Another feature of...
Plot: Some sort of thriller thing. We’ll see.
You know the real reason I started Video Cheese? Because a couple of years ago I found Ebay and went on a video tape buying spree. Eventually I racked up hundreds of dubious looking cassettes, most of which I’ve yet to take a peek at. The majority of these, no doubt, will prove unworthy of a Nugget review, much less the full treatment. So I started VC to give me a place to consider these other movies.
Why did I buy Deadbolt? Couldn’t tell ya. Probably I was buying a bunch of films at one time. Postage added up on individual tapes, sometimes costing more than the bid price, and it was cheaper to buy them in lots. Glancing at the video box -- but not the synopsis, I want the film to be as much of a surprise as possible -- I see that it looks like some kind of thriller. I probably bought it because it stars OOT Baldwins -- Adam, the oldest one -- and the top billed Justine Bateman. I mean, Justine Bateman!! C’mon, that’s got to be reason enough.
Of course, I could be surprised. Maybe it’ll be really good. Well, OK, surprisingly decent. Well, OK, probably not. But it could be just plain mediocre, which is the worst thing of all. I’m pinning my hopes on you, Justine. Don’t let me down.
Let’s see. Opening trailers. Hmm, Poison Ivy. Never saw it. I think I saw number three or four, though. More of a skin flick than the others are supposed to be, from what I remember. Which isn’t much. Next…what the heck? Live Wire? Pierce Brosnan is an obsessed cop after your typically suave yet evil Euroterrorist. (Played by Ben Cross. How are things since Chariots of Fire, you poor bastard?) Cross apparently uses a liquid explosive that looks like water. People drink it and blow up. Oh, I get it…’live’ wire. Say, and there’s Ron Silver. Why aren’t I surprised? Boy, Brosnan must have been so relieved when he got hired to play Bond. Then one last trailer, for Altman’s The Player. Yeah, that belongs on here.
Now onto the film. Oh, we start on *sigh* a cityscape. That’s original. Here come the credits, so called. Bateman, Baldwin…hmm, Michele Scarabelli. Didn’t she almost have a career once? OK, there’s Baldwin. He’s jogging down the street and stops to pet a dog. Guess he’s playing a ‘nice guy’ here. Now he’s in a very big house, preparing a continental breakfast on a tray. He brings it to his wife. But she’s dead, having cut her wrists in the bathtub. That’s nice. "You didn’t have to do that," he says. OK, first guess…Baldwin’s an outwardly amiable psychopath who enters relationships with women and drives them to suicide with his smothering attentiveness.
Cut to a hospital. It’s one of those scenes where a bunch of med students fervently cluster around a learned doctor who’s lecturing them while striding quickly down a hallway. He’s Dr. Rhodes, and he mentions some work he’s doing, aided by a third year med student…oh, don’t tell me…it is!! Justine Bateman!! A med student!! She must be hoping to work in whatever hospital hired brain surgeon Nicole Kidman in Days of Thunder. Let’s see, a few minutes of medbabble and the students depart. Lucky them.
Bateman (her character’s name is Marty for some reason [Future Ken: It’s so the male type Baldwin can use her credit card to establish a frame-up. See below.]) is found sleeping in the lab, because she works so hard. She promises to get some sleep after taking a shift in a clinic. We cut to her entering her apartment, where she pauses to play with her neighbor’s cute little daughter. OK, we get it, she’s a Good, Caring Soul. And please, just use the kid for window dressing. I really don’t need to see one of those endangered child deals. Oh, and the kid’s mom is also Bateman’s landlady. And Bateman’s short on money. Hmm, I wonder if she’ll be meeting a rich widower any time soon.
Bateman walks into her apartment and finds it broken into and trashed. The intruders were so mean they left the phone off the hook and the fridge open. Oh, and her apartment is one of those improbably huge ones movie and TV characters always have. Marty also comes equipped with an Obviously Obnoxious Ex-Husband named Jordon. He’s an OOX-H #3, if I’m not mistaken, the anal Yuppie who’s always exhorting her to abandon her efforts to Help The People and instead pursue a life of Shallow Materialism with him. Now he’s dictating a memo into his pocket recorder. He’s a #3, all right. I think they’re afraid we won’t get it, though. As he goes into an elaborate list of arrangements he’ll make, she stops him. "I’m running my own life here," she tells him. Thanks for assuming that we’re so stupid that everything has to be laid out for us as baldly as possible. She also refuses his offer to stay the night, since we might question her sense of Personal Autonomy if she showed any emotional vulnerability just because someone broke into and ransacked her home.
They mention her trouble finding a roommate. Hmm, six minutes into the film and it’s all snapping into place. It’s Single White Female with a gender twist, with maybe a little Sleeping With the Enemy and Pacific Heights and The Stepfather action tossed in. Oh, and obviously I was wrong thinking Baldwin was the rich one, it must have been his late wife. Otherwise why would he be looking to rent an apartment? Since we later learn he has no financial paper trail, there’s no way he could inherit any money from her estate.
A friend suggests that Bateman would be safer with (bum bum bum) a male roommate. Cut to the interviews. I see some Bad Comedy on the horizon. No, guess not. She interviews Middle Aged Harmless Fat Guy and he seems OK. They go out of their way to mention that his shoes squeak, though, so obviously they’re setting something up. And, yep, right on cue, there’s Baldwin outside. He’s looking at a section of newspaper and writing on it, so that we ‘get’ he’s looking for an apartment to share.
