Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

Sci-Fried Theater: Dead Mountaineer's Hotel (1979)

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Cyber Monday: The CYBORG COP series (1993-1995)

If you’ve found your way to our blog, then chances are pretty high you’ve already seen a Nu Image movie.  They first jumped to fame with their animals-gone-amok films (SPIDERS series, OCTOPUS series, CROCODILE series, SHARK ATTACK series) starting in the 2000s that conned unsuspecting DVD renters into enduring poorly rendered CGI creatures attacking poorly paid actors in Bulgaria.  Amazingly, this success allowed them to start backing bigger films and soon you could see their logo theatrically on Stallone films (THE EXPENDABLES films) and other big budget stuff (the recent OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN).  To quote the old Virginia Slims ad, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”  Indeed, the company founded in 1992 initially shot and distributed cheap direct-to-video action flicks in South Africa and was built on the backs of guys named Bradley and Zagarino playing robotic warriors.  Yes, they are the “House the Cyborg Cop Built.”


No doubt inspired by the huge international success of ROBOCOP (1987) and TERMINATOR 2 (1991), CYBORG COP was the perfect project for the fledgling company to kick off with. The film focuses on Jack Ryan (David Bradley), a DEA agent alongside his brother Philip (Todd Jensen).  Yes, his name really is Jack Ryan.  In the opening minutes, Jack and Philip show up at a hostage situation (not sure why this is a DEA gig) where a psychotic guy is screaming about wanting his mommy. Oedipal issues obviously irritate Jack and he shoots the baddie dead and saves the female hostage.  Bad news as it turns out this guy was the son of some publishing magnate and a pesky newswoman just happened to show up to capture Jack’s face on camera.  Damn it!  This incident results in him being banned from the organization (why?) and wallowing in self pity.

A few years later, Jack is hanging out with Philip, who mentions he is heading down to the Caribbean for a top secret mission.  He tells Jack not to worry and that he will be back in time to finalize the paperwork on adopting the orphan Frankie (Steven Leader).  OH CRAP! Philip is a dead man.  Indeed, his team’s siege on the top secret fortress of international baddie Kessel (John Rhys-Davies) ends in complete disaster as nearly everyone is blown up and Philip is captured.  This is especially bad news for him as Kessel just happens to be experimenting in creating cybernetic soldiers that he hopes to sell to the highest bidding countries (preferably of nefarious nature).  So Philip soon become a cyborg DEA agent, er, cyborg soldier.  Of course, the bad guys didn’t expect that Philip sent a package to Jack telling him he thinks things are going to go bad (no idea when he sent this as the film shows him jumping right into his mission).  So big brother is on a plane to find his kid brother faster than Schwarzenegger pouncing on the help.  Once arriving, Jack finds the local authorities to be corrupt and the only person he can trust is a, ugh, newswoman named Cathy (Alonna Shaw).

Initially announced in Variety as CYBORG NINJA (see ad below), CYBORG COP is the film that kicked off Nu Image’s, er, image as a direct-to-video action staple.  Catering to the world’s cinematic cybernetic cravings, the production is never going to be mistaken for one of the big boys (although I’m sure many a clueless father came home with it as a rental over the years and was scolded by his son with “dad, I said I wanted ROBOCOP!”).  The producers obviously had a Cannon state of mind going when they founded their company and it shows right down to casting David Bradley, perhaps the last Cannon star thanks to AMERICAN NINJA 3-5.  Bradley is adept at martial arts and all of his action scenes are well done.  It also shows in the hiring of Cannon staple Sam Firstenberg to direct the picture. He follows the Cannon model of “bigger is better” in terms of the explosions.  The film’s finale features the entire compound being blown to bits.  Another highlight is probably Rhys-Davies as the villain.  He is obviously having the time of his life hamming it up. $50 to the first person who can figure out just what the hell kind of accent he is trying though. South Africa plays the fictional Caribbean island well enough, although it does result in some laughable “eh, mon” bits.  Also, there are some great bits like a hotel clerk telling Bradley to stay away from a rough bar because he is a white dude and when they cut to the place, it is filled with white folks and a happy reggae band playing.

"You will never see a more wretched hive of scum and villainy."

Of course, my personal favorite bit was Kessel’s top secret underground lab having “exit” signs.  Yes, I’m a low grade villain bent on world domination, but I don’t skimp on building standards.

Thankfully, the producers didn’t skimp when it comes to the cyborg bits.  Now don’t go in expecting James Cameron level stuff, but you do get the gradual destruction of an evil cyborg (Rufus Swart) and the required cyborg arm.  I did laugh when they outfitted Philip with his new arm and opted to leave on the armpit hair.


Bradley and Firstenberg are back!  The first CYBORG COP must have fooled a lot of renters as this sequel hit shelves just over a year after the first film.

Part 2 wastes no time getting to the action as bad guy Jesse Starkraven (Morgan Hunter) and his goons lay the smack down on some rival drug dealers (who, naturally, make the workers do their duties in the nude).  Sounds like a job for the DEA and soon Jack Ryan is on the scene. Wait, how did he get rehired? Anyway, Jack and new partner Mike get prepped to take on this bald headed baddie.  Wait a sec…new partner…friend of Jack…and he’s black?  This dude is a dead man!  What they don’t know is Starkraven is welcoming this clash because the DEA killed his brother.  Sure enough, Jack gets his man but not before Starkraven kills Mike (told ya!) and swears his revenge.  No biggie for Jack as he gets to head home to his adopted son Frankie.  HOLY CRAP! Frankie is back.  Yes!  See kid, losing your first adoptive father ain’t so bad after all as now you have David Bradley as your dad.

