Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Completist Guide to the Death Race series (1975-2013) part 1

Death Race 2000 (1975)

It's the year 2000 and there's only one sport left – the Death Race – a three day race across America in which five cars compete not only to cross the finish line first but also run down as many innocent pedestrians
and try and take each other out. People's favourite Frankenstein (David Carradine), a disfigured black clad rider, hopes to win yet again but his rivalry with Machine Gun Joe (a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone), and attempts by the “Resistance” to halt the race for good, look set to scupper the race.

A big influence on my love of action movies as a kid was a book called Action! by Marshall Julius – which was essentially Halliwell's film guide for action movies (I highly recommend picking up a copy). It covered the genres golden age from the mid 70s to mid 90s rating each film with guns instead of stars. With a lot of film guides I tend to only agree with about half the reviews but with this one I agreed with every single review, it was like some future version of me went back in time and wrote it. Anyway, I ended up trying to track down every film the book reviewed. One that stuck out was Death Race 2000, a little b-movie from 1975 that was awarded the maximum five out of five guns. I eventually tracked it down on an old VHS and damn was it a great film. It blew my 15 year old mind.

What's so great about Death Race 2000? Well it's the same reason Robocop's so great – it's an action movie on one hand and a satire on the other. You can watch it with your brain switched off or with your brain switched on and enjoy it equally. The satire is over the top and absurd – one great scene has two elderly commentators explain how many points you get for running over men, women, children and elderly people.

The performances and budget aren't anything to
write home about. The sets and cars look cheap and shoddy but that doesn't really matter. Director Paul Bartel stretches the presumably meagre budget to almost breaking point. It almost helps that the film is so low budget because it gives the violence less impact. A higher budget film would have seemed much more seedy and sleazy. Not to say this film doesn't have it's share of sleaze. There's quite a fair bit of nudity halfway through where the racers stop for the night and get a massage.

  David Carradine portrays Frankenstein as a measured, calculated fighter. I've always found him to be something of a strange leading man being that he's very thin and wiry, not classically handsome but he does have a lot of charisma and he treats this role as if it's Shakespeare. It's fun to see Sly Stallone pre-Rocky too, and playing a villain no less. It's a shame he doesn't really talk about this movie as he's pretty good in it.

A lot of people compare this film to Wacky Races and I've got to say that's pretty accurate, it's a violent version of Wacky Races. Each rider has a distinct personality – Nero the Hero (Roman emperor), Mathilda the Hun (Nazi), Machine Gun Joe (Gangster).

There's also some great twists in the film which I won't spoil here. Needless to say Frankenstein is far from the twisted maniac that the public makes him out to be. I'd almost say that the film is one of the quaintest violent films ever and possibly the best film Roger Corman ever produced.

  Death Race (2008)

When it was announced they planned to remake Death Race I was apprehensive. Early reports said that Tom Cruise was going to play the lead and all I could think of was that self indulgent Days of Thunder flick about NASCAR racing from the early 1990s.

It seemed to be in development hell for several years until finally it got announced that Paul W S Anderson was directing the film. Now a lot of reviewers hate Anderson but I sort of like him. I think he's got a certain flair for big budget action film but doesn't over edit them like some of his contemporaries (Michael Bay). Mortal Kombat, Soldier, Event Horizon and Resident Evil are all enjoyable flicks – I'd never call them art but they are fun to watch. There's a couple in his back catalogue that I didn't like, such as Alien vs Predator but on the whole he's okay.

That said when this film came out in the cinema I steadfast refused to go with my friends to the cinema to see it. I guess it was partly out of some sort of loyalty to the original film, partly out of the fact it was only a 15 certificate. That and I've never been a massive fan of Jason Statham – I mean where did he come from? How did he become the only action movie hero of the 00s?

So I ended up begrudgingly catching this on DVD a year later and actually it's not bad. It's a much different film to the original and borrows a fair bit from other films as well – yeah, it's a Frankenstein's Monster of action movies (how appropriate!) – the biggest influence is actually The Running Man.

