Friday, July 29, 2011

The Cinema of Joe Don Baker

A few weeks back I detailed my shock at discovering Lee Majors had a robust (if brief) film career back in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Well, courtesy of Netflix I have once again made another such discovery, this time with respect to prolific character actor Joe Don Baker. Folks from my generation will remember Baker from memorable supporting roles in 80’s films such as Fletch, The Living Daylights, and the unfortunate Leonard Part 6. Other than a few appearances on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and his iconic role as Sheriff Buford Pusser in the original Walking Tall, I was not well versed in the Bakerverse . . . until now. I was browsing through Netflix again, and came across a movie called Golden Needles. This wouldn’t have necessarily caught my eye, save for the fact that instead of poster art the graphic displayed with the title was just a headshot of Baker. Now that in and of itself wouldn’t draw me in either, but the combination of Baker in a film called Golden Needles raised my curiosity. So I plunged deeper and things started to get really crazy.

Golden Needles is an early 70’s martial arts film directed by Robert “Enter the Dragon/Gymkata” Clouse, starring Baker and Jim Kelly as the heroes, and Burgess Meredith and Roy Chiao (Lao Che from Temple of Doom/Van Damme’s father in Bloodsport) as the villains. The madness does not stop there, as the plot is just as unusual as the talent roster. The action takes place primarily in Hong Kong, where gangsters, antique dealers, and the police are all trying to obtain an ancient statue. The statue, which includes a set of golden acupuncture needles, shows the locations on the body where the needles can be used to make one practically immortal. The film opens promisingly with a sequence in which an expert in the ways of acupuncture is summoned to the home of an elderly businessman to use the needles. After inserting the needles in the specified locations the man is miraculously healed of his infirmities, thus verifying the efficacy of the statue’s wisdom. Unfortunately everyone in the room managed to miss the fact that two guys dressed in full reflective silver/flame retardant suits, carrying huge backpack style flamethrowers, snuck in during the procedure. They then proceed to torch the room, and everyone in it, and flee with the statue.

This opening scene is completely outrageous, and prepared me for what I was certain would be an equally ridiculous 90 minutes to come. While the film doesn’t quite manage to maintain this over-the-top vibe, there are plenty of worthwhile moments. My favorite is a rooftop battle where Baker dispatches a number of thugs by continually throwing them through skylights (you think they’d watch out for that after the first couple of guys fall prey). What is just incredible however, and makes it all worth it, is the film’s insistence that we buy into Baker as both an action hero and a ladies man. Perhaps he is, but it’s not really where my mind goes when I think of the Baker persona. To see him depicted as such here is both astounding and refreshing. It’s also a perfect example of why the 70’s were so amazing, because an actor like Baker could be promoted as a leading man. These days actors have to be ridiculously perfect and fit to warrant such treatment, and that’s a real shame because a number of talented folks are pushed to the wayside in favor of looks over ability.

To get back to my original point, as with discovering Lee Majors in The Norseman, seeing Baker in Golden Needles made me wonder if there was a whole roster of Baker vehicles out there I wasn’t aware of. Sure enough, a quick trip to the IMDB revealed that he had a lengthy run as a leading man throughout the 70’s, before ultimately becoming a sought after character actor. As with my survey of Majors, I’m going to run down the list and give brief descriptions. To be clear these are just the films where Baker was the lead in a theatrically released film, and the list excludes his long history of supporting roles. I haven’t seen most of these, but several look quite intriguing!

Walking Tall (1973)
Unquestionably the ultimate Joe Don Baker performance, and the film that put him on the map. Baker plays Buford Pusser who, upon returning to his Tennessee hometown, discovers that corruption has run rampant. Not one to sit idly by he runs for Sheriff and starts to clean things up. Unfortunately the criminal element doesn’t take this well and proceeds to wage war, injuring Pusser and his family . . . and then things get really crazy!

I saw this on cable many years ago, and my memory is that it is a solid revenge film. I also recall that Baker does an excellent job in his characterization of Pusser, particularly when he voices his principles to corrupt officials. It’s not surprising that he rose to stardom on the back of this, and the film launched two sequels (not to mention remakes starring The Rock and Kevin Sorbo).

Charley Varrick (1973)
Baker co-stars with Walter Matthau in a no-nonsense heist film. Matthau robs a small town bank, inadvertently taking mob money. Baker plays the hitman sent to retrieve the stolen funds.

Reading the reviews of this, folks are comparing it to some of the greatest films of the 70’s (e.g. Taxi Driver, The Godfather). Wow. Lending credence to this high praise is the fact that it was directed by the legendary Don Siegel (Dirty Harry), and features an all-star cast including Andrew Robinson, John Vernon, and Norman Fell. Definitely a must see.

The Outfit (1973)
Baker co-stars with Robert Duvall as a pair of ex-cons out to avenge the murder of Duvall’s brother by the mob. Hollywood legend Robert Ryan plays the mob boss, with a supporting cast featuring Karen Black (Trilogy of Terror), Joanna Cassidy (Blade Runner), and Richard Jaeckel (The Green Slime). Seems hard to go wrong here.

Framed (1975)
Baker reteams with Walking Tall director Phil Karlson for another revenge film. This time around Baker plays a gambler who is ambushed after a big win, and is wrongfully convicted for killing a cop during the altercation. After serving his time he goes to work getting revenge on the corrupt officials who sent him away.

