Category Action Movie Reviews

Arena (1988)

Arena (1989)

For a thousand years no human has been the champion. He wants to be the first.

An intergalactic fighting competition between different worlds has never been won by a human before due to the much larger and stronger aliens that compete. So when human Steve Armstrong falls foul of the corrupt promoter Rogor as he tries to earn money to return to Earth, he must compete in the tournament and attempt to overthrow the system.

 

Cheesy and mildly entertaining, Arena is a bizarre mish-mash of Rocky and Star Wars which tries its hardest to defy its low budget and prove that you don’t really need millions of dollars to make a convincing science fiction film. It nearly manages to achieve its goal. Where else can you see some sort of UFC-throwdown between a human and a giant slug-like alien?

Arena is nowhere near as exciting as it appears to be – it’s a low budget production which spends most of its cash in the fight scenes and so has to make up ground elsewhere. Cue lots of padding between the fights as Steve Armstrong works his way up from nowhere to fight the champion ala Rocky. The story isn’t as riveting as it could be and there’s a predictable narrative which allows Armstrong to win a few and then fall foul of the scheming Rogor. You’ll know how it all ends up and there are boxing flick clichés to write a book about here but it’s not that bad a journey to get there. Arena is rarely dull, though at times it pushes the boundaries a little bit, but you wouldn’t exactly call this a ‘lively’ film and at 115 minutes long, it’s got far too much filler than necessary. There are some amusing moments but it is never outright camp. Arena finds itself trying to corner a niche market that doesn’t exist.

The real joy to Arena lies in seeing how a bunch of filmmakers, evidently without a massive pot of money to dive into, rely on old fashioned techniques to really bring to life this alien universe that the film tries to convey. Think back to Mos Eisley in Star Wars, the first real time we saw a living, breathing intergalactic universe all come under one roof, with fleeting glimpses of multitude of alien creatures and cultures giving us the tiniest suggestions of each of the races on show. Arena does just as good a job as that in showcasing all manner of giant beasts and aggressive competitors to the fighting competition. The fights themselves are dated, hardly slug-fests like Apollo Creed versus Rocky Balboa, but do the job in conveying the brutality of this sport. Particularly pleasing is the fact that the stunt men do get down and dirty with the fisticuffs and wrestling and everything you see is real, rather than CGI’d in a later date.

Credit goes to the effects department who piece together a whole low budget world of unusual aliens with different masks, costumes and even various added appendages. Most of the aliens are just guys in latex masks but one or two of the monsters that Armstrong has to fight are animatronic models which look amazing. It’s really heartening to see a production put so much effort into making everything look as good as possible, despite the obvious limitations. Whilst the costumes may look the part, the rest of the effects in the film don’t look that impressive. The sparsely decorated and overly-used sets are way too small to convey the sense of futuristic scope I’m guessing the director was going for and look like they were made for an old science fiction TV series rather than a full blown film. The outer space shots of the station and various ships flying around look awful too. There’s no mistaking that this is an 80s science fiction film!

The cast is solid. Lead man Paul Satterfield is the weakest link, relying on his tall and muscular physique to sell the part rather than any real acting ability. He looks and sounds like some drugged-up version of Christopher Reeve and spends most of the film fighting in some terrible jock strap-like combat tights. Satterfield’s bland performance is sort of like a black hole of charisma, forcing those around him to appear worse than there are. It’s no coincidence that the film is better when he’s not around, or failing that, talking. Claudia Christian (of Babylon 5 fame) attempts to provide the sexual attraction and is far better than the material she’s given. The bad guys are the ones who have all of the fun and it’s nice to see future Star Trek alumni Marc Alaimo (who went on to play Gul Dukat in Deep Space Nine) and Armin Shimmerman (most famous as the Ferengi bartender Quark in Deep Space Nine as well) ham it up in villainous roles – well it’s nice to see them under copious amounts of latex as per usual. Having watched Alaimo on Deep Space Nine, the man is a great actor, particularly good at roles like this where he is required to emote under layers of make-up.

 

So that’s the 80s nugget that is Arena. It’s nowhere nearly as good as you’d hope it is but you’ll have a hard time hating it. Providing perfect low budget, no frills sci-fi action nonsense with no real pretensions of grandeur, it’s a decent timewaster and, in all honesty, does deserve a bit more fame than it has for the great array of practical make-up effects on show.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Batman the Movie (1966)

Batman the Movie (1966)

He’s Here Big As Life In A Real Bat-Epic

When the world’s greatest villains – the Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin and Catwoman – combine forces to take over the world, there are only two people who can stop them – Batman and Robin.

 

The 60s Batman TV show goes beyond criticism – it’s just the most absurd, ridiculous, ultra-campy and hilarious collection of overacting, garish sets, tongue-in-cheek scripts and cheesy music ever to hit the small screen. With Adam West and Burt Ward hamming it up as the Dynamic Duo, the fact that they had a ‘Bat-something’ or ‘anti-something’ handy for every possible scenario (anti-shark repellent seems to be a necessary accessory for superheroes), a series of over-enthusiastic and totally ludicrous villains for them to square off against, pop-up comic strip words like “pow” and “oomph” whenever people got hit and a general sense of unbelievability surrounding everything, the TV series was quite like nothing seen before (and since too – a total product of its time).  I would like to think that most fans of Batman can appreciate its values as much as they’d hate to admit it (after all it was extremely popular and did a lot to turn Batman mainstream) and I very much doubt that anyone considers it true canon in any form of Batman media be it the comics or film series.