Anyway, Starkraven is now the State’s problem, but things get weird when he is transferred by the ATG (Anti-Terrorist Group) in the middle of the night to a top secret facility that performs under the guise of hurricane research.  What is going on this lab?  Well, they just happen to be creating cyborgs out of inmates and soon Starkraven is rechristened Spartacus by the custody sounding Dr. Owns (Douglas Bristow). As in “I owns you cyborgs!”  Obviously, Spartacus is an advocate for robotic rights and decides to break his group of oppressed brothers out of their cybernetic confines.  What an ingrate, like we all wouldn’t kill for a weapons-replaceable hand.  And he couldn’t have picked a worse time as he decides to lead his rebellion when a bunch of VIPs are visiting to see the program’s progress. Nothing sells your backers like watching a cyborg rip off someone’s arm. Naturally, this is a job for Jack Ryan and he is soon tracking this metal militia, while butting heads with the corrupt sheriff and ATG bureaucrat Liz McDowell (Jill Pierce, so bad that her acting must be seen to be believed).  And he better hurry because Spartacus not only wants his revenge, but he is prepared to unleash it in the form of a nuclear bomb that will decimate all of Des Moines, Iowa.  Wait…this is set in Iowa!?!

"We gonna walk down to Electric Avenue..."
Like the TERMINATOR films, this opted for a “bigger is better” approach for the follow up. And I’m not lying when I say CYBORG COP II is better in every regard than the first film. Not that the first film was terrible or anything, but it seems like Firstenberg got a chance to reflect on what he did right and what fans responded to from the initial entry.  And apparently what fans responded to was action, action, action!  So we get double the amount of scenes of Bradley kicking people in the face.  In fact, Bradley is given a bit more of a smartass persona in this entry, to the point I’m shocked they didn’t have him do a DIE HARD 2 “how can the same thing happen to the same guy twice” line.  And we also get double the amount of explosions.   The film’s ending (in an abandoned factory, naturally) proves to be a virtual explosion orgy as everyone gets blow’d up real good (look for the same footage of one dummy being blown up getting used twice).  However, it is a showdown at a gas station during the middle of the movie that is the film’s highlight.  Not only do we get tons of huge explosions, but we get guys flying through glass windows and Bradley getting his John Woo on with two guns a blazin’.  If you see only one CYBORG COP film, make sure this is the one.


Fans of the Bradley/Firstenberg team will no doubt be disappointed to learn that neither one returned for the third (and final) entry in this series. Perhaps Bradley didn’t want to be typecast a guy who repeatedly kicks cyborg ass, so instead he went on to make films where he kicked human ass. Anyway, the third film tenuously tries to connect to the other films as the acting reigns are turned over to Frank Zagarino, who was helping Nu Image’s coffers as a cyborg in the PROJECT: SHADOWCHASER series they distributed, and Bryan Genesse, who also co-starred in PROJECT: SHADOWCHASER II.

CYBORG COP III or NRA wet dream?
Zagarino and Genesse star as Saint and Max, a couple of U.S. Marshalls who open the film by chasing a hillbilly pot farmer in an airplane. Their boss is soon offering them $5,000 each to find a female news reporter named Evelyn Reed (Jennifer Miller).  Wait, I don’t think U.S. Marshalls even do this kind of work.  Anyway, the guy who wants her is Sheen (Ian Roberts), owner of a top secret company in Iowa that is – you guessed it – dealing in human cyborgs. Seems Evelyn got a tip from conscience driven scientist who didn’t agree with their experiment of turning physical education students into emotionless robots.  Our intrepid reporter not only got some undercover footage of a cybrog in action (even killing her cameraman), but she also stole the main computer chip that allows the whole program to go forth.  Why?  Because, like I said, she’s intrepid.  So our heroes are on the case and battling a bunch of Sheen’s guys along the way.  Wait, isn’t Sheen the one paying to have her found? Why is he sending his own guys to kill the guys he hired?  Maybe he is a real cheapskate. Anyway, as you can tell, the resulting scenario ends with lots of stuff going boom.

Fans hoping for more of CYBORG COP II’s over the top metallic mayhem will probably be disappointed in this entry. Naturally, the first thing is fans will be missing David Bradley. I cried not knowing what happened to Jack Ryan and his adopted son Frankie.  It is equally strange that Zagarino, a man known for playing cyborgs in his sleep, is the hero this time around.   He and Genesse (woah @ his Southern accent) make a good team though. Director Yossi Wein cut his teeth on the first CYBORG COP flicks as the director of photography, so he definitely knows how to shoot an action scene.  And, believe it or not, this entry might have the biggest explosions (see pic) of any of the trilogy. So this film has plenty of explosions but they really skimp on the cybrog aspects. In fact, outside of some robot-o-vision screens, the only proof you get of a cyborg is the main guy having a tiny sliver of metal exposed on his face.  Not cool.  It was also about halfway through the film that I realized I was being lied to – there are no cyborg cops on display!  I guess the title CYBORG KINESIOLOGY STUDENT just didn’t have that ring to it.  It is this kind of schizophrenic nature that resulted in the film coming out on US video in 1996 under the generic title TERMINAL IMPACT rather than CYBORG COP III (to further confuse matters, a double feature DVD of this and CYBORG COP II calls it part III, yet the cover refers to them as CYBORG SOLIDER and TERMINAL IMPACT).

