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Retro Review: IRON WARRIOR (1987)

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IRON WARRIOR
(Italy - 1987)

Directed by Al Bradley (Alfonso Brescia). Written by Steven Luotto and Al Bradley (Alfonso Brescia). Cast: Miles O'Keeffe, Savina Gersak, Elisabeth Kaza, Iris Peynado, Tim Lane, Tiziana Altieri, Frank Daddi, Josie Coppini, Malcolm Borg, Conrad Borg, Jon Rosser. (R, 87 mins)

One of the countless Italian ripoffs of CONAN THE BARBARIAN, 1983's ATOR THE FIGHTING EAGLE helped keep Miles O'Keeffe employed following his career-killing Hollywood debut opposite Bo Derek in her husband John's 1981 fiasco TARZAN THE APE MAN. Directed by the venerable Italo sleaze king Aristide Massaccesi (aka "Joe D'Amato") under his "David Hills" pseudonym, ATOR led to the 1984 sequel THE BLADE MASTER, better known today by its MST3K incarnation CAVE DWELLERS. The third in the franchise, IRON WARRIOR, is an odd in-series reboot of sorts that almost feels like it wasn't intended to be part of the ATOR universe. Made not by Massaccesi and his Filmirage outfit but by producer Ovidio G. Assonitis (BEYOND THE DOOR, THE VISITOR, PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING), IRON WARRIOR gives Ator a completely different origin story and puts him in decidedly different, R-rated surroundings with gore and T&A that doesn't gel with its two PG-rated predecessors. Assonitis farmed out directing duties to Alfonso Brescia as a consolation prize after removing him from 1986's CHOKE CANYON during pre-production when he decided the action-and-stunt-heavy film was too much for Brescia to handle. Better-known by his Americanized pseudonym "Al Bradley," and a perennial Italian D-lister, Brescia (1930-2001) cut his teeth on low-grade peplum (1964's THE MAGNIFICENT GLADIATOR), spaghetti westerns (1968's CRY OF DEATH) and men-on-a-mission WWII movies (1969's KILL ROMMEL!), never distinguishing himself in any conceivable way as his filmography ranked several notches below mediocre. As his career went on, he made the 1974 action comedy SUPER STOOGES VS. THE WONDER WOMEN and even managed to get Jack Palance to star in the 1976 GODFATHER knockoff BLOOD AND BULLETS, but it wasn't until his quartet of oppressively dull post-STAR WARS space operas (and the sexually explicit 1980 offshoot THE BEAST IN SPACE, which featured hardcore footage) that Brescia cemented his place in Eurocult history, even if it was for all the wrong reasons.






Shot on the same sets with most of the same supporting cast and looking like inept community theater versions of Antonio Margheriti's GAMMA 1 quartet over a decade earlier, 1977's COSMOS: WAR OF THE PLANETS, 1978's BATTLE OF THE STARS, 1978's WAR OF THE ROBOTS, and 1979's STAR ODYSSEY are virtually interchangeable and are differentiated only by their leading men (John Richardson in the first two, followed by Antonio Sabato in ROBOTS and Gianni Garko in ODYSSEY) and rank among the ultimate feats of cine-masochistic endurance. COSMOS: WAR OF THE PLANETS actually made it into some US theaters in 1979 but the other three went straight to syndicated TV and later surfaced on any number of public domain DVD sets, though I wouldn't be surprised if someone put them out on Blu-ray box set if the elements are able to be tracked down (nor would I be surprised when I clicked on "pre-order" when that hypothetical listing turns up on Amazon). With Scorpion's release of IRON WARRIOR, we're forced to confront what was once unthinkable: the stunning realization that an "Al Bradley" joint is on Blu-ray which, depending on your tolerance for bad movies, is either cause for celebration or the cracking of one of the seven seals that will open the gates of Hell.


