Friday, July 26, 2013

Giant Robot Month: Robot Wars (1993)

Robot Wars was the third and final giant robot film made by Charles Band's Full Moon Entertainment. Like Crash and Burn this is also sometimes titled Robot Jox 2 (or Robot Jox 3) in other countries even though it has nothing to do with Stuart Gordon's earlier film. Although the film does manage to have giant robots fighting (unlike Crash and Burn) it's still a little bit of a bait and switch. There's only actually about ten minutes of fighting at the end and you'd hardly call it a battle let alone a war. That said, it at least has a clearer plot and more sense of fun than Crash and Burn. Yep, this is definitely a step in the right direction.

The film is set in the year 2041. Drake (Don Michael Paul) is the pilot of the last remaining giant robot - a scorpion-looking thing called MRAS2. He uses it to ferry tourists back and forth, through the bandit-ridden desert, to a "perfectly preserved" ghost town from 1993! During one journey he is forced to carry a foreign diplomat Wa-Lee (Danny Kamekona) who the Eastern Alliance (read: America) are looking to make friends with. However Wa-Lee has other plans and uses his soldiers to take control of the MRAS2. Drake and his friend Stumpy team up with archaeologist Leda (Barbara Crampton) who thinks that the ghost town may have another robot hidden underneath it. Can Drake, Stumpy and Leda find it in time to stop Wa-Lee's plan to blow up the Eastern Alliance?

I quite enjoyed Robot Wars despite the fact it's got a slow moving plot. I think it helped that even though there's a not much robot fighting there are at least loads of shots of the MRAS2 walking about and it is integral to the story. When you look at it moving you have to wonder why it's being used as a transport vessel though. It moves about 5 miles per hour and jostles it's passengers so much they have to wear seatbelts and stupid-looking bicycle helmets. Still it's a great looking robot and the effects are really well integrated. Hats off to David Allen again. I particularly liked that the passenger hold has windows looking out. It helped the sell the illusion that the robot was more than just a stop motion toy.

The acting is a minor step up from Crash and Burn. Don Michael Paul is the main hero of the film and he does an okay job. He kind of reminded me a little of a pudgy Don Johnson*. They use the same gag that Stallone used in Cobra with his character. He reveals at the very end of the film his first name is Marion. (Couldn't they have thought of another amusing female-sounding man's name?). Barbara Crampton is decent as Leda but she doesn't get much to do. Yet again, it seems that women aren't allowed to drive robots. Danny Kamekona made a pretty weak villain. The trash talking he gives Don is terrible - "Peek a boo, I see you" - and the way his robot is dispatched is kind of disappointing too. I wanted to see it explode or have it's limbs ripped off but instead Don just fires a laser at it's belly and it deactivates which was kind of a let down.

The film has some fun with the idea of a ghost town from 1993. It was obviously just a way to cut down on the film's budget by being able to shoot in a regular town without having to dress it up all futuristic-like. The film gets a lot of mileage (and good will from me) for going down this route. There's a silly (or is it prophetic?) in-joke where the tourists walk past the town's deserted cinema and the marquee reads that Puppet Master 54 is playing**. That gave me a little chuckle. I wish all Full Moon films could deploy a little wit and humour like this from time to time.

Overall Robot Wars is a fun little diversion. You need to go in knowing that there isn't going to be wall-to-wall robot fighting to fully enjoy it. It's disappointing that Band didn't make any more giant robot flicks. I guess the problem was that David Allen's beautifully crafted stop motion had been ousted by the CGI of Jurassic Park. And unfortunately the high price tag on CGI didn't gel with Band's budget approach to movie-making.


*Fun fact: Don Michael Paul directed Steven Seagal's hilariously titled prison flick Half Past Dead in 2002.
** Which is all wrong because only four Puppet Master movies had been released by 1993.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Giant Robot Month: Crash and Burn (1991)

As a lot of other reviewers have pointed out Crash and Burn is something of a bait and switch movie. The poster shows off a huge robot which makes it look like it's going to be a sequel to Robot Jox (in fact, in some countries it was titled Robot Jox 2). However, this is far from the truth. In actual fact, the robot only has about three or four minutes of screen time and it doesn't fight any other robots during that time. I first watched Crash and Burn five years ago and was really let down by the lack of giant robot action. I re-watched it recently to write up this review and decided to give it a fresh chance. Maybe if I knew there wasn't going to be any giant robots fighting I'd be able to enjoy it more for what it actually did have.