Statham plays Jensen Ames, an innocent man who is framed for murdering his wife. He gets sent to a special prison called Terminal Island where prisoners are forced to race in a pay per view event called Death Race. Five drivers race against each other in tricked out cars. Pads on the race track activate either shields or weapons for the car and winning five races supposedly wins you your freedom. Overseeing the whole operation is Hennessey (Joan Allen), a sadistic warden who gets Statham to step into the recently deceased shoes (and mask) of Frankenstein, the people's favourite racer.

Yeah, actually this is film is pretty fun and
pushes the limits of its 15 certificate. Again, Anderson recognises that pushing the gore level too high would put people off the film. The race is possibly better thought out than the original film, and the action is pretty well photographed considering it takes place in very generic looking abandoned warehouses.

Statham plays his usual hard man self but it's the supporting characters that really round out the film. Ian McShane (who plays Statham's head mechanic) and Joan Allen are two fantastic actors who should be in much more high brow stuff than this but they are both clearly having a lot of fun slumming it.

  Like I said this film really just takes the name and a few of the concepts of the original film so it never really runs the risk of being too heavily compared to its predecessor. The satire is a little more blunt in this film. There's a lot of obvious parallels with the current obsession with reality TV but Anderson is no Paul Verhoeven (now there's someone who should have tried to tackle this film).

The film doesn't quite kick into high gear until the halfway but as a whole the flick is a pretty fun way to waste 100 minutes.

Death Race 2 (2010)

With the remake only making decent, not spectacular, numbers the decision was made to go direct to video with Death Race 2. Now the first thing to point out is that the title's a bit misleading – this really should have been called Death Race: The Beginning because it's all set before the Statham film.

Luke Goss plays a getaway driver for crime boss Markus Kane (played by Sean Bean). When a bank job goes wrong Goss is caught and sent to the Terminal Island prison that is run for profit by the Weyland Corporation. As this is a prequel the Death Race hasn't been invented yet,
instead, there's something called Death Match, a two man gladiatorial brawl with weapons that is televised. When one match turns into a full scale riot the Weyland Corporation decide to revise the concept as a car race. Goss decides to step up and enter the race however he doesn't count on Kane putting a bounty on his head (in case he tries to cut a deal for reduced sentence by implicating Kane).
For all DTV films you've got to drop your expectations a little. This film was made for $7 million while its predecessor was made for $45 million. There was no way that it was going to top it but by god if it doesn't try. Hell, it almost succeeds. This is one of the best DTV sequels I've seen in a long time. What's nice is that the film was obviously made with a lot of care for continuity. The idea of starting off with a Death Match before moving to the Death Race is quite cool and means the film doesn't feel just like a massive retread of the original (like a lot of DTV sequels). They also bring back Fred Koehler as Lists, the autistic pit crew guy and Robin Shou as triad member 14K, who both give the film a nice dynamic.

The film also benefits for some more good
famous stars slumming it - Sean Bean, Ving Rhames, Danny Trejo. Of all of them Trejo comes out the best as Goldberg, the self proclaimed 'Last Mexican Jew' - “I killed all the others,” he tells Goss. As the lead role Goss is okay, he's a decent actor but never really looks that intimidating. He's just a little too preened and skinny. As fighter he's great, as shown in Hellboy II and Blade II, but he's got a little more to go before he can become a great b-movie hero.

All in all, the whole prequel aspect is good, it gives the film a bit of a downbeat ending but makes it more exciting. It's weird you sort of know where the film's going and don't at the same time. To say more would ruin in the ending but needless to say it's pretty much ties up to the opening of the Statham film.

The car races aren't in the same league as the Statham version but they are still pretty good and again, photographed quite well. Director Roel Reine is something of a rising star in the DTV world – he's done some great work with Seagal in Pistol Whipped (aka The Marker) and this film. Next up on his plate is Scorpion King 3: Battle for Redemption, let's hope he can stay on a winning streak.

I'd say this film is a must of fans of the Statham flick. It's a very cool companion piece. Just try to ignore the little errors in the film such as extras in the riot scene who clearly aren't hitting each other and the fact Goss uses a two door car for a four man bank job.


Now I've got to say I tried tracking the spin-off comics down but my wallet only stretches so far. Death Race 2020 was published in 1995 and ran for 8 issues under Roger Corman's Cosmic Comics imprint. It was written by Pat Mills and picked up the story 20 years later with Frankenstein having to return to racing after his term as president. Though I haven't read it I've got to say that Pat Mills, who wrote for futuristic satire comic 2000 AD, sounds like a great fit.

