Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. And yet others thrive on a tone not easily marketed in Hollywood. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these films for what they get wrong — when they get it wrong — and what they did right in spite of the wishes of the studio or the director.
This week: Hard Ticket To Hawaii
A look at Andy Sidaris was inevitable. You may have happened upon one of his movies and never realized it. They use to air on Cinemax and The Movie Channel just before those cable channels would switch to soft-core porn programming in the late-night hours. In some ways, Sidaris’s movies were uniquely suited as material to transition from daytime content to the more risqué as they feature actions scenes, breasts and the suggestion of sex.
In fact, that suggestion of what sex might be what inspired filmmakers like Samurai Cop‘s Amir Shervan and The Room‘s Tommy Wiseau. But we’ll get back to that in a bit.
Sidaris spent most of his career as the director of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, pioneering many of the techniques used in covering sports to this day. He even won an Emmy for the network’s broadcast of the 1968 Summer Olympics. He directed episodes of Kojack and and Gemini Man in the 1970s before finally turning to features and our old pal Roger Corman — who, I promise, will land in the hot seat soon. Corman’s New World Pictures provided Sidaris with half the money he needed to make his debut feature, Stacey. The film told the tale of a private detective and race car driver (the titular Stacey) who is hired by a wealthy older woman to investigate her possible heirs. The film marks the debut of the Sidaris female protagonist, whom he would “refine” in his own way for years to come. Sidaris would continue to make features intermittently until the mid-1980s, when it seemed to become his passion. He reworked elements of Stacey into 1985’s Malibu Express, but his legend truly begins with 1987’s Hard Ticket To Hawaii, this weekend’s cheesy movie.
The plot concerns Donna (Donna Speir), an apparent DEA agent stationed in the Hawaiian islands. As part of her cover, she pilots charter flights for a Molokai Cargo with her friend Taryn (Hope Marie Carlton). But she’s also in a semi-serious relationship with fellow agent Rowdy Abilene (Ronn Moss), the cousin of Malibu Express‘s Cody Abilene.
Yes, that’s right, Sidaris organized one of the first cinematic universes as Donna, Taryn, and members of the Abilene family would continue to appear in subsequent films.
The story really begins when Donna and Taryn drop off a pair of charter clients in an inhabited part of Molokai. On the way back to their plane, they intercept a payment drop from Mr. Chang (Peter Bromilow) to Seth Romero (Rodrigo Obregon), the most notorious drug merchant on the island. Soon, they find themselves under constant threat from Seth and his goons. Donna calls in Rowdy and another agent, Jade (Harold Diamond), to help them take Seth down. Meanwhile, Seth’s goons kidnap local restaurateur and confidential informant Edy (Cynthia Brimhall), who apparently started something with Jade in a film Sidaris forgot to make. It all leads to a ludicrous shootout and a final confrontation eerily reminiscent of Halloween. Also, there’s a mutated, cancer-ridden snake roaming the island.
But if the plot sounds as thin as a g-string, that’s part of the charm. Sidaris is by no means a good writer. Conversations have an inadvertent Waiting for Godot quality to them. Any notion of character development is accomplished through the occasional info-dump. And the pace is all over the place. The grand guignol shootout to save Edy should be the climax, but Hard Ticket to Hawaii continues on for another 20 minutes or so to resolve the snake and Mr. Chang. But for all these faults, there’s something appealing amateurish about the way Sidaris constructs his story. I mean, they’re really just there to facilitate gun fights, the occasional explosion, and women taking their tops off. Nonetheless, you can sense an honest attempt to contain these visuals in something resembling a logical progression. It’s the sort of spirit you see in the best of cheesy auteurs, from Ed Wood to the aforementioned Tommy Wiseau. That energy keeps Hard Ticket to Hawaii humming along even as the excuses for women to get undressed get more and more obvious.
That means it’s time to talk about the nudity. Sidaris liked to cast Playboy Playmates and Penthouse Pets in his films. I’m going to assume he did this for two reasons (pun somewhat intended). One, he knew they would show their breasts and two, he liked looking at their breasts. At the same time, there’s something oddly innocent about the way topless women are displayed in the film. One scene features Donna and Taryn getting topless just to get into a hot tub for about a minute and half before realizing they intercepted Mr. Chang’s payment to Seth. The camera never exactly leers at them — it’s actually trying convey important plot information — and stripping down is something they always control themselves. When you consider certain Corman films of the period, which often saw men forcing a woman’s top off to suggest an impending act of sexual violence, the nudity in Hard Ticket to Hawaii almost seems enlightened.
Well, almost enlightened, anyway. There are some alleged “jokes” in the film delivered by characters the audience are supposed to dislike that hinge on stereotypes about women. Also, one of Seth’s goons goes undercover at Edy’s restaurant by posing as a woman. The film never really forms an opinion about it beyond Taryn calling the character a “wannabe woman,” but there is something in the whole thread that brushes up next to transphobia when viewed with a modern eye.
But then again, Sidaris’s understanding of sexual realities seems pretty stunted. The movie’s one sex scene, between Donna and Rowdy, is very awkward. It may not be as horrifying as the ones in The Room, but it seems to come from a similar misunderstanding of sex. Both he and Wiseau appear to know which body parts are involved, but not how they actually function together. In Hard Ticket to Hawaii‘s case, the scene is also mercifully brief.
The overall impression you get from the nudity and sex in the film is one of a cis-het boy just beginning to understand his own interest in the topic. We’ll leave the fact Sidaris was in his mid-50s at the time of production as a discussion for another day. Instead, the boyishness of the film is a great way to bring it back to the snake. Introduced early in the film, the snake — said to have eaten hundreds of “cancer-infested rats” before being boxed up for examination at a lab on the mainland — is mistakenly stowed on Donna and Taryn’s plane. It is released from its crate during the their first fight with Seth’s goons and becomes a recurring element of the story. Donna and Taryn discover it’s eaten their charter clients in the uninhabited part of the island. It also returns at the end to give Seth one last bite after Donna has managed to shoot him in the face, gore him with a harpoon and stab him in the stomach with a switchblade. The scene turns the movie into a Corman-style horror movie thanks to the overall silliness, Rowdy bursting through the wall to help Donna, and the gloriously wicked explosion of the terrible snake prop.
In fact, if there is one thing this movie does right, it’s explosions. They’re about as gratuitous and silly as the breast shots, but they work.
Which brings us back to that boyish quality. Hard Ticket to Hawaii has the look and feel of what a young man might write if he took a screenwriting class while high on James Bond movies, the issues of Playboy he stole from his uncle, and his new and awkward feelings about women. He knows all of these things interest him, just not the underlying reasons why they do. He also knows his heroes have to kill the bad guys and blow up a helicopter real good.
Whether or not Sidaris knew this was his tone is up for debate. While there are some obvious jokes, the movie takes itself fairly seriously. Or, at least as seriously as a Bullets, Bombs, and Boobs movie can. The acting is not accomplished, but you can see most of the performers are trying. And as we always say, that sort of dedication is required for a good cheesy movie. Combined with that boyish quality, Hard Ticket to Hawaii definitely has cheese to spare.
Hard Ticket to Hawaii is available on Tubi and for rent on Amazon Video. It is also available on Blu-ray and various Andy Sidaris DVD compilations.