MAHFG cuts Bateman a check. So I guess Baldwin will be wreaking some sort of violence on him later. Baldwin meets him in the hall as he leaves, so that he’ll know who to kill or grievously mess up. Baldwin sees her broken window and offers to fix it, as he’s a carpenter. Wow, he’s so perfect. He’s handsome, he recognizes Verdi on her CD player, he’s handy with tools… You know, if something were to happen to MAHFG, I think he’d get the room. Oh, and now Baldwin’s sneaking a look at the business card the guy conspicuously left behind. And they establish that the walls of the old place are so thick that you can’t hear anything from the neighbor’s apartment. OK, we’ve got it.
We cut to MAHFG walking out to his car that night. He’s got a flat tire. "This is not my day," he says, presumably for Irony’s Sake. Yep, because Baldwin shows up with a car jack and bashes him to death with it. By the way, I know he got the guy’s work address off his card, but how could he possibly know what car the guy owned? Anyway, he takes the guy’s wallet – to make it look like a robbery presumably – but he also pauses to steal the guy’s nice, new and unique looking loafers!! Why? Well, because Bateman got a real good look at them during the ‘squeaking shoe’ exchange. Cripes, could you be a little more obvious?
So Baldwin gets the roommate gig. And as they walk around the apartment we see that it’s even more ridiculously huge than we thought earlier. Baldwin asks her if she knows her neighbors well and other questions meant to make us go, "Oh ho!" Out for a jog that night, Baldwin runs right in front of a semi, taunting the driver. Because he’s crazy. Did you get that yet? Then Bateman introduces him to her best friend, so we know she’s toast. Then Bateman just coincidentally happens to meet another friend, an old one from high school, while doing rounds at the hospital. This woman, they establish, plays hockey, so watch out Baldwin, because she knows how to swing things!! Anyway, it was nice of the movie to give Bateman two friends. That way Baldwin could kill the one and still leave another for Bateman after he himself gets whacked. Or am I getting ahead of myself?
Baldwin pumps the established Cute Little Girl for info on Bateman. I swear, I’m really not up for a kid-in-danger thing. Please. And then -- and I don’t know what the hell they’re going to do with this, but it’s bound to be silly -- Bateman brings home a big Tupperware container full of botulism culture!! [Future Ken: Actually, it holds a petri dish full of botulism culture.] Luckily the kid asks what it is, and while Baldwin’s out of the room. That way we know what it is, and he doesn’t. Also, just in case we’re as dumb as they apparently think we are, they have the little girl say, "And bacteria makes you sick, right?" Maybe Bateman will poison Baldwin with it later in the movie. Or vice versa. I mean, it’s there for some dumbass reason, right? And cripes, that apartment keeps getting huger. It’s like the TARDIS.
We start seeing the darker side of Baldwin, as if we care. He makes a fancy dinner for her, but she has to go back to the hospital, so he’s secretly enraged, yada yada. I guess it’s supposed to be ironic that Bateman divorced her husband because he was so bossy, and will now be at the mercy (for a while, I’m assuming) of a psycho control freak. Speaking of Jordon, he follows the playbook by freaking out when he learns of the new male roommate. This, in turn, makes Bateman all the more stubborn. Then he states his intent to check into Baldwin, so his life expectancy isn’t looking too hot. Everyone else, however, is falling in love with Mr. Perfect.
At this point, I fear, I started leaning rather hard on the fast forward button. I mean, all the set-up is out of the way and there’s still an hour of this thing left. Also, as I feared, the movie lacked the sort of overweening goofiness I was looking for. Heavily flagged and overly obvious plot devices continued, though. For instance, Bateman and Dr. Rhodes’ two-year long project together all depends on the results of an upcoming test. (Or something; it’s just REALLY REALLY IMPORTANT). Bateman, of course, mentions this to Baldwin, who’s secretly beginning to resent how her job keeps her out of the apartment. So Baldwin cuts the power while she’s sleeping, which causes her digital clock to reset and not wake her up. Therefore she misses the big whatever – what, Rhodes couldn’t pick up a phone? -- and he fires her. After two years of work. Yeah, sure.
So…stuff. Boring, boring stuff. "ZZZZZZZ!!!" That’s not me snoring, that’s the sound of my tape player in fast forward mode. Baldwin breaks into Jordon’s apartment and examines his revolver, no doubt for nefarious purposes. Then he maneuvers Bateman into going to dinner with him at a fancy restaurant, knowing that Jordon is taking his parents there that night. Per his plan, Jordon sees them together, and gets mad despite the ‘innocent’ nature of the outing and Bateman…yada yada. And jeez, when is the real psycho stuff going to start? Although I have the feeling that the tearful Bateman wishing that Jordon was dead -- does anybody really say that about people? -- is going to have some effect.
So Baldwin and Bateman go home and fall into bed (I guess the age of long courtships is over), whereafter he drugs her and leaves the apartment. I have a feeling that things are about to go horribly awry for the Ex. Baldwin goes over to Jordon’s apartment and gets invited in for a drink, like that would happen. (I have to admit, this scene went on for a while and I fast forwarded through most of it) Baldwin pretends to get drunk with him, and they talk for way too long, and then, finally…
This is so dumb I’m not sure how to describe it. Let’s see: Baldwin bought cartridges for Jordon’s gun, and he removed the powder from one and brought it with. He then tries to get Jordon to play a friendly game of Russian Roulette. Baldwin takes a turn while surreptitiously using the dummy cartridge. Jordon still won’t do it, so Baldwin pretends to take the bullet out entirely. Instead, he puts a live shell in and tells Jordon it’s OK, the gun’s empty now, and so on. I hope this sounds as stupid as it is in the film. End result, exit Jordon from a terminal case of stupidity.