Video Games

Maze Death Race
was released for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum in 1983 but only took the cover artwork and racing theme.

More famously the Carmageddon series (Carmageddon, Carmageddon 2: Carpocalypse Now and Carmageddon 3: TDR 2000) reused a lot of the car designs unofficially for their games and kept the theme of having to run down pedestrians. Of all the games, the first one is probably the only good one. All were a little buggy and never that fun to play. True story, I was once playing this game at university when someone called me to say they'd just been in a car crash. I don't think I've played the game since.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Lesser of two evils: Highlander 2 vs Highlander: The Source

Highlander fans (of which I'd count myself) have had a pretty rough ride with their beloved franchise over the years. I'd argue that none of the follow-ups (film and TV) have ever come close of the awesomeness of the original film. However it's a testament to how great the original film is that so many spin-offs have been created. Anyway I thought long and hard about doing a Completist Guide to the Highlander series but I thought it would be more fun to pit the two worst sequels against each other and see which one came out best. In the end, there can be only... oh nevermind.

So, in the red corner, from 1991 we have Highlander 2: The Quickening described by Roger Ebert as “the most hilariously incomprehensible movie I've seen in many a long day—a movie almost awesome in its badness. Wherever science fiction fans gather, in decades and generations to come, this film will be remembered in hushed tones as one of the immortal low points of the genre”.

And in the blue corner, from 2007 we
have Highlander: The Source (aka Highlander 5). Sadly no one of Ebert's stature reviewed this so we'll have to make do with Keith Breese of who said “The acting is uniformly terrible, the special effects are hideous, the sets are cheap and grubby, and the direction is uninspired. The film is an utter failure.”
To recap, Highlander 2 sees Connor MacLeod in the year 2024. Having defeated the last immortal The Kurgan years earlier, he's been granted mortality and is growing old. The mysterious Prize (which he mentions in the first film is like some kind of ESP - “I know what people are thinking all over the world. Presidents, diplomats, scientists. I can help them understand each other”) has helped greatly as the ozone layer has completely disintegrated and a giant shield had to be created to protect earth. Evil alien general Katana (Michael Ironside) beams himself from his planet Zeist to defeat the aging Highlander once and for all. You see, it turns out immortals are re-born beings from Zeist and MacLeod was formerly a Zeistian terrorist (very Scientology-esque). MacLeod regaining his youth and, bringing back Sean Connery's previously deceased Ramirez, sets about destroying the shield (you see the Ozone layer has recovered now) and finishing his battle with Katana.
And Highlander: The Source's muddled plot goes like this. Following the events of the previous film Endgame (presumably, there's doesn't seem to be any reference – not least Duncan's girlfriend Faith/Kate who has been unceremoniously dumped) Duncan MacLeod is living in a desolate Eastern European city in the near future. A couple of immortals have tracked down the source of immortality and Duncan bands with a group of immortals to get to the co-ordinates – an island in the middle of lake. Trying to stop them at every turn is The Guardian, a weird looking albino guy who can move at the speed of light. Along the way, friends are lost, cannibals attack them and a planetary alignment happens.

Now the first thing to note is that there's a few cuts of Highlander 2, most famously the Renegade Version – a cut released in 1995 that removes all mention to Zeist and instead places all the scenes “In the Distant Past.” So instead of characters beaming from a different planet they beam... from the past. I might as well get it out of the way – this actually makes the film make less sense. It's a pretty desperate attempt to distance themselves from the alien stuff and retcon the film to better fit the mood (though not the chronology) of the TV show. But why the hell do people in the past have all this technology? How much in the past is it? 3000 BC? 50000 BC? Why are all the captions so vague - “In the Distant Past” or “Somewhere Over the Atlantic”???

