Monday, July 22, 2013

Cyber Monday: THE VINDICATOR (1986)

With Tom giving the review roto-rooter to R.O.T.O.R. last week, it seems only fitting that I tackle THE VINDICATOR this week.  I would always confuse the two and it isn’t hard when you realize they are both about guys who get turned into robots and blow stuff up.  Alas, THE VINDICATOR was there first.  No doubt inspired by the success of THE TERMINATOR, this Canadian tax shelter production went before the cameras in the fall of 1984 under the title FRANKENSTEIN ’88: THE VINDICATOR.  Cool, it is set in the future! That title is a bit more descriptive of this story of a man-turned-machine.

The film opens at ARC (Aerospace Research Corporation) where they are doing tests on a bunch of monkeys.  Seems they’ve developed a new body sensor that will throw the wearer into murderous rage if attacked and the thing works so well that one doc says, “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.”  Really.  Somehow this all figures into a spacesuit to be used on Mars. Anyway, project boss Alex Whyte (Richard Cox) gets his bad guy cred right away as he drives one chimp so crazy with a prod that it dies in its cage.  We then meet noble ARC scientist Carl Lehman (David McIlwraith) at home with his wife Lauren (Teri Austin).  He’s bemoaning the cuts to his current project, but doesn’t seem to care as his wife is expecting their first child.  Oh, damn.  Nice guy with a pregnant wife?  This dude is going to be dead before the 15 minute mark, no doubt.

Scientist #1: "We can rebuild him."
Scientist #2: "When does the popcorn start popping?"
Sure enough, after Dr. Lehman confronts Whyte about the budget cuts, he starts his shift inside a huge lab.  When a reactor begins to overload, he finds the place mysteriously devoid of any workers and goes to solve the situation himself.  Bad move as this appears to be a set up as a mysterious man locks him in the chamber and the whole thing blows up in his face, searing the skin off his bones at the 12 minute mark.  Damn, earlier than I predicted! Anyway, not to worry as nefarious Whyte and his team of scientists have saved the body in a milky, life-giving liquid and decide they now have the perfect human subject to try out their cybernetic experiments on.  Who knew the path to landing a man on Mars was so cutthroat?  On the plus side, he gets a fancy new gold space suit to wear.  The top secret experiment’s name is Project: Frankenstein!  Hey, at least Whyte has a sense of humor and respect for the classics.

Things go pretty smoothly at first as they get the remains of the former Dr. Lehman outfitted in his space suit.  Shit gets real though when they try to put a remote control device into his stomach.  He promptly freaks the hell out and quickly escapes from the lab inside a garbage truck.  Discarded at the dump, Dr. Lehman is incinerated with the trash. The flames burn off his tacky gold suit and reveal a badass half-man/half-cyborg…The Vindicator!  The audience gets a glimpse of his powers right away as he smashes three bikers who attack him (apparently bikers randomly select people to beat up by going, “Hey, man, look at that dude over there!”).  Sensing this is going to be a tough one, Whyte brings in an expert bounty hunter who is imaginatively named Hunter (Pam Grier).  She assembles her team to take out this robotic nuisance.  The Vindicator has other plans though as he visits his wife to let her know he is alive.  Naturally, she becomes a pawn in the game of trying to capture him and this all culminates back at the lab where Whyte has been creating more robots from his associates that have been picked off by The Vindicator.

Pam Grier figures a way off this picture:

Director Jean-Claude Lord had previously cashing in on the slasher genre with the deranged VISTING HOURS (1982), so it is no surprise that he jumped on the cyborg bandwagon when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s metal endoskeleton was making waves.  Unfortunately, he directs with all the flair of a TV movie. And then there are odd directorial choices like when a friend walks in on Lauren being attacked and quasi-raped, only to quip a “get a room” style comment before realizing her friend is being attacked (not to mention the fact this took place while Lauren is still mourning her husband’s death).  To the film’s credit, there are some insane fire gags and one or two cool stunts.  The scene where The Vindicator crushes a car into a wall while a bad guy is still inside it is probably the action highlight.  But I can only dream at how better that scenario would have unfolded under a director looking to sling some blood.

Screenwriters David Preston and Edith Rey – who were previously two of six writers credited for SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE (1983), backed by the same producers as this – keep things fairly simple.  A guy gets killed, gets reborn, and gets revenge.  The film will never be mistaken for THE TERMINATOR, but that doesn’t stop the filmmakers from trying. In fact, Stan Winston was brought in to design the title robot and it is pretty darn cool looking. Anyway, can you guess what film Winston worked on right before this one?  Yup, THE TERMINATOR!  So you can’t accused Lord of not having his heart, er, wallet in the right place.  I do wonder if ROBOCOP writers Michael Miner and Edward Neumeier saw this though and thought they could improve upon the concept.  It’s really hard to pinpoint as there is no evidence 20th Century Fox, who released Lord’s VISITING HOURS, put this in theaters (their logo does open the film).  By all accounts, it looks like it hit video in early 1986 and by that time Miner and Neumeier were well into their ROBOCOP work.  But, as Tom pointed out to me, you can’t help but feel a tinge of influence like the scene where The Vindicator bursts from behind a guy and throws him out the window.

If they didn’t see this film, well then they missed lots of big fire gags and explosions.  If they saw it, then it is good for them as they took a great concept and made it amazing, building another film that would deliver on the promise a poster as badass as this French one for THE VINDICATOR.

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