After a successful first season of the TV series, it was decided that Batman and Robin should head to the big screen for what is essentially an extended episode of the TV show with a slightly bigger budget in Batman the Movie. What better way for them to hit the big screen than to face their four greatest foes in an unholy show of supervillain strength! There’s no real story other than the four villains devise a diabolical plan that Batman and Robin have to stop. It’s no different to one of the episodes of the show, just stretched out for a lot longer. Whilst the half-hour episodes flow fast and free, not overstaying their welcome, Batman the Movie tends to drag at times as the usual format is thinly stretched out over the longer duration. So don’t look for much depth to proceedings, just anarchic fun.

It’s the villains who are the real stars of the show much like they were in their weekly appearances and the classic rogues’ gallery of Batman adversaries is assembled for this one. Cesar Romero is the best of the bunch as the Joker although he is rivalled pretty closely by Burgess Meredith’s Penguin. Meredith was sorely underrated as an actor and his Penguin is full of snarling rage and cutting quips. Lee Merriwether’s Catwoman and Frank Gorshin’s Riddler don’t have as much to do as the others and thus their presence isn’t as grand. But with the Joker and Penguin hamming it up for the duration of the running time, it’s just the right ingredients for Batman and Robin to have some hilarious escapades and they get the lion’s share of the dialogue.

As the Dynamic Duo, Adam West and Burt Ward may have completely type-cast their careers but they’re an absolute hoot. West has an uncanny knack of making even the most ridiculous dialogue sound even more preposterous when delivered in his dead-pan manner and Ward as Robin always brings a tear to the eye with his over-enthusiastic approach to delivering his lines, reciting each one as if it were his last breath.

There is a lot more than just verbal humour in this one. Laugh your socks off at the stereotypical foreign dignitaries at the UN. Quite literally wet yourself with laughter as a rubber shark attacks Batman on a rope ladder against a rear projected. Break a few ribs with your laughing as Batman tries to safely dispose of a bomb on a pier. And of course, there are quality old school Batman fights as our heroes confront the villains and their minions, culminating in a huge fight upon their submarine hideout. It’s all intentional camp: some of it works, some of it doesn’t. But there’s no doubting the enthusiasm behind everything. Never once does Batman the Movie attempt serious and its all the better for it – we have the Nolan films for that.

 

Fans of the TV series will be right at home here with Batman the Movie. It’s a little too long and the camp does wear thin but the villains are a hoot and Batman and Robin camp it up big time. For those who thought that Batman was born with Tim Burton and Michael Keaton, think again!

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Cloverfield (2008)

Cloverfield (2008)

Some thing has found us

New Yorker Rob is ready to leave to start a new job in Japan when his friends hold a going away party from him. Things get complicated for Rob and his friends when what seems to be an earthquake rocks the city and a massive explosion is seen in the distance. Fearing a terrorist attack, the party goers flee down into the street below but are confronted by a giant monster which has suddenly started to attack New York.

 

One of the better ‘found footage’ films out there, Cloverfield uses its gimmick to maximum effect as much as possible. They’re a Marmite kind of film – you’ll generally love them or hate them and I tend to fall into the latter more often than not. There’s only so much disbelief I can hold when idiots continue to film whatever is happening using their cameras or mobile phones, even putting themselves in danger to do so. If you or I were in the situations that people find themselves facing in these type of films, the last thing I’d want to do is ensure that I’m recording everything as some morbid memorial for when I’m killed off. You’ll up sticks and run like the wind. Jerky or frenetic camera movements, out-of-focus shots, not quite getting a clear look at things in the sense of a traditional film – these are all hallmarks of the found footage film and Cloverfield has them in abundance. You can almost forgive some of them here due to the nature of the chaos that erupts during some scenes but it can be frustrating at times to be teased with a good look at the monster only to be robbed at the last minute. These hallmarks weren’t as common back when Cloverfield first hit the cinema and so the novelty factor was still fresh.

Fresh is what Cloverfield feels like for the majority of its running time, at least the last two thirds of the film. It’s not your traditional giant monster movie and offers up a unique approach to the material. Ever wondered what it would be like being stuck in a city whilst Godzilla and friends did a number on it? Well here’s a first-person look at just that. In many ways, Cloverfield is the film that the most recent Godzilla film so clearly wanted to be. There are some great scenes of destruction, all seen from the ground up and the characters always feel a moment or two away from certain death. As soon as the film kicks into gear with the first attack about twenty minutes in, Cloverfield rarely lets up. With a budget of $25m, a paltry figure given today’s blockbusters, these scenes are especially effective in conveying a sense that this is carnage on a grand scale. The very famous trailer with the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty flying down the street gives the audience a flavour of what to expect. Equally as effective and chilling in its realism is the scene in which the monster destroys the Brooklyn Bridge. Seeing a giant monster attack from a human’s point of view certainly makes the experience something unlike anything Toho ever cranked out for Godzilla.

Cloverfield does seemingly take an eternity to get going which is its main drawback. I can understand the need to engage with the characters but this is not a traditional character-driven narrative in the sense of a normal film. Found footage films rely on the nature of the situation to sell the story, rather than characters – they’re meant to behave in the same way that the audience would behave being in their situation, not try to sell the story through dialogue or expression. However, the first twenty minutes or so here runs like someone’s awful home movie compilation. Then as soon as the monster strikes, all of this build-up is literally out of the window because we now only see the world through the eyes of one person. We can’t hear conversations that characters are having across the street (whereas in a traditional film we become omniscient and can see and hear everything). We can’t go and explore anywhere else. We’re stuck wherever the cameraman goes – and if the other characters aren’t with him, tough! It’s at this point where characterisation is virtually pointless in a film like this because the audience is just wanting a first-person experience be it a giant monster attack, a zombie attack ([REC] or Diary of the Dead), ghostly encounters (Paranormal Activity), stranded in outer space (Apollo 18) or trapped under the ground (As Above, So Below).

