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TCM Underground - July 2018
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Never Too Young to Die

"The new American hero!" That's how short-lived outfit Paul Entertainment pitched Never Too Young to Die (1986), a teenaged take on James Bond, intended to kick start a franchise during a lull in the official 007 series as it transitioned from Roger Moore to Timothy Dalton. Here our secret agent star is Lance Stargrove (John Stamos), who gets his own theme song performed by rock singer Tommie Lee Bradley as he performs a series of feats straight out of the previous year's Gymkata (1985).

Cementing this film's Bond connection is the casting of George Lazenby, a one-shot 007 in the excellent On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), as Lance's estranged dad who ends up on the hit list of infamous hermaphrodite entertainer and cover terrorist Velvet Von Ragner (Gene Simmons). The Australian-born Lazenby had been dabbling in American television roles at the time after gaining some good critical notices for his role in Peter Bogdanovich's Saint Jack (1979), and though his role here is rather brief, it's entertaining to see him dropped in the '80s secret agent milieu. Easily the most entertaining raconteur of all the actors who have played Bond over the years, he most recently served as the subject and narrator of the raucous documentary, Becoming Bond (2017).

Twenty-two at the time of shooting, John Stamos was in between television gigs at the time having just finished his two-year role as Blackie Parrish on General Hospital. This would be a rare bid to push Stamos for big-screen stardom, and before this film even hit a handful of theaters he was back to the small screen for the short-lived sitcom You Again? opposite Jack Klugman. That show's brief shelf life led him to take on what would become the defining role of his career as Jesse on Full House, starting in 1987 and continuing to this day in its current Netflix incarnation, Fuller House.

Cast as Stamos's female lead in a more unorthodox choice: Vanity, the late Prince protégée and lead singer of the pop group Vanity 6. Born in Canada as Denise Katrina Matthews, she had been acting since the early '80s under the name D.D. Winters in films like the Canadian slasher Terror Train and Alfred Sole's erotic tropical fantasy Tanya's Island (both 1980), but her music career ended up giving her a much higher profile in the public eye. Though she was initially slated to star in Purple Rain (1984), her abrupt break with Prince coincided with a solo recording offer from Motown Records; the company also arranged for her to star in the glittery kung fu action film, The Last Dragon (1985), which can be seen as the clear impetus for her role in this film. Her Motown career resulted in a handful of singles, most notably the suggestive "Pretty Mess" and its sexually over-the-top music video. By 1986 her movie career seemed to be well on its way with this film and a significant part in John Frankenheimer's 52 Pick-Up for Cannon Films, but by the time she had her last starring theatrical role in Action Jackson (1988), her drug use was taking a major toll on her ability to work. She later wrote about her addiction experiences and near death from an overdose in her autobiography, which also chronicled her journey to becoming a born-again Christian speaker.

However, the most famous music personality in this film is easily Gene Simmons, the Israeli-American co-lead singer and bass guitarist of the rock band Kiss. The group had recently taken to performing without its trademark makeup and rebranding its image, which also left him free to embark on what would be a fairly brief acting career. His first and most well-known part came with the Michael Crichton sci-fi film Runaway (1984) opposite Tom Selleck, which was followed with another 1986 film, Trick or Treat, in which he and fellow rocker Ozzy Osbourne essentially have glorified cameos. After this film he played a far more traditional terrorist against Rutger Hauer in Wanted: Dead or Alive (1987), and his theatrical acting career was essentially over. His role here required a far more intensive makeover than usual, of course, with his androgynous appearance including a great deal of styling and grooming as well as a wig purportedly used for a Simmons imitator on the TV series Wonder Woman. In addition, he received extensive consultation from real-life transvestites to prepare for the role, and several of them can be seen as backup in his on-screen band.

Though it went to VHS in 1987 from Charter Video after going mostly unseen in theaters, Never Too Young to Die has since amassed a small cult following through its revival theatrical screenings and return to video on Blu-ray no less after being inherited by MGM. Easily one of the wildest of the many James Bond imitators over the years, it's a film that could have only been made in the mid-1980s and which plays better today as an excessive reminder of an age in which movies and music videos were almost indistinguishable.

By Nathaniel Thompson

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