Monday, June 17, 2019

"Everybody Plays Tennis" - Devil's Express (1976)

One genre that we have not given its full due here on Senseless Cinema is the blaxploitation/martial arts/monster film. Let us correct that with a discussion of Devil's Express (1976) aka Gang Wars.

Some of your universe's critics are inexplicably unkind to Devil's Express. Reviewer BA_Harrison writes, "Technically inept (several scenes feature characters talking but we can hear no dialogue), poorly written (horrible jive street-talk is taken to the max) and dreadfully directed (the fight scenes are laughable), The Devil's Express is, without a doubt, a terrible film." Reviewer Bloodwank writes, "Sadly the monster scenes are quite weak and there are only a couple of gore shots." And reviewer El-Stumpo describes the film as "Bad acting, ham-fisted fighting and peppered with the most gut-wrenchingly exaggerated jive."

These critics are quite mistaken, of course. Please read on to see how mistaken they are...
The film begins with a title reading “China: 200 B. C.” A funeral party sets a glowing charm on top of a coffin, then drops the coffin into a deep cave. In a ritual, the funeral party members are all murdered bloodily by a swordsman, who then proceeds to cut his own throat.

The film cuts to present day Chinatown in New York City as the point of view of either a subway train or an inhuman demon flies through a subway tunnel. The story proper begins in a martial arts studio run by Luke, played by the conservatively named War Hawk Tanzania, who after one scene in his studio flies off to Hong Kong with his friend, the conservatively named Rodan.

When Mr. Tanzania meditates in the forest to advance his mind to the ninth level like his body, Rodan joins him, but soon grows bored and stumbles upon the coffin hole from the opening scene. Rodan finds rope somewhere in the forest and rappels down into the cave.

And a snake attacks Mr. Tanzania, though nothing comes of it, except Mr. Tanzania wakes up from his meditation.

Mr. Tanzania finds Rodan in the cave. “Let’s get out of here,” he says. “This place has strange vibes.”

“Sure, sure,” replies Rodan. But he agrees to leave, and the two paddle their way back to their kung fu training grounds.

After they are gone, a fist punches through the top of the coffin.

Instead of following Mr. Tanzania and Rodan, the filmmakers follow the creature that emerged from the coffin, who for no apparent reason boards a steamer headed for New York City, in the body of a businessman with large white eyes.

After about ten minute stumbling through the city, the creature enters a subway tunnel.

Above ground, Rodan is involved in a drug deal with a Chinese dealer that goes wrong, while the filmmakers reveal Mr. Tanzania’s happy life through a montage in which his wife learns to use chopsticks, he demonstrates his stickball swing to a group of boys, and he walks along the street with his arms around his friends’ shoulders.

At a bar, Mr. Tanzania explains tolerance to Rodan: “The Chinese brothers are third world people, they’re not our enemy.”

Rodan is not convinced. Regarding the Chinese hoodlums involved in the drug deal gone wrong, he says, for some reason, “They’d rather fight a gorilla in a phone booth than mess with us.”

Mr. Tanzania notices the amulet around Rodan’s neck, the piece he stole from the coffin in China. In the subway tunnel, the creature responds to the presence of the amulet by screaming, bleeding green blood, and transforming into a zombie.

In one of the film’s action set pieces, Rodan and some of his friends go to find the Chinese gang (the Red Dragons) that wronged them—a gang that coincidentally passes by the same alley Rodan’s friends are walking through. After and extended fight sequence, the Chinese gang members run away at the sight of Rodan’s amulet.

Meanwhile, a murder victim is found in the subway, and Chris, the detective in charge, believes based on no available evidence that it somehow involves a brewing war between the black gang (named the Black Spades) and Chinese gangs. When a second murder victim is found on the subway tracks, we are treated to an appearance by Brother Theodore, a clergyman who gives last rights right on the tracks.

Chris’s new partner Sam, whose mannerisms resemble those of Albert Brooks, has a different theory. He explains, “About four years ago, there was a story in the papers. It seems that when they were building the old subways, they had to break through the sewers, and it seems that a lot of workmen broke through the sewers and were attacked by animals. These were animals that had become mutant. Dogs, cats, rats, alligators, all the throwaways and they’d developed senses that other animals didn’t have: fangs, claws. They’re wild, they lived off each other. Survival of the species, and they attacked the workmen.”

The gang war heats up as Rodan and his friend are assaulted on the basketball court, though they manage to subdue their attackers (and they actually murder at least one of them).

Chris and Sam continue on the case, though Sam wants Chris to relax. He invites him to his club to play tennis. “It’ll get your mind off the case.”

