Color, 1987, 101 mins. 57 secs.
Directed by "Vincent Dawn" (Bruno Mattei)
Starring Miles O'Keefe, Donald Pleasence, Bo Svenson, Kristine Erlandson, Ottaviano Dell'Acqua, Luciano Pigozzi
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Cinestrange Extreme (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany R0 HD/PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)

Color, 1988, 84 mins. 17 secs.
Directed by "Bob Hunter" (Bruno Mattei)
Starring Brent Huff, Max Laurel, Romano Puppo, Candice Daly, Werner Pochath
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)

Color, 1989, 90 mins 16 secs. / 93 mins. 11 secs.
Directed by "Vincent Dawn" (Bruno Mattei)
Starring Brent Huff, Mary Stavin, Werner Pochath, John Van Dreelen, Romano Puppo
Severin Films(Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Cinestrange Extreme (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany R0 HD/PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)

Any fan of disreputable '80s Italian films already knows the unique pleasures of the cinema of Bruno Mattei, who spent the Double Targetlatter part of the Double Targetdecade in the Philippines cranking out a slew of berserk action films mostly set in Vietnam for producer Franco Gaudenzi. Aiding Mattei in his quest was exploitation power couple Claudio Fragasso and Rossella Drudi, who wrote the mind-melting scripts and performed various other duties on the set including co-directing in some cases. In recent years the Mattei-Fragasso-Druidi cinematic universe has gotten a lot of love on Blu-ray in the U.S. from Severin Films with titles like Strike Commando, RoboWar, Zombie 4: After Death, and Shocking Dark, and three essential entries were released in 2022 at the same time to really make you doubt your sanity. Churned out over a two-year period, these bullet-spraying Filipino epics all deliver exactly what you need: explosions galore, baffling plotting, intense acting, and recycled footage from other movies. It's just glorious.

First up is 1987's Double Target, a vehicle for onetime screen Tarzan and Ator the Fighting Eagle himself, Miles O'Keefe, who made Iron Warrior the same year. Featuring a soundtrack partially pilfered from Michele Soavi's Stage Fright earlier that same year and a sweaty Donald Pleasence huffing an asthma inhaler, it starts off with a bang as a series of explosive suicidal terrorist attacks wipe out Americans and Brits all over Hong Kong, Malaysia, Double Targetand the Philippines. Enter Bob Ross (O'Keefe), a Double Targetfluffy-haired commando brought in by Senator Blaster (Pleasence) to find out who's responsible and prove it in exchange for leads on where to find his missing son. Soon over the five-day mission he's tangled up with a hostile Russian unit led by a perpetually ticked-off Bo Svenson, but he also teams up with such familiar Italian junk movie stars as Luciano Pigozzi and Ottaviano Dell'Acqua. Complete with shark stock footage from the infamous The Last Shark, rocket launcher action, and a romantic interest played by Kristine Erlandson (American Commandos), it's action trash of the first order and highly entertaining. How much you like the divisive O'Keefe will be a deciding factor here as well, but he does what he's best at here -- namely firing guns and being muscular. Fans of the later Mattei cycle will recognize this film as the source for some familiar shots that turned up down the line in Shocking Dark and RoboWar, too.

Widely issued on VHS between the late '80s and early '90s, Double Target fell into obscurity after that but looks great on the Severin Blu-ray (also available in The Mattei Mayhem Bundle) with a beautiful 2K scan from the original negative. A bit earlier in 2021 a German Blu-ray was issued by Cinestrange Extreme, which wasn't available for Double Targetcomparison here but by all reports left a bit to be desired. No complaints here for the U.S. disc; the sometimes stylized Double Targetlighting looks great (with very intense reds), and the foliage and sweat are all crystal clear. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 English and Italian tracks (with optional English subtitles) are also in mint condition; surprisingly they went the extra mile of mixing this one in stereo, which is how both tracks are presented here. "Italian Masters of War" (29m) with Fragasso and "All About the Sentiment" (19m3s) with Drudi cover the boom in Italian filmmaking in the Philippines in the wake of Apocalypse Now, Pigozzi's relocation there that made him a mascot of sorts, the rage for Vietnam films after Platoon, the more emotional melodrama they tried to inject into the stories, the writing improvisation when locations fell through, and the exhausting but profitable results that came out of the whole experience. The English and Italian trailers are also included, both in nice HD quality.

