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Lethal Tender
(1996)
 

Director: John Bradshaw          
Cast:
Jeff Fahey, Gary Busey, Carrie Anne Moss


In quite a few ways, Lethal Tender is in the top of its field when it comes to movies that rip-off Die Hard. But I'm not recommending it, for reasons which I'll get to later.

This is a production of Le Monde Entertainment, a division of Alliance, a Canadian company. Alliance likes to brag about how they make "quality and distinctively Canadian movies", and prevent American culture from fully infiltrating Canada, while most of their assets come from distributing American movies (from New Line and Miramax) in Canada, and much of their TV and movie productions being set in America or some generic setting. I wrote to them about this discrepancy recently, but they didn't reply. Wonder why.

Jeff Fahey plays Chase, a Chicago cop who we first see accepting a bet by other cops at the precinct that think he can't get out of a pair of handcuffs within a time limit. Of course, he succeeds in time, just like Mel Gibson did in a similar scene in Lethal Weapon 2. Well, this movie also has the word "lethal" in its title, so I guess it's okay, even though the audience will have correctly guessed that later in the movie Chase will find himself in handcuffs once again after the bad guys catch him. Afterwards, he and his partner take their assignment to go to a water filtration center out in the country to keep an eye on some striking workers outside, which has the center's management worried.

While Chase's partner keeps an eye on the strikers, Chase is given a quick tour of the filtration plant by employee Melissa (Moss). During the tour, several vehicles with a number of occupants approach the security gate outside and are let through. As you've probably guessed, these are the bad guys (and one bad girl), who shortly let down their guises and proceed to take control of the plant, take hostages of the employees and a group of visitors, and turn off the filtration system. While this is going on, Chase and Melissa have already stepped out of the building for several minutes. Returning to a side door, they discover explosives attached on the other side, and immediately deduct something is not right. Fortunately, Melissa conveniently has a key for a convenient hatch that the terrorists might not have discovered just yet. And since she knows more about the plant than Chase, he is then forced to let her tag along so that he might just put a few dents in their plan - and quickly, because the water supply of Chicago will be infected if the filtration system isn't turned on before four hours are up.

Lethal Tender is the slickest and best shot Die Hard rip-off not made by a major studio. For what was undoubtedly a low budget, it doesn't show it at all, having production values looking equal to the major studios. The location work is excellent as well; none of the locations happening in the filtration center appear to have been faked (the credits thank two real water purification plants), and the screenplay takes these actual locations to both add authenticity and to use what is in these areas (for example, a moving platform crane) as part of the story. I don't know how the heck the filmmakers managed to use all these locations to their potential without disrupting the actual work at these purification plants, but they somehow did it. I tip my hat to them for these exceptional points.

But the movie overall doesn't work. Why? Let's start with the characters and actors. Fahey is quite a boring action hero. Believe it or not, he doesn't do much more than run around and spy on the bad guys for the first hour - he doesn't even kill anyone, while Melissa manages to make a mark on her own kill list! No surprise then then Fahley seems really bored here, and seldom speaking beyond a monotone. I like Gary Busey, and it's always fun to see him play either good or bad guys. In Lethal Tender, he plays "Mr. Turner", the ringleader who radios instructions to the henchmen from his nearby location. There's another problem: Busey for most of the movie just sits there radioing his team to give instructions, and working at his desk on another plan of his. Eventually he does get pissed, and kills a few unlucky people, though Busey's performance never rises above going through the motions. He's done so many psycho roles in his career, it takes a good director to make him rise above his instincts. At least Busey's drug addiction, which he still suffered from during the making of this, isn't apparent here.

The movie also has some really bizarre attempts at humor, which fail to get laughs and quite frankly left me bewildered. One scene early in the movie has a villain tormenting a captured worker by picking up the corpse of his dead co-worker, and speaking to the tormented worker in a squeaky voice, as if he was a ventriloquist. Another scene has one bad guy shooting two guards, and his terrorist partner claiming he didn't have to do that. "What are you complaining about?" answers the killer. "Their union's got great life insurance coverage!" Such scenes are not just unfunny, but seem out of place.

But what about the action? Sorry to tell you, there's not much of it anyway. The little action there doesn't usually go beyond one-on-one shootouts or hand-to-hand fights. I knew it was doomed from the start when I observed that there weren't many terrorists. If Bruce Willis or Steven Seagal were in that building, the movie would have been finished in 45 minutes. So it's fortunate that this movie had an inept hero to stretch things out - fortunate for the filmmakers, not the audience.
 
 



UPDATE: Special thanks for William Norton for finding out a very interesting story about the making of this movie:

"I heard from a late actor who knew Gary Busey.  He told me Busey was "tacked-in" on the film Lethal Tender.  To get a tax break you have to get a Canadian actor/actress as second billed/second highest pay.  Kim Coates isn't worth as much money as Busey, so they shot him separately so they can still get the tax break.  Busey is also friends with Jeff Fahey so he kind of helped get Busey in the film for the producers.  The producer of the film, Julian Grant, labeled himself in a interview as "The Roger Corman of Canada", even though he only did a handful of movies. (I think Peter Simpson or Paul Lynch is more Corman). (Note: I agree) So this film was made with a hack mentality. Odd now, everyone is ga-ga over Carrie Ann Moss, and getting a lot of interviews in Canada, yet like Alliance, all she did was American films for her resume, nothing really in Canada, yet I heard she is looked up by Canadians for The Matrix!"

This story is probably true, since during the film, Busey's character mostly stays in one room, far away from where Jeff Fahey is doing his stuff.

The difficulty of making movies in Canada (and trying to get tax breaks at the same time) has generated a lot of ludicrous and true stories. For example, in the movie Tanya's Island, the story was supposed to totally take place on a desert island. Then the Canadian government required there to be "Canadian content" in the movie. So they quickly shot a few minutes of footage of a couple of the characters in a Toronto TV station, pretty much doing nothing but sitting and standing around.

Later on, the Canadian government made a rule stating that in order to qualify for a tax shelter, producers couldn't disguise Canadian locations as American. So producers then set their movies in unidentified locations, assuming (probably correctly) that audiences would assume the movie was set in America.

Check for availability on Amazon (VHS)

See also: Act Of War, The Peacekeeper, Expect No Mercy

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