Saturday, June 24, 2006

Avenging Angel

(1985, 93 min.)

Starring Betsy Russell, Rory Calhoun, Susan Tyrell, Ossie Davis, Robert F. Lyons, Stephen M. Porter, Paul Lambert, Barry Pearl.

Written by Joseph Michael Cala and Robert Vincent O’Neill.

Directed by Robert Vincent O’Neill

Even those who don’t have extensive knowledge of the trash cinema of the ‘80s may remember the original Angel, the tale of a sweet-natured high school girl who turns tricks on Sunset Strip at night. There are also probably a lot of folks who just think they’ve heard of it, given that the premise is a longtime favorite theme in both cautionary tales and porn. Fewer people, however, are probably aware that the film actually inspired not one sequel, but three. I’ve never seen the third or fourth, but the second was one of those films that I somehow managed to catch numerous times in those heady, early days of cable.

Four years after the events of the first film, Angel (Russell, taking over the role that was played by Donna Wilkes in the original) is now in college studying pre-law and going by her real name, Molly, having put everything, including her street handle, behind her. Lt. Andrews (Lyons, taking over for Cliff Gorman), the cop who helped rescue her is still a big part of her life, and has been paying her tuition. The two of them get together near the beginning of the film, and he asks about a boy she’s seeing and whether or not she’s told him about her past. She says she hasn’t, seemingly setting up some future plot point that never actually arrives.

Soon after we get the film’s only real bit of gratuitous T&A, a young woman showering and getting dolled up in slutty clothes, one shot revealing that she is actually a policewoman, and the outfit is a cover. At the same time Andrews gets a call that the cover has been blown. What we know and he doesn’t is that a car full of armed dickheads are already on their way to her house. They bust in and kill her and her parents. At least, I think they were supposed to be her parents. It’s not explicitly indicated, but the ‘mother’ is white, the ‘father’ Asian, and the policewoman kind of looks mixed, so why the hell not, although that would seem to be a remarkable amount of consideration given for what is essentially a minor point. Andrews pursues the thugs and gets himself plugged for his efforts. One of the local street performers, Johnny Glitter (Pearl), witnesses the murder, but manages to get away.

Molly is crushed by the news of Andrews’ death and decides she needs to be personally involved in bringing the killers to justice. She also decides that the only way she can do that is to revert to her Angel personality and hit the street. (Purely for investigative purposes; she doesn’t plan on dabbling in the flesh trade.)

Back in the old neighborhood, she hooks up with Yoyo Charlie (Porter, the first of three actors reviving their roles from the original), another street performer who does tricks with the toys from which he gets his name. The two of them go to see Solly (Tyrell), a local landlord and eccentric (the latter is pretty much redundant; all of her old crew were oddballs of one variety or another). The reassembly of her gang continues with Kit (Calhoun), a former cowboy movie actor who makes a living playing off that persona, and who they have to retrieve from the mental hospital to which he’s been committed. Together they try to track down Johnny Glitter before the bad guys off him, find out who said bad guys are, and find out why they’re messing around in their territory in the first place.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the original, but I’m pretty sure it was a lot more intense than this. Apart from some comic relief in the form of Dick Shawn playing a drag queen, I seem to remember the psychotic killer storyline of Angel casting a certain amount of gravitas, successful or not, over the proceedings. Not so the sequel. Some fairly serious subject matter and nastiness rubs uncomfortably up against broad slapstick airlifted in from another movie. Indeed the entire sequence in which they rescue Kit from the mental hospital could have been taken from any one of the idiot comedies so prevalent at the time. And Avenging Angel doesn’t even have the sufficient level of gratuitous nudity that makes those films tolerable (for me anyway). Oddly, Russell, who peeled in plenty of other films, most notably the moronic Private School, stays clothed, giving us nothing more than a little mild cheesecake when she dresses up as Angel. This also leads to a scene where she’s stared at by everyone in the room when she goes to do some research in a law library. Given the prevalence of slutty clothing these days, I have to wonder if a scene like that would fly now. (I love it when I get to be pervy and prudish in the same paragraph.)

There’s worse ‘80s crap out there, but there’s better as well. A good movie could be made about the intermingling of assorted street cultures, but the filmmakers never exploit the possibilities. But there are small entertainments to be had, such as the scene where the two drag queens in Solly’s building get into a stereotype-smashing fistfight with the baddies. Plus Calhoun gives the same vigorous sort of performance that helped make Motel Hell as fun as it was, and Tyrell is a positive hoot as the hard-as-concrete, guttermouthed Solly, proving once again that she is one of the all-time greats in the pantheon of cinematic oddballs.

I had an amusing little digestif in the form of a trailer that played after the film for the teensploitation flick Tuff Turf, starring then whippersnappers James Spader and Robert Downey, Jr. Ah, the memories. The awful hairstyles; the gaudy fashions; the chirping synthesizers over synthetic drumbeats; the deluded attempts to make the kids look “punk.” The ‘80s were unquestionably a one-of-a-kind decade, a fact that makes me wistful and grateful at the same time. You can read a review of Tuff Turf at my man Deacon Wentworth’s site, Surfin’ Dead (although in the review he indirectly refers to James Spader as a mediocre actor, and for this he must be spanked).

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