Now Highlander 2 has
the disadvantage of directly following the original film which has one of the most airtight film endings of all time. The original Highlander sets up all the rules of the series – immortals have secretly lived among us for years, the instinctively fight each other in sword battles, when one is decapitates their power transfers to the nearest immortal giving him greater strength, when the last remain they will gather and fight until the last one. And that's where is ends, MacLeod kills the last immortal and become mortal so he can live his life out with Brenda. Where the heck do you go from there? Well the writers and director decided to set it in the future. They decided if MacLeod can grow old, he'll grow old.
So the film starts with Christopher Lambert under a ton of make-up. The original also ended with MacLeod saying he could solve the world's problems by helping scientists and politicians to work together. Now in the original film this was just some warm glow-y new age off-hand remark. Probably added to the script to make MacLeod's Prize seem nobel award for a life of violence. So they decide MacLeod should tackle the major issue of the early 90s Global Warming and the slow disintegration of the Ozone layer. But of course he doesn't solve it quick enough – it kills his beloved Brenda first – then he works with scientists to build a shield to cover the earth. Okay, this is all pretty ham-fisted but I guess on some level it does make sense.

But you know what doesn't really make sense - this next part. MacLeod, while watching an opera, has flashbacks of his previous life on the planet Zeist, where he was the leader of a rebellion. Yep, some how we've wandered in to Frank Herbert's Dune. Okay, so this is the explanation for immortals. They are all undesirables from the planet Zeist. They are beamed to Earth, where they gain immortality and grow from infancy until they are violently killed, at which point they stop aging. All the fighting between immortals has actually been a competition, and the last remaining immortal can choose to return to Zeist or stay on earth. Now if that isn't unbelievable enough – MacLeod was also a friend with Ramirez (Sean Connery's character from the original) and despite him dying at the hands of the Kurgan years earlier both he and Macleod took a bonding ritual on Zeist which meant that they could bring each other back from death, purely by calling each other's name.
Phew. That's a LOT of hokey backstory that's jammed into Highlander 2 to keep the plot going. I think the one that sticks out the most, more than immortals being aliens, it's Ramirez being brought back. Bringing back characters in sci-fi is done quite often – see Star Trek III: The Search for Spock – and really it's because of two reasons. One, sci-fi fans are fickle people who demand that things always remain the same and kick their toys out the prams when TV series or films upset the status quo – see when Newt and Hicks were killed off in Alien 3. The second reason is that sci-fi films often need large budgets for effects and sets. Producers need to guarantee they'll make a return so they'll stick in a couple of internationally known faces in the hope that the film will do good business around the world. That's the reason Connery came back. Not because any screenwriter thought the idea of a glowing alien bonding liquid was a good idea – it was all about the Benjamins. They could double their box office taking by having Connery's name above the poster.
Now The Source by contrast had an advantage and disadvantage. On the one hand, it was the fifth cinematic entry of the series and was designed to go direct to video. The idea that it would attract new audiences should have been jettisoned – this should be only for the hardcore elite who sat through all those episodes of the TV show (for reference, really I like to treat Endgame and The Source as spin-offs from the TV show which took place in an alternate timeline where Connor MacLeod didn't win the prize, he was just another immortal). On the other hand, it was the last grasp of a franchise that stopped feeling fresh 10-15 years earlier.
The previous movie Highlander: Endgame finished up with Duncan taking on the massively Jacob Kell and having to take Connor's head to give him the necessary power. He buries Connor's body in Scotland and returns to his previous love Kate (aka Faith). The Source however pushes the story forward with Duncan now living in an unidentified post-apocalyptic East European city in the near future (however given that ordinary mortal Joe Dawson looks about the same age, it can't be too far in the future.) Duncan gets recruited by a band of immortals, including fan favourite Methos, who think they've found the source of.... erm immortality (yep, for those sleeping at the back of the class, it ain't Zeist). Meanwhile Duncan's mortal wife Anna (yep, Kate/Faith gets roundly ditched in favour of a new character) is having visions of planetary alignment which start coming true.

The group of immortals learn that this planetary alignment happened thousands of years ago and two immortals fought a mysterious fighter “The Guardian”, a super fast, super powerful immortal, at the location of the Source. By defeating him one of them became the new Guardian while the other grew old and fat (the Elder). As the group reach the island where the Source is located they fight their way through a group of cannibals. Their immortality starts to wane as the grow closer and the Guardian starts picking them off one by one. Finally, at the Source, Duncan and the Guardian face off while the planets loom in the sky. Duncan disarms the Guardian but refuses to behead him. His noble decision causes the Guardian to explode in a white light, Duncan is lifted into the sky and we see him with Anna holding a child (note: previous Highlander movies made it clear immortals couldn't reproduce).

