Shout! Factory once again is giving us a double feature DVD, one a blaxploitation film set in New York City and the other a gritty noir-flavored film set in Saigon during the Vietnam War. Both have the connection to the war itself. And I’ll be the first to say that they are both worth your time, forgotten gems that have never seen the light of a DVD release until now.
Ossie Davis directs Gordon’s War, actor and director who made what I consider the finest blaxploitation film around (Cotton Comes To Harlem) and he does wonders with a tried and through plot consisting of a man on a mission of revenge against those who wronged the people of his neighborhood in the mode of good ol’ 70’s vigilante justice. Gordon Hudson (Paul Winfield) comes home from the Vietnam War where he finds out that his wife has died from a heroin overdose. Instead of just crying about he, he decides to recruit his three friends; Bee Bishop (Carl Lee), Roy Green (Tony King), and Otis Russell (David Downing), and get together to wreak havoc on the criminals who have brought down the Harlem they once loved.
It’s surprising this film isn’t uttered in the same breath as some of the classics of the genre, such as Shaft, Hell Up in Harlem and Superfly, so I take that as this film just being swept under over the years into a strange pocket of obscurity, waiting to be found again and embraced for the greatness it deserves. Paul Winfield is electric as the man who has nothing left to lose and who is so loved by his friends, they’re willing to die for him and his cause. All Green Berets, they know how to fight and set up a perimeter around the neighborhood, keeping tabs on the various drug dealers who have been dealing, systematically dealing with them. When word goes out, the dealers, the Mafia and even the high caliber corporate bad guys throw their full force to destroy them once and for all.
It’s a fun film, with no slowing down throughout the film’s running time, and Davis doesn’t let up on the action mixing with the drama going on within the film. Preferring his previous film because of how ridiculous it is, this one is more of a sure hand when it comes to the genre, dealing with fighting the man from all points. And Winfield, who wasn’t usually the star, is the perfect choice for the man on a mission and when the chips are stacked against him, he just smacks the hell out of those around him. Definitely a forgotten film that really needs a new time to shine in the limelight.
Next up is Off Limits, starring the most unlikely of partners Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines. Buck McGriff (Dafoe) and Albaby Perkins (Hines) are partners in the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) on duty in war torn Saigon. When a prostitute is found murdered, all clues point to one of a few high ranking U.S. Army officers. The deeper they go down this mysterious rabbit hole, they see it ties into six other murdered prostitutes in the last year, all having children of mixed heritage. A French nun, Sister Nicole (Amanda Pays) might be the one to help, who knows about the string of murders. Their commander Master Sergeant Dix (Fred Ward) helps them along the way, especially when they have butt heads with the Saigon forces, with a powder keg about to blow between both groups.
Even though it’s set in the Vietnam War era Saigon, this is essentially a murder mystery with a gritty film noir feel to it. More along the lines of a Red Rock West with the bright lights at night of Saigon, Buck and Albaby attempt to get to the bottom of it, along the way finding more clues that lead them to a realization they don’t want to come to. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about this film, but I really enjoyed the ride it gave me. Sprinkled throughout are a number of great character actors, such as David Allen Grier, Keith David and Scott Glenn who all relish in their roles with their screen time. The actual bright light throughout this film is Gregory Hines, which saddens me that he didn’t get to shine more in films like this while he was still alive. Dafoe is fun as his partner, who feel as if they’ve been friends for years during this horrible war, and a favorite of mine Fred Ward is tried and through as their commanding officer who is always there to lend a helping hand. With a twist ending that you can see coming 2 minutes before the finale, it feels as if it was tacked on but it doesn’t take away from the overall enjoyable nature of the film.
Shout! Factory does an amazing job with both films, featured on one disc but giving a great presentation for both. Off Limits is a bit dark, but I take that as the way the film was shot as opposed to print damage and Gordon’s War looked as good as any MGM presentation for their blaxploitation films. We also get a commentary on both films, with actor Tony King and cinematographer Victor J. Kemper contributing for the first and Willem Defoe and director Christopher Crowe for the latter. King and Kemper give a good rundown of their careers, but isn’t as interesting as you’d like. Crowe has more to say than Dafoe, which isn’t a bad thing, and gives a great tidbit laced track that doesn’t bore at all. Also included are two TV spots and a trailer for Gordon’s War.
Sometimes when Shout! Factory puts out one of these double features, I at least have seen one of the films. In this case, I had only heard about one of them (Gordon’s War) and one that I smacked myself for missing out on (Off Limits) and for that I thank them. Not the smacking of the head, though. That still stings a bit. But this release is one that, for the price alone, is worth buying without knowing a thing about these films. After reading this review, hopefully that interest has blown through the roof. One that took me by surprise, which is always a great thing for a critic.
Gordon’s War: 8.5/10
Off Limits: 8/10
Overall package: 9/10