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The Underground
(1997)
 

Director: Cole S. McKay            
Cast:
Jeff Fahey, Brion James, Michael McFall


Long-time readers will probably recall the times in the past when I have expressed my fondness for movies made by PM Entertainment - movies like Last Man Standing, Hot Boyz, Rage, and many other made-for-video movies that pack slam-bang action and production values equalling or even exceeding those found in major studio productions. So the question of why I haven't reviewed any more of their movies for such a long time might understandably come up. There are several explanations for this. One that I've mentioned before is that PM Entertainment, at least the way it used to be, apparently is no more, with head honchos/producers Joseph Merhi and Richard Pepin now working apart. So for the past while the only new PM Entertainment production I have come across was their apparent last collaboration, the unbelievably awful The Chaos Factor, starring (ugh) former underwear model Antonio Sabato Jr. as well as a ton of stock footage from other movies. But it's not only that I haven't been able to come up with worthy new PM movies to review, but I've had a problem finding older ones. You see, all the video stores in my city seem to be run by Hey, it could have happened - historians agree Lincoln was suffering from a mental illnessidiots, having either never ordered any PM movies when they were initially made available, or removed them from their shelves after stocking them for several years, preventing me from re-renting them. But The Unknown Movies does not give up, so after a lot of searching, I not only found an older PM movie, but one that I had never managed to see before - The Underground. Thankfully, my searching was not in vain, because although it does have some very noticeable rough edges, it ends up being decent entertainment. As well, this effort has some extra interest in that, unlike many other PM movies, it doesn't take itself completely seriously.

Though this can be considered another tough-cop-seeking-vengeance exercise, one way The Underground is different from other PM movies (other than that lighter attitude mentioned in the previous paragraph) is the environment it is set in - the music industry. We are introduced to it in the opening sequence, where at the Alligator Club in Los Angeles, up-and-coming rap star Hot G is building his rising popularity by performing live. Among the spectators is record producer William Duke, a.k.a. "The Hound" (Willie C. Carpenter), who is unsuccessfully attempting to negotiate with Hot G's brother for a multi-record deal. As you have no doubt guessed, the mix of a concert performance and business negotiations can only mean one thing is coming: A gigantic massacre! Three gun-wielding men wearing Abraham Lincoln masks storm into the club and start blasting away, making sure to break enough glass to make clear that this is a true PM Entertainment movie. Though of course they are also clear on shotgunning and machine-gunning everyone there, sometimes propelling their victims several feet with their powerful blasts. Though The Hound manages to barely make it out of there, Hot G and his fans all end up getting forced ventilation placed upon them. The arriving cops do nothing to stop the masked killers' escape, thanks to some ingenious driving as well as a handy rocket launcher. If all this does not convince viewers of the pedigree claim of this movie, nothing else will.

Assigned to the case is police detective Brian Donnegan (Fahey) and his partner Scully. Brian is a good cop, but his workaholic attitude to his job has started to put a strain on his marriage to his wife Julie... oh, who cares about stuff like that, right? Anyway, Brian and Scully decide the first thing they need to do is question The Hound, so they go to his studios to see what he knows. It so happens that when they arrive, a film crew is shooting a music video for one of The Hound's rap artists. You guessed it - barely minutes after they arrive and start talking to The Hound, those masked gunmen burst into the studio and start to massacre the film crew and the rap artist. Brian manages to save the life of The Hound, but Scully gets killed for his attempt to stop the departing gunmen. You can also probably guess the drill after this point; Brian vows revenge, and will not let anything stop him, from his (yawn) crumbling marriage or the new and cocky partner (McFall) he's assigned, and The Hound is in fact hiding a lot more than he let's on.

All of this is familiar and expected, so you might be wondering just what makes The "Let's play Jules and Vincent!"Underground so different from all those other cop actioners if you don't take into account the new setting. Well, how about that big secret of The Hound? See, it's quickly revealed that those gunmen are in fact the ex-members of the '70s band The Hound was once in, The Las Vegas Disco Express. His ex-bandmates are angry that The Hound has not only cheated them out of profits, but has been "sampling" their wonderful tunes for these disgusting rap songs he now produces. So killing two birds with one stone, they are not only pressuring The Hound to pay up, but (apparently) making the world safe for disco.

You gotta admit it... that's one original motive.

In your typical PM Entertainment movie, you'll often find some veiled political commentary, ranging from some jabs against the American justice system in Last Man Standing to the stronger kind of criticism found in Rage, which was directed at tabloid journalism. This time around, there doesn't seem to be any political commentary, and the movie instead chooses to repeat a particular opinion over and over. Which happens to be: "Rap sucks!" The Underground is not just confined to let us know this opinion by showing rap artists getting murdered, or by showing that The Hound is a greedy producer who bilks his past and present clients out of millions of dollars, and freely admits one of his artists sucks musically but has an - ahem - extensive rap sheet that gives the artist free publicity. The movie takes every opportunity to criticize rap. We have a cop proclaiming his opinion of rap music with the claims it's just about "beating up women and killing cops", the sight of a graffiti-sprayed wall whose biggest artwork is the word "RAP" in the center of a red circle with a line through it, and everything about the rap music video shoot - choreography, the set, etc. - looks absolutely horrible. At one point, "Singer" (Gregory Scott Cummings), the ringleader of the gunmen, corners The Hound and lectures him how bad rap is ("It's not singing, it's f*cking chanting!")

