Power Play (1978, UK)

Col. Narriman is a celebrated officer in an unnamed European country, and after years of faithfully serving his government he’s decided to retire. His plans change, though, when a friend and fellow officer comes to him with a plan to overthrow the president and his cronies in order to better serve the citizenry. Plans turn into action, but as they grow closer to the point of no return it becomes clear that there’s a traitor in their own midst.

I won’t spoil the outcome of this methodically dramatic thriller, but I’ll settle for saying that it fits in nicely with the decade’s cynical take on our relationship with government. It builds slowly moving between acts of violence and attempts at persuasion as the core group behind the coup try to build a coalition between military commanders and other players, and the suspense creeps upward throughout. The film is as interested in the varied political relationships as it is the eventual strike, and that makes for good drama.

It’s a solid, well-crafted dramatic thriller, but the big draw here is more likely the cast – and no, I don’t mean the opening which sees Dick Cavett playing himself as he welcomes one of the surviving players onto his show. David Hemmings takes the lead as Narriman and offers a reliable turn as a morally sound family man who answers the call, but it’s two others who bring the charisma. Peter O’Toole is a rakish but well-respected tank commander, and Donald Pleasance brings to life the devious and cruel head of the government’s secret police. A few more recognizable faces are spread throughout, but it’s these three who hold our attention alongside the slowburn suspense.

Power Play is not currently available.

The President’s Last Bang (2005, South Korea)

President Park has a good gig in late 70s South Korea as he fills his days and nights with alcohol, women, and parties. KCIA Director Kim is no fan of his boss or the his methods, and after one more session of being chewed out for being too soft on protesters he decides enough is enough. Along with a small number of other KCIA members, Kim puts in motion a plan to kill the president and his immediate supporters, but can a coup hatched in just a few short hours have any chance at success?

The film is based on the real-life assassination of South Korea’s third president. Park’s dictatorial rule lasted eighteen years before being shot to death by his KCIA director, and the film – which takes place entirely over just a few hours – captures well the reasons why some among his people would want him dead. (Possibly too well, as the man’s family went on to sue the filmmakers over their representation of his supposed behavior.)

While it’s based on an act of brutality, the film is very much a blackly comic gem. Kim’s motivation, along with that of his co-conspirators, was never quite nailed down as to its origin – some argue this was an attempted coup, while others suggest Kim simply grew irritated with the man and decided on the spot to get rid of him. Either way, the result is a film that finds gallows humor and pathos in an act of questionable patriotism. The event was followed a couple months later by a “proper” military coup masterminded by a former general who would go on to serve for a decade before being sentenced to death for his role in the violent quelling of a student uprising. South Korean politics y’all.

The President’s Last Bang is available on DVD and streaming.

The Salamander (1981, US)

Who is killing the great politicians of Italy? Someone is murdering the country’s leaders, and Col. Dante Matucci is hot on their trail. The only calling card is a literal one, a piece of paper with a drawing of a salamander, and as Matucci investigates he discovers there’s more at play here than a mere serial killer targeting high profile victims. Someone is planning a coup, and they’re eliminating threats before moving forward.

This adaptation of Morris West’s (The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1963) bestseller makes a mystery/thriller out of its military coup plot, and the film becomes a whodunnit of sorts. The suspects are presented, and Matucci works his way through and around them as more bodies hit the floor. He encounters a series of obstacles and revelations resulting in more murders and a car chase, and it all makes for an enjoyable ride.

It’s a little-seen film, but the talent involved is fairly hefty. Franco Nero headlines as the police officer tasked with stopping a killer and a coup, and the supporting lineup includes the varied likes of Christopher Lee, Martin Balsam, Anthony Quinn, Sybil Danning, Eli Wallach, and Cleavon Little. The script is by Rod Serling – the last of his feature scripts to be produced, and coming seventeen years after writing the coup-related film Seven Days in May – and it’s the single directorial effort of Peter Zinner, the Academy Award-winning editor of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1979).

The Salamander is available on Blu-ray/DVD and streaming.

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