The plot of Crash and Burn goes something like this. It's 2030. The world's economy has collapsed and America is in disarray. A group of people are running a little TV station in the middle of the desert broadcasting to the remaining inhabitants. Biker delivery man Tyson Keen (Paul Ganus) arrives one day to drop off a package to the TV station owner Latham Hooks (Ralph Waite). However not long after he arrives a 'Thermal Storm' hits and everyone is forced to hold up down in the station's underground bunker. One by one a mysterious killer begins killing off TV crew starting with Hooks. Young camerawoman Arren (Megan Ward) discovers that a signal is being broadcast into the station that has activated a 'sleeper agent' human robot. It could be anyone of them! Will she and Tyson discover who it is before they all die?

Honestly, I think even taking into account that this film was sold as something it isn't, it's still not a good movie. The main problem is that it tries to borrow bits and pieces from other sci-fi films but doesn't understand what made them good. For instance, the whole idea of people being picked off by one of their own is very close to The Thing. They even do a version of the 'blood test' scene from that film only here they all cut their fingers to show they have human blood. It's a really dull and suspense-free scene. Another major influence is The Terminator but the 'sleeper agent' robot is really weak and nowhere near as intimidating and relentless as Arnie. The final big influence is Alien. There's a lot of back story about an evil corporation called Unicom who are the ones who sent the robot but it's never really clear why they've sent the robot and why it's killing everyone.

You're probably wondering how the giant robot fits into all this. Well, basically you see it at the start where it's all rusted and broken on top of a junk pile outside of the TV station. Arren mentioned she's trying to repair it. Then it's never mentioned or seen again until approximately 50 minutes in. The 'sleeper agent' robot chases Arren out of the building and traps her friend under some metal scaffolding so she remotely pilots the giant robot to free the friend and stamp on the 'sleeper agent' robot. Although the stop motion (again, by David Allen) is great, the sequence just doesn't mesh with the rest of the film. It feels like the director Charles Band maybe had some stock footage left over from Robot Jox and built the rest of the script around it.

The acting is mostly dull across the board. Paul Ganus is handsome but hollow as the lead, 'Pa Walton' Ralph Waite says about five lines before his character gets thrown off a balcony and Bill Moseley chews up a storm as one of the TV station employees. Most of the work is left to Megan Ward but she struggles with the turgid screenplay. This was her feature film debut and she went on to star in a few more Full Moon films (Trancers 2*, Trancers 3 and Arcade) afterwards. I was particularly disappointed by Richard Band's score. He's usually quite good, like a budget John Carpenter, but his score for Crash and Burn is really dull and repetitive.

The thing about Full Moon movies is that you have to accept going in that you're never going to get the film they sell you. They work on miniscule budgets and for what they achieve you have to be impressed. That said, it was a poor decision to try and pass this off as a giant robot movie. They should have just cut that part and concentrated on a making a decent sci-fi slasher.


*By the way, if you watch Trancers 2 there is a scene where Jack Deth watches the full trailer for Crash and Burn on his TV. Talk about cross marketing!

Friday, July 12, 2013

Giant Robot Month: Robot Jox (1990)

With the release of Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim in cinemas this month I thought it would be an ideal time to have a look at some previous attempts at putting giant robots in live-action movies. First up is the one I think a lot of people are familiar with, Stuart Gordon's Robot Jox.

Gordon, originally a theatre director, first started directing for Charles Band's Empire Pictures in 1985 with the much loved adaptation of HP Lovecraft's Re-Animator. He followed it up with two more low budget horror films, From Beyond and Dolls. Filming on the sci-fi flick Robot Jox started in 1987 in Rome. From the outset Band knew that the project was a risk. He'd assigned it a budget of $7 million which sounds small but was actually 7 times the usual amount he spent on his films. Though the live action shoot went fine, the filming of the miniatures, by David Allen's production company, were plagued with difficulties such as sandstorms and floods which forced the film to go over budget. In the end, it took three years before the film was released in cinemas where it sank without a trace.

Robot Jox is set in the distant future. Following World War III all nations have agreed to ban fighting wars with armies. Any disputes that come up between nations are instead sorted out by one-on-one battles between giant robots. Each robot is piloted by a single man known as a robot jockey or 'robot jox' for short. The evil Confederation (a stand in for Russia) is currently trying to win control of Alaska so a match is set up between the sadistic Alexander and the heroic Achilles (Gary Graham). The first match is forcefully abandoned though when Achilles accidentally crushes a huge stand full of spectators. Will Achilles be able to step back into his robot for the rematch? Or will he be replaced by the genetically bred Athena (Anne-Marie Johnson)?

