‘Hard Ticket to Hawaii’ (1987): The very best of ’80s B-movie escapism

Before starting this review, let’s hit the Jacuzzi. I do my best thinking there.

By Jason Hink

This is it! This is the one! The pinnacle of all those 80s and 90s Andy Sidaris action adventures we watched as kids, then teens, then college-aged adults on late-night cable, each with that comfortable, familiar cast of Playboy/Penthouse favorites leading the way with washed-up TV stars of the past bringing up the rear.

The godly powers-that-be at Mill Creek Entertainment have done the unthinkable and released 1987’s Hard Ticket to Hawaii on Blu-ray in sparkling, topless high definition for the very first time, much to the delight of B-action fans across the globe, and starring a cast with many faces that would become familiar to fans for years to come, including Dona Speir, Hope Marie Carlton, Ronn Moss, Harold Diamond, Rodrigo Obregón, Cynthia Brimhall, and Peter Bromilow.

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5 or 6 years ago, my Millennial-aged brother saw a clip on YouTube he described to me in stunning, crazy detail: “A couple dudes in a jeep happen upon a guy riding a skateboard on his hands, who then conceals a rifle behind a blow-up doll and shoots at the guys in the jeep! Those guys, in turn, hit the guy with the jeep sending him airborne before taking out a rocket launcher and blowing the dude and the blow-up doll to smithereens!”

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Suffice it to say, he didn’t get too far into that description before I, his GenXer brother, knew exactly what he was talking about. Finally…FINALLY, youngsters were getting a taste of some of the best cinema the 20th century had to offer. I turned to him and replied: “Just wait til you see the whole movie!” Now, these milestones of cultural intellectualism are receiving renewed interest as evidenced by their long-awaited debut on high-definition disc where we finally get to see these late-night cable winners in glorious widescreen.

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The setting is the colorful, pastel ’80s–1987 to be exact–in sunny Molokai, Hawaii. When two Molokai policemen are murdered by thugs working for drug kingpin Mr. Chang (Peter Bromilow) and his local lieutenant, Seth Romero (Rodrigo Obregón), two sexy Playboy playmates drug enforcement agents working for The Agency (of course) are dispatched to check it out: hard-nosed, statuesque Donna (Dona Speir) and sweet, bubbly firecracker Taryn (Hope Marie Carlton). Boarding their private Cessna, the ladies fly undercover as an island delivery service, Molokai Cargo–fine cover for agents who don’t uhhh, stay covered. Oh and…as part of their Molokai Cargo job, they have to transport a crate containing a tropical snake that needs to be taken to the island (more on that later) along with a pair of smiling newlyweds looking for fun in the sun on Molokai.

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After a fantastically epic ’80s montage of scenic, oceanic landscape photography showing the agents in flight over beautiful Hawaiian mountains set to the coolest theme music never concocted for a James Bond adventure, Dona and Taryn drop off the newlyweds and arrive at their location where they conveniently interrupt an illegal diamond exchange when they happen to spot a remote-control helicopter making the drop. The ladies make off with a container of diamonds and fight off Romero’s thugs before settling in to their hideaway cottage for some Jacuzzi time, which offers us much needed exploitation exposition. Eventually, two of Romero’s thugs find Dona and Taryn’s hideout and another gunfight ensues. The bad guys manage to recover some of the diamonds, but they flee after they spot the large, scary snake that’s escaped from the Cessna during the firefight. For you see, during a mix-up at the delivery plant, the nice, sedate tropical snake was accidentally switched with a ravenous, mutated, radioactive model…and now it’s on the loose!

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Donna and Taryn, aware that they’ve stumbled into a dangerous situation, call for reinforcements. Enter Rowdy Abilene (Ron Moss, TV’s Bold and the Beautiful), cousin of Cody Abilene from Malibu Express, and martial arts expert Jade (Harold Diamond). In fact, our opening glimpse of these studs has them practicing martial arts moves aboard the Malibu Express, the same boat Cody lived on in the earlier film. After a secret message is delivered to them (in a self-destructing sandwich), they make their way to Molokai. It’s at this point, when Rowdy and Jade arrive on the island, that we’re treated to one of the most meme’d and YouTube’d clips in the history of the interwebs, which you read about earlier in this review in excited detail courtesy of my little brother.

