Wednesday, August 03, 2016

VHS WEDNESDAY: THE DOGFIGHTERS (1996) starring Robert Davi, Alexander Godunov and Ben Gazzara

Robert Davi and Alexander Godunov first united on the big screen for 1988's smash hit action thriller DIE HARD. Eight years later they'd re-team – with ROAD HOUSE baddie Ben Gazzara in tow – for the slightly less popular THE DOGFIGHTERS. Mitch Lovell plunked down his two bits for a look in this week's installment of VHS Wednesday. 

Part of the fun of watching old VHS tapes is seeing the trailers that play before the main feature. On this tape we get previews for not one, but two classic films from 1996: THE SUBSTITUTE and THE ARRIVAL. Both trailers are, frankly, underwhelming and don't really hint at the awesomeness that either film contains. The trailer for THE ARRIVAL does feature a great tagline though: "Stop watching the skies and start watching your back!" Then the feature presentation begins:

Robert Davi stars as a top Navy pilot named Rowdy who loses his job when he strikes a superior officer. He then ekes out a living by running drugs in a little two-seater airplane. A shady CIA agent (Ben Gazzara) frames Rowdy for murder and blackmails him into pulling a job for him. It seems a Russian baddie (Alexander Godunov in his final film role) is building a nuclear reactor and it's up to Rowdy to shut him down.

I've always felt Davi made a better villain than hero, but THE DOGFIGHTERS (aka THE ZONE and ZONE 99: NUCLEAR TARGET) finds him playing one of his best hero roles. In his down-and-out phase he wears a bandana and sunglasses (which makes him resemble Little Steven Van Zandt from The E Street Band). Once he switches over to a suit and tie ensemble he pulls off the suave character effortlessly. There's one sequence where he eludes an assassin that is worthy of a James Bond movie. Once Davi is cornered, he jumps off a bridge, lands on a passing party boat, and emerges pouring a glass of champagne. He even raises his glass to his indignant pursuer as he's making his getaway!

It also helps enormously that Davi is given some priceless dialogue. Seriously, Schwarzenegger would be envious at some of the one-liners that our hero gets in this one. When he's flying he says stuff like "Hold on to your sphincter!" While drinking in a bar, a woman tells him he's going to trash his liver and he replies "My liver is long gone!" My favorite line came during a scene where Davi's being chased through a marketplace. He hits a guy in the face with a slab of raw meat and quips "Hope you like it rare!"

The other performers fare decently enough. Ben Gazzara can do this kind of role in his sleep, but even if he was sleepwalking through his performance (which he isn't) he'd still be fun to watch. Alexander Godunov gives one of his best performances as he fills his character with a touch of class and dignity. Even in the smallest scenes he seems totally invested, and when he's deep in thought, you can almost see the wheels turning as he's weighing his options.

Although the film gets off to a strong start, it eventually falls into a predictable pattern: Davi does some snooping around, gets surrounded by Godunov's men and has to find a way to slip out of danger. The action and stunt work is solid for the most part (like when Davi punches a bad guy out of a plane in mid-flight) and is comparable to some of the better Direct-to-Video films of the day, which helps somewhat. Even these sequences tend to get repetitive before the end credits roll. The final dogfight between Davi and Godunov is a bit of a (pardon the pun) washout, too.

THE DOGFIGHTERS was directed by Barry Zetlin, a name I thought sounded familiar. So I checked IMDB to learn that he has edited some of my favorite (and not-so favorite) horror and exploitation movies of the '80s and '90s. There are just too many titles in his filmography to list here, but if you have time, check out his IMDB page and get a load of some of the films Zetlin cut. As for his directing career, he only has one other film to his credit (the multi-director John Ritter flick MAN OF THE YEAR). It's a shame because while not perfect, THE DOGFIGHTERS is proof that he could've gone on to a reasonably solid directing career.

Now that I know Zetlin's editing background, it occurs to me that maybe he should've given the flick another pass at the editing table. The episodic nature sometimes makes it feel longer than it is (particularly in the third act). Thankfully, Davi's charismatic performance helps keep you entertained through the occasional lulls. – Mitch Lovell

Mitch Lovell is a frequent contributor to the print version of Exploitation Retrospect. He is also the editor of The Video Vacuum and author of several film books including the recent Double Vision: Hollywood vs. Hollywood. This is his first piece for the ER blog.

THE DOGFIGHTERS is available at Amazon and finer thrift stores everywhere. Unfortunately, I could not locate a trailer for THE DOGFIGHTERS for you to enjoy. However, you can go to YouTube and watch countless tv appearances in which Davi extols the virtues of a Trump Presidency.

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