The Series Project: L.E.T.H.A.L. Ladies (Part 1)
We have a long road ahead of us, my friends. As the next installment of The Series Project here on CraveOnline, I have elected to dive into a rather obscure series of action films from the '80s and '90s commonly referred to as L.E.T.H.A.L. Ladies, which, in their own way, are a tentpole of action cinema. We all remember the highlights of '80s action (Commando, Die Hard, Aliens, etc.), and many of us own several Arnold Schwarzenegger films on home video, but just as important to a developing action movie vocabulary is the countless number of straight-to-video and straight-to-cable-TV action films of the era. Of this latter category, Andy Sidaris' notable 12-film streak of so-called Triple-B movies are the world's exemplar. Triple B, by the way? Bombs, bullets, and boobs. Or sometimes: bullets, bombs and babes.
Since few of you are probably familiar with the Triple-B series (which was later named L.E.T.H.A.L. Ladies after the events of the 11th film, 1996's Day of the Warrior), a bit of background will be necessary.
Andy Sidaris, who wrote and directed all but the 8th and 9th films in the series, was a veteran of television, and was perhaps best known for his work on The Wide World of Sports and Monday Night Football. He has been credited in several places for having pioneered what he called the “Honey Shot,” which was essentially a gametime reaction shot of the buxom cheerleaders. Sidaris, with his wife Arlene, decided in the early 1980s to move into dramatic features, and his entire career was dedicated to a single series of films. This series features all the best and cheapest special effects. Sidaris hired Playboy Playmates and Penthouse Pets as the lead actresses, and notoriously had them strip, rather frequently, for no good reason. He went to exotic locales, hired some expensive vehicles, and got bodybuilders and martial artists to pilot them. Squibs and explosions followed. And many, many softcore sex scenes.
And while his scripts were always pretty shoddy (for B-film cheapies these movies have surprisingly complicated stories), and the acting was commonly pretty bad (bodybuilders and Playboy Playmates aren't known for their thespian virtuosity), there was a straightforward purity to Sidaris' B-movie sensibility. He seemed to have a very sensible and simple filmmaking philosophy: The cheapest special effects are, after all, bare breasts. Throw some bare breasts into a passable action plot of spies and double-crosses, shoot on the beaches of Hawaii, and blow up a few vehicles, and, hey, you've got a pattern that will have audience appeal for time immemorial. He even included an original song in each film, kind of running a parallel to James Bond. His formula lasted through 12 films over 13 years, and he probably would have made more in the series, had he not tragically passed from cancer in 2007.
Exploitation pioneers don't really exist anymore. Not in the same way, anyway. B-movies, these days, are all angling for “gritty,” and, with the ubiquity of internet porn, the thrill of seeing topless ladies in action films has, perhaps for some, lost some of its titillating appeal. Sidaris was there, during my life, making the exploitation movies I grew up on, clinging to a gorgeous cheap nude dynamic that only exists in small ways in 2012. Look up in the sky tonight. If you see a constellation that looks like a pair of boobs, that would be Andy Sidaris smiling down on you.
Sidaris' legacy of cheap action flicks permeates our cinematic culture in many subtle ways. We can look to well-known action blockbusters for spearheading certain action trends, but it was people like Sidaris, who plugged away in the straight-to-video market, making cheap and entertaining action nudies, who was really appealing to our base desires. Often, when I sit to watch an action film, I don't want it to be smart or sophisticated. Often I just want it to be cheesy. Often I just want to see explosions, bad acting, and topless women. In that regard, Sidaris fulfilled my every desire.
I typically don't write about straight-to-video movies in The Series Project; one of my self-imposed rules is that the first two films in any series have to be theatrically released. I, however, broke this rule already when I wrote about the Puppet Master movies about two years ago. So, since the precedent has been set, it's time to delve into the L.E.T.H.A.L. Ladies.
My approach to the twelve L.E.T.H.A.L. Ladies movies will be similar to my approach to the James Bond movies, that is; I will be recording a diary as I go. There are just too many to report on in a single shot. I will also be running a tally. I will be marking when, in the film's time code, the first bare breast appears, and I will be counting the number of bare breasts on display. You will find that the number will never equal less than 10. Yes, these movies are reducing me to Mr. Skin-like studies. But then, these films warrant that approach.
To the movies themselves. Our first was made in 1985…
Malibu Express (dir. Andy Sidaris, 1985)
The First Breast Occurs: 4:43
Number of Breasts: Over 30
The opening credits of Malibu Express inform us that several cast members are Playboy Playmates. Barbara Edwards, Kimberly McArthur, Lorraine Michaels, and Lynda Weismeier were all nude models before they acted in this. The film also features a Mr. Universe (John Brown), a Mr. Arizona (Richard Brose), and, curiously, a Miss Overdrive (the gorgeous Suzanne Regard). The credits role on a 1985-era computer screen, which looks chintzy to the modern eyes, but was certainly high-tech back in the day.
