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Latitude Zero: Saving the world with gold lame'.

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Latitude Zero

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Sorry I've been away for a while, pumpkins. As some of you know I've been spending time trying to write some wildly improbable fiction.

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("So what's the difference between that and what you do here?")

Hurm!

Okay . . . I'm going to let that slide for the time being. Just watch yourself.

Sometimes, in the course of film watching, it all comes down to a matter of choice. Here's an example. Back in 1982 Hal Needham directed an easily forgettable little piece of fluff called "MegaForce". The title referred to a secret high-tech army put together for the purpose of carrying out covert missions against repressive forces. You knew it was a secret high-tech army because everyone wore gold jumpsuits, piloted vehicles which were painted up like circus wagons and the whole arrangement was led by a man who resembled one of the Bee Gees.

There will be rare occasions when I'm faced with the prospect of sitting through this film. That's when I go: "Hey! Wait a minute. If I really want to watch a movie about people wearing gold who save the world, then why don't I just avoid "MegaForce" and, instead, watch "Latitude Zero"?

The obvious choice.

"Latitude Zero" (or, to use its original Japanese title, "Ido zero daisakusen") is a 1969 piece of tokasatsu (so those of you who're thinking this film ripped off "MegaForce" can just get those smug looks off your faces right now). To further extend the film's pedigree it was directed by none other than Ishiro "Mr. Godzilla movie" Honda, with special effects by none other than Eiji "Look! This is my maser cannon and it's gonna get put into a lot of films" Tsuburaya, with a soundtrack by Akira "DON don don DON don don DON don-don-don-don-don-don-don DON don don" Ikufube.

Top that, Needham.

The movie's history goes even further. The story is based on a short-lived radio series of the same name which was broadcast in the early 1940s. It was written by Ted Sherdeman (who, among other things, wrote the screenplay for "Them", as well as episodes of "My Favorite Martian" and "The Flying Nun". Obviously a Renaissance Man).

In updating the story for 1969, Sherdeman was assisted (some might say overrun) by Warren Lewis ("Black Rain", "The 13th Warrior) and Shinichi Sekizawa ("King Kong vs. Godzilla", "Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla", etc.). I leave it to the Patient Reader to reflect upon worlds colliding. When all the scribbling was completed Honda was left with a story of three men who're making a bathysphere descent when, all of a sudden (or at least "Japanese SF Movie Sudden"), an undersea earthquake sweeps the bathysphere away from its support vehicle. The three hapless men are played by Akira Takarada (if he seems familiar it's because he's been in practically every Japanese monster movie ever made), Masumi Okada (who seems to spend more time in front of a camera than he does sleeping. Western audiences might best recall him as Brother Michael from the "Shogun" mini-series. Here he's playing a French geologist, so let's try to be civil) and Richard Jaeckel. One of the more dependable character actors in the business, Jaeckel bounced around the business for decades until his death in 1997. If you don't recognize the name you've still probably seen him (off the top of my head I can think of "The Dirty Dozen", "Green Slime", "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid", "Starman", "Chisum", "Salvage 1" as well as a mercifully short-lived 1983 series entitled "At Ease").

Fortunately for Our Heroes (or at least "Japanese SF Movie Fortunately"), the bathysphere is picked up by a mysterious submarine which just happens to be in the area (wow! Weren't expecting that, huh folks?). The submarine has an interior fashioned in Late Disco Afterlife and belongs to a secret undersea city which, because it's located at the point where the International Date Line meets the Pacific, is called . . . wait for it . . . Latitude Zero! The city is an utopian paradise. You can tell it's an utopian paradise because the architecture looks as if a world's fair somehow wandered off and got lost, everyone smiles and says hello, the fashions tend to lean towards a Retro 60s Mod/Steampunk fusion and, outside the window, people are bouncing on a trampoline. Obviously a paradise.

(I've made up my mind that, when I arrive at Heaven, I'm going to ask St. Peter for a trampoline.)

Latitude Zero is also run by Joseph Cotten. And here you've got to really feel sorry for him. One of Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre performers . . . "Citizen Kane", "The Magnificent Ambersons", "Shadow of a Doubt", "Duel in the Sun", "The Third Man", etc. etc. etc. . . . and here he's dressed like opening night at Studio 54 (all he needed was a tiny gold spoon on a neck chain) and delivering some really uninspiring dialogue. Sigh.

