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REVIEW & VIDEO | Deadly Spygames (1989)

19 Jan 2018

There's a reason charismatic actors play James Bond and geography teachers generally stick to explaining rocks to 12-year-olds. Somebody should have told Jack M. Sell.


Country: USA | Runtime: 85m | Director: Jack M. Sell

Starring: Jack M. Sell, Adrienne Richmond, Troy Donahue, Tippi Hedren, Kathlyn Miles



WHA' HAPPEN? Banner (Sell), a secret agent seconded to the US Navy, is sent on a mission to recover a mysterious film sought by a KGB general. It transpires the film depicts a series of grizzly murders perpetrated by the general's grandson (or son, in some scenes) over a period of several decades. We are not told why a film crew appears to have followed the grandson around documenting his various killing sprees, or why they edited the footage in such a way that it appears uncannily like an obscure 1980s horror movie. Incompetence on both sides leads to the film changing hands several times before the Americans ultimately gain permanent possession. Russians die and peace reigns.



“Very deadly man, this Banner character.”


Jack M. Sell's directorial debut, the atmospheric oddity Psychotronic Man (1979), suggests an original filmmaker blessed with style if not technical competence. His second, Outtakes (1987), is a broadly comic anthology that achieves a negative humour value, literally ruining prospective laughs from comedies you haven't seen yet. Although Psychotronic Man has some fine good-bad moments, neither movie is a classic. Deadly Spygames, Sell's third and final directorial effort, might just be. 


 I had a pair of these headphones... even though I was never in the US military.



Although billed as a James Bond spoof it seems more like a straight imitation. There's a light tone and intentional humour, but it's all in the same vein as late era Roger Moore. Sell commits completely to the action and dramatic scenes, but whenever possible will playfully throw in a double entendre or one-liner. In others words, it's just like a Bond movie. You're not spoofing something if you copy it precisely. That’s crucial because, without that sincerity, none of this would be any fun.



“When doctors imagined the kid's head they found dogs hit for brains."


Even before the opening titles have played it's obvious things are going to go well. A moody-looking image of Banner rotates awkwardly in the darkness as lightning lashes out at his gun, and large letters spelling 'BANNER' glide onto the screen to a symphony of thunder cracks. It's Sell's version of the Bond ident (in which our hero turns to shoot at us as we stare down a rifled gun barrel), and is equal parts ridiculous and adorable. From there we cut to the character's introduction, and catch our first proper glimpse of him... naked and gurning as he does sex to a girl half his age. (During the movie Banner seduces three women, each some sort of spy who is murdered once he's done with them.) It's a spectacular opening that only gets better when Francois, a leering, back-talking French robot butler, turns up. Sadly Francois disappears after murdering Banner's bedmate and lamenting the waste of such beautiful breasts. But one thing which remains constant is Sell's cringe-making screen presence. He's the geography teacher all the other geography teachers picked on for being such a geography teacher. 


 These people, including Tippi Hedren in her inexplicable evening gown, are all officers  onboard a submarine.




Sell's featureless face, monotone voice and supernatural lack of presence mark him out as the definition of what a movie star isn't. At least he has the excuse of being a geography teacher (probably, I’ve no idea what his day job really was), token big names Troy Donahue and Tippi Hedren do this for a living, and they're almost as bad. Donahue is clearly making dialogue up on the spot, and I'm fairly sure Hedren doesn't know where she is. No matter, Sell is the main attraction. He bumbles about the movie trying to link scenes together without ever becoming a real character. Action happens and he rolls on the floor. Jokes happen and we don't. He's like a bland uncle who thinks he's eccentric because he owns a pair of maroon trousers. Somehow he should be wearing a comedy apron and tending a barbecue in a chef’s hat.  



"At least, Monsieur Banner, I got my gun off. God I love this job!"


On a technical level, Deadly Spygames is a mixed bag. The lengthy credits suggest a full crew worked on this thing, but I'm calling bullshit. A real wardrobe person would have insisted on, and had access to, military uniforms that at least match even if they are from the wrong country (Cuban soldiers wear a mishmash of vaguely green clothes, some of them sporting German flags on the lapel). Technical devices, including intercoms and the robot butler/assassin, are repurposed off-the-shelf products, and all sorts of other high street tat appears without adaptation or adornment. At one point a blowtorch is used as a thermal lance to laboriously cut through barbed wire. Why not just use wire cutters?




There are hundreds of examples of deluded, self-financed hack directors casting (and embarrassing) themselves as the lead in their pet opus. But if there is one who deserves to be better known, it's Sell. His path to the screen was unusual; these guys (Steve Barkett, Damian Chapa, John de Hart, etc.) usually make movies specifically so they can star in them. Sell didn't get in front of the camera until his final offering, which is a sad thought. Based on Deadly Spygames, his decade-long resistance to going maximum Breen may have deprived us of something special.








WHAT?: 9



I'm going full bad on this. Can't see any deliberate qualities.



Video: Banner - He's a Lover and a Fighter


Video: The High Street Props of Deadly Spygames



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