Our hero is the skirt-chasing P.I. Cody Abilene (played by the thin-waisted, blonde coiffed, mustachioed Darby Hinton from 110 episodes of the old Daniel Boone TV series). For one, I hate it when my heroes have a wimpy name like Cody. And while Hinton is, I'm sure, a very charming fellow, I have trouble buying the fact that women all naturally strip around him, ready to bed this Will-Farrell-looking man. Cody is Texan, and they do a lot to establish that it is his Southern charm that gets the ladies. Also, he's an amazing lover. Maybe I just wish that I had a narrow torso like this, rather than the pale potato object that I am currently saddled with. And while this will be the only film in the series to feature Cody, many of the sequels will feature a relative of his. The running gag: Abilenes are all lousy shots. They're also all muscular studs.
Cody, lady-lovin' Bohemian that he is, lives on a boat in Marina Del Rey, California, called “The Malibu Express.” His neighbors are a pair of hot-to-trot bikini babes named Faye and May (McArthur and Edwards) who are constantly infiltrating his place to have a threesome with him. In one scene, the two women shower together. Yes, it's damn sexy. Yet Cody never seals the deal with these two. He'll have other women for that.
For one, he has his racecar-driving buddy June Khnockers (Weismeier) who gets turned on when she drives fast. Later in the film, Cody will find himself driving away from a pursuing helicopter, and June will strip in the front seat, trying to have sex with him during the chase. Any arguments you have in favor of modern-day action films are beginning to deflate, aren't they? By the time we get to Hard Ticket to Hawaii, you will no longer have any arguments.
Cody is enlisted by the mysterious and lithe dragon lady Contessa Luciana (Sybil Danning, she of the truck-crushing breasts) to investigate intrigue in the inner circles of a wealthy local family. Danning, by the way, is never seen without at least a few square meters of flesh exposed. Not to sound ghoulish, but I think if one were to make a coat of her skin after her death, it would make the wearer immortal. Cody trucks off to a Hollywood mansion where he meets the wheelchair-bound Lady Chamberlain (Niki Dantine) who explains the Jackie Collins-like soap opera going on in her home. Her daughter Anita (Shelley Taylor Morgan) is having an affair with the studly chauffeur Shane (Brett Clar, and there's always a “Shane” in these kinds of stories, isn't there?). Shane is deep in gambling debts, and has been filming his trysts for blackmail material. Shane is also romancing Liza Chamberlain (Michaels), and, progressively, Anita's clearly-gay husband Stuart (Michael A. Andrews, a crackerjack drag queen, and winner of several gay beauty pageants including Miss Gay America in 1977; Sidaris didn't skimp when it came to models and pageant winners). He is blackmailing them all.
The family also has a ditzy blonde maid named Marian (Robyn Hilton). They actually called her Maid Marian. That is all.
Shane's bookie is, rather incidentally, involved in some international intrigue involving Russian spies and smuggled computer equipment, but so little screen time is devoted to this that it may as well not be in the film at all. The bad guys are represented by a trio of gun-toting thugs (Brown, Brose, and a Ricky-Jay-looking guy). Cody begins his flip and casual style of investigation, and does manage to uncover several intrigues, all while bedding hot women, including Liza, and his hot cop friend Beverly (Lori Sutton). Miss Overdrive plays a phone sex operator named Sexy Sally who undresses at the sound of Cody's voice. Her eroticism over the phone is a lot sexier than some of the sex scenes we see with Shane. She's in the movie to, presumably, give Cody tips.
There's a subplot involving a trio of hillbillies who want to stock-car race Cody at every given opportunity. Was it Smokey and the Bandit that made hillbillies popular? I just want to know which movie I should punch, because I really hate “wacky” hillbilly characters. The Buffington family (Abb Dickson, Busty O'Shea, and Randy Rudy) have a few scenes wherein they race Cody down a street, and they always win. They shout “yee-hoo!” a lot. Busty O'Shea looks like a puffy drag queen straight out of Female Trouble. These scenes hurt me.
The film ends rather abruptly, and there's seven-minute of dialogue at the end, wherein Cody explains all that he did over the course of the film, and what the mystery was. It was all about a secret picture of a hidden assassin, and its connection to the real bad guys… actually it's all complicated and not terribly relevant to your enjoyment of the Malibu Express. Best to just sit back and enjoy the goofy, dated antics, and copious nudity on display. It's also fun to keep track of the number of cars Cody drives. At the film's outset, he drives a red DeLorean. By the end, he's on his fifth or sixth car, enjoying champagne on the back of his houseboat.
