American Rickshaw (1989) American Rickshaw / American Tiger / Miracle Tiger / American RisciÚ (1989/1991) -***

     Okay, check this out. Not only is this an actual idea that somebody had, but when they explained it to somebody else, that second somebody wrote the first one a seven-figure check to make the idea a reality. What ifó a rickshaw puller in Miami gets framed for murder by an evil televangelist, and goes on the run after abducting the hooker who did the hands-on work of setting him upÖ but then it turns out that all concerned are just collateral casualties in a decades-long struggle between the evil preacher and an immortal Chinese sorceress whose power heís trying to steal? Ohó and what if, to play the rickshaw puller, we got that gold-medal gymnast from the 1984 Olympics, and then didnít bother to write in any excuses for him to do any gymnastics? Now when the premise behind American Rickshaw was explained to me, the first thing I said was, ďWait a minuteó back up. You mean to tell me there are rickshaw pullers in Miami?!Ē Apparently so! Personally, I never understood the utility of rickshaws except in places where there are more people than there is productive work to be done, because riding in one (1) isnít materially faster than walking and (2) makes you look like a slave-driving asshole, but I guess the tourists down there see some value in them. Thatís only the first question raised by American Rickshaw, however, and the others arenít half so easily disposed of.

     Anyway, Scott Edwards (Mitch Gaylord, the aforementioned Olympic gymnast, whose film career took no time at all to decline to the level of Sexual Outlaws) is a Miami college student who pulls a rickshaw for a living. His roommate, Daniel (Glenn Maska), does it too, but heís currently down with a gimp leg. One day, Scott gives a ride to an old Chinese lady (12 to the Moonís Michi Kobi) who is so impressed that she subsequently tracks down his name and home address in order to write him what sounds like itís going to be a strange and portentous letter. We get to hear only the first few lines, however, so we canít really be sure. You see, Scottís the kind of guy who opens his mail on the climb up to his apartment, and thatís all the further heís able to read before having to fend off his amorous neighbor, Assuncion (Carmen Lopez), in her latest attempt to cheat on her husband with him. Scott drops the letter down the stairwell while making his escape, and by the time he thinks of it again, the buildingís rat population has rendered it totally illegible.

     Sometime later, a gorgeous redhead by the name of Joanne (Victoria Prouty) hires Scott to give her a ride out to the marina. Once there, Joanne invites Scott to join her aboard one of the yachts. Technically heís not supposed to give his fares that kind of service, no matter how well they tip, but opportunities like this one donít come along very often. The pair havenít quite made it to the bed yet, however, when a stealthy noise alerts Scott to the presence of a third party aboard the boat. Itís a young man (Gregg Todd Davis, from Shallow Grave and Nightmare Beach) with no thumb on one of his hands, and heís crouching in a closet with a video camera. Scott realizes at that point that heís been played, and he takes it rather badly. Nor does Johnny One-Thumb help his case any by offering Scott $100 to keep playing along. Scott gives the pervert a pummeling he wonít soon forget, wrecking the interior of the yacht while heís at it, and leaves with what he believes to be the tape of him and Joanne. The girl, for her part, sensibly runs off just as soon as the violence gets started in earnest.

     Naturally Daniel wants to know whatís going on when his roommate comes home in such a high state of agitation, and the ensuing conversation leads Scott to discover that he took the wrong tape. This one is just a video selfie of Johnny One-Thumb babbling about some key that he wears on a chain around his neck. Weíll remember that key as the one that came loose and flew out the window into the harbor while Scott was beating on him earlier, but the rickshaw puller himself was not so observant. Anyway, Scott impulsively storms back to the marina, which is where things turn inescapably dark and weird for him. At first thereís no sign of either Joanne or Johnny One-Thumb, and Scott has the distinct impression that somebody has ransacked the yacht in his absenceó the state of havoc below decks isnít how he remembers it in some subliminal way. When he takes a closer look around in the hope of finding the right videotape among the rubble, he turns up instead the dead body of Johnny One-Thumb, stuffed awkwardly back into the closet which had previously served as his hiding place. Then the boat catches fire as if by spontaneous combustion. The blaze brings a crowd of gawkers even at this hour, and somebody calls 911. Scott can think of nothing else to do but to dive into the harbor, swim until heís out of sight, and sneak back home to destroy the tape he already has. After all, with the fire raging the way it was, that cassette has to be the last surviving piece of evidence linking him to whatever the fuck he got drawn into tonight.

     The morning news offers unexpected and unwelcome revelations. Although the corpse of Johnny One-Thumb was badly burned, police were able to identify it as Jason Mortom, son of famous television preacher Samuel Mortom (Donald Pleasence, of The Flesh and the Fiends and Buried Alive). That tells Scott first that thereís a chance the fire didnít completely cover his tracks after all, and second that the media are going to be chewing on this story for a good, long while yet. Police and press arenít all that Scott needs to worry about, though. The man who killed Jason Mortomó a professional assassin by the name of Francis (David Greene, from Hands of Steel and Deadly Intruder)ó comes by the apartment that afternoon while Scott is getting his rickshaw on, and shoots Daniel after ascertaining that he doesnít know anything about Mortom or his key. Then he drops in on Joanne, and strongarms her into going to the police with a falsified version of her story, in which she hangs around the yacht long enough to see Scott strangle Jason. By the time his shift lugging tourists around the city is over, Scott is a wanted man. And in addition to the usual pair of detectives (Roger Pretto and prolific video game voice actor Darin De Paul), he of course has Francis hunting him all over Miami, too, for reasons he doesnít even understand. The only strategy Scott can think of for keeping himself alive and getting to the bottom of this sudden persecution might actually make matters worse. He takes Joanne hostage when he goes on the lam.

