Most people into genre cinema know and love James Karen for his role as Frank in Dan O’Bannon’s zombie masterpiece, Return of the Living Dead. I first came to know him as the affable, always suited shill for Pathmark Supermarkets. His commercials touting that week’s specials popped up on New York/New Jersey stations, and since I was watching those channels on Saturday afternoons for Kung Fu and Horror movies, he became a welcome sight. He seemed like a nice guy. When I finally saw Return, I had one of those “Hey, I know that guy!” moments. It’s similar to how I used to see Zohra Lampert selling Goya beans (“Oh boy-a!”), and it wasn’t until I saw her on an episode of Law and Order that it occurred to me that she did other things (including working with John Cassavetes in Opening Night). It’s ironic with Karen that I hadn’t heard of him before either the commercials or the movies, since he was born about twenty miles away from me. Ah, well. It was nice, then, to see him pop up in Steve Cohen’s Tough and Deadly (and it should be noted that Cohen directed an episode of Law and Order, though neither Karen nor Lampert appeared in it), doing what he does best: selling what he’s got.
CIA agent Monk (Billy Blanks) drives all the way out to the middle of nowhere in “France” to talk to Austrian intel broker Reichtman (Ronald House) and be attacked by Richard Norton and his crack team. After a car accident puts Monk in the hospital and makes him amnesiac, he attracts the attention of skip tracer Elmo Freech (Roddy Piper) as a possible bounty. The two team up to take down crooks and figure out Monk’s past (but mostly the former), which also involves taking down more crooks, just not for money.
Tough and Deadly follows in the long tradition of action films that pair a couple of characters who are disparate on the surface but essentially the same underneath. Also like so many action films down through the ages, the main characters are either lawmen or ex-lawmen. Elmo was a cop who punched a superior officer out (for not the greatest reason in the world), and now he’s a bounty hunter/private dick. He still hunts down bad guys, he just does it on his terms. Like so many private eyes, Elmo also has issues with cash flow, always behind on bills and always hustling for a way to make a buck. He has a sassy secretary/assistant, Moe (played by Lisa Stahl), who acts like she doesn’t care, but really, she does. Monk works within the system. In fact, he’s so deep in the system, he’s been removed from it. He’s legally dead and doesn’t exist on paper. Monk’s sole purpose in life is also to hunt down the bad guys, but there has to be something more personal in it for him. That’s the only reason he would allow his identity to be wiped out. By teaming up, the two experience law enforcement from a different perspective. Elmo gets to feel like a real cop again. Monk gets to do his job without the restraints the system placed on him.
This plays into the film’s issues of identity. Monk loses his memory. He becomes the more literal ghost (just not in the supernatural sense) he was while working for the CIA. He needs to re-discover the man he was, and this leads him to the man he will become (a resurrection, if you will). Elmo helps by bringing him into a world similar to the one he already knew. Elmo also gives Monk a name (John Portland) in true Elmo Freech fashion (he throws a knife at a map). Monk’s name doesn’t matter for his identity (he has three: Monk, John Portland, and Quicksilver), but the multiplicity of them points to the identity crisis through which he has to work. The thing about the film is that Monk’s memory recovery doesn’t tie in with the film’s plot. He just remembers things, and then they move on. There’s no direct connection between the two story threads as they progress, which is surprising, as that’s the typical template for storylines like this one (and its lack proves why it’s the standard). The story ties together by happenstance. I can’t say that it’s a subversion of a trope in this case. It simply feels like the filmmakers didn’t do it. No reason.
It's with that in mind that I want to address the film’s story. From the set up, the audience expects Elmo and Monk to embroil themselves in the case which robbed Monk of his memories. Nope. What we get instead is Monk and Elmo bounty hunting, rough housing, working out, and so on. It’s purely coincidental that any of this leads back to Monk’s origin and the film’s inciting incident. In fact, the film is loaded with coincidences to the point that the whole thing is just implausible (some scuzzy little jerk the guys pick up just so happens to be related to the drug kingpin who just so happens to be tied in with Monk’s and Elmo’s past). Further, the story is a straight line with no twists, turns, or big reveals to any of it. I would suspect that this (some would call it) simplicity is because the producers (this was one of the final efforts from the Shapiro-Glickenhaus Entertainment gang) just wanted enough story to get us from one action scene to the next. On that level, it works. On just about every other, not so much. We never really care whether Monk remembers anything, because there’s nothing to the character before, during, or after his amnesia. We’re given a hint that Moe and Elmo may have unspoken feelings for each other, but the moment passes after about a second with no follow up. The CIA, for all its hand wringing over what Monk’s up to, makes a half-assed effort to get him and then just kind of lets him go do his thing. The action itself is okay. Honestly, I expected it to be pulled off slicker and more clearly than it is. The use of handheld camera and some sketchy editing truly detracts from the only thing that makes the film worthwhile. Both Piper and Blanks do what they do well enough, but that’s pretty much the sum total of Tough and Deadly: well enough.
MVT: Piper brings what charms he has to the film, and the man knew how to sell a fight for the camera.
Make or Break: The training montage (aside from being difficult to swallow based on where in the movie it happens) gives the audience a glimpse at the chemistry that Blanks and Piper could have had onscreen but don’t quite.