THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR (1975)
This is another favorite of mine. It’s not quite on a level with other apocalyptic 70s flicks like Omega Man and Soylent Green , but it is actually a decent flick and a lot of fun and is a lesser known film from that era. The film does fit in well with those other flicks for a 70s futuristic film fest featuring Ten Commandments actors…only a film geek would come up with that combo and as these films illustrate, it’s enjoyably do-able!
The film takes place in NYC of the year 2012 (was made in 1975, so we’ll cut their vision of our present decade some slack) in a world decimated by an epidemic, where food is now scarce and savage gangs roam the streets with the last, more civilized survivors living in secured compounds within the city. One such compound is run by The Baron (Max Von Sydow), a kind-hearted man who has provided a home, some hope and even food for a small group of survivors under his leadership. His man Cal (Richard Kelton) has even gotten vegetables to grow again in a rooftop garden. Baron sees the group deteriorating and if that’s not enough, there is constant harassment by the thugs of a larger and more aggressive neighboring compound run by the ruthless Carrot (legendary TV and movie bad guy William Smith). But hope arrives in the form of Carson (Yul Brynner), a man who makes his living as a fighter protecting such compounds. Baron hires Carson, but upon hearing the warrior’s plan to one day retire to a small island off the Carolina coast, Baron decides to send his pregnant daughter (Joanna Miles) and Cal’s seeds, along with Carson, to this sanctuary to start fresh and maybe give humanity a chance to re-bloom. With the discovery of his plan, compound members feel betrayed and start to turn on their benefactor and worse yet, Carrot has decided to destroy his rivals for good and take what’s their’s, as well as, their lives. Carson is the only one who stands in the way of what might be civilization’s final downfall, but the odds are great and his is but one man.
Written and directed by Enter The Dragon’s Robert Clouse, this is an entertaining action flick that shares similar 70s films’ bleak vision of what the 21st century would be like. It moves quickly and smartly uses it’s aging star to it’s advantage. Brynner was 55 when he made this and while he still is in fairly good shape, his age is showing and it gives the illusion of a man whose been physically punished by a violent life in the streets and would really like to retire his knife. Clouse’s script is not perfect. There are plot holes…such as why Carrot didn’t send his thugs to take out Carson before he was hired by Baron and eliminate a potential advantage to his rival. That and the film does have more of a TV movie look than a feature film, but it was made for a very modest budget even at this time. What Clouse does succeed at, is creating some interesting characters and keeping the action scenes very grounded, so they appear more as brutal street fights than choreographed and he takes his story seriously and the film never becomes campy. It’s humor comes from some nice interaction between characters, there are some nice dialog moments, especially between Carson and Baron, but otherwise maintains a dark and serious tone. He successfully portrays the disintegration of the group and the foolish things people do when panicked and scared and the harm their panic causes. He also creates an atmospheric world where desperate times can lead to savage actions and normally peaceful people will behave with almost gleeful brutality. It is ironic that fighter Carson may be one of the more civilized people when the others start to turn vicious. He at least only kills in self defense or with good reason. In the last third, Clouse also gives us a fairly suspenseful cat and mouse chase under the streets of New York, as Carrot pursues Carson who is escorting the about to give birth Melinda (Miles) through the subway system. The film’s last act is entertaining and has some brutal moments, but also provides some glimmer of hope that civility and peace might some day return to this shattered world.
The cast are also strong among the principles. There is some weak overacting by some of the lesser supporting characters, but the main cast all do strong work. Brynner is a legend and here he creates a Samurai like character in the noble but deadly Carson. Despite the savagery around him and being a killer, he actually is far more grounded than the panicked and desperate people he protects. All he really wants is a quiet place to live out his days and a good cigar. He seems to have made his peace with the world and how he is forced to live in it and is far more stable than those around him, who quickly turn on each other over a piece of fruit or a bag of beans. Von Sydow is also quite endearing as the Baron. A man of quiet strength and fortitude who still sees hope, but is also smart enough to know when a cause is lost. He is a self sacrificing man who knows when he has done all he can. He and Brynner have some very charming dialog scenes together and they seem to legitimately like each other. It creates a nice character dynamic. Smith is basically a stereotypical villain with the violent dictator that is Carrot. It is a role Smith made a career out of playing and he is damn good at it and gives the simply written Carrot a lot of character and threat with the minimal dialog he has. Smith has always had a strong screen presence and he uses it to good effect here. One of the film’s flaws is that the final confrontation with Carson and Carrot should have been a bit more epic, it was over a little too quick for the build-up of expectations and needed to have more impact. Rounding out is Joanna Miles, presenting a strong woman in Melinda. Richard Kelton is very likable as the scientist Cal and we get a young Stephen McHattie as a compound member and new father trying to do what’s right for his family, while dealing with an increasingly panicked wife. A solid cast in the lead roles.
Overall, I like this film very much as you can tell. Sure it’s cheesy by today’s standards and it’s not perfect. There are plot holes and a little overacting from the supporting cast. But Robert Clouse gives us some solid lead characters, some brutal violence and keeps a tense atmosphere. He gets great work from veterans Brynner and Von Sydow and creates a world where danger lurks both outside and within, as desperation makes people forget their civility and loyalty. It’s not a perfect film, but an entertaining one and one now enhanced by some good old fashioned 70s nostalgia. A personal guilty pleasure and one I recommend for those who haven’t seen or heard of it. Not a great movie, but a good one and one sadly overlooked and underrated.
Rated 3 (out of 4) knife-wielding, cigar-loving street fighters.