But Cotten's a trooper. Plus one of his co-stars was Cesar Romero, who plays Cotten's nemesis (and, because of this, somehow rates slightly better outfits). I like to think that Romero took Cotten aside and the two of them had a talk for about two hours. Romero telling Cotten: "Look! I know how it is. I spent several years with my face painted, playing opposite Adam West, and I managed to have fun. Plus I turned 'Two on a Guillotine' into something considerably better than a turkey. You gotta take it all in stride, Joe." Cotten sighs, shrugs his shoulders and mournfully says: "Okay. I'll walk around with my chest hairs visible and try to act with Richard Jaeckel. At least this'll pay off my SAG dues." "Attaboy, Joe!"

And Romero certainly does chew the scenery in this film. God love the man. Broad speeches . . . evil smiles . . . over-the-top dialogue . . . the works! Watching him here is more fun than eating guacamole in bed. In one of the films better scenes he enthusiastically performs brain surgery on some monsters (at one point using a hand drill) while a kidnapped scientist and his daughter watch wide-eyed from the stands. You'd have to shell out some real money at the deli to get cheese that good.

The rest of the cast?

Well . . .

Linda Haynes plays Dr. Anne Barton: a Latitude Zero medical doctor (apparently people can still get owies in an utopian paradise). As an actress Haynes is above Linda Miller in "King Kong Escapes" (but who am I kidding? Your average dishrag is above Miller). She's even appeared in other films (e.g. "The Drowning Pool", "Brubaker") before becoming a legal secretary, and her career was the subject of a book by Tom Graves (as well as a source of interest for Quentin Tarentino), so seemingly there's more than what met the eye in "Latitude Zero" (a neat trick considering all the skin which was shown in the film).

On the opposing team, Romero is assisted by Patricia Medina as an Evil Henchwoman (cue Daffy Duck: "You ee-vil woman, you!"). As with Haynes, Medina had depths beyond those demanded by the script for "Latitude Zero", being a veteran of several films and television programs. Somewhat further down the food chain was Hikaru Kuroki, in her One and Only Performance, as Kroiga: the female captain of the submarine employed by Romero's character (it's mean . . . it's scary . . . it's got fangs!). Dressed from head-to-toe in something out of an adult website's dream (complete with leather riding crop), Kuroki almost manages to match Romero in the Scenery Chewing Competition. If she also ended up as a legal secretary then I definitely want to know about it.

Wasn't there a plot somewhere . . .

Oh. Right. So anyway: Our Heroes are rescued and brought to Latitude Zero where they're given the straight scooby about the sort of place it is. But before they get a chance to use the trampoline they get the news that a Japanese scientist who was hoping to relocate to Latitude Zero has been kidnapped by Malic (Romero). Cotten decides that a rescue must immediately be undertaken. What follows is something I tend to call "Star Trek Away Team Syndrome" (if your starship has a crew of around a thousand people, then why in God's name are the same people on the Bridge always picked for Away Team missions?). From the size of Latitude Zero one presumes it has a population in the hundreds, and yet Cotten decides to take only himself, his Oriental helmsman (played by Hitoshi Oomae), Linda Haynes and . . . wait for it again . . . Our Three Heroes (and recent arrivals).

Say what?

("What?")

Thank you. Everyone immediately piles into the submarine and takes off (after first bathing in a liquid that makes them bulletproof, and provides one of the more visually interesting scenes in the movie Thank You Miss Haynes). Everyone is also given a gold lame' jumpsuit featuring gloves that fire different sorts of weapons and allows the wearer to fly. Yes, pumpkins, we now see Joseph Cotten at the nadir of his career (and I've seen 1958's "From the Earth to the Moon" so I feel I'm qualified).

(Okay, and I even thought "Jack of Diamonds" was at least entertaining. So there!)

The rest of the movie is taken up by numerous battles between the good guys and Romero's hench---ah---things (unconvincing looking humanoid bats, giant rats and a winged lion. Even Ishiro Honda had his off days). Fortunately the model work more than adequately makes up for the low quality of the monsters, so all is not lost (plus one can close one's eyes and groove on the Ikufube soundtrack).

On the Tokasatsu Scale, "Latitude Zero" runs closer to "Godzilla vs. Gigan" than "The Mysterians" or "Battle in Outer Space" in terms of quality (for the uninitiated, I'm giving "Latitude Zero" almost five points out of ten). Having said that I will conclude that, if you're looking for honest cheese, then this film is certainly a better bet than some others.

"MegaForce" for instance.

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