Wheels of Fire is producer/director’s Cirio H. Santiago’s follow up to his Mad Max rip-off Stryker, it isn’t a sequel to that film, just another post-apocalyptic wasteland movie, only this time out water no longer seems a major concern, as this entry is more about simply maintaining power, whether that be from controlling the populace with fuel, food or terror…and, of course, beautiful women in tiny leather hot pants.
The “Mad Max” of this movie is Trace (Gary Watkins), an anti-hero who tools around the wastelands in his 70s Ford Mustang, one with the optional rocket booster pack. The world has barely survived a major global war, and one of the planet’s casualties was Trace’s personality, he’s just not that likable, and when we first meet him he is visiting a local hang-out that looks like a collection of tents and parked cars. Which sadly is how most of the locations of this post-apocalyptic world look.
Trace has come here to find the Nomads, who his sister Arlie (Lynda Wiesmeier) has been hanging out with, and when Trace is introduced to Bo (Steve Parvin), Arlie’s current boyfriend, he is less than impressed, but we are not sure if it is because…
A) He only is dating Arlie because of her cool car.
B) He is a loser and will be unable to keep Arlie Safe in this dangerous world.
C) He is dating Arlie because she is the only person wearing leather hot pants in the desert.
Trace and Arlie go and sit down to watch some gladiatorial type fight between Bo and some local moron, the winner of the fight gets the losers car. Trace is a tad upset because this jerk is risking his sister’s car, but my question is, “How is this a proper contest to win you a guy’s pink slip?” Call me old fashion but the only way you should win a guy’s car is by beating him in a car race, not in a fight with steel batons. Arlie assures Trace that the dude Bo will be fighting hasn’t a chance, but just before the start of the fight another man enters the ring and takes the place of Bo’s original opponent. Arlie is alarmed and tells her brother, “They pulled a switch. This dude is a ringer, Trace. This wasn’t part of the deal.” So not only is this the lamest way to win a guy’s ride but the rules allow for last-minute substitutions, which is fucking insane.
When Bo inevitably loses Trace steps in and beats this ringer, but the ringer’s gang doesn’t think this is fair for some reason, and thus we get our first car chase. Trace takes off in his car while Arlie and Bo race off in hers, and I will say that the chase is at least competently filmed, with the required amount of crashes and explosions (all cars will explode regardless of the odds of this actually happening), but after surviving this encounter Trace spots an approaching column of vehicles led by the villainous Scourge (Joe Mari Avellana).
Trace wants them all to take off together, but Bo thinks it would be better if they split up. Now in the previous chase Trace suggested they split up, to divide the numbers of their pursuers, and it was a plan that worked, but now that Bo has suggested it the plan will fail, and Arlie will pay the price of this failure. By “pay the price” I mean she will be raped multiple times throughout the course of the film. Arlie and Bo had stupidly stopped to have an afternoon delight when they were caught unawares by Scourge’s men, and Bo jumped right into “asshole coward” mode by offering up Arlie’s car, and Arlie herself to the gang. Scag (Jack S. Daniels), the gang’s second in command, wants to get right to the raping, but Scourge intervenes and she is instead stripped and tied spread eagle across the hood of his car.
Meanwhile, Trace had no problem taking out the part of the gang that followed him, flame-throwing and machine-gunning them at will, but when he finally makes it to the rendezvous he finds a near-dead Bo, having been dragged behind the gang’s cars, there is no sign of Arlie. He guns down these gang members and finds out from a dying Bo what happened to Arlie, then he shoots the idiot in the head, putting him out of his misery and ours. So now Traces races off to save his sister, right? Well not exactly, as Trace seems to be a person who is easily distracted, and possibly has the memory retention of a goldfish. While driving around, presumably looking for Arlie, but one can’t be sure, he encounters another group of gang members trying to capture a fair-haired, and totally badass woman, by the name of Stinger (Laura Banks).
They discover they are both after Scourge, once Trace discourages her from stealing his car that is, and they decide to team-up. Come nightfall Stinger tells Trace that, “Just because we are travelling together doesn’t mean we are sleeping together.” So while Trace beds down in his car, Stinger wanders off into the desert. I’m not sure what she was expecting find, a Holiday Inn perhaps, but what she does find is a sand trap. Seems she wandered into the land of the Sandmen, a group of cannibalistic mutants who live in the dark catacombs under the sands, and she is pulled down into their domain.
Meanwhile, things aren’t going much better for Arlie, who has been handed over to Scourge for breaking in. She is manacled, manhandled, then raped by Scourge and when he is done with her she is passed into the hands of Skag for some more raping, and when he is finished she is given to the rest of the men for an old fashion gang rape. This is certainly the least pleasant element of this movie, and though the rape scenes are not graphic (apparently they were but that footage hit the editing room floor) it’s still isn’t something I look for in my post-apocalyptic adventure films. I will say this, Lynda Wiesmeier was a trooper, and for someone who is clearly not a professional actor, she still does a fairly good job with her role.
Back out in the wasteland Trace has tracked down Stinger, and he breaks into the Morlock cavern, I mean Sandmen’s caves, and rescues Stinger, as well as fellow captive Spike (Linda Grovenor). Spike has psychic abilities, mainly she can hear your thoughts, and this allows them to understand a deaf little person in a Confederate cap named Pug (Gary Taylor), who they later rescue from a different group of cannibals.
Note: Just what is the major food source for the people of the wastelands? Clearly, there are many people eating human flesh out there, but what about Trace and his friends, do they have access to a chain of Stuckey’s we just haven’t seen? Do Scourge and his gang have a garden just off-camera? Sure gas is very important for your road warring, but that is not the most vital fuel to ensure your survival.