The good thing is that with the found footage approach, there comes a deliberate attempt to withhold as much information about what is going on as possible. There’s no explanation scene in which some scientist reveals the entire plot for the benefit of those unable to work things out. Hell, you don’t even get a good solid look at the monster. Cloverfield skimps on the details and hopes that the sucker punches to the gut that it continually delivers are enough to keep you guessing and holding on for more information. It’s a fine line to tread but the film works to leave the audience on tender hooks. Yes, you may feel a little frustrated when you finish watching but I’d rather scratch my head in a positive way and let my brain do some imaginative guessing than be spoon-fed everything Michael Bay/Roland Emmerich-style.

Perhaps the most unsettling aspect to Cloverfield is its post-9/11 subtext in which the audience is placed smack bang in the middle of an unprecedented catastrophic scenario. We watch the horrific events unfold through the lens of the camera, unable to take our gaze away from what is happening. From the images of buildings collapsing, loud, fiery explosions raining debris down from skyscrapers and then, in the most uncanny shot of the film, a dust cloud slowly working its way along streets, engulfing those who dared to escape its grasp, Cloverfield will be harrowing viewing for anyone who sat through 9/11 in the comfort of their living room, eyes glued to the TV.

 

I’ve tried to be rather vague with more specific details of Cloverfield because it’s worth a watch without knowing too much about it. The first-person experience really hammers home some of the intensity of the destruction and chaos, whilst leaving the audience craving more. Ironically, the only way they’d have gotten more is if Cloverfield had been a traditional monster movie with shifting focus on characters and narratives – but then this would have taken away the personal, eye-level experience to which Cloverfield works so well to create. Arguably the pinnacle of the found footage genre, though that’s not really hard to become.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Fantastic Four (2005)

Fantastic Four (2005)

4 times the action. 4 times the adventure. 4 times the fantastic.

A group of scientists led by the brilliant Reed Richards inadvertently gain superpowers after exposure to cosmic radiation during a space mission. Upon their return to Earth, they must come to terms with their new powers and use them to defeat the plans of their enemy, Victor Von Doom, who was also on board when the cosmic radiation hit.

 

Another of Marvel’s comic book adaptations come to life, Fantastic Four has always been slumped in the corner whilst its famous companions Spider-Man and X-Men gain most of the fame for the company on the screen. With only two animated series and a previous failed film to its name, the Four never really looked like big success was coming their way despite being one of Marvel’s most popular comics – until now at least. With the surge in popularity of comic book adaptations, what better way to introduce, or should be that re-introduce, the world to Mr Fantastic, Invisible Woman, The Thing and Human Torch.

Fantastic Four might look like one of the best comic books come to life. Not in any sort of brooding Batman-style look but just for the sheer light-hearted and colourful nature it sports. I guess it’s to do with the lower rating that it received for release compared to some of the more adult-themed comic book films. And this might be where the hate and criticism stems from.  Fantastic Four is a colourful, entertaining comic book film not to be confused with anything serious and deep-meaning.

Fantastic Four might have had the same big budget treatment as its more popular relatives but the film experience is ultimately a hollow one. For all of the great action set pieces, the fantastic make-up effects on the Thing and the presence of one of my favourite comic supervillains, there’s a lack of meat to the story. No coming of age drama like in Spider-Man. No brooding Wolverine to latch on to. Despite the Four being reasonably developed as characters both before and after the mission that mutates them, there’s never any real connection to them because the story is so one-dimensional. They turn into these superheroes halfway through the film and then spend the next half trying to turn back. And that’s pretty much the story in a nutshell. Everything seems so low key in scope.

I guess that’s the problem of it being an origin story as most of the film is devoted to constructing these new characters in order to set them up for further sequels. But the origin story is hardly the most thrilling of them all (no end of Krypton, no uncles being shot by robbers, no parents being murdered, no government test subjects – nothing!) and this slowly starts to creep into everything else in the film.

Casting wise, the film is almost spot-on. Ioan Gruffudd makes for an excellently brainy and nerdy Mr Fantastic, the superhero who can stretch his body into all manner of weird shapes but is something of a charisma vacuum (the character that is, not Gruffudd). Michael Chilkis steals the show beneath layers of make-up as The Thing. I always thought he was such a cool-looking creation in the comics and the film does his character justice, bringing to life the emotional toil that his character is now facing up to by looking like a giant rock. Chris Evans is suitably reckless as the Human Torch. It needed someone young and reckless in the role and Evans plays the part perfectly. The special effects are pretty flawless throughout the film. Each character’s special ability is vividly brought to life, with the Human Torch being the obvious pick.

The weaknesses come in the form of the hot but bland Jessica Alba as the Invisible Woman and Julian McMahon as Dr Doom. Not convincing in the slightest as a scientist, the role needed an actresses who could portray hot and clever – Alba just has the hot thing (though I’m not complaining with the lycra suits). And McMahon has no gravitas as the bad guy, more concerned with being smarmy and suave than overly evil and calculating like his comic book counterpart should have been. Being buried under a silly metal mask in the second half only helps him look like some Darth Vader wannabe but even then his motives aren’t world domination, just petty revenge against Mr Fantastic. It’s hardly edge of the seat drama.

