Avenging Force (1986)

Country: United States
Director: Sam Firstenberg
Starring: Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, John P. Ryan
Writer: James Booth
Music: George S. Clinton

Every film lover has guilty pleasure films. Mine are a bit more embarrassing than most – and Avenging Force is an embarrassment even for a person who has a selection of regular embarrassing films in their closet. Avenging Force is crap. I know it and I admit it, but strangely this film and I are connected. Not in a physical sense, but in that nebulous sort of way that happens when somebody likes some thing or someone for no apparent reason. I can’t work out what draws me to this film, but I have watched it so many times since its release in 1986 (I won’t tell you how many, or you’ll just throw things at me and call me names) that I consider it cinematic comfort food.

You may be thinking that I like this film because it stars Michael Dudikoff and Steve James, the stars of American Ninja, and while I can relate to what you are saying – I do have a soft spot for American Ninja – I have to say that I think Avenging Force is a superior movie. American Ninja, may have a cool, sort of Rebel Without A Cause vibe to it, but it also has a cold aloofness to it, that Dudikoff’s inexperience as an actor at that time could not rise above. But Avenging Force has a heart, and while the cliches are piled on thick and fast, most of the time they work, almost like visual shorthand. And by this time Dudikoff had learnt to relax in front of the camera too.

The plot concerns Larry Richards (Steve James), a black American who is running for a seat in the Louisiana Senate. Richards also happens to an ex intelligence operative who used to work with a young agent named Matt Hunter (Michael Dudikoff) for a department called G-6. Hunter, too, has retired from the service. He retired after his parents were killed in a car bomb explosion. He now lives on a ranch, bringing up his kid sister, Sarah (Allison Gereighty) – with a little bit of help and guidance from his grandfather (Rick Boyle).

In New Orleans, it’s Mardi Gras time, and Hunter, Sarah and Grandpa head south to help Richards with his election campaign. Upon arrival, Richards explains that he has received some death threats from a right wing organisation called Pentangle. Richards also explains that he has not taken the threats seriously, as crank calls and threats are all par for the course, for a black politician in the deep south.

During the Mardi Gras parade, as Richards and his family travel through the crowds on board a float, a team of assassins make an attempt on his life. They succeed in shooting Richards’ son, but Hunter intervenes and fights the assassins off and saving Richards’ life.

Later, Pentangle regroup and set up another attempt on Richards’ life. This time, teaming up, both Richards and Hunter fight off the Pentangle hoods yet again. However, during the battle, Richards is shot in the arm. It is decided, for Richards, and his family’s safety, that they should leave the city for a while. The location they choose as sanctuary is Hunter’s Texas ranch. But Pentangle aren’t done yet. Not by a long shot, and they perform a large scale assault on Hunter’s farm, killing everybody except for Hunter and his sister, Sarah.

Chuck Norris also played a character called 'Matt Hunter' in Invasion USA

There is a reason that they let them live. Pentangle are not only murderous right wing fanatics, they also have a hunting club – their favourite quarry are human beings (a variant on The Most Dangerous Game). They let their enemies loose in the Louisiana swamps and then hunt them down for fun (and the occasional side bet), killing them in a violent and a merciless manner. Impressed with Hunter’s resilience, Pentangle believe that Hunter would be a worthy target for their ‘hunt club’ and they kidnap his sister as bait to ensure that he participates. Hunter doesn’t have much choice. He must compete in their barbaric game or Sarah willed be killed.

Let me say I have never been to New Orleans, so my impression of that city is based solely on films, books and music, which I’ll freely admit is hardly a substitute for the real thing. However, even if all the films I’ve seen, books I’ve read, and CD’s I have listened to are not a true reflection on New Orleans, they still have created a very flavoursome alternate universe. It’s a city and a flavour that is not like anywhere else – at least in the media. And maybe it’s this flavour that draws me (almost hooks me) to Avenging Force. Maybe it is the sequences with colourful Mardi Gras floats drifting down through the streets, accompanied by swinging brass bands. The buildings in the background, with their overhanging verandas seen to close in on the streetscapes, creating a roof, sealing in the vibe, and as the parade moves through the street, everything pops and sizzles.

