Color, 1993, 91 mins. 52 secs.
Directed by Tony Kandah & Martin Morris
Starring Vince Murdocco, Mary E. Zilba, A.J. Stephans, Rodrigo Obregón, Johnny Venocur, David Jean Thomas
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), FlixHouse (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)
Nothing quite warms the heart of a certain type of VHS collector as the sight of a scuzzy straight-to-video action film loaded with unfamiliar faces and nonstop mayhem. One of the specialists in that kind of fare, especially in the late '80s and early '90s, was Monarch Home Video, the folks who gave you titles like Day of the Warrior, Death Match, Streets of Rage, and Gladiator Cop. Stuck in the middle of all that was L.A. Wars, a scrappy little shoot-'em-up from Israeli producer-writer-director Tony Kandah and ABC television director Martin Morris. This one manages to tick off all the boxes including constantly yelling cops, ruthless crooks, a buff hero with a big attitude and bigger hair, and buxom blondes all over the place.
A turf war is erupting on the streets of Los Angeles when upstart drug baron Raul Guzman (Obregón) decides to muscle in on the turf of mafia kingpin Carlo Giovanni (Stephans), including a kidnapping attempt on his daughter, Carla (Zilba). That plan is foiled by the intervention of bouncer Jack Quinn (Murdocco), a former cop who got thrown off the force for taking matters into his own hands dispensing punishment for a pedophile. Impressed by his skills, Carlo offers Jack a gig protecting Carla which doesn't sit well with her regular bodyguard, Vinnie (Venocur), who's developed an unhealthy fixation on her. Meanwhile the cops are desperate to find someone to infiltrate Giovanni's inner circle and find the perfect opportunity with Jack, who presses a hard bargain to work deep undercover. Of course, Jack also finds himself falling hard for Carla which sets off even more tensions in the criminal underworld.
Though the plot may be nothing new, this is a great showcase for real-life kickboxing champ Murdocco in a rare leading man action role after stints in VHS titles like Ring of Fire and Private Wars. Had he gotten started a little earlier than his debut starring in Flesh Gordon Meets the Cosmic Cheerleaders he might have had a more prominent career in the '80s action sweepstakes; he acquits himself well here doing his own stunts and managed to pull off hand-to-hand combat scenes and shoot outs with equal panache. Yes, it's a cheap and ratty programmer shot on 16mm, but that's also part of the charm as you also get tons of early '90s L.A. atmosphere including a fun romantic montage scene set against a few surprising locales probably caught on the fly (as well as that old L.A. standby, lots of alley and parking garage shots). The second of the film is real catnip for action fans as well with a big fight scene popping up every couple of minutes, blood squibs galore, fire gags, nudity, and some pretty surprising splashy gore in the final stretch.
Reissued on DVD in 2014 from FlixHouse using the same '90s master, L.A. Wars has been revived in far finer form as a limited edition in the Vinegar Syndrome Archive line as a Blu-ray with the requisite insert poster. The transfer is cited as a new 2K scan and restoration from "16mm archival elements;" given that the film itself was shot in 16mm, the results are quite nice with the original grainy appearance left intact and the detail improving tremendously over the fuzzy VHS release. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track (with optional English SDH subtitles) sounds perfectly fine given the very flat nature of the original mix. In "Starting a War" (17m26s), Kandah talks about getting bitten by the movie bug as a little kid seeing The Sound of Music in Jerusalem, rounding up the necessary crew with financial incentives to raise the $160,000 budget, casting Zilba through his friend Casey Kasem, and securing the locations including a Sunday afternoon shoot on Hollywood Boulevard. Then cinematographer Mark Morris appears in "Shoot First" (23m) to talk about coming to this film after his "family-style" experience on Andy Sidaris films, bringing his action experience to bear on a film that didn't have a script when he came aboard, and diving into the "let's put on a show" perspective of shoot including the recruiting of Morris. Also included are audio interviews with Murdocco (21m44s) and Obregón (18m49s) conducted with Brad Henderson apparently over Skype; both are in good spirits and talk about becoming colleagues and friends with Kandah, with other topics including Murdocco's commitment to doing his own stunts (without extra pay), the story behind Murdocco's shift to doing stunts on big budget Hollywood films, and Obregón's colorful acting history including his time around the world and his stints on numerous Andy Sidaris films ("I just knew Andy was giving America what America wanted"). Finally you also get a trailer and a 2m12s stills gallery from Kandah's personal collection.
Reviewed on May 22, 2020