MOVIE REVIEW: “The Ambushers” (1967)

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The Smarm Is Back! Cheeze, too. It’s quite odd - two weeks ago I said the first film was like a home movie shot in Hugh Heffner’s basement. The second one was a vast improvement, and far less embarrassing all around, and you’d think the producers would want to continue on from where the standard the second film made, but no. Perhaps they were put off by the thought of a nearly-monogamous Matt Helm? Who can tell. The bottom line is that less than four months after the release of “Murderer’s Row” and only about nine months after “The Silencers,” the third Matt Helm movie was released. Man, they were really cranking ‘em out, weren’t they? In many ways, this film is the best one of the series, and in some other ways it’s the final film in the series, even though there’s one more released after it, but we’ll get to that in a bit. In the meantime:


Remember how the first movie started off with two-and-a-half strippers and a more-or-less stupid theme song sung by an unexpectedly hot Cyd Charisse? And then the second movie began with a really cool instrumental theme and some interesting, if not particularly eye-popping sixties graphics? Well, in this movie we ditch both of those concepts and instead start out with a more-or-less random Boyce and Hart song that includes the title, but has nothing to do with the movie

(And if that link doesn’t work, try here )

In any event, we start off with the launch of a USAF Flying Saucer testing out a revolutionary new electromagnetic drive system. “If this work,” Says Mac, “The planets are right next door and the stars are just around the block. In orbit, things go wonky with the saucer, however, and it makes a forced landing - without the pilot’s cooperation - in the jungles of Mexico. The astronaut takes off their helmet, revealing it’s a woman, and opens the hatch. An off-putting blonde dude sticks his head in and smiles at her.

Cut to: a secret Ice training facility somewhere in the desert (Presumably near Vegas), where a bunch of stacked female types are training to become ICE agents. One of the instructors demonstrates a metal-disintegrating ray, which causes men’s pants to fall off. (“I prefer my way better” one of the cheezeheaded new spies says) Meanwhile, Helm is upstairs making out with yet another female agent, who then shoots him with her brassiere gun. She just wanted him to keep him abreast of the times. She assures him it’s safe, but he beats a hasty retreat because “Those things always come in pairs.” Yeah, the dialog is really like that.

Walking across the campus, Helm meets Sheila Sommers, who’s got a long blonde fright wig and grey makeup. A couple nurses chase after her, and catch her. They explain that she went on a mission, no one knows what happened, and when she came back she was a basket case. Helm is mildly put off by this, since they’d done an undercover op years before pretending to be husband and wife. Mac calls for Helm, informing him there’s a new case coming up involving Sheila, and he’s sending Lovie Kravesit along with more information. Lovey arrives, and she and Helm do it in the steam bath. Helm then does some ‘orient express’ style training on a train cabin set where he undresses another of the trainees in less than a second, and then a foreign agent shows up and tries to kill Helm. Helm, thinking it’s part of the exercise, isn’t taking it seriously, but Mac shows up and saves his life. The two of them quickly realize that the only way the foreigner could have gotten in is if one of their own people is bent, and quickly run to save Sheila from an evil male nurse who’s trying to kill her.

Snapping out of her somewhat wonky mental state, and having had a makeover from a stereotypically gay hairdresser in the interim, she identifies Helm as her husband, and thinks they two of them are actually married.

Mac breifs Helm about the saucer - their only lead is a Mexican beer jingle that Mac recognizes as a dance remix of the anthem for a European terrorist organization. The Beer company is a guy named Quintana (Kurt Kasznar, who played Fitzhugh on “Land of the giants” - remember that one?) and he explains that only Sheila can fly the saucer because an unforeseen problem with the engine is that it kills men, but has no effect on women. (Holy crap, is that a great plot device, or what? Honestly! I mean, I know this is a crap movie and all, but I’ve never seen that before in a lifetime of reading/watching SF. That’s freakin’ brilliant! I’m totally stealing it!) Reluctantly, Helm agrees to take the delusional “Mrs. Helm” along with him undercover. The story is that he’s doing a photoshoot/interview for a magazine.

