(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. This week we go looking for gold and maybe a little iron pyrite in the search for some underseen gems about people looking for lost, hidden, or legendary treasures.)
There’s something endlessly appealing about a search for hidden treasure, and movies have captured the feeling time and time again. From the Indiana Jones trilogy to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, from The Rundown to Three Kings, there’s a thrill to the pursuit of something lost or legendary. Some films focus exclusively on the journey and the puzzles along the way while others frame it as a race against time and the enemy, but the goal remains the same: find “it.”
Despite the subgenre’s popularity, though, there are more than a few out there that never quite caught on or maybe just deserve all the eyeballs, and that’s where I come in. Rather than hand you a map filled with clues and challenges designed to ultimately point you towards some fun movies you probably haven’t seen yet, I’ve decided to eliminate the middle man and just name them. So keep reading for a look at six highly entertaining movies about people in pursuit of lost treasure you’ve probably never seen.
Race for the Yankee Zephyr (1981)
A hunter finds the crashed remains of a missing World War II plane that was reportedly carrying a fortune in gold. He enlists the help of his daughter and a local chopper pilot to try and salvage the lost treasure. Unfortunately for them, some bad guys are hot on their trail and want the gold for themselves.
This is a simple little adventure tale, but there’s such a sense of fun in both the performances – from Donald Pleasance, Ken Wahl, Lesley Ann Warren, George Peppard, and Bruno Lawrence – and the action sequences. Helicopters and boats are used in some truly stunning chases, stunts, and set-pieces that keep adrenaline high. The gorgeous New Zealand locales add to the film’s appeal as it takes full advantage of the landscape’s eye-catching beauty.
The film’s highlight comes with a heavy dose of tragedy, though, as the centerpiece stunt sequence – a wickedly cool boat chase – left three airboat pilots dead when things got out of control during production. The relatively long sequence is fantastic and easily among the best boat chase scenes ever filmed as it features speed, jumps, collisions, and genuine thrills. This was during the region’s heyday of crazy stunts being attempted and achieved without regulation, and while things have come a long way since and the film can and should still be enjoyed, our appreciation comes with the understanding of the cost paid by filmmakers.
Race for the Yankee Zephyr is available on Blu-ray/DVD.
White Fire (1984)
A brother and sister orphaned at the end of a flame-thrower and a machine gun grow up to work in a diamond mine. They’re not keen on their current station in life, so together with the man who saved them as children, they plan to rob their employer. Things take a turn when the legendary White Fire – a diamond the size of a bread box – is discovered, sending the siblings, their friend, and a whole lot of bad guys into a frenzy.
Remember when I mentioned iron pyrite in the intro above? Let’s just say this absolute gem and objectively bad movie is the fool’s gold I was referring to. It’s poorly made by most standards, but good gravy is it a crazy fun slice of exploitation. The opening scene offers a slow-motion survival run set to a ballad that ends with a ridiculously irresponsible fire stunt – one of two in the film! From there we cut to the siblings as adults and things get really nuts with Robert Ginty, Fred Williamson, some gory chainsaw attacks, a mysterious surgeon and her cult-like lesbian entourage, lots of gunfire, and a magical diamond that burns people when they touch it.
It’s not shy about the T&A angle either, but it gives the fleshy bits a twist of sorts in that the focus is usually on some unnerving affection between the siblings. Ginty’s Bo gawks at his nude sister – she was skinny-dipping, and he yanked her towel away – and wonders aloud about what he’d do if they weren’t related. Later on, he fondles a woman who’s been surgically altered to look like his sister and it’s a while before he hesitates. Is there more incest than diamond hunting? Possibly. It’s weird, icky, and all part of this bonkers action/adventure.
White Fire is available on DVD and streaming.
Armour of God (1986) / Armour of God 2: Operation Condor (1991)
Asian Hawk is a famed adventurer and treasure hunter tasked with finding the truth behind legendary artifacts and lost gold piles. His first adventure sees him tracking down pieces of armor while squaring off against an evil cult with nefarious intentions, and his second puts him in search of lost Nazi bullion.
Jackie Chan‘s run of movies through the ’80s and ’90s remain an unparalleled achievement in pure action bliss, and it includes dozens of movies that are still eminently rewatchable. These two riffs on the Indiana Jones franchise are heavy on silliness (and on the body count in the first film), but their bread and butter is a glorious blend of big stunts (Chan skydiving onto a hot-air balloon!), fight scenes, and action sequences (a motorcycle chase that feels like it could very well have been an inspiration for this year’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout). The first film also features one of Chan’s worst onset injuries – a simple jump to a tree branch – and they serve as constant reminders of the risks he repeatedly took in pursuit of action excellence.
As much fun as both of these movies are, nearly all of it comes from Chan and the action. The actual attempts at humor, of which there are many, are a blend of effective physical comedy and some fairly derisive bits featuring “dumb” women and “funny” foreigners. It’s rough going at times, but thankfully, the action through both films is always there to remind you why you’re watching. If you only have access to the U.S. releases, it’s worth noting that the geniuses at Miramax put the second film in theaters first as Operation Condor and then released the first to DVD with the title Operation Condor 2: Armour of God. You can skip the third film (Chinese Zodiac) altogether.
Armour of God 1 & 2 are available on Blu-ray/DVD and streaming.
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