IRON WARRIOR isn't exactly an expensive epic, but it's obviously got the biggest budget that the perpetually hapless Brescia was ever granted. It's his most polished and professional-looking film, shot on some stunning locales on Malta, where the production also took full advantage of some still-standing sets left over from Robert Altman's POPEYE seven years earlier. Brescia also had the added bonus of having veteran optical effects technician Wally Gentleman as a cinematographer. A real person despite his name sounding like a hastily-blurted alias, Gentleman worked on the effects crew of Assonitis' BEYOND THE DOOR and scored a visual effects gig with Francis Ford Coppola on 1982's ONE FROM THE HEART. Gentleman also worked on Douglas Trumbull's effects team for Stanley Kubrick's 1968 landmark 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and how he went from that to serving as Alfonso Brescia's cinematographer on the third movie in the ATOR series is a story that demands to be told. Watching IRON WARRIOR in a pristine HD transfer is quite a different experience than seeing it on VHS back in the late '80s. It's less of an ATOR movie and more like a companion piece to Lucio Fulci's hallucinatory 1983 sword-and-sorcery saga CONQUEST. It's trippy and surreal, like if an Italian CONAN ripoff was directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky.


The script, credited to "Al Bradley" and veteran voice actor Steven Luotto (who can be heard dubbing Mark Gregory in 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS), is a hot mess of curses, hexes, and mysticism, with Brescia shamelessly stealing iconic imagery from SUPERMAN, STAR WARS, and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Believing in a prophecy that she would be destroyed by twin brothers, evil old witch Phoedra (Elisabeth Kaza) spies on eight-year-old siblings Ator and Trogar and kidnaps Trogar as part of a revenge plot against Deeva (Iris Peynado), who freed Phoedra's enslaved people. 18 years later, Phoedra summons the Iron Warrior (Frank Daddi) to kill the King (Tim Lane), who sends his princess daughter Janna (Assonitis' girlfriend Savina Gersak) away for her own safety. Deeva puts Janna in the care of lone warrior Ator (O'Keeffe), but not before he's seduced by Phoedra in the form of a nude young temptress (Tiziana Altieri). Prophesied to protect the King's daughter ("She for who you are fated needs you now!" Deeva gravely intones), Ator leads Janna on a treacherous journey where they're constantly thwarted by the supernatural shenanigans of Phoedra, who pits brother against brother as the deadly Iron Warrior is--you guessed it--the grown Trogar, whose body and soul have been taken over by the spell of Phoedra.


Or something like that. IRON WARRIOR makes absolutely no sense and there's no chemistry between O'Keeffe and Gersak, reunited from Ruggero Deodato's 1986 Indiana Jones ripoff THE LONE RUNNER (released in the US in 1988 by Trans World Entertainment, who also got IRON WARRIOR on a whopping 17 screens in January 1987), but it's so hypnotic and strange from beginning to end that it ultimately doesn't matter. It's disorienting by design, especially a scene where Ator and Janna cross a precarious suspension bridge that's genuinely dizzying to watch. It's an ATOR movie on shrooms, something that Red and Mandy would watch while eating TV dinners, and the only reason it hasn't been embraced by the stoner crowd is because they just aren't aware of it. There's enough craziness here that I'm willing to bet Assonitis--known for firing directors and finishing movies himself--had more to do with the creative direction of this than Brescia, especially when you consider the bizarre imagery in something like THE VISITOR. But for all its visual flair, it's still tough to take it seriously when Deeva's trial of Phoedra employs the same type of "Council of Elders" faces on a giant screen behind the accused, who stands there shackled by rotating hula hoops on loan from Jor-El. Or the Iron Warrior's resemblance to Darth Vader. Or a long action sequence where Ator and Janna are in a cavern being chased by giant RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK rolling boulders. O'Keeffe's catatonic performance actually enhances the hazy, stoned vibe, though he wouldn't be back for the fourth and final ATOR installment, 1990's QUEST FOR THE MIGHTY SWORD. That marked the return of Massaccesi and the introduction of a new Ator in the form of Grand Rapids, MI native Eric Allan Kramer, who presumably got the job after playing Thor in the 1988 TV-movie THE INCREDIBLE HULK RETURNS (Kramer is probably best known as Little John in Mel Brooks' ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS, and he's currently co-starring on the critically-acclaimed AMC series LODGE 49). As far as IRON WARRIOR is concerned, Scorpion's Blu-ray certainly makes the case that there's some artistic merit to it, even if the method to its madness gets lost along the way. Nevertheless, it takes a lesser-ranked place among other threequels--HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH or THE EXORCIST III, for example--that either break from established formula or serve as outliers or stealth secret weapons in their respective franchises, an ATOR: TOKYO DRIFT, if you will.



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