Thursday, 19 December 2013

K-20: The Fiend with Twenty faces AKA K-20: Legend of the Mask (Shimako Sato, 2008)

As something of an evil genius I generally find myself relating to those ambitious, audacious go-getters that tear up the screen with their  spectacular schemes, volcano bases and doomsday devices.  This accounts for my interest in movies that feature supervillains in lead roles (as documented here) and it is therefore not too surprising that I am fond of K-20:  The Fiend with Twenty Faces despite it actually being not all that easy to get though.

Set in an alternate universe, where atomic bombs have not being dropped during World War 2, we find Japan a prosperous city of innovation on the eve of a Tesla style electrical device that could power the world being revealed and where gyrocopters and zeppelins fly over a techno-industrial cityscape.  It’s a kind of steam-punk affair, but with steam replaced by propellers and electricity.  ‘Leccypunk’, if you will.  I know I will.  Just watch me.

This is what Leccypunk looks like.

Alas, innovation has not lead to Utopia, as a stringent class system has developed where the rich live in luxury while the poor struggle for scraps.  Enter K-20, a be-cloaked super thief stealing items of status from the rich.  This is not to give to the poor mind you, rather to fund his theft of the energy device that will level the playing field for all.  In order to evade capture, K-20 frames a young destitute circus acrobat who eventually teams up with his well-to-do arresting office to get to the device before K-20 by pretending to be K-20 and…  well all gets a little complicated at this point so I’ll stop.

K-20 himself is a fantastic looking creation.  A grimacing ivory face under a leather mask and floppy hat, K-20 also happens to be a master of disguise (well, twenty disguises).  He appears from nowhere, all swooshey cape and cackles, and the film instantly becomes a leccypunk Phantom of the Opera.  When he is introduced in the films opening scene he does little except wave his cape and laugh maniacally, yet manages to make you feel like you’re watching bond ski off a mountain. 

But rather than have the narrative follow K-20 Diabolik style the film instead spends its time with the circus acrobat, his larger surrogate family of paupers and circus performers, his reluctant working relationship with the police officer and his attempts to ready himself to go up against K-20.  Despite a fun training montage and a couple of nice action sequences the middle gets a little slow, muddled, melodramatic and dull.

But boy does it make up for it with the ending.  As the energy device appears from the roof of a massive art-deco tower the acrobat battles with K-20 in a joyously realised finale containing some excellent action choreography, superb visual effects and massively exciting orchestral score. 
With the fun opening and the barnstorming ending there is enough here to satisfy those of your with similar tastes to me.  If only there had been a little more ruthlessness in the editing the film would have danced to it’s thrilling climax rather than hobbled.


Friday, 29 November 2013

Fist of the North Star (Tony Randel, 1995)

Fist of the North star comes infuriatingly close to being a solid post-apocolyptic martial arts extravaganza.  It gets so many things right, yet gets enough wrong to prevent it from ever being a fully satisfying experience.
In the early 90s Manga boomed on VHS in the UK.  With Akira leading the charge a stronghold on the shelves of video shops was established paving the way for the likes of Dominion Tank Police, Vampire Hunter D, Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend and Fist of the North Star.  As much as I loved Akira I was by no means a Manga obsessive, yet there was something about the blend of martial arts and post-apocoplyptic conventions that drew me to Fist.  It also had an 18 certificate, so I knew it was going to be good.  To be honest, whether it was good or not never entered my mind.  What it was, though, was 110 minutes of fast-punching, vein splitting, head-exploding mayhem with a karate Mad Max fighting super-powered warriors and steel giants.  Also, Uncle Phil from Fresh Prince did a voice.  I loved it.
So it comes as a surprise, to myself more than anyone, that I've only just seen the live action version.  I'm not sure what has taken me so long.  It's not got a great rep, but that rarely stops me.  Whatever the reason I've finally made my way through it.

Let's start with what works.  For a fairly low budget affair the film looks pretty good.  The sets, Frankensteined from rusting metal and old machine parts, are hardly massive but convincingly create a destroyed civilisation.  It's also nice to see a cameo from some borrowed Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone bikes.   For shots that need to hint at a larger scale some effective model work is used and atmosphere is added with bruised skies and a light fog that impregnate the world with foreboding.  As an exercise in low budget production design it is a genuine success.
The practical effects are pretty good too.  Considering most of the horrific wounds take place on bare-chested males there are few easy ways to cover seams, yet brains throb and veins open gushing red into the air without anything given away. 

