Philadelphia Film Festival ’20: ACTION USA Is A Stunt-Filled Blast From The Past

The 1980s were a great time for exploitation cinema. The introduction of the video cassette recorder led to the boom of the home video market, and retailers and rental shops were hungry for product, any product, that they could get into the hands of customers looking for something to watch on a Friday night with friends. While studios worked hard to get as much of their own library of films out onto VHS, independent movie makers and distributors saw that they could possibly pan a few nuggets out of the video gold rush for themselves. Those films tended to be in the grand tradition of exploitation films of the past – filled with plenty of action seasoned with the occasional spice of gratuitous T & A.

Enter Action USA from stunt man-turned-director John Stewart, an above average entry in the genre that most likely actually delivered on the promises the original cover art may have made while sitting on shelves of mom and pop video stores waiting for a rental.

The film starts off with Billy Ray (Rod Shaft) showing off his new souped-up sports car to his girlfriend, Carmen (Barri Murphy). Since this is the 1980s and fast cars are apparently an aphrodisiac in this decade, the pair head back to his home for some afternoon amore. But before things can proceed too far, but far enough for a prerequisite flash of nudity, some thugs burst in and drag Billy Ray off, accusing him of stealing diamonds from a mob boss. Carmen follows and she becomes a target of the thugs after she sees them murder Billy Ray. Fortunately, she meets up with two FBI agents (Gregory Scott Cummins and William Hubbard Knight) who have to keep her alive and one step ahead of he mob’s hired killers (including Ross Hagen And Cameron Mitchell).

But let’s face it, the plot isn’t really important here. Characterization is minimal and more often than not, the bad guys catch up with the good guys not through any skill of their own, but because it is time for another action set piece. If anything, the film feels more like an excuse for Stewart and his friends to put on a succession of stunt sequences. And there’s nothing really wrong with that as most of them are filmed with verve and capture the energy of a bunch of stunt guys just having a good ol’ time. Do the cars need to explode every time they crash? Not really, but it was the 1980s and that was something that cars did in movies back then and this movie revels in it.

Honestly, the direction is adequate for the dialogue sequences, and only comes to life for the action set pieces. Understandable, as Stewart knows how to place a camera to add some extra excitement to the shot. Needless to say, all of the stuntwork is done practically, as this is from before the advent of CGI trickery. One has to marvel at the precision of the stunt team involved here as they stage everything from fights to the car chases, fire burns and high falls. Even when we catch a glimpse of a safety harness attached to an actor’s leg while their character is being dangled from a helicopter, it doesn’t take us out of the scene so much as reinforce that yes, that is a real actor hanging a couple of hundred feet above the ground.

Action USA‘s resurrection follows in the steps of a few other forgotten 1980s films like Miami Connection. These are films that fell by the wayside when home video media switched from VHS to blu-ray, usually because the company that initially issued them had gone bust and no one new or cared about who held the rights to these projects. Hopefully, more of these buried treasures are unearthed by fans and brought back to light for new generations to discover and enjoy.

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About Rich Drees 6996 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty years experience writing about film and pop culture. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle.
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