Three Men on Fire (1986)

This review is all about expatriate American actors Gordon Mitchell and Richard Harrison.

This review is not, however, about — although it spews bullets and blows up like one — an ’80s First Blood-cum-Commando Philippines war flick rip. And it’s not about an ’80s Italian First Blood-cum-Commando Philippines-esque war flick rip, either. And it’s also known as — to add to the you’re-sure-it’s-not-a-Philippines-flick confusion — Terror Force Commando, which sounds exactly like something Silver Star Productions in Manila would dump into the home video market under the thumb of directors Jun Gallardo, Cirio H. Santiago, or Teddy Page.

But I digress, again. Bad reviewer. Go sit in the “time out corner” to ferment and wallow in your lazy, ensuing and trope-laden self.

So . . . this is where I front-end this review and tell you nada about the film because it’s all about the fanboy geekdom here at B&S About Movies which, in this case, is rife with Gordon Mitchell and Richard Harrison worship. Yeah, I am weird that way, with my equally “weird” reviews. So, if you’re more into the ol’ rat-a-tat-tat plot-spoiler reviews, stop reading here. Then go over to the dryness of Wikipedia or the chatter of the IMDb for your turned-on-to-new-movie needs.

Okay, then. Anyhoo . . . let’s load this sucker into the VCR.

The original Italian Poliziotteschi version.

Born Charles Allen Pendleton in Denver, Colorado, Gordon “The Bronze Giant” Mitchell became the requisite Italian-peplum actor by way of his bit parts in The Ten Commandments (1956) and Spartacus (1960). Then Steve Reeves made bank with Hercules (1958), so beefcakes like Pendleton — regardless of their lack in speaking Italian — headed off into the Neapolitan sunset, with films such as Atlas Against the Cyclops and The Giant of Metropolis (both 1961), Vulcan, Son of Jupiter and Caesar Against the Pirates (both 1962), and a bundle of spaghetti westerns, such as Three Graves for a Winchester (1966), along with Poliziotteschis and Giallos. Did Pendleton-Mitchell do Italian Space Operas? He did: 2+5 Mission Hydra (1966). Did he do Nazisploitation? He did: Achung! The Desert Tigers! (1977). Sexploitation? He did: Porno-Erotic Western (1979). Joe D’Amato even got Gordon Mitchell into the post-apoc game with Endgame (1983).

Then Mitchell’s career, like all careers do, cooled. So, along with fellow expatriate American actors, such as the equally B&S fandom’d Richard Harrision and Mike Monty, Gordon Mitchell headed off to the Philippines to work with John Gale, aka Jun Gallardo, the “star” of Silver Star Productions.

Silver Star is a studio you’ve heard mentioned during our “Philippines War Week” this month (and our PWW II coming in December). All of those Philippine war flicks rotate the same actors, either in new footage, or via old footage cut-in from other films; the recycling resulted in the likes of actors such as Mike Cohen, Jim Gaines, Romano Kristoff, Mike Monty, Nick Nicholson, Ronnie Patterson, Paul Vance, and Ken Watanabe (no, not that one; the Nine Deaths of the Ninja one) “starring” in movies they didn’t even sign up to appear in. In fact, the recycling into films of lesser and lesser production value ended up damaging the career of Gordon Mitchell and Richard Harrison; after a string of plagiarized Philippines hokum, no studios of note wanted to work either of them.

But before he made his way down to the South Seas, Gordon Mitchell started pumping out the Sly-Arnie rips — peppered with Raiders of the Lost Ark seasonings — for the Italians, the Turks, and Germans with the likes of Treasures of the Lost Desert, Diamond Connection, and White Fire (all 1984), and Operation Nam (1986). Then there’s Commando Invasion (1986) for Jun Gallardo.

The First Blood-Commando re-imaging for the international marketplace.

Richard Harrison made his debut in South Pacific (1958) alongside Tom “Billy Jack” Laughlin and Ron “Tarzan” Ely, then signed with American International Pictures to appear in a wide array of peplum, Eurospy, poliziotteschi, and Spaghetti Westerns in Italy. It’s said that Richard Harrison was offered — and turned down — A Fistful of Dollars. And we know that film turned out. However, as with Gordon Mitchell, Harrison’s career cooled, so he headed down to Hong Kong and the Philippines to continue his career.

Harrison acted in five flicks for K.Y. Lim’s stock footage-and-everything-else-stocked celluloid factory o’ sausage that is Silver Star Productions: Fireback, Hunter’s Crossing, and Blood Debts, which were directed by Teddy Page, and two for Jun Gallardo: Intrusion Cambodia and Rescue Team. Fireback gave Harrison a chance to write, under the pen-name of Timothy Jorge.

Then Godfrey Ho came along and compounded Richard Harrison’s career problems.

