smooth hairless parts with Asia Argento. Along the way Vin does it for the nookie and gets to play James Bond, Tony Hawk, Jeff Spicoli and even Steve McQueen as he recreates the motorcycle sequence from The Great Escape. You can see the "what if my character never loses a contest or gets his balls busted and always has the last word" ideal that will drive the foreseeable rest of his career already drying in the mold throughout this one, but it was the last time Cohen and his muse worked together.

The fledgling franchise didn't die tho. Non-slouch Lee Tamahori and nothing to prove Ice Cube gave us xXx: State of the Union three years later, but steered away from extreme sports and payed the price. There would not be another xXx film for twelve years. Cube returned for a cameo in the xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, but it's the bald behemoth strapping on rocket skates and leaping off tall buildings that brought the audience back enough that director D.J. Caruso looks to have been invited back for xXx 4 (please, please, please, can we call it xXxX?) The Return of Xander Cage is my favorite of the series thus far - it's got lots of big dumb action, big dumb wardrobe and big dumb dialogue with Diesel turning in perhaps his most bizarre and fascinating impression of an over the top ultra-hetero alpha male yet. How does Xander differ from (The Fast & the Furious') Dom? Mainly, he tells jokes and they are terrible. 

Also, he's horny. There's that.

The James Bond franchise has long history of incorporating sports sequences into the action. Speedboats, fast cars, parachutes and skiing have been mainstays from the beginning. Long haul series producers have been notoriously slow to alter the formula, but the latest run with Daniel Craig in her majesty's secret service was widely perceived as a reset option for the character and the series' feel with Bond growing into the affects and attitudes the on-screen character always had over the course of six films. Casino Royale arrived with a makeover most (probably accurately) attributed to the success of the Matt Damon led Bourne films, but I think Rob, Vin and Xander Cage applied some of the critical pressure behind the grudging changes made. My evidence for this? I dunno, probably just the opening parkour sequence. That scene though... really set the tone for the whole movie and remains one of my favorite examples of establishing character through action.

Not a lot of parkour in the xXx franchise, but if that's your thing, French one-man action movie industry Luc Besson has got what you need with not just one, but two parkour franchises. He wrote District B13 and its sequel District 13: Ultimatum which serve up the cop'n'crim odd-couple Cyril Raffaelli and David Belle as Tarzans of the concrete jungle (Belle also made the um jump to a Hollywood remake - Brick Mansions starring Paul Walker as the copper in his first posthumously released film) fighting crime and nuclear terrorism in a slightly sci-fi futuristic Paris. Besson is also behind the parkour street gang film Yamakasi, though not Yamakasi 2, and I'd recommend them to anybody who thinks that pure athleticism needs a dumb story and jokes and some violence to really make it worthwhile. Worthwhile enough that I'll even give Taylor Lautner credit for some serious stunt work in Tracers and recommend seeing it. Dude can run and jump. 

One extreme sport that just lends itself to crime films is racing. How many movie getaway drivers or smugglers have racing dayjobs or aspirations? A fucking lot. And often these represent the moodier, slightly less silly (did I say less fun?) options... or at least the ones that obviously want to be taken more seriouser including some of my recent favorites; Son of a Gun, The Place Beyond the Pines and Burn Out (I think Drive counts too - stunt driving is pretty much the definition of extreme sporting). 

Not sure what to do with crime movies that just have athletes in the cast and don't incorporate that into the plot. Looking at you Racer & the Jailbird and The Killers. But they're not the only crime movies set in the world of sport, that never really blend the elements (The Fan, Escape to Victory, I, Tonya, Sudden Death, Black Sunday). A lot of those films are on this list

And what about crime movies that simply cast a well-known athlete in the lead counting on their badboy/girl reputation to inform the audience? Jim Brown made a very respectable second career as a screen presence, but Dennis Rodman's Double Team never got a sequel (would legit still love to see Double Dribble, yo). We'll see if Gina Carano's career ever recovers from her free speech, but damned if I don't love Haywire. The films of Lyle Alzado, Brian Bosworth and Howie Long all belong in the conversation. I finally caught up with former Seattle Seahawks/Oklahoma Sooners sensation Brian Bosworth's action hero debut, Stone Cold, loved it and am kicking myself for waiting so long (wrote about it here). (Howie Long made 4 movies).

