‘Malibu Express’ (1985): Every ’80s cliché you ever loved kicks off (G-)string of Sidaris B-actioners

What, you didn’t expect to see Regis and Joy Philbin in a sleazy exploitation flick?  I say…good for them! You could do worse than appear in one of the fun, silly, sexy films of the late Andy Sidaris, he who put the female action star front and center while poking fun at his bumbling male leads in a comedic twist on the usual 1980s action/detective/spy film genres, as seen in 1985’s Malibu Express.

By Jason Hink

The first of 12 loosely connected B-grade actioners by Sidaris that ended with 1998’s L.E.T.H.A.L. Ladies: Return to Savage Beach, Malibu Express and the 11 films that followed are still being offered as a 12-film DVD set by Mill Creek Entertainment titled Bullets, Bombs and Babes: The Andy Sidaris Collection.

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Sunny Malibu, California (I guess?), 1985: Private dick Cody Abilene (Darby Hinton, TV’s Daniel Boone) hasn’t a care in the world. And why should he? He’s lazy, but lives on a yacht. He can’t shoot a gun straight, but still nabs the bad guys. He can’t be around women without them hitting on him, and is pained by the extra “work” it is pleasuring them. Everything just falls into Cody’s lap, and he makes it look ridiculously easy. However, he’s about to be pulled into the toughest case of his career.

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Federal intelligence agents wary of espionage threats at the highest levels of government call on Cody to crack the case and root out a collection of high-tech spies among the rich and disgusting of Southern California’s wealthiest socialites. Who better to take the job?

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That description is more or less the film’s official “synopsis,” but even if you pay attention, there’s no need to worry about intricacy of plot or motivation of character in Andy Sidaris’ first film in his unofficially-titled Bullets, Bombs and Babes series of 12 action flicks produced between 1985 and 1998.

RELATED | Read more 1980s movie reviews

1987’s Hard Ticket to Hawaii gets most the love from retro-lovers and new viewers with an affinity for low-budget, crazy, wacky, “out there” action movies from the waning days of grindhouse theaters and the beginnings of these films’ natural new homes – latenight cable and VHS. Hard Ticket to Hawaii crystallized Sidaris’ strategy of throwing everything-and-the-kitchen-sink into his films to differentiate them from more standard low-budget offerings, and to give them a craziness factor to pull in casual viewers of big-budget studio fare (“Let’s throw a killer snake on steroids into the mix as a side plot!”), but Malibu Express clearly illustrates what was to come from the producer, who threw every popular cliche of the time into the film.

Malibu Express poster

In the exposition-heavy plot, Cody, a reverse Dirty Harry who looks like a blonde Magnum P.I., is called upon when Soviet baddies threaten the U.S. computer-microchip industry (who wasn’t after US microchips in the 80s?), but before we even get to the plot’s setup, Cody takes a quick trip to the racetrack to see his old friend, June Khnockers (Lynda Wiesmeier), who reminds us that her name is spelled “knockers…with an ‘h’.” It’s here that we see the true reason for the film’s existence: Playboy Playmates in various stages of undress who can’t keep their hands (and other body parts) off playboy P.I. Cody Abilene! And she’s not the only one; the creative opening credits, which features a mysterious woman typing the credits onto a futuristic-looking computer monitor, loudly and proudly states who the film’s Playmates are. Along with Wiesmeier, Playmates Kimberly McArthur, Barbara Edwards and Lorraine Michaels also appear.

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B-action film icon Sybil Danning (Battle Beyond the Stars, Howling II: … Your Sister Is a Werewolf, Warrior Queen), who also posed for Playboy in 1983, enters the fray as the mysterious Contessa Luciana, a mysterious agent who hooks up with Cody (in more ways than one) and details the mission at hand. Luciana is loosely connected to wheelchair-bound, rich Beverly Hills socialite Lady Lillian Chamberlain (Niki Dantine, Princess Daisy, The Concrete Jungle), whose mansion seems is the point of origin for the black-market microchip sales, so she’s given the job. And since Luciana is friends with Cody, she naturally chooses him to help her crack the case. But it won’t be easy; living at the mansion is a colorful cast of characters, each with their own quirks and secrets…any of them could be the culprit, and it’s up to Cody to weed him (or her) out!