Though I never go out of my way to listen to it, I can't say that I actively hate rap. Still, I must admit there was something perversely pleasing at seeing rap getting repeatedly dissed in so many different ways. It's never done with an angry attitude, so I think that there would be some rap fans who might find it as amusing as I did. Besides amusement being found in the movie with this viewpoint of rap, there are also a number of more direct attempts at comedy that also provide some laughs. Much of this comes once McFall's character is introduced and placed in the unfolding events. A less serious person than Brian, you don't have to wait long for him to make a snappy remark or a humorous observation. These light touches coming from McFall's character is boosted by McFall himself, who really No PM movie is complete without a vehicle spinning in the air!seems to be enjoying what he gets to do. He is clearly emulating Samuel L. Jackson a bit too much (and even somewhat resembles him in his facial features), but it isn't a great distraction. His acting here once again proves the general rule that in movie partnerships where one person is white and the other is black, the best performance comes from the one who is black. Though considering just how bad Fahey is here, McFall would have beaten him even giving just a half-hearted performance. It's hard to call Fahey's work here a "performance", because he is so unemotional that it's infuriating. Unable to properly react to his partner dying in front of him, or to his crumbling marriage, he never comes across any better than a simple cold-hearted jerk.

However, it isn't just that Fahey has an apparent inability to act that makes Brian such an unsympathetic character, but that Brian has apparently been written to be an unsympathetic character. Even before Scully's death, it's mentioned how much of his time he has devoted to his job, leaving little left over for his wife. After Scully's death, he becomes even more obsessed, and when his wife protests that she is being neglected, Brian explains by more or less saying to her, "He was my partner" - which gives the impression that his partner meant a lot more to him than his wife. Smooth move, dude, especially when you also consider that your wife is a professional model (!) - you'd prefer anyone, even a trusted partner, to that? What is especially infuriating is that this marriage crisis subplot ends up going absolutely nowhere. It's intertwined in the first half or so of the movie, so we are constantly reminded that Brian is an absolute idiot when it comes to being a husband. Eventually his wife gets the good sense to kick him out, though there doesn't seem to make any serious change in his behavior - and then all this nonsense is forgotten about until the very end, where he declares he's going back to his wife. (Good luck buddy -  you'll need it.)

While fans of brainless action movies might be more forgiving of this lack of attention to the marriage subplot - it's not like it could ever really add anything of major substance to the movie even if it was better developed - even they will find the slipshod way the movie is wrapped up a big problem. The movie unmistakably makes clear that the conspiracy was born and followed through by the three members of The Las Vegas Disco Express. So I don't think it's unreasonable for us to expect that the fates of these three men will be made clear at the ending, giving them either an immediate fate (read: death) or one we can clearly assume will happen after the last scene. Though the character of Singer is unmistakably dealt with, you can't say the same about his two bandmates, who disappear to who knows where before the end of the movie. Combining this problem with the unresolved marriage subplot, I have to wonder if the script did originally handle these things properly and completely, but problems arose during the shoot that made it impossible for the original conception to be followed as planned.

There are also visible loose threads in not just what seems to be missing, but also Like in "Nighmare At Noon", Brion James has an eerie neon glow around himin what actually got completed. This is most noticeable in the action sequences, more specifically the action sequences that are car chases (which consist of most of the action to be found in the movie.) Having watched other PM movies, I recognized some of the footage in these chases having come from Rage. While most of the chase footage in the movie is original, there are signs that the filming of these chases was possibly hurt from the same potential behind-the-scenes-turmoil that affected the marriage subplot and the ending. One shot of Brian's car speedily making a turn on a mountain road is cut up into three pieces, with each piece played at a different part of the movie. There are a couple of long chases that unsuccessfully try to use the same particular short stretch of road, attempting to hide it with quick cuts and different camera angles. Even more obvious is that the road used for the final chase sequence is really a long-abandoned stretch of highway, covered with more black stripes than your average zebra. Such gaffs, however, don't distract too much from the wham-bam power that is generated. You want cars flying in the air? Exploding vehicles? Dozens of cars getting bashed up? Gunplay during these chases? All this and more (including some insane stuntwork during the final minutes) make quibbling about any problems hardly worth the effort after being so thoroughly entertained by these chases. And the rest of what's to be found entertaining in The Underground certainly makes up for those other problems I mentioned earlier. A PM Entertainment movie with a few flaws is still better than a lot of what's out there.

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See also: Executive Target, Ice, The Silencers

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