Friday, March 29, 2013

Obscure Oddities: BAD BRAINS (2006)

When Italian genre filmmaking bottomed out, it happened quickly.  How fast was it?  Faster than Eli Roth stealing an idea from a 1980s horror flick and then patting himself on the back for it.  Really, it was that fast.  One day we’re looking forward to Lucio Fulci’s return to form with the Dario Argento produced THE WAX MASK; the next day Fulci is buried six feet under and Dario begins an epic career plummet that starts with THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1998). Completely shell shocked, we hoped and prayed for a savior for this once stately horror subgenre. A glimmer of hope arrived in the new millennium with director Ivan Zuccon.

I can’t even recall how I first heard of Zuccon, but I do know it centered on his two early H.P. Lovecraft adaptations (THE DARKNESS BEYOND [2000] and UNKNOWN BEYOND [2001]).  It was his third feature – another series of Lovecraft adaptations called THE SHUNNED HOUSE (2003) – that filed him under a guy to take notice of.  Zuccon filled his films with plenty of style, despite being low budget affairs.  And therein laid the problem – despite having oodles of atmosphere and superior technique, Zuccon shot all of his projects on video (Betacam), which is a major turnoff for most horror fans.  They mostly equate video with being “cheap and bad” unless it is done in a found footage/PARANORMAL ACTIVITY style (which, in my opinion, makes most of those films unwatchable).  Despite improving with every film and attempting challenging material (see Tom’s rave of COLOUR FROM THE DARK), the man couldn’t get noticed at a Fangoria convention unless he dressed up like Rob Zombie.

Regardless of international attention (or lack thereof), Zuccon kept plugging away at his craft with his busiest period being from 2006-2008 where he released 3 films.  To be honest, I wasn’t very excited when I saw the first trailer for BAD BRAINS (2006), his fourth feature film.  It was definitely a deviation from his earlier literary adaptations and I thought he was bending to the “torture porn” market created in the wake of Roth’s HOSTEL (2005).  What I didn’t know is that lurking behind the lurid exterior was a film that actually had some thoughts flowing through its crazed cerebellum.

The film centers on Davide (Zuccon regular Emanuele Cerman) and Alice (Valeria Sannino), two serial killers who live in an isolated warehouse.  Actually, they might take offense to the term “serial killer” as they see themselves more as “researchers” who are looking for something inside each of the individuals they kill.  What that is I can’t tell you or it would ruin the surprise.  Their lives are pretty standard as they kill, have sex, drink, and play with Alice’s human doll that she keeps locked up in a room.  Such banality is interrupted when a mysterious stranger, Mirco (Matteo Tosi), arrives at their hidden location.  The stranger admits he has studied the duo’s criminal exploits, but has no idea how to explain the supernatural connection between himself and Davide.  You see, when Davide kills someone, Mirco experiences a form of stigmata as blood will miraculously appears on his hands.  Even worse, if Mirco is injured, the wounds will soon appear on Davide as well, leaving our serial killers’ hands tied as they obviously can’t kill this guy.  So they decide to keep they stranger tied up for the time being and try to figure out just what his connection to them is and how it might relate to their brutal past.

An expansion of the Zuccon short film DEGENERAZIONE (1998), BAD BRAINS actually took me by surprise.  As with all of Zuccon’s films, he uses the video format well and doesn’t use that “inferior” format as an excuse to not be creative. There are well done dolly and tracking shots and (as always) some heavy dollops of atmosphere thanks to some well done lighting.  Zuccon also gives us his first dabbling in CGI as we get some computer generated insects (including a well rendered moth) throughout the film.  The acting is also very strong and all three leads do well in their respective roles.

As I mentioned before, I went into this with low expectations as I thought I was getting nothing more than a torture and shock show.  And while there are some brutal moments on display, they are balanced by a script that actually keeps you guessing with its multiple twists.  Imagine that – something that doesn’t just want to delight in Euro-trash chainsawing off fingers and plucking out eyeballs and instead wants to make audiences think, right down to the title.  The mystery behind Mirco left me wondering for nearly the entire running time and while I did figure out his role before the reveal, there were a few other swerves that I didn’t see coming at all.  It is truly a shame the audience for this is so limited (due to both being shot-on-video and being in Italian with subtitles) as one could see the mind games having a THE SIXTH SENSE effect on viewers. Or, as Tom more succinctly put it in our email conversation about the film: “If that had been made on a multi-million dollar budget by Eli Roth or Rob Zombie, fans and critics would be losing their f’ing minds.”

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Listomania: Thomas' The F Month 2012

Damn, it's almost April and I haven't posted pint-sized ramblings about some of the amazing stuff I took in. While I've been revisiting a lot of old favorites in HD (I was never really sold on old movies in squeaky clean digital formats until I revisited BLADE RUNNER on blu-ray), here's a minor sampling of random flicks:

PRISON (1988): Honestly, I'm shocked at how well this movie has aged. The new transfer from Shout Factory really throws that into sharp relief with the lush cinematography being beautifully represented in a new widescreen presentation. Will throws the switch here. This impressive production was made right before the collapse of Empire pictures, making their demise even more bitter. There's a huge amount of talent on a very small budget and it really comes together dead on target without a wasted minute. On the casting side, we have Lane Smith as the prison warden, who not only has a subtle character arc that would be completely flattened in a modern genre film, but he chews the grim, neo-gothic scenery to just the right degree. Even when wide-eyed, sweaty and drooling, he never crosses the line into camp. Of course there's this guy named Viggo who I don't think went anywhere after this, Hal Landon Jr, who once again is a guy with a badge who has his keys stolen ("Deputy Van Halen?"), "Tiny" Lister who actually shows a surprising range of emotions, and Irwin Yablans' son who had the opportunity of playing the "special friend" of "Rhino" (the very real convict Stephen E. Little who was shackled in full restraints when the camera wasn't running). A real sleeper classic that never really got its due until now.