It is by no means as gory as you'd expect but a lot more so than most martial arts movies.  The use of make-up effects also allows some of the films fist-fodder to be quite distinctive through liberal use of horrible scarring and deformity.  
The whole thing is quite nicely shot, the main character Kenshiro is a faithful visual recreation of the character from both the animated movie and the comics and there are a couple of decent martial arts sequences.  The orchestral score also gives the film the impression it is far bigger in scale than in fact it is.
So why doesn't it work?  Well for the most part it is because it doesn't push what it does well far enough and that is unfortunately down to how seriously the film takes itself.  Although good when they happen, the gory moments are few and far between and despite a few fun marital arts sequences, most of them are sluggish and unimaginative.  This features none of the intricate and fast choreography of contemporary martial arts films, but rather the endless slow-mo round housing of 90s western martial arts.  Not that I have anything against that kind of fight scene, it's just most of the fights don't even do that so well.

So rather than going full-on with the martial arts and head popping it shoots for poe-faced melodrama.  This wouldn't be so bad if the cast where up to it, but this unfortunately is another problem.
I like Gary Daniels.  He is a gifted martial artist, has some degree of screen presence and really looks the part as Kenshiro.  But he isn't the most naturalistic actor and so when saddled with turgid and stagey dialogue it often comes across like he is reading from cue cards.  And it is in these moments that the visual translation of the character backfires.  It's very hard to take clumsy dialogue about lost love, murdered Fathers and destiny seriously when the actor speaking it has massive Rambo hair.

Also working against it is the fact that the look of the lead is the only thing that has been lovingly translated.  None of the imagination of the source material has survived.  Rather than feeling like a sweeping, mythological epic it really just comes down to a guy in shoulder pads wandering round and occasionally kicking some thugs.  For a film that succeeds in convincing us it is of a scale far greater than the budget dictates, it does a damn good job of making everything seem really small.
And this is its achilles heel.  Everything that works for the film also curiously works against it.  It constantly undermines its own ahcievements and although a spurting vein of imagination and self-awareness would have earned it considerable good-will, its desperation for the audience to take it seriously has the opposite effect.
If you haven't cottoned on by now this site is about celebrating movies and television.  As much as we label these as reviews they are more like recommendations.  As such I rarely write bad reviews, opting to ignore the films that I feel might waste your time while pushing you in the direction of movies you might find interesting.  And this review is no different, because despite everything I have just said I still enjoyed Fist of the North Star.  It is good fun and there is lots to like, but with a little more work it could have been awesome.  And that is really frustrating.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Gogol's Triple-Bills: Sex, Slime and H.P. Lovecraft - Stuart Gordon

Genre filmmaking often tackles subjects that explore important concepts, from the murky depths of the human psyche, to the nature of mythological heroes, to what might be waiting for us in the future.  Yet by definition genre films are often generic, even sterile.  These films often require huge budgets and elaborate production to fully realise these ideas and images yet often have limited resources on hand.  As such genre filmmakers often find themselves caught in the middle of this dichotomy and more often than not it suffocates them.  Stuart Gordon, however, is something of a wizard in the lower-budget end of the genre spectrum.  Gordon deftly leaps the pitfalls inherent in genre filmmaking creating works that never fully feel exploitative but are always challenging, that never look cheap yet retain their hand-made charm.  Here are three of his moves that show quite how talented a filmmaker Gordon is.

From Beyond (1986)

The first of two H.P. Lovecraft adaptations on this list, From Beyond is a slimy, garish and throughly bonkers science fiction horror.  Concerning an experiment in a run-down building, Gordon uses the low-budget trappings of what is essentially a one location shoot with four principle cast members and creates a tense, claustrophobic and really slimy nightmare.  Featuring budget icons Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton and Ken Soree, the film has a cast that can deliver all the requirements of stock genre characters while also providing offbeat and risky performances.  How many quirky scientist characters do you know who end up bald and with a fleshy antenna?  How many attractive bespectacled female psychologist characters do you know who end up being sexually relieved by a Shoggoth?  How many brave, tough cop characters do you know who end up running round in a pair of tiny white briefs?  Despite their generic beginnings these characters go to bizarre places and thanks to their brave performers it never feels too much.

