Monday, March 6, 2023

"Why All the Killing?" - Endgame (1983)

It is time to venture into the apocalypse again with Joe D'Amato's Endgame (1983) aka Bronx Lotta Finale (Bronx Final Fight). This ingenious film marries a The Road Warrior-style road trip with a futuristic, televised The Most Dangerous Game-style sport, to great effect.

Some of your universe's critics disagree, of course. For example, reviewer Quicksilverkid calls the film the worst movie ever and writes, "Avoid this movie at all costs." Reviewer BA_Harrison calls the film "an instantly forgettable and relatively worthless experience." And reviewer poolandrews calls the film "Total rubbish."

Read on for the truth about the post-apocalyptic masterpiece Endgame...

In post-apocalyptic ruins, we see dead bodies covered with rates and we hear a radio station announcing radiation counts for May 10, 2025. A man drags a body to a gathering of radiation-scarred people.

Nearby, a massive vehicle parks and gas-masked men scan the area with Geiger counters. Though there are people hiding only inches away from them, one of the men concludes, “Well, don’t seem to be any mutants here.”

Unfortunately, one of the people runs into their field of view, resulting in a machine gun massacre. The masked men are uninterested, however; they are looking for mutants, not “pariahs.”

Meanwhile, a TV announcer explains that “Endgame is here again, that great international sport, a grand tradition since it was started back in 2012, can be followed on your video contactors in any corner of this planet.” The announcer goes on to explain that the game is a kind of “most dangerous game” situation in which one person acting as prey, Al Cliver, will be chased by three hunters. “Each player is allowed to carry one firearm and two other weapons of his own choice. Anyone found with additional weapons is automatically disqualified.” Also, the prey can surrender, which causes a loss of points.

The announcer then reads a satirical near-future commercial for a food product: “Do you know the favorite food of Endgame champions? Mmm. It’s Life Plus, the high protein energy tablet that tones up your body fibers and maintains your sexual prowess. Be a man among men. Buy Life Plus.” (One wonders what the corresponding product for women is called; one also wonders why the manufacturer would limit their sales to one sex.)

The pre-game preparations begin as Mr. Cliver exits his small trailer to join the TV announcer. He is followed by the hunters, who also leave their petite trailers. Unlike Mr. Cliver (who wears a bit of eye makeup), they are dressed in full post-apocalyptic regalia, their formidableness reduced only slightly by their ducking out of their trailers and closing the doors. The hunters are Woody Aldridge (a large bald man), Gabe Mantrax (a martial artist), and Kurt Karnak (a former friend of Mr. Cliver’s, played by the formidable George Eastman).

“I’m gonna kill you,” Mr. Eastman tells Mr. Cliver.

Mr. Cliver simply jogs away from the junkyard where the TV announcer continues TV announcing. 

The film cuts to a gathering of uniformed generals discussing a nefarious plan. Because five million people are watching Endgame on TV, “even another nuclear attack would not distract them. No one will notice a thing.” They neglect to reveal their plan, and they all swivel in their chairs to watch a TV televising Endgame.

Out on the streets/brick-lined labyrinths of the future, Mr. Cliver walks casually through a dark area before encountering Laura Gemser and saving her from a mild-mannered group of mutants who chase her down half-heartedly. When Mr. Cliver twists one of the mutants’ arms, they all run away. She tells him she wants to offer him a job, despite his currently starring in a popular TV show, and he says he might think about it after he survives Endgame.

Eventually, the cat-and-mouse game begins as Mr. Cliver taunts Woody into discharging his gun too many times. A fight ensues and ends quickly when Mr. Cliver stabs Woody in the back with a medium-sized knife. 

Mr. Cliver casually strolls away, unaware he is being stalked by Gabe Mantrax, who soon surprise-attacks him with martial arts. Mantrax knocks Mr. Cliver unconscious, but this is only a ruse, as Mr. Cliver defeats Mantrax with a series of kicks and a final, fatal karate chop.

