Thursday, September 30, 2010

Dr. Jones, I Presume?: The Aluminum Age of KING SOLOMON'S MINES

Wrapping up the modern adaptations has been fraught with peril more perilous than any of the perils Pauline ever had to face. You’d think in this age of fast-paced, action oriented, mega-budgeted action vehicles that it would be a no-brainer to throw a fedora on a well-groomed head and retread the steps Cannon took to re-invent the turn of the century adventure piece via Indiana Jones. Not so easy as it turns out.

In 1986, the Australian Burbank Film Company decided that the world was crying out for an animated adaptation of “King Solomon’s Mines” suitable for the whole family. The BFC made a career of sorts from ’82 to ‘88 cranking out a slew of literary adaptations of Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and many others. To be fair, the idea of doing an animated adaptation of such things as Homer’s “The Odyssey” and Alexandre Dumas’ “The Man in the Iron Mask” is not really inherently bad. What is bad is the fact that BFC decided that nobody would want to see an animated adaptation of a literary classic unless it was done with the sensibility of a poverty-stricken Hanna-Barbera, except without the sense of irony or drug-culture hipness.

Combining the two glorious achievements of complete bastardization and skid-row animation, BFC gave us a version of “King Solomon’s Mines” complete with a Germanic villain (see how far Cannon’s influence spread?) in lederhosen and a rather disturbing flashback to the Biblical era. In this flashback King Solomon is shown hoarding away his vast wealth in a labyrinthine cave so that no one else could touch it. Because he feels she is too greedy, he decides to entomb his wife in with the gold as she screams and begs for her life. We aren’t told which wife this was, but since most accounts indicate that he had a plethora (seven hundred, according to the western bible), it’s obviously not a big deal. The main cruxt of the story has Quatermain, Good and Curtis searching for Good’s brother as in Haggard’s novel, but adds comic attacks via hot air-balloon and other slapstick sequences (such as one villain being bonked on the head with coconuts) that would make a four-year old cringe. The only thing more amazing than the fact that they were able to pawn off this paste bauble is the fact that they did it with 37 different films in a mere six years!

In 2004, HBO films decided to take a crack at Rider’s epic with a three hour adaptation titled KING SOLOMON’S MINES. With Patrick Swayze in the lead role and the deep pockets of HBO, you’d think now is the time to get our adventure on! Never mind that the story was keeping the re-tooled formula of the 1950 adaptation with a woman in the wild, this is gonna be great! Hell, the woman in question is Allison Doody, who as we all know had her brush with the progeny of this literary classic in INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989)!

You want action? Adventure? Hemmingway-esque machismo? Forget it! You get what HBO gives you bitch, and you’ll like it! This tedious chore of a film starts out on a bad note with the first title card reading “Hallmark Entertainment”. Brace yourself! This is gonna hurt.

Since the entire concept of the safari is distastefully un-PC, we need to make sure that we establish Quatermain as a sensitive ‘90s male… even though it’s not the ‘90s anymore. While taking out a boorish, fat, loud jackass on an elephant hunt, issues arise. The fat man wants to shoot anything that moves and is particularly keen on shooting at the herd of female elephants. As anyone who’s never been laid knows, females are sacred temples of life that should be worshipped and protected with as much chest-thumping as possible. Here Quatermain declares with a righteous fervor that females are off limits and they will continue to track and hunt a male as per the contract.

After being cold-cocked by his own partner (because they are being paid a lot of money), the hunter takes some wild shots into the female elephants and their floppy-eared toddlers while giggling maniacally. We haven’t even reached the punchline for this pre-credit sequence and you can already see that the next three hours are going to be about as much fun as a prostate infection. When Quatermain comes to, back at the camp, he gives a huge stirring speech about how there is nothing in the world more dangerous than a wounded female elephant. They are mothers and their instinct is to protect their offspring and if they are wounded they know who did it and they will hunt that person down... and will not stop until you are dead! Ok, so I added that last part but still, it’s a hell of a moment. After making the big speech our douchebag hunter chuckles at the silly man with a lump on his head and walks into the bush to drain the main vein. Suddenly he notices something hiding, peeking at him through the foliage. It’s the mother elephant just waiting to pounce! Really. Seriously, I am not making that up. The elephant snuck up on the camp like some sort of four and half ton ninja and hid in the freakin’ bushes! The elephant goes on a rampage through the camp and stops short when faced by Quatermain whose sad eyes look into her sad eyes, the strings swell and the elephant slowly lays down and dies. The strings swell even more as Quatermain tears up and says “sorry girl”. Are we done now? Can I go home? 