Malibu Express is an action film that possesses that one element that is sorely lacking from many action films: gregariousness. The hero is a lovable, joking hayseed who never feels like he's in danger (except when he's fending off fellatio from topless women during a helicopter chase), and always has a casual attitude toward the intrigue around him. Indeed, when he solves the mystery at the end, he sound excited to have done so. The mystery, by the way, involves a life-like rubber mask that melts after a time, like Darkman's.
But the next film in the series will introduce our new hero, and will prove to be one of the best low-budget action films I've seen in many a moon…
Hard Ticket to Hawaii (dir. Andy Sidaris, 1987)
The First Breast Occurs: 1:27
Number of Breasts on Display: 14
So in this film, one of the heroes has a poster for Malibu Express on her wall. She comments that Cody Abilene used to be a spy, but left the agency to become an actor. That means the Malibu Express we saw was either Cody Abilene's real-life adventures as a P.I., or it was the movie that the actor Cody Abilene made within the L.E.T.H.A.L. Ladies universe, and was in itself a fiction. I like the latter, more metaphysical theory. Malibu Express was, in actuality, a film-within-a-film.
Hard Ticket to Hawaii does feature the Malibu Express ship, only now it is captained by one Rowdy Abilene (Ronn Moss) who is Cody's cousin and a DEA agent. This Abilene can't shoot straight either. He has a sidekick in the form of Jade (Harold Diamond, sporting a douchey ponytail, also the film's fight choreographer). And while Rowdy is handy with the ladies, our focus has now shifted to a pair of sexy blonde spies named Donna Hamilton (Playboy Playmate Dona Speir) and her spy-in-training ward Taryn (Playboy Playmate Hope Marie Carlton). It's never explained what agency they work for, as they talk about being spies (implying that they work for the CIA), but they also refer a lot to “the federal government” (implying they work for the FBI). I'm going to assume, in retroactive fashion, that they work for L.E.T.H.A.L., whose name won't be mentioned until film #11, but whose significance floats over the entire series.
Donna and Taryn are leggy blondes who run a Hawaiian delivery company as a front for their spy operations. They wear khaki short shorts, and frequently go skinny-dipping together. They are clearly best friends. Donna and Taryn team up with Rowdy and Jade and investigate. They also enlist the help of Edy (Cynthia Brimhall), the owner of a local restaurant. They uncover a diamond smuggling ring, overseen by a wicked drug kingpin named Seth Romero (played by Sidaris regular Rodrigo Obregón, who will appear, in various roles, in all of Sideris' films from here on out). Donna and Taryn accidentally stumble upon the diamonds, and they are beset by bad guys for the film's bulk. They eventually find the head honcho of all this. They get into several kung fu fights. They blow stuff up. And they fight a snake. More on the snake below.
Oh my God, are there ever some awesome moments in this film. For one, Michael A. Andrews comes back, this time playing a drag queen named Michael/Michelle, who is in cahoots with the bad guys. Here's how good a drag artist Andrews is: I had already seen him as both a man and a women, and when I first saw him, I thought he was a female. Seriously. It took the removal of the wig to clue me in. And I like to think I'm pretty good at spotting female impersonators. Especially after that one magical weekend in Vegas…
Also in the film: Rowdy's and Jade's jeep is pursued by an rifle-sporting assassin on a skateboard. The assassin uses, rather bafflingly, a blow-up doll as cover. Jade rams the assassin with the jeep, causing him to fly up in the air. While still in midair, Rowdy extracts a bazooka (!) and explodes the assassin midair. Then, to make sure this already AMAZING moment goes down in film history, he also uses the bazooka to blow up the blow-up doll.
To reiterate: You have NO arguments in favor of ANY OTHER action film. Hard Ticket to Hawaii ends all arguments. This bazooka, by the way, will be used against a helicopter later in the film (big KABOOM!!) and also against a snake (li'l kaboom).
Oh yes. The snake. During the film's credits, we are introduced to a rubbery, slimy mutant snake that has been mutated by toxic waste. It's aggressive, and doesn't just kill people with a poison bite but, in several scenes, actually rips people to shreds like a lion. Well, maybe it swallows people, and then disgorges them like an anaconda. Seeing as it’s represented by a mere 4-foot-long puppety animatronic covered in transparent goop, I prefer to picture a scene of it whipping about and rending humans to pieces. Late in the film, after Donna has fought off a bad guy in her apartment (and the fight strongly resembles the fight with Michael Myers at the end of Halloween), she is attacked by the snake, who had snuck into her sewer earlier on. She screams for help, bruised and exhausted after the fight. Rowdy motorcycles in through the wall (!) and blows up the snake with his bazooka. Again: You have no arguments.
