Devil’s Express (1976)

Holy Jesus Fuck, what do we have here?

Why, it’s Warhawk Tanzania starring in Devil’s Express!  Where do I start with this one?  I mean, everything in the poster looks batshit crazy.  There’s a monster guy who has a woman in one hand and a train in the other.  We have the not one, but TWO taglines – “50,000 years of Death stalks the subways!!!” and “Take the Express train to TERROR!!!”  Both of these are capped with three exclamation points so you know you have to take it seriously.

But no, what I like the most is the kung fu black man on the right side of the poster.  Mr. Warhawk Tanzania!  That’s a fucking name and a half, ain’t it?  Seriously, you can hope for, nay, EXPECT, two things from a name like that – 1) he’s gonna kick ass and 2) he ain’t gonna take no jive from anybody no how.

Yes, I’m letting the high of The Octagon from last week ride so I can dip into more martial arts action, and you knew from my past forays into blaxploitation that I’d be coming back for more.  And, oh boy do I think I found a great place to jump in (also, no shit, I’ve scheduled 4 blaxploitation flicks over the course of the next seven weeks, so sit back and enjoy, kiddies!).

Interestingly enough, I can’t find too much about either Mr. Tanzania or Devil’s Express.  I was able to learn that Tanzania only appeared in two movies between 1975 and 1976 – this one and another called Black Force.  Also, this movie was mostly known as Gang Wars which is an incredibly stupid movie title for a movie that is about a demon stalking the subways.  I almost expect Black Force to be the alternate title of a movie called Just Some Upwardly Mobile Black Gentlemen Acing Tests in Science Class because that would be just as stupid as Gang War is to this movie.

I say we dive in and try to figure out exactly how fucking awesome this movie is going to be and if there is indeed some sort of gang war that is more important than a fucking demon running around the subway system.

We open in China: 200 B.C.  Some fellows are carrying what appears to be a casket through a wooded area.  They affix a medallion onto the casket and lower it down into a deep pit and leave it.  Then the main dude does some sweet samurai sword moves and beheads all these guys before killing himself.  Smash cut to the title and then smash cut a second time to New York where the credits begin.

Oh, wonderful! It’s another Tanzania/Fleishman classic!

This movie also might have attention deficit disorder because it can’t decide if it wants to travel down the streets of New York or if it wants to be in the subway where it showed the titles.  It keeps bouncing back and forth between those visuals.  But that’s okay because in comes Warhawk Tanzan-fuckin’-nia teaching a cop some kung fu.

Tanzania is playing Luke.  He’s about to leave for Hong Kong for two weeks to pretty much graduate to the level of Master of Kung Fu.  Sure.  His best student, Rodan, is with him to take some trials…  I guess?  I’m not exactly sure, but Luke isn’t so sure that Ro’s head is in the game and that he is going to fail.  There’s a solid five minutes of kung fu sparring.before Luke is sent off to find a place to meditate and center himself.  Restless, Rodan wanders off and locates the pit that a couple millennia ago the monks dumped that coffin.  When Luke finds Rodan, he tells him they need to leave so they can  be ready to get back to Hong Kong so they can go home.  Rodan takes the protective medallion thingy from the coffin, and, after they leave, guess what happens..

A monster breaks free from that coffin.

He really can’t believe it wasn’t butter.

The demon finds his way to the port where the boat for New York is docked and ready to leave at midnight.  It attacks a guy and he’s later seen wandering around on the deck of the ship with super buggy eyes.  He gets off the boat and starts walking around in New York.

You know, this movie isn’t telling us much.  I don’t know what this monster is, what he does to people, or much of anything about either Luke or Rodan other than Luke is a kung fu bad ass and Rodan is a little more fiery.  Yet, there is a certain 70s charm to this.  It’s not so much blaxploitation other than how the movie’s poster sells it, but it definitely is taking advantage of mood.  While in Hong Kong, there’s a great deal of attention paid to the kung fu sparring and Luke meditating and stuff.  That’s not telling us what the point is, but it is kind of trying to use the depth of the mysticism and wonder about the martial arts to sell it as some sort of deep, nearly religious, experience.

What I’m saying is it takes a lot of guts to go 30 minutes of an 83 minute movie and tell us practically nothing.

Oh, but what’s this?  Rodan is a cocaine dealer and has run afoul of a Chinese gang?  Oh, are we headed toward a gang… war…?  That morning, Luke wakes up with his lady love and a nice little love song plays while they have a baked chicken and rice breakfast.  This montage goes right through the day into the night where they bed down and make love.

Yeah, there’s a full length song that plays over a montage of Luke’s day.  I guess this movie isn’t so sure about a gang war or a devil’s express train.

Luke and Rodan go to a bar with Ro’s drug dealin’ buddy.  Two guys break out into a fight over some money.  When the waitress tries to shut them up, they get handsy so she busts out some fuckin’ karate.  This is cut into the conversation Luke and Ro are having about how they can’t start no shit with the Chinese gang because it will escalate fast.  Not only that, but the cops will be coming down to Harlem and shooting them up because they are martial artists.

This is kind of like the world in which the movie Miami Connection exists in.  With that movie, there were like three or four groups of people who all represented different interests.  There were the heroes who were all taekwondo guys.  One group were ninjas.  Another were brawlers.  And yet another were just guys who knew general martial arts moves.  The point is, everyone fit into one of those groups.  Here, it seems everyone knows kung fu and everyone knows Luke is the baddest mofo of the bunch.  There is most definitely a charming ridiculousness to it all.

Anyway, Luke does ask Ro what he’s wearing because Ro’s turned that medallion into a necklace, but it is almost immediately dropped.  However, we do learn that the demon guy is attracted to the medallion and basically follows it.  At one point, the demon dude tears off the skin of the guy he possessed at the Hong Kong dock because maybe he needs a new body?  Or maybe he simply doesn’t need it anymore?  I dunno.

