Deathcheaters (1976)

Australian stuntmen engage in covert missions, perform death-defying stunts, and drink and shag women whose names they don’t remember! Huh, the “stuntmen” part of that sentence seems redundant.

Steve Hall and Rodney Cann are a couple of stuntmen working in the Australian film and TV industry in the 1970s. The two are undeniable thrill seekers, eagerly performing stunts that would likely get them killed, all for a taste of the rush that near death brings them after their time serving as commandos in the jungles of Vietnam. So when a couple of crimes occur in front of them, the two happily take after the shotgun-wielding criminals. Only it doesn’t make the papers…and that’s because it was all a set up by Australian intelligence assets to recruit Steve and Rodney to infiltrate a secret facility owned by a Filipino crime lord and steal some documents. With some time wasted in pointless training, happily spent goofing off, and a bunch of demolitions gear, Steve and Rodney are on the case to help out both the Australian and Filipino governments, all while still getting back in time to premiere their latest deodorant commercial. I wish that last part was a joke, but no, that’s actually true.

You may have some questions about the plot, the first being whether two Australian stuntmen might have gotten started fighting a war in Vietnam. Well, kids, it’s time for a history lesson: yes. While most nations didn’t set foot anywhere near America’s military escapade in Vietnam, Australia put on waders and took a flying leap. Beyond the USA and South Vietnam, they had the most military presence and troops on the ground of any other nation. Australian commandos reinforced Americans, fought against the Vietcong, and even monitored a specific province so the Americans wouldn’t have to. Why? Because Australia is a better friend of the US than most Americans realize. So the next time you meet an Australian, buy him or her a drink. Unless they don’t drink, in which case you’ve just done something terribly embarrassing.

With that particular history lesson over, we have another another thing to discuss; this movie is a stunt performers dream. They do all kinds here: fire stunts, gun stunts, climbing and rappelling stunts, stunt driving, horse riding, sword combat, playing with booby traps, running through explosions. And our two leads, Steve and Rodney, do it all with aplomb. Steve was played by John Hargreaves, a fantastic Australian actor who was well loved in the Aussie film scene before his tragic death from AIDs in 1996; his career was too short, but he’s genuine and enthusiastic here, and despite not being a stuntperson, he agreed to do quite a bit more than you might expect. Injury prevented him from tackling parts of the big raid at the end, but he provided a lot of the emotional heft to the film.

Rodney, meanwhile, was played by Grant Page. This is where the real stunt heart of the film comes in, because Page was already an established stunt performer and did everything himself during the movie, despite having a cracked rib while filming! Page also has an incredible career, and fans of Ozploitation and Aussie cinema in general are probably already fans of his work, even if you don’t know it; he was the stunt coordinator for Mad Max and Max Max Beyond Thunderdome. Other credits include stunts, coordinator, and acting roles in films like Death Ship, Road Games, The 13th Floor, and even an uncredited stunt role in the film Patrick. For the biggest stunt enthusiasts, Page was also the start of Stunt Rock and the main subject of the stuntperson documentary Dangerfreaks. He continues to work as a stunt coordinator on both Australian and Hollywood movies, and while he may not be the actor that Hargreaves was, he brings a sense of humor and banters with his costar in a way that feels genuine and delightful.

But despite being the stars, there is another character in the movie that really sells it: the mysterious Culpepper, played by the great Australian actor Noel Ferrier. Culpepper is the representative of the Australian intelligence service and openly admits that this is not his real name. He has a fantastic, dry sense of humor and a quick wit, and while his numerous minions may come across as flashy and full of themselves, Culpepper seems earnest and genuine, something unusual in a spy movie. He’s like George Smiley with a better sense of humor, and if you don’t know who George Smiley is, go read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy right now. Ferrier had a long established career in film, television, and on stage in Australia and was even appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in 1989. If you are interested in what was going on in Aussie entertainment before the 1970s began spitting out fantastic exploitation films, he’s a great place to start your journey.

Unfortunately, Deathcheaters was not successful. Despite filming on a relatively small budget of AU$157,000, it had made only AU$120,000 by the end of the 1970s. Still, the director was Ozploitation legend Brian Trenchard-Smith, and he always considered the film a success that would eventually be profitable. And it should be, because as an entertaining buddy romp chock full of whatever stunts they could think of, Deathcheaters deserves your time and attention. It has humor, it has action, it has a ridiculous story that is as entertaining as it is weird. It has strange stereotypes of German art house directors wearing berets and monacles. And it has a recurring gag about Grant Page never remembering the names of the ladies he’s inviting over. That’s ok though, because he has a dog named Bismarck that judges him.

And it also has one other fun fact: Hargreaves’ character is married in the film to an actress played by then Margaret Gerard. Margaret is now Margaret Trenchard-Smith; she married director Brian Trenchard-Smith in 1975 and appeared in multiple of his films. It’s a nice family connection. See? This stunt movie with tons of explosions is about family! It’s wholesome!

It also has a sweet theme song…that you will not hear in this TV advertisement.

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