MOVIE REVIEW: “The Wrecking Crew” (1969)

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…And so, my friends, Matt Helm Month (Previously known as “August”) comes to a close with our review of “The Wrecking Crew,” the final film in the series. I have to confess, I’m spent. The movies have worn me down. I’m not sure why, but they’re difficult and laborious to review, and I frequently have to re-watch portions of them to keep track of sometimes-incoherent plot twists and what have you, even in the later, more competent films in the series. Here at the end, the producers seem kind of worn out, too. Early on in the series, they were cranking these things out like you wouldn’t believe: Silencers in March of ‘66, Murderer’s Row in October of ‘66, Ambushers in January of ‘67.….and then nothing until this film came out in January of ‘69. That’s a long break. I’m not going to say that taking such a long gap just when they’d hit their stride meant they lost their magic - I’m not convinced there was ever any magic there to begin with - but definitely they seem to have lost some of their energy and enthusiasm for the project, and watching this movie it’s not at all surprising that it’s the final one.

PLAY BY PLAY

First up we’re treated to the worst opening title sequence in the entire franchise.

After that, we discover that a billion dollars in gold bars is being shipped by train, to England, through Denmark. (Yeah, I don’t get that either.) It’s attacked and stolen by the minions of the evil Count Cortina (Nigel Green, who’s only solid genre credit is a film called “Strangler from Venus” that I’ve never seen). The director of ICE, Macdonald (previously played by James Gregory, but here played far less effectively by John Larch, who was cheaper. Larch, by the way, started his career with a guest spot on “Space Patrol,” and did an episode of “The Invaders,” but has no other real genre credits) calls in Matt Helm, who’s on a photo shoot in the middle of nowhere.

Homaging the first film, Helm is asleep (outdoors), dreaming of making out with models in ridiculous costumes. (My favorite one is the telephone girl. Her hat is shiny.) Mac shows up, wakes him up, and pulls him away from the girls - there’s ludicrously dressed hot chicks everywhere, and it’s a little unclear why Helm is dreaming about women who are actually there with him, but there it is. I think we’re supposed to believe the reason he’s so tired out is because he just nailed some - or possibly all - of them, but again, that’s not entirely clear. In any event, Dream Helm made out with three chicks.

Mac tells Helm that their one lead is Contini, though we’re never told what the clue is. He tries to get Helm in under cover as a photojournalist to get an interview with the noble, but the Danish Tourism Office hasn’t made any headway, and if the gold shipment doesn’t get to London in 48 hours, the economy of the western world will collapse. Given how under the gun they are, Mac decides that he’s going to deliberately blow Helm’s cover so that Contini will track him down, rather than Helm laboriously doing it the normal way. This is a damn clever idea, and I like it a lot, but it’s wasted in this movie.

Once in Denmark, Helm is met by Freya Carlson (Sharon Tate in her final film role), from the Danish Tourism Office, who immediately falls ass-over-teakettle, setting the tone for a performance that would seem tedious in an episode of “Here’s Lucy!” Freya is a clumsy nerd-girl with big goofy glasses and a taste for hats that do nothing for her.

After checking in, Helm goes to meet Lola Medina (Tina Louise!), who was Contini’s ho when they were planning the gold heist, but he kicked her to the curb in favor of his new girlfriend shortly before the operation became…uhm…operational, I guess. Lola holds a grudge, and wants to take Contini down. She offers to provide any information Helm needs in exchange for (A) the total destruction of her ex, and (B) a million dollars. She also tries on a slinky little outfit that is a bit on the silly site, but totally works for her because she’s freakin’ Tina Louise! Hubba freakin’ hubba! They make out a bit - that‘s four chicks he‘s macked on so far - then she goes to pour Helm a drink and explodes.

Helm beats feet out of there, and almost gets away, but his car gets hit by Freya, who’s following him around. The police come and arrest him, and Freya just makes things worse. Then Contini shows up, vouches for Helm with the cops, and they let him go. Contini invites Helm (And Freya) to his chateau for a talk.

At the house, Helm meets Contini’s new squeeze, Linka Karensky (Elke Sommer, who’s screaming hot if you go for icy blondes with accents, and made a career out of doing these kinds of films - “A Shot in the Dark,” and “Boy, Did I Get A Wrong Number” for example). Contini cuts straight to the chase, and says “I’ll give you a million bucks to just go away and not mess up my operation.” (Again, this is damn clever, and I really wish this kind of option came up in a Bond film now and again. It would save so much pointless fencing around). Helm refuses, and Contini decides to kill him, but Helm sets off a smoke bomb and after a poorly-choreographed fight scene, he and Freya escape. Not before Freya pushes Elke in the pool, however, which treats us to some typically “Whaaaaaat?” dialog:

Helm: What made you think she could swim?
Freya: It was the only way to find out.

