2020 Texas Gladiators (1983) 2020 Texas Gladiators / 2020 Freedom Fighters / One-Eye Force / Anno 2020: I Gladiatori del Texas (1983) -**½

     It makes perfect sense that Italians— audiences and filmmakers alike— fell hard for The Road Warrior. After all, they’d loved Westerns enough to make the genre their own in the 60’s and 70’s, and just a bit of tinkering with the details of setting, plot, and characterization would turn The Road Warrior into something that either of the Two Sergios (Leone and Corbucci) could have made in their heyday. Consequently, you might expect an Italian post-apocalypse movie called 2020 Texas Gladiators to make the connection explicit, positing a land of futuristic cowboys and gunslingers struggling to re-tame a West that has sunk back into Wildness. That isn’t what this film is like at all, however— or at least no more so than any We Have Seen the Future, and It Sucks flick that takes its cues from George Miller. Indeed, except for one scene set in a saloon and another in which the heroes enlist the aid of an Indian tribe, 2020 Texas Gladiators is if anything less influenced by Spaghetti Westerns of yore than is normal in films of its sort. I mean, when did Clint Eastwood or Franco Nero ever come up against anything analogous to an army of Nazis with portable forcefields?

     For that matter, we also won’t find a decent analog for our heroes in any legend of the Wild West. For that, we must go much further back— as in, to the Arthurian Cycle or the Matter of France. These guys— the Rangers, they call themselves— may not have as catchy a name as the Knights of the Round Table or the Peers of Charlemagne, but they’re an itinerant, do-gooding warrior band, bound by oaths of righteous conduct and mutual loyalty just the same. We’re probably supposed to surmise that they’re descended somehow or other from the Texas Rangers of pre-apocalyptic times. In any case, we meet them in the middle of a raid on the lair of a tribe of atomic mutants, who have captured and mostly killed the inhabitants of a neighborhood in one of the less ruined remaining cities. Even self-appointed heroes can be subject to temptation, however. One of the mutants’ captives— a lovely girl by the name of Maida (Sabrina Siani, from The Invincible Barbarian and The Throne of Fire)— is still alive, and when Catchdog (Daniel Stephen, of Penumbra and The Inheritor) sees her, he transitions with disconcerting ease from rescue to rape. Luckily for Maida, Nisus (Al Cliver, from White Cannibal Queen and a movie called Annie which is DEFINITELY NOT the one you’re thinking of) walks in on his colleague before he’s made much progress, and gets the better of him in the ensuing grapple. The other three Rangers (who have by now finished exterminating the mutants) come in response to the sounds of the scuffle, and Halakron the leader (Peter Hooten, from House of Blood and Orca) expels Catchdog from the order on the spot. Halakron loses Nisus at the same time, however, for Maida tells the first of her saviors about the community from which the mutants abducted her. Far from just scavenging off the carcass of the old world, Maida’s people sought to rebuild as much of the vanished pre-apocalyptic civilization as lay within their power. Obviously the mutants set that effort back some, but they didn’t get everybody when they attacked. The chance to make a bigger difference than he could in a lifetime of roaming the ruins, meting out justice from the barrel of a gun, fires Nisus’s imagination, and he leaves his erstwhile companions to follow Maida and her dreams of a future worth living in.

     Some years later, Maida’s people have made an impressive recovery, and an even more impressive amount of progress toward their goal. Relocating to the grounds of an oil refinery, the community has grown significantly in size, and its leaders are now on the verge of getting the old machinery working again. Nisus is admired and respected by his fellows, and he and Maida have a daughter called Kezia (Isabella Rochiette, who would grow up to appear in Frankenstein Unbound and The Church). Unfortunately, the refinery tribe has prospered so much as to attract unwanted attention. They’re not the only ones trying to rebuild, and some other communities have made even further strides. Among the latter is a society led by a dictator (Donald O’Brien, from Dr. Butcher, M.D. and Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century) known only as the Black One— not because of his race, but because of the Nazi-inspired uniforms in which he and his soldiers dress on their Nazi-inspired campaigns of expansionist warfare. The Black One believes that true progress in this shattered world is possible only through the efficiency of centralized, authoritarian rule, and he means to spread his version of it as far as his ever-growing resources will permit. Although the core of the Black One’s forces is a Waffen SS-like elite of mechanized infantry equipped with armored trucks and bulletproof personal force shields, he also employs mercenaries and auxiliaries recruited from among the peoples he’s already conquered. Would you believe that on the day when the Black One comes calling at the refinery, his mercs are led by none other than Catchdog? The refiners put up a good fight, but they’re outnumbered, outgunned, and completely unable to cope with an enemy that can’t even be shot so long as they maintain good formation discipline. Nisus is killed in the fighting, and Maida falls under a more direct and personal sort of slavery than her people as a whole.

