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Dead Heat (1977)

May 5, 2010

Hakunetsu Dead Heat (Japan, 1977)

In 1972 Toho Company, best known among international audiences for their sci-fi and samurai movies, became the forerunner of Japanese car movies with the existentialist Hairpin Circus. Five years later, when Dead Head was released, the situation had changed dramatically. Competing studio Toei had already launched a minor motor film boom a few years before, with movies such as the Truck Yarou series (1975-1979), and several other films, providing the cinematic gasoline thrills for the audience.

Unlike Hairpin Circus, Dead Heat is pure pulp entertainment: a genre film executed by a less talented crew with more ambition for entertainment that artistic value. It’s also a film breathing the same cheap car action spirit that provided inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. Specialists can no doubt estimate the film’s budget from the cars wrecked in it. Then again, there’s nothing wrong with movies that simply aim at entertaining the audience and empty their wallets, especially when the film even manages to fulfill some of the promises given by the marketing department.

Utilizing typical exploitation film story structures – but not their graphic imagery – Dead Heat is predictable in both good and bad. The intriguing opening throws three youngsters into the heat of the night, where challenging total strangers to street races serves as late night entertainment. The life of these carefree fellows comes to a dramatic change when one of them takes a stand against the wrong man, and finds himself, and his vehicle, on the bottom of a river. Just in time to witness his friend’s last breath, Taku (Jun Eto) swears revenge for the mysterious phantom rider. It’s time say goodbye to the fellow workers at the gas station, and invest the insurance money into a brand new weapon; a turbo charged Toyota Celica 2000GT LB, complete with aluminum paint.

Taku’s revenge mission takes him through the cities and countryside of Japan. He meets various characters, many of which have crossed paths with the phantom rider. None of them, however, seem to know where exactly this Nissan Ken & Mary 2000GTX Hardtop cruising devil could be found. Some of Taku’s new acquaintances are enjoyable genre caricatures, others overly cliché and plain unnecessary screen time wasters. The young hitchhiker girl (Jun Fubuki) is an example of the latter: her role does little to serve the story, and does not even bring in a proper spark of romance. Better support is provided by the visiting metallic attractions: Camaro Z28, Mazda Savanna RX-3, and various others.

In terms of car action Dead Heat fares reasonably well. Most of the chases take place on mountain roads or in other distant locations. Rather than all out crash festival, the film concentrates on car vs. car duels. In the final confrontation both vehicles are trashed with a passion. Unfortunately the film is a bit sparse on action, and the middle third tends to drag a bit. Technical credits are solid enough – the car action has been captured with no major distractions. In some non-action scenes the handheld cinematography is strangely unstable, though.

Dead Heat is not a classic of its genre, nor does it necessarily live up to its premise. For lovers of old school car action it is, however, thoroughly passable entertainment. Aside quality chase scenes and classic cras, the film also comes with a 1970 B-action film atmosphere that is sure to please genre fans.

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