The film swerves through a slalom of tonal and genre changes too going from b-movie creature feature, to science-playing-god melodrama, to hardcore skull-cracking brain-eating gore pic, to complex and possibly problematic sexual politics drama and all with such confidence you never really notice.  It allows the film to feel safe yet slips in challenging and provocative if not utterly shocking moments (see the aforementioned non-consensual Shoggoth foreplay).

Speaking of creatures we have a dimension-full.  We get flying killer fish, possessive trans-dimensional monsters and a fucking great head chomping worm.  All brought to life with the craft and charm of KY drenched practical effects.

This collage of tones and genres, soaked in violet and pink, is garish and absurd.  As the credits roll you feel less like you've watched a film but rather woken from a slightly dirty nightmare.  You feel weird, a little bit seedy and you know damn-well if you tried to describe it to anyone else it would just sound ludicrous.  Yet for the duration of its running time From Beyond is an absorbing nightmarish kaleidoscope.

Dagon (2001)

Adapted primarily from Lovecraft's excellent short story A Shadow over Innsmouth (with only the set-up borrowed from the author's Dagon) Dagon is a criminally over-looked monster movie.  A hapless couple find their yacht washed into a creepy sea-side fishing town.  When his wife goes missing our hapless, and slightly nerdy, hero goes looking for her only to find the town filled with fish-god worshipping cultists all of which have started to take on the scaly physical characteristics of their chosen deity.  As the sense of dread and threat intensifies and the deformities get fishier we soon discover something long forgotten swimming in our heroes past.

The production on this film is incredible.  The crooked and sodden streets of this demented town are so wonderfully realised that every frame drips atmosphere.  Whether it was a studio built set or location it's hard to imagine Gordon could have pointed the camera anywhere without getting an amazing shot.

That is not to say Gordon had it easy as again he is balancing tones deftly.  The movie features frequent humour yet never at the expense of the threat.  Even the presence of potentially hokey rubber tentacles don't subvert the genuine horror on display.  These creatures mean business and the stakes are high.  Against all odds this is a film that is both fun and horrific.  It's also largely faithful to the source material, our hero's escape from his hotel room is an almost exact realisation of Lovecraft's own set-piece.

Dagon is a completely satisfying gothic monster movie and one that fully deserves more attention than it has had so far.

King of the Ants (2003)

A friendly drifter is hired for some odd-jobs by some dodgy looking guys.  The guys turn out to be mobsters and one of the jobs turns out to be a hit.  The drifter accepts, but rather than pay him the mobsters torture him for days and leave him for dead.  The drifter survives, however, and is nursed back to health by the woman he widowed.  Unaware of his part in her husbands death she begins an affair with him while, once healed, he exacts revenge on the mobsters that tortured him.

Sounds like a fairly conventional erotic crime thriller doesn't it?  This is Stuart Gordon remember which means there is nothing conventional about it.  At all.  Essentially a study of how the humanity can be beaten out of anyone, the movie features all the sex and violence you'd expect but also goes into some pretty unexpected places.  It is therefore very difficult to talk about this film without utterly spoiling it so I thought I'd take some things out of context to see if the very mention of them is enough bait.
So this seemingly conventional thriller includes:  male nudity, a lump on the head the size of a pineapple, both sets of gentiles on one person, Veron Wells, a demon that shits out of its forehead, George Wendt and golf.

That's all you're getting.  Just go watch the son-of-a-bitch.

So there are three Stuart Gordon movies that will satisfy all your genre needs while also challenging you and, in many places, making you feel a little icky.  And his filmography is brimming with movies like this.  Always reliable, always entertaining but never safe.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Grabbers (Jon Wright, 2012)