There’s a chase scene where Yu-Rang (Nancy Kwan) chases Helm around the mountains of Denmark, which look a lot like the mountains of Southern California, where this sequence was filmed, and some slapstick with Frey that isn’t particularly funny. Then Helm escapes, gets rid of his sidekick, and heads back to his hotel. There he meets Yu-Rang in bed, who proposes they take out Contini and split the money 50/50. They make out for a bit - that’s five - while she gradually pulls out a knife, and then Freya blunders in and ruins everything again.

Freya: She’s got a knife in her hand.
Helm: I *know* she’s got a knife in her hand, and you’ve got the worst timing I’ve ever seen.

I may have garbled that line a bit, but Dino’s delivery of it is great. Yu-Rang and her henchmen leave for no adequately explained reason, and Helm heads over to Linka’s place to talk to her. They, too, end up making out - six - and discussing cutting Contini out of the equation. None of this really comes to much of anything, though, it’s just filler. Meanwhile, Freya is doing some spy stuff, which is supposed to be surprising, but frankly we’ve all stopped caring about the movie by this point, so it doesn’t really have much impact.

Back at Helm’s hotel, Freya changes out of her nerd-girl clothes and in to a slinky minidress with no apparent species of undergarments on beneath it. For no particular reason, she smokes a cigarette and dances around in a vaguely slutty manner (or maybe it isn’t, it’s hard to tell since the camera only follows her ass around for most of the sequence*). Then some other stuff happens, none of it relevant, and then Mac shows up and identifies Freya as a British spy.

Wait, wait, wait, hold on - she’s supposed to have been British this whole time? I didn’t even realize she wasn’t supposed to be American. There’s no attempt at an accent, nor any attempt to hide her Americaness though the whole film, so I just figured she was one of us working overseas. Or, failing that, since everyone in Copenhagen sounds just like her and Dino, I just assumed she’s supposed to be Danish and everyone in Denmark is played by American actors. The idea that she’s allegedly English is just nutty. Sure enough, her next line is about how Denmark is her “Cricket pitch” and he’s got no business muscling in. Wow. She makes no attempt at an accent, and frequently delivers her lines with rather random energy levels, which makes me wonder strongly if they’d intended to have a brit dub over all her lines in post production. Oh well.

Mac goes out to do something unclear, and Helm goes to a Chinese restaurant, where he’s put in a tedious revolving booth, and talks to Contini. Freya, meanwhile, is at the bar wearing a black wig (Looks pretty good, really, I like her as a brunette) and allegedly “Under cover.” Helm does the old “Mac will complete the mission thing” and then we’re treated to more tedious spinning booth stuff, and - hey - there’s Mac, captured by Contini’s goons. More spinning, then Contini decides to have them killed. More tedious spinning, and then a tedious fight sequence takes place, and Mac gets shot. (James Gregory would never have gotten shot!) Linka falls in to the spinning booth, and is accidentally shot by Contini and Yu-Rang while the good guys get away. “Most unfortunate,” he says dryly.

Another car chase takes place, concluding with Helm stuck at a creek. Freya kinda’ kicked ass at the dustup, and Helm is surprised. “You didn’t do one thing wrong back there. Is it the wig?” Freya walks across the creek to see if it’s shallow enough to drive over, but of course it isn’t, and she goes down. The wig comes off, and she’s right back to screwup as usual territory, thus making Helm conclude “It *Was* the wig. She manages to destroy Helm’s (ugly) car with his exploding Handkerchief (Really), so they assemble his special snap-together helicopter that he carries around in the trunk, and fly to the Chateau for a more direct approach.

The final mele is a bit of a rambling mess, with Freya in a karate battle with You-Rang, Contini running away by train with the gold, and various portions of the house sealing themselves up and exploding, sometimes by Contini trying to kill Helm, sometimes by Helm blasting holes in the walls with his exploding hankies. (How many does the guy carry with him?). I won’t attempt to describe it because reading it is more tedious than watching it (Plenty tedious enough, trust me!), though I do like the large amounts of ceiling debris that fall whenever a bomb goes off. Finally besting Yu-Rang, Freya puts her on a bed and runs away to join Helm, while Contini makes the bed explode. This probably isn’t supposed to be hilarious, but it is.

They take the copter to Contini’s train, then literally trash the copter, and the goons, and take out Contini himself in a fight that is kind of anticlimactic. The locomotive control cabin turns out to be tricked out with James Bond Love Shack accoutrements, and Mac calls saying “Don’t slow down, and don’t have any screwups in the next 24 hours!” Helm and Freya now make out in bed (That‘s seven! We have a new record!), she pulls the ’emergency stop’ lever, and the last shot in the film is the two of them flying through the air, with a subtitle saying “Don’t worry, world, Matt Helm made it! In Time!” Which is a double entendre, or a sentence fragment.

THE END

OBSERVATIONS:

I’m told Chuck Norris makes his film debut in the fight scene at the restaurant, but I didn’t recognize him. Helm’s stunt double gets off a nice backwards kick, though, making me wonder if that was Norris?

