Wheels of Fire (1985)
Wheels of Fire is a "car movie". If you are a man of a certain age (ie: me) you harbor a secret desire to buy an old classic V-8 muscle car and go cruising the wide-open highways of America. This does not apply to you English, as your nation is so pitifully small that if you start in London, by the time you get it up to 80mph, you're in Cornwall. That's the perfect life, just you (well, preferably you and a hot teenage girl) out on the open road, free to burn rubber around corners and gun it on the straightaways, living a Jack Kerouac existence of carefree driving, sleeping in your car and eating at truckstops as you rack up the miles between your old boring life and that endless horizon of possibilities. This dream has played itself out in numerous movies over the years; Two Lane Blacktop, The Getaway, Sugarland Express, Thelma and Louise, Stingray. Hell, even Corvette Summer was cool, even if Luke Skywalker didn't use The Force to open a beer can or French kiss his sister.
The only difference between Wheels of Fire and those movies is that Wheels of Fire takes place in a barren, post-apocalyptic wasteland populated by murderous brigands and radioactive mutants. This is yet another craptastic PA movie from legendary Filipino director Cirio H. Santiago, one of his many, many rip-offs of The Road Warrior, though certainly one of the dullest and least entertaining.
Ok, we first must meet our film's protagonist, a wandering wasteland hero named "Trace". Trace is played by American actor Gary Watkins, who seemed to have very little luck before or after this movie getting anything other than measly bit-part roles in horrid movies and forgettable television shows. After seeing his "acting" in Wheels of Fire, however, it's not hard to see why.
Like Max Rockatansky, Trace's persona is wrapped up in his car, which is an early 1970s Ford Mustang with spikes welded to the grill and the roof fitted with a crude hatch. It also has a jet engine which can propel it along at fantastic speeds. The jet engine idea, of course, is asinine. It doesn't even look cool, just a propane burner nozzle welded to the trunk lid of the car and the film sped up a few hundred extra frames per second when it's ignited by some union electrician offscreen. The actor in the driver's seat flexes his face and grimaces like he's pulling four g's in a F-16 and an unconvincing engine roar noise is foleyed in on the soundtrack to simulate the "high speeds" attained.
Trace's bitchin' Stang.
Speaking of cars, I've always had a problem with keeping a car running in a PA world. Just imagine how hard it would be to keep a modern passenger car running After The Bomb. Where are you going to find a new oil filter gasket or a sway bar linkage bolt or a throttle plate the right size? Where are you going to find new tires, how are you going to balance them, how are you going to keep them inflated? Where are you going to find a steady supply of gasoline for that thirsty V-8? What about lubrication oil, transmission fluid, antifreeze, brake pads, or fan belts? Sure you can raid an auto parts store, but how many of them are out there anyway, and everyone else would be raiding them also. And really, how many people can really even maintain and repair their own car? Can you change a transmission? Do you have a proper set of metric wrenches? Can you adjust a carburetor? Do you know how to rewire an electrical starter? Do you know how to inflate a tire without compressed air? I don't. In the chaos right after a global nuclear war, Jimmy-Bob the greasy mechanic would be swept up in the same orgy of violence and death that the accountant, the disc jockey and the grocery cashier would be consumed in. It wouldn't be until years later that those rare automotive skills would be at an absolute premium, and by then the available pool of surviving mechanics with those skills would be minuscule. Over time, decades, those skills would be passed along to survivors hopefully, but by then the available supply of spare parts and tools would have dwindled up and general neglect and disrepair would leave most vehicles rusting derelicts.
Anyway, I'm wandering again. Trace goes to visit his sister, who is living in what appears to be a wide place in the road with some tents and clothes lines and not much more. About three dozen or more locals wander around not really doing much of anything. Where is all the food? None of these people look hungry, in fact, a lot of them look downright portly. I see no crops, no tilled fields, no livestock, no fowl runs, nothing. They must be getting their caloric intake from eating rocks or dirt or something. And why live in the desert? Where are all the houses? Why does everyone seem to live in shabby tents and dirt shacks in these movies? Sure, the big cities might be nuked, but what about all the small towns and villages out there?
Trace's sister is a buxom blonde bimbo named Arlie, played by former Playboy Playmate of the Month Lynda Wiesmeier. As an actress, she sucks, but she does have those large, floppy natural breasts that seemed to be the paragon of feminine beauty back in 1982.
Arlie there on the right.
Arlie seems to have really bad taste in men, which follows the age-old axiom that hot chicks always dig the worthless bad boy loser type. In this case, the loser is named Bo and he has little going for him except greasy hair and a cut-off denim jacket, though that appears to be enough to land Arlie. Trace takes an instant dislike for Bo, as he's the overly-protective big brother type. Bo doesn't care much for Trace either.
