Monday, May 2, 2011

Vehicular Violence: THUNDER RUN (1986)

Watching Cannon movies is so much more than just sitting and watching a movie. If you are like us and you are completely incapable of turning off your brain when watching a movie, you will find yourself wondering what exactly the meetings were like. Not on a project here and there, but on, like, everything. Their bizarre logic would make a Harvard professor break down into an incoherent, blubbering mess. It’s not pretty, I assure you. But it is pretty damned entertaining.

Case in point: THUNDER RUN. While this is not actually a Golan and Globus production, it’s easy to see why they would want to distribute it. It fits perfectly into their mise en scène.

The film starts out in high-gear with a nocturnal ambush of some terrorists by the US military. After they proceed to shoot the living crap out of the lot and blow up their Datsun, the head of the operation angrily demands that they hold their fire. Hey, at least they saved us the long hearings over inhumane and illegal treatment of detainees. Apparently this subtle raid is part of an on-going CIA operation to flush out terrorists hiding in the US. You see, sleeper cell terrorists have been hijacking US plutonium shipments and CIA needs a plan, a plan so crazy it just might… be really crazy. The CIA (who for no adequately explained reason is operating on domestic soil) decides that what they need to do to snag these terrorists is set up a plutonium shipment with real plutonium and a civilian driver to make a cross country delivery, attracting the bad guys like moths to a bug-zapper. Since the terrorists would catch on if they used military transport and personnel, they are going to have to go covert and all they need is “the best driver in the world”. Nerves of steel! Reflexes of lightning! A senior discount at Denny’s! Yes, according to top CIA brass, 67 year old Charlie Morrison (Forrest Tucker) is the man for the job.

These days the casting would be completely different, to say the least. A twenty-something TV actor would be cast and we would never get amazing septuagenarian flirty banter and a date night at a square-dance complete with a jug-band playing Cotton-Eye Joe and another song who’s chorus is “Bullshit!”. Seriously. Not to worry though, the youth contingent is represented by Morrison’s grandson Chris (John Shepherd). Chris is into illegal street racing for no other reason to provide us with what is unquestionably the most gratuitous chase scene in the history of cinema. A black-clad motorcyclist flips off a squad car and the chase is on. But wait! This is merely a diversion to distract the cops from a drag race for a cool grand! Yes, that was a gratuitous chase-scene that provided an excuse for a gratuitous chase scene! Sheer genius.

Can you hear it? Wah, wah, waaaaaaah!
Seems Charlie Morrison is the owner of a mine and is in the process of unsuccessfully trying to sell it when CIA man and ex-Nam buddy George Adams (John Ireland) swings by with his offer-you-can’t-refuse: go on an almost certain death run hauling live plutonium to attract the deadliest villains in the country who will try to kill you every step of the way. Shit, who could say no to that? To sweeten the deal Adams throws in a quarter of a million dollars. Morrison needs time to mull over that proposition, but comes to a quick decision after the potential buyers manage to piss off the staff by pinching one of the girls causing her boyfriend to flip out and use a loader to run over their car and demolish the office, which falls over and reveals a cowboy sitting on a toilet with a newspaper! Man, that time tested gag is every bit as much of a chestnut as Tucker himself.

How to Spot a Terrorist Lesson #1:
Terrorists are mean to the waitstaff.
In order to get this plan in gear, a special truck is going to be needed, as is a montage of everyone pitching in and adding on all the lethal doo-hickey’s. Oh yeah, we got a big-rig of doom! Or, rather, a Kenworth with a V8 from Freemont with the logo “Thunder” painted on the side. Eh, it’ll do. Since the rig really isn’t much to look at (BATTLETRUCK, it’s not) the filmmakers try to play the audience with the old, “it’s got lots of cool stuff you can’t see” angle. For instance, it’s the ‘80s so computer technology is factored in. Of course, since it’s the ‘80s, computer failure is factored in. You see, Chris’ street racing buddy Paul (Wallace Langham) is a waifish computer nerd with an impossibly hot girlfriend that he has almost no interest in (yeah, I don’t know), who sets up a program that communicates directly with an army base security system via some sort of wireless device that the filmmakers can’t be bothered to explain. Hey, it just works, ok? Except that after all the build-up, we find that it doesn’t work and the last half of the film uses the error messages and the frustrated Paul as cut-aways from the action. To be fair, it’s used as a tension builder as the computer is supposed to be disabling the truck-destroying traps that guard the base. Why the army can’t just turn them off when the truck arrives I have no idea. But they can’t. Like so many things in life it takes a teenager to accomplish this task.

Speaking of action, once we get this truck into gear and on the highway, the terrorists do not disappoint. Sporting attacks ranging from a girl riding shotgun on a motorcycle whipping out a double-barrelled shotgun (that must have special terrorist modifications as it fires three shots without reloading), to VW Bugs with mounted missile racks! At first you may scoff at the idea of terrorists driving Volkswagons, but if you think about it, the Beetle was the car of the Third Reich. The VW plant was taken over by Hitler’s regime and the Beetle was created by Hitler’s designers as the super efficient car of the super arian race. So the fact that terrorists are driving them makes perfect sense! Right? Plus, any film that gets a semi airborne is gold in my book, but any film that launches a semi over a train, even if it's just a flatbed rail car is aweeeesome!

THUNDER RUN is the brainchild of veteran special effects / pyrotechnics guy Cliff Wenger who worked on everything from WHITE LIGHTNING (1973) to THE DEVIL’S RAIN (1975) and MEGAFORCE (1982) to FLETCH LIVES (1989). Usually it takes a stuntman to cobble together such a sprained-brained but totally entertaining bit of cheese, but here Wenger, who wrote and produced, pulls off a gloriously cartoon action pic that gleefully wallows in its clichés. In one amusingly politically incorrect moment, in an effort to cut off the big rig, one of the terrorists instructs the token black terrorist to drive his car in front of the big rig. The black terrorist thinks this is a fine idea and is promptly immolated in a twisted mess of steel and flame. This is, of course, played for laughs. Phew! Yep, Cliff was pandering directly to his core red-neck audience with this one, but that’s actually what makes it fun. If Hollywood was doing it today, it would probably star Nicholas Cage (who never turns down a part), it would be loaded with CG effects and would play directly to the urban highschool crowd. Phhhhuutt! Who needs that?

On a sobering note, the film is dedicated to Cliff Wenger Jr., Cliff Sr’s son and protégé, who worked simultaneously on this film and RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (1985). During a pyrotechnic stunt that went wrong on the Mexico set of RAMBO, Wenger Jr. was killed. It certainly would have been interesting to see what his career would have brought, if he had gotten behind the camera as his old man did. Instead we’ll just unspool this one again and wonder why the hell no-one has released it on DVD. Widescreen. With extras. Seriously.

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