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Will their arrival spell the end for Mr. Chang and his operation? Will Dona and Taryn figure out who’s after them and those diamonds? Will agents Dona and Taryn hook up and get freaky with agents Rowdy and Jade? Will that giant, radioactive python throw a wrench into everyone’s plans? Most importantly, will the plot to this movie really even matter??

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Produced by his Malibu Bay Films, Hard Ticket to Hawaii was the second in a series of 12 Andy Sidaris films that began with 1985’s Malibu Express (you can find our review of that film here). With Hard Ticket, Sidaris pivots away from the male-led P.I. mystery farce to feature female-led action-adventure espionage hokum, a formula that would prove popular and remain throughout the series’ run (these films were produced almost yearly through 1998).

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Shot on location in Molokai and Honolulu, with Los Angeles standing in for inserts where needed, Hard Ticket to Hawaii represents Andy and Arlene Sidaris’s ultimate kitchen-sink adventure, where nothing is too crazy or too over-the-top to throw in. Like snorting cocaine for 96 straight minutes, Hard Ticket is a kinetic, scatter-brained, over-blown adventure that doesn’t take itself seriously…and that results in a colorful cartoon of a B-film that’s too fun to ignore.

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Sidaris looked to cast beautiful women as his leads, and the two here proved so popular they wound up sticking around for several more films. Dona Speir (Donna), a 1984 Playboy Playmate of the Month, had done some commercial work and promotional modeling in the years following her Playboy appearance, but never considered herself an actress (she did appear in a few small parts in early ’80s TV such as Matt Houston, Knight Rider, and The New Mike Hammer). According to her autobiography, Naked Truth: The Fall and Rise of Dona Speir, published in 2019, she was in the middle of a long battle with drug abuse and alcoholism in 1987. Surprised by scoring the lead in Hard Ticket, she explains how she partied nightly during the shoot resulting in multiple takes, wasted time, and heavy editing around her flubs and miscues. Certain she’d never work again, she was surprised when the Sidaris family invited her back the following year to reprise her role of Donna Hamilton in 1988’s Picasso Trigger. Newly sober after checking into Alcoholics Anonymous, she began taking her acting more seriously, and she improved with each film thereafter. In September 2019, she announced on Instagram that she’d been sober for over 32 years (11,856 days to be exact). In the end, she reprised her role for Sidaris in five more films, ending in 1993. For my money, Speir’s final battle against Rodrigo Obregón’s Seth Romero is a fantastic, balls-out, action classic! With Hard Ticket, The series continued its mandate of swapping out the men for the women as far as who the real heroes were. Essentially, Dona Speir is the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Sylvester Stallone of the film.

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Hope Marie Carlton (Taryn), Playboy’s Playmate of the Month in July 1985, reprises her role of Taryn in two more films, ending her Malibu Bay Productions stint with 1989’s Savage Beach. Ronn Moss (Rowdy Abilene) would become the most recognizable mainstream star of the bunch; just months after Hard Ticket he scored the part of Ridge Forrester in 1987’s newest soap opera, CBS’ Bold and the Beautiful–a role he played until 2012. Harold Diamond (Jade) was considered a pioneer in Florida’s kickboxing scene. Following Hard Ticket, he did stunt work/choreography work on Rambo III, Picasso Trigger, and 2016’s Kickboxer: Vengeance, among others.