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Among the crazies are all-around house b*tch Shane (Brett Baxter Clark, Bachelor Party, Teen Witch, Enough), a foul-mouthed ladies man who acts as Lady Lillian’s butler and chauffeur and who sleeps with everyone in the cast, tossing out anti-gay slurs while simultaneously hiding the fact that he’s sleeping with the men, too. His conquests include Liza (Lorraine Michaels, Star 80, Business as Usual), Lady Lillian’s beautiful daughter, and Anita (Shelley Taylor Morgan, Scarface, Tales from the Crypt, The Sword and the Sorcerer), the snobbish wife of Lady Lillian’s son, Stuart (Michael A. AndrewsAvenging Angel, Hard Ticket to Hawaii). Stuart in particular is interesting, cross-dressing and posing as a woman to hide his appearance, while also sleeping with Shane.

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Confused yet? Just watch the film (if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you already know most of this). Leading the heavies are true “heavies,” John Brown and Richard Brose, two legitimate competition-level bodybuilders. Their acting isn’t great, but the image gets the point across; just like a pro wrestling tag team needs a “manager” to handle the interviews and speaking gigs, Brown and Brose rely on Art Metrano’s crazy, unhinged Matthew for the same skills. For my money, Metrano (Police Academy 3: Back in Training, Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment, History of the World: Part I) steals the show with his over-the-top performance, playfully winking at the audience and going for broke, knowing full well what kind of movie he’s performing in. Regis Philbin and his wife, Joy, cameo as a pair of talk show hosts seen airing on a TV in one of the mansion’s many rooms (Sidaris must have known Philbin from his days as a TV sports director and called in the favor). Rounding out the overlarge, memorable cast of characters is the Buffington family, comic relief hillbillies played by Abb Dickson, Busty O’Shea and Randy Rudy.

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Pulling from nearly every potentially popular trend of the previous 10 years, the film throws everything at the wall in hopes it will stick. Here are some of the popular cliches I remembered from my recent viewing of Malibu Express:

  • Cody is like a reverse Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry; he carries a .44 Magnum like he knows how to use it, but can’t shoot for sh*t. In one scene, Cody even says, “Go ahead, make my day,” before firing (and missing) at point-blank range
  • Cody sports the popular-at-the-time detective’s ‘stache, a nod to Tom Selleck’s TV detective, Magnum P.I., and Burt Reynolds, with a little Matt Houston in there as well
  • The threat featuring Soviets attempting to steal US computer chip technology is a common 80s plot device tha can be seen in such films as the 1985 James Bond outing, A View to a Kill
  • Cody drives a red DeLorean, a popular 80s car (however, Malibu Express was released several months before Back to the Future)
  • In a nod to Cannonball Run and The Dukes of Hazzard, the Buffingtons, a family of hillbilly hicks providing comedy relief, constantly happen upon Cody to challenge him to a race, “just like our daddies used ta do”…
  • The opening credits are James Bond-lite, featuring a mysterious woman tapping away at a keyboard on a futuristic-looking computer over a musical selection, none of which has anything to do with the film itself
  • A high-society party thrown by Lady Lillian mimics a party you’d see on popular nighttime soap operas of the time, such as Dynasty and Dallas
  • Cody’s cop friend Beverly (Lori Sutton, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, History of the World: Part I) is shoehorned in as yet another potential hookup for Cody; they’re “workout partners,” giving us a glimpse of the quintessential 80s workout club