I'd been putting off watching Grabbers for some time, largely due to some prejudices I have towards comedy horrors. You see, after Shaun of the Dead hit as big as it did, a slurry of copycats splurged their way onto the market attempting to cash in what was seen as a fairly easy genre-hybrid to replicate. Unfortunately horror comedy is by no means easy.
Some attempts are valiant but often end up either being too scary to be funny or too funny to be scary. Attack of the Werewovles is a fine example of a film that is for the most part excellent, yet suffers from each of the genre conventions working against each other with every well-earned horror moment being ever-so undermined by the comedic tone of the movie as a whole. If this were the worse case scenario then I could live with it, but actually most horror-comedies are neither funny nor scary and usually consist of unlikeable losers yelling swear words at each other while poorly-staged zombie gags play out around them.
Finding out that Grabbers featured tentacle-based monsters didn't help either. I love me a tentacle, but knowing this was a modestly budgeted film that would likely use undercooked CGI to render them made the chances of this film being ninety minutes and change that I would enjoy very slim indeed.
What motivated me to give it a try I don't know, but boy was I pleased that I did because in terms of balancing these too often conflicting tones Grabbers joins Sean of the Dead, Evil Dead 2 and An American Werewolf in London in getting the mix just right.
Police Officer Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley) arrives on a remote Northern Irish Island to help support alcoholic Officer CiarĂ¡n O'Shea (Richard Coyle) hold the fort while his superior officer is away. Unfortunately giant blood-thirsty alien squids crash land and start to eat their way through the already small population.
Most of the film plays it straight only dipping into comedy when we are introduced to the locals. Yet the comedy is never at the expense of these characters but actually allows them a little depth beyond being monster-fodder. In fact, making these characters amusing allows us to warm to them, and therefore care about them, in a way that we normally wouldn't.

The discovery that alcohol poisons these creatures leads the populace to stage a lock-in at the local and get utterly shit-faced. It would have been easy for the writer to hang the whole film on this comedy hook, yet rather than use it as gimmick it allows the director to play with the absurdity of the situation. Both Evil Dead 2 and An American Werewolf in London use the degeneration of the characters mental state to court delirium and often generates humour from allowing the characters to actually interact with the fantastical rather than just running away from it. In this case it is the booze-sodden brains of the characters that allows us to see the horrible events through their eyes not as horrific and disturbing or silly and ironic, but by hitting what I think is the most important tone when playing with comedy and horror: hysteria.
Performances back up the hard work of the writer and director, in particular Bradley and Coyle who both create warm and relate-able characters. Coyle ensures alcoholism never sucks the fun out of proceedings while equally ensuring it never becomes schtick. Bradley never allows her characters initial stuffiness to make her unlikeable. When she is eventually talked into getting drunk the shedding of her stiffness is a delight to watch but again never at the expense of the character. These two actors turn in almost invisible performances creating not characters but actual people.

The film is gorgeous too, with production value oozing from the screen. The photography of the island is beautiful and the choices of location are always evocative. When the narrative threatens to box us in at a pub it comes as a relief that rather than settle on a one-locale siege the film spends just the right amount of time there and then swiftly moves to an exciting excavation site for the finale.
My worries about the monsters were also unfounded as I cannot recall a single duff effects shot. The grabbers are distinctly Lovecraftian in conception being alien and tentacley and all. Even the tubular baby monsters, kind of meat Slinkys, are reminiscent of the Old-ones from At the Mountains of Madness.

Grabbers never tries to be anything but a creature feature. It doesn't go for huge gags, or forced iconic comedy characters. It simply gets everything it tries to do absolutely right. And considering the number that have tried to mix comedy and horror and failed, that is massive achievement indeed.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Gogol's Triple-Bills: Mucky Buggers and Swamp Things

If you go down to the swamps today you're sure of a big surprise. Actually that's not true because outside of The Muppet Movie the only thing that is likely to result from a visit to the swamp is to be eaten by a part-vegetable muck monster. So confident was I that this was the case that I started to delve into my collection to pick three fine examples of the well-worn sub-genre of swampy plant creatures. I soon realised, however, that this was far from the case. With exception of the Thing From Another World (Christian Nyby, Howard Hawks, 1951) most plant monsters are of the giant variety (Audrey, Triffids, Biollante) while most swamp lurkers are in-bred simpletons and the occasional killer croc. With such slim pickings I had to complete my list with a fairly unimaginative choice. Still, all three are fun in their own way. So put on your waders, grab a flashlight and look out for leech men as we go deep into the fetid swamps searching for... things!

