Avenging Force

(Sam Firstenberg, USA, 1986)


In the milieu of mainstream film reviewing, Avenging Force is the type of B movie – barely advertised, unmentioned in most media, and imminently en route to the video shop shelves – that few people stand up to defend. But let me step forward for the task.


It’s a heavily masculine film – scarcely a woman in sight – that mixes two standard ingredients. First, it’s a revenge movie, in which a lone hero (solid Michael Dudikoff as Matt Hunter) goes after the murdering gang that rubbed out his best black buddy, decent politician Larry (Steve James). Second, it’s a distant variant on John Ford’s classic Western The Searchers (1956), in which John Wayne as Ethan Edwards rescued a young woman (played by Natalie Wood) from the sinister clutches of a Native American tribe. Here, Matt is in search of his little sister (Allison Gereighty as Sarah) in the badlands of the bayou swamps of the American South. The setting helps bring in echoes of some rather better movies, including Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort (1981) and John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972).


Avenging Force’s B movie credentials are impeccable. It’s a product of the Golan-Globus Cannon group which specialises in quick, effective rip-offs of the latest or (hopefully) next big trend or cycle – as, for instance, in their line of Chuck Norris adventures, streamlined knock-off reductions of Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo films, plus a bit of 1970s-style martial arts Eastern mysticism thrown in for good measure. The character of Matt Hunter was, indeed, previously incarnated by Norris himself a year earlier in Invasion U.S.A., directed by Joseph Zito.


There’s always something engagingly oddball about Cannon fodder – some novelty ingredient which can set the mind well and truly reeling. Besides, Golan and Globus can do little wrong in my eyes, since giving the film world their little art-movie gift of John Cassavetes’ masterpiece Love Streams (1984). And they currently have both Jean-Luc Godard and Norman Mailer [Tough Guys Don’t Dance, 1987] under contract … Let’s face it; any firm that can accommodate both a King Lear [1987] by JLG and the Lemon Popsicle series [1978-1988] is clearly alright by me.


As a standard action movie, Avenging Force is expertly plotted (the screenwriter is a curious figure: British actor James Booth from Zulu [1964]), and at times forcefully, vividly directed by Sam Firstenberg. It gets most interesting, however, in its depiction of villainy. The bad guys here are nothing less than the American New Right: a terrifying band of politicians, cops, high-ranking businessmen, and even professors of philosophy! John P. Ryan as Prof. Elliott Glastenbury turns in a fine character-performance, playing up all the menacing, fascistic nerviness and knife-edge professionalism of such an imaginary (?) type. These villains can change in a moment from business attire to Mad Max 2-type regalia, and seem to have the entire, murky milieu of the bayou under their suffocating control.


Early on, Avenging Force acts keen to suggest a link – but not to definitively spell it out – between the conservative evil of this man-pack and the seething undercurrent of their potential or actual homosexual interrelations. What’s happening here is a mid 1980s American update on that favourite historical theme of European 1970s cinema: all those films on the fascist and/or Nazi personality-type, including Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) and Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969), that tried to explain political malignancy in terms of a monstrously perverse outgrowth of repressed gay desire.


Yet the problem today, just as in the ‘70s, is that the equation “fascism is repressed homosexuality” can too easily be reversed into “homosexuality is repressed fascism”, or indeed be melted down to the thoroughly unacceptable “fascism is homosexuality”. (R.W. Fassbinder’s films have variously tried, in their own complex ways, to untangle these knotted ideological threads.) In Avenging Force, the hint of this theme is rendered rather curious and contradictory, since the relationship between the good guys (one white, one black) is suffused with an even greater homoerotic charge! – something that is, in fact, quite common in cheaply made, hyper-macho, buddy-buddy movies.


Indeed, the more I turn Avenging Force over in my mind, the more it seems like a super-queer movie – but one that, as the classic expression goes, “cannot speak its name”. And for this reason alone, it deserves to be seen.

MORE Firstenberg: Cyborg Cop

© Adrian Martin December 1986

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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