MEAN GUNS (1997): Albert Pyun has always had an erratic career. Even in the early days he transitioned from one of my all-time favorite films, THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER (1982), right into the completely off-the wall post-apocalyptic, neo-noir accented, action-comedy with song and dance routines, RADIOACTIVE DREAMS (1983). Even so, there is a point where Pyun's output turned into some seriously rough riding. As fellow Junkie Will has mentioned in the past, MEAN GUNS is that tipping point. The last of the entertaining Pyun films. I'm not saying this holds up to NEMESIS (1993), CYBORG (1989) or even BRAINSMASHER... A LOVE STORY (1993), but it is fun. Which is a hell of a lot more than can be said about LEFT FOR DEAD (2007), a movie that I have tried and tried to sit all the way through several times over the years. The premise of MEAN GUNS is simple, but the, *ahem*, execution is what makes it. Mafia middle-management badass Vincent Moon (Ice-T) is given the seemingly laborious assignment of smokin' roughly 100 criminal scumbags who screwed up in the eyes of the mob. After sending them all invitations, they all show up in a soon to be opened penitentiary (ironic, no?) where instead of simply gassing the place and heading home for a cocktail, Moon offers them an ultimatum. Instead of simply being shot on the spot, they can kill each other with weapons provided and the last three standing will be allowed to walk free. Oh, and there is a cash prize of $10 million stashed in a suitcase somewhere in the prison.
That's really about it. Alliances are formed, dissolved (violently) and we get bits and pieces of some of the infractions that brought the criminals to this point, plus a little bit of character development with a woman (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) who took some incriminating photos, but is by no means a killer. Christopher Lambert has the most interesting part as a guy who is sort of a renegade nutball and, in spite of being a calculated charmer, is not well liked and is known for making a bloody hash of things. Set to mambo music that Moon has piped in as a soundtrack to the best PPV ever (he sits in a control room watching the action via video cameras), MEAN GUNS isn't exactly deep, but it's fast-moving and fun to watch. It should be pointed out that the fun factor is largely diminished if you watch the cropped, poor-quality transfer that Lionsgate has has blessed us with here in the States on DVD and VOD. Pyun shot the film with a wide FOV lens that distorts at the edges. It gives the film an interesting look in widescreen, but in the cropped version it feels like you are watching the film with a fishbowl on your head. European DVD releases, such as the Italian and German editions, feature not only a much more detail picture, but the full-scope ratio that the movie desperately needs preserved, as evidenced in this shot comparison.

GLEAMING THE CUBE (1989): I really hated this movie back in the day. Christian Slater as a skater? In his f'n dreams! This utterly ridiculous 1930s "yellow-terror" murder mystery thrown on to a skateboard and given a day-go 1980s whitewash, comes complete with  Tony Hawk and the Bones Brigade in bit parts, and damned if it isn't 110% better in retrospect. While working for an allegedly Vietnamese grocery store, Brian Kelly's (Christian Slater) half-brother Vinh (Art Chudabala) is murdered by (allegedly) Vietnamese mobsters after finding some irregularities in a shipping invoice. If you've ever worked in retail, I'm sure you can relate. Set-up to appear as a suicide, the cops don't even question the fact that some kid decided to hang himself in the shower of a random motel that he never checked into. Now it's up to Brian to... hit the half-pipe! Oh yeah, and get to the bottom of the mystery.
Screenwriter Michael Tolkin's messages are writ pretty large in this movie. One being the "Asian menace" theme, the other is that being a member of a fringe group that does not conform to mainstream acceptance is not only bad, but will make you unpopular, unlayable and your parents will hate you. Ok, so that last part might be true. At one point in the movie Brian realizes that he needs to essentially dress preppy with a sweater, khakis and loafers in order to gain acceptance, from what appears to be the entire planet, and get the drop on the bad guys.
Hijole de la chingada! Check out the price of gas in LA!
Aside from (or because of) the wonky messages and laughable stereotyping, the most amusing bits in the movie are the unintentionally hilarious skate scenes in which Slater is doubled by the considerably skinnier Hawk and the considerably more talented Rodney Mullen. Actually seeing Mullen in a bad Slater wig during a segment in which an angry Brian is supposedly skating off his pain at the loss of his brother by doing Mullen's patented, whimsical flatland tricks is nothing short of hilarious. The skate-aesthetic production design is actually really ambitious with each skater having a completely different, highly detailed bedroom set. Clearly the design team were having a ball. The movie has gotten quite popular over recent years due to the intense '80s kistch factor and fun action set pieces, but there's more than that to get a kick out of. There is a whole host of priceless dialogue, my favorite line being when the coroner is checking out Vinh's body and says "shit, kids didn't kill themselves when I went to highschool, what the hell is going on around here?" Plus you have Slater starting a car by sticking a skateboard truck-key in the ignition lock (!), a cameo by Buddy Joe Hooker in a red Corvette, and Tony Hawk in a Pizza Hut delivery driver uniform (why was this never an unlockable outfit in the Pro Skater games?). Sure, it's not going to change your religion, but it is much more fun than it deserves to be.