Swamp Thing (Wes Craven, 1981)

Based on the DC comic character Wes Craven's Swamp Thing is a mostly successful adaptation. Smiley Doctor Alec Holland (Ray Wise) is chucked into a swamp by rival scientist Arcane (Louis Jordan) along with a vial of volatile and glowing secret formula that turns him into the ghastly yet gallant Swamp Thing (Dick Durock). Arcane, spurting lines with an outrageous accent and a mouthful of scenery, needs to hunt down the last of Holland's notebooks which is the hands of Cable (the awesome Adrienne Barbeau). What follows is a battle of wits as Arcane tries to capture both the book and Swamp Thing, while Swamp Thing tries to protect Cable and while Cable tries to avoid everyone.

Now I say battle of wits because that's what Arcane keeps telling us is going. He even goes to far as to describe Swamp Thing as a great chess opponent. In reality the battle is entirely witless. Arcane's comedy thugs capture Cable, Cable kicks them in the balls and runs away. Thugs chase Cable. Swamp Thing rescues Cable. Arcane thumbs his fist in defeat. Cable runs away and sighs with relief. Arcane's thugs turn up to capture her almost immediately and the cycle begins again. Throw in a smashed up jeep, a couple of fanboat/jetski stunts and a gunfight here and there and you've got the first hour and change of this movie. Plus, for a movie that is shot in a swamp it is also curiously un-atmospheric. It's not bad, but it's like eating a meal with a cold. You know it should taste nice but it's just a little bit flavourless.

That's not to say it's not any fun. Swamp Thing is a big guy in a rubber suit which, although not great, works pretty well for the movie. Actually, screw it, if you can overlook some weird creases and the dodgy mouth piece he's a pretty cool monster. The stunts are nicely staged and Jordan makes a fun villain. Plus you have the awesome Adrienne Barbeau (did I remember to tell you she is awesome?). Once again playing a role that could be the usual eye-candy/damsel in distress she actually kicks considerable arse and even with her extremely unnecessary topless bathing scene still manages to come out of this with dignity. In fact she pretty much holds the movie together.

It's in the third act though where the film comes alive. Fully embracing the classic horror tropes Craven throws in secret dungeons, mad experiments, a monster in chains, a white gown for the leading lady and lashings of mist. Plus, Swamp Thing gets to fight a monster. It's a pretty goofy werewolf-come-armadillo with googly eyes and a broadsword, but it's a monster none-the-less.

As great a way to end the movie as it is you can't help but leave wishing the whole movie was this much fun. Still, Swamp Thing remains a slightly edgier comic adaptation. It's like an episode of The Incredible Hulk TV series but with blood and occasional nudity.

The Return of Swamp Thing (Jim Wynorski, 1989)

Swamp Thing is back, as is Louis Jordan and Dick Durock, and this time they are bringing Sarah Douglas and Heather Locklear with them. This is a real departure in tone from the first movie as it really ups the goofiness of the whole thing. Opening with comic book panels and Creedence Clearwater Revivals Born on the Bayou you can immediately tell they are not trying to build any kind of atmosphere. Throw in some obnoxious kids and even more comedy thugs and you've got what amounts to a Troma movie made for children.

Please, please, please do not going into this expecting, well... anything. Anything except a better monster suite for Swamp Thing and a greater quota of cool monsters for him to wrestle with.

There is also a weird moment where Swamp Thing gives Arcane's daughter (played by Locklear) a bud picked from his body (eww) that allows her to hallucinate that he is fact a handsome blonde hunk so that he can have sex with her (EEEEWWWWWW). I would have killed to have it cut out of the hallucination so that we could see her grinding against a massive heap of heavy-breathing pond scum. Alas we have to make do with the far less sexy... I mean funny... sight of Locklear and hunky Durock.

The Return of the Swamp Thing can be a fun monster mash if watched in the right mood. Me? I'm always in the mood for sexy pond s... I mean monster mashes (dammit).

Man-Thing (Brett Leonard, 2005)

This is probably the most genuinely effective of the three. Loosely based on Marvel's Man-Thing character, this tells of a cynical oil tycoon drilling sacred swamp land and re-awakening the vengeful guardian of the swamp. There are murder subplots, in-bred thugs, black magic, sex and death.

The film plays like a genuine horror rather than a superhero story, with Man-Thing being kept largely in the shadows until the third act. Considering the film suffered a number of budget cuts during production the film looks surprisingly expensive, with some great sets and heapings of atmosphere. The monster itself is pretty awesome too. It is a huge hulking practical suite with a few, surprisingly effective, CGI extensions.