Then we get Cop Gameto Cop Game, the second of three Mattei films (the first Cop Gamebeing Strike Commando 2) with Gwendoline star Brent Huff. Here Huff goes fantastically over the top shouting almost all of his dialogue as Morgan, a seasoned MP brought along with partner Hawk (Laurel) to quietly deal with a string of violent slayings of local officials tied to an enforcement squad called the Cobra Force. Leader General Morris (an uncredited Brett Halsey) wants it deal with as discreetly as possible, which means the two yell at, shoot, and torture almost everyone they meet in public. Along the way they filter through clues like a message scrawled "Who's killing them?" scrawled on a mirror, all of which point to a mysterious Russian agent named Vladimir who's pulling the strings from within the system. The whodunit angle gives this one a slightly different feel, and coupled with the outrageous and often weirdly profane dialogue, it's a perfect match of director and leading men. The exact setting of this film is a little fuzzy since the dialogue indicates it's near the end of the Vietnam War, but everyone looks very, very '80s right down to Huff's trendy earring and all the teased hair. Again this one is shameless in its Cop Gameappropriation of preexisting footage, in this case using new inserts to revive the show-stopping miniature car chase Cop Gamefrom Antonio Margheriti's Ark of the Sun God (which has to be seen to be believed) and yanking numerous combat shots from both Strike Commando films and Double Target. The icing on the cake is the phenomenal ear worm of a theme song performed by Maurizio Cerantola (who also did vocal duties for Zombie 4: After Death and Robowar), which gets repeated roughly five hundred times during the running time. Alas, no soundtrack has ever materialized.

Also released on VHS around the world back in the late '80s, Cop Game has been tough to see in decent quality until the Severin Blu-ray. Again the presentation is a massive improvement and looks great with all the colorful grittiness fully intact, and the DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono English and Italian tracks (with English subs) are also excellent. "Sweet Home Manila" (20m26s) with Fragasso and "Giallo In Saigon" (16m52s) Cop Gamewith Drudi cover the inspiration of the American film Off Limits with Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines, more about the Mattei collaborations before this, the "lovable rogue" nature of Cop GameHuff that made him a good actor for these roles, the casting of Filipino actor Laurel in this and Robowar due to his martial arts prowess, the recruiting of Al Festa for the score, the desire to break away from Rambo clones in favor of a mystery angle complete with red herrings, and the fate of the film in various markets around the world. In " The Last King Of The Philippines" (24m35s), Gaudenzi talks more broadly about how he first met Mattei and ended up producing so many of his films, which fit well with his professional aims at the time especially with the Filipino shooting for so many titles. He's full of stories about the location shooting, too, including an encounter with a local "witch doctor." Also included are a reel of extended scenes (6m37s) featuring some extra chitchat and the English trailer.

Mattei and Huff stuck around long enough to make one more film together in 1989 with Born to Fight, a sort of return to the Rambo-sploitation sweepstakes. Still busy today, Huff's enjoyable presence anchors this typical "go back to Vietnam and shoot everything in sight" saga. This one opens with Huff forcibly expelling venom from a cobra into his beer and swigging it down on a bet, as we all do, so you know you're in good hands right from the Born to Winbeginning. Born to WinColorful and jaded Vietnam vet and formerly imprisoned P.O.W. Sam Wood (Huff) is hanging around a jungle bar when he's approached by determined reporter Maryline Kane (fellow Strike Commando 2 alumnus Stavin). She wants to do a local tour and get his story about escaping from Lu Tan, the most notorious soldier prison in Vietnam, but the expedition turns out to be a lot more personal and dangerous than he realized. Soon they're butting heads with Duan Loc (Bloodlust's Pochath, still sneering after Cop Game) who even tries to take them out in their hotel room, but as Sam says in his oft-repeated catchphrase, "It can be done." That means blowing up or shooting virtually everything in sight as the Vietnam jungle turns into a battleground once again.