BUSTING (1974): Peter Hyams has had a wildly erratic career as a director, but you can't accuse him of following the herd, not even when he has formula stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme in front of the camera. Here, in his first feature film, Hyams directs Elliot Gould, known for making weird films, and Robert Blake, known for being weird. Even though this follows a trend of early '70s disillusioned cop movies (1972s THE NEW CENTURIONS arguably being the poster child for this sub-genre), it definitely marches to the beat of its own drum. Gould and Blake play Keneely and Farrel, a pair of shabby, cynical vice detectives who have good intentions, but seem to make a hash out of a simple bust of a high-class hooker. The minor foul-up is less important than the fact that she has friends in high places who don't want to see her busted, nor her crime boss Rizzo (Allen Garfield) who seems to have bought off the entire Los Angeles police force. Every time they try to follow up on Rizzo, they get knocked down by the chief who is being told to put Keneely and Farrel on a short leash. In addition to the off beat performances (Blake seems like he was shot-up with thorazine before every scene), there are bizarre "comic" sequences of the duo being put on menial tasks such as hanging out in a men's public toilet waiting to be propositioned or better still, being ferociously attacked by a mob of cross-dressers in a gay bar that is envisioned with red lighting and hand-held camera work. The punchline to the latter scene is Keneely leaning up against a car while Farrel examines a bite on his leg, rhetorically composing a letter to his parents "Dear Mom and Dad, how are you doing? I am swell. Fag ate my leg. Your son, Michael." Trust me, I'm not taking that out of context. Hyams ropes in a few cool bit players as well, with Antonio Fargas playing a catty queer (again), Sid Haig as one of Rizzo's henchmen and even Michael Lerner shows up briefly. Imagine THE NEW CENTURIONS (1972) on pills and dope with don't-give-a-shit attitude and you kind of get the picture.

HOT STUFF (1979): In his massive career spanning over 50 years of television and film, Dom DeLouise only directed one feature film and this is it. Personally, I think if you are going to direct only one feature film in your half-century career it should be written by Donald Westlake with a title song by Jerry Reed. I think that's fair.
A group of frustrated undercover cops (DeLouise, Jerry Reed, Suzanne Pleshette and "The Electric Company's" own Luis Avalos) get tired of trying to bust the  perps the hard way. You know, with warrants, miranda rights and random ball shots. Also plaguing their careers is the wrath of their hot-tempered chief (Ossie Davis) who wants them to go by the book, goddammit! Seems that whole angle isn't working, so they get the idea to set up a pawn shop where they can pretend to be fences allowing them to videotape the scofflaws in the act of selling their stolen goods. Once the team has spent all of the department's money on buying up stolen goods, they'll just round everyone up and arrest them. What could go wrong?
Ok, I'm not going to try and sell you some line about this being a piece of subversive cinema in mainstream clothing, but it does have a nice grimy backdrop.
Westlake (with the help of ham-handed script-doctor Michael Kane) dial in a nice combination of freewheeling action and what basically amounts to stand-up comedy cameos. Additionally, in spite of Burt Reynolds' conspicuous absence (apparently too busy with the 1979 romantic comedy STARTING OVER), we still get Trans Am action sequences, though it does amazingly transform into a beat-up Camero right before it is blown up by the mob. When I was a kid I was fascinated by Stockton, California's seedy bars, pool halls and pawnshops (which puts me in good company as FAT CITY was famously shot there in '72). Maybe that's why this movie made such an impression. Watching this through a kid's eyes in a Stockton theater made it seem like this could be happening right down the street. Though I really couldn't fathom what was so damn funny about those skinny cigarettes.

TOTAL RECALL (2012): Well, since you asked, my opinion of Colin Farrell hasn’t changed in the slightest. I’d say he was miscast, but that implies that there is a role that he would be good in. As for this film, it’s amazing how much stuff they rip off from movies that they are not remaking. They did a great job of re-creating Mega City 1 and Los Angeles 2019. You see, the basic premise is that there are only two inhabitable areas left on earth. Both are highly compact city states, like I dunno… a “mega” city. On one side of the Earth we have the affluent, totalitarian UK (blatantly stolen from "Judge Dredd" comic books) and on the other side of the Earth is the poor downtrodden Down Under (blatantly stolen from BLADE RUNNER). There is a massive shuttle transport that runs through the center of the earth in between the two, mainly to ferry poor menial laborers from the oddly dystopian outback into the unsurprisingly Germanic Pommyland to assemble military robots. As a political ploy the prime minister of the UK (*spoilers!*) sets up a rebel movement in Oz, so that he will have an excuse to invade with the robots the their own population has assembled. It's not really a remake of the Schwarzenegger film (which bizarrely is now being vaunted as a "classic" of the genre), though it does throw in a few reworkings of "classic" bits from that film that are about as welcome as a homeless guy at a Republican convention. Just in case you were wondering, the tri-boobed prostitute was not in the original Philip K. Dick story. On the plus side, those bits are the only parts of the film that fall into camp.
He say you... eh, you know.
Who is the Law?
The really interesting thing about this movie, is not so much the movie, as the studio's interference with it. Columbia contractually bound director Len Wiseman to created a short, “dumb” edit for theatrical distribution. In spite of studios dumbing down movies for decades, this is a pretty amazing example. The director’s cut, which can be found on a limited blu-ray, has a staggering total of 92 changes. Ninety two! In my guestimation some 80 of those changes are story/character/dialogue related, not only adding depth and complexity to the film, but also significantly altering the story and characters. Many parts of the film the studio felt would be simply too confusing for the average movie goer. I mean, obviously you wouldn't want to challenge the viewer to actually think during a movie! Particularly not a Philip K. Dick adaptation. Too bad there weren’t a few more changes removing all the annoying CGI lensflair. I love the irony that a majority of the criticisms aimed at the film were from an audience and critics who hated it's simple-minded approach that neither offered an interesting plot and characters nor a straight-up remake of the original adaptation. No doubt Columbia has blamed the hatred on a hater market that is not interested in science fiction.
Personally, I didn’t hate it. It fumbles a lot of stuff (like casting Farrell and Jessica Beil), but it’s definitely not a remake. There are three or four scenes that deliberately echo the Arnold movie and I don’t know why they even bothered. Maybe that was something else that Columbia demanded. They changed some stuff back to the way it is in the original PKD story, but then changed other stuff to make it a high concept Hollywood film. Interestingly while in the theatrical film Farrell receives video-recorded messages from his own post Rekal self, in the director's cut we have Ethan Hawke leaving those messages. I think this is the one time in my life that I've been delighted to see Ethan Hawke in a movie.
This version of TOTAL RECALL really doesn’t hold much to the source material, borrowing liberally from other films, but it’s definitely closer than the Paul Verhoeven film. That's got to count for something.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Cyber Monday: T-FORCE (1994)

