Original Title:


HARD KNUCKLE






Alternative title(s): N/A

Year of Release: 1987

Duration: 88 Minutes 33 Seconds

Country of Origin: Australia

Tagline(s):
A shattered future. A legendary champion. A game where everything...is on the table. - US VHS

Reviewed Version: UK PAL VHS 18

Review:



              By Michael Petch
             28th November  07

Why does the front cover of this VHS credit Steve "Goose" Bisley with A Town Called Alice and Call Me Mister, two short-lived TV series that nobody outside of Australia has ever heard of, when surely they should be plastering his appearance in Mad Max all over this? After all, Hard Knuckle is a stunted, retarded Mad Max offshoot in all but name. Remember those two made-for-TV Ewok movies? People hate them, some insist they aren't canon, but the fact is they exist. They ARE Star Wars. Hard Knuckle is set in a desolate and lawless Australian town and stars Steve Bisley. This may not be the same town Max hangs out in, but it's the same world.

The film starts, surprisingly, without a voiceover, but the opening visuals do a pretty good job of explaining the state of society. Harry (Bisley) is seen dressed in typical tramp attire but with the addition of some furs, silly pool ball earrings and a tiny little dog in his front pocket like Paris Hilton.


“Two hundred miles from a bread crust.”

On his travels he passes an old steam train and plenty of abandoned buildings. There’s plenty of excessive slide guitar, which really is an acquired taste, but it seems to work well enough. Everything looks like your typical post-apocalyptic town, set at least ten years after whatever the unnamed apocalypse was happened.


Check out the helicopter wreck and the George Orwell graffiti!

Eventually he arrives at an almost empty bar which turns out to be an old haunt of his. The only two occupants, a barman called Max (very original) and a kid called Eddy are busy watching a video. The electricity is supplied by Eddy’s hard work on a pedal-powered generator. Great exercise! Eddy and Max, just like the majority of people in the film, are also dressed like tramps. Harry and Max turn out to be old friends and they both seem happy to see each other. 


Max and Harry .

We soon learn that Harry has quit drinking, that he still has all his fingers (this will come clear later) and that he has a pocket full of pills. These pills are used throughout the film as a form of currency. It’s never really clarified, but I imagine them as being some kind of anti-radiation tablets, but really they could be anything. Harry claims Max is “starting to look a little yellow” so he hands some pills to the grateful barman.


Go on, have a few pills.

The real reason Harry is back in town seems not to be to see his old friends but to retrieve his old motorbike and sidecar which currently belongs to the local pool champion, Topdog (Gary Day, the chap who wrote this film!). Topdog is a pompous aviator sunglasses-wearing middle-aged man who likes to think he runs the town. Unfortunately for him, he never really seems to get much respect from any of the good guys and is quite a comical character, despite the actor's attempts not to be. Strangely, he reminds me of an older Bill Paxton in his mannerisms. The first time we see him, a child spits something at him through a pea shooter. Topdog, annoyed, shrugs it off as if it's the type of thing that happens to him frequently, and indeed throughout the film the kid pops up often to fire oozing spit balls in his face.


Topdog wipes away the saliva.

Harry departs the bar and heads next door to the town's pool hall, a rundown wreck of a building, but a place which seems to keep the local men from killing each other. Who would have thought that after the apocalypse instead of hanging around in gangs of leather-clad bikers or forming small defenceless farming communities, the jobless bachelors of the world would actually just continue doing what they did before the apocalypse? That’s right; they continue spending all day every day hanging out with their mates playing pool. Of course, in a brave new world people need to adapt and not everything can stay the same. Instead of a loser-buys-the-drinks type structure, it’s now a winner-gets-life-saving-pills type of game, and if you are really unlucky, the rules stretch to a looser-must-chop-their-own-finger-off forfeit. Ouch! 


Fear the mini monolith!


If only they had one of these in our local bar.

The actual finger chopper gets star billing on the back of the VHS and is probably the most memorable part of the film, so I’m going to keep a tally of lost appendages throughout the film. As Harry enters the hall we get our first lost finger. A player knocks down a large black domino in the middle of the table, a sort of mini-monolith that must not be knocked over at any point. Knock it down and it's bye-bye finger. The monolith is stood up again in the place it falls. Knock it down twice and it's bye-bye finger two. Get the picture? 


The dawn of man.


I wonder what it's thinking?

The player puts up no protest and chops his finger off. “You can still win this” his friend insists, and win it he does, not twenty seconds later. So, let me see: Finger count: one.


Balls of steel.


The players friend shows no compassion. "You can still win this".


No shakes or anything, the player finishes with ease.

Harry marches up to Topdog and offers him a match. It seems the hall is now owned by Topdog and his cronies and the rules have changed since Harry last played. Now every player needs an agent and only the agent can organise games. Additionally, each agent can only have one player. It seems like a silly rule, especially when the agent normally takes a whopping 80% of the winnings. In defence, Topdog states “As long as you got an agent the more likely you are to hold onto your little pinkies”, but I still find it rather baffling. Who decided this? Why did all the players agree? 