Feeling that Jordon killed himself because of the restaurant thing – oh, Baldwin, you devil – Bateman goes out into the country for a while. This allows Baldwin to start doing ominous things to their apartment. Eventually she heads back, signalling that they will not be pursuing a romantic relationship. When she returns, she finds that *gasp* Baldwin has redecorated the entire apartment. Before it had a wood antique look, now it’s all chrome and glass. (Where does this guy get his money, anyway?) This is the big scene where she finally notices the dead man’s loafers, and it all comes out. I have to admit, all my boredom paid off as I watched the thespitorially limited Bateman struggle to project the abject horror her character is supposed to be experiencing.
Another great point is that Baldwin has supposedly framed Bateman for the murder of Jordon, if she should try to go to the police. He did this by buying the bullets for Jordon’s gun with Bateman’s credit card. First, where is this story supposed to be taking place? Generally you have to show a firearms license card (much less a photo ID) to buy ammunition, and why would Bateman have one? Second, wouldn’t the clerks remember the bullets being sold to a tall man rather than a petite women? Most ludicrous is that Baldwin has this whole history of not having an official background – Jordon had dug this up – and could not possibly stand up to police scrutiny. There’s a little more to the frame than that, although just a little, but it’s still about the lamest one I’ve ever heard of. (Of course, his moronic scheme to get Jordon to shoot himself worked, so I guess you never know.)
Now it’s on to a half-assed combo of Misery and The Collector. Baldwin has rigged and soundproofed the apartment so that Bateman’s now a prisoner. Bateman’s one friend comes over – not the hockey playing one – and gets offed. Gee, I didn’t see that coming. (Picture me saying this sarcastically whilst rolling my eyes back.) It’s just that easy to keep committing murders, I guess. I also love how nobody ever looks through Bateman’s unbreakable and soundproof but still quite transparent windows and sees her.
And so things go in a Misery-esque and Collector-like fashion. Except that those movies didn’t suck. And we’re not exactly talking Kathy Bates or James Caan or Terence Stamp here. Maybe I’m being unfair, though, since I still can’t force myself to actually watch all this. I mean, c’mon, there’s still a half hour of this left. Could I just fast forward to the part where Bateman poisons him with botulism? Although, now that he tore down and redid the entire apartment, I’m not sure why the container would still be there.
Next the little girl gets into the apartment because Baldwin didn’t lock the door, or the old locks don’t work, or some damn thing. Yeah, he did the entire apartment over to turn it into a prison, but didn’t change the crappy front door locks! I mean, OK, there are separate locks on Bateman’s bedroom door, but still. Baldwin catches the little girl, which is used for a second of cheap suspense, but he convinces her that her mom will get mad if he tells on her snooping around the apartment. So she promises not to say anything and leaves. Then he (finally) changes the locks.
To be fair, this is easily the best part of the movie, and where they probably should have spent more of their running time. Once the outside world is taken out of the equation the silliness quotient lowers significantly, and we end up with a fairly creepy cat-and-mouse situation of someone being held prisoner by a nutcase. Again, this has been done far better elsewhere, but it’s still the best part of the movie. It also gives Bateman a chance to do a little more than sit around while Baldwin kills all of her friends.
Eventually she begins pretending that she’s going along with him. He starts to remold her into his image of the perfect woman, so we can add Vertigo to the movies that you’d be better off watching. As she sits down to dinner, she sees that the one piece of her wood furniture that he didn’t remove during the apartment renovation was – are you sitting down – the cabinet where she stuck the botulism culture. Luckily she placed the container (shouldn’t those be refrigerated?) right next to her set of linen napkins (!!), so she has an excuse to go over there. So she sits there with the petri dish in her lap, waiting until he looks away long enough to dump it into his food. I guess this is another attempt at suspense, but they spent so much time setting this up that we know it’s going to work.
In a rather AMAZING COINCIDENCE, he brings out for dessert some raspberry-topped cheesecake. Since the culture is a red jelly, IT MATCHES PERFECTLY!! WHAT LUCK!! So he eats it and we wait until he starts foaming at the mouth. We cut to them sleeping in bad together (she’s wearing clothes, so that we know she didn’t GO TOO FAR), and he’s all sweaty and sick looking. Is botulism contagious? Because he’s breathing right onto her face. So she gets out of bed and steals the keys from his hands. He wakes up (why not wait until he’s weaker?) but she manages to get the door open as he collapses.
In one of the funniest bits I ever say, the landlady happens to come to the front door (I thought he had soundproofed everything?) just in time to see Bateman whack Baldwin with a lamp. The landlady tells her daughter to call the police, and Bateman goes "NO!!!" Because of the retarded frame-up thing, remember? I mean, c’mon, he turned her bedroom into a jail cell. Among a million other things. How can Bateman think this ‘frame-up’ thing is going to work? I’d be going, "Damn right, call the police!!"
With the landlady doing the J’Accuse thing (everyone loves Baldwin, remember?), Bateman runs out of the apartment. She stops in a diner, and is freaked to see cops there. (!!) This is all quite stupid, and I’m have this horrifying vision of the screenwriter thinking he was doing Hitchcock’s "Innocent Man" trope. Next Bateman goes to her hockey playing friend’s house. "He makes people believe him," Bateman explains. "So if he’s dead or he’s alive, he’s got me." I just can’t stand this, it is all so moronic. Of course, neither Bateman or her friend suggests calling a lawyer. That would make sense.
