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Retro Review: AMERICAN RICKSHAW (1989)

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AMERICAN RICKSHAW
aka AMERICAN TIGER
(Italy - 1989; US release 1991)

Directed by Martin Dolman (Sergio Martino). Written by Sauro Scavolini, Roberto Leoni and Maria Perrone Capano. Cast: Mitch Gaylord, Daniel Greene, Victoria Prouty, Donald Pleasence, Michi Kobi, Roger Pretto, Regina Rodriguez, Darin De Paul, Judi Clayton, Glenn Maska, Carmen Lopez, Gregg Todd Davis, Sherrie Rose, Von B. Von Lindenberg. (Unrated, 96 mins)

Like me, if you saw the generic-looking AMERICAN TIGER VHS cover art to the left in the video store back in the early '90s, you probably didn't even give it a second glance. There was Mitch Gaylord, who led the gold medal-winning US gymnastics team at the 1984 Summer Olympics on his way to washing out as a leading man in the 1986 flop AMERICAN ANTHEM, slumming in what appeared to be a run-of-the-mill Italian-made actioner of some sort with the meaningless tag line "Miami just got hotter..." just in case the pastel color scheme didn't already vaguely remind you of MIAMI VICE. Oh, what a foolish mistake we made by dismissing this and putting this back on the shelf! Released in Europe in 1989 under its original title AMERICAN RICKSHAW, the film was retitled by Academy Entertainment for its 1991 straight-to-video release in the US, and you almost have to wonder if the marketing people at Academy ever bothered to watch it.






For about an hour, it's a somewhat slow-moving and barely-coherent hodgepodge of action, blackmail, sex, intrigue, religious cults, supernatural horror, and nonsensical Asian mysticism with some bonus inaccurate folklore that has about as much legitimacy as the old Calgon "Ancient Chinese Secret!" commercial. It seems as if director Sergio Martino (under his frequent '80s pseudonym "Martin Dolman") and co-writers Sauro Scavolini (YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY) and Roberto Leoni (THE FINAL EXECUTIONER, SANTA SANGRE) are riffing on BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, and it progresses in a weird enough way until the last half hour, when AMERICAN RICKSHAW goes so off-the-rails bonkers on a one-way trip to Crazytown that even attempting to explain it is an exercise in futility. The fact that there's almost no cult following around this thing has to be blamed on either that bland Academy Entertainment VHS cover (the Italian poster seen above at least appears to sell the supernatural angle) or on people who did rent it ejecting it halfway through out of boredom, while the select few who are aware of it have done a good job of keeping it to themselves. That finally seems to be changing, as AMERICAN RICKSHAW is one of the inaugural releases of the new Blu-ray company Cauldron Films, because physical media is dead. It probably ranks second on the list of 2020's insane Blu-ray resurrections, right after Arrow's WHITE FIRE (WHITE FI-YAAA!), and like that film, it warms my heart to know that there's still mind-blowing gems like this hiding out there, overlooked in their day and patiently waiting all these years to be unearthed.


Much like what happened with NYC and Atlanta in the late '70s and early '80s and with Fabrizio De Angelis' hostile takeover of Page, AZ in the mid '80s, AMERICAN RICKSHAW was produced during a time when Italian exploitation guys were a regular presence in Florida, particularly the Miami area, where Martino shot the boxing drama THE OPPONENT a year earlier. Gaylord stars as college kid Scott Edwards, studying engineering while working part-time at American Rickshaw, a rickshaw service that's big in the tourist areas and popular night spots. One night, his fare, a sultry stripper named Joanna (Victoria Prouty in her simultaneous debut and farewell from cinema) seduces him on a boat, where he discovers a perv hiding in the closet has videotaped the encounter. An enraged Scott beats the shit out of the perv--cutting his own foot on some broken glass in the process--and makes off with the videotape, but discovers when he gets home that it's the wrong one. He goes back to the boat to find the perv drowned in the toilet, and his blood, his fingerprints, and a missing sex tape putting him right there at the murder scene.


A fire ignites and destroys the boat, but the tape is in the possession of ruthless assassin Francis (FALCON CREST's Daniel Greene, who starred in several Martino films starting with 1986's HANDS OF STEEL). He's looking for a key that was on a necklace worn by the dead perv, who's revealed to be Jason Mortom (Gregg Todd Davis), the black sheep son of frothing, fire-and-brimstone megachurch televangelist Rev. Samuel Mortom (Donald Pleasence, chewing on a really hammy Southern accent). It seems--and yes, this gets complicated--Jason and Scott were born on the same day--June 6, 1966 in the Year of the Tiger, according to the Chinese calendar (note: 1966 is not a Year of the Tiger, but 1962 and 1976 are; 1966 is a Year of the Horse, so the movie doesn't even get it right)--and for their entire lives, they've been "linked" and watched over psychically from afar by elderly Chinese mystic Madame Luna (Michi Kobi). She was once in possession of a glowing talisman that holds the key to immortality, and it was stolen from her years ago by the evil Rev. Mortom, in actuality a cult leader who has assigned disciple Francis to retrieve it after Jason stashes it in a train station locker as part of an extortion plot against his father.


By the time one of the cops investigating Jason's death conveniently turns out to be a secret expert in Chinese folklore ("They were born on the same day! 6/6/1966 is the day of four sixes! The high point of the Year of the Tiger, the day of maximum power!" he breathlessly exclaims to his unimpressed partner) and characters start babbling about "celestial spheres,""The Stone of Evil," and "The Urn of Wisdom," things start to seem less like the Van Damme knockoff that the AMERICAN TIGER box art was selling and more like the lyrical outline to an abandoned Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe concept album. This sets up a string of events--including Scott threatening Joanna with a needle and warning "You scream, I swear to God I'm gonna stick you with this thing. I found it in the gutter, I'm sure you're familiar with AIDS!" and one of the greatest dummy deaths I've ever seen--culminating in a jawdropper of a climax that's equal parts VIDEODROME and SPIRITED AWAY, and certainly belongs in the Donald Pleasence career highlight reel.


Pleasence probably only worked on this for a day or two (he was in nine movies in 1989, including another one for Martino, CASABLANCA EXPRESS), but he really immerses himself in his Southern drawl ("Aah shale keel yuuuuuu!"). Unlike most Italian productions of the time, AMERICAN RICKSHAW was shot with live sound aside from a couple of bit players who sound revoiced by veteran dubber Nick Alexander. There are no Italians in the cast, with the supporting roles filled by regional actors from the Miami and Fort Lauderdale areas (Davis was also in THE OPPONENT and Umberto Lenzi's Miami-lensed NIGHTMARE BEACH around the same time, and Judy Clayton, as Rev. Mortom's wife, later had small roles in Florida-shot titles like COP AND A HALF, ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE, and BULLY). Mitch Gaylord's place as an Olympic hero is secure, but his big-screen aspirations never panned out. After AMERICAN RICKSHAW, he landed roles in two post-BASIC INSTINCT unrated DTV erotic thrillers--1992's ANIMAL INSTINCTS and 1994's SEXUAL OUTLAWS--and served as Chris O'Donnell's stunt double in BATMAN FOREVER. Aside from a one-off return with a supporting role in the 2005 indie comedy CONFESSIONS OF AN ACTION STAR, his acting career appears to be on permanent hold, though he remained active in the sports world, covering gymnastics for NBC Sports and Fox Sports, and found some success as a fitness guru and motivational speaker. It's doubtful AMERICAN RICKSHAW ever came up in his presentations. It needs to.


One of cinema's great unsung dummy deaths.


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