One of our mottos here should be “so many movies, so little time.”  Despite plugging away at this tiny blog for nearly 3 years, we still haven’t covered 1/10 of what we want.  A perfect example is the storied catalog of PM Entertainment. Sure, we hit a few here and there (ALIEN INTRUDER, the phenomenal RAGE) but we are far from doing an all-encompassing overview.  Born from the 80s direct-to-video outfit City Lights, PM was conceived by producers Richard Pepin and Joseph Merhi (hence the PM) as an independent production company that catered exclusively to the video market with a series of action films.  They kicked off with some real cheap stuff (just to give you an idea, Dan Haggerty was in an early one), but soon kicked into high gear by getting B-movie stars like Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Lorenzo Lamas, and Wings Hauser (who even directed a few outings) in their films.

Starting around 1994, the company really started finding its groove.  The budgets got bigger and that meant the explosions did too.  Under the guidance of stunt coordinators like Spiro Razatos and Red Horton, PM was (in my opinion) producing better action scenes than most major studios at the time.  Cars flipped through explosions as big as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ego, always landing on a perfectly placed crash cam.  It was damn high art, I tell ya!  Even though they weren’t shown theatrically, the PM stuff was a godsend for us lame folks still going through withdrawal after the Cannon boys closed up shop.  Even better is around this time the Pepin and Merhi boys started expanding their universe and brought their style of slam-bang action over to the science fiction world (no doubt due to the success of some unknown film named TERMINATOR 2).  One of their earliest full blown sci-fi outings was T-FORCE.  Can you guess what the “T” stands for?

Now this logo I can get behind!
The film opens in an unidentified future where a group of terrorists led by Samuel Washington (Vernon Wells) take over a high rise housing a U.N. ambassador.  Five minutes in and I’m getting Wez from THE ROAD WARRIOR shooting people and throwing a woman out a window?  SOLD!   Anyway, this sounds like a job for the T-Force, a group of five cyborgs, er, cybernauts trained to kill and put the termination in their “T” name.  The team consists of leader Adam Omega (Evan Lurie), Cain (Bobby Johnston), Zeus (Deron McBee), Mandragora (Jennifer MacDonald) and Athens (R. David Smith).  Wait, you sure this isn’t a bootleg version of AMERICAN GLADIATORS?  Also along for the ride is Lt. Jack Floyd (Jack Scalia), a renegade cop who plays by his own rules and hates robots.  Can you see guess where this is going? The hostage crisis goes smoothly with only Athens taking some irreparable damage. Unfortunately, the team’s credo of “infiltrate, locate, destroy on contact” (damn, I wish they had made that rhyme as “infiltrate, locate, eliminate” has such a ring to it) ends up resulting in a helicopter with six innocent hostages onboard being blown up.

Anyway, losing six innocent civilians is always bad PR (unless you’re in the Bush administration) and Mayor Pendleton (Erin Gray, still rocking it in her 40s) orders cybernaut creator Dr. Jonathan Gant (Martin E. Brooks, who also built THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN) to dismantle the four remaining bots. Naturally, the robots object and find a loophole when they realize the order of termination conflicts with their primary directive of self preservation.  Well, actually, Cain doesn’t buy their logic and he stays behind after the other three kill their creator and decide to take out the “corrupt” law enforcement that ordered their termination.  The lawbreaking bots hole up in a “decriminalized zone” (meaning: empty factory and rock quarry) and it is now up to Floyd to track them down before they assassinate the mayor. And who better to help him out than someone who can think just like them? Yep, the hard drive hatin’ cop just got himself a new partner in cyborg cutie Cain!  They quickly jump on the trail of our renegade robots and maybe – just maybe! – Floyd will come around to the idea of having a “tin man” as his partner.

T-FORCE isn’t quite a PM classic, but it is a great time waster.  Yes, the script is clichéd as they come (if you saw ALIEN NATION [1988], you already saw this) but the film makes up for it with a good cast and action scenes every 10 minutes or so.  Jack Scalia is very good as the lead and you can buy him as the grizzled cop who holds a grudge against machines because they put his old man out of work at the auto factory back in the day.  He would do two more sci-fi action pictures with PM (THE SILENCERS and DARK BREED) and both are definitely recommended.  One other impressive thing is he does a lot of his own stunt work.  Bobby Johnston is a former Playgirl model so he was probably cast for that alone, but he is also fine as the robotic partner and the rapport with Scalia is nicely done.  Evan Lurie, who is a dead ringer for WCW’s Kanyon, is also entertaining as the lead villain (although his style did lead me to wonder why a doctor would give a cyborg a pony tail).  I do wish director Richard Pepin had done a bit more to establish the time period of the film though. Seriously, you can’t have anyone say a date?  The closest we get is someone referring to a weapon as “vintage 20th century.”  It is odd because they do a lot of things right like the cyborg designs and even little stuff like a convenience that proudly sells guns, booze and groceries.  Of course, I can’t complain too much about a film that has two cyborgs break into a sex scene after they discover a nudie mag lying on the floor of their steel mill headquarters.  Genius!