The friend calls the hospital and learns that Baldwin was successfully treated. Then we see that his hospital bed is empty. In other words, get ready for a climatic psycho-killer rampage bit. He stumbles back to the apartment, where one cop -- just one!! -- is looking around, noticing…oh, yeah, the way the place has been turned into a prison. You know, the bulletproofed and soundproofed windows and everything. And hey, it’s the same detective who informed Bateman of Jordon’s death. Must not be very many cops around. Baldwin kills the guy (that’s why he was the only cop there, I guess). If I’m reading this right, it’s so that there’s one crime that Bateman can later "prove" she didn’t commit. Because she was with her friend at the time. See? This finally provides a chink in Baldwin’s airtight frame-up.
Now, the friend had earlier given Bateman a friendship bracelet. Then, during the dinner scene, Baldwin made Bateman take it off. Another startlingly subtle plot device. So of course he sees it and finds the friend’s name in Bateman’s handy collection of high school yearbooks. Then it’s off to her house, where hopefully we can get this thing over with.
Back to Bateman, still terrified by the *cough* perfectly drawn trap Baldwin’s put her in. Rather than call a lawyer (why wouldn’t they do that?!), they videotape her telling her story so that they can send it to the cops. This provides Bateman with a really bad Oscar Clip Moment to embarrass herself with.
If you’re going to send the cops a tape, why not go to them in person? I mean, the film has already established that Baldwin has never filed a federal tax return and that he has no credit history. That would draw the cops’ attention right there, especially given all the money he keeps flashing around. He must have spent thousand and thousands doing the apartment over.
The ladies go up to the roof (I see an application of Ken’s Rule of High Altitude Mortality coming). The friend goes back downstairs and meets Baldwin, who viciously assaults her. I know she’s not dead, though, because they established the hockey player thing before and she still hasn’t had a chance to whomp him with anything yet. So Baldwin goes up to the roof and corners Bateman. Luckily the pre-established camcorder (ah, that’s why they introduced the tape thing) has an inexplicably powerful spotlight attachment. "The light hurts, doesn’t it?!" she screams over and over. Maybe because of the botulism, I don’t know. Whatever. Then she whacks him with a plastic half-pound patio chair and he falls through a convenient skylight to his death. Still, they fooled me. I guess the friend’s hockey skills were just a bit of "characterization," since they didn’t in fact come into play. Still, the friend is still alive, so that she can provide Bateman’s alibi for the cop’s death. Not that they ever deal with this after all that build-up, because the camera just zooms in on Baldwin’s corpse and the movie ends.
On a five star scale of blindly bought videos, I give this a one and a quarter, Jabootu-wise.
Thing I Learned:
Summation: More like Dead Bore. It’s certainly no PrettyKill.
The erudite Mary Bergman kindly provided the following information:
The Dirt Bike Kid
I was puzzled when I first saw the cover painting for this video. A kid on a flying dirt bike? Was that really a fantasy for many youngsters, I wondered? Then I thought about when this film was made. Ah, ripping off E.T., are we? Now I get it.
This film was obviously meant as a vehicle (I’m so funny) for it’s youthful lead, Peter Billingsley. Who’s that? Well, Billingsley was sort of the Jonathon Lipinski of his time. If you know who Jonathon Lipinski is, then you have a pretty good idea what I mean. If you don’t know who Jonathon Lipinski is, then you know exactly what I mean.
Billingsley’s status as a one-hit wonder was secured by his starring turn in the now beloved Christmas Story. Impressively, this is perhaps the only film of the last thirty or forty years to be added to the recognized pantheon of great Christmas movies. (And, no, I don’t think Ron Howard’s Grinch movie is going to make the cut.) And while he was supported with solid performances from veteran actors like Darrin McGavin, there’s no doubt that Christmas Story was Billingsley’s movie.
Pity the child actor, folks. One year down the line and he may find he’s lost whatever quality made him so adorable in that one memorable film. Even the ones that get a good run, for example Malculy Culkin, bite the professional dust eventually and are thereafter forgotten. Although in Culkin’s case I’m expecting him to revive his career with a role as a tough-but-sensitive police detective on NYPD Blue.
(Drew Barrymore is an obvious exception to the above, although not many go though what she did and come out so cleanly. Besides, she’s married to Tom Green. And what profit in gaining the world, etc., etc.)
Let’s get going. Jack, our purportedly lovable lead, is a young boy infatuated with dirt bikes. He’s probably the kid referred to in the film’s title, now that I think about it. He’s also one of those children who live in their own little worlds. This is spelled out for us via a ‘comical’ scene where his frazzled and currently unemployed single mom asks him to answer the phone. Instead (giggle, snort), he just keeps watching dirt bike action on TV. And then the kitchen's smoke alarm goes off, and he still doesn’t notice! Ho ho! I guess this film is going to be a sort of Secret Life of Walter Shi…, well, you get the idea.
The character of Jack established with all due hilarity (i.e., none,), the ‘plot’ can progress. I got a really bad feeling when Mom gave Jack their last $50 to go get some groceries. Get it? Jack? Lives alone with his mother, given the last bit of family loot, sent to get vital supplies? Perhaps he buys a reportedly ‘magic’ item instead? Huh? Huh?! Well, it’s easier than writing an original story, I guess. Oh, wait, why am I so cynical? It’s a homage. Yeah, that’s it.
