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Plot: cyborg flees into the desert after ignoring his programming.

Hands Of Steel (released domestically as Vendetta dal Futuro, and in France as Atomic Cyborg) answers the question that nobody asked: what if The Terminator (1984) ignored his programming, fled into the Arizona desert and took up armwrestling in some remote divebar instead? It’s the kind of movie that only the Italians could and would make. Who else could come up with a cross between The Terminator (1984) and Over the Top (1987) on the budget of the average Filipino action movie? Hands Of Steel often feels as if it’s three movies mashed crudely into one. It bounces between a pedestrian sports movie, a dystopian science-fiction thriller low on intelligence and production values, and a brass-knuckles actioner without crunch. It’s emblematic of mid-to-late 1980s Italian action. The concept and ideas are far too ambitious for the meager budget it was alotted. 6 credited screenwriters, a seventh for additional dialog. Not a coherent line anywhere – and Swedish minx Janet Ågren, sadly, keeps her clothes on. Never before were Blade Runner (1982) and The Terminator (1984) pilfered so expertly. At least not until Bruno Mattei’s craptacular Shocking Dark (1989) and the 2010 Mainland China exploitation boom almost twenty years later.

The Italian shlock movie industry took a heavy blow in the eighties when wide theatrical releases for cheap, imported titles in North America, once their biggest market and sure-fire way to turn a profit, became scarce. The nascent home video market became the new home of exploitation and shlock of various stripe. This unfortunately also meant that belts were tightened and producers/directors no longer were able to commandeer the kind of budgets and resources that they once had in prior decades. Hands Of Steel is not 2019 – After the Fall Of New York (1983), it’s barely above Giuseppe Vari’s post-nuke swansong Urban Warriors (1987), where bit players Bruno Bilotta and Alex Vitale would land their own feature, but that is faint praise. Hands Of Steel wishes it was half as good and action-packed as The Raiders Of Atlantis (1983). Unfortunately it is anything but. Not even John Saxon and Janet Ågren can save it from relentless drudgery. Hands Of Steel is painfully glorious and gloriously painful.

Sergio Martino was a director who dabbled in every genre under the sun. Among other things, he launched the career of French model-turned-actress Edwige Fenech through a series of bubbly commedia sexy all’italiana and stylish gialli. Fenech had just completed a string of German comedies, including the bubbly The Sweet Pussycats (1969). Earlier in the year Top Sensation (1969) had launched Edy as the hottest and most in-demand starlet in Italian genre cinema. In his storied four decade career Martino directed offerings as diverse as Arizona Colt, Hired Gun (1970), The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (1970), All Colors Of the Dark (1972), Torso (1973), Mountain Of the Cannibal God (1978), Cream Puffs (1981), 2019 – After the Fall Of New York (1983), and Beyond Kilimanjaro, Across the River of Blood (1990). Whoever thought it was a good idea to let comedy specialist Martino direct a sci-fi/action romp clearly had no clue what his forté was. It’s probably the same skewed and random decisionmaking that led to Marino Girolami directing Zombie Holocaust (1980). Hands Of Steel isn’t Martino’s finest moment, but it’s more or less on the same level as the action-adventure dross Antonio Margheriti and Enzo G. Castellari were churning out around this time.

In the far-flung future past of 1997 pollution has ravaged the Earth and made it nigh on uninhabitable. Turner Corporation CEO Francis Turner (John Saxon) sees his bottom line threatened by the preachings of blind wheelchair-bound environmentalist guru Reverend Arthur Moseley (Franco Fantasia). He sends out cyborg soldier Paco Queruak (Daniel Greene), the most efficient and reliable in his product line, to quell the rebellion by taking out its leader. Upon reaching his target Queruak is plagued by memories of the past, only wounding the Reverend and fleeing into the nearby Arizona desert. At the local motel he meets Linda (Janet Ågren), who is in need of a handyman. Linda’s abode is the gathering spot for local armwrestlers, truckers and general troublemakers. Linda’s tavern is decorated with pictures from wrestlers Bruno Sammartino, Hillbilly Jim, Magnum TA and Dory Funk, Jr. One day working for Linda, Queruak draws the ire of perrennally sweaty Méxican no-good trucker Raul Morales (Luigi Montefiori, as George Eastman) and Tri-State arm-wrestling champion Anatolo Blanco (Darwyn Swalve). Queruak’s creator Professor Olster (Donald O’Brien) is paid a visit by Turner’s mercenaries Peter Howell (Claudio Cassinelli) and Hunt (Sergio Testori) – and when he fails to stop them, Linda is threatened at gunpoint by cyborg assassins Eddie (Andrea Coppola, as Andrew Louis Coppola) and Susie (Daria Nicolodi). Paco intervenes and things come to a violent, fiery clash. The fate of mankind will not be decided by some apocalyptic nuclear war, but in a fierce close-quarters confrontation.