Harrison contracted to make a couple of low-budget ninja films for Ho. Then Ho cut-and-pasted, as is the par for the celluloid in Southeast Asian cinema of the low-budget variety, Harrison “starring” in the films Ninja Terminator, Cobra Vs. Ninja, Golden Ninja Warrior and Diamond Nínja Force. The list goes on and on of films that Harrison didn’t sign for but “starred in.”

The U.S. home video Rambo redress — but it’s more Lethal Weapon.

So . . . back to the review of Three Men on Fire, aka Terror Force Commando, which is Richard Harrison’s fourth and final directing effort. His others were the Spaghetti Westerns Acquasanta Joe (1971), Two Brothers in Trinity (1972), and the Hong Kong action piece Challenge of the Tiger (1980). In addition to Two Brothers, Fireback, and Three Men on Fire, he also wrote Blood Debts for Teddy Page. And his final screenwriting effort: Claudio Fragasso and Bruno Mattei’s co-directing mess that is Scalps — no, not the Fred Olen Ray 1983 one — there is the Richard Harrison-penned one.

Richard Harrison and Alphonse Beni’s second team-up — down in Hong Kong with Godfrey “Oh, No!” Ho.

Casting his longtime friends and many-times co-stars Romano Kristoff and Gordon Mitchell in his long-gestating pet project, this Italian Poliziotteschi action-thriller concerns Richard Harrison’s CIA agent teaming with a Cameroonian police officer played by Alphonse Beni (1987’s Black Ninja, aka Ninja: Silent Assassin, with Richard Harrison; Top Mission for Godfrey Ho) who try to prevent the Pope’s assassination by Italian terrorists (headed by Romano Kristoff, in one of his few villain roles) during the Holiness’s Central African tour.

Thanks to the international cast and all of the film’s globetrotting between Africa and Italy — and Alfonso Beni, a star in his homeland as an actor, writer, and director, not speaking English — there’s lot of dubbing afoot. And since this is a low-budget joint, most of it is shot-on-the-fly sans permits, so there’s lots of wide shots with minimal close ups, reverses, and close ups that you’d get from an A-List American-made film in the buddy-cop action genre. As with the Hong Kong and Philippines films that damaged his career, Harrison isn’t (at not least here) much of a director himself, as we’re subjected to the same ol’ poorly framed shots compounded by choppy, cut-off editing. In the end, it all looks just like those K.Y. Lim Silver Star Productions of old by Jun Gallardo — and that it was shot in the ’70s and not in the mid-’80s in a post-Lethal Weapon franchise world.

Well . . . eh . . . maybe it’s not all that bad; Harrison’s poliziotteschi romp is just as “poliziotteschi” in its cinematic qualities as any of the Harry Callahan and Paul Kersey Italian rips made in the backwash of Magnum Force and Death Wish. And that begat — with its touches of comedy-dark — 48 Hours, and then, even more action-oriented in its comedy dark with Lethal Weapon, and then, even more comedy-light with its action by way of Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in Rush Hour.

Harrison’s buddy-cop tomfoolery starts with — as they all do — a villain lighting the fuse; in this case it’s Kristoff’s “Zero” (or “Zeno”) murdering a Cameroonian family for information on the Pope’s visit (at least the cat survived). Another one of Kristoff’s targets is Gordon Mitchell, who’s the head of the World Peace Organization. Now, I was hoping that Mitchell was one of the ass-kicking “three men on fire” — alongside Richard Harrison and Romano Kristoff. Nope. Our “Three Men on Fire” acting as our makeshift “Terror Force Commandos” is actually Richard Harrison (as our ersatz Mel Gibson-Martin Riggs), Alphonse Beni (as our ersatz Danny Glover-Roger Murtaugh), and Romano Kristoff (as our crazed Italian-cum-ersatz Gary Busey-Mr. Joshua). So, yeah, check your John Rambo, John Matrix, and James Braddock hopes at the baggage carousel to Douala, Cameroon: this ain’t no First Blood or Commando or Missing in Action, flimflamin’ VHS artwork, be damned.

At that point . . . well, that’s the plot.

I know, I know . . . another review where I tell you nothing about the actual movie. But there’s not a plot to tell you! Well, what I can tell you is, that instead of the jungle, we are running between Rome and Douala with all the city street car chases, fistfights, and bullets, and a kidnapped daughter strapped to a bomb, à la, well, Lethal Weapon, that you can handle.

Yeah, we know Lethal Weapon came out a year later — so save us the “fan mail” — but this sure as hell ain’t no Rambo romp, either. And while Three Men on Fire is poorly executed overall, it’s still entertaining as hell, as the decent enough shootouts and overseas locals gave me everything that I wanted and expected from an ’80s direct-to-video Z-actioner. Considering Richard Harrison was on a guerilla shoestring and passion-trying, it’s actually better than most films of the genre. I liked it. But I am Richard Harrison biased. Your own Z-action mileage may vary.

You know it! We found a freebie-watch of the Terror Force Commando version of the film on You Tube. And how about that explosive opening sequence!

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.