1/12/07

814 Riding With Death

(1976, Action-Spies/Television, color)

You’re more elusive than Robert Denby!

Rating: ***

In a nutshell:

An intermittently invisible secret agent foils several presumably fiendish plots.

Summary:

Give it the old college try!In Act I of our little spy drama, secret groovy agent Sam Casey (Ben Murphy) cruises in to work just in time to see a pair of unhip turkeys (read: sport-coated thugs) assault the mousy Dr. Hale for his briefcase full of research. Sam uses his digital watch to turn invisible and save him. He and Dr. Hale report to a briefing by the eyeglass-obsessed Leonard Driscoll (2001’s William Sylvester). Dr. Hale has invented Tripolydine, an amazing new fuel additive that has the oil companies up in arms. While an armed convoy pretends to escort Dr. Hale and his invention to the patent office, Sam will secretly transport the real goods in a disguised semi truck. The pantsuited Dr. Abby Lawrence will assist.

Abby heads out to the rendezvous point to meet them, but a number of improbable circumstances lead her to discover Dr. Hale’s attempted fraud. Frustrated that his Tripolydine doesn’t work as advertised (it has a tendency to break down and explode) he will take his investment money, fake his own death, and run to Switzerland. His hired thugs capture Abby and switch her with Dr. Hale. She ends up stashed in the back of the truck with a whole bottle of the lethal concoction.

Sam drives the semi across the desert; unaware that Abby works frantically in his trailer, trying to keep the Tripolydine from the jolts in the road. He saves fellow trucker Buffalo Bill (novelty singer Jim Stafford) from hijackers and flashes back to the early days of his invisibility, while Dr. Hale spies from a rented helicopter above. Via radio, the ersatz doctor pretends he’s still in the trailer; he urges Sam to go faster, hoping the Tripolydine will fall over, explode, and cover his tracks. Sam notices his aerial pursuit and calls in the helicopter’s license number. It comes back registered to a friend of Hale’s and he figures out the doctor’s game.

By this time, Hale’s mechanic agent has cut Sam’s brakes, leaving him to careen his semi around hairpin curves until Buffalo Bill can use his own truck to slow him down. Sam stops to fix the brakes and let Abby out of her prison. Dr. Hale realizes the jig is up and brings the helicopter in close enough to shoot at the truck’s gas tank. Sam drives the semi out into the desert where it can explode in safety. Dr. Hale et alii land the helicopter nearby to make sure there were no survivors. The invisible Sam takes them into custody.

In Act II of our little spy drama, Driscoll has been ordered to stay away from NASCAR impresario/criminal mastermind Robert Denby, who is apparently quite elusive. Determined to catch Denby doing something illegal, Driscoll sends Sam to spy on him instead. Sam gets a job as a pit stop gas man through his old buddy Buffalo Bill (moonlighting from Act I of our story).

Slowly, Sam manages to pull the story of Denby’s malfeasance from his unwitting friend. You see, Denby can blow up jet planes for evil men in suits, so naturally he races cars that have been souped up in East Germany. (Never mind. I thought I understood the broad outlines of the evil plot in Act I well enough to explain it, but you’re on your own for Act II.) Driscoll manages to figure out how the planes explode, but to prove it they have to inspect Denby’s special racecar. This means that Sam must drive the car instead of Bill, putting a strain on their friendship. An aborted back alley fight later, Sam confesses his secret agent-ness (but not his invisible-ness), and offers to let Bill drive if he’ll help them with their plan. Bill agrees.

But Denby wants the car to crash for some reason, and drugs Bill so that he’ll fall asleep during the race. The invisible Sam takes over and finishes third, allowing Driscoll to close in with the race inspectors. The semi-conscious Bill overhears Denby’s plan to blow up the car along with Driscoll, and brushes off his traitorous girlfriend to warn Sam. They jump the car over an embankment and run away before it can explode. This proves Denby’s guilt, and they take him into custody. Sam, Bill, and Driscoll share a celebratory drink in the local bar, while Abby watches via satellite from an undisclosed location.

