The principal cast of Stacey (top) and Malibu Express (bottom): The detective, the wealthy client, the scheming houseboy, the unfaithful wife, the gay husband, and the young niece.
See if this story sounds familiar: a private detective is hired to live in the home of a rich woman for a few days to find out whether any of her family members are truly worthy of inheriting her estate. Her nephew is a little light in the loafers, as they say, his wife is sleeping with the houseboy, and there's also a young niece with some dubious friends. Along the way, the detective discovers all the secrets of the family and then some, and before the story ends there's been a helicopter chase and a fair amount of gunplay before a single photograph provides all the evidence needed to identify a murderer.
As any Andy Sidaris fan could tell you, that's the plot of his 1985 film Malibu Express. But fewer may know that it's also the plot of his 1973 film Stacey. The two films feature identical plot lines and characters, and even share some lines of dialogue , but one film's private detective is a race car driving Playmate (Stacey's Anne Randall) and the other is a slightly goofy cowboy who can't shoot worth a damn (Darby Hinton as Cody Abilene in Malibu Express). Watched together, the two films feel like alternate-reality versions of the same story, and it turns out this is not the last time Sidaris would play with reality and identity over the course of his films. They may be mostly remembered for "bullets, bombs and babes," but watching the films more closely reveals a series of parallel realities and retroactive continuities rivaled only in comic books.
Sidaris is best known for his stretch of films made through his Malibu Bay Films production company and running from 1985's Malibu Express through 1993's Fit to Kill, a series Sidaris christened "Bullets, Bombs and Babes." Sidaris made his films for cable and international markets, and he turned out roughly one film in the series per year. This schedule was probably also how Sidaris expected people to watch the films—about once a year—so continuity between series entries was likely not too high on his list of priorities. There is also little doubt that anyone was expected to actually pay much attention to what is going on in the films, since doing so could lead to serious confusion and ridiculous film writing like, oh, what you're reading right now.
The Malibu Bay Films logo that opens each of Sidaris's films from Malibu Express through Fit to Kill.
To any attentive viewer who has spent sufficient time reading comic books, the seemingly lazy continuity problems in Sidaris's films take on a different significance. Alternate timelines, parallel realities, and retroactive continuity are nothing new in the realm of comics. In the 1980s, DC Comics decided to consolidate and simplify the continuity across all of its books in an epic storyline titled Crisis on Infinite Earths. The short version: all of the different versions of DC characters all existed simultaneously in different dimensions, in whole called the "Multiverse." For example, there have been multiple Superman and Batman characters and storylines created throughout the history of DC Comics. During Crisis on Infinite Earths, it was revealed that each Superman and Batman existed in his own universe. The "Crisis" of the title collapsed this "Multiverse" into one reality and wiped out all others, thus theoretically simplifying the shared continuity of all the major ongoing DC series.
Conditioned by this exposure to the concept of alternate timelines and fed by consumption of even more media with stories of alternate histories, characters existing in different dimensions, and other similar concerns, sitting down to watch the films of Andy Sidaris with careful attention (and in a short span of time instead of one per year) makes them seem very much like a storyline that takes place across multiple realities. Part of this is simple recasting of the same actors in multiple roles across the series, which is always somewhat disorienting and amusing.
However, Sidaris takes it much further, whether he was consciously aware of it or not, to a place where the audience almost wishes for a Crisis on Infinite Earths-style denouement to make sense of the continuity between films. There is little doubt that the films offer a juvenile thrill similar to that found in simple adventure comics, but the structure of the series clearly points out how the films really mimic comic books: In presenting a story to the audience that casually substitutes beloved characters for unfamiliar faces, reaches back into its own timeline to straighten things out, and expects the audience to keep up whether they understand where they are or not. So in that spirit, grab a six pack of your favorite cheap beer and/or some popcorn and settle in. It's about to get infinitely weird.
A few brief notes before beginning in earnest: First, virtually all of the films feature ridiculously complicated story lines. In an attempt to keep things manageable, only the major points of each film's story are recapped here. Sub-plots are only referenced and explained in those cases where absolutely necessary. Second, Sidaris cast almost every female speaking role in his films with Playboy Playmates. Any female cast members who are not specifically noted as having other credits that led to their casting were cast thanks to their appearance in Playboy. Yes, seriously. Finally, this author would be remiss if he did not mention the fact that Andy's wife Arlene Sidaris had a major creative hand in the films, from helping out with casting to doing work on the scripts and acting as producer. Arlene also runs the official Andy Sidaris web site and has done a great job keeping Andy's legacy alive, and for that she deserves a special recognition and thanks.
Cody Abilene (Darby Hinton) preps for target practice in Malibu Express (1985). Note the cowhide briefcase.
The first of the eight Sidaris films from the 1985-1993 era feature a tenuously connected story for which the first film, Malibu Express (1985), acts as a sort of prologue that sets the tone and establishes some of the running themes and motifs of the series. Cody Abilene is a good ol' boy private detective who carries a cowhide briefcase, lives on a houseboat (the Malibu Express of the film's title), and is an absolutely terrible shot. His line of work puts him in regular contact with sex and violence, or at the very least some light gunplay and various topless women. By all appearances, Cody is a lone wolf who is only tangentially related to any sort of official law enforcement, if at all.