Once all that Russ Meyer crap is out of the way, the movie actually gets going, and from this point on it’s actually pretty good: Helm and Shiela fly to Alcapulco, being shadowed by a muslim guy in a fez who’s straight out of an Austin Powers film. They don’t notice him. They check in at a hotel, then head over to the brewery to meet Quintana. The man is friendly enough, giving them a personal tour of the facility, giving the ragingly alcoholic Helm plenty of samples, and even proudly showing off some snazzy exoskeletal forklifts (similar to the ‘cargo loaders’ from Aliens) that they’ve developed. With a Chekhovian “Gun is on the fireplace” scene like this, you know it’s gonna’ pay off later, right? Just the same, Quintana is clearly uneasy around Shiela. He knows who she is.

There’s a big party/fashion show that night to promote the beer, and Helm and Sheila are there. All the models are secretly ICE agents to back Helm up if he needs it. I don’t really like the name “ICE agents” for them, and they’re listed as “Slaymates” in the credits, which doesn’t quite fit here either, so let’s call them “Helm’s Angels,” shall we? Anyway, a super-hot woman named Francesca (Senta Berger, who did a Man from U.N.C.L.E. episode, and has about a zillion European credits, but really this is the only movie any of us Americans will ever have seen her in) takes an interest in Helm. A copter lands, and out gets the vaguely creepy blonde dude from the beginning of the film. Helm follows him, and snaps a picture, but is intercepted by a security goon. He hands over the film, and the security guy is actually quite polite (Refreshing for a movie of this kind) but Helm has a transmitter in his camera, and already sent the shot back to ICE HQ. ICE quickly identifies the guy as the leader of the European Terrorist Army, whom they’d thought was dead. He’s working under the assumed name of “Jose Ortega” despite being hilariously non-Mexican. (For that matter, Kurt Kasznar is Austrian. Evidently there’s no actual Mexicans in Mexico, if this movie can be taken as an example)

Shiela steals a loaded gun and shoots “Ortega,” then leaves. He then gets up, and tells Quintana to kill helm and the girl, and the maraca player with the band is going to blow them away while they’re on the dance floor (Gun hidden in his rattles), but Francesca shows up and dances conspicuously in front of “The Helms” the whole time, spoiling the shot. Sensing something’s wrong, Helm’s Angels crowd the dance floor and “accidentally” take out a few goons with their dance moves, allowing Helm and Sheila to get away.

Helm puts Sheila in a car and tells her to get out of there, meanwhile Ortega flies away and more security types trade gunshots with Helm in the parking lot. Suddenly the movie remembers it’s a comedy and helm uses his metal disintegrator to cause the mens’ pants to fall down while the European Terrorist Army Anthem plays, so they can’t do anything but snap to attention. He steals a motorcycle and rides right through the middle of ‘em. It’s silly. Meanwhile, a man reveals himself in the back of Sheila’s car, and pulls a gun on her. He tells her that he’s going to kill her, but if she lets him rape her first, she’ll live longer. She appears to give in, but then she kills him with her bra gun. This is played for laughs somewhat, but it’s surprisingly dark for a movie of this kind.

Helm goes to Francesca’s place, where she drugs him to get info about the saucer, but Sheila shows up and rescues him. Francesca explains that she’s from a country that’s having a lot of troubles because of Ortega - if he dies, the troubles end. The Americans ally themselves with her, and then head out in to the woods to do it in an inflatable tent. The next day they stake out the brewery. The next day, Francesca’s sidekick/muscle sneaks in to the brewery, and suspecting a doublecross, Helm and Sheila go in. A fight ensues, with the heavy attempting to drown Dino in beer. In the vat, he meets Quintana, who told the guy where Ortega is to save his life, and then tells Helm too. Helm helps him out of the vat, and Quintana is shot by the goon. Sheila, meanwhile, hurls beer vats at the guy using the Cargo Loaders, forcing him up to the roof. A big round of applause for the Cargo Loaders, ladies and gentlemen, aren’t they great? I know you were expecting more from them with all that buildup, but no, this ten-second scene is all you get. Anyway, the fight continues on the roof, and Helm kills the guy.

Now that they know where Ortega is, they head out there and meet up with Francesca, who, again, reluctantly teams up with Sheila and Helm. The plan is to just go ahead and send her in while Helm sneaks in and Sheila hides in the woods, waiting for helm to shut off the tractor beam dealie Ortega used to capture the saucer in the first place. To pass the time, Helm and Sheila do it again. (“It’s broad daylight.” “What’s wrong with a broad in daylight?”). He sneaks in, and is instantly captured and brought before Ortega. Sheila gets captured, too, by the Muslim dude from the Austin Powers movies who’s been tracking them the whole movie.

