Tuesday, November 13, 2012

"But I'm Gonnna Shock Her Out of Her Miniskirt..."

And so today, we'll wrap up the world of Matt Helm with The Wrecking Crew (1968).

If you're waiting for a final poster joke about "balls", you're gonna be waiting a long time.
As I mentioned in my review of the third installment in the franchise, The Wrecking Crew would experience something of a change in tone.  Oddly enough, I thought of an apt Bond metaphor.  Though each of the films kept ratcheting up the amount of gadgets and crazy situations, it was during Roger's stint that the movies moved into full blown cartoon territory.  Moonraker (1979) was the pinnacle of silliness as it not only knocked the over-the-top qualities of The Spy Who Loved Me up another notch, but also made a half-assed stab at the Star Wars boom.  So when Bond returned in 1981 with For Your Eyes Only, it was not only the most serious and subdued of Roger's stint as 007, but perhaps of the entire franchise up to that point.

Now, positing The Wrecking Crew as the most serious of the Helm movies...well, they only toned it down to somewhere around Our Man Flint level.  Most of the endless innuendo is gone from much of the banter, though Dino still gets in a regular flow of zingers.  There's still plenty of lovely ladies, but each has a part to play in the plot. The gadgets are nothing too wacky, and most of the scenarios are remarkably plausible if comically performed (I would suggest looking up the term "haymaker" with regards to fighting and consider how useful it is in life and death combat between trained professionals).

I prefer to believe this was the life of spies...
The story concerns $1 billion of US gold being stolen from a train traveling through Europe, though why all that gold would be travelling via train through Europe's never really made clear, when it's high-jacked by wealthy industrialist Count Massimo Contini and his deadly fiancĂ©e Linka Karesky.  Matt Helm's sent to Denmark to covertly locate the gold and wrest it back from Contini before it plunges the world money markets into chaos. (This is what happens when you're on the gold standard, folks!)  Since Matt more or less knows who stole it and roughly where it is, the movie's more or less a string of set pieces trying to bump Matt and his helper Freya Carlson off or trying to seduce Matt into stealing the gold for himself. I'm pretty sure without having seen it, you can guess what happens.

If you guessed alien invasion...that's cool...but wrong.

No joke. Just something lovely.
Dean eases into this more relaxed version of Helm with just the amount of cool you would expect.  While the part hasn't exactly moved into firm dramatic territory, Dino seems more comfortable not having to race to spit out double entendres with every retort. His only problem comes with Freya, played by Sharon Tate.  (Without dragging the tragic events of the Manson Family murders into this, let's just say that there's a certain sad air that will likely only bother you if you're familiar with the exuberant Tate's sorrowful fate. The same thing happened the first time I saw what should've been another comic romp with Tate in The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967).) Freya's the most bumbling thing Matt's had to deal with since Stella Stevens played Gail Hendricks in the first Helm adventure, and to be honest, considering the shift in tone, she's the one element that seems to belong in an earlier Helm-er. She's the first thing to really break Matt's cool, and robbing Dino of cool is cinematic suicide in terms of the fun.

Those of you waiting for a "Hello, little buddy!" joke...you just got one.
The rest of the cast is a lot of fun. Nigel Green, who plays Contini, is perhaps the most convincing foe since Karl Malden in Murderer's Row.  Elke Sommers is her usual lovely ice queen self.  Tina Louise of Gilligan's Island fame makes an appearance as a double-crossing Gypsy dancer.  But perhaps most interesting is Nancy Kwan as the Hong Kong assassin, Yu-Rang, who, apart from the goofy name (which I assume was some sort of nod to the colorful super-villain henchmen monikers of Bond), is far less offensive an Asian character than one would expect from a movie from this time period.  I'm not going to say fully positive as there's a number of gongs and "Chinese" music stings throughout the film.  I suspect the better portrayal might be due, at least in part, to the movies fight choreographer. You may have heard of him...fella by the name of Bruce Lee.  Oh, and as I forgot to mention it the last time around, like its predecessors, the last two films also features another movie score heavy-hitter with the wonderful sounds of Hugo Montenegro.

Considering the era, is it ok that I hear Pete Sellers saying "Kaaaaay-tooooo?" when I look at this? I mean, I know that's the Pink Panther and not Green Hornet and all...
So to wrap it all up: if The Ambushers makes you look at The Wrecking Crew as "Criminey, here we go again...", let me assure you that it's not that.  But at the same time, if you wanted more of the same old same old, it's not that either. If anything, it's a fairly familiar and mostly enjoyable ride that makes you wonder where it would have gone if, as promised in the end credits, they had made The Ravagers next.