Harry faces his old rival and requests a game...


...but times have changed. Topdog tells Harry he needs a manager.


Bill Paxton, Topdog's illegitimate son (picture from Slipstream)?

Harry is desperate to play against his old rival. It seems in the past he was a drunkard, but now he's sober and believes he can win. Young Eddy (who spends the whole movie looking at Harry like he is a god) offers to be Harry’s agent, and he accepts with Eddy getting a bartered-down 10%. 


Young Eddy gets fast-tracked into management.

Still, he won't be able to play Topdog just yet. Harry must work his way up through the rankings. His first opponent? An old friend called Pedals whom arrives, unsurprisingly, on a push bike. There’s plenty of laid back honky-tonk piano as Harry clears up the table in his snazzy waistcoat. Strangely, there's no finger-chopper monolith in this game, so everything is extremely relaxed. After an easy victory, a game with Topdog is scheduled for the next day.


Eddy and the rat-dog enjoy the game.


Harry regularly stares into the distance with a smile whenever anything good happens to him.

On his way out that night a group of thugs attack Harry, beat him up and take all his pills. Of course Harry blames Topdog and his goons and heads to the pool hall the next day pretty angry. Unfortunately, 2000 worth of pills (I don't know if that's in weight or what) is needed for the game’s entry, and Harry only has 100 left (touchingly donated to him by young Eddy). With a no-pay no-play rule in enforcement, Harry decides to head out of town to try and make the money needed for the game at another pool hall. The game with Topdog is rearranged for Saturday, but before he goes they play a trick on Topdog, tying him up dangling from the wreck of a helicopter that's somehow lodged in the side of a building. Obviously, Topdog is furious, especially when he realises Harry and Eddy have taken his motorbike and sidecar. Strangely there's never any worry about petrol, and there are never any more vehicles in the film. The abundance of fuel goes against the argument that this is based on Mad Max.


Topdog's "gang" ponder how to get him down.

As they leave town it seems like Harry is still suffering from the kicking he received night before, so Eddy takes him to a secluded place to recover, his home where his mother lives. It turns out she's an ex-lover of Harry’s, although his drinking soon put an end to the relationship 13 years prior. Apparently Eddy isn’t his son and he never knew she had a kid so it doesn’t really make sense. I’m sure the boy is over 13 years old. The initially frosty reception soon melts and Harry has time to relax and recover, surrounded by plenty of homely candles (of which Eddy’s mother seems to have recently found a warehouse full). He doesn’t want to take Eddy with him but his mother insists he will be better off hanging around with Harry than wandering the city streets, so they both head off the next morning on the motorbike.


Eddy's mother with her shotgun.


She actually chose to live here?

Meanwhile, back at the hall Toptog is still fuming and heads off to find Harry. It appears that there’s still a steam-powered rail service running between the town and another nearby town so Topdog takes the train, intent on finding Harry and getting whatever form of revenge he can.


Topdog storms off to find Harry.

On their travels Harry finds a desolate abandoned warehouse where a group is playing pool on a disheveled table. Harry hustles the scruffy locals good and proper with a drunken-man routine and walks away with a wad of valuable pills for his stake at the pool hall they are heading for. Only after Harry leaves do the locals realise that the bottle he was swigging from was filled with water. It’s one of the best scenes of the film, and this being my second watch through, I couldn’t help but think that the movie would be a lot better if it actually centred on Harry hustling people, travelling the wasteland and surviving on cunning scams. Appendage count at this point still stands at one.


Mmm valuable pills!

That evening Topdog arrives ahead of Harry at the pool hall, and it’s quite an impressive joint compared to Topdog's place. At the time he arrives a caged and oh so slightly topless woman is dancing erotically to futuristic synth music. The pool table itself has flashing lights to make it more exciting and the bar tables even have table cloths! Harry and Eddy arrive and Harry joins the evening tournament. Meanwhile, Topdog hides in the shadows and watches with the rest of the crowd.


The caged dancers fail to impress...


...but the table with garish lights is cool!

While there, Harry meets another old friend who is wearing, I think, an Aussie rules football shirt. Harry wins his matches and the money needed to play Topdog. 


Can anybody name the team? Maybe it's a Salute of the Jugger side?

Topdog can’t wait so he steps out of the shadows and challenges Harry. The game is about to begin when the suited boss of the bar arrives and refuses to let Topdog, a rival bar owner, play on his table. After complaints from football shirt guy the owner says the game can go ahead if they play with the monolith on the table. Harry refuses to risk his fingers and walks out. With the local boss’ fun over he decides to kill Topdog. Harry is a nice guy and when football shirt guy tells him what’s happening he runs back into the hall with his cue turned weapon and rescues Topdog. So, appendage count at the moment still stands at a disappointing one.


I wonder who his tailor is?


Different tool, same job.

Meanwhile back at Topdog’s pool hall the people are getting restless. They can’t wait for Saturday's game. It seems that this grudge match is quite widely anticipated by everybody.