Francesca has betrayed them. Turns out she’s actually working for Big-O, and they want to buy the saucer. The Arab dude is a competitor who also wants to buy the saucer. Ortega says thanks, but in fact the Chinese have already paid for it, and the first man on the moon will be eating Chow Mein. (Yes, he actually says this.) Quintana turns up trying to warn Ortega about Helm, but sees the situation is already resolved, and Ortega buts the buffoon in charge of the firing squad to kill the American. Meanwhile, he’s going to take Sheila back to his room and do whatever it is he did to her the last time she was here. (Which is never overtly stated, but clearly he repeatedly raped and tortured her in the past. This is uncommonly dark and unquestionably uncomfortable territory for a hokey-jokey Dean Martin flick to be playing in, and the movie never quite recovers from it.) Francesca takes pity on Sheila, though, and fixes the girls’ makeup using her own knock-out-drugged lipstick, then drops some antidote in Sheila’s drink.

Francesca then tries to steal the saucer, and the Muslim agent, meanwhile, kills her and tries to steal the saucer for himself. The engine kills him, but not before putting him in a lot of pain and color-separating him to death.

Helm escapes the firing squad and once again makes Quntana look like an idiot (This is actually an oddly funny scene, I dunno why, but Kasznar giving the squad instructions in Spanish, then politely translating them to English for Helm’s benefit just cracks me up. Likewise, Sheila escapes the drugged-up Ortega. Higgaldy piggaldy ensues, with Helm taking out the tractor beam while Ortega once again tries to rape Sheila. She turns the engine on, killing the hell out of him. The saucer can’t fly for no reason that’s ever adequately explained, but it’s been loaded on a train flat car for shipping, and this rolls free, careening out of control while Helm chases it down on a motorcycle and uses a portable tractor beam gun to rescue Sheila just as the saucer careens off a cliff.

Back in the States, and back in Russ Meyersland, Mac gives Helm some info on how everything played out now that the bad guys are all dead, and tells him there’s a new female agent they’re bringing on board that they want him to train. Helm goes in the next room and sees Francesca, now with a new hairdo. “Didn’t you used to be brunette?” “Yes, but Blondes have more fun.”

Finally we get to the obligatory Rat Pack joke: They start to make out, and he plays a Dean Martin record, but Francesca is totally out of the mood once she hears it. Helm then puts on a Sinatra record, and suddenly she’s all over him. “You really like Perry Como that much?” Helm/Dino asks.



Man, these Matt Helm reviews tend to run long, don’t they? I don’t know why. I feel kinda’ spent after I do ‘em, too. Not sure why, but they kind of wear me out writing them.

Anyway, if we can put aside the terrible “ICE School” stuff, this is unquestionably the best of the series so far. The plot makes perfect sense, there’s no unsightly dead scenes that just go on forever, the pacing is pretty constant through the whole story, it’s a tight, consistent little story. That is, if we can overlook ICE training camp, which goes on forever and accomplishes little. It’s almost as if the producers looked at the script, said “My God! This is actually a very solid James Bond film!” and then immediately set out to trash it in some way by tacking on leftover gags from the first film. Of course they weren’t *Really* from the first film, but they felt like it. Leaving that aside, or simply fast forwarding through the first 20 minutes, and you’ve got an unexpectedly entertaining little flick here.

Dean’s acting is much more solid here than elsewhere, and he does more kinda-sorta-acting in this one than he does of his usual sleepwalking variety show host self-parody. It’s easy to forget what a good actor the man could be when he had some material, and while this still isn’t an A-level effort, it’s lots of fun to see him sleuthing around, trying to figure out the caper, and in a little danger now and again. It’s also the first time in the series that we see him not entirely on top of things - Francesca makes him and takes him down easy early on, and were it not for several forces working at crossed purposes this time out, he wouldn’t have won. In fact, Helm only survives this one because it wasn’t an organized effort against him.

It’s also nice that this isn’t your typical “Distroy/Conquer the world” kind of plot like the last two kinda’ sorta’ were. That’s too easy, and done entirely too often. The theft of the Flying Saucer isn’t the kind of thing the fate of nations hangs on. Yeah, it would suck if Communist China beat us to the moon, but really, we’re not even using the moon, so it’s not like that means the dirty reds would cut off our only supply of Moonium or something like that. Hell, we haven’t even bothered to go to the moon in 36 years! So, yeah, it’d suck if the Chinese got there first, but ultimately I think we’d be able to deal with it.

