Monday, December 30, 2013

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "MASSACRE MAFIA STYLE" (aka "THE EXECUTIONER" aka "LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON") (1978)

"Today, we eat. Tomorrow, we shoot!"
   -- Duke Mitchell in Massacre Mafia Style

One of the many low-budget, 1970s Godfather ripoffs, Massacre Mafia Style is an astonishingly entertaining gangster picture with enough little comedic moments to confirm that you're watching a real movie and not some dengue fever-induced delirium. If you ever wondered what kind of stuff Quentin Tarantino viewed during his video store clerk days, this is the place to start. It's a textbook example of the once-obscure, long-reviled "grindhouse" genre.

Writer-director-producer-star Duke Mitchell plays Mimi Miceli, Jr., whose father, Don Mimi, has been exiled to Sicily for his underworld activities. Mimi leaves his son, Mimi III, with the Don in order to take over the Los Angeles underworld activities.  An enterprising kind of guy, Mimi's first order of business to recruit his old pal Vic Caesar in order to kidnap current L.A. crime kingpin Chucky Tripoli for ransom. Not content with merely providing a photo, Mimi and Vic send Chucky's severed pinkie to his family as proof of their deed. Chucky, holding Mimi's father in respect, refuses to take revenge. Now feeling his gangster oats, Mimi makes good on his vow to wipe out all the local "bookies and black pimps," white pimps apparently being off his hit list. Or, as a newspaper headline shrieks, 13 LA BOOKMAKERS AND PROCURERS SLAIN! When was the last time you saw "procurers" in a newspaper? Or anywhere else?

Still maintaining his respect for the exiled Don yet nervous about the trigger-happy son, Chucky gives Mimi $50,000 to get into a "legitimate business" -- which, in 1978, meant porno movies. You'd think this would keep everybody happy, but Mimi discovers that Chucky has put out a contract on him. Unlike their porno employees, Mimi and Vic refuse to take this lying down, and quickly wipe out Chucky and whoever else gets in the way. But Chucky's remaining board of directors kill both Vic and Mimi's girlfriend Liz as a friendly warning. Mimi scrams to Sicily for the first time in 17 years. Having witnessed too much bloodshed, Mimi begs his father to leave the business. Don Mimi and Mimi III, however, teach him a lesson in the most outlandish, shockingly hilarious climax since Dr. Strangelove. Let's just say you'll never look at a loaf of bread the same way again.

Don't worry, it's got a
vegan urinal cake.
Lacking the epic style -- not to mention big budget, great script and legendary cast -- of Coppola's masterpiece, Massacre Mafia Style instead goes for the visceral shoot-'em-up style that non-demanding, grindhouse patrons crave. The opening three-minute scene, in fact, consists of nothing but Mimi and Vic committing a dozen or so murders, with two consisting of death by urinal (one by drowning, the other by electrocution via a wheelchair plugged into an outlet). And that's before the credits, so you know you're in for a ride wilder than anything at Six Flags.

Your average movie fan wouldn't consider Massacre Mafia Style "great" by any accepted definition of the word. Other than Mitchell, I don't think any of the other "actors" ever stepped in front of an camera that wasn't a Polaroid. Chucky's son, for instance, reacts to the sight of his father's severed finger with the horror of having discovered mustard on his chin. Not that someone of the caliber of Marlon Brando could have done anything with the first-draft dialogue. ("That's Chucky's finger alright," one of his cohorts murmurs, "I've seen it a million times.") Too, certain plot twists make little sense. The opening scene killing spree is accomplished with only two revolvers. Mimi and Vic easily kidnap Chucky at church because the L.A. don doesn't have bodyguards. They even get away with murdering someone on a live talk show. And then there are the obvious budgetary restrictions. This actually makes Massacre Mafia Style's violence all the more palatable, since most of the money seems to have gone to a gallon of Red Dye #3 to (barely) replicate blood. Just to give you an idea of what the production was dealing with, Duke Mitchell allegedly cast a wedding scene by sending out real invitations, then sold the guests' gifts to help finance the movie. Speaking as an admirer of anyone who can put a movie onscreen without studio money, that is genius on the scale of Orson Welles.