Now The Source didn't really have as hard a job as Highlander 2. Endgame had left it pretty open where Duncan could go. The decision was once again made to try and explain where the immortals come from. I can't blame them, it's an interesting question but perhaps one that works better without any explanation (as Sean Connery puts it in the original film “Why does the sun come up? Or are the stars just pin holes in the curtain of night, who knows?”). Still they thought it would make a good idea for a film and certainly the film does go out of it's way to mix up the traditional Highlander formula with the whole team work element, futuristic setting, supernatural bad guy etc. However when you pick it apart a lot of it is just window dressing – did it need to be a futuristic setting? Did it need a super fast villain?

Underneath it's hiding that the film is nothing more than an A to B chase plot. I admire that the film decided to do away with flashbacks but it didn't fill that space with anything else. In the past you could criticise the Highlander series of being too cautious (Highlander 3 is a near note for note replay of the original) but this film had so little continuity with the TV series and Endgame that it seemed like a different franchise. Once again the makers had to work hard to create backstory where the wasn't any and did the exact same problem as Highlander 2, tried cramming too much poorly thought out information and explaining it to the audience poorly.

Now the acting is pretty atrocious in both sequels. The Highlander film and TV series as a whole have never been big on subtle performances. Highlander 2 has the slight advantage that Sean Connery and Michael Ironside seem hellbent on giving as over the top performance as possible. The Source suffers much worse with Adrian Paul looking quite weary and bored with his character (I get the sense that halfway through production he knew the film was going to bomb). Cristian Solimeno as The Guardian tries to inject his new character with a cheeky sense of humour (a little like Clancy Brown did with The Kurgan) but it kills any sense of fear we have for the character. In fact, the Guardian would have worked much better as mute character. The minor characters in both film are equally as bad though again Highlander 2 comes out a little on top – John C McGinley's evil Shield executive being particularly memorable (reportedly, in an interview he confessed that he was trying to imitate Orson Welles, which he now recognises was a terrible decision). Another terrible performance/character is Virginia Madsen's Louise Marcus, who meets Connor in a bar, witnesses him fight two alien assassins, watches him turn young and then has one of the shortest sex scenes in an alley (serious, it's like 10 seconds tops).

It's a little unfair to compare the effects of the two films. Highlander 2 obviously had a far larger budget, with some impressive (though depressing looking) sets. The Source by comparison struggled with it's budget only being able to hint at the apocalyptic landscape and forced to use Eastern European derelict buildings. I've got to say that Russell Mulcahy (director of Highlander 1 & 2) and Brett Leonard (director of Highlander: The Source) are both quite similar in a lot of ways – very visual orientated directors with backgrounds in music videos. I actually really enjoyed Leonard's earlier films Lawnmower Man and Virtuosity but The Source was a mess and he clearly floundered having to use so much cheap CGI. One of the best parts of all the films and TV series to date have been the excellent sword fighting scenes but nothing quite tops the loopy fight between Connor and Fasil in the opening scene of the original. Highlander 2's fight scenes are quite frequent and varied with Connor dispatching jetpack wielding assassins and taking on Katana himself (twice if you're watching the Renegade version as in the original the two fights were badly edited into one long fight). However all the fight scenes in Highlander 2 are also very sluggish.

By comparison you'd think I'd be far happier with
The Source with Duncan's fights against the super fast Guardian, well actually... no. The fight scenes in The Source basically look like watching a sword fight while holding down the fast forward button on the remote. This renders the whole sword fight scenes completely useless – there's no grace, no technique. I mean Adrian Paul sword fought his way through 119 episodes of the TV series, I'm going to hazard a guess that's he's pretty damn good at looking like an accomplished swordsman but super speedy fight scenes make everything too fast to keep up with. If I have a choice between watching a slow sword fight and an incomprehensibly fast one I'll always go for the former.
Finally, we get to the music, neither film really has a very memorable score. Michael Kamen's score to the original, coupled with Queen's songs made for a hard act to follow. Again, the differing budget dictates that Highlander 2 gets at least Stewart Copeland – who can be best described as providing an adequate score. George Kallis' score for The Source is equally as unremarkable – however it is at least an orchestral score. Why exactly the makers of The Source chose to include so many acoustic ballads such as this awful number and the soul version of “Who Wants to Live Forever?” that goes over the end credits, I'll never know? These pieces complete cut any sort of epicness that the series is known for. Making what is already an amateurishly assembled film worse by overlaying amateurish music.