And because he doesn’t turn into Dr Doom until the same time as the Four (half-way through), then there’s only one major set piece with good versus evil at the finale as the Four square up against Doom. It’s decent enough but you wonder if they’d pulled the trigger a little earlier in the film, then another fight could have made all the difference. As it stands, Fantastic Four just doesn’t deliver enough action and when it does, it seems as if there has been no build up whatsoever.

 

Fantastic Four isn’t a terrible super hero flick but given the source material and given some of the talent on show, there’s no way this should be as average as it unfortunately turns out. Like the original X-Men, its sole purpose seems to have been to set up the characters for the sequel. It feels more like a missed trick than a bad film and is still highly entertaining: a good superhero film, not a great one.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011)

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011)

Johnny Blaze has fled to Eastern Europe where he plans to stay out of everyone’s way to avoid triggering his uncontrollable Ghost Rider curse. But when a monk tracks him down and tells him that he needs his help in exchange for lifting his curse, Blaze has no choice but to agree. His mission is to protect a young boy who is being pursued by a gang of armed men who believe that he is the Devil’s son and want to use him in a ceremony that will restore Satan’s ultimate power of evil.

 

Ghost Rider was not the greatest superhero film ever made and commonly ranks in Top 10 Worst Comic Book Adaptations lists. But hey, it wasn’t that bad, surely? Actually come to think of it, it was. Try as I might, it’s hard to even remember what happened outside of Nicholas Cage hamming it up a bit and plenty of motorbike stunts. Ghost Rider rode off the coat tails of the comic book cinematic onslaught of the 2000s and was rightly panned by critics and public alike. Oh I’m sure there are die-hard fans out there who loved it, like any iconic character who makes the transition from page to screen will have. But for the uninitiated masses, Ghost Rider was a bomb. So Sony, in an attempt to stop the rights from reverting back to Marvel, gave the character a second chance at life in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.

Based on how the character looks, Ghost Rider should surely be odds for the “most bad ass looking comic book character” that mainstream audiences are aware of. A guy with a flaming skull head, who wears a leather jacket and rides around on a sweet bike like he does should not to be too hard to mess up – give him some decent reason to go around beating the crap out of bad guys and killing them with his flaming bike chain and penance stare move and the rest should come naturally. But the problem with Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is that it doesn’t find a decent reason for him to do these things, and even when he does do them, he doesn’t do them in any style whatsoever.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance may have a rather simplistic, straightforward plot about people having to protect a child from evil forces they don’t fully understand but this shouldn’t hold the film back from grandeur (look at Terminator 2: Judgment Day with a similar protection storyline involving a seemingly-indestructible hero who has to protect a lone boy and his mother). Instead, this story is a lacklustre line which starts at the beginning and finishes at the end of the film, with no twists along the way, no major plot developments and little in the way of compelling material. Unsurprisingly for a film which is low on story and creativity, there is plenty of filler as Blaze and the boy and his mother start to bond and become a dysfunctional family in the face of adversity. We’re supposed to care about them, we’re supposed to understand some of the tropes and MacGuffins that are thrown into the script like days of reckoning and the like – but to be honest, no one cares because there is no spark to set it off.

With nothing to get excited about from a narrative point of view, comic book films can at least astound us with their action sequences featuring colourful characters exchanging out-of-this-world barrages of weapons and super powers. There are plenty of generic action set pieces on show with a variety of run-and-gun moments, motorcycle chases and old school fisticuffs. I’m sure it sounded good on paper but on the screen it’s all so flat and mundane and there’s nowhere near enough of them to make the ninety-five minutes go by any quicker. Coming from the guys who made the frenetic Crank films, you’d expect a lot better, even if it was all style over substance. But there’s little evidence of both, just lacklustre sequences which fails to generate the sort of heat that Ghost Rider’s head looks to be generating.

In many respects, Ghost Rider makes for a poor superhero to adapt on the big screen.  When Blaze turns into the hero, he can’t talk or emote so what we see is just an empty skeletal figure dishing out justice with no sort of connection to the audience. Impervious to bullets and able to wade through armies of henchmen without so much as a scratch, Ghost Rider only meets his match whenever he’s up against opponents who have made similar deals with the Devil. So in the sequences where he’s squaring off against standard human opponents wasting their time firing bullets and missiles at him, there’s no sense of danger. We know he’ll survive so just get on with it. In order to provide some sort of suitable opponent, the story turns one of the human thugs into a super villain who can decay anything he touches – it might sound cool but the character is about as one-dimensional and thinly-written as you can get.

Nicholas Cage reprises the role of Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider which is a shame since I really can’t stand the guy. Cage doesn’t play characters in films, he portrays Nicholas Cage. He’s become a self-parody of himself and in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance he gets the chance to act all crazy and manic in front of the camera once again. Cage bores me on the screen and the combination of him and the dull script was just daring me to switch off the film. Ciarán Hinds snarls his way across the film as the Devil whilst Idris Elba is wasted in the role of the drunken monk, Moreau. He would have been a better choice to play the titular character.

 

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance somehow manages to outdo the first one in terms of how inept it brings the comic book character to the screen. Long-winded and monotonous but eventually leading nowhere with only brief glimpses of potential, the Ghost Rider franchise seems to have suffered a flat tyre that it won’t be able to repair unless it ditches Cage from the lead role, heads back to Marvel and gets a decent script behind it.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Jurassic Attack (2013)

Jurassic Attack (2013)

They’re back … and they’re hungry!