The main portion of Hands Of Steel concerns itself with Queruak’s travails in and around the desert motel, his conflict with Raul Morales and his relationship with Janet Ågren’s Linda. Janet Ågren had come off Eaten Alive! (1980), City Of the Living Dead (1981) and Red Sonja (1985) and apparently this wasn’t enough to forward her starpower beyond redundant impoverished genre exercises like this. Hands Of Steel also features that other Italian low-budget action star of the 80s, Bruno Bilotta (popularly known as Karl Landgren) as one of the Reverend’s security detail. Other notables include the late, great John Saxon and an uncredited Daria Nicolodi as a rival cyborg assassin. Hands Of Steel is a typical example of the genre were it not that it anticipates Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987), Universal Soldier (1992), and Albert Pyun’s Nemesis (1992) as its conflicted cyborg protagonist struggles with his programming and what is left of his humanity. Likewise does it pre-date the Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling epic Over the Top (1987) by a single year. Martino films the whole with detached bemused disinterest as this is clearly not his wheelhouse. Hands Of Steel would’ve been blissfully forgotten were it not that Claudio Cassinelli was killed in an on-set helicopter crash during filming, necessitating the third-act disposing of his character. In between there’s enough techno-babble and arm-wrestling for everybody.

The nominal star of Hands Of Steel is Daniel Greene. Greene was an American television actor that somehow ended up in Italian exploitation trash as Hammerhead (1987), Soldier of Fortune (1990), and Condor (1990). In the late nineties he had his scenes deleted in the Farrelly brothers comedy There's Something About Mary (1998). Greene later had parts in other Farrelly brothers comedies as Me, Myself & Irene (2000), Shallow Hall (2001), and Stuck On You (2003). Janet Ågren was a Swedish model whose Nordic beauty sparked a quarter-century long career. Ågren debuted in The Two Crusaders (1968) and was a fixture in commedia sexy all’Italiana for several years. Somehow she escaped the fate that befell Christina Lindberg, Solveig Andersson, and Marie Forså. In the eighties Janet found herself in Eaten Alive! (1980), City Of the Living Dead (1980) and the considerably more high-profile Red Sonja (1985), but also in a Filipino The Karate Kid (1984) knockoff called The Boy With the Golden Kimono (1987). Suffice to say Ågren was no Gloria Guida, Barbara Bouchet, Sabrina Siani, Mónica Zanchi, or Cinzia Monreale. No, Ågren was far too classy and much too pretty for grubby exploitation and she never allowed herself to suffer the sordid degradation and assorted indignities that some of her contemporaries subjected themselves to.

The odds were certainly stacked against Hands Of Steel. Elisa Briganti (as Elisabeth Parker Jr.), Dardano Sacchetti, and Ernesto Gastaldi all contributed to the script – but 6 writers do not a decent script make. Production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng had worked on Eaten Alive! (1980), City Of the Living Dead (1981), 2019 - After the Fall Of New York (1983), Hercules (1983) and its sequel The Adventures Of Hercules (1985) as well as The Ark Of the Sun God (1984) and Dellamorte Dellamore (1994). Clearly Geleng couldn’t make more of what little he had been given. Director of photography Giancarlo Ferrando (as John McFerrand) lensed a lot of commedia sexy all’Italiana and he’s clearly out of his element here. Sadly, he would go on to work with Alfonso Brescia on Cross Mission (1988) where the only ray of light was one-time wonder Brigitte Porsche.

Spaghetti western and peplum monument Franco Fantasia is wasted as Reverend Arthur Moseley, a role that gives him nothing to do. He clearly was a long way from Kriminal (1966), Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (1972), Murder Mansion (1972), Mountain Of the Cannibal God (1978), Zombie (1979), and Eaten Alive! (1980). Decades prior he was in big budget Hollywood peplums as Ben-Hur (1959), and Quo Vadis (1951). Donald O’Brien was a regular in Italian schlock and can be seen in Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977), the original The Inglorious Bastards (1978), Zombie Holocaust (1980), 2020 Texas Gladiators (1983), and Warriors of the Year 2072 (1984). In short, Hands Of Steel is nobody’s finest hour. Except maybe that of George Eastman, whose excursions seldom ventured beyond trash auteur Joe D’Amato and his assorted ilk. Sadly, it never gets quite as absurd as The Raiders Of Atlantis (1983).