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Sidaris’ earlier flicks–1973’s Stacey and 1979’s Seven–illustrated the template for what was to come, but it wasn’t until six years later when Sidaris made his next film, Malibu Express, on his own terms, through his own production company (Malibu Bay Films). In interviews and other information I tracked down, Sidaris really wanted to make the women of his films the stars. In the age of big-budget Schwarzenegger and Stallone action vehicles, the Malibu Bay films allowed the women to be the best shots, cleaning up mess after mess created by the men in his movies. With that in mind, Malibu Express is a slightly different animal compared to other films in the Bullets, Bombs and Babes series; most of them bring back actors and characters from previous films in a loosely-defined “universe” of films, but Cody Abilene (and the actor portraying him, Darby Hinton) is never seen or heard from again, aside from a Malibu Express movie poster hanging in the female hero’s room in Hard Ticket to Hawaii, where Cody is referred to as a relative (is he an actor in a movie in this “universe,” or is he a legendary P.I. who had a movie made about him? You get to decide). Also, the theme of the later movies switches from the 80s small-screen-centric male P.I. formula seen here to the formula the series would be known for – high-ranking female government agents cracking cases of foreign intrigue and espionage in beautiful locales (usually Hawaii).

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Sidaris himself is an interesting character. Prior to doing movies, he was a well-regarded television sports producer and director who helmed many high profile events for national (and international) TV, such the Olympic and professional sports events, classic NFL Films content, and ABC’s Monday Night Football. He won an Emmy Award in 1969 for directing ABC Sports’ coverage of the 1968 Summer Olympics and pioneered what became known as the “Honey Shot,” the practice of cutting away from the men on the field during a break in the action to focus on the women in attendance, namely the cheerleaders – a practice still heavily used in sports coverage today. I can only assume his high-profile TV sports connections allowed him easier entry into other genres, such as dramatic television, where he directed episodes of hit ’70s shows like Gemini Man, Kojak, and The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, the latter of which his wife was a producer. Sidaris often made makes a cameo appearances in his films, as he does in Malibu Express.

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I was around 13 when I saw this film for the first time on cable TV late at night (we had nothing else to do in those late-80s pre-internet, pre-YouTube days after we got bored playing the latest NES game), and with a fervent curiosity for any action/adventure/detective show/movie I could get my hands on, I likely stumbled across it while channel surfing, pulled in by the lighthearted action and intrigue, and the beautiful, sunny Malibu locations. And that’s how it should have been; teenage boys were part of the target audience for this kind of throwaway entertainment, and those cable nets needed frothy filler to fill those slots, filler that was cheap, quick, and could capture the attention of channel surfers without the need to start at the film’s beginning.

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Some newcomers who stumble upon this schlock will undoubtedly view it through a sparkly-new, narrowly-focused 21st-century lens and detest the exploitation aspects of Malibu Express, in particular the display of topless Playboy (and later Penthouse) model/actresses. Everyone has their own opinion, and that’s valid…but I like to dig in and look at the historical context of the era it was created in, be it film, TV, music, or any creative art (whatever “art” is…). Those who grew up with this fluff will be far more forgiving than younger folk who have never encountered a Sidaris flick (although hardcore 1980s religious buffs certainly railed against this stuff, too). But I like to defer to the horse’s mouth: In a 1987 TV interview promoting Hard Ticket To Hawaii, the next (and most popular) Andy Sidaris film, Sidaris’ co-producer and wife, Arlene, was asked point-blank about exploiting women via nudity in these films, and she replied: “If there’s no problem with showing nudity at the Louvre, I don’t see why there’s a problem showing nudity on film. And the day I walk into a room and a man can’t say, ‘You have great legs,’ I will be a very sorry feminist.”

So, for fans of  lighthearted action-adventure that wasn’t pretentious, didn’t take itself seriously, that gave us an escapist respite from the mundane daily grind and let the ladies lead the way – be thankful the Sidaris team had the good fortune to make movies in the 20th century.

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