Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Sci-Fried Double Feature: STEEL FRONTIER (1995) and HOLOGRAM MAN (1995)

If Joe Lara had been born a decade earlier, he might have been a bigger action star.  He could have easily been the poor man’s Lorenzo Lamas (before Lorenzo Lamas became the poor man’s Lorenzo Lamas).  Alas, the man arrived on the scene in the late ‘80s and quickly did a career defining turn as Tarzan.  By the time the ‘90s rolled around, he found his footing in B-movie action flicks like Cannon’s swansong AMERICAN CYBORG: STEEL WARRIOR (1993).  When 1995 rolled around, direct-to-video seemed to be Lara’s only avenue and he hooked up the explosion-loving gentlemen at PM Entertainment for a two-picture deal that would result in, naturally, some big explosions.

STEEL FRONTIER was the first of his two films, hitting video store shelves in March 1995.  Now stop me if you've heard this one before – a post-nuke town is filled with folks struggling to survive and beat back a bunch of motor-crazed psychos who rape and pillage their way across the wasteland.  The violent group in question is known as The Death Riders and they are led by the psychotic leader Lord Humong…er, General J.W. Quantrell (Brion James).  You know he is a psycho because as his gang raids the town in question, he goes to the barber to get a shave. After shooting anyone who won’t join his gang, Quantrell installs his son Julies (James C. Victor) as the town’s de facto leader, with the unexcitable Roy Ackett (an unexcited Bo Svenson) as the real muscle and brains behind it all.  Trouble arrives in the form of Yuma (Joe Lara), a stranger who rides into town and immediately humiliates Julies with his sharpshooting skills.  The stranger joins the gang and eventually plays them off each other to achieve his goal of anarchy within the group to free the town.  Yup, we've got a post-apocalyptic YOJIMBO (1961) on our hands, with a heavy helping of THE ROAD WARRIOR (1982) about 13 years too late.

Yuma - man of action...and chicken legs!

This PM vehicle has always escaped me…or so I thought.  I revisited it a few weeks back and it seemed like a whole new experience to me.  Trouble is I later found myself commenting on Mobius about how I had watched it a few years ago.  Is this a sign of old age?  Thankfully, my opinion of the film was the same both times.  This wasn’t something that got Richard Pepin or Joseph Merhi as director.  Instead, PM employees Jacobsen Hart and Paul Volk share that duty with Hart also providing the screenplay.  It is pretty obvious the cinematic exploits of Mad Max were the major influence on this production.  Hell, they even have a character named Chicken Boy who might as well be The Toadie.  And while this will certainly never replace the classic status of THE ROAD WARRIOR, there is a lot to admire in STEEL FRONTIER.  I like how Hart makes you think Yuma is literally death incarnate like THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (1976).  This is showcased best in the opening where Yuma meets a legless man in the desert and kills him mercifully.  Sadly, the concept is never taken to its fullest potential (if he is The Grim Reaper, why is he killing a desert rat to eat…unless that rat’s time was up!?! Hart, you genius!).  In terms of action, the film starts off promising with a great PM chase but quickly slows down.  The opening car chase along a desert highway has some great stunts, including a shot like this that would make George Miller as proud as a new father.

Nothing big in terms of action happens for about an hour until the climactic showdown, which also hits PM levels of action including one of the biggest fireballs I have ever seen in a movie. Seriously, I’m not kidding.  There are so many explosions in this film that some kind soul edited them all together.  The one that impressed me can be found around the 3:20 mark.

Cleverly nestled on the STEEL FRONTIER VHS opening is a trailer for Lara’s second PM feature, HOLOGRAM MAN.  I guess they had to hook the Lara fans while they had a chance. Anyway, this one hit video store shelves three months later in June 1995 and I somehow missed it.  Now I have friends who are shocked that I’ve never rented something called HOLOGRAM MAN back in the day, but, hand on my heart, I swear I never saw it until this year.  Maybe the cover threw me off and made me think it was some cheapo rip off of THE LAWNMOWER MAN (1992).  Instead, it is a cheapo rip off of DEMOLTION MAN (1993). How could I have been so foolish?

The film wastes no time getting down to the action as first-day-on-the-job cop Decoda (Lara) and his veteran partner Wes Strickland (John Amos) are blasting it out with some thugs in futuristic Los Angeles (which looks a lot like mid-90s L.A.).  They’re trying to find out the nefarious plans of “Slash” Gallager (Evan Lurie, who also co-wrote the screenplay) and, sure enough, one goon squeals about how Slash plans to assassinate the Governor Hampton (Alex Cord). Decoda and Strickland get assigned to the Governor’s security detail and, sure enough again, Slash and his goons attack, resulting in a car/bus/limo chase that is the film’s highlight.  During the chaos, both the Governor and Strickland are killed, but Decoda still gets his man and Slash is sentenced to “holographic stasis.”  Five years later, the once bright-eyed Decoda is a beaten down and cynical man.  How is this conveyed?  He has a beard!  Anyway, thanks to help from his gang, Slash’s virtual form is released from cyberspace and given a physical form (in the form of a “morph polymer” that can even recreate his terrible cornrows).  Decoda is on the case, but when he gets killed during an explosion he too must be placed into the cyber world and fight Slash on his own terms.

Evan Lurie's acting:

                             Joe Lara reacts to Evan Lurie's acting:

Prior to watching this film, a friend warned me that all the best bits were in trailer. Damn it all to hell, he was right. Yes, HOLOGRAM MAN makes for an amazing trailer (see below) but only for an okay film.  It is doubly painful as the opening credits got me psyched big time.  I mean, after Lara and Lurie (that sounds like a daytime talk show) the number of great character actor names that pop up on screen is amazing.  In addition to the aforementioned Amos and Cord, we all get: Micheal Nouri (as a seedy politician), William Sanderson (as a computer programmer named J.F. Sebastian…uh, I mean, Giggles), Nicholas Worth (as a Slash crony sporting an eye patch), and Tiny Lister (as a Slash gang member named Eightball!).  That cast alone make is worth seeing at least once.  Just don’t go in expecting PM’s greatest film.  One of PM’s biggest mistakes during their tenure was placing the film’s best action scene in the opening and HOLOGRAM MAN is definitely one of those.  It is a pretty insane limo vs. passenger bus chase scene where the bus is shorn its top half thanks to an overpass (located near Pepin Road, haha).  After that slam-bang opening, the rest of the film relies mostly on shootouts and, as a result, pales in comparison. I’m sure HOLOGRAM MAN was born when PM execs read in Variety how virtual reality was the future of the movie industry (a fad that died almost as quickly as it was born, much to Brett Leonard’s chagrin).  Their concept of cyber space is funny (apparently computers will house your holographic image in a white leotard) and you have to laugh at how they shoehorn in a virtual reality CGI bit with a scene where Decoda brushes on his shooting skills.

Virtual insanity!

So if you somehow end up having a Joe Lara craving, I guess I would recommend STEEL FRONTIER over HOLOGRAM MAN.  The former has plenty of action and a surprising amount of style.  Plus, they get great use out of that rundown factory location that appeared in seemingly every 90s sci-fi flick.  HOLOGRAM MAN is one I would save for a rainy day where you are just craving some non-demanding mid-90s sci-fried theater.  Or you can just watch this edit where Youtuber Geographica skillfully cut the film down to 4 minutes and move on with your life.

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