On the way to the store, Jack stops by the neighborhood motorcross track – doesn’t every town have them? -- to watch the Dirt Bike Pros. (How fortuitous for Jack that he was into this scene during the exact five-week period when there was such a thing as 'pro' dirt bikers.) For the uninitiated -- like myself -- dirt bikes appear to be marginally buffed-out mopeds, complete with wee engines. Equipped with same, you race your competitors on tracks with lots of hills. Said hills allow you to fly through the air like the Dukes of Hazzard would if they were driving a scaled-down General Lee powered by a lawn mower engine.
A local jerk named Max is maltreating his dirt bike. Gasp! Horror! Jack wistfully wishes for "a bike like that," and on cue a kindly looking elderly bearded gent appears. (If he turns out to be Merlin or something, I’m out of here.) He tells Jack that Max’s bike is special, but needs the right rider to make it so. Hmm, just a minute, I think I know where they’re going with this… Anyway, the bike, which I guess, maybe, is supposed to be sentient like Herbie the Love Bug, delays beginning the race until all the other riders are way ahead. And then, because it’s a magic bike -- and because all of the competing riders are conspicuously using the longer, outside rim of the track -- it eventually muscles its way back into the lead. This then happens a few more times. The bike slows down, then roars (well, hums) back into the lead. Just so that we ‘get’ it. Eventually Max gets thrown into a mud puddle, provoking gales of laughter from the rubes watching the race. Some people are easily amused, I guess.
Jack ends up buying the bike with the $50 his Mom gave him. Boy, didn’t see that one coming. Bowman, Jack’s ‘wacky’ best friend/sidekick tells Jack that his Mom would want him to buy the bike. Then, in the next scene, he tells her that he told Jack not to buy the bike. See, the juxtaposition…oh, never mind. Anyway, she sends Jack to his room -- while she digs out the strap, I hope -- where he plays with his computer. (Look! A floppy disc! An actual floppy disc!) Not exactly bucking to make the cover of Stern Parenting Magazine, are we? In any case, this still proves too onerous a punishment for Our Jack, who climbs out of the inevitable bedroom window secret-escape-route to be with his bike.
Although the bike looks all beat up and everything, why, all it needs is a quick scraping off of mud and a swipe with a wet rag and wha la! Then, as he strokes the mudguards, they, uh, I’m not sure how to describe this. They, er, rise up under his touch. Like…ok, next subject. (It’s just really weird, is all I’m saying.) And that’s not even mentioning the fact that this is coming off more like Christine than Herbie.
Jack climbs onto his newly and, shall we say, suspiciously spiffy dirt bike and makes some ‘brmmm’ noises. Then the bike comes to life, indicated handily by its twin headlights (!) coming on. (They’re like the bike’s eyes, get it? Get it?) The bike’s magic is indeed mighty, we learn, for Jack amazingly transforms into a taller and slimmer stunt driver and is taken for a spin. Then he breaks what is apparently a twenty-mile an hour speed law and gets chased by a cop, resulting in some predictably bad comic relief stuff. Meanwhile, every time they cut to the stunt driver it’s more apparent that he’s built nothing like Billingsley and it just gets funnier and funnier. The scene ends with the cop car crashing into some trash (Symbolism!) while the bike leaps from the roof of one tall building to another (!!) in a less than expert process shot.
Next Jack meets up with your standard rough and tough yet ‘comically’ inept motorcycle gang. They’re introduced with the sort of music you get when you can’t actually afford the rights to George Thoroughgood’s "Bad to the Bone" but want something similar. The gang leader, ‘Big Slime,’ (oh, brother), meanwhile, is played by the sort of guy you get when you can’t actually afford the fellow who played Ogre in Revenge of the Nerds but want somebody similar. You’d think a motorcycle gang would have something better to do then hassle a ten year-old, but I guess it’s a slow day in the marauding business. Anyway, the bike comes to the rescue and some predictably halfhearted wackiness ensues. As Jack makes his eventual escape, we get the kind of fist shaking and threats that signals we’ll be *sigh* seeing more of these guys later.
Next comes our highlight so far, where the bike begins to fly (hmm…) via some laughably awful f/x, whilst accompanied by some similarly bad ersatz John Williams music. You will believe a doll and a toy motorcycle on an armature can fly! Then it’s safely back home and into the bed mere seconds (whew!) before Mom pops her head in the door. Actually, I wrote that bit before he was back in the house, but that’s the way it played out anyway. Look at me, I’m Nostradamus!
Stuff. Mom sells the bike, it sneaks back out of the shop. There’s a ‘comical’ baseball game. Max the Jerk is on the opposing team, Jack’s bunch are the hopeless but spunky underdogs. We meet Mike, the sponsor of Jack’s baseball team and its manager. Mike’s a well-meaning yet ‘comically’ inept schlemiel who runs a hot dog and hamburger joint. We also meet Rita, a woman we can’t tell is really beautiful yet because she’s shy and wears glasses. She’s the manager of the other team, and tries without success to tell Mike something she learned at the bank where she works.
In a little bit of agitprop for the kiddies, we will eventually learn that our *cough, cough* plot revolves around Hodgkins, the mean banker who means to foreclose on Mike’s restaurant. Hodgkins is played by a plump actor instantly recognizable to anyone who saw a lot of stuff made in the eighties, although I don’t know his name. He’s also *boo, hiss* the sponsor of the better playing but mean baseball team.
I guess I’m just not a sympathetic person. Still, I couldn’t help wondering if Mike’s business wouldn’t be doing better if he were actually, I don’t know, selling some hot dogs to people instead of closing down the place to coach a kid’s baseball team. Of course, you’d also think a banker would have better things to do than hanging out at a little league baseball game in order to make smug wisecracks.
