Smokey and the Hotwire Gang DVD Review: Anthony Cardoza Strikes Again!

This may sound pretty odd coming from an individual such as myself, but z-grade exploitation filmmaker Anthony Cardoza is quite a bit of queer duck. While his stint with the U.S. Army during the Korean War earned him many a medal for his distinguished service to his country – including one for marksmanship – his subsequent, longer engagement in the motion-picture industry has resulted in each and every one of his projects completely failing to hit their mark, with nary an award to be seen from any direction. His brief association with cult auteur Coleman Francis, wherein Mr. Cardoza produced and occasionally tried to act, resulted in three movies – all of which wound up being lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000 because of their sheer ineptitude.

During the broadcasts of the MST3K episodes, Mr. Cardoza’s unforgettably forgettable performances throughout the bulk of Mr. Francis’ filmic “oddyssey” also received a great deal of scrutiny, prompting an exchange of dialogue: “I just love how deep Tony Cardoza gets into character,” which is followed up by the quip “Yeah, he just goes in there and sits.” And while that is very true, even the mere act of sitting in front of a camera appears to be a painfully uncomfortably procedure for Mr. Cardoza. He is every single camera-shy person on the face of the Earth rolled into one; a (presumably) lively individual in the flesh one second, an awkward-looking humanesque entity with a strange grimace affixed to his tumid kisser the next once he himself has called out the word “Rolling!” to his own film crew.

Now, if you can imagine that sort of a man making his own movies, too, you should be able to get an idea of how impeding his solo work is. At least Coleman Francis – a former bit player in Tinseltown – had some prior experience in the industry, and had an idea of how he should have been doing things (though he didn’t succeed). Mr. Cardoza, on the other hand, when left to his own devices, was capable of scraping up some of the most appalling non-talent in order to tell an excruciatingly vacuous photoplay that even a clowder of lazy, stoned cats would get up and run away from. And if that doesn’t give you at least some indication as to how magnificent Anthony Cardoza’s Smokey and the Hotwire Gang is, I suppose nothing will.

Hoping to cash-in on the various trucker/CB, hicksploitation, and road movie genres popular at the time, Mr. Cardoza’s 1979 ode to incompetence (which was probably made a few years prior to its release and wisely shelved for a short period) was written by Mr. Cardoza’s son, T. (Tony) Gary Cardoza. The misfire of a plot attempts to focus on the plights of several different stories, all of which are supposed to collide into each other during the movie’s climax. Sadly, there is no climax – though the movie is definitely a disaster. One such party consists of a two yokels, led by Stacy Keach’s younger brother James, who carts around in a stolen convertible with B movie great Tony Lorea, who sits – I kid you not – in the car atop of an entire toilet, which is substituting a missing passenger seat.

This is evidently Tony and T. Gary’s woefully misguided effort at being silly and cutesy. Needless to say, it comes off as being just plain weird – even by the relatively low, barely restrained standards of ’70s exploitation filmmaking! And that’s just the tip of Tony’s iceberg of a movie (which could sink any titanic-sized masterpiece), as we shift between our two hicks, two average ’70s guys in a Porsche (Q: What is the difference between a bunch of Porches and a bunch of porcupines? A: With the Porsches, the pricks are on the inside. Thank you!), and at least two groups of car thieves working for a busty beauty nicknamed Hotwire (Carla Zigfield, who was last seen on Judge Judy – and not as an actress, either) who has schemed up one very ridiculously poorly-scripted armored car robbery as you can imagine.

Two of Hotwire’s minions, who are representatives of the Mafia – one of whom is a young Tony Sirico (of The Sopranos fame!), while the other is unmistakably a guy in tan-colored greasepaint – steal a van for the heist. Unfortunately for everyone, most notably the viewer, said van is a customized love shack for a beefy mustachioed sex machine (real life customizer George Barris, who designed many a vehicle for The Banana Splits, which is as close to greatness Smokey and the Hotwire Gang gets), who promptly teams up with two mobile hookers (one of whom I could swear was in the prologue of The Wild World of Batwoman – which, again, is about as close to greatness Smokey and the Hotwire Gang gets!) in an RV to track his beloved atrocity down.

Lest we forget the film’s resident “smokey” himself, played here by an exceptionally hammy Alvy Moore (Hank Kimball from Green Acres). Mr. Moore disappears shortly after the opening of the contrived excuse for a feature, only to reemerge toward the anti-climactic chase near the finale – which he does riding in the backseat of a daredevil car along with former My Three Sons co-star Stanley Livingston, who also overdoes it quite a bit. But who’s that behind the steering wheel of said daredevil car? Why it’s Skip Young, folks – yet another overly-exaggerated washed-up television actor (this one hailing from The Adventure of Ozzie & Harriet), whose bloated persona unflatteringly (and I suppose that’s the joke) into an appropriately gaudy outfit complete with star-spangled helmet.

Look, Smokey and the Hotwire Gang is just plain bad, all right? As if he intended to add further insult to the injury, Anthony Cardoza appears to have deliberately made this one PG rated, which means no T&A. And I don’t bring this matter up solely because I like seeing nekkid ladies, but because the sex angle of the title is incorporated into the picture just the same. Tony’s camera definitely takes time out to observe (and not subtly, either) the curves of the aforementioned RV escorts, an entire yacht full of busty beauties, and a number of other young ladies who were brought in simply to add some eye candy (including Hitch Hike to Hell‘s Debra Draper, who is seen here with her twin sister, Diane) and to pad out the end credits so that it looks like the sordid little cinematic abortion actually had a cast.

But, just as every cloud has a silver lining, there are some unintentionally amusing aspects of the film. Fans of z-grade exploitation movies from the era will no doubt recognize some slightly familiar faces here and there during the film’s many extraneous, incompetently edited (by Anthony Cardoza), ineptly framed scenes. (Note the numerous shots where Tony tried to position the camera just right so as not to reveal the fact that the cars aren’t moving, only to have everything show anyway.) Personally, I was enamored with the godawful songs that were written especially for the movie by a songwriting duo whom I can only assume were the resident act at Tony Cardoza’s favorite lounge (possibly the defunct Filthy McNasty’s location used in the beginning of the film), particularly a wonderfully terrible disco theme song.

Released several times in the past on videocassette under at least two different tiles (the one we’re seeing the film as in this case, as well as a retitled version bearing the name Mafia Lady), Smokey and the Hotwire Gang has at long last reached DVD courtesy the folks at MVD Visual. In keeping up with the ripoff nature of the movie itself, this digital release of the movie is nothing more than a VHS that has been transferred to disc, possibly from a PAL format cassette at that judging by the uneven top border (it’s something only a few people will know enough about to notice). Maybe the original source materials exist anymore or not (though I’m sure there has to be at least one 35mm print floating about somewhere), so I guess beggars can’t be choosers.

Then again, I doubt anyone was begging for a DVD release of Smokey and the Hotwire Gang in the first place (although, since we’re on the subject, I would really like to see Screen Archives dig up and release that soundtrack). I’m sure that goes for most of the people who may have paid up to a whole dollar to see Smokey and the Hotwire Gang back in 1979. Oh, and in case you’re wondering: yes, Mr. Anthony Cardoza himself appears in the film (as the bigshot boyfriend of Miss Hotwire, because he could only land that with a producer credit). And yes, he has his usual weird, uncomfortable, sleepy aura goin’ on. But that’s OK, because everyone who watches Smokey and Hotwire Gang will feel exactly the same way.

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Luigi Bastardo

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