Right, I think we know where this is all going to.

Highlander 2: The Quickening (by a whisker)
To make one incomprehensible sequel is one thing but for the same producers to make another fifteen years later is unforgivable. Both films set out to explain the secret of immortality - however ridiculous Highlander 2's Zeist plot line was, it was at least an explanation. The Source purports to explain the source but then doesn't nothing of the sort, keeping everything just as muddled as before. It might be just nostalgia speaking as I first watched Highlander 2 as a kid whereas I watched The Source as a 26 year old man. However I still think that given another 20 years The Source will still seem as horrible – a bizarre misfire of a fading franchise. As my good friend at Direct to Video Connoisseur would say “It was totally sautéed in the wrong sauce!”

Next time: The less one sided Catwoman vs Elektra

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Forgotten Eighties... music videos

As a quick break from reviewing films, this week's entry is going to look at a couple of forgotten tie-in music videos for 80s movies.

Coupe DeVilles - Big Trouble in Little China

First up is the title song from Big Trouble in Little China, performed by the Coupe DeVilles. Yep, you're not mistaken that IS John Carpenter singing the lead part. Famously Carpenter has scored a great deal of his own films in the past – often using synthesisers (see Halloween) – but this was the first and only time he sang. Along with him is Tommy Lee Wallace (Guitar) – who producer Halloween II and directed part III. And Nick Castle (Keyboard), another friend of Carpenter's who played Michael Myers in the original Halloween film and directed The Last Starfighter.

I've got to say this track truly rocks and really sums up the movie as a whole - cheesy American synthesiser meets a classic Oriental sound. I love how much Carpenter threw himself into this movie even going to the point of recording a title song and video. It's no wonder that the disappointing box office and reception of the film caused Carpenter to become disillusioned with Hollywood.

Anyway the videos set in an editing room. Carpenter's cutting the movie together when weird stuff starts happening, like Lo Pan trying to escape the film and attack him and Nick Castle finding the weird eyeball monster in a film can. Carpenter was 38 when he did this video but he looks more like 50 and the whole band dress a little like school teachers. Then again, I'm judging them from a modern perspective, a lot of music acts in those days didn't need to look like unaging 20 year olds like they do today.

You just don't get stuff like this nowadays. Michael Bay would never sing a cover of “The Touch” for Transformers 3 and Gore Verbinski would never sing a sea shanty for the latest Pirates of the Caribbean. It's disappointing because I think the idea of a director BEING FORCED to sing a theme tune for the movie they've just made would make the world a more interesting place.

If you want to hear some more Coupe DeVilles – do a quick search on google for “Waiting Out the Eighties” which was the name of a full album they put out in 1987 but was never made for public consumption.

Tom Hanks and Dan Aykroyd - City of Crime

Now this one is a little more unknown. Unlike Big Trouble in Little China, Dragnet doesn't have a special edition DVD, so this music video only exists on youtube. I can't help but wonder what other amazing movie tie-in stuff got shown on TV a few times and has been “lost”.

This one is, again, a gem. Dan
Aykroyd is a great writer and performer but occasionally he really screws up – (see Nothing But Trouble). Dragnet was one of his best films and he really benefited from the loose, brash performance of Tom Hanks. One of the worst aspects of that film though was the opening rap remix of the Dragnet TV theme tune by Art of Noise. I get that they were trying to start the film off by accentuating that this was a comedic version of the original series but it's horribly dated an otherwise reasonably timeless flick and I always fast forward it.

Now it may seem schizophrenic but I love this rap song by Hanks and Aykroyd. Like the
Big Trouble music video, the City of Crime uses copious use of footage from the Dragnet movie. Hanks and
Aykroyd, in character as Pep and Friday, look up at a screen depicting events from the movie in a pitch black room and you start thinking “Man, what a lazy video”. Then the lights come up and we realise we're in a police station.