A squad of army soldiers is sent into the jungle to rescue a female biochemist, who is being held captive by a ruthless South American dictator, and destroy the biochemical weapon that he now has in his possession.  But the mission goes wrong and their helicopter is shot down. Struggling through the dense jungle terrain, they stumble into an ancient valley filled with carnivorous dinosaurs.

 

Jurassic Attack currently holds the dubious distinction of being Sy Fy’s last Saturday Night Original Movie before the channel decided to move their monster mash-ups to Thursdays instead and, depending on what month of the year it is, has also been known as Rise of the Dinosaurs in some quarters. So what does that mean for the film? Well not a lot really as I was struggling to write an introductory paragraph and decided to pad it out a little. I could write the same things for Sy Fy films and usually have so decided to skip the instant criticism and waffle a little bit. Anyway on to the review…

We’ve all been there before with daft killer dinosaur flicks like Raptor Island. We know the drill: expendable soldiers, terribly-rendered CGI raptors, lots of gun fire, awful CG blood and more cheese than a dairy factory. Jurassic Attack rigidly sticks to this formula, providing a reasonably-sized platoon of largely nameless dinosaur chow, a token gruff action hero, a chick in a tight tank top, an overplayed human villain and special effects which look to have been dragged out from before the Ice Age. Originality is lacking but I wasn’t expecting it to be present to begin with.

It is coincidental that in the year Jurassic Park receives a 3-D cinematic makeover, a similar-sounding low budget cash-in pops it’s head out of the Jurassic period. There’s no working explanation for the appearance of dinosaurs in this film. You’ll be required to provide your own thesis because the film just presents it as fact. Even the low key reactions of the characters sum up the ho-hum attitude to this new-found discovery. These are dinosaurs we’re talking about, not pigeons or horses! Man’s usual reaction is to shoot first and ask questions later so before the enormity of this history-changing discovery can sink in, the soldiers are already trying to make sure that the dinosaur extinction is consigned to history once more with round after round of ammo.

Special effects-wise, Jurassic Attack fails in every department. Despite the decent cinematography (this actually looks like an undiscovered valley for a change), the dinosaurs look awful. They look poor on their own but when there’s more than one dinosaur on screen, the effects are jarring and shoddy. They don’t interact well with their real environment (footprints? water splashes?) and the scenes of the dinosaurs slashing and biting at the humans just descend into CGI blood fests. It’s a shame because the dinosaurs are well-detailed when they stand still but as soon as any movement is required, the good work goes out of the window.

What the special effects lack in quality, the film at least makes up with the quantity of dinosaur attacks. Once they’ve stumbled into the secret valley, this group is never five minutes away from another devastating dino encounter. Whilst there’s no real shock to the order of death of the characters, you never get the sense that the film is coasting. There’s always a random dinosaur attack to keep things fresh and interesting. The dinosaur selection is varied too with raptors, T-Rexes and Triceratops all causing problems for the characters.

Fresh off battling the titular monsters in Mega Shark Vs Crocosaurus, Gary Stretch takes centre stage once more as the action hero. Stretch was the best thing about that film and he’s the best thing on display here. He’s never going to make it big but in the lead role in these daft low budget films, he’s found his niche. Stretch looks and sounds like he can kick some ass as the dinosaurs find out first-hand. Regular B-movie actor Corin Nemec gets a supporting role as an army commander who spends his entire screen time holed up in the ‘command centre’ location. Every one of these films has to have a small command centre with three or four army guys staring blankly at the camera pretending to push buttons and give out orders to the main characters. So why Nemec, a popular mainstay in these monster movies, is relegated to background duty with a pointless role is beyond me. He spends the bulk of his screen time butting heads with Vernon Wells’ dodgy ‘Agent’ character. Basically the corporate/government suit, Wells is another guy I’d expect to see in a bigger role in something like this and Jurassic Attack wastes two of its biggest assets in non-essential parts.

 

Throw all of this into the grinder and what you get is about eighty minutes of mildly entertaining but ultimately forgettable mush which will no doubt be reheated and reserved under the guise of another dino romp in the future. Jurassic Attack isn’t Sy Fy’s worst outing but it’s not exactly recommended viewing.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Masters of the Universe (1987)

Masters of the Universe (1987)

A battle fought in the stars, now… comes to Earth.

On the war-torn planet of Eternia, Castle Greyskull is coming under threat from the evil Skeletor who wants to rule the planet. A group of freedom fighters, led by the heroic He-Man, are accidentally transported to Earth by a mysterious key which holds the power to make Skeletor practically invincible. Once on Earth, He-Man and his friends team up with two teenagers as they attempt to find the key and return home. However, Skeletor and his henchmen are soon hot on their trail.

 

Part of me loves this film for being He-Man’s only big screen outing to date (and that’s 2018 to be precise). Part of me hates what they did for transporting him all the way to Earth and robbing him of everything that made him unique in the cartoon. Part of me wants to laugh at how badly they’ve ripped off Star Wars. Part of me remembers this fondly for being the first film I can ever recall going to see at the Canon cinema in Stockton. I’m so confused with this film. I love to hate it and hate to love it.