As we open, Bo is about to enter into a tournament fight of sorts with some random thug. The stakes are Arlie's Torino against the thug's car, which just seems a dumbass way to loose your ride. The fighters are given short metal poles with which to pummel each other as the crowd cheers.
Bo is getting beat like a rented mule when Trace jumps into the ring and saves his hairy butt. He does so not out of any desire to save Bo, but only to assure that his sister doesn't loose her car. Trace and the thug fight with their sticks for a bit before Trace kicks his ass. This sets off a general melee as the thug's buddies take umbrage to this violation of the fight rules and everyone start swinging.
Trace, Arlie and Bo flee the fight, jumping into their cars (Trace's and Arlie's, Bo is just a passenger) and zipping off down the road. They are pursued in short order by the thugs in three cars of their own, looking to exact some revenge.
And so we have the first of many car chases down an abandoned stretch of provincial two-lane highway. They split up to divide and conqueror, tires squealing on the pavement. Arlie and Bo manage to shake their tail in a rock quarry (where else?) and push the opposing car over a cliff to its demise. Trace disposes of his chasers by bumping them over a different cliff in a different rock quarry (where else?) by using his wicked jet engine thingie.
So they stop for a rest and for Bo to act dumb again. They then spy in the distance a large motorized column of cars, trucks and motorcycles approaching. A peek through binoculars shows them to be the forces of the dreaded Scourge, a violent and high-profile bandit in these here parts.
They decide to split up and meet up the next day at some nearby waterhole. Trace isn't too happy about this, but he relents after Arlie makes a lame speech about how she's a big girl now and can take care of herself. The bandits see this split and half of them go after Trace as he scoots across the flatlands, and the rest of them follow Arlie along the highway.
The bandits chasing Trace make the mistake of underestimating his awesomeness. Trace lures them into a blind corner and then proceeds to hose them all down with burning gasoline from a flamethrower mounted on his car's roof (!). The flamethrower has a fairly short range (maybe a dozen yards) but the bandits can't seem to keep from getting hit by it, despite the ample cover to be had. The bandits also are all armed with rifles and submachineguns, which you'd think would negate the firepower difference, especially since Trace is standing exposed in his car, making an easy target. But the bandits politely hold their fire while Trace sets them all ablaze.
Trace and his flamethrower.
Arlie and Bo stop to make out in a rock quarry (where else?) and are as such easy targets for a concerted effort by Scourge's bandits to capture them. Bo quickly shows his cowardice by offering to trade his girlfriend for his own hide. Arlie has her top ripped open, exposing those impressive breasts to the world and a host of Filipino extras, before being hauled off, tied down on the hood of an old Chevelle. Seriously, who hasn't wanted to strap their girlfriend topless to the hood of their car and drive around?
Arlie on the hood of the car.
Bo is drug behind a jeep while bandits laugh and point, but he's saved (again) by Trace, who shows up now to machinegun everyone to death. Trace then gets it out of the near-dead Bo that Scourge has his sister, before putting him out of his misery with a bullet to the head.
Back now with Arlie, still tied to the hood of the car topless, as she's taken to the bandit camp. This is actually on the rocky seashore, the white-capped breakers rolling ashore in the background. This must be a temporary camp as there seems to be little more than large canvas Army surplus tents for housing. Again, why would they be here? With their firepower and strength they could easily take over some town and have real walls and ceilings and beds and stuff instead of roughing-it out here on the beach. And it's not even a pretty, white sand beach with palm trees or anything, just a rocky, seaweed-encrusted cape without any windbreaks. I just don't get it.
Seaside base camp.
Arlie is taken inside Scourge's tent and "cleaned up" by some other chicks. She's not taking this whole captured love slave thing very well and keeps struggling, kicking and spitting at anyone who comes too close. As such, Scourge isn't too happy and decides to rape her into submission. Ah, b-movies are the best.
We need some more characters, so we now meet a tough chick named Stinger, played by tall, big-boned blonde American Laura Banks, who sports one of the greatest feathered blow-dried girl-mullets I've ever seen. Stinger is ambushed by some bandits in a rock quarry (where else?) when we first meet her. She's about to get thumped when Trace comes roaring in to save the day, shooting and mangling everyone in sight. Once the shooting stops, they determine that they are both after the bandit leader Scourge and so they decide to work together. Stinger and Trace don't get along initially, but you can just tell that won't last.
