Armed Response (1986)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jennifer Upton is an American (non-werewolf) writer/editor in London. She currently works as a freelance ghostwriter of personal memoirs and writes for several blogs on topics as diverse as film history, punk rock, women’s issues, and international politics. For links to her work, please visit or send her a Tweet @Jennxldn

Inspired by Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon (1985), Armed Response features Vietnam vet Jim Roth (David Carradine) and his ex-cop dad (Burt) Lee Van Cleef going up against boss Tanaka and his Yakuza gang in L.A.’s Chinatown following the murder of Jim’s brothers in a plot to retrieve a valuable statue that Tanaka needs to appease the local Chinese Tong gang. 

Out of over a dozen films made in the 1980s, this is overall the best that Fred Olen Ray made during those “up-and-coming” years. Not only is the cast good (with Carradine and Van Cleef, you can’t go wrong), but the story is more gripping than many of his other efforts. When another Roth brother (Brent Huff) is kidnapped and killed, you just know there’s gonna be an ass-whoopin’ on the way. Box ticked. 

The lighting and compositions achieved by DP Paul Elliott (who later worked with the Coen brothers) with Ray are far and away superior to many of the films that came after. Not to take anything away from cinematographer Gary Graver, who later served as Ray’s main guy, producing faster, more cost-effective results. But on this film, they took the time to wet the streets down to get the neon reflections. It adds to the mood of the film (along with a good musical score), and achieves the nearly impossible feat of portraying L.A.’s Chinatown as far bigger than it is in real life. These are the things that can elevate any film in the low and mid-range budget to a higher plane. 

Of course, this IS a Fred Olen Ray film, so we do get Michelle Bauer as a stripper wiggling around in the background of an entire dramatic scene, Michael Berryman as a fortune-cookie crushing thug, Ross Hagen as a double-crossing scumbag and a cameo from Roger Corman regular Dick Miller. 

The stunts are pretty good, too. So good, one poor stuntman had to be airlifted from the location at Vasquez Rocks to a hospital. Ray has stated, “In the finished film, you can clearly see a cloud swirling around behind Ross as he hurries to get his dialogue out. It’s the cloud of dust being kicked up by the emergency helicopter blades as it idled just out of frame.”  

Ray has asserted this was the film that ended his “era of want.” The one that pushed his standing as a filmmaker and his paychecks to the next level. Of all his ‘80s films, audiences will likely remember him for Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, but Armed Response is the one Ray should be proudest of. 

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