Masters of the Universe is a fairly ambitious attempt to bring the toy line to life – forget comparing this to the cartoon as it’s virtually impossible to do. Fans of the franchise would be aware of the number of rather impossible challenges that, for 1987 at least, would be present if the toys were fully adhered to. The likes of Battlecat for a start! To create something that would have resembled He-Man’s faithful fighting mount would have been far too expensive and complicated for a film in 1987. So, what we get is a reasonable stab at reinventing He-Man with a more modest budget and outlook, though everything that made the character has been stripped away, turning him into little more than a big bloke with a sword. But why, oh why did they have to set most of the film on Earth? I want to see He-Man and his gang battling Skeletor on Eternia, not some high school in America. Made by Cannon Films with a fairly substantial $22 million budget, Masters of the Universe should not have been this underplayed and watered down. The whole mythology of Eternia is given way to contemporary Earth – not good for the story but convenient for the budget. You have a load of intergalactic heroes and villains duking it out in record shops and school gymnasiums – hardly riveting stuff that an exotic foreign planet would have lent to such sequences. Even filming in a desert or some mountainous areas would have been better as they could have passed it off as Eternia!

As I’ve already alluded to, the Star Wars ‘influences’ are too obvious. Comparisons can be made between the likes of: the imposing villains in Skeletor and the Emperor and the way in which they act, dress, use lightning-like powers and their similar demise; the black Eternian soldiers and stormtroopers; the Imperial March-esque signature music theme for Skeletor; the duel between He-Man and Skeletor and the lightsabre battle between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker; the bounty hunter-like nature of Skeletor’s mercenary group compared to Boba Fett and the other creatures from The Empire Strikes Back. How would this film ever function if the makers had never seen George Lucas’ film series? Actually, going back to the music, I’m being a bit harsh. Bill Conti’s soundtrack, whilst derivative of both Superman and Star Wars, is decent enough and adds some nice motifs to the different characters. It’s pity that what happens on-screen isn’t nearly as exciting as the music.

Dolph Lundgren was a decent casting choice for He-Man. Whilst he’s not the greatest actor (a total understatement given his monosyllabic performance here), he certainly looks the part and I’d be hard-pressed to think of anyone else who would have suited the role back in 1987. This was his first leading part, having impressed the world in his supporting role as Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. He gives it his all and looks to be enjoying himself without overstepping into camp territory. Surprisingly for a main character, he’s not given an awful lot to do and he falls into the backdrop too often, allowing his more vocal companions to further the plot along. He’s there to kick ass when needed and that’s about it.

Opposite him is Frank Langella as Skeletor. The cartoon depicted Skeletor as a rather effeminate villain, cackling and screaming and generally being a massive buffoon, whose plans never came to fruition. Credit to Langella for turning a silly villain into a dark, terrifying bad guy who really gives off that ultimate sense of evil vibe. Langella is quite frankly, superb, as Skeletor and gives a spirited performance which the film really doesn’t deserve. Maybe Langella was a massive fan of the cartoon or toys and wanted to do the character justice for his kids or something? There must be a reason why he put in so much effort to the role.

Robert Duncan McNeill (Star Trek: Voyager) and Courtney Cox are pretty awful as the two teenage leads. Whoever thought it would be a good idea to centre a film featuring a hulking, semi-naked, blonde Arian male fighting a talking skeleton who shoots electricity out of his hands on a couple of human teenagers with relationship issues needs to sort themselves out. Fans of the toys will also be disappointed to note that few of Skeletor’s henchmen make an appearance – Evil Lynn is here (the wonderful Meg Foster) and there is a character called The Beast Man, but they’re too forgettable to really make much impact on the story. The action sequences involving He-Man and Skeletor’s minions simply fall into the generic laser fights trap that any Star Wars film would feature. Squint your eyes close enough and you’ll be forgiven for thinking Han Solo was firing at stormtroopers.

 

Masters of the Universe was an expensive flop, which ultimately led to the end of Cannon Films, and rightly so. It’s such a flawed, badly-amalgamated mix-up of Conan and Star Wars with little real resemblance to the toys or cartoon that it’s a wonder it ever got the green light. Still, nostalgia works wonders for this film and I can’t help but love it. It is entertaining and pretty fun and light-hearted for the most with a few decent moments. It’s definitely a case of ‘what if?’ and with the right budget and right people taking control of certain areas, it could have been a defining 80s fantasy film. Could have been…

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Mr Vampire (1985)

Mr Vampire (1985)

Master Ko, a Taoist priest, is asked by a struggling businessman to oversee the reburial of his dead father in the hopes of rekindling his family’s good fortune. Ko’s two bumbling assistants stumble onto a bad omen before leaving the remote graveyard. Deciding to take the corpse back to the mortuary, Ko suspects the dead elder suffered a wrongful death. The priest and his students soon find themselves up against supernatural forces and a very powerful vampire.

 

If you’ve never heard of Mr Vampire then you’re missing a real treat, though actually getting access to it over in the UK is problematic. Like many Asian films which have been big successes in the Far East (Godzilla films, I’m looking at you), there doesn’t seem to be much interest in releasing them over here and whilst Mr Vampire did receive a DVD release a few years ago, the sequels and rest of the sub-genre that it spawned are nowhere on the radar. It’s such a pity as Mr Vampire is one of the best horror-comedies that the 80s put out and because it’s not Anglo-centric, it opens up a whole new world of mythology, superstitions, beliefs and magic that we, in the West, are totally unfamiliar with.

Sammo Hong’s Encounters of the Spooky Kind in 1980 had set the precedent for this horror-comedy-kung fu hybrid genre, but it is with Mr Vampire where this niche genre really struck gold. It’s a ridiculously madcap film that balances the slapstick comedy with plenty of frenetic kung-fu action and makes sure that the horror elements are not left on the back burner. The physical humour has not dated in the slightest, made more absurd by the crazy situations in which the characters find themselves facing. Nothing is lost in the translation between East and West – if anything, the film is all the better for having an element of the exotic and the unknown as it makes things more interesting than your generic Western horror-comedy. Mr Vampire is still relatively unknown to a lot of Western audiences. The Hong Kong horror-comedy-kung fu hybrid was such a success back in the 80s, it became a cultural phenomenon in Asia, much in the same way as something like Ghostbusters did here in the West.