Anyway, the bike shows up. Jack, up as the first batter of the game, is so inspired he whacks the ball a good one. As he slides into home, the catcher drops the ball but blocks the plate until he can make the tag. Jack goes a bit psycho, while Mike runs out to report that this is ‘unfair.’ Maybe, but was it against the rules? It doesn’t matter, however, because we’ve learned that Hodgkins holds the mortgage to the umpire’s house (!) and therefore, we’re to assume, the game is fixed. Because, I guess, Hodgkins is the sort of banker who forecloses on people who don’t toss him little league games. Anyway, the game is summarily declared over (after one batter!) and the bad guys the winners.
Mike finally listens to Rita and learns that the bank is giving him one week (!) to close down his hot dog place. They intend, she reports, to then build a new bank on the same property. At this point I had to wonder who drew up the mortgage papers here. I mean, Mike signed a loan agreement or whatever that stipulated he could be booted out with one week’s notice? Without cause? Apparently so. As Mike explains to Jack and Bo, "When the bank says you’re out, you’re out."
Mom goes in for a job interview, and it’s with *gasp* Hodgkins. Hodgkins is messing with an architectural model of a building -- if that’s what supposed to replace the hot dog place, there’s no way, it couldn’t possibly fit in the same lot -- and making ‘brmmm, brmmm’ noises with some model cars. That’s the kind of thing, a grown man making ‘brmmm’ noises, that a five year-old might (emphasis on ‘might’) laugh at. Yet we’ve also had breast and crotch jokes. Again, I must inquire, who were they making this film for? Anyway. Hodgkins also intends to build a big statue of himself outside the bank’s front doors. (??) This is all accompanied by zany music, and the office is decorated in a ‘humorous’ fashion with a bunch of mounted fish on the wall and stuff.
Jack enters the bank on his bike. (Why? I have no friggin’ idea.) This is an especially poor idea because the scene is filmed in daylight and we can now clearly see that the rider doing the stunt stuff – he pops a wheelie here – is definitely at least a foot taller and much slimmer than Billingsley. That’s not really the kind of thing you can hide with a helmet. Anyway, chaos ensues as ‘Jack’ rides around the bank lobby. Meanwhile, Hodgkins is hitting on his Mom during the interview. Ha, ha, sexual harassment, another hilarious premise for the kiddies. This is interrupted when Jack and the bike – I assume the latter is currently in charge – come roaring into his office.
Jack didn’t know Mom was going to be here. Instead, he’s come to do, I don’t know, something, about the hot dog place being closed. We now learn that it was the bike dragging Jack along, so I am even more confused about what was supposed to happen here, unless the bike planned to run down and kill Hodgkins. Instead, the banker orders Jack thrown out, whereupon the bike rears up and smashes the model of the bank.
Jack takes the bike back to the shop of the guy who bought it. He’s a befuddled old man, and unless I miss my guess he’s about to offer Jack a job helping out around the place. (Yep, he’s hired to do deliveries.) Hmm, I wonder if the pay will be the return of his bike. Actually, this raises a good question, though. If Jack is old enough to work part-time, why isn’t he doing so to help out with the family bills? What a selfish brat. And really, why would a dirt bike store need to make so many deliveries? We soon see Jack wheeling around with about fifteen packages trailing behind in a wagon. Wouldn’t the shop just mail these things out? This, like the Evil Town Banker who Rules the Town with an Iron Grip, seems oddly anachronistic for a film made in 1986.
Jack also sends the bike on its own ahead as he hops off to deliver a box. Again, isn’t this the sort of thing someone might notice, a dirt bike driving itself around the neighborhood? Oh, they’ve also now given the bike a R2D2 sort of whistling noise, so as to lend it some *ahem* personality. That and its headlights swivel to and fro. What’s they’ve failed to do is to give it a name. Herbie was a character for partly that reason. I don’t know, a magical, sentient bike seems a bigger deal than, say, a cat or a hamster, and we give those names.
Jack next has a heartwarming talking with Mom. Oddly, the latter seems at best mildly perturbed about Jack’s cruising his dirt bike through the town bank and then vandalizing the office of the Most Powerful Man in Town. Ah, well, kids today. Anyway, Jack takes to heart Mom’s advice that he should work through The System, and so he rides over to Hodgkin’s house for a chat. (I’m not sure how that translates to ‘working through The System,’ but there you go.) That he might not be the best ambassador for Mike right at the moment doesn’t appear to have occurred to him.
It’s especially bad timing given that Hodgkins is hitting on another unwilling young lady in his study. I didn’t know that fabulously rich and powerful men had so much trouble getting some. Go figure. Trying to shake the kid, Hodgkins tells him he can address the bank’s board the next day. James finally splits, but ho ho, the object of the banker’s attentions has smashed a window and made her escape. "That’s the second time today," he despondingly notes. "I’ve got to put bars on those windows." Ha. Ha. Meanwhile, James is intercepted by Big Slime’s gang out on Hodgkin’s front lawn (??) before his bike helps him escape. If I’m making it sound like the film’s plotting is getting increasingly haphazard, well, give me a cigar.
