Amiable, mindless (and mostly inexplicable) thick ear for fans of 1970s all-star international co-productions. Kino Lorber has released on Blu-ray KILLER FORCE (aka THE DIAMOND MERCENARIES), the 1976 South African diamond heist actioner released here in the States by American International Pictures, directed and co-written by British helmer Val Guest, and starring Telly Savalas, Peter Fonda, Hugh O’Brien, O.J. Simpson, Maud Adams, and Christopher Lee. Anyone looking for the kind of intricate, razor-sharp plotting that defines a superior heist movie will be disappointed, to say the least, in KILLER FORCE...but those who want a lot of explosions and machine gun fire and failing name actors clearly collecting a paycheck the IRS can’t touch, will find KILLER FORCE just to their liking. Sadly, no significant extras like a commentary track or interview for this release (I’m not surprised the remaining cast is staying mum on this one), but there is an alternate—and better—ending included, along with some original trailers on this very solid 1080p HD 1.85:1 anamorphically-enhanced widescreen Blu-ray transfer.
The Syndicated Diamond Corporation
mining compound in the South African desert. The mine’s second-in-command
security officer, Mike Bradley (Peter Fonda, RACE WITH THE DEVIL, SPASMS) has
been dispatched to an “airborne intruder” alert picked up by radar
on the mine’s desert perimeter. The SDC’s Chief of Security, Harry
Webb (Telly Savalas, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM),
making a surprise visit, is convinced someone is stealing diamonds from the
complex, and he suspects everyone, including the mine manager’s
daughter, beautiful international model Clare Chambers (Maud Adams, THE MAN
WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, TATTOO), who’s there visiting Bradley, her long-distance
lover. The airborne alert is further proof for deadly-serious Webb that security
is lax at the mine; he orders a helicopter to take him to the scene, where he
orders the summary execution of wounded diamond thief Pop Keller (Frank Shelley,
DARLING), even though Bradley already has the situation in hand. The complex’s
head security chief, Ian Nelson (Victor Melleney, RIVER OF DEATH, CYBORG COP
II) has his own plan to capture the thief: he wants Bradley to go rogue and
“steal” a diamond, escaping and becoming bait for the thief in the
hopes of drawing out into the open the illegal operation. Bradley reluctantly
agrees, and sure enough, after eluding Webb, Bradley is contacted by John Lewis
(Hugh O’Brien, TEN LITTLE INDIANS, TV’s SEARCH), a retired Army
major, who plans on attacking the compound with fellow mercenaries Major Chilton
(Christopher Lee, TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER, AIRPORT ‘77), “Bopper”
Alexander (O.J. Simpson, THE TOWERING INFERNO, CAPRICORN ONE), and Paul Adams
(Michael Mayer, VENGEANCE COP, KILL AND KILL AGAIN), all of whom served with
Lewis in the Congo and Vietnam. But all isn’t as it seems with Bradley
and Lewis, complicating their mission of hitting the heavily-fortified mine
commando-style, and boosting $20 million dollars worth of ice.
Who didn’t see KILLER FORCE’s original one-sheet poster art back in ’76 and think, “We’re seeing that at the drive-in on Friday night!” And like all really good, pulpy exploitation movie artwork, it does its job: it makes KILLER FORCE look like some kind of epic bad-ass action classic...regardless of whether or not the actual movie measures up to the visual hype. Well, KILLER FORCE isn’t any kind of “epic” or “classic,” nor is it even particularly “bad-assed,” but it does satisfy in an amusing, nostalgic way for viewers who grew up on these kinds of 1970s outings. Short of sorting through some print biographies of the principles, there isn’t exactly a lot of online information on the actual production of KILLER FORCE (a short doc or even an info pamphlet for the DVD would have been helpful). The few details I could find were that KILLER FORCE was an international tax-shelter co-production for companies in the Republic of Ireland, Switzerland and the United States, and that Jack Palance may have had Hugh O’Brien’s role prior to shooting. That’s it. It’s not a title that readily comes up when discussing 1970s action exploitation fare; I’m not aware of it having any small cult following here in the States (overseas...who knows?). I’m not sure what kind of money AIP had in it (did they kick into the production kitty, or was KILLER FORCE strictly a pick-up?), but one can assume, since KILLER FORCE didn’t exactly set the box office on fire, that if AIP did indeed chip in some dough, it was one of those higher-than-normal budgeted/lower-than-expected performing “mainstream” offerings (THE GREAT SCOUT & CATHOUSE THURSDAY, SHOUT AT THE DEVIL, ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, METEOR) that helped put the once-profitable exploitation studio on the auction block by the end of the decade.