PM's executive conference?
Of course, as with most PM films, the biggest asset is the crazy ass stuntwork.  You’d think PM stood for Plenty o’ Mayhem because they blow stuff up real good here.  In fact, the first 25 minutes is nothing but action with the high rise hostage situation.  Stunt coordinators Joe Murphy and Red Horton love them some big explosions and the abandoned steel mill (also seen in the likes of Albert Pyun’s NEMESIS and DOLLMAN) provides the perfect backdrop for goodness, gracious great balls of fire!  They have some insane stuff going down here, including some explosions so close to the actors that the singed hairs on the back of James Hetfield's neck stand up any time they go off.  Whether it is commitment to their filmmaking craft or a bit of craziness (I suspect a bit of both), it is practical stuff like real cars flippin’ and big bombs a bustin’ that makes this 100 minutes worth my time.  You can take your fancy CGI flames and shove ‘em!

Monday, March 11, 2013


If you were some sort of sadistic enabler or, more to the point, an deranged corrupter of youth, you might have held two hands out in front of my wide pre-pubescent eyes. In one hand a Penthouse magazine, in the other, a copy of Heavy Metal. Can you see the sweat breaking on my brow? How in god's name was I supposed to choose between the two? I should write a book around that scenario. It would be the cruelest story since Steve Martin's first novel.

When I was in my pre-teens and even in my teenage years, Heavy Metal Magazine was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. My mind was blown by the fact that it was a comic book, but the art was not the clean, nice art found in Marvel and DC, it was gritty, violent and frequently had impossibly gorgeous women in various states of nekkid. The stories weren't simply about a guy in tights doing nice things, they were complex and aesoteric to the point where my young mind would frequently be completely lost. It also, more than occasionally, had male nudity and while in my naiveté I didn't get why you'd want that in the first place, I perceived it as very edgy and daring. Which it turned out to be, and still is to a degree, at least here in the US.

As I learned later, Heavy Metal, was in legend and in fact, Metal Hurlant. A french magazine created in 1974 by the Les Humanoides Associés, a publishing group that included the now iconic artist Mœbius (Jean Giraud) as well as Jean-Pierre Dionnet and Philippe Druillet. In addition to featuring Mœbius (who would later work on the production design of highly influential films such as 1982's TRON), Metal Hurlant provided a home for writers who pushed the envelope as well. Famed cinematic lunatic Alejandro Jodorowski wrote more for Metal Hurlant than he ever did for movies, and his joint vision with the artists that he worked with were not limited by flaky backers, tiny budgets or prima donnas. After experimenting with a comics-only format, the magazine featured a format of short comic stories, interspersed with pop-culture articles by journalists about music, movies and novels, all of a sci-fi or underground bent.

In 1977 National Lampoon published an American version of Metal Hurlant known as Heavy Metal. Starting out with translated versions of Metal Hurlant's stories, after a few years Heavy Metal sought out its own identity by utilizing more American talent to make original content, much to the chagrin of the French publishers, who, being French, could not understand why you wouldn't want French stories. Interestingly, while Metal Hurlant began succumbing to an over-saturation of the target demographic with several other magazines created by former Metal Hurlant staffers, in America, Heavy Metal continued to flourish. By 1987 Metal Hurlant had burned very brightly, but with artists and writers turning to other outlets, Metal Hurlant was rendered silent.

That is not to say that Heavy Metal never missed a step. They had various change-ups in publication schedules, leadership (finally being bought out by Mr. Ninja Turtle himself Kevin Eastman, for better or for worse in 1992) and a little competition from Marvel's Epic Illustrated (1980-1984) which featured the likes of Frank Frazetta gracing their covers. In spite of that, Heavy Metal never went out of publication and is still in print today. In 2002 with the help of US-based publisher / film producer and owner of the the Humanoids publishing group, Fabrice Giger, Metal Hurlant was revived in France (with English, Spanish and Portuguese editions) sporting a new format that featured only the comic aspect (arguably the most popular part) and served as a platform for aspiring artists or as a showcase for excepts of graphic novels. This lasted only four years before fizzling out again.

Due to it's cutting-edge popularity in the US and Canada, a US-Canadian co-production brought to life an R-rated animated anthology film in 1981 that stayed true to the source material. Although minor tweaks were made to help accommodate a new wrap-around segment and perhaps a few less penises were rendered, the movie stayed incredibly faithful to the original stories and artwork, something of a rarity for a production with Hollywood backing.

