L.A. Wars Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: May 16, 2023
Audio: English LPCM 2.0 Mono and LPCM 2.0 Stereo; French and Italian LPCM Mono
Run Time: 91:52
Director: Tony Kandah & Martin Morris
When power-crazed drug lord Raul Guzman (Rodrigo Obregón) moves in on the L.A. mafia’s cocaine trade and steals the mob boss Carlo Giovani's (A.J. Stephans) money and drugs, the streets explode in violence. Meanwhile, undercover cop Jake Quinn (Vince Murdoco) infiltrates the mafia as the bodyguard for Giovani's beautiful daughter, Carla (Mary E. Zilba). (From MVD’s official synopsis)
As the ‘80s became the ‘90s, the dominance of muscle-bound action heroes began to wane at the box office, harbingering the beginning of the effects-driven blockbuster era. Marquee names, like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, started losing ground to marquee concepts, like digital dinosaurs and alien ships blowing up the White House. But the musclemen didn’t disappear, rather, they migrated to the home video and cable TV markets. This leveled the playing field, allowing Italian knock-offs, Hong Kong imports, and low budget entries to compete with medium budget Hollywood B-movies. Sometimes, an utterly amateur, shoe-string production would become a minor hit at rental stores or late-nite cable. Sitting on the lower shelf alongside DIY treasures, like David A. Prior’s Deadly Prey (1987), or even (God forbid) a shot-on-video atrocity, like Chi Lo’s American Commando Ninja (1988), but still far from the bottom of the barrel was Tony Kandah & Martin Morris’ L.A. Wars (1994).
What L.A. Wars lacks in filmmaking expertise, original storytelling, and all-around technical skill, it makes up for in unadulterated moxie. There is, of course, so-bad-it’s-good entertainment value – the sporadically amateur line-readings, excessive grunting during fistfights, and one-thing-after-another plotting – but the bigger draw is its ‘let’s put on a show’ charm. I can’t help but compare it to Robert Rodriguez’ El Mariachi, which was released in the United States one year prior in 1993. The comparisons are regularly favorable, which isn’t surprising, since few low-budget ‘90s action movies match Rodriguez’ ingenuity, but for every gangly edit and dopey composition, there’s a well-staged slow motion insert, a dynamic lighting choice, or a distressingly destructive pyrotechnic stunt, all of which evokes the spirit of El Mariachi. L.A. Wars also doubles as a quality travelog of early ‘90s Los Angeles. That might sound like a backhanded compliment, but there are genuinely impactful montages of characters strolling through city landmarks, alongside car chases and shoot-outs set on busy streets, all of which lend L.A. Wars a sense of authenticity that overrides a lot of its clumsier choices and probably accounts for the film’s lasting cult legacy. I’m sure all the bare breasts didn’t hurt, either.
Morris did little else following L.A. Wars, but Kandah co-directed Star Force with Cary Howe in 2000 and continued producing low-budget action well into the 2010s. He moved into distribution and became the CEO of FlixHouse, who released DVDs for a time and later grew into one of several dozen, ad-supported free streaming services. Leading man Vince Murdocco was a kickboxing champion before he went into acting. This is apparent in his martial arts skills, which add a little extra production value to the fight and stunt sequences, making up for his sporadic skill as an actor. He worked alongside B-action star Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson on two Ring of Fire movies from director Richard W. Munchkin (1991 & 1993) and Rick Jacobson’s Night Hunter (1996), Billy Blanks and Roddy Piper on Steve DiMarco & Paul Ziller’s Back in Action (1994), and Cynthia Rothrock on Paul Maslak’s Sworn to Justice (1996). He was also a stunt performer on various late-‘00s superhero movies, as well as Joe Carnahan’s A-Team (2010) and The Grey (2011).
L.A. Wars was released straight-to-video and made its VHS debut via Monarch Home Video in 1994. Apparently, there was a DVD version available from FlixHouse and you can, of course, stream the film for free on the FlixHouse app. A variation of this Blu-ray was originally released as a super limited edition box set by Vinegar Syndrome in 2020, including some extra crossover (see below) and the same 1.33:1 HD transfer, restored in 2K from uncut, 16mm archive elements (for a breakdown of the differences between the R-rated and uncut versions, see this moviecensorship.com post). Keeping in mind that this is a very low-budget, DIY movie that was shot on 16mm, it’s about the best HD transfer we can expect from L.A. Wars. Cinematographer Mark Morris ups the production value with stylish and colorful lighting that helps punch up the dynamic range and texture. The already thick grain is made noisier by darkness, fog, and smoke effects, but don’t worry, this is the way the film is supposed to look and there’s only a very minimal digital sheen to it all. Close-up details are tight, high contrast edges are sharp, black levels are deep, and there’s very little print damage, aside from the usual dots and a handful of scratches.
L.A. Wars is presented with mono and stereo English options, both in uncompressed LPCM audio. I don’t know the story behind there being two options, but assume that the film was mixed for mono and remixed to stereo when it went straight-to-video or something like that. The stereo enhancements pertain to Louis Febre’s surprisingly robust synth score, which gives the film substantial production value, and is generally worth the upgrade. Dialogue and basic effects rarely exhibit the kind of bleed effect you’d typically hear from a ‘90s stereo enhanced mono track. On the other hand, the mono track, though quieter, has a more consistent quality and Febre’s music does occasionally overwhelm the stereo version. The difference between on-set recorded material and ADR is awkward, but not unexpected (for whatever reason, the shooting range sequence exhibits the most damage and heaviest grain).
Commentary with producer/co-writer/co-director Tony Kandah – This new track features Kandah being essentially interviewed by moderator Heath Holland (of the Cereal at Midnight podcast) via Zoom meeting. The content is technically screen-specific, but is generally more of a broad look at the making of the film, the connections Kandah made, technical struggles, locations, and the careers of several cast members. Holland’s research is thorough and his questions regularly spur conversation from Kandah.
Video commentary (91:52, HD) – A video version of Kandah & Holland’s commentary, though this is the raw Zoom footage presented on its own, not a picture-in-picture option.
Starting a War (17:26, HD) – Further conversation from Kandah, who talks about his influences, the process of getting L.A. Wars made, and a bit more about his personal backstory.
Shoot First (23:00, HD) – Cinematographer Mark Morris discusses his early career, including a brief rundown of some of his credits, collaborating with Kandah, the making of L.A. Wars (he also refers to it as a “let’s put on a show” picture), bringing co-director Marty Morris and editor Michael Haight onto the film, and the logistical processes of shooting action on a small budget. Funnily enough, Morris mentions off-handedly that there was no plot when he signed on to the film.
Trailer and trailers for other MVD Rewind titles
The Vinegar Syndrome disc includes the Starting a War and Shoot First featurettes and 2020 interviews with actors Vince Murdocco and Rodrigo Obregón.
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.