I commented last week on how the musical quality of the series was declining. Here at the end of the series, it hits an all-time low with that terrible song by Mack David and Frank DeVoll, and a terrible, terrible, terrible score that consists mostly of the same vocal group from the theme song singing “Bah! Ba-ba-bah-bah-ba! Bah! Bah! Ba-ba-bah-bah-be-bah! Bah!” over and over again. Eventually we get some harpsichord, and then a bit of psychedelic flute noodled around through a delay and reverb. Terrible. Look, I’m the first person to admit that Spy Music is a bit of a cliché, but it’s a *Good* cliché, and if you want to do this kind of flick at this point in history, there’s a way it should sound, which is *not* like an episode of The Partridge Family. Terrible. On the bright side, Dino’s song parodies are back in fine form here.

Dino was 52 when this movie came out, and is looking a bit long in the tooth. I realize he *always* looked a bit long in the tooth, and that was part of the gag, but here it’s less of an act, and more of a guy who’s way over-tanned and going grey, and kind of tired, and not all that in to what he’s doing here. He’s still a handsome guy, and he remains as charming as ever, but it’s obvious that he’s not really in to it anymore, and would just as soon go play golf. The New Mac has absolutely no chemistry with Dino, though I will say that Helm’s increasing irritation with Freya busting in on him at the wrong moment is pretty darn funny. I also like the scenes where Helm is trying to escape from the chateau, to find steel doors sliding down every time he heads towards a door or window. In frustration he just points at one, which then closes, and he smiles like “yeah, knew that was gonna’ happen.” This face acting stuff is very strong, funny, and it’s in these little blow-off scenes that Martin really shines. All to briefly, though, and the film quickly slides back in to a muddle. Most of the time he has the air of a man who realizes he’s driven a gag in to the ground a bit too far. Embarrassed? Not quite, but definitely something close to it.

Tina Louise’s gypsy dance can best be describes as “Unintentionally hilarious,” but man she’s just smoking’ hot, ain’t she? I do wish she had more to do. That see-through number she wore at the end would have pretty much caused Gilligan to explode. Exploding Tina Louise was rather hilarious, as was blowing up Nancy Kwan, but then I’m a sucker for people just randomly blowing up anyway. (“May the Good Lord take a Likin’ to ye, and blow ye’ up reeeeeel gooood!” as they used to say on SCTV) Elke Sommers is beautiful, competent, and about what you’d expect. Sharon Tate is terrible, just terrible. Kind of amazing looking on occasion, but terrible.

The plot almost makes sense: evil guy wants to collapse the world economy, so he steals a shipment of gold to make the stock markets collapse. His reasoning behind this is never made clear, but fine, hey, on this side of the 20th century we’re no strangers to how the rich use financial chaos to get richer, it tracks. Where it all falls apart, however, is that we’re repeatedly told Contini has this amazingly elaborate down-to-the-minute plan, which evolves doing specific things at very specific times, and yet he never actually does it. He takes the gold off the train, hides it in his house by essentially re-bricking the walls with it and painting ‘em white (Clever, actually!), and then he does nothing but sit around grousing about timing and clocks and oooh, that damn mr. Helm, and my plan this and my plan that, and time, time, time, time for an hour and a half. Then he takes *down* the bricks, loads ‘em on another train, and is immediately caught and killed. Really not such a great, intricate plan after all, was it, Sparky? If he’d spent less time talking about the plan, or - here’s a thought - if he’d actually driven the gold to where he wanted it to be, rather than sitting on it and painting it for two days, hey, you might have just made it there, son.

For whatever reason, we don’t get any scenes in Helm’s house this time out. Obviously the bedroom/tub set aren’t still standing, but the living room I suspect of being someone’s actual house. They should have used that, and just had Helm zonked out on the couch or something. In the last film and in this one, having him effectively homeless subtracts something intangible from the story, makes him feel more adrift. It’s like taking bugs bunny’s hole away. Not that the hole matters in and of itself, but Bugs feels a bit incomplete without it.

In addition to re-casting Mac with a cheaper actor, Lovey Kravezit is not in this movie, nor is there a name check for her. Unexpectedly, this affects the film less than the absence of his house. This whole flick has a low-budget feel that the others didn’t, or deliberately played around. It just feels cheap.

Direction is Made-for-TV-Movie quality, though it manages to avoid those long, inexplicable dead spots from the first two installments, but this one is the weakest of the set, and it’s got a quality that the previous three films never had: It’s boring. Most scenes go on too long, and while we’re spared an endless Ann Margret dance number that goes on forever, a steady dose of scenes that are 4 or 5 beats longer than they need to be will wear you down. And, you know, it is nice to just watch a young Ann Margret dance sometimes. There’s none of that in this film.

Box office receipts for this movie were pretty low, clearly audiences, producers, and cast had all lost interest, however the movie ends with a tag telling us Matt Helm will return in “The Ravagers,” and I’ll be discussing that next week.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS MOVIE?

Assuming they can stay awake through it, probably not.

*- Yeah, yeah, I know you’re wondering: It’s very nice. Very very nice.

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