Duncan Jax: North Carolina’s answer to James Bond | Film Feature
In the world of exploitation/genre films, you won’t be too far from a familiar face. Be it a character actor like Michael Ironside or Tim Thomerson, or a producer like Charles Band or Roger Corman, the industry is shaped by a few mavericks. But then there are the films that lie below the B-Hollywood/international film industry. Films with actors whose names aren’t familiar, their faces even less so. Usually homemade and on some level of amateurishness, forgettable and crass. But then once every so often, there comes along a film that seems to exist in its own universe.
A film where nobody (with the possible exception of one or two names) seems to have any trace of recognition, yet the film is itself is competently made, decently budgeted, as if coming from a world where the starring nobodies are ultra-famous. Sometimes, these are vanity projects. Other times, the truth is more complicated. I first discovered Unmasking the Idol (1987) and its sequel Order of the Black Eagle (1988) via the website of critic Fred Adelman. They are probably the best examples of this trope, seeming glossy without any signs of prestige.
Made back-to-back c.1986, in North Carolina, they are not the typical attempts at regional filmmaking. There’s a gloss, an almost cosmopolitan sheen. It is set in a Mid-Atlantic nowhereland, a sort of North American equivalent of the upper-class playground of The Avengers. And yet in other respects, it is the older cousin of those kids from Mississippi who remade Raiders of the Lost Ark. It strives to be a Bond film, but mixes in elements from numerous sources. Wild Geese-type mercenary schtick, Rambo-type jungle action, Nazis, ninjas, Fu Manchu-ish Yellow peril, a Darth Vader-type masked cyborg villain, Nazi U-Boats. Plus, in a sign of its Southern roots, a sole trace of good ole boy humour in its Clyde from Every Which Way But Loose/B.J. and the Bear-type baboon sidekick.
The UK video box blurb for Unmasking the Idol sums it up:
Take a sizeable portion of James Bond (Roger Moore-style), top it up with a double dose of Indiana Jones, add just a splash of Mad Max and the result is Duncan Jax, Hollywood’s first hero and a half. And for good measure throw in mankind’s evil and sadistic ‘enemy number one’ – Goldtooth, the beautiful and seductive China, the deadly, sinister Scarlet Leader, a mysterious character named Star, a ‘gentleman’ by the name of The Whale and a whole host of lethal Ninjas, and you have the wonderfully entertaining spoof and a half – Unmasking The Idol. For everyone happy to see the 007 and Indiana Jones movies well and truly sent up, Unmasking The Idol will be a delight. And Duncan Jax (Ian Hunter) plus his trigger-happy, almost human, side-kick Boon are the perfect combination to do just that.
Beginning in Bond style with a teaser of a ninja against the dawn, Unmasking the Idol begins with a ninja crawling into a skyscraper. Dressed in a costume more akin to a knight, this is Duncan Jax (Ian Hunter in his only role), a thief/spy/mercenary/ninja, who speaks with the sort of accent a Carolina dentist may speak with if he thinks he’s James Bond (think that episode of Married With Children where Al goes to a casino). Duncan steals some jewels, then thanks to a balloon, glides out of a swimming pool, laden with strangulating gas. Thus begins the astonishing title sequence, a sort of Casio-backed but bombastic Bond theme sung in sub-Tom Jones style by Obie Jessie, a former member of the Coasters, and brother of DeWayne Jessie, alias Otis Day, of Animal House fame.
After the titles, Jax arrives at a casino and meets mysterious Dragon Lady-type with the unimaginative name of China. China is played by Shakti Chen, probably the most recognisable member of the cast, who had small roles in The Golden Child and Star Trek VI – The Undiscovered Country. After this, Jax wakes up from a night with China, changes into his ninja gear in a phone box in front of a gang of beret-clad goons, pulls a funny face and then, with his sidekick Boon, a pyjama-clad baboon (yes, really), journeys via stock footage of an airliner and his 4 X 4 to his remote quarry-bound modernist house.
Here, he meets Star, his boss. He speaks with something of an RP accent that verges on Australian, coming across as a poor man’s Bernard Hepton as Toby Esterhase in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. He tells us, via video, about Devil’s Crown Island, where a mysterious masked villain named the Scarlet Leader lies. Oh, also there is the Scarlet Leader’s associate Baron Hugo Von Bruner, alias Goldtooth, a Nazi who murdered Jax’s parents.
First, he has to bring together a crack team of mercenaries to take the Scarlet Leader’s gold. This lot are very much in the mould of Doc Savage’s Famous Five, adding to the pulp overtones. We have Gunner, the tomboyish tough-girl-but-damsel-when-the-plot-says-so love interest. Sato, the Fu Manchu moustachioed Asian Q-meets-Cato-type advisor. And two older grizzled Southern mercenaries, Willie and a pilot named Bugs. Then, there is the Whale, a pith helmeted rotund Russian who has to be freed from an island jail. Why? Well, his body has the map to the gold tattooed on his back.
