Friday, November 12, 2010

Carpocalypse Now: THE LAST CHASE (1981)

In 1975 Roger Corman saw the America’s obsession with cars and its ultimate future in an adaption of Ib Melchior’s story DEATH RACE 2000 (1975). Essentially about a cross country Gumball Rally/Cannonball Run, except that it is a massively popular, televised bloodsport where the divers score points for killing pedestrians. Flash-forward six years and a single boarder later and Canadian director Martyn Burke gives us an adaptation of the only screenplay written by C.R. O'Christopher, who’s only other credits include single episodes of "B.J. and the Bear" and "Airwolf". Are you buckling up? This is going to be a bumpy ride!

Set in the super-futuristic year of 2000-ish, 20 years after a plague has wiped out most of humanity, the world is being rebuilt though liberal utopian ideals mixed with the conservative ideal of subjugating the masses to the will of an elite few. It’s almost like Jerry Brown got elected to public office again. Ha! Like that would happen. Somehow this still mysterious epidemic has translated to a governmental ban on fossil-fuels and the machines that run on them. Never mind that the police have electric golf-carts to carry out their raids on uncooperative members of society, nobody gets to own a car, regardless of fuel source. Because of this, our downtrodden masses are forced to do the unthinkable – use public transportation! (cue gasp from audience)

The government is watching you...
walk to work!
In this vision of a world gone to heck, former racecar driver Franklyn Hart (Lee Majors) has lost his family and his pollution-prone profession and has been given the job as a spokesperson for the government run public transportation agency. He lectures on the evils of oil barons and provides rote rational as to why the public cannot be allowed to own their own vehicles. Of course he thinks this is all hogwash being pushed by the government and in the wee hours of the night breaks into “Confiscation Yards”, stealing parts from cars to help repair his fire engine red 1972 Porsche 917/10 race car. At the same time a hacker is hijacking government computers and television with videos for “Radio Free California”, promising a life free from government persecution. Hmmmm… where could this be headed?

After having a Glenn Beck-esque breakdown in the middle of a lecture on a college campus and ranting about how the government is depriving them of the awesomeness of German engineered reciprocating oil burning machinery, he lands smack on the government radar as a radical who is going to need a hearing and subsequent rehabilitation. Meanwhile, a bullied boarding school kid, Ring (Chris Makepeace essentially continuing his role from the previous year’s MY BODYGUARD), is on the lam from the cops (as he is our subversive hacker), hunting down Hart to hook up with him since they are both rebelling against The System. Hart has invented a special pump that can get the last bit of gas out of any gas station reservoirs in the country, so conceivably he can never run out of gas. With the cops beating down the door, this leaves them no option but to jump in Hart’s Porche and make a bee-line to California, land of the free! But wait, it’s not as easy as that. A specialist from Washington (George Touliatos) has the master plan to fix Hart’s little red wagon; recruit ace veteran Vietnam and Korean war fighter pilot Captain J.G. Williams (Burgess Meredith and whiskey bottle) out of retirement to chase him down! Of course this means pulling his old Korean war fighter out of mothballs, fixing her all up and giving her a spiffy new paintjob in a matter of mere hours. Rick Dale would be green with envy. While the plane is being fixed up, Williams stomps around shouting things like “Let’s go! Whaddaya think this is, a chicken party?!” Ummmm... is it too late to reconsider the options?

In one of the film’s many disturbing scenes, Williams talks dirty to his jet as soon as they are off the ground giving whole new meaning to the term “cockpit”. Burgess Meredith cooing “oh baby, oh yeah, give it to me baby, right there” is awkward enough, but this flick starts heading into some really weird territory when the film settles into its groove. Instead of being a tense and exciting, futuristic updating of the gritty classic VANISHING POINT (1971), it sort of aims more for “amiable road picture” territory descending into some seriously sappy melodrama and several scenes between Hart and Ring that are verging on… uhhh... well, for example; the scene in which Hart and the very emotional and somewhat effeminate Ring argue about whether Ring should even be going with Hart as it is unsafe leads to a tussle with the man and boy rolling around on the ground in a weepy embrace. Should I even point out that Ring sent Hart video messages saying things like “you are not alone” and that they are heading to San Francisco where they can live free from persecution? Later Hart gazes at Ring and says “I’ve done a lot of losin’ the past 20 years, I just don’t want to lose you too.” Not enough? After they run across a small commune out in the middle of nowhere and Majors has a fling with one of the female locals, Makepeace has a total emotional meltdown demanding to know if he loves her. The screenwriter is obviously working on some very personal issues in this script turning it into sort of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM ST 2 of car chase movies.

Canadians are so… different. It’s like they are from another country or something. Their perception of futuristic America is almost a random pastiche of various political issues that don’t seem to be separated into the partisan lines that we seem to embrace as a country. For instance, you can still own a gun apparently as people roam the roads with rifles, even though they’ve been deprived of their cars. On the other hand, the whole fuel crisis scenario and the fact that the world was devastated by a plague that may have been a terrorist germ-warfare attack, is almost prophetic. Seriously, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Half of the film is the set-up for the chase sequence and by the time we finally get to it, it ends up being rather unexciting due to the fact that the filmmakers are more interested in telling the stories of these quirky, but genuinely uninteresting characters. The amiable competitiveness and eventual camaraderie between Hart and the loony Cap’n Williams is a poor substitute for a proper villain. If this were made a few years later by American filmmakers, the government would have recruited an ace Russian pilot (then you would really know that the government was evil!) with a super-mega-high-tech plane and it would be non-stop explosions and one-liners. I’m not really saying it would be totally better, since you’d probably lose all that contemplative anti-establishment stuff, but then again, we probably wouldn’t have the creepy NAMBLA sub-plot either.

The fact that this movie has a great premise and gets its fair share of things right, makes it all the more of a bummer than they squander all their potential by shunning exploitation value. I realize the filmmaker are trying to be a cerebral antidote to “The Dukes of Hazzard” (1979-1985), but is it too much to ask for a few car stunts?  What little action there is feels like it was made in the editing room with a close-up of Makepeace’s hair blowing in the wind and a quick cut of the car cornering at about 12 miles an hour while the government employee monitoring their progress shouts stuff like “he’s going 125 miles an hour!” Uh huh, you Canadians think you are clever. You can’t fool us. If only Hal Needham or H.B. Halicki had been involved. Man, now that would be something. Or... dare I even say it? In the right hands, this could be turned into an amazing remake.

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