Saturday, March 3, 2012
Oddball Film Report: HUSTLER SQUAD (1975)
Not very complicated stuff here, although a bit more substantial than the poster and title would imply. Rather than a seedy exploitation picture, HUSTLER SQUAD is a gritty Filipino war movie. We're basically talking about a gender-switched version of THE DIRTY DOZEN.
In the 70's and early 80's, when the drive-in was still thriving, a new genre made the scene. Collectively, the films are informally known as the "Female Commando" genre. Weird as it sounds, female-centered action concepts were once considered unmarketable. The basic logic behind this idea was that audiences for action-based drama were largely male, and that male audiences couldn't identify with female leads (this being the notion concerning television, where it was thought the novelty of seeing a girl fight bad guys would wear off and not sustain a continuing series). This is silly, of course, as males have flocked to female characters (which can satisfy both the requirements of adventure and eye candy) in print, comics, and serials.
Heading the list would be jungle characters like Sheena and Nyoka. Nyoka was the subject of two serials in addition to her own long-running comic book, and Sheena was both a smashing success in comics and starred in her own television series (where Irish McCalla was perfectly cast as the jungle queen). She has since been the subject of a truly terrible movie and forgotten 1990's syndicated teleseries.
In the 60's, as over-the-top glamor and the sexual revolution collided to meet the needs of exploitation movie producers and TV sponsors, we saw the flood gates open. The Girl From UNCLE and Honey West are only the most popular televised examples. The big screen saw the likes of FATHOM, MODESTY BLAISE, and BARBARELLA. Women's Lib movements were both pleased and appalled as the 70's dawned and Policewoman and Wonder Woman battled bad guys on the small screen, while GINGER disrobed and did the same on the big screen. Exploitation movies about stewardesses, nurses, and cheerleaders were popular, so an action variant on the theme was bound to work. When Aaron Spelling was finally able to sell his concept for Charlie's Angels, the die was cast for action and adventure with an eye for pulchritude.
The formula was pretty simple: take a typical action scenario (a cop flick, a war picture, etc) and focus the story on a female character who can't escape the adventure around her. Even with such a simple idea as showing an undercover police-woman busting a drug ring, though, most producers felt the need to gin up what should be a simple formula to provide male audiences with eye candy and explosions. Thinking that womens lib members were just as prone to see their films (?), the producers would throw in socially conscious subplots about women getting the best of their male counterparts. Thus, the line "We CAN do this! Women CAN make a difference!" seems to pop up out of nowhere in the (shockingly) tame female commando entry ANGELS BRIGADE. (This is also pretty weird as ANGELS BRIGADE came around 1979, well after such a statement would seem wildly out of date!)
The star of POLICEWOMEN, for example, was written to be super-confident and able to prove herself in the face of her patronizing male superiors. The problem in that one was the actors. The male leads were natural and never came across as being too unreasonable when dealing with our spunky heroine, but she came across as just mean and sadistic. I suppose it wasn't the reaction that the film hoped for when I was left with the impression that the gal needed nothing so much as a good spanking!
As a genre, female commando movies are pretty basic devices. Offer up some cheesecake and explosive action, keep things moving and you have an entertainment format that can't miss with male viewers. Because of this, the underlining feminist stuff just seems superfluous. On the other hand, it truly marks these films as a product of their time. The ticket numbers certainly didn't suffer for it!
Despite what was accepted common logic among producers, a few mavericks would defy that thinking and make a lasting mark on pop culture. Bill Black was told an all-female superhero team would never last. Decades later and his Femforce title is working on 160 issues (not counting dozens of subsidiary titles within the continuity). He's also started producing original video productions, including all new adventures of Nyoka the jungle girl! Andy Sidaris, meanwhile, raked in serious coin during the 80's and 90's by building poorly-written-but-competent action movies around centerfold models. Some common themes include female federal agents who pack thong bikinis and rocket launchers, exploding helicopters, poor acting, bad puns, bad guys being vaporized in explosions, a male character who carries a .44 magnum but is unable to ever hit his target, a cowhide briefcase, and radio-controlled toys stuffed with explosives.
Our current subject played mid 70's drive-ins, but is a far less crude exercise than one might think, given the title. As noted, HUSTLER SQUAD was quite a bit less exploitative than the title and poster might suggest, but I'd still keep the kiddies away (if for no other reason than the language on display, as well as some pretty frank sex talk).
There's a recreation island in the Philippines where the security is so tight that top brass in the Imperial Japanese Army have a cat-house there. Guerrilla fighters attempting to raid the facility are brutally cut down. With word that some VIPs are due to visit the island, the Tom Atkins-esque Maj. Stonewall is assigned the duty of finding a way to beat the security on the island and get a squad in to mop up the enemy. The answer: get some dames who are willing to seduce the enemy, then kill them!
The Army will train a squad of women for a suicide mission where they will be taken to the island with other prostitutes and kill their targets while the guerrillas create a diversion. Obviously, applicants for a mission like this are pretty rare, but Stonewall manages to scrape together a unit for the job. One girl is a (really pretty) blonde nurse who only has a few months to live anyway. Although she's not hot to kill, she figures the mission will save some lives.
Another girl is a refugee from the Philippines who was raped while the Nips slaughtered her family. Another is a hooker on the run from hoods she crossed on the black market. The last girl is a sex-addict who slit the throat of one of her lovers and was tossed into jail. She takes the mission because she'll never know the touch of another man if she stays behind bars. This unique squad assembled, they are trained and parachuted into the Philippines....
Most American audiences familiar with Filipino genre fare would be schooled in monster movies. Independent International imported a number of such films during the 60's and 70's, including the infamous "Blood Island" "trilogy" starring John Ashley. Those who have seen the final film in the line-up, BEAST OF BLOOD, have seen that the Filipinos have a knack for action sequences (seeing MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND made me wish John Ashley had made a spy movie or two while he was in the tropics). In truth, the Filipinos probably made more lavish war epics than any other type of film. HUSTLER SQUAD is one of them.
Although a bit rough around the edges, the film is a decent little war movie. The limited settings of the film still allow for some pretty impressive battle scenes, with seemingly hundreds of Japanese and Filipino soldiers being cut down (although they often flail about to almost comical effect as they get shot down or stabbed, unlike anything I've seen in other films). The language is pretty rough, but there's not very much nudity at all. What there is is seen mostly in an action scene toward the climax!
As seems typical for a 70's war movie, there's hardly anyone here who sports 40's style hair. Most every man here boasts the shaggy hair of a 70's actor. The exception is the Japanese, who all look period-correct. Having just given the film a casual viewing, and not being an expert on things, it looked like they got most of the period equipment and such correct. (I mean, it still looks like it was filmed in the 70's, you can't get around that.) Some more modern vehicles can be spotted, though, in the background of a scene where the girls are standing on the docks. They also arrive in a bus that I'm pretty sure is a model from 1954 or so!
In the end, a pretty decent, if not overly slick, war picture. Not bad. Not tremendous, but not bad.