     More years pass. The next we see of Maida, she’s become the property not of the Black One or any of his soldiers, but of a cruel gambler who is one of the few recognizable callbacks to the Old West that we’ll see in this movie. (I have no idea who plays the gambler, and that’s driving me crazy because I know I’ve seen him elsewhere.) This guy’s game is Russian roulette, which you wouldn’t think was the kind of thing it’s possible to be good at. We’re asked to believe that Maida’s new master is about the best that’s ever been, though, and we get to see a challenger paint the ceiling of a saloon with his brains to prove it. On this particular evening, the gambler’s favorite bar has two unaccustomed customers, in the form of Halakron and his fellow Ranger, Jab (Harrison Muller, from Warrior of the Lost World and The Final Executioner). Halakron notices from across the room a necklace among the gambler’s stake, and recognizes it as the kind he and his men all wear. He also recognizes Maida as that girl Nisus ran off with all those years ago. The gambler tells Halakron that neither girl nor necklace is for sale, but that he’ll be happy to let the other man play for them if he can come up with an adequate stake. Halakron’s respect for the rules of Russian roulette is, shall we say, less than complete, but Jab makes damn sure the gambler follows them to the letter. Then, once the uneven contest reaches its inevitable conclusion, the two Rangers lay the smackdown on the entire male occupancy of the saloon. I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time (maybe the gambler had friends, right?), but someone who didn’t feel like standing around to get pummeled went and summoned the local sheriff (Angelo Casadei, of SS Girls and Endgame). Halakron and Jab get hauled away with guns pointed at their heads, sentenced on the spot to ten years in the mines.

     Those of you who kept careful count in the opening scene will have noticed that there’s still one of Halakron’s original Rangers on the loose, however, and Red Wolfe (Hal Yamanouchi, from Hearts and Armour and The Fishmen and Their Queen) evidently linked up with Maida while the film’s attention was elsewhere. Those two arrive at the mines just in time to drive the getaway buggy when Halakron and Jab make their typically tempestuous escape from captivity. Inconveniently for Maida and the Rangers, however, word of the latter’s exploit at the saloon traveled quickly, all the way to Catchdog’s ears. Catchdog figures it’s only a matter of time before Halakron learns what happened to Nisus, and comes gunning for him and the Black One alike. He therefore gets the dictator’s buy-in for a scheme to do something about the Rangers before they get a chance to make trouble at the refinery. Still, it’s one thing to inconvenience the Rangers by, say, imprisoning them in a mine or ambushing them in a box canyon. Actually stopping them is an altogether different matter.

     It’s easy to miss this, because neither man is using his usual alias here, but 2020 Texas Gladiators was written by George Eastman and directed by Joe D’Amato. I think I’d want a certain amount of anonymity, too, if I had been responsible for this movie. I’ve already observed that 2020 Texas Gladiators all but ignores the most distinctive aspect of its premise, but its real problem is that Eastman and D’Amato have buried the through-line of the story by refusing to treat Maida as a viewpoint character. By any plausible assessment, she ought to be the protagonist here. To begin with, she’s the only character who is actually present for all phases of the narrative, from the opening raid on the mutant nest, through the rise and fall of the refinery settlement, to the campaign to overthrow the Black One. Furthermore, she’s the one with the big dream representing a humane alternative to the anarchic squalor and crushing tyranny that otherwise dominate post-apocalyptic Texas. And as if that weren’t enough, she’s also the one whose threefold vendetta against the Black One— to rescue her daughter, to liberate her community, and to avenge Nisus— drives the plot on a practical level from the conquest of the refinery on. And yet the filmmakers don’t seem to recognize any of that. Instead, they act like this is the story of the Rangers, and barely seem to notice Maida at all. Now there are a few effective ways to present a story from the perspective of subsidiary characters; Big Trouble in Little China and Strange Days are two of my favorite examples, because they complicate the trick by focusing on people too self-absorbed to grasp that they’re not the real heroes, but the ever-popular “Watson narrates the adventures of Holmes” template is every bit as valid. What happens in 2020 Texas Gladiators, though, is more like, “Let me tell you the tale of Nisus, the mighty warrior who laid down his sword to help build a new world, but was killed in the middle of— wait. That can’t be right. Okay, let me tell you the tale of Halakron…” It’s clunky, it’s confusing, and it disrupts all our expectations about narrative construction without doing anything useful or interesting with that disruption. When Nisus goes down in that last hail of Future Nazi bullets, it looks for all the world like the point of the movie dies with him, and only on the threshold of the closing credits can we say with any confidence what the emergency replacement point might have been. And in case this wasn’t apparent from my synopsis (I suspect it wasn’t), Nisus is killed almost exactly at the halfway point. That’s a long time to spend wondering what the movie is even about anymore!

     The upside of 2020 Texas Gladiators is rather limited, but it might be enough if you’re feeling generous. Most of the self-contained set-pieces that it has in lieu of a coherent narrative arc are at least pretty entertaining in and of themselves. Ultimately, I can’t get too mad at a movie that starts with a commando attack on a mutant lair in a semi-ruined industrial building, and then gets zanier from there. It’s also a pleasant surprise that D’Amato didn’t skimp on the big battles at the refinery. Granted, he’s no George Miller when it comes to directing a complex action sequence, but 2020 Texas Gladiators at least acquits itself better in that department than limp-dick shit like Interzone. It helps a bit, too, that Catchdog’s mercenary company is the kind of freakshow that one sees only in cheap 80’s dystopias, while also making a counterintuitive contrast with the high-tech uniformity of the Black One’s elite forces. And speaking of the latter, I like what turns out to be the fatal weakness of their forcefield-enabled formation tactics. I wonder if George Eastman had read Dune, or if it’s merely a case of convergent evolution? I just wish the fun bits felt in the moment like they meant anything, and weren’t just filling up time to reach the requisite 90-ish minutes.


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