Later on, during the nighttime, Stinger wanders off from a sleeping Trace and is captured by "Sandmen". These are cannibalistic mutants who live underground, wear matching bathrobes, have grayish-green skin and Albert Einstein wigs. I assume that all this is due to some sort of radiation-induced aversion to sunlight and a thirst for human flesh or something equally stupid.
Sandmen, hard to see but they do live in the dark, you know.
Stinger is put in a cage with another young girl captive. This other girl is "psychic" and can "hear what they're thinking". Ok, perhaps the radiation also created super-intelligence mutation genes, right? I'm all for mutants, really, they make any post-apocalyptic movie brighter and more fun, but I've never been a fan of the psychic genius mutant type. My knowledge of genetics (hahahahaha...) tells me that most mutations would swing the other way, towards retardation and stunted growth.
The next morning, Trace wakes up to find Stinger gone and goes looking for her. He falls into the Sandmen's underground cavern, and with a submachinegun and a highway safety flare, he saves the two women from being lunch.
The psychic girl is named Spike (!) and she's played by bit-part actress Linda Grovenor. Spike is pretty cute, if annoyingly bubbly at times, and dresses like she's an extra on Little House on the Prairie.
We now leave our cast to join a group of trucks inching across the flatlands. This is a supply convoy of the "Ownership Army", who seem to be the semi-ruling post-nuke governmental party in this land. They have a large armed force and tacky vinyl yellow uniforms, and they are in near-constant combat with Scourge's bandits over control of the wastelands. This particular convoy is led by a Midget General! Really!
Midget General, later seen there in the back seat of Trace's car with Spike.
As we watch, the convoy is ambushed by the bandits! The attack is swift and coordinated, with mortar strikes and charging gunmen overrunning the defenders in under a minute. The spoils are taken back to the bandit camp by the sea, including a tanker full of gasoline. Scourge is so happy he lets virtually every man in the camp gang rape Arlie. Nice man, and a fine example of quality filmmaking if I ever saw one. By now, poor Arlie is so emotionally scarred and dead-eyed that I doubt she'll ever recover from this ordeal. And I'm sure the actress' parents are so very proud of their daughter's acting resume.
Trace and the girls come upon the ruins of the convoy as some wasteland scavengers are picking over the wrecks. Trace chases off the scavengers with his flamethrower (overkill) and they rescue the lone survivor, who happens to be the Midget General! He doesn't speak English, but Spike, being psychic, can read his mind and tells his story of the convoy being attacked by Scourge's bandits.
They take the Midget General to an "outpost" in a rock quarry (where else?). Down here a group of about fifty or so people in bluish togas called the "True Believers" is building a rocket ship! Seriously, that's what they are building down in this quarry, just look at the screen cap if you don't believe me. In a weird plot tangent, we learn that in the "year before the war" a planet called "Paradise" was discovered out in space just "20 million miles away". The True Believers are building this rocket to take the faithful to Paradise and start a new life. I'm going to let this go because it's late and I'm tired, but just know that's fucking stupid.
The Ownership Army is "helping" the True Believers, giving them gas and technical help, as well as protection. Trace, who used to be an Ownership leader of some sort (who knew?) has a more jaded view of the Ownership's motivations. We even get some amazingly out-of-place backstory on the Ownership's methods of "pacifying and civilizing" the barbarian frontier, which seems to be by offering free gasoline and then jacking up the price once they are dependent on it. Sure.
Stinger is now shown to be an Ownership bounty hunter, on the pay to hunt down Scourge! For some reason Trace holds this against her, even though I can't imagine why. They even get into an insult-tossing contest up alone on a sandy ridge, which quickly becomes a rolling wrestling match! And then Trace pins her down and they have that "look" in their eye! And as the movies teach us, the best way to seduce a woman into nasty sex in the hot sand is to insult her and then get into a fistfight with her. This uninspired "love scene" seems to do little but add two to the movie's boob count and give the producer a chance to raid some dusty film library for a sappy, violin-heavy music clip.
Sweet, sweet hot monkey love, superimposed over a setting sun, which is just awesome.
Trace leaves early the next day, despite Spike's pleas that he stay (I think she's also smitten with him). But, like Han Solo on the ice planet Hoth, Trace has bigger, more personal issues to deal with right now. That's just his idiom.
The bandits attack at dawn, right after Trace leaves. Much of this footage would show up later in Raiders of the Sun, but a lot of it is new to me. Mortars rain shells down into the quarry and a frontal attack quickly scatters any resistance. The spaceship is blown up in a huge gout of orange flame and with it dies any hope of a Wheels of Fire sequel set in outer space.
A surprising number of survivors are left to clean up the remains after the bandits have left with the spoils. Clearly the bandits were just after the loot and not so much the body count, though it does seem strange that such a sex-starved bunch of wackos let about a dozen young women (of the True Believers plus Stinger and Spike) escape on foot when it seemed like they could easily catch them.