Despite the film's gaudy exterior and flimsy sets Robot Jox is actually pretty well-written. If you take a look at the credits this shouldn't be much of a surprise because the film was co-written by Joe Haldeman who wrote the seminal sci-fi novel The Forever War back in the 1970s. The film is actually really well paced. There's only really three bits of fighting in the whole film - at the beginning, middle and end - but Gordon and Haldeman make good use of the space in between, using it to racket up the tension. There's some cool subplots about traitors trading information and Achilles trying to overcome his doubts of being a good fighter. You can tell that Gordon and Haldeman obviously put a lot of thought into how and why these robot battles exist.

Graham is pretty good as Achilles. Like any good boxing film Achilles has to lose his first match to make his win at the end that much more triumphant. It's an interesting development that the writers chose to make him responsibly for a loads of deaths when he falls on the spectator's gallery. I think that part was almost certainly Haldemann's contribution. Apparently, he and Gordon could never agree on the tone of the film. Gordon wanted it more cartoonish and Haldemann wanted more realism and consequences. As a result the film feels a little uneven in tone. Too thoughtful for kids, too silly for adults. The rest of the cast are decent but nothing to write home about. If you've got a sharp eye you might spot Re-Animator himself Jeffrey Combs in a brief scene as one of the spectators.

The major draw of the film is the stop motion effects though which are awesome. I don't think you could ever call them photorealistic but they are hugely fun to watch. The robots fly, shoot lasers, fire missiles, punch each other, rip off appendages. You won't be disappointed by the fighting scenes if that's what you're here for. I'd easily put them on par with anything Ray Harryhausen did. I like that Gordon did some shots inside the robot cabin too, looking out from Achilles' perspective. He does a really good job of giving the audience a sense of scale and space. I think if Robot Jox had come out earlier in the 80s, closer to when Transformers was on TV it could have done gangbusters (of course, they would have to have ditched the lousy title too)!

One thing I did feel watching the film is that the female characters really get the short end of the stick. Athena, the genetically bred rival to Achilles, is the only major female character in the film. She gets her shot at piloting a robot when Achilles retires halfway through. But then when Achilles finds out she's taking over from him he comes out retirement. I know the idea is meant to be that Achilles doesn't feel that genetically engineered fighters are better than him but it feels kind of sexist too. Like, there's no way a woman could possibly drive a robot. Still this isn't film that's concerned with gender disparity. You're here to watch robots punch each other in the face and that's what you get. Enjoy the carnage.


Friday, July 5, 2013

Completist Guide to the Scanner series (1981-1995) Part 2

Scanner Cop (1994)

After the disappointing Scanners III I've got to admit I wasn't holding out much hope for the rest of the series. I assumed it was going to be all downhill. However Scanner Cop is one of those few sequels that is actually a huge improvement on the previous entries. I might even go so far to say that it is a better (if admittedly trashier) film than Cronenberg's original. Certainly of all the Scanners films this one has the strongest plot and the best protagonist. I think it was a genius idea by Pierre David, the producer of the series who also wrote and directed this film, to make it a mash-up of cop thriller and sci-fi horror. Those are two film genres I absolutely love and to have them together in one film is awesome.

Scanner Cop stars Daniel Quinn as Sam Staziak, a young 20-something rookie police officer who has kept his scanning abilities secret all his life. In a brief prologue, we learn that his father was a scanner too who stopped taking the Ephemerol drug and slowly went crazy; eventually committing suicide. When a group of LA cops start getting killed in bizarre and mysterious circumstances Sam believes that the culprit may also be a scanner. He reveals his abilities to his colleagues and superiors and they begrudgingly assign him the case. However, in order to use his psychic powers he has to stop taking Empherol. Will he be able to catch the criminal mastermind in time? Or will he go insane like his father?

Like I said, what I love about this film is the way it bolts all the usual Scanner elements (exploding heads, mind reading etc) on to a detective story. Obviously this isn't the first time this has been done. There was a brief subplot in Scanners II where David Hewlett's character aids the police in capturing a serial poisoner that covered similar ground. However Scanner Cop really expands on the idea and finds fresh ground to cover. I love how the cliche of there being a time limit for the cop to catch the killer is flipped on its head. Here the time limit is that Sam has to catch the killer before he, himself, goes crazy. They also try some interesting new ideas that have been seen before. For instance, there's a really weird sequence in which Sam scans a person's mind as they are dying which transports him into some nightmarish subconscious world that reminded me a lot of Tarsem's The Cell.