This impression is challenged in the next film in the series, Hard Ticket to Hawaii (1987), which introduces leading ladies Donna (Dona Spier) and Taryn (Hope Marie Carlton). Early in the film, Donna and Taryn enter their cabin on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, which is slyly/incomprehensibly decorated with posters for Malibu Express, Stacey, and Sevano's Seven (another film directed by Andy Sidaris in 1979—more on that later). This may have just been a throwaway gag if it were not for a brief bit of dialogue in which Donna reveals that Cody had previously worked for "The Agency" — never named until 1996's Day of the Warrior — but that he has retired and become an actor. In this scene, Sidaris establishes the world of Donna and Taryn as one in which Malibu Express exists, as it does in the world of the audience watching them. Reality begins to warp, further exacerbated by the fact that our male lead in Hard Ticket is named Rowdy Abilene (Ronn Moss), Cody's cousin, a hopelessly awful marksman who lives on a boat christened Malibu Express.
Hard Ticket to Hawaii introduces several other mainstays of the series, including restaurateur/"Agency" contact Edy (Cynthia Brimhall), Pattycakes (Patty Duffek), and actor Rodrigo Obregon. In Hard Ticket to Hawaii, Obregon plays the villainous crime lord Seth. Unsurprisingly, Seth is not in any shape to return for a sequel by the end of the film, but Sidaris uses Obregon repeatedly over the course of the series, leading the viewer to wonder why the heroes never seem to notice that all these villainous ethnic types all look identical. Obregon appears in the next film, Picasso Trigger (1988), as Miguel Ortiz. Ortiz orders a hit on the suave double agent Picasso Trigger, which kicks off a series of elaborately plotted attacks on "Agency" personnel around the world.
Agents Donna (Dona Spier) and Taryn (Hope Marie Carlton) do some recon work in Hard Ticket to Hawaii (1987)
Once again, it's up to Donna and Taryn to save the day. This time, they're joined by Jade (played by Harold Diamond in both Hard Ticket and Picasso Trigger) and Travis Abilene (Steve Bond). Jade and Rowdy were partners in Hard Ticket, but no mention is made of Rowdy in Picasso Trigger, which means either: a) "Rowdy" was a nickname and his real name is "Travis," b) Jade's partners are always Abilenes but not the same ones (is "Abilene," then, possibly also a title?) or c) this is already a different world in which a different Abilene joined the Agency. As expected, no one in the film seems to notice the switch. The growing cast of "Agency" operatives begins to take on the characteristics of a rotating-member superhero team: Edy and Pattycakes also return, and a few new characters are introduced. One of them is clearly modeled on Q in the James Bond films, a scientific-minded character called Professor (Richard LePore). In Sidaris's 1979 film Sevano's Seven, LePore also plays a lothario scientist everyone calls Professor, so it's probably safe to assume that he is meant to be the same character. Professor's appearance firmly grounds Sevano's Seven in the same universe in which the action of Hard Ticket to Hawaii occurs, even though the film exists as a film in that reality as well.
Picasso Trigger also introduces Roberta Vasquez as Pantera, Travis Abilene's old flame who is also now working for "The Agency" and competing with Donna for Abilene's attention. One of the henchmen in Picasso Trigger, "Hondo," is played by an actor named Bruce Penhall. Pantera is eventually unmasked as a traitor and killed, and "Hondo" meets the fate of most supporting henchmen in the series, so a casual viewer would be forgiven for not paying all that much attention to these two characters. It's something of a shock, then, when Bruce Penhall appears in the next film as Bruce Christian, a mysterious operative whose motives are not revealed until near the end of the film.
In Savage Beach (1990), the series takes a curiously pensive turn, with most of the film's action taking place in Donna and Taryn's cargo plane, in a series of faceless, unspecified government facilities, and finally on the uncharted island where Donna and Taryn crash-land. In an outrageously convenient twist, this is also the exact island that wealthy revolutionary Martinez (Rodrigo Obregon again) and his lover Anjelica (Teri Weigel) have been searching for. A flashback informs the audience that the Japanese had stolen a cache of gold from the Philippines during World War II and that it was lost at sea. Martinez and Anjelica want to return the gold to their people, but their mercenary cohorts have other plans, and by the end of the film Martinez is dead, killed in an explosion set off by Taryn. In another amazing coincidence, Taryn learns that her grandfather, killed in WWII, was actually killed by the lone swordsman who still lives on the island guarding the treasure, who regretted killing the young man and swore to protect his ancestors if the opportunity ever arose. A tearful Taryn has finally learned the secret of her grandfather's death, tied to this remote island that seemed to draw her to it like a supernatural magnet.
Savage Beach ends with Taryn and Agent Bruce Christian together and Donna taking up with Shane Abilene (Michael J. Shane), and yet again no one seems to notice (or care) that this is not the same Abilene from the previous film. Edy's disappearance from the scene is not that surprising considering hardly any of the action takes place on Molokai, but eagle-eyed viewers may notice something odd at the end of the film that explains why she's not around. The obligatory film-ending champagne toast takes place at a bar called Rocky's, named for and run by an agent introduced at the beginning of the film (Lisa London, one of the few women in the series up to this point with a speaking part who had never appeared in Playboy). Whether Edy got tired of the restaurant business or there is some other, much more complicated reason why Rocky has taken over Edy's role is probably best left unknown.
At this point in the series, the viewer is used to seeing Rodrigo Obregon getting killed and returning as another villain. The audience has perhaps even come to grow somewhat attached to Donna and Taryn, who have managed to stay alive through countless ridiculous circumstances and whose camaraderie is admirable and endearing. Therefore, it makes a perverse kind of sense that this is the point at which Andy Sidaris well and truly pulls the rug out from under the viewer.
To be continued...