Suddenly, Mr. Cliver is attacked by George Eastman, the final hunter, who is armed with a gun. In a surreal sequence, Mr. Cliver somersaults into a brick-lined chamber to avoid gunfire, only to see Ms. Gemser enter the room and explain calmly, “You’ve got yourself in a trap. There’s no other way out.”

Nevertheless, she helps him escape by hiding him in the chamber when Mr. Eastman arrives. As Mr. Eastman searches the chamber for his prey, Mr. Cliver and Ms. Gemser communicate telepathically. “Brain mutation developed my telepathic power,” she tells him…with her mind.

Also telepathically, she offers Mr. Cliver a job as guide to take her and a group of people out of the city. To get him out of Endgame, she communicates Mr. Eastman’s presence to Mr. Cliver (he thinks to her: “Your name ought to be RADAR” as she updates him on his opponent’s position), and he is able to catch Mr. Eastman off guard with his whip. (Oddly, Mr. Cliver is hiding through most of the scene, but when Ms. Gemser tells him to strike he is suddenly above Mr. Eastman, able to jump down and surprise him.)

There follows one of cinema’s all-time classic post-apocalyptic knife fights. Mr. Eastman throws his knife at Mr. Cliver but misses, so he grabs a hatchet from the wreckage and continues assaulting Mr. Cliver as a TV crew approaches. Eventually, Mr. Cliver pushes Mr. Eastman off a bridge. Mr. Cliver approaches the defeated Mr. Eastman, pressing his knife against the man’s throat, but in the end, Mr. Cliver lets the hunter live because they used to be friends. 

Suddenly, Mr. Cliver hears Ms. Gemser’s voice in his head, and he is forced to run away from his TV interview to save her from two federal policemen. They walk off together and find a room full of dead men before they encounter a bespectacled man and a young boy named Tommy. Referring to the dead men, Mr. Cliver asks Ms. Gemser, “Why all this killing?”

“Why do you think? You think they kept us in a research institute in the interests of our society,” she replies, “like they say in the media? They kill us like dogs as soon as they find us.”

“Why?” Mr. Cliver asks.

“Because they are afraid,” the bespectacled man says. The federal police are clearly afraid of mutants with special telepathic powers.

Inside a nicely decorated RV, the bespectacled man tells Mr. Cliver that he is not a telepathic mutant, just a neurosurgeon. “With help and guidance, perhaps one day we can create a new race. A society where they will all have the faculty to read each other’s minds. A society without deception and incomprehension. Such a race might even conquer the world. And then the universe!”

Of course, such a utopian ambition will be difficult to achieve. They need Mr. Cliver to escort the child to a place 200 miles from the city, and they must arrive within two days, by December 25 (the radio report earlier the same day mentioning May 10, 2025 must have been incorrect). If they reach the appointed place by December 25, Mr. Cliver will receive a fortune in gold.

Meanwhile, the military officers watching Endgame from the secret room confront Mr. Eastman and tell him they are looking for a woman who might be a mutant. Mr. Eastman implies wordlessly that he will work with them to hunt down the mutant.

In a reminder that the important things in the world still remain even after the apocalypse, Mr. Cliver strolls through a boxing gym where dozens of shirtless men spar so that he can recruit some men to help him guard Ms. Gemser on her voyage. Walking past the shooting range inside the gym, Mr. Cliver asks the eyepatch- and turtleneck-wearing proprietor of the gym about the men training there.

The proprietor says none of the shirtless men would survive outside the ruined city, but there is a “karate ace” named Ninja. “He never wants to fight,” the proprietor explains, “but his body’s a deadly weapon.”

“Make him fight,” says Mr. Cliver.

“He won’t.”

“If he’s attacked, then maybe he’ll defend himself.”

The proprietor nods his head to one of the shirtless men, indicating he should attack Ninja. Ninja kills him with karate.

In the next scene, Mr. Cliver drives a little apocalyptic car to a country house and strolls into a courtyard, where he is confronted by a variety of post-apocalyptic men. When one threatens Mr. Cliver, we see that Ninja has also arrived (though, confusingly, not in Mr. Cliver’s car). Instead of showing off his martial arts skills, Ninja fires a shotgun at the threatening individual, allowing Mr. Cliver to explain to the men, “I’ve got a job for you. The risk’s high but so is the reward. I’d like an answer…now!”