Introduction:

The overly literal Servo boogies with his bad self.Mike flashes back to his two-week stint as a Teppanyaki chef and starts to dice everything in sight, including an onion, some ground peppercorns, and Crow’s hand.

Host Segment One:

There’s not much meat on Crow’s hand, so Mike gives it back. Pearl calls on a World War II-era field phone to request air support. She and Bobo are fighting off an army of renegade warlike robots, while Brain Guy dons a nurse’s uniform to supply medical aid. Mike drops an enormous baking powder bomb to cover their escape, demolishing the planet.

Host Segment Two:

Servo dons big hair and a keytar to sing a disco-ish ditty about the super-bad seventies. The first couple of verses relate tales of Roman emperors and Mount Vesuvius, so Mike and Crow stop him to question his decision to sing about 70 to 79 A.D. instead of the 1970s. Tom switches to a tender ballad about the 50’s, but lyrics about the Apostle Paul show that he still doesn’t get it.

Host Segment Three:

Tom exchanges his normal, gumball machine-shaped torso for a miniature trucker body. Mike is appalled by Tom’s large beer gut, pipe-cleaner legs, and lack of butt. “That’s no way to talk to my butt!” cries Tom. It takes some smooth talking to calm his new butt’s hurt feelings.

Host Segment Four:

Crow dons a mask and uniform to become Turkey Volume Guessing Man, capable of guessing how many turkeys it would take to fill any given space. Mike questions the relevance of this super power, so Crow challenges him try. Mike does so, accurately, then offers Crow some turkey. Crow accepts and proclaims them both Turkey Volume Guessing Men.

Host Segment Five:

Mike and the ‘Bots reenact a scene from Riding With Death. Cardboard cutout Abby watches via satellite from an undisclosed location. Quoth she, “Go on, Sam. Give it the old college try.” Back in the deep space Volkswagen, Brain Guy awards Pearl a series of increasingly heavy medals until she collapses on the steering wheel.

Stinger:

Buffalo Bill whoops it up in the men’s room.

Thoughts:

The wind must have changed while he was making that face as a child, because it seems to be stuck that way.I’m impressed by Jim Stafford’s performance as Buffalo Bill. I’m not sure how he managed combine “slow-witted innocent” with “the most irritating cracker of all time,” but it works for me. He’s endearing and embarrassing simultaneously. I want to hit him every time he appears, but with a smile on my face.

Calling the rest of this mess a “movie” is like taping together a bunch of refrigerator boxes, drawing flowers and windows on it with crayons, and calling it a “house.” It’s ugly and only barely holds together, but at least it’s got personality. Granted, it’s the kind of personality that makes you want to tie it to the bumper of your ’76 Charger and drag it at high speed over a dirt road in the middle of the night. It deserves to die for the H.G. Wells reference alone. Screenwriters take note: if your movie includes invisibility, you can pretend he wrote the original story. I’m surprised they didn’t try to credit Ralph Ellison.

My favorite host segment is Crow’s hilarious attempt at superheroism as Turkey Volume Guessing Man. My least favorite is the oddly disturbing “trucker body” sketch. That and the strange “70/1970 confusion” sketch, both of which were filled with amusing but mostly unexecuted ideas. Mike’s turn as a Teppanyaki chef works well, and his reaction to his baking powder bomb’s effect is priceless. This is the last of three episodes where he blows up a planet (The Deadly Mantis and The She Creature are the others), leaving only one more episode in the “Mike Nelson: Destroyer of Worlds” series of episodes.

Most of the film segment commentary is goofy and laid-back, much like the movie itself. When the brakeless truck careens down a hill past a sign that warns of hairpin curves, Mike says, “Extreme mellowness advised.” When a bar fight ends with Bill and his assailants shaking hands, Crow says, “Crackers and hicks can get along.” While Buffalo Bill yodels yet another grating country ditty, Tom says, “Listening to him is like flossing with a razorblade.” Both Sam and Driscoll refer to the bad guys as “turkeys” at different points, leading to a number of poultry jokes and sound effects. It’s an awful film, but a good-natured one, and the satellite crew adds to that. It’s worth a look.