The acting isn't anything to write home about but it's all pretty solid. I quite liked Daniel Quinn as Sam. He isn't your traditionally handsome leading man but he's got a certain geeky charisma and his character really grows on you. There's also some good recognisable character actors in the supporting roles like Mark Rolston (Drake from Aliens) and Richard Grove (Henry the Red from Army of Darkness). The best performance is easily comes from Richard Lynch who is absolutely fantastic as the villain Karl Glock. The combination of his scarred face (which I never realised until recently was the result of him setting himself on fire while on drugs as a young man!) and scratchy voice makes him one of the most perfect movie bad guys.

The special effects used in the film (though occasionally cheap looking) are consistently innovative. They were done by John Carl Buechler who did a lot of effects work for 80s horror and sci-fi films. He also directed Friday the 13th VIII: The New Blood. The best sequence is definitely the opening scene in which Sam's father is going crazy and thinks that tiny little heads are popping out of his face. It's really well realised practical effect. The final battle is also quite well done and the filmmakers come up with a clever twist as why Sam can't just make Glock's head explode. 

Overall, Scanner Cop is a great little b-movie. It's got an engaging plot, decent performances and crazy violence. What more could a b-movie fan possibly want?


Scanner Cop II: Volkin’s Revenge (1995)

Weirdly, this film is titled Scanners IV: The Showdown in some countries. I don't know why they did that because actually - for the first time in the series - this is a direct sequel to the previous entry. I've got to say I'm glad they went this route because there was definitely some more mileage to be had in watching Daniel Quinn solve more cases (and pull increasingly silly looking faces). The film has a slightly different feel from the previous one and I think that's because Pierre David went back to just producing and let Mark Sevi and Steve Barnett write and direct it.

The film picks up the story of Sam Staziak a few years later, having now been made a detective - he's also sporting some seriously non-police regulation long hair, but whatever. Sam is now fully in control of his psychic powers and regularly uses them to help solve cases. Life is good until evil scanner Karl Volkin (Patrick Kilpatrick) manages to break out of prison and sets out to kill Staziak for putting him away in the first place. In an interesting twist Volkin has learnt a new scanner trick whereby he can "suck" the life force out of weaker scanners, like a vampire, in order to get more powerful. Will Sam find him and take him down in time? Or will Volkin be too powerful?

Scanner Cop II is a decent sequel that I'd say is only a notch below the previous entry. It's a very fast-paced script. Instead of the villain being a mystery, like the previous film, we see Volkin from the very beginning which creates a different dynamic. My only criticism is that a lot of interesting elements from previous entries have been dropped. For instance, Sam no longer has to worry about whether or not to take Emphemerol anymore. He's now on a new prototype drug that means he can whip out his powers anytime with no drawbacks. The filmmakers also take him out of uniform and turn him into a generic 90s leather jacket-wearing maverick cop. Although it's the same actor and the same character name, Sam doesn't feel like the same guy we met in the last film.

The whole idea of Volkin sucking the life force out of scanners is cool concept though. It kind of reminded me a little of the Highlander movies where immortals get more powerful after killing other immortals. The film also has a very cool sequence early on in which Sam makes to single-handedly solves a hostage situation by scanning all the terrorists minds and making them think he isn't in the room with them. It made me think that if the Scanner Cop movies weren't so gory they would make a pretty cool TV show. The effects are still very good though maybe a little less gory than previous films. They go a bit more down the telekinesis angle in this film with Volkin, at one point, controlling a forklift truck with his mind, using it to try and kill Staziak.

Like previous entries the best performance comes from the main bad guy Patrick Kilpatrick (what a great name!) whose hulking figure and creepy looking face do most of the heavy lifting. Quinn is decent again. Like I said they changed up his character to make him hipper which was a shame. Most of the supporting cast is pretty weak. Robert Forster plays the police captain this time. This was a few years before his Jackie Brown comeback. He mostly sleepwalks through his lines. There's an hilariously bad bit where he explains Sam's new powers to a random police officer. It was a poorly written bit of exposition to start with but Forster makes it twice as bad with his delivery. I mean just look at this screenshot!

All in all, Scanner Cop II is a pleasing little b-movie. If you liked the first Scanner Cop there's no reason you shouldn't track this down.


For some alternative (but no less positive) reviews check out:
Mitch at Video Vacuum's review of Scanner Cop
Ty and Brett at Comeuppance Reviews review of Scanner Cop II