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AUGUST 24, 1998: 

Gang Related

D: Jim Kouf (1997)
with James Belushi, Tupac Shakur, Lela Rochon, Dennis Quaid, James Earl Jones, David Paymer

Tupac Shakur and James Belushi in Gang Related
Everything about Gang Related, from its genre to its director to its stars to even its title, would normally make this movie the last choice in my video runs. On a lark, however, I decided to check the film out, and therein discovered one of those rare gems, the kind you dream about when you end up stuck with the latest Steven Seagal vehicle. Well, maybe it's not that great, but Gang Related certainly merits attention as a good rental choice. For starters, this film turned out to be rapper-cum-actor Tupac Shakur's last movie before his untimely demise, and it's undoubtedly his best work. Starring as the partner of James Belushi (who manages to not kill this picture with his usual overacting), he and Shakur are a pair of corrupt homicide detectives who sell impounded drugs to dealers and then kill them, pocketing the money each time. The corrupt cops then investigate the crimes, ultimately blaming the murders on gang activity. When an undercover cop becomes the latest victim of the duo, though, they pin his death on a homeless man (Quaid, almost unrecognizable in a 12-inch beard), who twists the plot around again. An ultimately engrossing and challenging picture, Gang Related rises above its competition, which still largely consists of Pulp Fiction rip-offs. Maybe the biggest surprise of all is that the film was written and directed by Jim Kouf, whose writing credits include both Stakeout movies and 1995's Operation Dumbo Drop. Diamond in the rough, indeed.-- Christopher Null

Wild Wild Planet

D: Anthony Dawson (aka Antonio Margheriti) (1965)
with Tony Russell, Lisa Gastoni, Massimo Serato, Charles Justin

Usually, Italian sci-fi films are about as interesting as a bag of wet hair and about as entertaining as watching paint dry, but here's an exception. This low-budget nonsense involves bald alien androids in wraparound sunglasses, leather capes and Afrika Korps hats, miniaturizing humans at the behest of a mad scientist. The humans are then transported via briefcase to a futuristic scale-model city with dwarves and more androids. All the sets are in gaudy primary colors and with the miniskirts and such, the movie has a very swinginÇ Sixties Euro-mod sort of feel. Some dialogue is either poorly translated or tongue in cheek; during a hand to hand battle with some babe androids, the head guy shouts, "Watch out for those gadgets on their chests!" Or, on examining an attache full of doll-sized humans, a guy says, "They have technology that is beyond our Ken." Get it? This cheapie moves the plot ahead pretty fast and is at least as much fun to watch as, say, a Tohoguy-in-a-rubber-monster-suit-stomping-on-cities movie from the same period. It pops up from time to time on cable, so keep an eye out for it. -- Jerry Renshaw

Millionaire's Express

(aka Shanghai Express)

D: Sammo Hung, (1986)
with Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Rosamund Kwan, Olivia Cheng

It's a Western! It's a caper film! It's martial arts action! It's a farce! It's Millionaire's Express, with Hong Kong stalwart Sammo Hung on both sides of the camera! For HK fans, this film makes nearly as little sense as Jackie Chan's Fantasy Mission Force. Sammo plays a ne'er do well who comes back to his hometown with a platoon of sexy kung-fu hookers in tow and sets up business. The Shanghai Express, loaded with the rich and famous, is scheduled to come through town, and our man Sammo plans to derail it by blowing up the tracks, then entice the passengers to spend their money in town and (hopefully) visit his brothel as well. So far, so good. Problem is, a gang of thieves is on board the train, and a gang of Japanese mercenaries is after a map of valuable terracotta figures from a temple. Add to this mix a pair of jailbirds who hope to be freed by letting the train run over their shackles and a man and woman dressed inexplicably in 19th-century U.S. Cavalry outfits and you have a thoroughly confusing mess of a Hong Kong action comedy. The only thing that's missing is a cameo appearance by the Three Stooges. Sammo pulls it off quite well, though, with some killer fight segments towards the end, gorgeous lighting and camera work and trademark jaw-dropping HK stunt work. My only gripe is that there was a very funny setup involving two eight-year-old kids trading martial arts moves with each other (and their dads glowering over them) that I hoped would be played up later in the film, but no. Seemed ripe for the picking. Anyhow, forget about how confusing it is and just go along for the ride on the Millionaire's Express. -- Jerry Renshaw

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