Sunday, May 30, 2010

Chuck Norris Ate My Blog Blogathon: Breaker! Breaker! (1977)

For Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s entry in the Chuck Norris Ate My Blog Blogathon contest, we must step inside the WABAC machine and travel back to 1977—a time of blissful contentment in the movies, because the god-awful disco obsession that would threaten to take over films, television and popular music was still in its nascent stage (though that would, of course, change, with the release in that same year of Saturday Night Fever). No, for the time being audiences were satisfied with the current C.B./trucking movie craze, flocking to the nabes to see such stirring opuses (or is that opi?) as Truckin' Man (1975), White Line Fever (1975), C.B. Hustlers (1976), The Great Smokey Roadblock (1977), Convoy (1978), High-Ballin' (1978)…and the Godfather of trucking movies, Smokey and the Bandit (1977).

And then there’s Breaker! Breaker! (1977), a thick wedge of odious drive-in theater fromage released by our good friends at American International Pictures and starring none other than Walker, Texas Ranger hizzownself—Chuck Norris. Knowing that this film was sired in the AIP stables is an indication that it’s going to feature atrocious acting, a ridiculous plot and random acts of senseless violence—in other words, if you’re expecting something nuanced like Jonathan Demme’s Handle with Care (1977)…get the hell out of the car now. One could also cynically observe that the presence of Norris means bad hoodoo for the moviegoer—but as Chuck has demonstrated throughout his cinematic oeuvre, he can occasionally make good movies like Lone Wolf McQuade (1983) and Code of Silence (1985). Sadly, Breaker! falls woefully short of the high watermarks set by these two Norris masterpieces.

As our film begins, we are transported to a California bauxite mining town that has since seen better days—but as the burg’s resident moron (John DiFusco) pedals his bicycle down the main thoroughfare to the accompaniment of the townspeople’s painful rendition of Bringing in the Sheaves, a figure dressed in white (attire on loan from Boss Hogg Clothiers, Ltd.) addresses the populace and announces that Ghost Town, USA has been granted a city charter. The man who makes this pronouncement is Joshua Trimmings (George Murdock), a besotted magistrate who informs his fellow ghost town denizens that the new city will be named after his late son, Howard “Tex” Trimmings—hence the name, Texas City (“Tex’s City”). The signpost reads “friendliest town in the West”—and that’s only because “We’re all one big happy family…literally” wouldn’t fit.

Our favorite martial arts star enters the picture not too long after as John David “J.D.” Dawes, a gearjammer who stops off at a dirt bike track to watch his younger brother Billy (Michael Augenstein) get his nice clean pants dirty. For reasons I wasn’t quite able to discern, Billy looks as if he’s twelve years old…and yet in a few scenes later he’s seated behind his own big rig, getting ready to make his first run. (He’s hauling TV dinners from a company called Shelly—“If it’s Shelly, it’s good for your belly.”) Big brother J.D. is concerned about his younger sibling…particularly when several truckers—including a veteran driver named Burton, played by Jack “Eraserhead” Nance—warn him about the dangers in the newly established hamlet of Texas City, where a speed trap is operated by the Judge’s two pistol-whipping goons, Sergeant Strode (Don Gentry) and Deputy Boles (Ron Cedllos).

The inexperienced and…well, let’s be honest—the kid’s a schmuck…Billy falls into the town’s speed trap and when he’s brought before Judge Trimmings he’s sentenced to a two hundred dollar fine or two hundred days as a guest in The Grey Bar Hotel. The young man, sensing he didn’t quite get a fair shake, attempts to beat a hasty retreat out of Texas City by jumping out a window…he is then chased down a side street by the thugs in Trimmings’ employ, and from the way they move menacingly towards the young lad, we assume the worst. Meanwhile, brother J.D. is teaching several inquiring minds how to kick ass and take names by stressing the secret of meditation, or as he puts it: “concentration on the third eye.” (Insert your own Firesign Theatre joke here.) He gets word from Burton on Billy’s disappearance and decides to check it out by showing up in Texas City in a badass looking van with an eagle painted on both sides.