Filmed as Nato per combattere (or Born to Fight, a title actually spoken in the dialogue) but also circulated as Born to Win (not to be confused with the George Segal movie), this is grade-A '80s Italian action fun with Huff clearly having a ball here delivering one liners and spraying ammunition everywhere, sometimes in slow motion. Pochath nearly matches him as the main baddie, ruthlessly tormenting his captives and yelling things like "Schnell!" in the best Hogan's Heroes tradition. The film doesn't really try to do anything terribly original with its post-Rambo formula, though there are a couple of decent plot twists thrown in on the way to the impressive, pyrotechnic-packed finale. The cast and behind-the-scenes personnel are packed with Born to Winthe usual Mattei suspects, including the colorful Al Festa (Fatal Frames) turning up to provide Born to Winthe electronic-heavy score just after his work on Cop Game, RoboWar, and Zombie 4: After Death.

As with the bulk of the Mattei-Fragasso-Drudi canon, this one only ended up hitting VHS in Japan and a handful of European countries since the demand for Italian genre product in the U.S. and U.K. was quickly drying up by this point. In 2021, Cinestrange Extreme bowed the film on Blu-ray under its Bahnhofs Kino line in five different hardbox options (three featuring a Blu-ray and DVD, the other two Blu-ray only). Image quality here is about on par with other late '80s Italian films of the era. The 1.66:1 framing appears to be accurate, and DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono audio options include English (the language in which it was shot with live sound) and German or Italian dubs with optional German subtitles. The film itself features the Italian title sequences, with the (long) opener also provided in VHS-sourced variants in German (with the English text credits), Japanese, and Spanish. Also included here is the slightly longer Japanese VHS versions, which mainly features some brief scene extensions scattered throughout the middle of the film. Born to WinMost of the these are really negligible (unless you really enjoy watching P.O.W.s running Born to Winin the woods), but there is a nice longer bit involving a reunion between two pivotal characters. Also included are a newly-created trailer, a 1m39s gallery of frame grabs, and most amusingly, a 5m11s "kill count" featuring a running body count of the many, many deaths racked up by our hero during the entire running time.

The Severin disc comes from the same scan but improves on it with significantly better color timing, particularly with sky blues and greenery. Both the theatrical and extended cuts are offered here, this time with the latter in HD as well and comparable in quality. It's worth noting that the Severin runs at correct film speed versus the Cinestrange release, whose both cuts run faster and come up three minutes shorter. Both versions can be played with English or Italian audio with English subtitles; the theatrical cut also comes with an audio commentary with Huff and Stavin (moderated by Severin's David Gregory) who have a very lively time walking down memory lane swapping memories about their director, the Philippines locations an hour outside Manila (including some cuisine misadventures), the snake wrangling, the backgrounds of their crew, the creation of the various huts and other structures on the spot, the international cast, and lessons learned from other Mattei films. In "Mr. Cobra Dundee" (20m16s) and "Cigarettes in Heaven" (11m50s), Fragasso and Drudi respectively talk about the influence of Crocodile Dundee (really), Mattei's love of copying Hollywood films he saw, the connection to Rats: Night of Terror, the reason these films avoided sex scenes, a P.O.W. bit that was cut from the final script, the "giallo subplot," the opposition of male colleagues to a female action writer, and more. Also included is the bona fide English trailer in excellent condition.

BORN TO FIGHT (Severin Blu-ray)

Born to FightBorn to Fight Born to Fight

BORN TO FIGHT (Cinestrange Extreme Blu-ray)

The Born to FightThe Born to Fight The Born to Fight

Reviewed on November 16, 2022.