Vinnie Jones has been acting long enough he may be better known for that than his on the field antics and I'm hoping to hell that Matt Nable sticks around in movies for a good long while, 'cause he's got presence and charisma and some dramatic range. John Cena, Rhonda Rousey, Dwayne Johnson, Chuck Liddell, Quinton Jackson... the wrestlers and fighters making the career transition list goes on and on. 

Gonna pause right here to point out that Cirio H. Santiago's Ebony, Ivory & Jade has a pretty kickass time hanging out at the nexus of progress and exploitation (as a lot of his films do). The Filipino director made a hell of a lot of action movies starring black and Asian men and women for Roger Corman and I'd recommend spending some time with his ouvre if it's new to you. Clearly inspired by the terrorist attack during the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, the 1976 film finds a similar hostage situation occurring at an international track event in the Philippines and our titular trio (Rosanne Katon, Colleen Camp and Christie Mayuga) are among the abducted athletes, but they rescue their own damn selves and everything turns out better this time.

There's a reason that tournament movies are popular with filmmakers and audiences alike; the superstructure is an ideal way to move a story along, upping the stakes into a natural climax. Add murder, intrigue, espionage, prison, racketeering, escape or terrorism and I think you've got a no-brainer sure-fire extreme sports crime thriller subgenre (Enter the Dragon, Bloodsport, Firecracker, Angel Fist, Bloodfist 2050, the sequels to Best of the Best... Balls of Fury among others). 

Then there's the prison-set sports movie sub-genre which I guess automatically qualifies as crime, though degrees of extremity may vary (Undisputed? I think so, Jericho Mile? maybe not, The Longest Yard? Mean Machine? ehhhhhh) and underground fight circuit thrillers (Hard Times, Lionheart, Gladiator, Fighting, Never Back Down) or films dealing with rigging of sports betting and hustlers deserve a shot at inclusion (Diggstown? definitely, White Men Can't Jump? eh, I'll listen, but make it good).

A few more goofy fun ones I'd recommend... Joseph Gordon Levitt and Michael Shannon are alpha predator and Tarzan of the concrete jungle set on a collision course over one shitty day in the bike messenger vs. dirty cop thriller Premium Rush, (in my original review I lamented the focus on JGL when Shannon's bad cop having a bad day dramatics could have carried a terrific straight crime thriller, but for the extreme-sports crime thriller discussion I think it works great). 

Meryl Streep
and David Strathairn are a couple out for some family time (with their annoying little kid) when their white water rafting trip is hijacked by Kevin Bacon and John C. Reilly's bank robbers making a daring and kinda genius escape in Curtis Hanson's The River Wild (a picture I'd recommend much more highly if there weren't so weight resting on the aforementioned child performer - can't blame an actor that young for the performance, but it is fingernails on chalkboards and teeth on newspaper every time he speaks). 

Also if you want to apply my Point Break as a remake of The Thomas Crown Affair approach to Gérard Pirès' 2002 rollerblading bank robbers chase movie Riders (aka Steal), then Natasha Henstridge and Stephen Dorff are probably Renee Russo and Pierce Brosnan in the remake to Faye Dunaway/Steve McQueen // Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze in the superior originals, but I think it's a lot of fun. 

And you should probably just stop taking anything I say seriously before you seek out Joseph Kahn's failed attempt to launch Martin Henderson's career into the stratosphere Torque, which is so nakedly taunting The Fast & Furious franchise into a Monster Energy Drink spitting rap battle for supremacy it's... adorable. 

I was charmed from the moment Henderson leaves a drag racing pair of cars in his dust, traveling so fast he causes the street signs to spin making the intersection of sCARSdale Rd. and (I dunno) xxSUCKxx St. read "cars suck" just before the title sequence. It's dummmmmmmb and knows it - it's got Adam Scott as a brash bad boy federal cop ferfucksache - and characters squaring off motorcycle jousting beneath Pepsico brands

And L.A. punk legend John Doe as a policeman getting put the fuck in his place by L.A. rap icon and author of a little ditty called Fuck the Police Ice Cube. The movie is having fun and I found it very easy to get on its wavelength, though when it came out it looked awful to me and I'll readily admit that if it had been a commercial hit and spawned a lot of sequels I'd probably hate it instead of being amused by its doomed, subtextless grab for mammon and cool (you're never gonna get both, guys).

Anyway, if the folks at Mountain Dew, Doritos, Monster Energy Drink or juicy Fruit would like to throw some money at making this subgenre the focus of a podcast series, consider me available.

Check out this letterboxd list for more extreme sports crime thrillers and adjacent titles.