Hands Of Steel is one of those cynical pastiches from the once-flourishing Italian exploitation industry that were becoming a dying breed at that point. Over the course of the same decade were birthed Contamination (1980), Nightmare City (1980), and Alien 2: On Earth (1980) to name some of the most infamous. Hands Of Steel dared answer the question that James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) never asked: what if the Terminator struggled with his programming and instead of protecting his target took up menial work and armwrestling instead?

It’s the sort of question that Mainland China would provide plenty of possible answers for in the 2010s, but Italy got there first. Hands Of Steel might not be Sergio Martino’s best work, or anybody's for that matter, really. The Terminator (1984) spawned exactly one good sequel that did not dilute from its original vision. It did begat a slew of canonical sequels that have done irreparable harm to the brand. It’s difficult to hold a grudge against something innocent as this when the Hollywood machine does so much damage all by itself.

Plot: retired commando is forced into action by Central-American dictator

French indie filmmaker Benjamin Combes has virtually done the impossible. On an estimated budget of a modest €35,000 Combes has created the ultimate and definite throwback to 80s action. Not only is Commando Ninja a loving tribute to the most memorable movies from Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Jean-Claude Van Damme; it also shows what that much pined after collaboration between Cirio H. Santiago, Godfrey Ho, Andy Sidaris, and early Peter Jackson that the world never got could have looked like. In a brisk 70 minutes Commando Ninja pays homage to everything from 80s American action movies from Cannon, Hong Kong ninja movies, Italian - and Thai Vietnam war movies, and even Filipino post-nuke actioners. There’s dinosaurs on the loose and Combes doesn’t shy away from showing tanned babes in candy-colored bikinis and a few jiggling breasts that would make the late Andy Sidaris and even Jim Wynorski proud. Commando Ninja doesn’t just have one of these things, it has them all… and then some. How come nobody is talking about the coolest independent action movie of 2018?

And who’s the main creative force behind Commando Ninja? The Frenchman Benjamin Combes. Combes works as a director and video editor at Ubisoft Entertainment in Montpellier by day but brews on his own feature film projects by night. Not only was Benjamin (in true early Peter Jackson fashion) responsible for the casting, props, and production design next to the practical - and visual effects he also wrote, produced, photographed, edited, and directed Commando Ninja. What makes this 70-minute feature even more impressive is that Combes only has the short The Last Human in the Milky Way (2015) and a few video game trailers to his name but nothing substantial otherwise. Commando Ninja is the result of some friends getting together and working towards a common goal for a couple of months. Combes and his friends manage to either mask and (more often than not) transcend the restraints imposed on their pet project. Commando Ninja is bursting at the seams with energy and that it looks as professional as it does is testament to Combes’ talent and skill. As of this writing Commando Ninja has been dubbed or subtitled in 15 (!!) languages (and counting) with premieres pending in South America and Asia. Not too shabby at all for a crowdfunded indie without a single big name star, production company, or distributor to speak of. Il faut le faire

1968. Green Beret John Hunter (Eric Carlesi) and his Lizard Smokers platoon – Leeroy Hopkins (Philippe Allier), Oskar Kowalsky (Stéphane Asensio), and Curtis “Snow White” Jackson (Thémann Fagour) – are on a routine recon mission in the jungles of Vietnam. Suddenly they are ambushed by a clan of ninjas brandishing highly-advanced weaponry and led by a mysterious red kimonoed, golden-masked ninja (Antony Cinturino). Hunter and his team put up a valiant fight but end up scattered in different directions in the jungles near the Laotian border. Snow White doesn’t survive the ninjas’ surprise attack and Hopkins, injured and bleeding during the fracas, finds himself chased by velociraptors. Hopkins is certain he will die until Kowalsky appears out of the foliage in a fight to the death with the carnivorous dinosaurs. Bravely Hunter engages the the troops of brutal North Vietnamese general Yinn (Thyra Hann Phonephet) in a desperate one-man guerilla war. Outnumbered and outgunned John is taken POW by the general’s armed forces. Seeing Hunter’s natural affinity for martial arts Yinn decides to instruct John in the ways of shinobi. Yinn had one pupil before but that pupil was seduced by “the darkside.” According to Sensei Yinn, “there can be only one… Commando Ninja!