But despite what it says on the signpost, the town isn’t exactly overflowing with the milk of human kindness—several rednecks minding a moonshine still shoot at J.D. as he arrives in Texas City, necessitating a trip to the scrap yard for a radiator when the one in his van is damaged from his bullet-riddled welcome. He seeks out an audience with the Honorable Judge Trimmings, only to find him trying to seduce a saloon floozy (Miranda Garrison) with a puppet (honestly—you don’t want to know). His attempts to get a little sustenance at the local diner go sour when he’s informed that there are different prices for out-of-towners…which means he’s going to pay extra for the donut he ordered. As he remarks to a waitress—Arlene Trimmings (Terry O’Connor), who’s the widow of “Tex,” the Judge’s late son—when he’s told that the pay phone he wants to use is out of order: “This town is out of order.” (“You're out of order! You're out of order! The whole trial is out of order! They're out of order!”)

J.D. really screws up when he interrupts what appears to be a board meeting between the residents of Texas City (they discuss the revenue generated by both the ‘shine sales and the scrap iron obtained from the cars impounded) to inquire about his brother’s whereabouts. The citizens then go after him with blood in their collective eyes, necessitating that Dawes use a little Tae Kwon Do (of course, the way these fight scenes are clumsily shot and choreographed it’s more like Tae Kwon Don’t) on their sorry keisters. (“The guy’s a bad dude—he’s punched out half the town!” Deputy Boles whines later.) One individual even threatens Dawes with a pitchfork, shouting: “I’m gonna stick ya!” With a few more high kicks to the head, Dawes climbs into his van and makes tracks for a friendlier climate but finds himself hunted down by Trimmings’ thugs in a series of car chase scenes that were no doubt lifted from outtakes of The Dukes of Hazzard. J.D. finds temporary refuge by hiding out at the cottage of his new waitress friend and her son (David Bezar).

After some more ass-kicking fights (including a nifty scene where he’s almost flattened by a car crusher, which is one of the highlights of the film), Dawes is finally subdued by John Law and is thrown into Texas City’s pokey, whereupon Judge Trimmings hands down a verdict of guilty (Dawes is accused of murdering one of Trimmings’ relatives) and sentences him to death. His salvation, however, arrives when waitress Arlene is able to find an abandoned cop car (she escaped from town on a motorcycle in an attempt to locate her son, who took off to avoid capture by Trimmings’ goons) with a working C.B. radio (well, that sort of thing happened all the time back then) that allows her to contact a group of J.D.’s fellow gearjammers—who drive their eighteen-wheelers into Texas City and destroy everything in sight. J.D. is reunited with Brother Billy (sure, he’s a little beat up but he’s okay—he’s a tough little monkey) but only after a final ass-kicking showdown with Deputy Boles, presented here for your edification. (Don’t ask me why director Don Hulette chooses to concentrates on the close-up shots of the corralled horse during this flight. It’s all too deep and metaphorical for me.)

Breaker! Breaker! was Chuck Norris’ second starring feature film after his starring debut in Slaughter in San Francisco (1974) and while I’d only recommend it to those individuals who love fine drive-in fodder, it’s a quick way to kill an hour-and-a-half and features a decent performance from the Chuckster…an actor known primarily for booting people in the head rather than any aspirations to thespic brilliance. (I watched the movie—sadly, in a non-letterboxed version—on IFC on Demand as part of the channel’s Grindhouse series.) What I really enjoyed about Breaker!, however, was seeing character great George Murdock help himself to the scenery du jour in this outing as the over-the-top Judge Trimmings; his scenes in which he flirts with the town’s slightly retarded barmaid will make you a little squeamish (at one point he launches into the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet)—particularly since his character has a relatively hot wife in actress Amelia Laurenson—but scenes like this, which play like an ABC Afterschool Special on crack, are worth the price of admission:

ARLENE: You’re not going to turn my house into a courtroom

JUDGE: What? This house belongs to the Trimmings family!

