Destro was easily my favorite of the G.I. Joe cartoon characters. Here was a guy who wasn’t afraid to wear a high-collared, padded jumpsuit. He had cool weapons, including wrist rockets attached to his metal gauntlets. He was, per the original file card by comic book writer Larry Hama located on the back of his action figure’s packaging, an unknown. He had no name other than Destro, no one knew where he came from, and no one (with one exception) knew what he actually looked like. It wasn’t until later that he got a name (James McCullen Destro) and a place of birth (Scotland). Whether these things were known or not at the time of the character’s creation, he works better (as most things do) with the mystery intact, in my opinion. He had one of the best cartoon voices this side of the original Starscream and Cobra Commander (both played by Chris Latta), especially since, at least retroactively, he was a white Scottish fella with a black man’s voice (the great Arthur Burghardt). Kind of reminds me of Darth Vader in that regard. Plus, he got to bang The Baroness, the leather-constricted, Eastern-European-accented femme fatale who undoubtedly launched many a young boy on their way to puberty (she was the only one who knew Destro’s actual identity at the time; a small club to be a member of, to be certain). More than all that, Destro wore a shiny, silver mask at all times in public (and, I like to imagine, sometimes in the boudoir) and it would even move with his mouth when he spoke; that’s some flexible metal. He was like a luchador without the tights (for better or worse), a badass baldy with a penchant for destruction and mayhem, and if you saw him coming, you were as good as dead. The Professor (Giancarlo Cianfriglia) in Paolo Bianchini’s The Devil’s Man (aka Devilman Story) also wears a metal mask, though his looks more like one of the robots from the Doctor Who story The Robots of Death, just without the molded hair. He also doesn’t have wrist rockets, and there’s nary a Baroness-esque figure to be found. More’s the pity.
In an ultra-abrupt prologue, some guy escapes from a desert lair. Next thing we know, we’re watching a bunch of planes landing in Rome. On one of these ubiquitous Pan Am flights is Professor Becker (Bill Vanders) and his daughter/assistant Christine (Luisa Baratto), who are there for some top-secret meetings and such. Becker goes missing, and this is the cue for Mike (Guy Madison), a two-fisted journo, to enter the picture. Together, Mike and Christine set off to locate Becker and stop the villains in their tracks.
The Devil’s Man is essentially two films in one. The first of these is a hardboiled private eye story, wherein Mike isn’t afraid to get his knuckles dirty to get the info he needs. He’s squarely in the Mike Hammer mold: tough, cynical, and an opportunistic manipulator. When he’s introduced in what I’ve taken to calling a “meet cruel,” he completely ignores Christine and any of the panic or horror she’s experiencing and instead inspects a crime scene for clues (Bianchini points these clues out to us by having the camera zoom in on them as Mike discovers them). Later, he blatantly uses Christine as bait, unbeknownst to her. He’s not above hanging a guy out of a car to extract information from him, either. In other words, Mike’s a prick, but this type of character has a certain sort of appeal in how forthrightly prick-ish he is. At least he’s honest about it. Christine is a damsel in distress, pure and simple. She exists in this film to give Mike someone to kiss and rescue. The funny thing about the mystery angle of the film is that, while we’re given clues along with Mike, we’re not given any context to connect them together. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle missing the corner pieces: you still get the picture, but it’s just a little bit harder to put together.
The second half of the film is a gonzo, Eurospy, science fiction narrative that livens things up a bit (but only a bit) with some interesting elements. In line with the Professor’s personal visual aesthetic (and, by extension, his modestly budgeted super-science laboratory), is the facet of the loss of humanity. His big plan is to create human robots (more or less). This, of course, means that any personality his subjects had before experimentation vanishes. Like the Professor’s expressionless facade (which hides, but we are never shown, a horribly disfigured face, thus matching the inhumanity on the interior to both of his exteriors [flesh and metal]), there will be nothing left in his subjects, living machines with no free will. As he states, “Science goes far beyond physical desires.” He also tells Christine that she must “surrender [her] will to [his].” For the Professor, the human brain is so imperfect that he is even willing to further dehumanize himself by planting a mechanical brain in his own body. There’s a bit of a sleazy component added to all this when Mike is tempted with the possibility of sex with Yasmin (Diana Lorys), an experimentee who is now simply a sex slave. After refusing, Kew (Luciano Pigozzi), the Professor’s greasy little assistant, suggests that he will gladly have his way with her later. The film’s villains may believe in “science at all costs” and the obliteration of individuality, but their motivations are rooted much more in the very human desires lying at our base levels (namely, sex and power).
For as intriguing as The Devil’s Man threatens to become, it’s overall execution deprives it of any real impact or enjoyability. It’s sloppy in its editing, its story is contrived as all hell, and the lead characters come off as flat jerks rather than compelling people (or even compelling archetypes). Its few moments of brilliance are wasted by remaining largely undeveloped, sparking a smattering of ideas and then dropping them just to get to the end. As a curio, the film should be a seen as an extremely minor point in the Eurospy constellation that tries to mix things up a bit, like oil and water. Nevertheless, it’s by no means essential, and it may very well leave you with the same blank expression as the one on the Professor’s visage.
MVT: The pulpier elements spice things up a little bit, but it could have used a dash more of these along with some complimentary flavors. It’s an okay stew that could have been a great stew. Now I’m hungry.
Make or Break: There’s enough travelogue footage, especially once the characters get to Africa, to kill what pacing the film has not only by constantly being cut to but also by feeling like the exact same shot over and over again.