The next day Jack’s faith in The System collapses when Hodgkins refuses to let him address the board. Noting that one must be a rebel to get anything done, Jack again rides his bike into the bank building. He then crashes (literally) the banker’s press conference on the new bank site. In fact, he smashes the room’s oak right off its hinges. Then, needless to say, he again smooshes Hodgkin’s beloved model of the new bank. Of course, the reporters instantly crowd around Jack to get his side of the story. Being a movie, Hodgkins is precluded from having Jack arrested because it would look ‘mean.’ Mean, my ass, the kid’s a menace. There are some pretty good reasons why we have laws against driving motorized vehicles through public buildings. Hell, he could have killed somebody, if they’d been hit by that door. (Besides, instead of asking Jack questions, the press should be reporting on those insane mortgages people are signing here at the bank.)
Of course, only in a movie would it be a big deal that a hot dog place would be forced out so that a big new commercial building could be put up. Or rather, only in a movie would the Mean Banker be terrified that this would get publicized. In real life, the ubiquitous local town paper that’s only read by senior citizens would do a page fourteen interview with Mike, complete with a grainy picture or two, and the plan would go forward. I really doubt there are many instances of The People rising up to keep a major new building project from occurring so that a hot dog joint can be spared. And how come they never deal with the union situation in these movies? I mean, how many construction jobs and kickbacks and whatnot would be involved here?
Instead, Hodgkins tells the reporters that the bank will try everything it can to find an alternate building location. Such a publicly given promise, frankly, seems like the last think that would happen. Why would he bother? And why would he fear bad press? This is a guy that’s been portrayed up to now as the town tyrant, constantly throwing his weight around and lording it over everyone. Somehow I can’t imagine archetypical mean banker Mr. Potter being too concerned in a similar circumstance.
By the way, I have to sadly report that we are only halfway through the movie at this point. Let the *sigh* wackiness continue, I guess.
Mike holds a victory party with Jack as the guest of honor. However, in the next scene Hodgkins is in the parking lot (again, there’s no way this huge complex is fitting here) with a wrecking crew. This is why he never would have told that press that they were looking for an alternate location. The press is a craven beast, but the one thing it can’t abide is being lied to. They’d be flaying Hodgkins mercilessly at this point. Which is why it’s particularly unlikely that he himself would be overseeing the building’s bulldozing. Anyway.
Man, this thing’s killing me. Let’s pick up the pace here. We learn that Hodgkins personally programmed the bank’s mainframe computer (?!!), the one that picked this site for the new branch. Also that Jack has an ‘A’ in Computer Science in school. Hmm, I think I see where this may be going. Unfortunately, it looks like it’s going to take another forty minutes to get there.
Jack hijacks a construction trailer (?) and drags it into the road, causing what in real life would undoubtedly be a fatal car crash. Meanwhile, a motorcycle cop, inevitably the ‘goofy’ one from the car chase earlier in the picture, in nearby and almost crashes himself. After Hodgkins tells him to arrest Jack -- yeah, like maybe he wouldn’t have thought of that one himself -- another lackluster ‘comic’ chase scene begins, all accompanied by imitation Smokey and the Bandit country music (!!). Said chase causes numerous other near crashes and several pedestrians almost get run down, and at this point I couldn’t figure out why we’re supposed to be rooting for Jack anymore. He’s way more dangerous than Hodgkins is.
Jack escapes by flying away (in broad daylight!!). He then takes an air tour of the city, via helicopter stock footage, over what now appears to be Los Angeles or some other huge burg. So where the hell are we? The entire movie seems to take place in a suburban area, but then the chase progressed down deserted country roads, and now we learn that all this is supposedly happening in some vast metropolis. I especially like how Jack says "There’s Hodgkin’s bank" as they fly over some fifty story building. Buying the inept Hodgkins as a powerful banker in a one-horse town was bad enough. The revelation that he’s a major figure in a major city multiplies the stupidity of all this on a quantum level. This extends pretty far back, too. For instance, why is Jack’s Mom having so much trouble finding a job in this gigantic city?
When Jack returns home Hodgkins show up (?) with the cops. Only, get this, they don’t arrest Jack, they seize his dirt bike. (!!) Yeah, and when the police went to Jeffrey Dahlmer’s place they confiscated his pots and pans. "The bike will be at the city jail," Jack and his Mom are told. "The bail will be a hundred bucks." For a dirt bike. ‘Bail.’ How can you even write dialog like that without your brain exploding? And again, I want to point out that Jack not only caused the destruction of an entire construction trailer, but also at least one major car crash. What do you have to do to get arrested in this town? Then they act like Hodgkins is being all menacing when he threatens to have Jack arrested if he’s seen by the construction site again. C’mon, what, are they going to wait until Jack’s path is strewn with body parts before doing something about him?
That evening Jack cries himself to sleep (like a damn little girl!) and has a nightmare involving the demolition of Mike’s hot dog place. Well, no, actually. See, the producers couldn’t afford to film that, so his dream actually consists of a bulldozer creeping carefully up and batting over one of the large plywood hot dogs that decorate the place. Wow, that kid’s got himself one vivid imagination.
Anyway, his Mom conveniently leaves the house for a "late job interview." (??) Mike then gets a call saying that he can come pick up his bike. At the station we learn that Mike has paid the ‘bail.’ No, wait, it’s Rita who paid it. (Rita? The worker at the bank? The shy one with glasses, who managed the opposing baseball…oh, never mind.) See, here’s how the scene is structured. Jack enters and talks to the desk officer. The bike is wheeled out into the lobby. Then Mike happens to enter the scene via one of the lobby’s side doors. Then, after telling Jack that it wasn’t him who paid the bail, Rita similarly enters the room. Not exactly the most naturalistic blocking I’ve ever seen. Especially since it’s only now that Mike gets up the nerve to ask Rita out for a cup of coffee. To which I have to ask, if they’ve not been going out, how come they’ve been together in almost every scene?