     But letís back up a bit, to the old Chinese lady. The film keeps cutting away to her at moments of ostensibly high suspense, and sheís plainly connected somehow to the Siamese cat and the Indian cobra that keep hanging around on the periphery of the action, as if they were spying on the participants. Also, I think weíre supposed to intuit that the fires which destroy first Jason Mortomís yacht and then Scottís abandoned apartment are the result of her giving both crime scenes the old Charlie McGee. Youíre not going to believe what the old galís deal really is. Her name is Madame Luna, and sheís an undying sorceress. She used to be an ageless one, too (meaning that sheís played in flashbacks by the much younger and conspicuously not Chinese Regina Rodriguez), but back in the 1960ís, she made the mistake of falling for a covetous creep who was merely in it for a chance to steal her power. That creep was Samuel Mortom, who probably wasnít a TV preacher yet, since that industry was still in its infancy at the time. Mortom absconded with the boar-shaped idol over which Luna was dedicated to guard, reducing her to her present state, and presumably elevating himself to his. The powers of cosmic goodness have other tricks up their sleeves, however, and on the numerologically significant date of June 6th, 1966, they caused the birth of two children destined to bring Mortom down. One of these (because the gods have a twisted sense of humor) was Mortomís own son, Jason, who betrayed him, stole the idol, and hid it somewhere. It was the elder Mortomís campaign to get the idol back that led to Jasonís murder, and to Scottís current predicament. But Scottís involvement in the struggle over the idol is not nearly as coincidental as it looks. That other Chosen One whose birth the Powers That Be arranged on 6/6/66? Itís him, and Madame Luna has been helping him stay one step ahead of his pursuers while subtly guiding him in her direction. Once they join forces, Mortom will quickly find his advantage evaporating.

     Somewhere in the world, perhaps, there is one person who has always dreamed of seeing an elderly Donald Pleasence, in a terrible age-obscuring wig and even worse kabuki makeup, miming the rape of a Latina impersonating a Chinese girl. And somewhere else in the world, perhaps, there is someone who longs to see Pleasence deliver a televised speech in which every sentence degenerates against his will into an outburst of porcine grunting, climaxing with his actual transformation into a pig. If either of those people are you, American Rickshaw is the movie youíve been waiting for. For the rest of us, however, its main value lies in drawing attention to the final rally of Italian exploitation cinema. By the end of the 1980ís, most of the genres for which filmmakers like American Rickshaw director Sergio Martino had demonstrated affinity were sputtering to a pathetic halt in the land of pasta, popes, and panettone. But even as Italian horror, sci-fi, soft porn, and heroic fantasy were breathing their labored last, Italian action movies were enjoying a belated heyday. Mostly that meant sleazy war pictures inspired by the likes of Missing in Action and Rambo: First Blood, Part 2, along with a second coming of the polizioteschi subgenre of ultra-violent police procedurals, but there were also a few unclassifiable oddities making the rounds in the late 80ís and early 90ís. American Rickshaw, as if it werenít obvious by now, is one of the oddest.

     Within the context of 1980ís Italy, perhaps the strangest thing about American Rickshaw is that it canít easily be pegged as a ripoff of any specific film, or even any group of films. Although the presence of Mitch Gaylord in the lead recalls Kurt Thomasís would-be star turn in Gymkata, and the importance of bullshit Oriental mysticism brings to mind the Cannon Group ninja movies of the preceding several years, this picture doesnít resemble any of those to any serious extent. Similarly, although the premise of an American dipshit blundering his way into the middle of a battle of Chinese sorcery sounds a bit like Big Trouble in Little China, nothing else about American Rickshaw does at all. Also curious is the complete lack of any martial arts angle. It always feels as though the chopsocky is just about to break outó that Scott will stumble upon some bit of scenery built just enough like a vaulting horse or a set of parallel bars to let him lay Francis out with some ridiculous gymnastics-derived flying face-kick, or that Madame Luna will indoctrinate him in the forgotten secrets of Rickshaw Fuó but thatís simply nowhere near where this story is headed. Even the ďtigerĒ of the alternate titles refers merely to the sign of the Chinese zodiac under which both Scott and Jason Mortom were born. On one level, thatís disappointing, because I would dearly love to see a hapless Italian attempt to counterfeit a Bruce Lee, Sonny Chiba, or even Chuck Norris fight scene. But at the same time, I sometimes enjoy being kept off balance, waiting for something that a movie has no intention of ever delivering, and this was one of those times.

 

 

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