In fact the only thing that prevents this from being something special is the cast. Don't get me wrong they are all fine, but none of them really stand out. All this film needs is a shot of charisma and it could be well above the usual straight to DVD fodder.

These three films should sate all your swamp creature needs ranging from goofy to fun to atmospheric, at least until someone comes along and makes a proper Swamp Thing movie.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Icons of the Overlooked #10: Adrienne Barbeau

Adrienne Barbeau came from a stage background having appeared in Grease and some more... um...  provocative productions. These other productions, plus some modelling, firmly cemented her as a sex symbol as she moved into film in the late seventies and early eighties. Yet Barbeau was less interested in the superficial and sought out roles that gave her more to do then just wear low neck lines and run. That is not to say she didn't have a lot of those roles, but even when she did she gave them a depth often not there in the writing.

Genre films have always struggled to balance toughness with femininity. Often women were hired because of traditional notions of beauty and any toughness was largely unconvincing, while in the nineties women could only seem to be seen as tough if they essentially de-feminised themselves. Barbeau, however, perfectly balanced the two elements. She is someone who wasn't in the least bit masculine, yet there was never a doubt she was in total command of her performance and persona. She could look gorgeous while shooting a look that would convince you she'd be able to kick your arse if she wanted to. It was this dichotomy that defined her career.

In Swamp Thing (Wes Craven, 1982) her character finds herself assigned to a research project deep in an inhospitable swamp. It is made very clear from the start it is a tough job that requires work in
conditions that even burly men can't tolerate. When the facility is attacked by a rival scientist and his mercenaries she manages to hold her own in a way her none of the male security are able to. She relieves one attacker of his assault rifle, uses it to blow another into the swamp and finally floors a third, straddles him and punches him in the face in way that would please an MMA fighter. In fact whenever she is captured, which is frequently, she fights her way out only to be “rescued” by Swamp Thing once she is well on her way.

Wearing fairly sensible clothes, short curly hair and little make-up her sexuality is dialled-down considerably. Yet her later topless scene, as gratuitous as it is, completely destroys any notion of her being a de-sexualised ice queen. As the film adopts the conventions of the classic monster movie in its third act (scary castle dungeon, mad experiments etc) she is saddled with being the distressed damsel in a flowing white dress. Yet she effortlessly slips into this trope without compromising her early badassery.

Her work with then Husband John Carpenter on The Fog (1980) and Escape From New York (1981) exemplifies this, especially when we look at the latter. Dressed in in a cocktail dress that is almost obscenely sexy Barbeau never plays the character as a sex object. In fact she is the only character in the film that seems to match the toughness of the uber-manly Snake Plissken.

Even when given thankless roles, such as the Lamborghini girl in Cannonball Run (Hal Needham, 1981), she manages to throw in an ever-so-slightly subversive element to her performance. Her role in this movie is to essentially drive fast and then, when caught, expose her cleavage to the arresting officer so that he lets her go. Yet rather than playing it as a bimbo she suggests this character is clearly in control of her sexuality and does this as a careful and calculated manipulation of the simple-minded men. I'm not suggesting this is an unappreciated feminist role by any means, but considering the narrative function of the character it could have been a lot worse.

Which is, funnily enough, almost the title of her autobiography. Someone who calls their own book There Are Worse Things I Could Do, obviously has some self-awareness and a sense of humour. Her recent cameo in Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012) also shows she is well aware of her place in cinema. Yet despite b-movie favourites like Creepshow (George A. Romero, 1982) and Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death J.F. Lawton (1989) her filmography is littered with a range of film and TV work. Plus, unlike many actresses, her age does not seem to have shut her out of work. In fact she has worked quite steadily providing vocals for cartoon series and video games and recent roles in film and TV, most notably in Carnivale.

So yes, she has a large chest. Get over it. Because despite what is going on below her neck what is going on above it is far more engaging. With absolute command over her own toughness and femininity it is gobsmacking to think she was never given her own vehicle to star in. I would have totally bought her as a Dirt Harry style cop, or a badass space pirate or... well... anything.

Those missed opportunities aside, Adrienne Barbeau remains an unappreciated film icon in that she is only appreciated for the b-movies she made and, even in those, is often only appreciated for her physical assets.