"No, I wasn't in National Treasure!"
Marginally better than the rest of the cast, Duke Mitchell's presence is distracted by his strong resemblance to Nicholas Cage and a speaking voice identical to Tony Curtis. Yet Mitchell -- billed under his real name Dominico Miceli -- has a genuine point of view when it comes to the story.  Even while partaking in violent crime, Mimi admits that he and his cohorts have brought shame upon the Italian culture and its people. To drive it home further, he tells his father that a recent, unnamed movie -- "the highest-grossing in the history of show business!" -- portrays him in an insulting light. A Godfather ripoff bringing up The Godfather takes plenty of palle, brother.

Sammy Petrillo and Duke Mitchell in 1952.
Any resemblance to another comedy team
is purely deliberate.
This wasn't Duke's first go-round at the ripoff-rodeo. Twenty-six years earlier, he and 18 year-old Sammy Petrillo were a Martin & Lewis-clone duo when they starred in their magnum opus, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. Mitchell & Petrillo then took their act on the road until Jerry Lewis used his muscle to get them banned from every nightclub in America. (Dean, not surprisingly, had no problem with them making a more-or-less honest buck.) Duke went on to a comfortable career as a third-tier lounge singer; his musical contributions to the Massacre Mafia Style soundtrack remind one of Tony Bennett with a heavy cold. It's one of moviedom's great losses that Duke didn't cast Sammy -- a friend even after they split professionally -- as a member of Chucky Tripoli's posse. That would've been a reunion to rival Dean and Jerry's on the MD Telethon two years earlier.

No matter what it was called
in whatever city it played, the title
made sure to rip off the font
used by The Godfather.
Easy as it is to mock, Massacre Mafia Style possesses a sloppy realism that rings the cracked bell of truth. (If nothing else, its location cinematography, flat lighting and bring-your-own-clothes costuming only emphasize just how damned ugly the '70s were.) And it's this truth that separates it from the glossy, $100-million budgets of Quentin Tarantino's "homages." Without realizing it consciously, I somehow felt that much of what was portrayed in Massacre Mafia Style reflected the real-life mobbed-up nightclub world where Duke performed. Duke himself even pulled that wheelchair-plugged-into-a-urinal-outlet stunt -- presumably with less fatal results -- on someone who ticked him off. Then there are the authentic cultural touches in the celebration scenes: A son tossing his father the first slice of steak as a sign of respect. The silly tarantella-style number sung at the wedding reception. A gift hidden inside a freshly-baked loaf of bread. Unlike any Tarantino picture, Massacre Mafia Style, in its own $50,000-budget way, has soul. It's lived-in. If Tarantino wrote a pimp character named Super Spook, it would just be another "outrageous" un-PC move to rile up Spike Lee. When Duke Mitchell does it, you know it comes from real life. Just Mimi's third-act mea culpa regarding his shame of soiling the Italians' reputation gives him more character than all of Tarantino's too-clever-by-half, live-action marionettes combined.


Forget John Wayne --
this is The Duke.
OK, so maybe I'm singing Massacre Mafia Style's praises a mite too much. Contrary to what the newspaper ad says above, it's not one of the greatest gangster pictures ever made. How could it be when the violence is such that even my wife could watch it without flinching? (Although she was briefly distracted by her Candy Crush game to miss the guy who got the meat hook in the back of his head and through his eye.) What it comes down to is rooting for the underdog when the odds are against him. There's something stirring about a guy like Duke Mitchell, at age 52, financing a movie over a quarter-century after his first and last starring role -- a career move more daring than any of his critics will ever experience. As we're reminded more than once in Massacre Mafia Style, "Either you're in, or you're in the way." Duke Mitchell is definitely in.

                                 *************************
If you do nothing else today, watch the unforgettable trailer for Massacre Mafia Style. Keep in mind that all the action in the trailer takes place in the pre-credit opening scene. (If you can't view it, click here. Please.)

                                  



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