Monday, December 1, 2008

Italian Superhero Roll Call: The Three Fantastic Supermen

The Three Fantastic Supermen (1967) Dir. by Gianfranco Parolini. While little but a grindhouse obscurity in the US, The Three Fantastic Supermen was the first in a looong series of films that enjoyed popularity in a number of countries around the globe. By the time it had run its course, the series had come to include among its many entries a co-production with Hong Kong's Shaw Brother studios complete with stunt work by a young Jackie Chan (The Three Fantastic Supermen in the Orient) and -- surely the true measure of success -- a couple of unauthorized Turkish installments, as well.

This introductory chapter in the Three Fantastic Supermen saga was helmed by Gianfranco Parolini (under his "Frank Kramer" pseudonym), a frequent director of the Kommissar X series, and also features the stars of the Kommissar X films, Brad Harris and Tony Kendall, in its lead roles. As a result, it would not be inaccurate to describe the movie as "Kommissar X in tights". Kendall's character, Sir Anthony, is virtually indistinguishable from Kommissar X's Joe Walker, displaying all of the smarm and smirk of the latter, along with the same penchant for just walking up and planting one on any attractive woman who catches his eye. Likewise, his relationship with the comparatively straight-laced character played by Harris is marked by the same friendly antagonism as that seen between Walker and Tom Rowland in the Kommissar X films.

Top it off with the appearance of some other familiar faces from the X series, such as bad guy Giuseppe Mattei and femme fatale Sabine Sun, and it's very easy to forget at times that you're not watching a Kommissar X film. Fortunately for me, I have come to have an affection for those films that is, admittedly, way out of proportion to their modest charms, so it will probably come as no surprise that I enjoyed The Three Fantastic Supermen quite a bit.

In the film, Kendall portrays a gentleman thief who, along with a mute sidekick played by Italian stuntman Aldo Canti, commits a series of daring, high stakes robberies with the aid of some bulletproof super-suits designed for him by one Professor Schwartz (Carlo Tamberlani). Harris' FBI agent Brad McCullen, posing as a criminal, dupes the two into letting him join their gang, enlisting them in a heist that is actually a clandestine bureau operation to steal counterfeit dollars that are stashed in a foreign embassy. This suspected counterfeit operation turns out to be just a small part of a much larger scheme by corpulent criminal mastermind Mr. Golem (Jochen Brockmen), who has gotten his hands on a machine called "The Universal Reproducer", which can duplicate, not only money and gold bars, but human beings as well. After some comedic cat and mouse games, Harris and the two thieves form an uneasy alliance, and set out, clad in their matching red super-longjohns, to topple Golem once and for all and make the world safe again from the threat of multiple karate-chopping Brad Harrises.

Furthering the film's resemblance to a typical Kommissar X entry is the fact that it comes to us chock-a-block with wild, acrobatic stunts and outlandish set pieces. The former are mostly the work of Aldo Canti, who compensates for the borderline offensiveness of his mute character being portrayed as a gibbering idiot by being the most agile and athletic of the team. He's in constant motion whenever he's on screen, bounding and somersaulting hither and thither with a disconcerting surplus of manic energy. As for the latter, the old vice-disguised-as-virtue trope gets a lot of play on both sides of the conflict here, with Kendall's character presiding over an all-female school for larceny disguised as a Catholic girls' boarding school and Golem making his headquarters in a subterranean city hidden beneath an orphanage he runs in his guise as a rich philanthropist. (Yes, he is a bad, bad man.) The Universal Reproducer also provides some fun kiddie sci-fi thrills in the form of the aforementioned army of Brad Harris clones and some early, less successful attempts at human duplication that end up shattering like glass via some crude drawn-on animation. Putting a nice, decadent 60s glaze over all of the above is Ruggero Cini's Piero Umiliani-esque score, which comes complete with a catchy-to-the-point-of-being-annoying Benny Hill-style theme tune.

This would be Tony Kendall's only appearance in the series, with Brad Harris returning only for the third film, The Three Fantastic Supermen in the Jungle, which makes The Three Fantastic Supermen the only one of these films that can stand in for a Kommissar X film. And this, as I think I've already made abundantly clear, it does in fine form, while at the same time providing all of the cheesy costumed thrills you could hope for from a spaghetti superhero film of its era. Granted, the action does veer uncomfortably into slapstick comedy territory on occasion. But give me that winning combination of implausible spy movie gimmickry, lethal ladies in Carnaby Street fashions, and Tony Kendall demonstrating some truly preposterous moves on the dance floor, and I'm willing to forgive an awful lot of sins.

No comments: