What a strange movie. Usually, when a film tries to be too many genres at once, the result is a jumbled mess that takes too many shortcuts, and is difficult to follow. That’s a good description of Devil’s Express (released under a number of other titles), the 1976 blaxploitation/martial arts/street gang/monster flick from director Barry Rosen, and screenwriters Rosen and Niki Patton. But, we like jumbled messes here at Shitty Movie Sundays. The closer a film comes to flying apart at the seams, the better.
Warhawk Tanzania — yes, Warhawk Tanzania — stars as Luke, a martial arts instructor in Harlem. He’s the coolest cat in the neighborhood, sporting an afro half a foot tall and the slickest threads. He’s a local hero, as evidenced by the occasional montage of Luke walking through the neighborhood and gathering in plaudits.
One of his students, Rodan (Wilfredo Roldan), who also happens to be in a street gang, gets into a beef with a Chinese gang from downtown. This weighs heavily on Rodan’s mind as he accompanies Luke to Hong Kong for a week of intensive martial arts training.
While there, Rodan stumbles onto the grave of a Chinese mummy or demon, or some such. On the lid of the ancient sarcophagus is a medallion that would do well as an accessory to Rodan’s wardrobe, so he nabs it. The demon in the tomb isn’t happy about that, and bursts forth from the grave after Luke and Rodan head back to the states.
The demon really wants that medallion back, so it makes its way to the port, leading to the best shitty filmmaking moment in a film stuffed full of them.
The demon doesn’t just stowaway on a tramp steamer headed to NYC. Rather, it attacks a man (Aki Aleong) who was having a smoke and…enters into him, I guess? Cut to a pier in NYC (it’s the same location — this film had no budget to shoot anywhere but NYC), and the man comes stumbling off the ship and into the city night, confused and crazed.
There wasn’t a lot of thought put into this demon, it seems, but the possessed man is a real treat. The demon is supposed to have terrified this man so much that he stumbles around wide-eyed, or perhaps he is meant to have had his eyelids ripped off by the demon. Either way, how Rosen and company achieved the bug-eyed effect, was to paint Aleong’s eyelids white, and put black dots right in the center where his pupils would be. Then he wandered around with his eyes closed, making his painted lids stand out like a pair of cue balls. It’s hard to describe how hilarious this looks. I get what they were trying to achieve, but there is no way to suspend disbelief and pretend what a viewer is seeing is not painted eyelids.
The poor, possessed man makes his way into the 135th St. subway station (used extensively in this flick), and there the demon bursts forth from his body. Later, these mangled remains are found, and, by a remarkable coincidence, the cop investigating the death is one of Luke’s students, Detective Cris of the NYPD (Larry Fleischman).
Luke and Cris may be teacher and student, but that’s as far as things go. They are not friends. Luke makes his feelings about the police known early on. Snarling at each other is about all the development that goes into their relationship.
Meanwhile, there’s still a gang war that needs to happen. There is no exploration of the gang war at all other than fighting. There is never a scene with Rodan or his rivals laying out their grievances and plotting revenge. There is no exposition, and little in the way of resolution. The two gangs just show up at random points in the film and start kicking the shit out of each other.
None of the gang members appeared to be professional martial artists, either, yet the fight scenes are absurd enough to be entertaining. NYC street gangs engaging in skilled martial arts battles in the middle of the street paints a very weird picture of that town.
All this time, Rodan is wearing the mystery medallion, yet the demon never leaves the subway station to hunt Rodan down. It seems to be content in mutilating whichever random subway denizen happens to wander into range. So, when the monster and Rodan finally do meet, it’s by coincidence, after Rodan is chased into the subway station by the Chinese gang.
What was the demon’s plan, exactly? Take the long voyage from Hong Kong to New York City, make its way to the general area where the medallion is located, and just hang out in the subway on the chance the thief is a commuter? A little proactive behavior by the demon was called for, but that seemed to have slipped the minds of Rosen and Patton.
Anyway, the main plot, if there is one, and the disparate thread of the gang war come together in the final act, and we viewers finally get to see Warhawk Tanzania kick some ass. And does he bring it.
One-on-one, two-on-one, five-on-one — it does not matter. Luke takes on all comers, and he does it wearing a pair of gold lamé overalls and matching high-heeled boots. It looks like that’s all he’s wearing too, ladies.
Devil’s Express is the very definition of an exploitation film. It takes chunks of what was popular in the day and mashes it together. There’s little regard for the sensical, and only a passing acknowledgment that what is happening on screen is absurd.
A viewer will have to sit through a lot of blown lines and dead reads in this flick, but it’s all worth it to see some of the most earnest, and least spectacular, martial arts ever put on screen. Everyone involved seemed so into it.
Shitty moments abound, the good lord of bad cinema be praised, this is a winner. Devil’s Express shoots up the Watchability Index, displacing Leviathan at #43. I declare this flick shitty gold.