Meanwhile, on Devil’s Crown Island, the Scarlet Leader – who resembles a cross between Cobra Commander from G.I. Joe and one of the gas-masked red troopers from Flash Gordon – sits in a throne, over a pool full of alligators and piranha. All the while his Wrath of Khan-like Aryan assembly torture an elderly washed-up couple who have been shipwrecked. The husband in this couple, Ed Grady, may be the other most notable actor, with a reasonable career including a recurring role in Dawson’s Creek. Meanwhile, some baboon gymnastics help distract the prison island guards and Duncan frees the Whale.
Duncan has radio contact with a blonde-haired, face-painted glam rocker chick named Echo who, despite being on most of the poster and video art, only appears for about a minute before being fed to the piranhas. Duncan and his team have dinner together. We learn that they are not there for the gold, but for the threat, and the gold is the reward. Willie plays chess with Sato, and his accent suddenly goes a bit Sean Connery-ish. There is a war room scene, and even Boon gets his own little desk. There is a massive ‘D-day with ninjas’ parachute raid. Even pickup trucks are dropped, while slow motion ninjas rise out of the sand.
Bugs and Willie raid through the autumnal island forests, and steal the gold. We then discover that Baron Goldtooth has his own private U-Boat, while Whale, Gunner and Duncan (holding Boon in his hands) search for a Buddha statue, the titular idol, which is filled with diamonds. Duncan then has a fight with the Scarlet Leader, who turns out to be China. First, there’s some “I don’t fight women” talk and then the expected “Frankly Scarlet, I don’t give a damn!” and “Damn, I hate guns!”. Scarlet vanishes in a puff of smoke, and our heroes escape in hot air balloons, while the island fortress crumbles. Gunner and Duncan escape in a hot air balloon mounted on their truck, while the gold (revealed to be phony) blows up the U-Boat. Scarlet/China escapes in a biplane, to kiss goodbye, “So much for the man with the golden teeth”.
James Bond knockoffs often fail to capture the fun. They tend to overstep the fine line between “daft” and “stupid”. And also lack that childlike joy the best Bonds (i.e. the Roger Moores) have. This is one of the few that does. For such a low budget (director Worth Keeter alleges that somewhere between $1.5 and 2 million was spent), there’s little of the “hotel room brawls” one gets in the likes of Lindsay Shonteff’s films, and because of the tight location shooting in North and South Carolina, none of the blatant time-wasting traveloguery that many Eurospy ventures are guilty of. In fact, there’s refreshingly little romance. Yes, there’s the stuff with China, but that is done and dusted relatively early on. Gunner is treated as one of the team.
The music for this film is quite good for a regional cheapie, scored by Clint Eastwood collaborator Dee Barton. Barton was a frequent collaborator of Earl Owensby, the North Carolina producer who owned the Shelby, North Carolina studios where the Jax films were shot. And indeed the films’ director Keeter began his career with Owensby. Owensby made numerous low-budget films, usually starring himself. He initially starred in imitations of 1973’s Walking Tall, before taking turns at gothic horror in 1979’s Wolfman, and playing an Elvis manqué in 1980’s Living Legend, featuring one-time Elvis/Owensby girlfriend Ginger Alden, and astonishingly blessed with a soundtrack by a then-washed up Roy Orbison.
However, the film was not initiated by Owensby. Keeter recalls, “Robert Eaton, the producer, visited our studio facility in Shelby, North Carolina. He already had the script written by Phil Behrens and funding from Betty and John Stephens from Santa Barbara, CA.” Little is known about Eaton, other than that he was the 6th husband of Hollywood legend Lana Turner. It was Eaton’s group, “Polo Players,” who cast Hunter. Adds Keeter, “Eaton and writer Phil Behrens knew his from Santa Barbara. His name is Louis Dula. Eaton created the Ian Hunter name for the film.” Presumably, this was in an attempt to pass Hunter off as British, even though both the lead singer of Mott the Hoople and a prolific British character actor of the 30s to the 60s had previously used the name. Keeter reflects, “Yes, the mid-Atlantic accents were intentional. There were obviously many nods to James Bond. We had no intention of suggesting a European setting, but did not want to play against it… There was never an attempt to cast name actors. They already had the lead in mind I believe. The rest of the cast was local to North and South Carolina with the exception of Shakti Chen and Lise Petersen (who played Gunner).”
The film was a difficult shoot. Keeter: “”The film was shot at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and in and around our studio complex in Shelby. Filming was somewhat chaotic. The producer, Robert Eaton, was difficult. There were at least 3 directors before me. Mostly pre production but the last one, Leslie Stevens, actually shot for several days before he was terminated.” Stevens’ involvement explains the casting of his wife as the villain. Instead, Stevens and Shakti went to the UK to make Three Kinds of Heat, a similar if considerably less heightened spy thriller starring Robert “the Exterminator” Ginty, costarring opposite Samantha Fox in her ‘Page 3’ prime, plus a pre-Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy as the least surprising mystery villain in cinema history.