“I don’t play tennis, Sam.”

“What do you mean you don’t play tennis?”

“What I said, I don’t play tennis.”

“Everybody plays tennis.”

After this witty exchange, the detectives respond to a call about a murdered Chinese male, but they decide to interview Mr. Tanzania instead because he might know something about the subway murders, which keep recurring.

The gang war narrative and the monster narrative suddenly collide when Rodan is chased through the streets to a closed subway station by Chinese gang members. Rodan hides in the subway tunnel. “Shoot, it’s cold,” he says to nobody, inviting the audience to suggest he should wear more than a denim jacket over his exposed torso. The comment is his last, unfortunately, as the creature strangles him and shoves his face into an open electrical box.

Above ground, the police investigate Rodan’s body, which shocks Mr. Tanzania as well as Brother Theodore.

Mr. Tanzania tells the detectives, “Like I said, mister, you do it your legal white way. I know who did this to my brother, and I’m gonna fix it. And I’m gonna do what’s got to be done.” Mr. Tanzania believes the Chinese gang, not the monster, killed Rodan. He walks to Chinatown and beats up four Chinese gang members; his fighting style is so effective that his kicks do not come close to connecting and the Chinese men fall down.

One of the Chinese men tells Mr. Tanzania that they were not responsible for Rodan’s death. “Come with me. It is time you found out the truth.”

Mr. Tanzania replies, “I’ll go with you, but I warn you, if it’s a trick, I’ll get you first.”

The gang member takes Mr. Tanzania to an old man. Mr. Tanzania asks, “Does this have something to do with China?”

The old man shows Mr. Tanzania the amulet Rodan stole. He explains that the spirit of a demon was trapped in the amulet. “As long as this amulet exists, the demon is deprived of most of his power. Even though he is still strong, he is unable to tolerate light.”

Mr. Tanzania is shocked. “In my head, your story is fantastic, but in my heart, I know that you’re speaking the truth.”

The man tells Mr. Tanzania that he must challenge and defeat the demon, but the demon will use tricks, including appearing as the people his challenger loves.

Mr. Tanzania prepares to confront the demon in the subway by wearing a gold lame jumpsuit, which draws quite a crowd.

Mr. Tanzania runs down to the subway, where he does indeed see his loved ones. His girlfriend attacks him, as do his friends, but he fights them off rather brutally with martial arts. When the friends are ineffective, an invisible assailant attacks Mr. Tanzania. At last, the creature reveals itself as a cross between a Fulciesque zombie and a swamp monster.

In the end, Mr. Tanzania defeats the monster with the help of the amulet and is reunited in the hospital with his girlfriend, the detectives, and his newfound Chinese friend.

As the end credits roll, we see the old Chinese man taking the amulet on a boat back to China. In what is perhaps a reversal of expectations, no twist occurs, and the final shots are of the boat leaving New York Harbor.

While the blaxploitation/martial arts/monster movie genre may appear to be a crowded field, full of acknowledged classics, Devil's Express is one of the finest examples of the form. In fact, it follows the model of the popular television series The Night Stalker by intercutting the investigation of a monster with something bigger going on--in this case, a war between Chinese and black gangs (rarely addressed, it must be said, on the Darren McGavin TV series). In Devil's Express, it is hard to say which subplot is more effective, as both are equally fascinating. When the plots come together in the subway climax, and Warhawk Tanzania is being beaten up by the swamp monster, the effect is truly satisfying, and made even more so by the supernatural stopping of time in the outside world, which prevents the police from rushing to help Mr. Tanzania. As all truly great dramas do, the narrative comes down to a test of Mr. Tanzania's resolve and his martial arts skills--and in the end, they are triumphant.

The filmmakers have a deft touch for comedy as well as thrills, particularly in their treatment of Sam, the detective's inexperienced partner straight from Harvard. In one charming sequence, detective Chris takes Sam to a bar and then disappears into the back room to speak with Mr. Tanzania, leaving Sam outside with potentially threatening members of the African-American community. When Chris returns, however, Sam has made friends with everyone in the bar by telling them about his mutated cats, rats, and alligators theory. When Sam leaves, the ladies in the bar smile and giggle at his charm, and the toughest bar patron says, "Yeah, I would have did him myself."

In the end, however, it is the film's message that resonates. Perhaps it is summarized best by Warhawk Tanzania's classic line “In my head, your story is fantastic, but in my heart, I know that you’re speaking the truth.” Devil's Express is indeed fantastic, but in all our hearts we know that it is the truth.