When I saw KILLER FORCE back in ’76, it was a pretty sweet piece of drive-in B movie thrills...at least to a ten-year-old who actively followed those kinds of flicks. Seen today (after decades of increasingly frenzied, adrenalin-soaked actioners), it plays fairly tame by comparison: energetic to be sure, but mostly dumb, too, in plotting and character motivation, with an interesting cast that’s not at all used well—both elements of which, happily, result in some unintended “bad movie” pleasures. And the first of those dated pleasures comes in the opening title sequence: you know you’re back in the 1970s when composer Georges Garvarentz (THE SOUTHERN STAR, THEY CAME TO ROB LAS VEGAS) cranks up that chirpy, peppy, disco-flavored theme, in total contrast to the visuals of the earth movers and Land Rovers traversing the vast mine operation and South African sand dunes. Old pro scripter/director Val Guest (CASINO ROYALE, TOOMORROW), with the help of writers Michael Winder (episodic Brit TV series like THE AVENGERS, THE SAINT, and CALLAN) and Gerald Sanford (U.S. episodic TV series like BARNABY JONES and KNIGHT RIDER), thankfully gets right down to business, giving us some nice crosscutting between Fonda’s airborne threat maneuver in the desert, and Savalas’ creepy intimidation of Adams back at camp. During those first nicely laid-out fifteen or twenty minutes, we’d be forgiven in thinking KILLER FORCE might be a reasonably killer actioner in the making.
However, things go wobbly right when they should take off—the curiously enervated “planning of the assault” scene, usually one of the highlights of the heist genre—particularly with that ungainly jump cut from Telly discussing the camp’s security measures, going right to O’Brien and his gang talking about the raid, without even the slightest introduction to their characters or their set-up (we’re supposed to root for these guys when they just suddenly pop up out of nowhere without any kind of cinematic build-up?). A bigger sign of trouble is when Guest fudges the scene where Fonda gets the diamond out of the complex, thus establishing his cover; after a big buildup of the involved medical procedures everyone is subject to, we cut to Fonda laughing at some store in town while he pops the diamond into a cheap necklace. Uh...how’s that? You simply can’t cheat the audience that way in a heist movie; you have to show them how he did the supposedly impossible. And once O’Brien’s meager plan is put forth—jumping over a tiny 5 foot wide “pressure strip” set in the desert sand, turning off the power to an electrified fence, and blasting away with guns—we grudgingly accept that KILLER FORCE is going to be a fairly standard, if thinly plotted, “assault on a fortress” type exploiter...and so we might as well enjoy the ride, however familiar.
Thankfully, that’s not hard to do, once KILLER FORCE’s mistakes and miscues really begin to pile up. Lame, faux-cynical/tough guy one-liners pepper the screenplay, making us laugh for the wrong reasons (when Fonda is asked to join the mercenaries, he replies with his usual flat, droning delivery, “Thank you for the invitation, gentlemen, but I prefer to join the Girl Scouts.” Har...dee), while genuine laughs are generated by the increasingly strange proceedings. Why again does Lee slit the throat of that gorgeous blonde contact, Danny (Marina Christelis, insane-looking in her lingerie), when he was told to cool it by O.J. (there’s a switch for you...)? And why in the world would security expert Telly, who already suspects someone is planning to hit the complex, believe the girl’s framed assailant, Nelson, committed suicide by slitting his own throat? How can highly-sought diamond thief Fonda calmly walk around town without getting busted (...by having zero cops on the streets, apparently)? And what’s with that bizarre scene with Telly and Adams, where he threatens her before suddenly claiming to know where her G-spot is (!), tearing off her skirt to prove it and then, just as abruptly, walking out on her (even Adams looks confused)? And of course there’s KILLER FORCE’s most notoriously goofy scene: the “thrilling” pressure strip sequence, where the stars do these terrible little hoppy jumps in the nondescript sand while Guest stays back 20 yards and films this nail-biter like it was a camcorded middle-school track meet (he couldn’t even give us the cliched “leap-over-the-camera-in-the-sand” shot?). This has to be one of the lamest—and most giggle-inducing—action set pieces I’ve seen in 1970s genre work.