Mr. Cliver continues recruiting bodyguards. Eventually, one of the evil generals confronts him as he’s climbing into his little apocalyptic car, but Mr. Cliver shoots all the general’s bodyguards and punches him. In the middle of the fracas, Mr. Eastman arrives and saves Mr. Cliver’s life. “Now we’re quits,” he tells Mr. Cliver, then walks away.

Mr. Cliver, his hired goons, and six or seven psychic mutants begin walking through the city. They reach  an old white van and load the psychics into it, including their attending bespectacled neuroscientist. Then, in a quick cut, we are outside the city, as a not-at-all-suspicious caravan including motorcycles and Mr. Cliver’s apocalyptic mini-car.

Once away from the city, the caravan stops near some sand dunes. They find a broken-down car with dead mutants, one of which looks like a lizard and one resembles an ape.

“Regressive mutations,” the professor says. “The first specimens I’ve ever seen.” He explains, in what I assume is a 100% accurate representation of evaluation and mutation, “Men and animals have the same biological origins. The fallout has had a catastrophic effect on the DNA factor. Creatures are being born today with genetic manifestations that reflect back to our primordial past, even as far as when water was our natural habitat. Look! Gills, fins, scales! It’s ‘involution’ - in other words, man is retracing his footsteps!”

Later, the caravan reaches a small, apparently abandoned town. They are soon greeted by a man in a black robe who reveals he is one of an order of blind monks, a group of which surrounds Mr. Cliver and his men. Mr. Cliver is clever enough to realize this is an ambush, however, and he pulls out a gun and starts shooting the monks, who reveal weapons like sickles and swords beneath their black robes. As Mr. Cliver hides from the attackers, Ms. Gemser informs him that the monks really are blind but they have a telepathic prisoner acting as their eyes hiding in the tallest building in the village. After Mr. Cliver punches some blind monks, he takes a motorcycle and drives to the building, where he kills a dozen more monks and then kills the telepath by throwing an axe at his face.

With the monks neutralized and blind, the caravan leaves town, leaving many monks alive (but running over some of them indiscriminately with the van).

In a peaceful interval between violent set-pieces, Mr. Cliver observes the mutant boy’s power of telekinesis as he moves a rock a few inches off the ground. “His mind is amazingly powerful, but he’s still much too young to control it,” Ms. Gemser says.

As the next adventure in their picaresque journey, the group encounters a village full of dead, tortured people, including a half-nude woman strung up between trees. However, Ms. Gemser warns Mr. Cliver immediately that this is another trap—a poorly conceived one that involves the bloody woman attacking the pistol-packing Mr. Cliver with a whip. The villagers, all playing dead, spring up, but they are quickly killed. Unfortunately, the professor is a victim of the trap, and he dies tragically.

Mr. Cliver’s gang of goons begins arguing because they now realize they are transporting telepathic mutants across the countryside, but the argument is interrupted by Mr. Eastman, who has somehow climbed to the top of a tall building and tells them they will be busy in a minute. He is correct: The hills soon swarm with an army of motorbikes, plus a vehicle driven by a green mutant attended by two nude women. These are all regressive mutants, who have access to dozens of motorbikes and appear to be unhappy with Mr. Cliver and his group.

There follows an extended action sequence with motorbikes jumping up ramps and sliding into mud puddles (there appear to be as many mud puddles as motorbikes, which is quite a lot). 

Unfortunately, Ms. Gemser is abducted by the green-skinned mutant. Mr. Cliver holes up in a building while Mr. Eastman drives the van to chase Ms. Gemser’s kidnappers. The battle kills nearly everyone, including Ninja and Mr. Cliver’s apocalyptic mini-car, but the mutants are safe, except for the abducted Ms. Gemser. 

After the battle ends, Mr. Eastman stops the van, then walks to the back and opens the door, revealing the mutants, one of whom gasps (as a telepath, perhaps the gasper should have known Mr. Eastman was coming, but apparently she did not). Mr. Cliver rides up on a stolen motorbike. He asks Mr. Eastman, “What took you so long?”