Fuck that.  No time for demons…  The gang war has broken out!  It’s blacks vs. Chinese!  It’s an all out West Side Story style brawl in a dirty, shitty alley in dirty, shitty New York!

It’s several minutes of guys punching and kicking each other using some seriously awesome sound effects for each kick and punch.  The black dudes even come with samurai swords and knives and shit aaaaaaand… do nothing with them because the Chinese dudes keep knocking them out of their hands.

Ro’s squad thinks they won due to some sense of superiority in kung fu, but it’s not that.  One of the Chinese guys spots the necklace and leads his men in a hasty retreat.

Cris, Luke’s cop pal from the beginning of the movie, is called in on a murder case.  The guy who was possessed by the demon is found.  Cris’ partner says it seems like, from the smell that the guy’s been dead for a couple days.  Cris notes that the guy looks crazy mangled.  After they take the body away, a guy misses a train and is lured down the track by a voice impersonating someone saying he’s trapped by something in the subway tunnel.  The guy who missed his train, like an idiot, walks into the darkness and gets mangled by the monster.

The cops think the murders are related to the Chinese and black gangs fighting.  Cris’ new partner thinks it could be animals thrown in the sewers and mutated (you know, like the whole flushing a baby alligator down the toilet and it comes back as a monster gator).  Cris thinks that’s a dumb suspicion, and I tend to agree with him.

Cris goes to speak with Luke about the murders and asks for help.  Luke believes he’s just tossing accusations, but Cris is very concerned about whether or not Rodan and his gang is involved.  Luke doesn’t believe Rodan is involved at all, but he really doesn’t know that Ro is operating on his own with the gang shenanigans.

I find this an interesting character subplot to this movie.  Rodan (oh, and it’s not the monster Rodan – you know, the big giant flying dinosaur like thing from the Godzilla flicks?) is not a good dude.  He’s a drug dealer and is generally inclined toward violence – particularly toward the Chinese.  Which probably makes him a racist?  I mean, black people can be racist, yeah?  Anyway, Ro’s set up early on as Luke’s pal and all around good guy if not for his slightly fiery temper and impatience.  Luke treats him like the most stand-up dude in Harlem.  But he isn’t.  The movie doesn’t even try to hide that fact after the first 15 minutes or so.  It’s like the trip to Hong Kong was Ro’s last thing on his “I’m gonna be a good guy” list.  Since returning, he just wants to sell coke and fight Asian guys.  Again, this movie has some balls to introduce a character who our main hero says is a great dude, only for him to be an asshole.  Kudos to taking risks…?

Speaking of risks, Cris is depicted as a really good guy and someone who cares a great deal about Luke.  It’s a legitimate risk in a blaxploitation movie to have an overly heroically portrayed black man being friends with a typical white New York cop.  Most of these types of movies in this era portrayed the fuzz as either outright racist (as we will see in a few weeks in another blaxploitation movie on the horizon) or, at the very least, really unconcerned by what’s going on in the “black” part of town.  So all those points Ro lost for the movie in the race relations department are gained back by Cris and Luke’s relationship.

But I digress.

Ro and one of his guys get jumped by members of the Asian gang.  Ro’s pal gets his head bashed and Ro runs away and retreats to the subway…  right into the clutches of the demon who shoves his face into a fuse box.  Luke discovers his friend was killed.  Enraged, he wants to take down the Chinese gang, but Cris pleads with him to not do this because he realizes the bodies in the subway are not part of gang violence.

Luke decides to handle this his own way and decides to dish out some black kung fu fuckin’ justice!

What’s been really great about these fight scenes is that every single punch and kick has either come very slowly and with no apparent power behind it or they are super obvious misses that still trigger the sound effect and the reaction of being kicked or punched.  It’s like kung fu movies are the professional wrestling of the action genre.

The leader of the Chinese gang explains to Luke that Rodan was not killed by their gang, but by something else.  A Chinese elder explains the importance of the medallion Ro took.  Luke gets some quick education about the history of the medallion and the demon and is told that because he took Rodan to China he must wage battle against the demon.

And, so, Luke does just that.  The demon tries to use the form of his girlfriend to trick him, but when she tries to kung fu him to death, he figures out that’s not really her.  I mean, right?  The demon then tries creating two fighters before landing some punches and kicks while invisible.  Then, he uses Rodan’s appearance against Luke, but none of this seems to be working because Luke is now just kicking everything in front of him.  I mean… right?  I’d think the demon would just drop the whole idea of using disguises much sooner than he actually does.  When we do finally see the demon in its natural form, it’s a pretty cool skull-faced zombie like creature.  It’s kind of gnarly and I liked it.

Luke eventually defeats the monster imprisons it in the medallion again.  Luke wakes up in the hospital recovering from his injuries.  Cris says the medallion is on its way back to China where the elder who told Luke all about the legend is getting on the boat to deal with it.  The movie just kind of ends on a bad joke from Cris’ partner while the credits play over the boat heading to Hong Kong.

And that’s that for Devil’s Express, aka Gang War.  This isn’t all that great of a movie.  I don’t have the same feelings I did after watching The Octagon or Black Samurai.  Yet, I cannot deny that I was charmed by the movie.  It’s really thin on plot and it feels like the whole demon aspect wasn’t given near the attention it should have.  It tried to juggle that and the gangs fighting too much.  All that said, I’m glad I saw it.  It’s a silly piece of a time capsule type of movie.

We’re going to keep up the motif these last couple reviews created by sticking to some martial arts action next week and take a look at the 1974 flick Policewomen!

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