Since then, there has been an ill-conceived "sequel" titled HEAVY METAL: F.A.K.K.² (which stands for "Federation-Assigned Ketogenic Killzone to the second level", in case you were wondering), written by Kevin Eastman as a vehicle for his then-wife Julie Strain. Based on a single story from a more recent American issue, "The Melting Pot", it went through a decade of development and production issues before finally being released direct to video in the year 2000 as HEAVY METAL 2000. With Saturday morning cartoon-style art and an embarrassingly insipid story, it proved that Eastman should stick to what he knows best: publishing other people's work. 2007 saw rumors that David Fincher and James Cameron were interested in doing a proper all-star HEAVY METAL sequel (since Guillermo del Toro was involved, this was clearly doomed from the outset) and in 2011, brace yourself, Robert Rodriguez picked up the rights. Rodriguez has stated that he and Eastman are working on "a large scale media project" and an animated film. And you thought that Eastamn and Strain project was bad. I shudder to think of what Eastman and Rodriguez might do.

In 2011 a French production company, with the backing of Fabrice Geiger, announced that it would be releasing an anthology TV series on French TV with European distribution to follow shortly thereafter. After yet another delayed production the series was broadcast in late 2012 in it's entirety on two days, in a late night slot.

Consisting of six 25 minute episodes, this modern METAL takes its inspiration from the pages of the 2002-2004 revival and sports a razor-thin wrap-around segment that echoes the 1981 film. The opening of the series starts with a grave narration: "The last fragment of a once living planet, it's body blasted into dust by the madness of it's own inhabitants, while its head was cursed to roam aimlessly through time and space screaming in pain and sorrow. In legend and in fact, it is known as... Metal Hurlant", while a meteor that looks slightly head-like blazes through the cosmos with some synth and crunchy guitars in the background. Damn, I'm sold already! The opening credits are a montage of live-action (though heavily digitally rendered) concepts of Metal Hurlant style: a girl in black leather using a laser blaster to shoot ninjas under the moons of a futuristic city, ablaze with blue fire; a female cowboy cutting down some grizzled outlaws with a samurai sword on an alien desert planet and the like. Rocket fuel for your inner 16 year-old.

Shot on what is obviously very low budgets, in English, the stories are essentially like modern Twilight Zone episodes. I know that is sort of a hackneyed analogy, but this series really embodies that phrase like none before it. The stories are tight, concise and feature a twist at the end that throws the viewer's conceptions on their respective ears.

The first episode, "The King's Crown" (based on the same story from Metal Hurlant #142 by Jim Alexander and Richard Corben), has the Metal Hurlant screaming past a planet where the corrupt and bloated king lives in a floating castle above the unwashed masses. A once technologically advanced race has now returned to a feudal era with the remnants of its high-tech past on the periphery. The king is dying and as is the custom, a tournament is held to find a new successor. The warriors fight to the death until there is only one man standing. That man will be crowned king. In this event is Guillame (Scott Adkins) a ferociously just fighter who wants nothing more than to win the crown so that he can take his people out of their slums and bring back the technology that they have lost during the reign of the tyrant king who gluts himself on drugs and kidnapped concubines. Also in the fight are warriors with much less noble intents, including Michael Jai White, Matt Mullins and Darren Shahlavi (who played Kano in the woefully under-promoted and distributed MORTAL KOMBAT: LEGACY). While series director Guillaume Lubrano doesn't get the same firepower out of this fantastic group as say, John Hyams might have, just remind yourself that it's a TV show, and a French one at that, and it suddenly becomes quite an impressive thing indeed.

Other stories are a bit more cerebral: "Shelter Me" has a teenage girl waking up in a sealed bomb-shelter with her strange neighbor; some a bit more political: "Red Light" tells of a man being held by an alien peacekeeping force that has supplied arms to his people and their enemies, ensuring mutual destruction; some more epic and flashy: "Master of Destiny" originally written and drawn by by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Adi Granov for the final issue of Hurlant in 2004, boasts what appears to be half of the budget of the entire series. Embracing the feel of old school Metal Hurlant/Heavy Metal, but presenting them in a modern way, only one story out of the seven (one episode has two stories) falls flat. "The Pledge of Anya" with Rutger Hauer, has a theme that has been done to death with a twist that is more than a little obvious at the halfway point. Other than that one misstep, the series is a lot of fun, simultaneously feeling fresh and yet familiar. I wish that we could have television shows like this in America. Sure, the SyFy Channel could do their own Heavy Metal series, or even someone else, but it would never be based on actual stories from the magazines. It would have to be "inspired by" so that some hack TV writers could dumb it down, fill it with wisecracks and turn it into the one thing that it shouldn't be: mostly harmless, like the awful MORTAL KOMBAT: CONQUEST series. Granted, this French series has no nudity and only the barest trickle of blood at best, and the digital effects are in no danger of overshadowing THE HOBBIT (2012), but then again, it's not homogenized baby pap either.
It may have some shortcomings due to the budget and the intended medium, but I feel that METAL HURLANT CHRONICLES is some of the best genre TV I've seen in ages. Apparently someone with France 4 (the station that aired the series) didn't have high-hopes for it and decided to make sure that it would not do well. In spite of the mediocre ratings, much like the magazine that it is based on, the series seems to be more popular outside of France. In spite of this a second season has been announced. The good news is that Sony Pictures has purchased the rights for European distribution. The bad news is, nobody seems to be interested in it here in the US, which I find somewhat baffling. It could easily be re-edited into a (rather long) feature film and given a DTV blu-ray release or shown on the SyFy Channel (this would seem like a no-brainer). Maybe they're just concerned that it would make their other programming look worse than it already does. In the mean time while we wait for the suits in American board rooms to figure it out, the complete series has been released on DVD and Blu-Ray in France (the deluxe edition comes with a hard-back volume containing reprints of all of the original stories that are in the series). While I do wish that this have been given proper backing and made into an epic feature film that would get proper distribution, I am really looking forward to seeing what they have in store for season 2.