Aykroyd raps the way you'd imagine your 50 something father would – but then really he's just channelling his straight laced character. Hanks on the other hand decides it's best to shout loudly rather than rap lest anyone judge his rapping abilities. Over the chorus, everyone breaks into dance with a bit of a mockery of Michael Jackson's “Thriller”. And the video goes on until Hanks and Aykroyd are dressed in tight police costumes dancing on go go podiums. You know I love Dragnet but after seeing this video I REALLY love Dragnet.

Once, again, I'm going to make a suggestion that all major movie actors have to do an accompanying rap video for every film they do. Who's with me?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Completist Guide to the Darkman series (1990-1996) Part 2

Darkman III: Die Darkman Die (1996)

Firstly, what a subtitle: Die Darkman Die. I love it. Secondly, Jeff Fahey plays the villain in this. Fahey's a fantastic b-movie actor and plays really good heroes and villains. For me, he'll always be Jobe from Lawnmower Man, who was sort of a hero and a villain.
Now the theory goes is that this film was meant to be filmed before Darkman II and there's certainly some evidence that backs it up. Firstly, the slightly longer skin formula Peyton developed in Darkman II is gone and we're back to 99 minutes. Secondly, it would make more sense, and more of a surprise, for Durant to come back for the third film rather than straight away. Apparently, Return of Durant was fast tracked once Larry Drake became available to reprise the role, which is a shame as I think Darkman III is the superior film.

Vosloo returns as Westlake, still living in his underground lab trying to perfect his skin formula, all the while fighting crime to fund his research. This time he's stealing from a new drug lord, Peter Rooker (Fahey). Meanwhile a female doctor who original helped Peyton when he was in hospital tracks him down. She offers him help to both reconnect his nervous system to return feeling to his body and offer assistance to extend his synthetic skin formula. Everything seems to be going great until the nurse betrays him to Rooker and Westlake is forced to take him down.
This is actually really awesome for a DTV flick. Without Durant and any ties to the original film this feels much fresher. Vosloo seems much more at ease playing Westlake/Darkman and it's nice to see some new faces. The writers of this (Mike Werb and Michael Colleary) went on to write Face/Off for John Woo almost straight after this and there's a lot of comparisons.
The best sequence of the film is where Westlake, disguised as Rooker, breaks into the crime boss's house only to be confronted by Rooker's estranged wife (played by Roxann Biggs-Dawson aka B'lenna from Star Trek: Voyager) and kid. The disguise fools them but because Westlake doesn't know their relationship is on the rocks he acts nice to the wife and tries to kiss her which makes her freak out. It's nice the writers have thought about an emotional scene to place Darkman in rather than just another action sequence.
That said this film does have some good action sequences. The most bizarre (and Raimi-esque) is one where Rooker's men track down Westlake's underground lab and he tries to make a getaway in his suped-up homemade train only for one of the thugs to fire a rocket launcher at him. Yep, Darkman cranks the train in overdrive and out runs the rocket. Nice.Fahey puts in a good performance as Rooker, chewing up scenery left, right and centre. And again Bradford May delivers a pretty glossy, fast paced film again. As previously mentioned this film ends on a weak note, promising further adventures which sadly never came. 
What television you ask? Good point, there's never been a Darkman TV series but there was a 25 minute pilot that was made back in 1992, presumably before the DTV sequels got off the ground. There's a silent clip of footage on youtube or you can find the complete pilot on the bootleg market. It's a pretty grainy VHS copy with a lot interference but it's more or less watchable. It was never screened on TV but made for TV execs to decide whether to go ahead with a full series.
The copy I got does have sound but it doesn't really make the thing any more intelligible. The pilot re-edits some footage from the original movie setting up the story. Durant blew up Westlake's lab and now he has to take him down. It changes one key element – that Julie, Westlake's girlfriend, dies in the explosion where as in the film she lived and was a painful reminder of the life Westlake would never have.
Anyway, Darkman (played by Christopher Bowen) now lives in an abandoned observatory where he's continuing his research. Durant and his men still have the run of the city. Darkman disguises himself as one of Durant's men and kills him. For some reason, he decides to bury the body in a cemetery where he's cornered by a female cop Jenny who tells him he can't 'take the law into his own hands (TM)'. Darkman ignores her and leaves only to have to save her from Durant later on.
   Honestly I've never really seen unaired pilot before but this was really rough, even without the VHS grain. I can understand why the TV execs didn't go for it. Robocop – a comparable ultra violent film from the late 80s – did get his own dumbed down TV show but I can't see how you can do it with Darkman. He's horribly, graphically, stomach-churningly burned and scarred – no one wants to see that on TV. It would be far easier for someone to just do a show about an ordinary looking guy who disguises himself as villains (in fact the FX: The Series TV show did just that a few years later).
  From the pilot I can kind of see what they were going for. Durant was going to the big bad (played by Larry Drake again), Jenny was going to be his police liaison/voice of reason and the little kid was going to be his sidekick. Even so, I can see why no one touched this pilot with a barge pole.
Comic books