1986. In their Los Angeles suburb home John’s ex-wife Lori (Cécile Fargues) is brutally slain by a clan of black clad ninjas while his daughter Jenny (Anaëlle Rincent, as Anna Rincent) plays Operation Wolf on her beloved NES console. Little Jenny puts up a brave fight against the ninjas swarming the house but is eventually taken captive. After his brush with The Red Ninja in Vietnam John has retired to a peaceful life in the Canadian woodlands. Hopkins, now decked out with a bionic arm and a comfortable deskjob, comes to recruit Hunter to help him take down Russian armsdealer Oleg Kinsky (Olivier Dobremel). Hunter politely declines but is forced to take up arms once again when he learns that Kinsky is behind Jenny’s kidnapping. He travels to the Central American republic of Val Verde where he singlehandedly slaughters The Colonel Kinsky’s entire private army. Kinsky is building a battalion of cyborg super-soldiers for which Kowalsky served as the prototype. The way Kinsky sees it Hunter has two choices: join his New World Order or perish. Jenny, precocious as ever, kills The Colonel Kinsky with a handgrenade, but she disappears in an electric storm with Kowalsky never to be seen again. Once more Hunter faces The Red Ninja. After a protracted confrontation wherein The Red Ninja ends up impaled on his katana John learns that The Red Ninja was in fact his ex-wife Lori. With her dying breath Lori sends John to the far future of 1998 (a staggering 12 years ahead from where he is now!) where Jenny is being kept…

1998. In the burned out arid wastelands of what used to be civilization John continues his quest to find his precious little Jenny. His first thought? “The Democrats must’ve taken over.” After getting his bearings Hunter is beset by a group of dangerous mutants. After killing their leader (Frederic Carriere, as Fred Stark) and his second-in-command (Ludwig Oblin) John finds himself at the mercy of a behemoth pig-like ogre (Baptiste Lecas) he can’t possibly defeat. From a distant hilltop a silhouette slays the ogre with a minigun. Collecting his wits Hunter is approached by a leggy, firm-bosomed Amazonesque archer in white overknee socks, fishnets, and the smallest denim booty shorts known to man. The bow-and-arrow babe introduces herself as Jenny Hunter (Charlotte Poncin), John’s nubile daughter of the future. Father and daughter are reunited at long last. Before long Hopkins reappears from an electric storm in a black 1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. Jenny confides in John that the only way to bring Lori back and restore his own timeline is stopping the powermad The Colonel Kinsky in this time. Just as they’re about to embark on their trek the group is understandably disoriented when they find themselves in a side-scrolling Golden Axe (1989) styled 16-bit video game devised by The Colonel Kinsky. There’s only one question now: do John, Jenny, Hopkins, and Kowalsky have enough firepower to take down the dictator?

Commando Ninja is an absolute treasure trove of nods, winks, and references to eighties popular culture and action cinema. It’s 70 minutes of everything so lovingly observed, catalogued, and analyzed in The Ruthless Guide to 80s Action from popular satire site Ruthless Reviews. The Vietnam opening gambit is something out of a Cirio H. Santiago or Chalong Pakdeevijit action movie while the flashbacks largely borrow from the Jean-Claude Van Damme martial arts classics Bloodsport (1988) and Kickboxer (1989). The Vietnam opening chapter comes with a strong The Expendables (1988) vibe. The main plot obviously follows Schwarzenegger’s Commando (1985) and Stallone’s Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) with a dosage of The Terminator (1984) and Predator (1987) thrown in for good measure. The kills, often as gory as they are funny, during the Commando (1985) mass slaughter segment frequently border on early Peter Jackson territory, particularly his Bad Taste (1980). Extremities are severed, heads explode, guts pile, and blood sprays like fountains. The brief pool scene at Kinsky’s opulent mansion is all evidence one needs that Combes has seen the canon LETHAL Ladies from Hawaiian director Andy Sidaris, even though there are no French equivalents to Dona Speir, Hope Marie Carlton, and Cynthia Brimhall in congress. The evil red kimonoed ninja was a staple of Godfrey Ho cut-and-paste martial arts movies as well as the Cannon oeuvre.