Or maybe it was the sequence featuring the swampy backwoods Cajun settlement. In the film, the settlement is supposed to be a unfriendly place, but the food (the cooked crays), the Zydeco music – washboards, accordions and violins – pounded out on real instruments, and dancing create an environment with a definite sense of community. A family in fact. So while Dudikoff’s character Matt Hunter, upon his arrival, is made to feel unwelcome – which make the Cajun’s seem hostile – would he be treated any different in your home if he gatecrashed a party? I think not.

Or maybe it is the swamp locations. To me it looks like it was filmed on location in the swamps. The trees are all gnarled and twisted, and the water looks green. And you can almost feel the heat, even though in many of the scenes it is teeming with rain. In a world where everything is becoming more artificial and homogenized, seeing something earthy and real is appealing. The fights look dangerous, not necessarily because of the combat, but because of the terrain. One false step, could have you sprawled on your belly in mud and at the mercy of the enemy.

The plot to John Woo's Hard Target is remarkably similar, right down to the New Orleans locations.

As you can see, there is nothing definite about why I like Avenging Force, and I could spend equal time pointing out its flaws, such as poorly choreographed fight scenes and gaping plot holes, but that would be nit-picking. Plenty of films have bad fight scenes and plot holes, but most of those films don’t create a mood and an atmosphere. Avenging Force does. Is it an existential action film? Maybe that’s pushing the envelope a little too far, but it certainly creates its own world above and beyond the the film’s limited framework and the established tropes of the genre. And if you’re wondering just what genre this film is, at it’s heart it is a simple revenge flick. But it is more than a revenge flick. It’s about right and wrong, the past and the future, and it’s an endurance test. And if you need more, you could say it is a martial arts movie – but I would also suggest that as far as martial arts movies go, Avenging Force is not a great one.

In Avenging Force, some viewers may find the violence and some of the villains repugnant. And I can understand that. The reality is that the film is just another exploitation flick from Cannon pictures. So yeah, violence sells, so there is a healthy serve of violence in the flick. But it is not that much different to the other mid ’80s action dross that was being pumped out at the time, starring Stallone, Schwarzenegger or even Chuck Norris. The violence here is all rather cartoonish, with the villains wearing silly masks in the swamps – and amplified by the acting, which is over the top, especially by John P. Ryan as the chief villain, Glastenbury, who appears to have a high old time, ranting and raving like a megalomaniac should.

Avenging Force, despite the fondness I have for the film, is no masterpiece, and as a spy film it is pretty weak. During the course of events, ex-spy Hunter is called back to his old group G-6 and is asked to rejoin and assist them. At that time he refuses, saying he’ll do things his way, which he does. However, by the end of the film (and the ending is a little bit open – but I won’t spoil it here) Hunter appears to rejoin his old team so he can shut down Pentangle for once and for all. By the end of the film, he is a spy again – albeit one with a very personal agenda, and one who is not going to play by the rules. So even as a spy film, it is very much a revenge flick.

As a bit of trivia, for those who like such things, Hunter’s old boss, Admiral Brown, is played by James Booth (Hooky, I’ll make a soldier out of you yet!) Booth also wrote the screenplay, having previously worked on the screenplay of American Ninja 2: The Confrontation. He would also appear with Dudikoff in American Ninja 4: The Annihilation. Ninja 4 appears to have been written by a gentleman named David Geeves, and as James Booth’s birth name is David Geeves-Booth, it is fair to assume he also wrote it as well. Should we blame Hooky for Dudikoff’s ascension as a B-grade movie star in the mid 1980s? Or should that honour go to director Sam Firstenberg?

As I said at the top, Avenging Force is one of my guilty, very guilty pleasures. I don’t expect you to share my enthusiasm for it – and nor should you, but as a cheap exploitation flick, I think it punches well above its weight.

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