Ko and his assistants have to deal with some Jianghsi. And if you don’t know what they are, then the film does a decent job of covering the bases. These Jiangshi, hopping vampires from Chinese folklore, are not like our Western vampires in the slightest (no dressing in smart suits with cloaks, changing into bats, being scared of garlic, etc). Some audiences may find the sight of the ghosts decked out in 1600s Qing dynasty era clothing, arms outstretched and hopping along in lines to be rather comical but there’s nothing funny about how deadly these things actually are. Whilst Mr Vampire plays up on the comedic aspects of the vampires, they can kill you in many different ways and are a lot tougher to beat than Count Dracula and co. It is this unveiling of Chinese folklore to those not familiar with it that will be one of the biggest appeals to Anglo horror fans – it adds unpredictability to the narrative. You’re not quite sure how the threat will be dealt with but are introduced to all sorts of magical papers, chicken blood recipes and sticky rice methods which are the Asian equivalents of your wooden stakes and garlic to a vampire.

It takes a good thirty minutes or so for Mr Vampire to really kick into action gear but it doesn’t stop from that point onwards. You could argue that the film is little more than a series of kung fu-comedy set pieces and I couldn’t really disagree. The narrative is a little wonky at times, with the main premise being too thinly-written to really stretch out over the whole feature length time. There is a slight deviation throughout Mr Vampire, no doubt to boost up the running time, featuring one of Ko’s assistants falling in love with a ghost and Ko having to break the curse. Whilst this doesn’t add anything to the narrative in the slightest, it isn’t an unwelcome side-track as there is plenty of comedy to be had watching Ko attempt to save his assistant. From then on, the madcap film just goes in a crazy ride through a number of sequences which perfectly blend some fantastic choreography alongside a number of real laugh-out-loud moments. Nobody seems to take a breath either

Lam Ching-Yang made an appearance in the aforementioned Encounters of the Spooky Kind but here he gets a leading role and makes it his own. Lam is fantastic in the role, trying to deadpan most of what is going on but getting bogged down in the madcap stupidity of his assistants in the process. He can handle the stunt work perfectly and has the role of the Tao priest down to a tee – it’s a role he felt typecast by, but the film gave him his big break and he starred in no fewer than eight sequels and knock-offs of Mr Vampire. Both Ricky Hiu and Chin Siu-ho are hilarious as his bumbling assistants and the three make for an effective trio. The stunning Siu-Fung Wong is also a nice addition to the cast as the ghost who bewitches one of Ko’s assistants.

 

If you’re worried about indulging in something as far away from the streams of watered-down Western horror-comedies as you can possibly get, then Mr Vampire is your answer – if you can obtain a copy. A relentless, hilariously entertaining mix of kung-fu, horror and comedy, made with real enthusiasm and zest, it’s definitely one of the best films to ever come out of Hong Kong. The fact that it is so little known in the West is both a travesty or a well-kept secret, depending on your outlook.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Mr Vampire II (1986)

Mr Vampire 2 (1986)

A professor and his two bumbling assistants find the bodies of a man, a woman and a child preserved in a cave. However, the bodies are really vampires and return to life when the prayers pinned to their foreheads are removed whereupon they proceed to cause chaos in the laboratory. The child vampire hops out into the streets. It is found and befriended by two children who take it home and hide it in the closet away from their parents. Meanwhile, one of the assistants has been bitten and goes to seek the help of the herbalist Lin Ching Yin. As Lin goes to help vanquish the vampires with his remedies, the reporter Jen, who desires Lin’s niece, determines to get photos of what is in the laboratory but instead unwittingly releases the vampires.

 

Mr Vampire is still relatively unknown to a lot of Western audiences. The Hong Kong horror-comedy-kung fu hybrid was such a success back in the 80s, it became a cultural phenomenon in Asia, much in the same way as something like Ghostbusters did here in the West. There is something lost in translation between the East and West, and I’m not just talking about the languages spoken and/or subtitles. Western audiences have never clearly taken to the Jiangshi, the hopping vampires of Chinese folklore, which look more like what we know as zombies than suave Counts with cloaks and fangs. But for those living in Asia who have grown up with these stories, Mr Vampire was a perfect blend of gentle horror, kung fu action and physical comedy. Following hot on the heels only a year later, Mr Vampire II attempted to strike whilst the hype was still high.

Despite the presence of the same director and same writer as the original, Mr Vampire II is a fairly shambolic attempt to replicate the same formula. It’s a sequel in all but name, as the story moves forward into the present day and doesn’t have anything to do with the original save for the inclusion of some hopping vampires. But it ramps up the silly comedy, tones down the kung fu and doesn’t really do anything scary in its eighty or so minutes of running time. There is no real plot to the film other than the synopsis mentioned above and the narrative just drifts from one ‘crazy’ set piece to another with no real progression or conclusion. The film opens with the professor and his assistants scouring tombs for things to sell and doing all sorts of ‘hilarious’ things, then proceeds to follow them back to their laboratory where they continue to do the ‘hilarious’ things. It’s not long before their antics cause the vampires to awaken and thus ensues more carnage and ‘hilarious’ goings-on, only with the hopping vampires now. I could understand this being in the middle of the film but there’s a big glaring issue with Mr Vampire II – where the hell is the lead character? It’s around forty-minutes into the film when we finally get to see the man of the title, ‘Mr Vampire’ himself Lam Ching-Ying and it’s ridiculous that it takes this long to see him. He’s virtually a supporting character in his own franchise, though Ching-Ying does what he can with the weaker material.