“It wasn’t easy,” Mr. Eastman replies laconically. (The response implies the two rivals have been in cahoots the entire time, though this is entirely unclear.) As the film’s third act begins, Mr. Eastman and Mr. Cliver ride off on a motorbike together to rescue Ms. Gemser.

The two mismatched rivals reach their target, a large building of concrete and steel, almost immediately. “It’s like a prison,” Mr. Eastman explains. “Easy to get in and tough to get out.” (Mr. Eastman’s concept of prisons is quite poetic, though perhaps inaccurate.)

Inside the easily accessible prison, the green-skinned mutant grabs Ms. Gemser, who is tied to a bed. In one of the film’s least tasteful lines, the mutant tells her, “Look at me while I rape you, damn it!” And he does proceed to rape her.

Mr. Cliver and Mr. Eastman enter the building (which appears relatively easy to both enter and exit, contrary to Mr. Eastman’s assessment). Fortunately for them, all the mutants in the place are asleep, so they find Ms. Gemser quickly and make their escape. In a bizarre (and Jack Kirby-esque) turn, they find one of their goons encased in a block of concrete, barely alive, so Mr. Eastman does the courtesy of breaking his neck.

Unfortunately for Mr. Eastman, he is discovered in the middle of his mercy (?) killing, and the mutants surround him. 

Mr. Cliver and Ms. Gemser run away. Once outside (indeed, the building was easy to escape), Mr. Cliver asks Ms. Gemser to sense if Mr. Eastman is alive. “He’s not dead, but I sense he’s in trouble.”

“Well,” says Mr. Cliver, casually starting a motorbike, “fate decides the winner of Endgame, not me.”

He drives Ms. Gemser back to the van and they cover the last ten kilometers to the rendezvous point. They are soon met by a massive police vehicle. One of the military officers steps out, accompanied by a dozen policemen who attack the survivors. The telepaths are taken from the van and lined up against the vehicle.

Mr. Cliver, at the mercy of the military officer, contacts Ms. Gemser telepathically, then communicates with the telekinetic boy Tommy. In the end, Tommy is able to save everyone with his powers by whipping up a powerful wind that blows all the policemen away. He also telekinetically uses a machine gun, the police truck, fire, and a pile of boulders to kill all the villains.

After the battle is over, a helicopter lands. Two men dressed in white carry a case full of gold to Mr. Cliver. They take all the telepaths away in the helicopter, after Ms. Gemser offers to take Mr. Cliver with them. Of course, he refuses. “You are the future,” he says. “I am the past.” (Also, he would probably not fit in the helicopter, though this remains unsaid.)

In a final twist, Mr. Eastman reappears and prevents Mr. Cliver from taking the gold. He proposes they play the final round of Endgame by themselves. In the final shot, they run at each other with knives, and the image freezes.

Endgame/Bronx Final Fight is one of the finest of the short-lived genre of post-apocalyptic films with Bronx in the title (if not in the story) mined by Enzo Castellari in 1990: The Bronx Warriors (1982) and Escape from the Bronx (1983), which also featured George Eastman in different roles. While all of these films are high-quality stories that represent the pinnacle of futuristic acting, Endgame combines the elements--telepaths who are discriminated against by society, rural mutants who are descending the evolutionary ladder to become reptiles and apes and who get involved in spontaneous car crashes, military conspiracies with vague agendas watching Running Man-style TV shows--into a uniquely entertaining piece of art. Some questions, however are not answered, and high among them is the question of who are the real fascists? The jackbooted policemen eliminating mutants and telepaths based on the orders of their uniformed generals might certainly be considered fascists, but what about the neuroscientist who wants the telepaths to become the only surviving branch of the human race, at the expense of literally everyone else surviving on earth? Perhaps the film's message, and perhaps Joe D'Amato's most fascinating political comment, is that we are all fascists. Or perhaps not. In any case, Endgame is another of Mr. D'Amato's genre-spanning classics of science fiction action.