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Retro Review: THE SOLDIER (1982) and THE TAKING OF BEVERLY HILLS (1991)


(US - 1982)

Written and directed by James Glickenhaus. Cast: Ken Wahl, Alberta Watson, Klaus Kinski, William Prince, Jeremiah Sullivan, Joaquim de Almeida, Peter Hooten, Steve James, Alexander Spencer,  Jeffrey Jones, Zeljko Ivanek, Ron Harper, Ned Eisenberg, David Lipman, Tom Wright, George Strait. (R, 88 mins)

Ken Wahl was poised to be a Next Big Thing on more than one occasion, but fate and some really bad luck repeatedly intervened to prevent it from happening. Born in either 1954, 1956, or 1957 depending on the source, Wahl debuted to much acclaim in Philip Kaufman's THE WANDERERS (1979) and was soon co-starring with Paul Newman in the gritty time capsule FORT APACHE, THE BRONX (1981). The 1981 adventure RACE FOR THE YANKEE ZEPHYR was an Australian/New Zealand co-production that only made it into a handful of US theaters in 1984 under the title TREASURE OF THE YANKEE ZEPHYR. 1982 saw Wahl clashing with Bette Midler on the set of the troubled box-office bomb JINXED, a doomed project that almost ruined the careers of everyone involved and ended up being the great Don Siegel's final film as a director. The same year, he starred in the international espionage thriller THE SOLDIER, writer/director James Glickenhaus' follow-up to his 1980 surprise hit THE EXTERMINATOR. THE SOLDIER didn't do much business in theaters, but like TREASURE OF THE YANKEE ZEPHYR, it found a home in its seemingly daily airings on HBO throughout the '80s. It's a convoluted Reagan-era spy/terrorism thriller with KGB agents embedded in the US by Soviet spymaster Ivan (Jeremiah Sullivan) hijacking a plutonium shipment and taking it to an oil field in Saudi Arabia, where they threaten to detonate it and destroy 50% of the world's oil supply unless Israel withdraws from the West Bank. Believing Islamic extremists are behind the plutonium hijacking, the US President (William Prince) is prepared to attack Israel if it means saving the oil, but the CIA chief (Ron Harper) proposes another solution: "The Soldier." A nameless covert ops agent who officially doesn't exist, The Soldier (Wahl) and his team (including Peter Hooten, Joaquim de Almeida, and future Cannon regular Steve James) go to work. The Soldier teams with Mossad agent Susan Goodman (Alberta Watson), and eventually figures out that the Soviets are behind the heist, which becomes obvious after an attempt is made on The Soldier's life by duplicitous KGB agent Dracha, played by legendary cinematic and real-life madman Klaus Kinski, putting in a day's work at an Austrian ski resort.

THE SOLDIER is best-known for one sequence, but it's one for the ages: where Dracha traps The Soldier in a ski lift and has one of his guys try to take him out with a rocket launcher, only to have The Soldier jump out and lead Dracha's guys on a truly incredible ski chase with the stunt guys doing some pretty death-defying stuff. There's also a memorable scene in a shitkicker bar where Steve James beats the shit out of some racist, redneck urban cowboys while a just-breaking-out George Strait and his band play. There's also some fantastic bloody squib work throughout, but otherwise, THE SOLDIER is a strange and oddly-paced film. It runs a brief 88 minutes but still seems padded with tons of filler, and Wahl is absent for several stretches throughout while we see his team do their thing, infiltrating a missile silo in Kansas to aim a nuke at Moscow if the Soviets don't withdraw from Saudi Arabia. There's a long meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister and his cabinet, a long meeting with the President and his national security adviser (Jeffrey Jones), and a long interrogation of a terror suspect by Susan, and other than an opening sequence where The Soldier cleans up any trace of a CIA hit in Philadelphia, Wahl doesn't really join the main plot until 25 minutes in. It's also marred by a weak conclusion that looks like the crew just stopped and called it a wrap, almost like a climactic action sequence that should be there is missing. While it's admirable that Glickenhaus demonstrated some ambition and tried to make something a little more substantive in terms of its political storyline, it too often feels like a 42nd Street grindhouse version of a John Le Carre novel, and that's a mix that just doesn't work well together. After THE SOLDIER and JINXED, Wahl appeared in 1984's barely-released PURPLE HEARTS with Cheryl Ladd before his career faced its first setback when he was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident on his way to meet with Diane Keaton about co-starring in MRS. SOFFEL (Mel Gibson eventually got the part). Wahl was out of commission for a year and upon his recovery, found his movie career was stalled and he shifted to TV, where he eventually landed his career role in 1987, starring as undercover FBI agent Vinnie Terranova, infiltrating the mob on the CBS series WISEGUY.