The music is by Hugo Montenegro, who gave us the famous “I Dream of Jeanie” theme (The famous one, not the earlier, not-famous one that they ditched early on), and in general I like his work, but I’m mostly unimpressed here. Once again, the film suffers from a lack of an identifiable “Matt Helm” signature piece of music, some kind of theme that would tie all the movies together. The Boyce & Hart song that starts off the film is completely out of place, of course, but interestingly they ditched the “Dino singing parodies of his own songs” in this movie. I can see why they did that - they’re *mostly* taking it more seriously, and those songs did tend to make scenes drag a bit, but hey, they were funny and now they’re gone, and that’s one less reliable gag this film has. It would help if any two of these people had their music done by the same guy. Part of the problem, as I see it, is that as they were cranking these things out (Three movies in nine months!) they had less and less money for composers, so you’ve got the amazingly great soundtrack in the first film done by the amazingly expensive Elmer Bernstein, you had the catchy and perfectly adequate Murderer’s Row soundtrack done by the more affordable Lalo Schifrin, and here you’ve got the more-or-less entirely forgetable Ambushers soundtrack done by Hugo, who did sitcom music. (Really good sitcom music, I’m not dissing the guy)

A couple elements of the film don’t make sense - we’re told a major clue was the way Sheila reacted when she heard the Mexican Beer Jingle early on in the movie, but there’s no scene of her actually *hearing* said jingle. There’s one or two more like that, but none that really jump out at you like they did in the previous film where the hero’s car just magically changes from scene to scene.

The roof of the brewery is…uhm…unconventional, shall we say? The big endlessly-pouring giant beer bottle uses *real* beer?

This is the first film that Helm curses in - he says “Damn” at one point.

It’s an interesting tactic making the main bad guy lurk in the background for most of the film, more or less unseen. This actually adds to Ortega’s menace, I think, despite the fact that there’s nothing special about his portrayal, and he actually looks rather goofy. Thinking on it, the better Bond movies are often the ones where the villain isn’t front and center through the whole thing, or are somewhat obscured. So I think we can all learn a lesson from that, screenwriting-wise.

Interestingly, they do seem to kind of forget it’s a comedy from time to time. Some of the gags seem tacked on, (the gator in the sidecar, the motorcycle under water, etc) and the whole spy school for girls at the beginning just don’t fit the overall tone, and the running undercurrent of rape is completely out of place. It makes me wonder if this script was originally written for another project entirely, and then got turned in to a Helm film later on. One can only wonder how Herbert Baker reacted to having his baby turn in to a “Springtime For Hitler” style mess like that. If anyone knows, I’d love to find out, please tell me! Was this *Always* a Helm film, or did it just turn in to one?

And now a few words about Sheila Sommers, as played ably played by Janice Rule (By the way, is it just me or is “Janice Rule” a much better name than the one the character had?) Far and away, no question about it, she is hands down the best actress in this series so far. She doesn’t fumble for her lines, she doesn’t seem hepped up on goofballs, she doesn’t have that ‘hey, look at me, ma! I’m actin’!’ quality that has popped up in this series from time to time, and I actually like her occasionally-husky voice, though occasionally it goes a bit too far and makes me think of Brett Sommers, which is something you really don’t want happening to you if you’re a guy. At 37, she’s also far and away the oldest leading lady of the series, and a lot of the reasons this movie works is because Dino actually has an actress to play off of, as opposed to a sex kitten or model-turned-sex-kitten. There’s more feedback, more give and take, and much of the success of this particular movie can be laid at her feet. And yet, well, even though she’s funny and sexy and smart and playful, she’s lacking that va-va-voom quality that her predecessors had, you know? I don’t mean to give the impression that she’s unattractive or anything, because she certainly isn’t. She’s leggy and packages it well in this flick, and she looks flat-out yummy in those really short skirts and big boots and but she lacks the sexual fantasy appeal that they’ve been going fore heretofore. I wonder if they were considering Barbara Feldon for the part? They’ve got a similar look and style, but Barbara was probably either unavailable, uninterested, or too expensive.

Even though they announced a fourth film in the series at the end of this one, this movie really feels like the conceptual end for the series, and indeed two of the recurring cast are conspicuously absent in the next film, which turns up after a conspicuously long break.

And that’s pretty much it for this film. Totals: Helm kisses three women, and has sex with two of them.

And you can watch the movie online at the link I gave you at the beginning for the opening title sequence.

Next Friday I’ll review “The Wrecking Crew.”