So after a bit of arguing between Topdog and Harry they all decide to head back to their town. Topdog sneaks onto the train and Harry and Eddy head back on the motorbike.

Unfortunately, Harry does something very stupid. Feeling regretful for scamming the group back at the abandoned warehouse he decides to stop in there on the way back and give them their pills back (now that he has a fat wallet from his wins). They obviously don’t seem so forgiving and force a whole bottle of some unknown alcohol down him and steal his pills. Not good when you’re a recovering alcoholic. 


The scruffy tramps are glad to see Harry again.

Again they head to Eddy’s mother's place to recuperate for the big game. That evening Harry drives off to the pool hall, leaving Eddy behind, feeling that there may be trouble at the game and that Eddy will be safer at home with his mother.

Luckily for Harry, Topdog seems a little more gentlemanly since he was rescued by him. He confronts his manager who just happens to have the pills that were stolen from Harry on the night he was attacked. Topdog sacks his manager and the grudge match game is finally ready to be played, only this time the monolith is finally back on the table. I don’t know why but it is. 


What kind of pool do these people play? The film never explains.

After a few rounds where, as usual, we have no idea who is winning, Eddy runs in after having run all the way to the pool hall and is upset that Harry is playing with the monolith on the table. Harry can’t concentrate while it’s there so decides to play the rule that wherever the monolith lands it gets stood up again. He hits the block hard with the cue ball and it flies off the table. 


Harry purposefully whacks the monolith off the table.

He has to loose a finger, but without the monolith they can play on without fear of loosing more fingers. Harry chops off his small finger, raising our tally to a massive two lost appendages.


Finally another finger gets the chop.


Somebody farted.

Finally, Harry pots the black, but in the same shot the cue ball goes down too, so Topdog is declared the winner. The crowd applauds Harry for his sporting behaviour as he leaves with his head held high.

Meanwhile some minor characters decide to attack Topdog in the back room of the hall, but something is obviously edited out from the tape because it flicks to a later scene where Topdog is offering Harry a lift on his re-claimed motorbike.


An unknown character takes out his flick knife, and then... Nothing?

Harry says no thanks to the ride and heads off into the sunset with Eddy. Roll the credits and more slide guitar music. It’s all very strange. Everybody seems pretty happy despite the downbeat and confusing ending. Oh, final finger tally for those interested was two.


Our hero's walk of into the sunset, despite the previous shot being pitch black.


Final Thoughts: The actors are not great, but they are interesting and likable. It seems like a not-so-rough post-apocalyptic world, where the biggest gang consists of just a handful of middle-aged men. The settings are similar in that they are not huge or amazing, but they suit the film perfectly and seem to have a unique character of their own. Normally this type of restraint in a PA is due to budgetary limits, but here you can tell that the writers intended their desolate world to be like this. There are lots of little jokes that, although not funny, do add a little class to the proceedings and an impression that the people who worked on it cared about the story and wanted it to be liked. Unfortunately the film is such a mixed bag that for every little touch that works there is one that falls flat on its face. The rivalry between the two main characters collapses to a point where it doesn’t matter who wins the final game, and the speed  which young Eddy decides that Harry would make a good father figure is staggering, with poor old Max the barman instantly abandoned by the kid.

The idea that people play pool for cash/pills to survive is pretty good, and the twist of having a finger forcefully removed if you knock down the monolith is fun, but the film never plays to its strengths. It’s difficult to work out what’s happening in the pool matches and there isn’t enough risk put into the gamble of playing. It's all rather silly really. If Max Rockatansky was around, he would just march into the pool room, break a few noses and walk off with the pills (cash) and have it all wrapped up in seconds.

Some of the camera work is pretty good, but the low budget is obvious. This film, entertainment wise, really only deserves 3 from 10, but it does have a certain charm, and I was entertained. Little touches here and there help out, so I believe it deserves a 5 for good effort and trying something a little different. Now all I want to know is what happened in that deleted scene?

Alternative Versions: Although the BBFC say that nothing has been cut from the submitted VHS copy, there is certainly something missing from the end of my tape. Topdog is confronted by a gang and then is later seen with no explanation of what happened.

Connections With Other PA's:

Surprisingly star Steve Bisley and the Australian setting are the only connections with Mad Max.

Critic's reactions: "A suspenseful, action-packed drama that depicts the ugly horrifying aftermath" Los Angeles Times

Regular Movie Goers Reaction:

Pretty boring for most people. Remove a few gruesome parts and one squint-and-you'll-see-it nipple it could be on daytime TV.

For the PA Collector:

An important PA for your collection. Essential.

Countries Released:

Difficult to know as it's so hard to track down. UK and US for sure.

DVD Release Info:

None avilable.

Actual Budget/Guessed Budget: Well under $1million. Probably less than half that.

Our Score:

 5 out of 10

Media

 

Box Covers:
UK PAL VHS (click to enlarge)


US VHS

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