Oh yes. And there's a scene wherein Rowdy takes out a bad guy with a Frisbee that has been lined with razor blades. Also, Edy is kidnapped and is tortured, via nunchucks, by a 6'5” tanned female bodybuilder in a bikini. No. Effing. Arguments.
I've talked a lot about Rowdy, but it's Donna and Taryn who are at the center of the film. They are the ones who do all of the investigating, and it is they who so generously disrobe. Dona Speir is the older of the two, and acts like an older sister to Taryn. Speir has a kind of Jamie Lee Curtis quality that I admired. I don't, for a second, buy that she could kick anyone's butt, but she certainly had the right attitude. Taryn is more bubbly, and tends to flirt with men a lot more. The two do talk about men a few times, but they are more concerned with their jobs.
By the end, Taryn has stolen some diamonds, and all is well. The film ends with a toast on the back of The Malibu Express. In only 90 minutes, your mind will be blown. Hard Ticket to Hawaii is one of the more entertaining action films I've seen in a long while. It's the Die Hard of B-films.
Sadly, the next film in the series will take a dip.
Picasso Trigger (dir. Andy Sidaris, 1988)
First Breast Occurs: 17:59 (!)
Number of Breasts on Display: 10
I'll say this for Picasso Trigger: I like the way it looks at women. Indeed, even though Sidaris is hell bent on showing topless women, or using a camera to creep all over the bodies of his comely female leads, he seems to have a respect for the female dynamic. I mentioned that Donna (Dona Speir) and Taryn (Hope Marie Carlton) have a professional, sisterly regard for one another, and that only becomes more clear in Picasso Trigger. In a different exploitation film, the two would be pseudo-Sapphic lovers, and would likely have made out with one another early on. Donna and Taryn, however, while they do regularly go skinny-dipping, and have no problems getting naked in front of one another, don't share any kind of eroticism between each other. I think I kind of like that. There is more of a respect for each other. A human connection. Donna and Taryn may clearly be eye candy, but Sidaris' fantasies aren't about cheap lesbian kisses. Indeed, most of the nudity in his films is in a non-sexual context. Sidaris has a pleasingly adolescent sex fantasy of spying on hot tubs and peeking into locker rooms. The women merely converse. They just do so topless. In a weird way, these films, for all their exploitation of the female form, pass the Bechdel Test.
By the way: There are no brassieres in this universe. The L.E.T.H.A.L. Ladies is a bra-free zone. If you are a female, and you decide to watch these films, you must remove your bra beforehand. Not doing so may cause an adverse reaction.
The story for Picasso Trigger is impossible to follow. The title character (played by John Aprea, another Sidaris regular) is assassinated on the streets of Paris. Mr. Trigger was also a supercriminal known as Salazar, and he was secretly an agent for the FBI, but was also ruling the crime world. It took a lot of discussions with my wife to discern whether or not Mr. Trigger was a good guy or a bad guy. Turns out he was a bad guy. Another guy named Ortiz (Rodrigo Obregón, essentially reprising his role from Hard Ticket to Hawaii) has been killing off Salazar's men, but also killing off the agents of L.E.T.H.A.L. just like at the beginning of Dr. No. Donna and Taryn are on vacation in Maui after the events of the last film, and barely escape being blown up by a bomb hidden in an R/C helicopter. They are the ones who will assemble a team of spies to investigate the assassination. Ortiz is also in cahoots with a lady named Pantera (Roberta Vasquez, who will pop up in future L.E.T.H.A.L. Ladies films), and Pantera has been playing Ortiz, or may be a spy, or may be a bad guy as well. She spends a lot of time in Dallas, Texas (played by Shreveport, Louisiana, as my Shreveport-native wife pointed out), making eyes at an army guy named L.G. Abilene (Guich Koock, which looks like an anagram) and sleeping with the central Abilene, Travis.
Oh yeah, there is an Abilene in this film in the form of the studly and empty-headed Travis (Steve Bond), but he does little throughout the film. He works with Jade (Harold Diamond) who is now in charge of a Sea World-like theme park, and who is dating Edy (Cynthia Brimhall). I'm surprised at the strong continuity between these films. Edy, even though it wasn't established in the last film, is also a spy. She was either enlisted for this film's adventures or was a spy this whole time. Either is possible in this universe. Also a spy now is a character from Hard Ticket named Patticakes (Playboy Playmate Patty Duffek). In the last film, she was merely a waitress. Now she is a spy moonlighting as a topless dancer in Vegas, and who is trying, with her partner Kym (Kym Malin) to uncover a snuff film ring.
