Cartel (1990)

Generally speaking, if the final act of an action movie features the hero uttering the phrase “I think I may have fucked up” or “goddammit, I blew it” (or maybe both) there are a few things we can infer. First, it seems unlikely that the aggravating incident was something ordinary, like clicking a link in a suspicious email or freezing up during a job interview. The stakes of the action movie genre demand that their heroes screw up big time or not at all. More important, for a hero to accept they made an honest mistake in a critical moment is an admirable trait; few action movie heroes from the time period are this responsible or self-aware.

The recurring theme of blunders is par for the course in CARTEL (1990), the third feature film from stunt maestro John Stewart. After private pilot and Vietnam War veteran Chuck Taylor (Miles O’Keeffe) lands his plane at Burbank Airport with a delivery of medical supplies from Mexico, he’s greeted by a flock of DEA agents demanding to see his flight manifest. Unknowingly, Taylor has been set up! The agents find a big shipment of cocaine in the cargo area, and a confused Taylor is placed into custody. The intended recipient of the shipment is a crazy-eyed narcotics mogul named Tony King (Don Stroud), and when his goons on the ground alert him to the drug bust via radio, he gives them the green-light to waste Taylor and the agents and grab the dope.

In the chaos that follows, dirtbikers fly out of a nearby hangar with guns blazing, the arresting agents are shot, and Taylor manages to make a short-lived getaway in a different aircraft (with King’s henchmen hanging on the wings) before being grounded. A true villain and terrible driver, King hits a pedestrian and blows a stop sign on his way to the airfield and is pursued by local law enforcement. During the chase, he takes several bumps of performance-enhancing cocaine and nearly escapes, but instead flips his speeding sportscar in spectacular fashion (over the top of a flaming pile-up) and lands in a crushed heap. And that’s just in the first 14 minutes!

As fate would have it, both Taylor and King are sentenced to do hard time at the same prison. They even live on the same cell block. They attend the same push-up contests and gather in the same rec room. That’s where the similarities end. Taylor is soft-spoken and keeps to himself; King is a loudmouthed bully who does bumps of yayo in plain view. Taylor is hoping for an early release by working the justice system’s appeals process, King is planning a daring escape during a prison riot orchestrated by his prison guard pal, Mason (William Smith). When Taylor rejects King’s offer to join forces on the outside and make loads of dough together by trafficking cocaine, the war is on.

Taylor gives word to Rivera (Gregory Scott Cummins) his second-in-command, to terrorize Taylor’s family, which includes his photographer wife Donna (Crystal Carson), his product model sister Nancy (Suzee Slater), and his toy-train enthusiast nephew Tommy (Bradley Pierce). In the aftermath, Taylor schemes to escape prison for a one-night assault of vengeance on King’s criminal empire.

Made in close proximity to both ACTION U.S.A. (1989) and CLICK: THE CALENDAR KILLER (1990), this is another quality action outing from native Bostonian and musician, John Stewart. Lower-budget action film efforts like this one need to string together big moments with good pacing to keep an audience riveted, and the film’s combination shootout/aerial stunts/car chase opening is a massive hook. The ferocity of the action diminishes somewhat over the remainder of the film, but the buffet is ample and copious: there are prison brawls, a full prison riot, stealthy prison breaks, more car chases, a parking garage fight, a sleazy home invasion, a shipyard showdown, unexpected kickboxing, explosions galore, and several visits to squib city to crank up the intensity.

Miles O’Keeffe is a capable action lead who projects genuine concern in the moments that need them and flaunts solid tough-guy charisma when he’s playing opposite the movie’s villains. To name one example, before throwing a random baddie off the top of a parking garage, he utters the phrase, “have a nice flight.” This works in the context – the substantial height of the fall – but also because he’s a licensed pilot. It’s a thing they say. If this doesn’t do it for you, almost nothing will.

Heroes need compelling antagonists, though, and both Gregory Scott Cummins and Don Stroud got the memo. As the homicidal Rivera, Cummins oozes sleaze, hair gel, and hard evidence of having watched SCARFACE on loop for the weeks in between landing the part and arriving on set. What Stroud’s character of Tony King may lack in total screen-time, he makes up with the impression he leaves behind. It’s a deeply weird and twitchy performance that channels the energy of Michael Keaton in BEETLEJUICE in between deranged cackles, random toots of nose candy, and general asshole behavior.

Perhaps the constant shifts in setting and subgenre trappings (e.g., drug dealing, prison movie, revenge movie, vigilante justice movie) prevented this from being all it could have been. There’s no jaw-dropping human-torch stunt fall (a la Stewart’s work in COLD STEEL) and the climax is a bit lighter than anticipated based on the buildup. However, the highs of the action combined with the highs of watching Stroud’s character get high made for a satisfying watch overall. Get some friends together and take a drink every time a character eats a fist or takes a bump.

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