The post-nuke 1996 closing act was obviously inspired by the likes of After the Fall of New York (1983), Exterminators Of the Year 3000 (1983), and Stryker (1983). Grown up Jenny in her sexy The Road Warrior (1981) attire is given an introduction the way leads were typically introduced in Argentinian, Roger Corman produced barbarian movies as Deathstalker (1983), Barbarian Queen (1985), and Amazons (1986). Liberally Combes sprinkles references and winks to Home Alone (1990), Die Hard (1988), Highlander (1986), Death Wish (1974), Star Wars (1977), Platoon (1986), Back to the Future (1985-1990), Knightrider (1982-1986), and (very briefly) even Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Oddyssey (1968). Judging by the splattery kills and his penchant for wanton dismemberment it’s entirely possible that Combes saw homebred splatter cult classics The Mad Mutilator (1983) and/or Devil Story (1985). That it concludes with an open ending is something straight out of Raw Force (1982) and the pastel-colored 80s fashion and big hair will give anybody flashbacks to Miami Connection (1987). Suffice to say, Commando Ninja matches both in terms of sheer brazen insanity. There’s enough big hair, bold make-up, velour, spandex and lycra, neon-colored leggings, stirrup-pants, leotards and bodysuits with legwarmers and headbands in the prerequisite fitness/aerobic montage to satiate anybody’s craving. Whether Commando Ninja will herald an 80s fashion revival is another matter entirely, but it's right on the money.

Of the largely amateur cast Eric Carlesi is probably the better known as for his work as cosplayer The French Wolverine. Cécile Fargues and Thyra Hann Phonephet have had some minor acting experience in small regional productions. Like Combes, Charlotte Poncin not only acts and models but is a filmmaker herself. Olivier Dobremel is a well known writer of comic books. Make-up artists Mzelle Bulle and Joana Boulay appear to have been doing various television productions. Among the extras pool babes Emilie Bedart, Océane Husson, and Stella Reig all are local models or beauty pageants. The synth-rock score from Thomas Cappeau is full of fretless bass guitar licks, electric guitar and even some sultry saxophone. During the first half hour to 40 minutes the score resembles the scores of bigger budgeted Arnold Schwarzenneger productions of the day while changing to the more hokey synth scores prevalent in Italian, Filipino, and Thai action movies of the day. Commando Ninja is clearly an intense labor of love from someone who loves the eighties, especially American and international trash cinema, dearly in all its different aspects. The deeper one goes in Commando Ninja the more the filmstock becomes more rough and has a greater amount of (artificially added) “scratches”, grains, and even the occassional overexposure. The dubbing is intentionally hilarious as a tribute to Italian, Filipino, and Thai action movies of the 80s that were known for their less than optimal and often quickie dubbing jobs. Commando Ninja is more than a simple tribute to Combes' favorites from eighties action cinema, it’s an utterly endearing and heartfelt valentine from a bunch of guys and girls who clearly went beyond mere adulation and shot their own epic.

Commando Ninja is the action movie we all wanted to make when we were 15 year old. It has everything a person could possibly want out of an action movie: commandos, ninjas, dinosaurs, swordplay, explosive shoot-outs, martial arts, and even the occassional pair of jiggling boobs. Combes’ directorial debut bounces in so many directions at once yet never becomes incoherent or hard to follow. Commando Ninja is probably better written than the very movies it was inspired by. A sequel is bound to happen and Commando Ninja 2: The Wastelands has been making the rounds as a potential working title. As a filmmaker Benjamin Combes shows extraordinary versatility in all three of the movie’s segments. We’d love to see what Combes could come up with for a Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) action-adventure like The Hunters Of the Golden Cobra (1982), The Ark Of the Sun God (1984), and Treasure of the Moon Goddess (1987); a LETHAL Ladies spy-action romp like Hard Ticket to Hawaii (1987), a topless kickboxing movie like Naked Fist (1981), an urban action movie like Silk (1986), a goofy science-fiction yarn like StarCrash (1979) and Galaxina (1980), a post-nuke actioner like Raiders Of Atlantis (1983), or even an Italian or Spanish zombie potboiler like Burial Ground – The Nights Of Terror (1981) or Oasis Of the Zombies (1982).

In short, we’re excited about whatever Ben Combes does next. Whether it’s the expected (and anxiously anticipated) Commando Ninja sequel or a brand new genre piece. Commando Ninja is so good that it transcends its budgetary limitations and makes you wish half of what is churned out of supposedly professional production - and distribution companies The Asylum, TomCat Films and Kings Of Horror possessed even a fraction of innate talent that Combes showcases here. Mercenaries (2014) was a good enough exercise but it never quite captured the zeitgeist as Combes does with his own feature. Commando Ninja possesses a kinetic mad energy and has the kind of gusto and enthusiasm that few can muster. Anybody calling themselves a fan of 80s action, or 80s popular culture in general, can’t go wrong with Commando Ninja. Well done, monsieur Combes.