We’ve mentioned this VHS potboiler in passing during our reviews of Rocktober Blood and Larry Buchanan’s Down on Us (you know how it works: we’ll get to that tidbit, later). Thanks to Sam dreaming up a “Fast and Furious” tribute week — and his excavating the Jim Drake 1989 VHS uber-obscurity, Speed Zone — we finally have an excuse to give this grandfather to the The Fast and the Furious franchise a review proper: a fictional film based on the real life problem of “Banzai Runners” speeding along the desert asphalt strip of the I-15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
As you can tell from the box, ubiquitous TV actor Dean Stockwell stars in this direct-to-video romp. But don’t be copywriter-duped. In no way is this comparable to his work in the superior films noted under his name. And while modern audience will recognized Stockwell for his later TV work in the series Quantum Leap, JAG, and SyFy’s Battlestar Galactica reboot, we, the B&S crew, will always remember Stockwell for his work in the Jack Nicholson-starring counterculture flick, Psych-Out (1968), and his starring with Sandra Dee in The Dunwich Horror (1970).
Stockwell’s greatest strength is not only how easily he transitions from TV to film and back again, but how he can take the lead in (and inspire us to rent) a low-budget actioner, then show up in smaller roles in A-List films for Francis Ford Coppola (Gardens of Stone and The Rainmaker), William Freidkin (To Live and Die in L.A.), David Lynch (Dune, Blue Velvet), and Wolfgang Peterson (Air Force One). He is, simply put: Eric Roberts before Eric Roberts. Hell, he’s Bruce Campbell before Bruce Campbell. He’s the good actor you put in a bad movie — and he still gives us his all and “sells the role” to the home video masses.
Banzai Runner, while a commendable attempt to chronicle a factual event wrapped in a fictional tale (as with illegal street racing in The Fast and the Furious), failed in the home video market as result of its ambition-over budget. It became the only feature film writing credit for animation-scripter Phil Harnage, who is a “shooting fish in a barrel” type of writer when it comes to cartoons. You haven’t not seen his work, which dates all the way back to Bill Cosby’s Fat Albert, along with He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, The Adventures of Super Mario, G.I Joe, The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, and Double Dragon. In the producer and director’s chair is John G. Thomas, whose slight resume gave us not only Banzai Runner, but Dean Stockwell’s brother-in-arms, Michael Parks (Kill Bill: Vol. 1), in Arizona Heat (1988), starring alongside his cop-buddy Denise “Tasha Yar” Crosby (American Satan).
That’s how it goes in the B&S About Movies universe. Not everyone is destined for a television-to-theatrical career.
So Stockwell is Highway Patrolman Billy Baxter. And he’s worn out dealing with the rebel-rousing drunk gamblers on his Nevada stretch of highway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. But what really pisses him off is that the brass turned down his request to modify his police cruiser so he can keep up with the so called “Banzai Runners”: the unapprehendable, rich elitists who zip by him in their supercharged, high-powered Ferraris and Lamborghinis. Ah, but those speed demons aren’t speeding for kicks: they’re running drugs for Syszek — played by requisite screen villain Billy Drago (Hunter’s Blood, Invasion U.S.A).
Baxter eventually goes “Mad Max” when Syszek kills his brother and orphans his nephew, now in his care. So his mechanic buddy upgrades his cruiser (courtesy of the only other notable actor in the cast, Charles Dierkop, aka Det. Pete Royster from TV’s Police Woman; but remembered best for his work in Angels Hard as They Come, The Hot Box, Messiah of Evil, and Silent Night, Deadly Night). When the brass has enough and strips Baxter of his badge, he’s ripe for DEA recruitment to go undercover in the dark world of the “Banzai Runners” and take his revenge os Syszek. (Have you ever notice villains have cool, Euro-ethnic names with lots of consonants of the w, x, y, z variety? I guess Billy Drago as “Sam Miller” or “Joe Smith” doesn’t “ring true,” does it?)
Oh, by the way: This is the type of film where the cars don’t speed on the roads in real time: they acquire their “speed” in post-production via speeding up the film.
Yes. They’re fast and furious, indeed.
“Hey, wait! What about the trivia about Rocktober Blood and Down on Us?”
Oh, yeah, thanks for reminding me. So, Riba Meryl (passed away in 2007) stars here Donna, one of the film’s minor characters. Part of the Sunset Strip’s ’80s hair-metal scene, she came to co-write the faux-rock epic “Rainbow Eyes” with Sorcery’s Richard Taylor for Rocktober Blood — and was cast aside for fellow Las Vegas transplant Susie Rose Major to vocalize the tune as Lynn Staring. Prior to her second and final acting gig in Bonzai Runner — as result of her session work with Randy Nicklaus and Jerry Riopelle on the film’s never released soundtrack — she portrayed Janis Joplin in the speculative 1984 rock flick, Down on Us.
The soundtrack for Bonzai Runner features songs written and performed by Randy Nicklaus, who’s engineered records for Alias, Blondie, Contraband (aka Michael Schenker), INXS, Motley Crue, Vixen, and Yes; he also placed songs on the soundtracks to Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and The Wraith. Detroit-born Jerry Riopelle and his band members, Joel Goldsmith and Kevin Dukes, have placed songs in projects as diverse as Crystal Heart, Hollywood Hot Tubs, and Paramedics. Sadly, we lost Jerry Riopelle in 2018. Goldsmith scores can be heard in Moon 44, Laserblast, and The Rift, and, most recently in the Stargate TV-universe.
You can watch — the one lone copy — of Banzai Runner for free on You Tube . . . and keep your eyes open for those 50 mph cars film-sped to 200 mph in the Arizona heat. And yes . . . you can watch Arizona Heat on You Tube.
There’s only one tune isolated from the film on You Tube: “It’s Everything” by Jerry Riopelle. You can listen to more of his work on his You Tube page. There’s also a wealth of Randy Nicklaus’s work on You Tube.