All accounts indicate this is a solid revenge film, plus it features legendary character actors Brock Peters (To Kill A Mockingbird, Soylent Green) and Paul Mantee (Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Day of the Animals).

Mitchell (1975)
If you want to point to any one movie that is responsible for undermining Baker’s reputation as a great actor, this would be the one. Mercilessly skewered by Mystery Science Theater 3000, Mitchell is a pretty lackluster affair that plays like a TV movie of the week. When I used to work at a mom and pop video store back in the day, I used to put the MST3K version on a couple of times a week. Customers loved it, I loved it, and it is easily one of the show’s finest episodes. But none of that helps Mitchell or Baker, except for purpose of condemning them to infamy. John Saxon and Martin Balsam lend their considerable talents to the mix as the bad guys, with Linda “Dynasty” Evans as the romantic leading lady. The horror, the horror.

Checkered Flag or Crash (1977)
Apparently an off road racing movie in which Baker plays a legendary racer being written about during a major race by embedded reporter Susan Sarandon. Larry Hagman plays the bad guy. This one sounds pretty iffy from the reviews, but seems to get positive marks for the stunt footage. The pairing of Baker, Sarandon, and Hagman also sounds bizarre enough to be mildly interesting.

The Shadow of Chikara (1977)
On IMDB this is classified as a Western horror film, and some have likened it to Predator. Following the Civil War, Confederate Captain Wishbone Cutter (Baker) and a band of motley companions search for a treasure trove of diamonds on a cursed mountain. Along they are assailed by demon spirits.

Directed by the writer of The Legend of Boggy Creek and The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Co–starring Sondra Locke, Ted Neeley, and Slim Pickens.

Every review I’ve read of this has me thoroughly intrigued. It sounds like a grim, 70’s supernatural movie, with great atmosphere. Would love to see a quality release of this one.

The Pack (aka The Long Dark Night) (1977)
This one I remember being absolutely terrified by as a kid. A wild pack of dogs are loose on an island resort and start terrorizing vacationers. Joe Don Baker plays a marine biologist(!) who takes the lead in handling the situation.

The trailer for The Pack turned up recently on a 42nd Street Forever trailer compilation, and I would love to see it again if it ever hits DVD. What I didn’t realize as a kid is that this is directed by none other that Robert “Enter the Dragon/Gymkata” Clouse. Unbelievable. For my money this is the ultimate Joe Don Baker film. Seriously. Robert Clouse directs Joe Don Baker as a marine biologist battling a horde of killer dogs. How can you argue with that?

Speedtrap (1977)
So Baker had four(!) releases in ’77, two of them car chase films. In this one he plays a private eye who helps cop Tyne Daly track down a car thief called the Road Runner. Not too sure about this one, but it apparently has a notable stunt where a car jumps across two tall buildings. Richard Jaeckel and Robert Loggia are along for the ride.

Wacko (1982)
Okay there’s a little bit of a gap from ’77 to ’82. Baker did a short-lived TV series called Eischied, and two TV movies before returning to the big screen in this slasher movie spoof. Baker plays police officer Dick Harbinger, who tries to warn his small town that the dreaded Lawnmower Killer has returned to wreak havoc. Directed by Greydon Clark (Satan’s Cheerleaders) and co-starring George Kennedy, Stella Stevens, and Andrew “Dice” Clay.

Oh how the mighty have fallen. I remember the previews for this but never saw it . . . I do not feel bad about that. This is really the last movie I remember being a theatrical release for Baker as leading man. He did play the lead in Greydon Clark’s Final Justice, also mercilessly skewered by MST3K, but I don’t believe that made it to theaters in any sort of significant fashion.

So there you have it, the theatrical leading man run for Joe Don Baker. All in all I’d say not too shabby, with a fair number of interesting genres represented. I do wish he’d thrown in a post-apocalyptic action film, but The Pack kind of compensates for that. So on this hot summer weekend if you find yourself looking for some worthwhile endeavor to pursue, why not check out a fine early work from Joe Don Baker. As his character in Final Justice, Deputy Sherif Thomas Jefferson Geronimo III, might say – “Go ahead on!”


MyLifeAndCode said...

"Framed" is awesome. Be sure to check out the scene where Joe stands around in his brown pajamas talking to a cockroach. Good times.

Jim Blanton said...

Wow . . . sounds like a true tour de force :) Say what you will about Joe Don, but I've always found he gives it his all no matter the film (not unlike Lance Henriksen). If you like his persona and what he does, then there's always something to recommend even the most questionable Baker vehicle!

Anonymous said...

i have seen all of the above on the big screen...they would play the movie houses in the city...then the burbs,...then the drive ins...then the grind houses in the ghetto...i would go back and see them over and over again...clint eastwood and charlie bronson were big then...but jdb was my fave...i watched them cut for tv...i bought them on vhs...i have mitchel on beta...then dvd...some are pretty rare on dvd...the pack on blu ray would make me happy...joe don is good in mud...but only on screen a couple of short scenes...

Jim Blanton said...

Wow - would have loved to see these on the big screen! The chief one on my list to track down is The Shadow of Chikara - sounds really crazy!