THE SOLDIER opening in Toledo, OH on October 1, 1982

(US - 1991)

Directed by Sidney J. Furie. Written by Rick Natkin, David Fuller and David J. Burke. Cast: Ken Wahl, Matt Frewer, Harley Jane Kozak, Robert Davi, Lee Ving, Branscombe Richmond, Lyman Ward, Michael Bowen, William Prince, George Wyner, Tony Ganios, Ken Swofford, Raymond Singer, Bob Golic. (R, 96 mins)

Ken Wahl found more success with WISEGUY than he ever had on the big screen. He was nominated for an Emmy and won a Golden Globe in 1990, the same year he abruptly left the series at the end of its third season over "creative differences" with the network. They decided to carry on without him, bringing in Steven Bauer (SCARFACE) to play a new character investigating Vinnie Terranova's disappearance, possibly at the hands of South American drug cartels. Nobody was really happy with the retooling, and CBS cancelled WISEGUY nine episodes into its fourth season. Freed from his commitment to the show, Wahl was given another shot at movie stardom with the DIE HARD ripoff THE TAKING OF BEVERLY HILLS, directed by his PURPLE HEARTS helmer Sidney J. Furie (THE IPCRESS FILE, LADY SINGS THE BLUES, IRON EAGLE, SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE), a career journeyman going back to the late 1950s who's still directing today, well into his 80s. A casualty of the bankruptcy of Orion Pictures, THE TAKING OF BEVERLY HILLS only made it to about 500 theaters and grossed just $940,000 when it was eventually released by Columbia in the fall of 1991. It's a spectacularly dumb movie, but it's endlessly enjoyable, and a perfect snapshot of 1990-91, from Wahl's amazing mullet to a burglary montage set to EMF's "Unbelievable" and cop cars crashing and Wahl taking out bad guys with ninja stars to the tune of Faith No More's "Epic."

Wahl is Boomer Hayes, an aging pro quarterback who ends up in the middle of an elaborate Beverly Hills heist being pulled off by a crew of renegade, disgraced ex-cops. The plan? A hoax chemical spill that forces the evacuation of the city, sending the residents to a ritzy hotel out of the quarantine area while they raid all the empty mansions of their owners' valuables and assorted priceless possessions. Boomer missed the evacuation warning, since he was in his hot tub waiting to score with Laura Sage (Harley Jane Kozak), his former flame and current girlfriend of Robert "Bat" Masterson (Robert Davi), a wealthy Beverly Hills businessman and the owner of Boomer's team. Unaware that Boomer is a person (they assumed Laura was talking about a dog when she kept yelling "What about Boomer?" as she was herded onto a departing bus), the criminals go about their business while Boomer throws on his jersey, shoots his bum knee with cortisone and plays through the pain, teaming up with doofus cop Ed Kelvin (MAX HEADROOM's Matt Frewer), who went along with the heist because he was told no one would be hurt, but who comes to regret his decision and helps Boomer when the body count starts escalating. Mismatched buddy duo Boomer and Ed join forces to take back the town and expose the heist's mastermind (gee, could it be asshole "Bat" Masterson?)...if they don't kill each other first!

THE TAKING OF BEVERLY HILLS is no classic, but it's a shame it didn't get much of a chance. It's pretty much DIPSHIT DIE HARD, but it's a lot of fun and Wahl was never more loose or funny than he was here, moving from street to street through Beverly Hills (this was actually shot in Mexico) while uttering ludicrous dialogue like "I am a master at moving downfield and they don't even know I'm in the game!" and "I'm through playing defense!" and, of course, "Touchdown, asshole!" while throwing ninja stars and literal Hail Mary bombs and Molotov cocktails that blow up Masterson's chief henchman Varney (Fear frontman Lee Ving as Alexander Godunov to Davi's Alan Rickman). The film is so beholden to the DIE HARD formula that at one point Masterson even derisively calls Boomer "Hopalong" as opposed to "Mr. Cowboy." THE TAKING OF BEVERLY HILLS gives you all that plus Branscombe Richmond as another Masterson flunky who commandeers a tank and actually gets set on fire at one point in an example of the kind of practical stunt work that's become extinct in the era of CGI. Around the same time he shot this film, Wahl (with almost the same mullet) co-starred with Kozak in the romantic comedy THE FAVOR, which featured Elizabeth McGovern and a young Brad Pitt. THE FAVOR was also an Orion release that ended up being shelved until 1994, by which point Wahl's career was essentially over.

Wahl at the height of his WISEGUY fame
In 1992, Wahl broke his neck in what he initially claimed was another motorcycle accident. Years later, he revealed that he fell down the stairs at the home of Rodney Dangerfield's girlfriend and future wife, who was also seeing Wahl at the same time, and concocted the motorcycle story to respect her privacy. Wahl underwent multiple surgeries and was unable to walk for over two years. His limited movement caused a significant weight gain and he lived in constant, debilitating pain and developed a serious drinking problem. He managed to shed some pounds but was noticeably heftier and stiff as he struggled to get through the one-off 1996 WISEGUY reunion movie for CBS, but following that, Wahl effectively withdrew from public life and, to date, hasn't acted since. He hasn't given a print interview since 2004, instead finding his new calling as an activist for US military veterans, organizing a "Pets for Vets" charity that offers animal adoption services to provide pet therapy and companionship for disabled and/or emotionally troubled vets. He was also a frequent call-in guest on NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch's now-defunct radio show. Wahl is a conservative who's active on Twitter (though not in a crazy way like, say, James Woods) and has been married to Shane Barbi--half of the modeling duo the Barbi Twins--since 1997. He stays busy with his activist concerns, but he's largely reclusive, does what he does from home, and he adamantly refuses to be photographed on a rare occasion when he is spotted or recognized in public. Both THE SOLDIER and THE TAKING OF BEVERLY HILLS have recently been released on Blu-ray and to no one's surprise, the Howard Hughes-esque Ken Wahl is MIA on the bonus features for both.

Wahl in the promising early days of his career, with Paul Newman
on the set of 1981's FORT APACHE THE BRONX. 

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