Yeah. Drug assassinations, boat chases, snuff films, Sea World, shifting alliances, fewer breasts per capita, and no nudity until about 18 minutes in. Picasso Trigger is the weak link so far. It's dour, serious, and way too focused on its plot. The finale is kind of fun, as our Abilene du jour fashions a gun out of a crutch and uses a tracking device to fire a missile directly into a bad guy's pacemaker. Taryn also uses an R/C car to blow up a bad guy's hideout. But even when the expository speeches started coming, I was still lost. I understand these films are more about boobs and explosions than they are about intrigue and plot, but if you're going to write a complicated plot like this one, make sure it makes sense on its own terms. Throughout, we had to stop the film and recap who was who and what they were up to just to stay on top. A jiggle flick shouldn’t need this.
I guess the boobs are still on display, but not as frequently as before. Sigh. Even the nudity is low-rent. The locations are still first-rate, though. Most of these films take place – and were shot on – the island of Molokai, and the scenery is amazing.
I could go more into detail about the plot, but it's not worth it. Needless to say Picasso Trigger was, himself, still alive, and faked his death to continue his evil criminal empire. He was the one who got blown up with the crutch gun. The end. Oh yeah. There was a bag of drugs hidden in a pineapple, too. I guess that's kinda neat.
Forget the spy stuff. Let's get to adventurin'.
Savage Beach (dir. Andy Sidaris, 1989)
First Breast Occurs: 6:35
Number of Breasts on Display: 12
We have to wait 6 1/2 minutes for the first breast in this film, but, just to make up for it, it's a shot of four women skinny dipping in a hot tub. So good job.
Savage Beach plays less like a spy thriller, and more like Treasure Island. Yes, there is yet another Abilene, this time a Shane Abilene (Michael Shane. TOO MANY SHANES!), but this film is completely about Donna (Dona Speir) and Taryn (Hope Marie Carlton, in her last L.E.T.H.A.L. movie; sadness). They are still a spy and a spy-in-training respectively, and are still investigating bad guys, wearing their khaki short shorts and operating their delivery service as a front. In this film, though, while on assignment, Donna and Taryn crash-land their plane on an unknown island. Much of the film is devoted to them finding their way on the beach, finding food, and generally having a good time. Skinny-dipping in the ocean ensues. Again. No sexual tension between the ladies. Just pretty women gettin' naked together.
We learn in cutaways that this island was actually the location of some stolen Japanese gold that was pilfered during World War II. A dying Japanese soldier (Dann Seki) reveals the location to a bad guy named Martinez (Rodrigo Obregón again) who has been plotting with a comely Latina freedom fighter (Lisa London, I think) to steal the gold. Also searching for the gold are a pair of Japanese bad guys (led by Al Leong from Die Hard and countless others).
The bulk of the movie takes place on the deserted island as Donna and Taryn find themselves fighting off the bad guys and trying to figure out just why so many people have assembled on this island, and why they all have guns. Speir and Carlton play the movie's Jim Hawkins. Obregón plays the Long John Silver. John Aprea (Picasso Trigger in the last film, now playing an army general) is the Captain Smollett. And there's even a Ben Gunn, the mad wildman left living on the island for years, in the form of an abandoned Japanese soldier (Michael Mikasa), now an old man (in crappy age makeup), protecting the gold.
Since the story is so simple, Savage Beach is way more fun than its immediate predecessor. It doesn't have the bonkers ass-kicking of Hard Ticket to Hawaii, and not nearly as much nudity as Malibu Express (there is a completely gratuitous scene wherein Patticakes, still Patty Duffek, and a friend of hers, independent of the story, wake up from a nap and remove their shirts; nothing comes of this scene), but it's still efficient and fun. I just recently re-read Treasure Island, too, so the parallels were fun to spot. If you're going to model your cheap action film on anything, model it on a classic piece of adventure literature. Steal names if you have to. It'll work.
After four films I was in a pleasant haze, although the third one left me a little dizzy. I currently look forward to eight more of these films. I have a feeling that we'll be deep in the thick of things by the time Julie Strain shows up, and the formulae will be even more chiseled. I may regret this project after a few more, however.
Be sure to return to The Series Project next week for the next four L.E.T.H.A.L. Ladies movies, and the following week for the final four. After all, there are so many more helicopters to explode, and so many more breasts to see.