Trace hadn't gotten very far and when he sees smoke he returns to the flaming ruins to help pick up the pieces. He then recognizes his sister Arlie's necklace on a dead bandit! Oh, yeah, the movie sort of veered away from Trace's blood quest to find his sister, didn't it? The psychic Spike "reads" the necklace like a medium, telling Trace that his sister is at "the Fortress", but she's unsure of her condition. Trace roars off alone, despite the protests of everyone else, to save Arlie.
Trace bugs out as Stinger yells at him.
Off to the Fortress now, which is a large, sprawling Colonial-era sea fort on the Manila coastline. The place is dark and crumbling and does indeed make for an impressive PA setting. Trace makes a one-man commando raid on the place, and it's not long before he finds his poor sister. Arlie is more dead than alive, though she visibly perks up when she sees Trace. Sadly, they are both captured in short order, due to Trace not really having any sort of escape plan other than "fight their way through 200 armed men".
Trace and Scourge now have a talk. It seems that they have some ill-defined past, maybe while Trace was still with the Ownership. I admit I wasn't really paying attention during this scene as Christina Aguilera was on TV at the same time. Scourge is a big Filipino man in spray-painted shoulder pads who likes to quote Julius Caesar and fancies himself the last of the robber-barons. His deep baritone voice is the most impressive thing about him, in my opinion.
Meanwhile, the soldiers of the Ownership Army assemble for a final, crushing attack on bandits, determined to wipe them out once and for all. We see hundreds of armed men, numerous vehicles, towed artillery and even some armored personnel carriers, all lined up for the move across country. The level of cooperation between the filmmakers and the Filipino Army in this movie is amazing, and certainly very expensive.
The bandits know the attack is coming and they evacuate the Fortress. They plan to ambush the Ownership column in "Brokedown Pass", which is a large rock quarry (where else?). They set a line of explosive charges along their line of approach and fill the quarry edges with guns.
During all the running around preparing for the battle, Arlie and Trace manage to escape! Trace seems to have vastly more knowledge of the bandit's ambush plan that he should, and so knows about the explosives and the attendant detonator. He realizes that he alone can save the Ownership Army from defeat.
Trace goes for the detonator, sneaking up on the men watching it, but is held off by gunfire. Arlie, however, manages to slip around the backside and reach the detonator. Despite being fatally riddled with bullets, Arlie manages to depress the plunger with her last gasping breath. The bombs go off early, missing the Ownership troop column and allowing the soldiers to deploy.
Arlie saves the day, though it costs her life.
The element of surprise lost, the coming battle is preordained to be a whopping defeat for the bandits. The Ownership artillery drives them back into the bowels of the Fortress, where vicious room-to-room fighting clears out the last bandit stonghold. Much of this footage was later recycled into Raiders of the Sun, but that's ok, this must have cost a small fortune to film so I can't blame them for wanting to get as much use out of it as they could. It is indeed an impressive battle set-piece, with uncounted explosions and everyone running every which way.
The two girls, Stinger and Spike, get into the action as well. Spike proves remarkably adept with a long-bladed knife, taking down a half-dozen bandits with furious skill. Stinger duels one of the stronger bandits on the roof, and they both plunge down to the rocks together in the end. Stinger dies in Spike's arms, spouting some lame deathbed dialogue about love and stuff that I didn't care to remember. We never really got to know the Stinger character well enough for us to care that much when she dies, despite the forced emotion at the end here.
Stinger dies in Spike's arms.
As the front collapses around him, Scourge escapes in his tricked-out PA Camaro. Trace gives chase in a confiscated bandit Falcon with a wicked custom paint job. The car chase winds through a rock quarry (where else?) before Trace manages to push his car over a cliff to land squarely on top of Scourge's car! What a crazyass ending, I was really expecting the classic, if cliched, one-on-one fistfight between them to settle the score.
Crushed cars, though note the Falcon's engine compartment is empty.
In our closing scene, Trace laments both his dead sister and Stinger, who I think he thought more of than he let on. He then puts that necklace around Spike's neck and gives her a big hug. As Spike looks up at him with doleful eyes, we can see that despite his losses this day, Trace could easily stay with the pretty Spike and have a future.
But he drives away!!!!! Arg! Yet another wasteland loner hero who passes up sex with a cute girl for the allure of the open road. Nuts.
Hey, that's Henry Strzalkowski! He's the git that emailed me to insult my writing style and complain that I "can't spell". That would be my first flame-job from a "professional actor", whoo-hoo!
Written in January 2008 by Nathan Decker.
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