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RELATED | More 1980s film reviews

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Hard Ticket to Hawaii is just silly fun. Side characters and bizarre situations pop up out of nowhere with no relation to the story whatsoever, reminding us that the movie was shot during the best of times–the escapist 1980s. I was four in 1980 and 13 in 1989, and I look back fondly on the ’80s as my favorite decade. Some of that can be attributed to nostalgia, but the polarizing nature of the ’80s (people seem to really love them or really loathe them) has always made me feel like I was on the right track. In a Sidaris film like Hard Ticket, every cliche that made the ’80s great (or awful, if that’s your take) is displayed in outrageous, over-exaggerated form. Think about the movies that defined the decade (Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Terminator, to name a few) and the television shows (Magnum P.I., Simon and Simon, Dyansty, The A-Team, Miami Vice) and you can see how when compared to their ’90s counterparts (Titanic, Fight Club, Goodfellas, Schindler’s List, NYPD Blue, ER, The Sopranos) the ’80s were full of colorful fun and escapism before everything became serious, gritty and grunge. Even looking back at ’80s-era James Bond (the Roger Moore films), from which Sidaris draws inspiration and style, the films are much more light, carefree and fun-loving compared to their Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig successors (and even the late ’80s Timothy Dalton Bonds struggled by trying to be “more serious” and heavier). It was simply an era in history when optimism ran high, and with it came a healthy dose of escapism in our entertainment.

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In fact, one of my favorite TV producers is the late Glen A. Larson, who created and produced many of these escapist shows, including The Fall Guy, Magnum P.I. and Knight Rider. Imagine my surprise then when I spotted Glen Larson Productions listed under the Thank Yous in the Hard Ticket to Hawaii end credits. Arlene Sidaris, Andy’s wife and production partner, wasn’t involved in Malibu Express, but she became the producer for every film in the series theereafter. Turns out, one of her earlier jobs was as a producer on Larson’s Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, a late ’70s show on ABC. By 1987, Larson had racked millions of dollars as one of TV’s top producers, creating countless shows (many of them hits) for various networks. With all that dough, Larson purchased a sweet, large superyacht–and he loaned it to the Hard Ticket production (it belongs the villains, of course, and you see them aboard it hatching plans and toying with their deadly remote-control helicopters).

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All this to say…I don’t know how it links together, but Andy Sidaris got into film after a multi-Emmy-winning career in sports production at ABC (he produced sporting events and programs such as ABC’s Wide World of Sports). Within all this entanglement (did Arlene meet Andy because they were both at ABC? Was Arlene at ABC because she was on a Larson show?), some of my favorite masters of escapism wound up all working together in one way or another in the 1980s, helping to bring Sidaris’s L.E.T.H.A.L. Ladies series to life, and Hard Ticket to Hawaii is likely remembered as the best of the bunch.

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Mill Creek’s Blu-ray features 1080p HD widescreen with a 1:78:1 aspect ratio and 2.0 DTS-HD master audio. This comes from a 4K widescreen restoration by the American Genre Film Archive (AGFA). English subtitles are included, and digital access is available through Mill Creek’s movieSPREE service. Thankfully, special features are ported over from the early-2000s-era DVD releases, including a lively commentary from Andy and Arlene Sidaris, an introduction and behind-the-scenes featurette from Andy Sidaris and co-hosted by an always-ready-to-party Julie Strain.

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It’s the very best of ’80s B-movie escapism: explosions, gunfights, rocket launchers, muscular men, topless beautiful women, remote control choppers, killer frisbees, self-destructing sandwiches, eventual Tarzan Wolf Larson (as Taryn’s boyfriend), cross-dressers,  killers on skateboards with blow-up dolls, sumo wrestlers, sportscasters hangin’ at the island restaurant (for no reason), radioactive pythons exploding out of toilets, and the most inventive opening credits sequence I’ve seen since Malibu Express–it’s a fast-paced, colorful cartoon, and that’s why it continues to enjoy widespread popularity around the globe today.

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No matter how nonsensical, silly, or stupid Hard Ticket to Hawaii is, it keeps coming at you at lightning-speed with one imaginative, entertaining sequence after another and some of the cheesiest dialogue you’ll ever lay ears on (my fave bad-guy line: “If brains were birdshit, you’d have a clean cage,”). If you pride yourself on being politically correct, star far away (and really, why are you reading this?). But if you think you’re just too intellectual or stuck up to watch a so-called “so-bad-it’s-good” film, I dare you not to have at least an inkling of a good time watching this shitlery unfold.

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