Mr Vampire II’s comedy is pitched at a lot lower level than its predecessor. Yes, there was plenty of slapstick and silly shenanigans in the original but the juvenile humour here is a desperate attempt to make the audience laugh. Take for instance the opening sequence in which a snake slithers up the trousers of one of the bumbling assistants – it’s something that little kids might get a chuckle out of it but they’re hardly the target demographic here. To add insult to injury with the juvenility, one of the three vampires is a child and so there are plenty of cute kid moments involving the vampire child and a human child forming a bond, like a perverse version of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. You can tell how quickly this one was rushed out due to the unexpected success of the original as there’s so much thrown at the screen with the hope that something sticks. Almost everything that made the original such a mega-hit has been jettisoned in favour of childish antics.

The original was never truly scary but the film did have a nice cinematography to it, giving us that otherworldly feel to the reanimations and hopping ghosts. The ancient setting allowed for some effective atmosphere to be created, which the contemporary setting here doesn’t come anywhere near matching. The corpses look too human as well – no one seems to question why the bodies of the man and woman seem to be so fresh and lifelike when they pull them out of the tomb. Compare these to the decaying corpses seen in the original and films like Encounter of the Spooky Kind and even simple things which could have made a difference to the ambiance have been neglected.

 

It’s tragic to see such a quality horror-comedy as Mr Vampire get such an appalling sequel. The staggering drop in quality between the two films is ridiculous and Mr Vampire II becomes a real slog to get through. Keep that magic yellow paper slapped onto the vampires and let them be.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Phantom, The (1996)

The Phantom (1996)

The Ghost Who Walks. The Man Who Cannot Die.

Known as ‘the ghost who walks, the man who cannot die,’ the twenty-first man to hold the title of the African superhero, The Phantom, travels to New York to investigate shady businessman Xander Drax’s interest in the fabled Skulls of Touganda. A trio of artefacts which, when brought together, give their possessor great powers, the skulls have been sought for a long time by the Phantom’s age-old enemy, the evil Sengh Brotherhood and Drax is suspected of being a member.

 

With Batman souring the skies in the 90s thanks to Tim Burton, there was little competition for the Caper Crusader. Superman had his day in the 70s and 80s with the Christopher Reeve films. The Incredible Hulk had dominated the TV shows but never made it to the big screen. Spider-Man had been relegated to a couple of low rent TV movies and the likes of the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and Iron Man were all still yet to get off the ground. So it was left to a lesser known hero of yesteryear to make the jump from page to screen. The Phantom was a popular comic strip which originally came out in the 1930s (and pre-dates Superman by a few months) and was about ten years too early in getting released. With the fuss regarding comic book heroes nowadays, a more appreciative audience may have been found. But back in 1996, everyone was like “What? Huh? Who?” and unfortunately this is probably The Phantom’s most inherent weakness – just who is he?

Well the idea of a superhero (who doesn’t actually have superpowers, he’s more like Batman) who bizarrely wears a purple spandex costume whilst trying to blend into the background of the African jungles doesn’t really sell itself for a start but The Phantom is decent fun, if nothing else. I think the best way to sum it up is that The Phantom is, at times, like watching Indiana Jones rattle around in a full body purple jumpsuit. It’s got the same old school, pulpy serial vibe that the Indy films had and, whilst playing itself straight, never takes itself too seriously and isn’t afraid of poking a joke at itself every once in a while. It should be noted that the script was penned by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade screenwriter Jeffrey Bloam so there are plenty of similarities in style with the films.

I think the underlying problem with The Phantom is its simplicity. It never really goes for broke: the action is sporadic and not very intense when it turns up; it’s not violent in the slightest, perhaps more aimed for a younger market; and there is not a great deal of sexuality. It’s all very child-friendly and a little too corny and camp at times. You never get the ‘wow’ factor with anything. Writing a review about it, I’m finding it hard to come up with any memorable scene to highlight or any dialogue to mention. Don’t get me wrong, The Phantom is entertaining. There a million and one terms that could be used to describe the film but “bad film” isn’t amongst them. The script keeps the pace of the film moving briskly along so it’s never overly dull. But on the flip side, it never once takes your breath away. Rarely have superheroes been so, average.

Billy Zane is decent in the lead role and brings about a reasonable degree of normality and ‘everyday Joe’ quality to the role, though he lacks that extra spark or wit to make the role truly his. He is able to balance that with the buffed-up physicality needed, although the purple costume does him little favours. But in the end, The Phantom is hardly the most memorable superhero to grace the big screen despite the glaringly colourful attire. Treat Williams hams it up dramatically as Drax and the feminine quote for the film is handled by Kristy Swanson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Swanson is the love interest and though she looks great, her character is given little screen time to develop any depth. Zeta-Jones is one of the bad guys and has been taking tips from Williams on overacting the villainous role. The casting is solid but the script gives them little to work with.

 

The Phantom isn’t going to offend anyone in any way because of its low key approach to the material and I enjoyed watching it. But it’s instantly forgettable compared to some of the genre’s more famous recent offerings. The Phantom may have had his moment to shine but he blew it and has been long forgotten with Spider-Man and X-Men bursting onto the scene.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