Monday, October 29, 2012

Three Supermen in the Jungle (Italy/Spain, 1970)

It seems that, during the late 60s to mid-80s, every couple of years someone in a room full of people somewhere in Europe would say, “Aw, what the hell. Let’s make another Three Fantastic Supermen movie”. And thus, by 1970, we had Three Supermen in the Jungle, the third film in a perplexingly long-lived series that would ramble on until 1986, all the while becoming more underfunded and increasingly Turkish.

This entry begins with Brad Harris’ FBI agent, Brad Scott, attempting to get married, only to be called into the field by his superiors mere moments before walking the aisle. It seems a gang of Soviet agents are poised to lay claim to a uranium rich African mine, having murdered the FBI agent in charge of keeping them from it. Now it has been decided that only the Three Fantastic Supermen -- with their matching, gymnastics enabling, bulletproof red long johns -- can succeed where that lone agent failed, making Scott, who is one of them, the only agent for the job. Scott objects, referring to the shabby treatment the trio received at the hands of the bureau during their last adventure, which was chronicled in 1968’s Three Supermen in Tokyo. This is an interesting point for Scott to make, seeing as neither he nor the actor playing him was in Three Supermen in Tokyo.

Three Supermen in the Jungle, in fact, marks Harris’ sole return to the series, after having starred in the first entry alongside his Kommissar X co-star Tony Kendall. Tokyo replaced Kendall and Harris with Spaghetti Western mainstay George Martin (who returns here) and Willi Colombini (who does not). Meanwhile, Kendall’s mute sidekick Nick, played by Aldo Canti in the first film, was replaced by another stuntman-turned-actor, Salvatore Borghese, in the role of mute sidekick “Dick”. The name of Borghese’s character would change throughout the series (in Supermen Against the Orient, for instance, he was “Jerry”), but the actor, from Three Supermen in Tokyo on, would remain one of its few constants, as I fear would be his portraying a speech impaired man as a gibbering, hyperactive idiot. In truth, consistency wasn’t exactly a strong point of this series, as it appeared less concerned with establishing distinctive tropes than with merely being a reliable source of generic tongue-in-cheek superhero hijinks -- which, I have to admit, it is.

Anyway, it turns out that, before he can reunite with his fellow supermen, Dick (Borghese) and Martin (Martin), Scott must first free them from a Middle Eastern prison, where, incorrigible master thieves that they are, they’ve been thrown after trying to make off with a sheik’s gold. Interestingly, their captors have not seen fit to free them of their super suits before imprisoning them, which makes rescuing them a lot easier than it might otherwise have been. To demonstrate its staunch commitment to cartoon logic, Three Supermen in the Jungle then has Scott travel to the Middle East by rocket to save time, and then use a nifty burrowing machine called an Earthworm to affect their breakout. Then it’s off to Africa for a brisk course in boilerplate jungle movie shenanigans 101.

Are there tribes of ooga booga movie savages? Check. Is there a mischievous chimp? Indeed there is -- and the gibbering deaf guy can talk to it! Must a deadly pit of quicksand be traversed? YUP. Are our heroes placed in a giant pot by cannibals? YAWN! In addition to the aforementioned thrills, the Supermen also come upon a tribe of white, leopard skin bikini sporting amazons lead by the self-proclaimed Queen of the Jungle, Jungla (Femi Benussi). So amiably lax is the film in its dedication to having a plot that it then abandons its whole Cold War premise in favor of having the Supermen seduced into a life of domesticity by the amazons, only to find out almost too late that they are destined for the sacrificial altar. Not that much real suspense is forfeited by this shifting of gears, mind you, as the villainous Soviets here are of the type that include a pantsless aparat-chick (see what I did there?) among their number for va-va-voom appeal and celebrate tactical victories by doing a Cossack dance in a chorus line.

It almost begrudges me to admit that Three Supermen in the Jungle has its charms despite -- and more likely because of -- being a signal example of 60s Italian popcorn filmmaking at its most blearily sun-dazed and asleep at the wheel. After all, what do I want? If the Supermen movies were ever to guaranty their audience anything, it wouldn’t be much beyond lots of slapstick fight scenes with complicated acrobatics, and Jungle certainly delivers on that count. And I must say I enjoyed paying witness to the odd gift that Brad Harris, an accomplished stuntman, shows for physical comedy, particularly in how he uses his bulk against itself. You really haven’t seen absurdity until you’ve seen a guy with Harris’s Peplum grade muscles throw himself down in the dirt and launch into an exaggerated kicking and screaming temper tantrum.

Three Supermen in the Jungle wraps up with a return to the States and an egregious Chinaman impersonation by Brad Harris before closing out with just one more massive brawl. Sated, the hypothetical Three Supermen devotee would then have to wait another three whole years before his heroes returned in Supermen Against the Orient. And this was before webisodes, guys.

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