However, the other director before Stevens, adds Keeter, was someone with an even more distinguished pedigree. “I forget the first director. The second was Roger Vadim. I did several weeks of prep with him. There was a conflict with Warner Bros. and he had to drop out.” Instead, Vadim remade his own And God Created Woman for Vestron. But the idea of an ultra-low budget James Bond/Philo Beddoe/Indiana Jones knockoff directed by the man who brought the world Barbarella indeed was a tantalisingly close possibility.
Soon after completion of Unmasking the Idol, it was decided to do a sequel. “They decided to make Order very shortly after we finished shooting the first film.” Keeter recalls. Order of The Black Eagle has many of the same cast. Hunter returns as Jax, Shangtai Tuan and C.K. Bibby return as Sato and Star, while William T. Hicks, previously The Whale now plays the one-eyed Nazi villain, Von Tepesh. Goldtooth’s actor, Ronald Campbell also returns, as an Arab thug. It drops the spy elements and goes on full “men (and women) on a mission”
It opens with a Movietone newsreel of Hitler prologue. Immediately afterwards we are hit with action – a kidnap of a top scientist from red-bereted Swiss soldiers at a Geneva ceremony. Meanwhile Arab terrorists attack Washington. Boon and Jax arrive in a microlight and deliver a box to Star at a garden party. The next day, our intrepid heroes drive their Mercedes to a polo race, and learn about the Order of the Black Eagle. We discover their leader, former Hitler Youth leader Baron Von Tepesh now lives in a temple in South America, with a plan to commemorate Hitler’s birthday.
It also happens that Jax is the spit of the American representative of the Order. He is also given a new female partner – Tiffany Youngblood, who dresses like an upper-class American who thinks she’s Princess Diana. Unfortunately, some of the energy has gone out. Jax and Youngblood dress up as a panama-hatted, moustachioed chump and his trouser-suited secretary, and go around impressive sets. But the Nazis are ill-defined. Perhaps, quelled by the troubled production, the enthusiasm of Unmasking wanes. Despite the addition of Olympic volleyball athlete Flo Hyman (who tragically died shortly after), and another female agent, stuntwoman Anna Rapagna as Maxie, there’s not much push.
The South American village is an old West set, with a tour bus in a road-free forest doubling as jungle. Sets are clearly reused from the previous film, including a dive bar. More Doc Savage-type sidekicks appear, including an actual cowboy. Even more than the previous film, the whole thing resembles a live-action movie of a G.I. Joe knockoff. This clashes with the R-rating, but it shows the childlike engagement Keeter brought to his direction of various episodes of the Power Rangers franchise.
Things get close to Italian Mad Max/Escape to New York imitation silliness, via a spaghetti western. The climax is staggering – if only for the scenes where Boon destroys the temple using a Dr. No-like dragon tank and Hitler (portrayed by “himself” i.e. a papier maché dummy) melts. It becomes a sort of Megaforce/Action Force/GI Joe imitation, but at times strays slightly too far into generic direct to video action territory, abandoning the “upper class America’s spy” angle. Even scenes are reused from Unmasking, with more balloons used to escape.
Star is given an Iron Cross by Jax as a memento, while their journey along the river returning the kidnapped Swiss scientist is accompanied by zydeco music, the boat concealing a hot air balloon which Duncan and Tiffany flee in, drinking champagne, their friends (including Boon) waving him goodbye, except Star who screams for Duncan to return to his office tomorrow. Those bits are fun. An instrumental of the first film’s theme plays out the end credits, reminding us that the first film is better. It’s not all bad. The character of Maxie is fun, but the abandonment of the Bond-type adventure does leave something to be wanted. Stock footage of Boon is reused constantly, and though it tries to broaden its horizons, it can’t help but look cheaper.
However, the first film is an example of how to make a perfect Bond knock-off with enough enthusiasm, can-do spirit, ambition and cheekiness. Both films were distributed by Manson International, a massive sales agent who distributed everything from Halloween (1978) to Galaxina (1980) and Robert Altman‘s Streamers (1983). The films got play on cable in America, on Sky Movies in UK, and had international video releases, in the UK, handled by Guild and CBS/FOX, though the smaller Celebrity Video had US rights.
Keeter went onto direct Snapdragon (1993), starring Pamela Anderson, and then went into TV. Hunter left acting to become an artist, and the films ended up gathering dust on VHS shelves around the world, filling time on cable and generally falling into obscurity. Which is a shame, because Unmasking at least is something generally astonishing at times. Roger Corman once said that you could make Doctor Zhivago with $50,000, and it wouldn’t be Doctor Zhivago. This is almost the Bond equivalent, but it somehow overcomes every little problem, and becomes an enjoyable if thoroughly bemusing thrill ride. Finally, Vinegar Syndrome are releasing these films on blu-ray in America. Let’s hope they get a region 2 release.