KILLER FORCE’s performances are all over the map, too, further upping the viewer’s amusement quotient. If the movie had been made ten years before, TV star Hugh O’Brien would have been top-billed, rather than third here. As it is, he seems to be telegraphing in a blandly stalwart, generically heroic performance from twenty years prior (he’s not in on the joke at all). O.J. Simpson, learning absolutely nothing from his previous appearance in a bigger all-star outing, THE TOWERING INFERNO, does his standard “painfully willing to please” bit (he’s never funny or charming or amusing), backed up by the silly shtick of bopping people on the head with a truncheon. Talented, beautiful Maud Adams is again wasted in a movie where the scant material offers no room for her to show what she can do. In that too-chaste bedroom scene, she’s far more credible than she has any right to be (considering the script), briefly pondering her romantic situation with Fonda. However, the movie weirdly cuts off any potential unconventional sparks she might have had with predator Savalas (the kind she showed with Christopher Lee in a similarly strange sexual relationship in the Bond outing, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN). Lee, perhaps KILLER FORCE’s biggest draw today because of the iconic actor’s wide fan base, seems to be in another movie, as well, and the effect is one of him eventually disappearing off the screen (he’s a Nazi? A psycho killer? We might as well guess “vampire,” since his character is so peculiarly vague). Fonda, riding the last bits of exploitation B movie star fame he leveraged thanks to hits like THE WILD ANGELS and EASY RIDER, is by this point in full sell-out mode, outrageously attired in a safari jacket, pink choker scarf, bushy beard, and what looks to be Avery Schreiber's perm, droning through his lines as if he knows he better score these bigger paychecks while he can because very soon he’ll be appearing in grade Z fare like IT’S ALL RIGHT, MY FRIEND, PEPPERMINT-FRIEDEN, and DANCE OF THE DWARFS (never heard of them? Exactly). Flippant, rakish man-of-action Fonda ain’t.
As for Telly, his turn is the most disheartening in KILLER FORCE—you want to laugh the minute you see his silk dress shirt unbuttoned to his navel, hoping he’ll pull out his “Who loves ya, baby?” jive just to curry favor with the audience...but he refuses. Savalas, probably wondering why he was being offered crap like this when he was finally a world-wide phenomenon thanks to TV’s KOJAK, alternates between boredom and utter contempt for the material, as he inexplicably develops a fondness (?), a kinship (??) some sort of emotional connection (???) with the fleeing Fonda and particularly Adams (there’s zero foundation in the script for this turn of events). It’s an ugly, sour performance for the talented, criminally underutilized actor, further marred by unaccountable actions and motivations (rolling up his sleeves...rolling down his sleeves; sweet talking Adams...ripping off Adams’ skirt...walking out on Adams...looking wistfully at Adams). By the movie’s final desert chase (lots of cool Land Rover porn), after Guest gives us a thin but noisy THE GUNS OF NAVARONE/THE DIRTY DOZEN retread assault on the compound (complete with Harry Alan Towers “shake the bloody gun ‘cause we can’t afford blanks!” cost-cutting techniques) we can’t for the life of us figure out why Telly is so reluctant to nail the soon-to-be-successful diamond-snatching couple. That’s why the alternate ending works so much better for this ultimately juvenile, loud hackwork....
The 1080p HD 1.85:1 anamorphically-enhanced widescreen transfer for KILLER FORCE looks very good. Lots of bright, sandy desert shots equal strong colors and razor-sharp fine image detail (some shots briefly go out of focus on the edges, but it looks like the source material is the culprit, not the transfer). Contrast is excellent, and only very minor screen anomalies like dirt and scratches appear. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 split mono English soundtrack, however, is another matter: I found the dialogue frequently muddy and sometimes hard to decipher (subtitles would have helped here), with a surprisingly low re-recording level—blame for the former, perhaps, on the original sound design. Extras include an alternate title card sequence (3:10) for the internationally-monikered THE DIAMOND MERCENARIES. Two original trailers for the U.S. and European prints are included (2:35 for both), and some trailers for other KL titles now out on Blu: THE PASSAGE, FIREPOWER, and BLAZING MAGNUM. Finally, an alternate ending is included (a brief 1:24), that one might assume is from the movie’s international version. It may not tie up any narrative strings, but it’s way more satisfying, and truer to Savalas’ character, when he SPOILER ALERT whips out a shotgun (!) and blasts Fonda’s and Adams’ helicopter out of the sky as it roars by him at a hundred and fifty miles per hour (nice shootin’, Tex!). That’s the kind of hilariously goofy ending AIP needed for the equally harebrained KILLER FORCE. (Paul Mavis)
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