American Rickshaw Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: July ??, 2020
Audio: English 2.0 Mono LPCM Audio
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 96 minutes
Director: Sergio Martino
After a stripper tricks him into filming a sex tape, Scott Edwards (Mitch Gaylord), a Miami rickshaw runner, becomes embroiled in the murder of an evangelist’s son when he inadvertently takes the wrong video tape. With the help of the stripper and an Asian witch, Edwards sets out to clear his name while avoiding the assassin dead set on retrieving the video tape. (From Cauldron’s official synopsis)
Sergio Martino is largely remembered for his considerable contributions to giallo cinema. In terms of sheer numbers, he was second only to Dario Argento. However, his skill set was not limited to gialli and he managed to carve out respectable niches in raunchy sex comedies, straight horror, and popular horror-adventures, like The Great Alligator (Italian: Il fiume del grande caimano, 1979), Mountain of the Cannibal God (Italian: La montagna del dio cannibale,1979), and Isle of the Fishmen (Italian: L'isola degli uomini pesce, 1979). Like other big names in giallo, he successfully transitioned into rough & tumble poliziotteschi pictures. Though Martino is still alive and was working in television as recently as 2012, he essentially retired from making theatrical film releases by the middle of the 1990s and, for the most part, his entries in Italy’s post-apocalyptic action lottery – including 2019: After the Fall of New York (Italian: 2019 - Dopo la caduta di New York, 1983) and Hands of Steel (Italian: Vendetta dal futuro, 1986) – have been the last of his movies to see much of a retrospective home video release. His later action films, most of which seem to have been designed for the international straight-to-video market, are difficult to see anywhere outside of aging VHS tapes.
American Rickshaw (Italian: American Risciò; aka: American Tiger, 1989) is one of these “lost” films and probably the one Martino’s fans will most appreciate finally having access to. That value is tied to the fact that American Rickshaw doesn’t really fit any one single genre. Moreover, it’s very nearly a combination of every genre Martino excelled at. It centers on mysterious murders and the Hitchcockian “wrong man” motif that was so popular throughout the giallo heyday, it features plenty of the gritty action found in Martino’s poliziotteschi and post-apocalyptic films, and the whole thing is wrapped up in the kind of ritualistic horror seen in Mountain of the Cannibal God and Isle of the Fishmen. It’s also very much the product of its era, snagging further inspiration from popular ’80s media, like Miami Vice, late-nite cable softcore, and Cannon Films action movies.
The script is credited to Martino, regular collaborator Sauro Scavolini (best known for his giallo and spaghetti western stories), and Maria Perrone Capano, with a story-by credit given to Roberto Leoni, the co-writer of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre (also made in 1989). As one might expect from the mash-up of genres and number of writers, the plot is extremely busy, taking nearly a third of the short 93-minute runtime just to introduce all of the players and the basic storyline. That said, it isn’t exactly overplotted, either; to the contrary, it is structurally clever enough that I genuinely forgot about the supernatural components a couple of times. It’s exactly the brand of straight-faced silliness you’d want from a Sergio Martino occult action thriller. Really, the only confusing part is the fact that 1988 Miami had a bustling rickshaw community.
For his part, Martino doesn’t rest on his laurels, as many cult Italian directors had begun to by the time they were making movies for the home video market. Naturally, this isn’t his best work, but he doesn’t skimp on the stylish camera placement/movement and lyrical slow-motion photography. Also, unlike Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi’s work from the same period, American Rickshaw has enough production value that it could be confused for a B-Hollywood production. The sleaze factor is obvious, but not overbearing as it might have been if Martino had made the movie eight to fifteen years earlier. He’s also an equal opportunity exploiter this time, reveling in male bodies almost as often as female. Gore levels are low, which isn’t unexpected, given that this isn’t really a horror film (most of Martino’s movies aren’t really horror films), but there are two surprisingly icky and impressive latex effects that occur towards the beginning and end of the climax.
American Rickshaw was actor Mitch Gaylord's first movie as lead and was filmed only four years after his triumphant, multi-medal-winning appearance at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, which included a then-record perfect 10.00 score on the high bar. He’s not a great dramatic or comedic performer, but gets better as he gets more disheveled. His Olympic background guarantees some solid stunt work during chase scenes, though I must admit I was hoping for more or perhaps something akin to the ridiculous feats performed by fellow Gold Medalist Kurt Thomas in Robert Clouse’s Gymkata (1985). Perpetual heavy Daniel Greene offers up some decent bad guy fodder and veterans Michi Kobi and Donald Pleasance class up the supporting cast, despite Pleasance appearing very briefly and sporting an amusingly unconvincing Southern accent.
American Rickshaw is the dual debut (along with the Onetti Bros’ Abrakadabra) of new boutique label Cauldron Films. As mentioned, the film has never been released on North American DVD or Blu-ray (the only official release was a 1991 Academy Entertainment VHS tape), though it was released on limited edition BD/DVD combo pack in Germany via Cinestrange in 2018. I don’t have access to that disc, so I can’t make too many assumptions about its quality, but Cauldron is very proudly advertising that their 1.66:1, 1080p transfer was taken from a 2K restoration of the original camera negative and you’d think the Cinestrange release would mention something similar if they shared this transfer. The image quality is clean, almost like new, or at least as new as we can expect from a low budget, very late ‘80s STV movie. In fact, most of the things I’m likely to complain about, specifically washed-out neutral tones and a lack of dynamic range, are inherent in Martino and cinematographer Giancarlo Ferrando’s original photography. Details are extremely tight without any notable over-sharpening effects and fine textures aren’t buffed out by overzealous DNR.
American Rickshaw is presented in 2.0, uncompressed LPCM mono sound. The only language choice is English, which makes sense, since this was intended for English-speaking video markets. I can’t be positive, but I believe the majority of the dialogue was actually recorded on set, rather than in post, as had been the norm for Italian productions during earlier decades (it isn’t completely dub-free, as the lip sync is sometimes off and familiar dub artists’ voices can be heard coming from background characters). This approach leads to a lot of inconsistencies in the dialogue tracks in particular, though the shifts in tone quality and occasional buzzy bits don’t make it too difficult to understand what people are saying. Ambient and incidental effects also have occasional issues with reverb, phasing, or tinniness. Composer Luciano Michelini, best known these days as the guy who wrote the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme and who worked with Martino on The Suspicious Death of a Minor (Italian: Morte Sospetta di una Minorenne; aka: Too Young to Die, 1975) and Isle of the Fishmen. Next to the more lavish sound effects, the music is the most dynamic and consistent aural element.
Commentary with Samm Deighan & Kat Ellinger – Ellinger, the author of All the Colours of Sergio Martino (2018, Arrow Books) and Deighan, Ellinger’s co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast and co-editor of Diabolique magazine, offer up another great, personable, and info-packed commentary. Discussion includes Martino’s life and greater career (with emphasis on his American-made movies), the brief history of Florida-shot Italian exploitation movies, a random encounter seeing rickshaw drivers (presumably in America) that inspired the entire story, the cast’s filmographies, and much more. They also do a bang-up job trying to make sense of some of the stranger plot points. This track is quite valuable, given how little anyone seems to have been written about American Rickshaw.
Italian Risciò (18:31, HD) – On-camera interviews with Martino, who recalls the transition from shooting in Italy to America, while talking about the making of American Rickshaw, and production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng, who talks generally about all of his work with Martino.
The Projection Booth Podcast discusses American Rickshaw (1:05:03) – Ellinger joins Cullen Gallagher and Projection Booth’s Mike White for a complete podcast discussion recorded before the commentary track.
Then and now location comparison footage (2:52, HD)
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.