Next, we see Trace, Stinger, Spike, and the Confederate Little Person, arrive at a settlement run by the True Believers (and no they are not a cult of Stan Lee followers), a whacked-out group of Moonie-like pacifists who are building a rocket ship. Wait, what’s that you say, a rocket ship? Yes, these slap-happy collections of people have been constructing a spaceship, this is because of the discovery of the planet “Paradise” a mere 20 million miles away. This discovery happened a year before the war broke out, and now these smiling yahoos are mere months away from leaving this shitty world behind.
It’s here that we learn about the one pseudo-government organization that tries to bring law and order to the wasteland, they are called The Ownership, and they are providing fuel and supplies to the True Believers. We also learn that Trace had once been a member, before a presumably less than amicable parting of the ways, and later we find out that Trace and the Scourge also know each other, and that they too had a falling out. So basically this movie hints at a bunch of backstories that sounds way more interesting than the movie we are watching.
Trace tells Stinger that the supposedly benevolent Ownership is a scam, that they provide fuel to new communities and then later jack up the price, and he will have no part of it, so Trace hops in his car and drives off. Is he finally getting back to his quest to find his snatched sister? Nope, he is just driving around aimlessly, but while he is gone Scourge and company attack the True Believer encampment. where many are then killed and the rocket is destroyed.
Note: I was surprised when the rocket blew up, as I was sure the movie was going to end with Trace and Stinger flying off into space to the planet Paradise, a planet that would be revealed to be the third one from the sun. “What a twist!” I guess ripping off both Twilight Zone and Mad Max was too much to ask for.
Trace is tipped off to the attack by Stinger’s falcon. Did I forget to mention that Stinger has this bird that we randomly see flying above? Well, don’t worry, because it does fucking NOTHING! We see it once land on Stinger’s arm, an obvious insert shot of the trainer’s arm, but the rest of the time it is just soaring around high above, screeching occasionally, and adding nothing to the proceedings. Beastmaster would be ashamed to call this thing a friend, it doesn’t claw the eyes out of a single foe. There is seriously no point in this stupid bird being in the movie.
The leader of The Ownership army was killed in the attack, and the second in command, who always wanted to take the fight to the wasteland bandits, asks Trace to join them in the fight. Trace turns him down because he finds his sister’s necklace on one of the dead bandits and remembers he should be looking for his sister, and with Scourges location provided to him by psychic Spike, he drives off to get her back on his own. How fucking moronic is that? This would be like when Han Solo first turned down Luke’s request to help rescue Princess Leia, but with the small change of her being Han Solo’s sister. Trace is an idiot and an asshat to boot.
So after turning down an armies help in rescuing his sister, seriously brilliant move, Trace sneaks into the fortress of Scourge, and he is horrified to see that his sister has been broken into sexual submission, offering up her body for mere scraps of food. Trace’s rescue fails almost immediately, and they are both captured. Scourge knows of the impending attack by The Ownership army, and he has rigged explosives in “Brokedown Pass” that will annihilate The Ownership threat once and for all. Then in a nice surprising turn of events, Arlie knifes a rapist and helps free Trace, and it is then Arlie who heroically fights her way to the detonator, under a hail of bullets, to set off the explosives, before The Ownership enters the killing field. Sure, she dies of her wounds, but that was still pretty badass. Then in a complete out of left field moment Stinger faces off against Skag, he armed with a sword while she has a machine gun, and she dies when Skag pushes them both off a cliff.
So the Ownership army makes quick work of Scourge’s gang, but what of Scourge himself? We are certainly going to get the “be all and end all of fights” between Trace and the man who raped his sister, right? Nope, Trace just drops a car on him. As face-offs between bitter enemies go this is certainly quite the anti-climactic letdown. We even get this cool dialogue between Trace and Scourge, hinting at their history, and how Scourge is fighting for his way of life. Sure raping and pillaging is not the noblest way of life, but Scourge does say it with conviction, and this actor gives about the best performance in the film, but no final mano a mano here, not even a “From Hell’s heart I stab at thee!” Just a Wile E. Coyote style death.
With Scourge’s army destroyed, and the man himself crushed beneath a car, Trace and the survivors gather to mourn the fallen. Spike gives Trace Arlie’s necklace, but he, in turn, gives it back for her to wear, tells the little Confederate General to take care of Spike, and with an “I’ll see ya” he drives off into the sunset. We then get a final shot of Stinger’s bird soaring high above.
I’m sure there are worse Mad Max rip-offs out there, but director Cirio H. Santiago fails to deliver much more than some fun action fight scenes, a couple of cool car chases and lots of nudity, but aside from the villain the rest of the characters are less than memorable. At one point when Trace and Stinger are fighting, actually physically fighting as they roll down a quarry embankment, they are all of a sudden making love. Not since James Bond fucked the gay out of Pussy Galore have I seen anything so stupid. That’s not character development that’s just sloppy screenwriting. Almost worse is that the whole sex scene is filmed in this weird collection of lap dissolves over the setting sun.
Though Wheels of Fire has a hero that is adept at driving his souped-up car, using a machine gun and flamethrower equally well, the movie does a little world-building to make this a good entry in the genre, and it is the treatment of the poor sister that stops this film from being one I can recommend. Instead, watch Exterminators of the Year 3000, it’s not much better as rip-offs go, but it is a lot less rapey.
Check out more post-apocalyptic movie reviews here: Road Warrior Rip-Offs: Guns, Babes and Dwarves in a World Gone Mad.
Wheels of Fire (1985)
A Mad Max rip-off that may be a tad too rapey for most people’s tastes, and not helped by having a fairly bland and unlikable hero for your lead.