New Year’s Day, 2013. I’m tired, grumpy and up way, way too early. Pleasingly, the first film out of the Tub of Death instantly blasts away the cobwebs and gets the year off to a flyer. My descent into action movie insanity begins with Joseph Zito’s insane 1985 explosion-fest Invasion USA, the barmy tale of one-man-army Chuck Norris’ attempts to rescue America from a full-on terrorist invasion.
Norris is Matt Hunter, a semi-retired Special Forces agent-cum-alligator-wrangler, forced out of his solitude when an old adversary starts bombing shopping malls and vaporising small neighbourhoods…at Christmas!!! Hunter is so fearsome that chief baddie Rostov (Richard Lynch) actually has nightmares about him, so you know he’s badass, just in case his awesome swamp-boat didn’t have you convinced.
The action is non-stop volatile, bonkers mayhem, with Hunter leaping from speeding cars, taking on helicopters single-handed, and removing a bomb from a school bus, just to chuck it back at the bastards who put it there. Spitting outrageous lines like ‘I’m gonna hit you with so many rights, you’re gonna beg me for a left,’ ass-kicking is clearly this guy’s M.O., and his final battle with Rostov is a cracker, the arch enemies squaring off in a ludicrous Mexican standoff with bazookas. It’s a suitably mental crescendo to a batshit crazy film that suggests Norris will be one difficult Hard Bastard to beat (Chuck’s score: 38/50).
Next up is Mel Gibson’s 1993 directorial debut The Man Without A Face which, although showcasing a powerful, brooding performance from the man himself, proves a major letdown in the Hard Bastard stakes. Gibson is Justin McLeod, a disfigured, reclusive former teacher who takes troubled young lad Norstadt (Nick Stahl) under his wing over an enlightening, soul-searching summer in 1962 Maine.
Unfortunately, nothing blows up and all battles are, sadly, spiritual, though the secret behind McLeod’s disfigurement, despite not involving helicopters or ninjas, is still a doozy. Creepy ‘did-he-or-didn’t he?’ revelations keep things delightfully ambiguous, making for a daring, provocative debut. Mel even throws the action junkies a bone with an intense moment where suicidal McLeod plays chicken with an oncoming truck, though the scene sadly does not lead to vehicular carnage (13/50).
As fate would have it, next up is Gibson’s sophomore directorial effort, 1995’s mega-violent Braveheart. Mel is real-life 13th century Scottish hero William Wallace, battling English invaders while looking majestic in a skirt. When the English kill his missus, the woad hits the fan as Wallace goes berserk, taking on whole battalions with rocks, spears and a bloody big hammer.
Gibson’s Wallace is one cool cat, swaggering across battlefields, demanding opponents pucker up and kiss their own arses, before lopping off their heads with gusto. He proves so dashing and daring that the Princess of Wales betrays the crown just because she fancies him, and even in death he is triumphantly gallus, roaring his final word, an inspirational call-to-arms for his people: FREEDOM!!! What a dude (37/50).
Day four introduces us to Jean Claude Van Damme’s magically monikered Gibson Rickenbacker, stalking a plague-infested, Mad Max-style urban wasteland future in 1989 cult sci-fi classic Cyborg. With Albert Pyun (Bloodmatch) helming, the production values are suitably horrific, though Van Damme’s silky fightin’ skills make things watchable in stunt-heavy battles, wielding supercool knife boots that let him kick and stab cyperpunks at the same time.
Worryingly, Rickenbacker gets his ass handed to him on various occasions, leading to suspicions he may be a bit of a pussy. He is even violently crucified by his foes, but satisfyingly rises, reborn, to send head baddie Fender (ridiculously musclebound Vincent Klyn ) back to hell. In a bone-crunching finale, heads are slammed in car doors, with both combatants roaring like bears as each thudding roundhouse kick skelps home. Van Damme emerges victorious, but would need to find a better director to truly showcase his skills (29/50).
Walter Hill’s Prohibition-era hard-boiled gangster thriller Last Man Standing (1996) follows, with Bruce Willis in full-on cocky son-of-a-bitch mode as gun-for-hire John Smith. Caught up in a war between two rival bootlegging gangs in a West Texan ghost town, anti-hero Smith hoodwinks both sides, setting the stage for some fierce, double-crossing gangster mayhem.
The twisty-turny narrative sags, but whisky-sluggin’ Bruce provides plenty bang-for-buck, with various pulse-quickening tommy gun shootouts, with corpses bouncing about like a goddamn videogame. He even guns down a couple of goons whilst mid-shag, proving a true Hard Bastard keeps his guns handy. It’s a solid, entertaining turn from a real action great (31/50).
Our next challenger is Master of Aikido Steven Seagal, showing off his action chops in The Glimmer Man. This is Lord Steven circa 1996, when he was still winning the war against the pies, with director John Gray cannily pairing him with jive-talkin’ Keenen Ivory Wayans, to humorous but incendiary effect.
Much violent silliness ensues after a murder investigation opens up a larger government conspiracy, with Seagal’s tunic-wearing, bead-loving Lt. John Cole, throwing men through windows and maiming enemies with a booby-trapped credit card while coolly exclaiming ‘Take plastic?’ Of course, Cole is revealed to have a shady Rambo-style past that makes his enemies rue the day they fucked with his family. He’s so tough, he stops a fight to tell his opponent that he’s bored. That’s one Hard Bastard (33/50).
Our first week of furious fun rounds off with director David Barrett’s revenge thriller Fire With Fire (2012) which has been marketed to appear like a Bruce Willis star-vehicle. As it transpires, this tale of fireman Jeremy (Josh Duhamel) who turns vigilante after the witness Protection Program fails him, relegates Bruce to a small, yet pivotal supporting role. Willis is a grizzled cop who has his own beef with Vincent D’Onofrio’s sinister Aryan villain (he killed his partner, of course), so sneakily helps Jeremy stay one step ahead of the game.
Though he spends most of the movie behind a desk, Bruce does get a few creditable villain-twatting badass moments, proving the old dog still has a tiger in the tank. He does wonders with a small role and his smirking, pissed-off presence certainly lifts this mediocre flick, whetting the appetite for A Good Day To Die Hard (18/50).