ARLENE: That’s a goddam lie…Howard put every dollar he had into this place…

JUDGE (to his grandson): Oh, well—unfortunately the only money your daddy ever had was the money I loaned him…I got the papers to prove that

ARLENE: Howard wouldn’t borrow any money from you…he knew you too well for that…

JUDGE (after a pause): You know, that’s the vilest thing that anybody ever said to me…

ARLENE: I can do better than that…

(The following dialogue is presented as crosstalk)

JUDGE: Your daddy and I had a love…

ARLENE: He hated your guts!

JUDGE: …and your mama can’t understand…

ARLENE: And he turned that hate on himself…and because of you, he’s dead…

JUDGE: We shared a dream together, boy…

ARLENE: You destroyed him because you couldn’t corrupt him…

(End crosstalk)

JUDGE: You and your incessant complaints and your constant demands caused him to leave this house! Now you answer me, boy—did your mama sleep in that van last night?

(For the record, she did—where Chuck presumably showed her his Force of One, if you get my meaning…and I’m sure that you do.) Murdock, a movie and television veteran who you may remember from recurring roles on television series as varied as It Takes a Thief, Banacek, Barney Miller (he played Lt. Scanlon) and the Yakov Smirnoff laughfest What a Country! is no stranger to motion pictures, with roles in He Rides Tall (1964), Gunn (1967), Blackbeard's Ghost (1968), The Mack (1973), Willie Dynamite (1974), Any Which Way You Can (1980) and Shoot the Moon (1982), to name but a few. In Breaker! I haven’t been quite able to determine whether his frequent over-the-top emotion is all part of his cardboard villainy or just the actor having fun after taking the money and running.

“You’re a little ass kicker, ain’t ya?” one of Texas City’s townsfolk jeers at Norris’ Dawes as he’s being led towards the town’s lockup. But don’t take their word for it—have a look for yourself:

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4 comments:

Stacia said...

I wanted to see this movie SO BAD when I was a kid. One of my friends and I would run around our back yards yelling "Breaker Breaker!" and making truck vrooming noises. Before you judge, I should remind you I wasn't quite 6 years old.

I'm going to be controversial for a second and say I think Chuck looks best in his early films before that first facelift. There, I said it. He needs a better haircut, but his facial features are really striking.

Also, I just realized that Chuck shaved his chest for "Silent Rage." Uhm... OK.

Scott said...

Hoo-boy. Norris. Good tournament fighter, but his films featured the worst fight choreography this side of Van Damme -- mostly spinning back kicks delivered to stunt men who stood and awaited their arrival with a positively canine patience.

His only decent martial arts performance was the Bruce Lee-choreographed kung fu-versus-karate contest in the Colosseum in Return of the Dragon. And he spent most of the scene getting his ass kicked.

Very funny review, Ivan. And you're not alone in your confusion -- Mary walked in while I was watching the clip and exclaimed, "What's the deal with the horse?"

Matt-suzaka said...

Ha, I always thought, Judge Trimmings wife was pretty hot, so why would he want to mess with that weird ass bartender?! Maybe she does something special with the dolls?

Anyways, I love Breaker! Breaker! as mediocre as it is, and it's definitely not one of his best films, but something about it just entertains me to no end. The odd mixture of Hicksploitaion meets Martial Arts is appealing to me. The banjo music plays as Chuck runs around town, beating as much ass as gets in his way calls to my every ounce of bad taste and gives it a warm massage.

Great review and definitely spot-on on all points. It's messy, cheap and totally silly, but Chuck is pretty solid for him, and it entertains in the most mindless of ways. Thanks for the fantastic contribution!

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