Marvel series: Marvel Comics pic
ked up the rights to do an adaptation of the original film in 1990. The three issue series is pretty unspectacular, a basic quick run through of the movie. Not much more to say.
A year later they started doing a continuation of the series. Picking up a few months later Westlake is still stalking his former girlfriend Julie and fighting crime. Oddly a lot of the characters from the original film return. Eddie Black (aka the guy who gets all his fingers cut off in the opening scene of the original film) turns up, now with metal fingers that can shoot bullets – I kid you not. And more importantly Durant is also brought back from the dead, however unlike the film sequel he isn't quite the same. It seems the helicopter crash did kill him, in fact it decapitated him and a scientist brings him back with a detachable robot spider head. Yeah, it's all pretty freakin' weird and it only lasted 7 issues before being cancelled so it left a lot of loose ends.
  The most recent Darkman was a team-up comic with Sam Raimi's other famous creation Ash J Williams from the Evil Dead films in Darkman vs Army of Darkness. This is a pretty fun comic like most of Dynamite's Ash comics. Essentially Ash gets sucked into Darkman's world and brings with him a bunch of deadites. The two heroes at first don't get along but eventually put their differences aside to track down the Necronomicon and stop the deadite army. Once again Durant is dug up – quite literally – from his grave and brought back as a zombie general. It's a breezy 4 issue series that never gets bogged down. A must for fans of either series. Oddly there are also some covers floating around the internet for three issues of a Darkman solo series. These have never been printed but I'm guessing it was an aborted project at Dynamite.
Spin off novels
  Randall Boyll wrote the accompanying novelisation of the first film. God I used to love film novelisations – they just don't do that kind of stuff any more, except for a few high profile things like Star Wars. The book is okay – obviously it covers the same ground as the film – there's a few little bit of new info and background but nothing really major. Boyll's writing style is quite flat but it's pretty light as well so it makes for a fast read. A few years later (possibly to tie in with the DTV sequels) Boyll also wrote four continuation novels. One in particular, The Price of Fear, was an uncredited adaptation of one of the issues of the Marvel comic, involving a murderer who thinks he's a 17th century Witchfinder General. It's pretty weird (can you see a theme here) and ends in a bizarrely gory way – Darkman rips his head off and uses the spurting blood to douse Julie who has been set on fire (sorry if you're eating while reading this). All in all, the novels aren't really worth it, Boyll doesn't really follow the same feel as the original film beyond some cursory elements. These novels are pretty hard to come by now but try ebay if you're interested.
Video game
As with a lot of films in the early 90s there was an
accompanying 8 bit game by Ocean. The game has only a handful of levels. You play as Westlake beating up thugs on the street. The whole disguise thing doesn't really come into play except in some mini levels where you have to use a camera to take shots of a particular criminal in order to create a face mask. That's pretty cool but as games of that era go the rest is pretty sub-par.
Final word


So there, you have it. This is one series that has completely run it's course I think. The best you can hope for is that Dynamite will rethink about doing a solo comic series. I can't see a remake happening anytime soon – the original film's success was too dependent on Sam Raimi's style and they wouldn't do one without his blessing. Then again he does seem to be going ahead on an Evil Dead remake so maybe it will happen. 
Only thing I haven't mentioned is the awesome Darkman action figure by Movie Maniacs (still a lot of these floating on ebay). Excellent quality, swappable heads and brilliant detailing. If you buy only one piece of Darkman ephemera make sure it's this.