Sunday, August 16, 2015

Two-Fisted TV: NIGHTMAN (1997)

Such is the power of Glenn A. Larson, TV producer extraordinaire, who returned from defeat after CHAMELEONS (1989) flopped, with this syndicated, loose adaptation of the Malibu Comics' "The Night Man". Malibu was a small outfit out of Calabasas, California who attempted to create their own little universe of superheroes, including "Men in Black" and "The Night Man," which performed well enough to be picked up by Marvel until it went out of business in '97.  Stan Lee and company liked The Night Man and his stable of strange super-villains so much that they even crossed him over into Marvel's universes, where he was frequently at odds with The X-Men.

"The Night Man" was created and written by Steve Englehart (of "Doctor Strange" fame) and featured a hero who was... wait for it... a jazz saxophonist in San Francisco! Yeah, take that Daredevil, with your cushy job as a mere lawyer in Hell's Kitchen! Our hero, Johnny Domino, was on a cable-car that was hit by a lightning bolt, that turned out to be a moon-ray with some other folks, all of whom develop super powers. These survivors were called "Ultras" (leading to Malibu's "Ultraverse") and while other folks got all mutated, The Night Man's only power was his ability to hear the thoughts of evil doers. He used his martial arts skills, fashioned his own high-tech costume and fought off werewolves, serial killers and a guy held together with metal braces. He also runs a pirate radio station in which he would broadcast his night's work to the city. Got all that? Good, now forget it.

Larson, must have figured that the moderately successful Englehart character was a great vehicle for his own ideas, many of which he carried over from CHAMELEONS. In the two-part NIGHT MAN pilot we meet a '97 Plymouth Prowler driving sax-blower Johnny Domino (Matt McColm) who is invited to play for a VIP tour of SF on a cable car. This attempt at San Francisco-ism is ruined by the fact that it was shot in British Columbia and San Diego, and features a cable car that looks nothing like the iconic cable cars of SF - not even one of the faux cable car tour buses! But I digress. After the cable car is struck by lightning, and Domino can suddenly see visions of evil (instead of hearing evil thoughts as in the comic). His first vision is that a bomb has been placed on the "cable" car in an attempt to kill the Secretary of Defense (James Karen). Domino grabs the bomb and flings it out of the alleged cable car into an old Victorian causing it to explode in a massive CG fireball. Lauded as a hero for saving the Secretary's life, no mention is made of the destruction of a landmark building or whether anyone was home at the time.

Fortunately for Johnny, while he is recovering in the hospital, his doctor calls for a leading psychic researcher (Patrick MacNee) to come in and give Domino some grandfatherly words of encouragement.

As it turns out Mr. Secretary is in SF to try to plug up a leak in which some rogue government agents have stolen some super top-secret military prototypes and are attempting to have a super-secret evil duo sell them to the highest bidder. Interestingly all of the anti-American world powers are represented here, but the Chinese get to do most of the egregious mustache twirling. I seriously doubt that would fly today what with China being our number one foreign sales market for entertainment products. Chinese ambassador, Mr. Chang (Ric Young), is so evil that he not only attempts to kill the other bidders, but decides that the best way to deal with Johnny Domino is to plant a robotic tarantula in his apartment! Double tap to the back of the head? That is so Italian.

After saving Mr. Secretary, Domino becomes a target for the evil doers and hooks up with one of the good government agents (Derwin Jordan) who is trying to recover the hardware. That's got to be embarrassing when after all of your intensive para-military training, you need a San Francisco saxophonist to bail your ass out. In case you haven't guessed, the hardware is a super-soldier suit. Rigged up with a nightvision lens that also functions as a laser-beam, the set also includes a jet-pack belt, a hologram projector, a bulletproof suit, and a cape that makes the wearer invisible (Larson finally gets to use that concept in a successful series), the set is completed with a neutron rifle that will vaporize people leaving only a pile of clothes behind. Naturally only the look of the outfit and the nightvision are the only things that were actually part of the comic, but hey, it's a TV show and viewers want, nay, demand lasers! Of course the bad government agents are still going to bring them all down, even if they have to appropriate a gunship to intimidate them on the highway!

Speaking of things that aren't part of the comic. Veteran actor Earl Holliman plays Domino's father Frank Dominus, an ex-detective who was run off the force due to underhanded politics, which is quite the spin on "The Night Man" comic, in which Johnny's father Frank Dominguez, is a security guard at the ruins of the old San Francisco Playland amusement park (which, in reality, was torn down by a property developer in 1972). This gives Larson a team of characters with which to solve various capers. A young, blonde lead, a black techie, and an old flatfoot. Oh and our government techie hooks up with a radio station DJ who rigs her set up for Night Man's illegal radio reports.

While Matt McColm isn't much of a dynamic personality and the CG effects are occasionally painful, the series is pretty entertaining. It certainly doesn't feel like something made in '97 (references to the Millenium not withstanding), and could have easily been right at home on a network in '87. It was successful enough to last for two seasons and sported guest stars such as Patrick Macnee, Simon MacCorkindale, David Hasselhoff, Bif Naked, Taylor Dayne, Little Richard, and err, Donald Trump (as himself, of course).

Larson must have been satisfied that his invisible cape gimmick finally got put to good use, as he hasn't dabbled in the superhero genre since. That said, a reboot of MANIMAL is alleged to be in the works along with several other of Larson's projects, including the iconic MAGNUM PI. The less said about that, the better.

2 Reactions:

  1. I could've told you some stories about this one... I was at the German network that bought it way back when. They did an actual "Manimal" episode in season 2. The second season was much cheaper, Holliman pretty much bailed on the project. I also LOVED the David Hasselhoff cameo in the pilot. IIRC, the show was mainly the brainchild of Larson's son.

  2. Too bad unexplained rights or royalties issues means will probably never see any of the Malibu Comics properties (besides Men in Black, for some reason) ever again.


All comments are moderated because... you know, the internet.