Ok, so now that we have that shit out of the way, we’ve set the stage for Quatermain to be the sensitive big-game hunter, so now we can get on with some awesome action, right? Right? Ha! What were you thinking? Now it’s time for a dramatic scene in which Quatermain decides to leave Africa and return to England to see his estranged son. After much sensative man-love between Quatermain and his native buddies, not to mention swelling strings... Now it’s time for some action! Oh, wait, no. No, now it’s time for some heavy drama between separated father and son with lots of hugging, eye-watering and disapproving grandparents. Ok, now it’s time for some – oh fuck it, never mind! As if the  never-ending sappy-ass drama wasn’t bad enough, Quatermain is now a wine connoisseur (complete with swirling and bouquet sniffage) and his quest to the mines is made because he, the cultured white man, must stop the local political factions, the ignorant natives, from using it’s treasure to finance their military regimes! Ok, that tears it. Sorry, I refuse to sit through the rest of this crap. “But you are like some totally anal, completist movie nerd of doom” I hear you say. Yeah, ok, so I did fast-forward to see if I missed anything remotely action oriented, but, sit through this for the sake of posterity? Hell no. The line has to be drawn somewhere and this is it. I’d rather sit through some damn Asylum crap than this wannabe Lifetime Network special.

In 2004 TNT debuted their first film in a trilogy of successful Indiana Jones knock-offs, THE LIBRARIAN: QUEST FOR THE SPEAR. Inspired by the popularity of the 2004 uber-RAIDERS plagerist NATIONAL TREASURE: BOOK OF SECRETS (not reviewed here simply because of who it stars), the TV movie was mostly Indiana Jones with liberal doses of HELLBOY (2004) and, erm, NIGHT AT THE MEUSEUM (2006) which it predates. In 2006, the sequel, THE LIBRARIAN II: RETURN TO KING SOLOMON’S MINES, saw the affable, not entirely macho Flynn Carsen (Noah Wyle) return as the archaeologist who is working for a secret organization who keeps magical antiquities out of the hands of bad guys in a secret basement in the New York library.

In the opening sequence Carsen and his ummmm… “native” guide are trying to grab the mythical Crystal Skull from the hands of black leather trenchcoat wearing ruffians in the Utah dessert. Clearly these guys aren’t the sharpest spades in the dirt as it is a desert… and they are wearing black leather coats. However it does provide for a rather well shot chase sequence with our heroes on horseback and the villains throwing dynamite at them from their motorcycles and dune buggy. Oh, and yes, that is the same mythical Crystal Skull that another more well pedigreed archeologist went looking for in Peru in 2008. Jesus, how un-freakin'-original was that wretched sequel anyway?

Anyway, in spite of the Native American sidekick being about as subtle as Eddie Anderson’s Rochester routine, there’s plenty of action, big camera shots and a good, solid sense of adventure. Doubly so when the setting switches to Cairo where machine-gun toting mercenaries chase a professor who is carrying the location to the secret mines of King Solomon. Directed by veteran TV director Jonathan Frakes, best known for his role as Riker on the relentlessly melodramatic “Star Trek: Next Generation”, there are actually a lot of things to like about this movie. The cast is for the most part good for a TV movie, with Bob Newhart being the stand-out as Carsen’s boss. Sure Bob is doing the same shtick that has served him well for decades, but it’s still entertaining, particularly when the alternative is the comedy involving the fact that the relics that Carson retrieves all develop a life of their own when ensconced in the Library. Yeah, the comedy is goofy TV stuff and the CG effects are pretty low-rent and over-used, but believe me, I have seen worse.

If you are looking for fast-paced, light-weight Indiana Jones-esque adventure, this will certainly fit the bill. While this is definitely the Bud Light of the subgenre, as opposed to the Guinness that is RAIDERS, at least it’s not the American hefeweizen (served with orange slice and Virgina Slims) that was the Swayze version. Proceed at your own peril.

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