Monday, 19 August 2013

G.I. Joe: The Movie AKA Action Force: The Movie (Don Jurwich, 1987)

As a kid my Saturday mornings were dominated by He-Man, Thundercats, M.A.S.K. and The Transformers.  On the other hand Action Force, or G.I. Joe as it is more widely known, dominated my toy box.  A feature length animated movie, therefore, drew my childlike attention.   

Transformers: The Movie was something of a traumatic experience for fans.  In the first fifteen minutes all the classic heroes are violently slaughtered and the rest of the film is given over to mostly brand new characters.  In addition, most of the action takes place in a variety of strange planets as opposed to the earthbound locations of the weekly series.  It was all new and exciting but, at the same time, a little unsettlingly as it bore little resemblance to the cartoon kids were used to.  Although less extreme, G.I. Joe: The Movie does much the same thing.

It opens with an exciting title sequence that depicts an epic battle between the heroic Joes and the villainous Cobra.  As a child fan of G.I. Joe it’s impossible not to be excited by this sequence as it features all of the main characters, many of which get nice moments of action (check Snake-Eyes taking out the Cobra flight pod in one deft move).

The story begins with a strange assassin breaking into Cobra’s Terrordrome using weird organic weapons to take out security.  She eventually confronts Sepentor, the genetically engineered leader of Cobra, and gives him a mission to undertake.  Those familiar with G.I. Joe will be aware that traditionally Cobra Commander is, as his name suggests, the leader of Cobra.  Yet here he is reduced to a snivelling second-in-command.  Aside from Serpentor, a new character created just for the movie and this mysterious assassin, all of the regular Cobra characters are present in these early scenes.  Likewise when we are whisked away to an icy landscape to meet the Joes, it is all very familiar faces.  When the two collide in the first major battle of the film, great care is taken to ensure that as many of the key characters and vehicles from the toy line are used. 

So at this stage you would be forgiven for thinking the movie was going to be far more conventional than the feature length bloodbath that is Transformers:  The Movie.  That is until the film takes a strange and somewhat Lovecraftian turn.  As the battle rages it is joined by weird organic creatures that reveal a secret world hidden in the snow-capped mountains.  Cobra-La, a place of bizarre monsters and technology, is an ancient civilisation planning to destroy humankind and reclaim the world as theirs.  It is a place where insect-like beings, reptilian monsters and fish-like creatures form both the populace and the technology.  Weird bug-like drones travel around in living piscine flying ships, prisoners are interrogated while trapped in giant clams and there is even a giant vagina dentata used to travel in and out of the city. 

It also introduces three new key characters; the mysterious assassin and her squiddy weapons called Pythona, the awesome and iconic winged strongman Nemesis Enforcer and the bio-tech nightmare that is the ruler of Cobra-La, with the wonderfully grotesque name Golobulus.

More than this it is revealed that Cobra Commander was once a scientist of Cobra-La and was placed into the human world to create Cobra.  Cobra, it seems, isn’t really a terrorist organisation but actually a force designed to prepare the world for the return of this hideous and ancient world and their transformative spores with which they intend to turn humans into snakes.

So not especially traditional after all. 

The film isn’t quite as ruthless with its characters as Transformers:  The Movie, though there is a little blood spilt and Cobra-Commander, continuing the Lovecraftian themes, is slowly transformed into a hideous snake creature.  Additionally a lot of the classic heroes are imprisoned for most of the film and newer characters introduced to rescue them.

Understandably fans where a little perturbed by not only the change in genre from high-tech action to sci-fi horror-fantasy, but to the revising of the whole nature of Cobra.  Yet as a child who only played with the toys, and was therefore not as invested in the canon as many, I found the changes really rather exciting.  As an adult watching it back the whole thing seems so ballsy I can’t help but have some degree of admiration for it. 

G.I. Joe:  The Movie is only slightly better animated than most Saturday morning cartoons of the time, yet it features a fairly interesting list of voice talent from the familiar vocal talents of seasoned artists like Peter Cullen and Chris Latta, to actors such as Don Johnson and Burgess Meredith.  But more than that it is a weird example of a gamble that kind of pays off.  Toy soldiers mixed with H.P. Lovecraft and served up for kids?  Count me in.