Some might say, hey, "Ken, aren’t you being a little hard on this movie. I mean, it’s a kid’s flick, after all." And I thought about that. But really, let’s look at the target audience here.
I was shocked to learn that Peter Billingsley was fifteen when he made this. I’ve have guessed ten, maybe twelve, tops. I actually wondered if he has that Gary Coleman thing after seeing that. Unfortunately, I can’t find a birth year for co-star Chad Sheets (Bowman). Yet he also appeared to my untrained eye to be, maybe, ten to twelve. So let’s say that that’s roughly the age the film is meant for. To loosen things up, let’s say eight to fourteen year-olds. (Although I think I’m being generous on the older end of the scale, given the level of writing here. On the other hand, considering some of the content, I’d say that the eight to ten year-olds might be off, too. Actually, this is a film that seems to have been made for no one.)
Now, I can tell you what my favorite movie was when I was eight. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It came out in 1971 and I must have seen it four or five times. So even though I was at the low end of the above theoretical age range, I still gained the most enjoyment from a film that in no way talked down to me. In fact I still love it, and not out of nostalgia but because it was designed to appeal to both kids and adults.
Dirt Bike Kid, however, is the kind of the film that assumes that kids are basically morons and that things should be kept simple for them. Well, on the behalf of the youngsters of America, I say screw you, guys.
Summation: Won't somebody think about the children?!
Plot: Look at the title.
OK, back to the Mystery Video Tape Archive here at Chez Begg. Per usual, I don’t want to check out the plot description, but the front of the box promises "An Untamed Land – A Superhuman Warrior." There’s some Frazetta knock-off cover art, featuring the obligatory sword-swinging barbarian hero with the equally requisite supine, half-dressed female clutching his leg. There’s also a big tiger and a hawk on display, presumably to lure in fans of Beastmaster. [Future Ken: There is a tiger for about five seconds in the beginning of the movie, but it doesn’t really do anything. I don’t even remember seeing a hawk, although I think there was a shot of an owl.]
I start the tape, and ah, the logo of our old friends at Prism Video (see Bimini Code). Here should follow the string of trailers for films you never heard of…yep. First is one for this very movie, which I skipped for obvious reasons. We’ll get back later after the film’s over. [Future Ken: And so I did, and it was nothing special. They do get the plot wrong, though, with the hero’s brother – see below -- falsely represented as becoming an "Overlord of Evil."]
We open our barbarian movie in outer space. Yep, this was made in Italy, all right. Cue some silly and hilariously pretentious narration about The Cosmos and the Big Bang and Evolution and the Dawn of Life and so on. This has nothing to do with anything, but it allows them to cut in some extraneous stock footage of stop-animated pterodactyls fighting it out. Then more stock stuff that features a T-Rex or an allosaur fighting a triceratops. I’m assuming this was borrowed from one or two of the Hammer dinosaur movies. I’m not complaining, you can never get enough stop-animated dinosaurs. Still, talk about padding.
So Man arose. This happened in the "Fourth Millennium of the Third Illumination," for those keeping track. In fact, we learn of a legend. "In the Fifth Millennium, when the planets were aligned under the Fifth Illumination, an omen will appear announcing the birth of the Chosen One." There’s always a Chosen One in these things. Thank you, Joseph Campbell. Anyway, the omen appears, "but the stars had uhrred [they mean ‘erred,’ but that’s how the narrator pronounces it, like he’s William F. Buckley or something] in their courses." And so the omen brings instead terror, via the marauding hordes of an Obligatory Evil Warlord. Of course, we’ll watch these hordes slaughter some Innocent Villagers, just to get the point across.
Before this occurs, though, the village leader’s wife gives birth. (Hmm…) We also get our first taste of the film’s even-worse-than-usual dubbing, not to mention the laughable wigs many of actors were provided with. However, instead of one baby, twin boys are born. We have things to do here, so about two seconds after this they hear the Thundering Hooves of the Evil Marauding Hordes. Like all twelve of them. Still, they cunningly employ the old riding-before-the-camera-in-circles techniques to make their numbers look bigger. Needless to say, the Wise Old Midwife – who has the worst wig of all -- is sent running off with the twins. This done, the poorly choreographed Slaughter of the Innocents can begin.
Soon Evil Henchguys are in pursuit of the Midwife. This innovative sequence is filmed in a series of foot level shots, apparently the work of an Italian relative of Doris Wishman. The Midwife makes it to a beach somewhere and dies. Her body, and the twin boys, are found by some mini-skirted women warriors, who take the babies to rear as members of their tribe. Where the pursuers chasing the old woman went is left to our imaginations.
The twins are reared by the tribe, per the prophecy. Something’s wrong, though, or so the Narrator tells us. "The Laws of Nature had somehow been violated." We cut back to stock footage of explosions and tidal waves and other bad stuff. "The spirit of the Starchild [!!] could find no resting place for its ceaseless search. No home for its futile wanderings. The Heavens grieved. The elements rebelled. The Universe took its revenge on Man, who had dared to oppose the Natural Order of things." I don’t have a frickin’ clue what he’s talking about. Anyway, deserts flood, seas become dry, yada yada. We see some hurricane-type footage that I think may have come from Son of Godzilla. This narration-‘n-stock footage fest goes on at some length. I mean, like minutes on end. And if anything the baloney factor keeps rising as things go along.
This is all the result, as near as I can tell, of the spirit of the great god Zukan (or some damn thing; the video box says ‘Gunan,’ but that’s not even in the ballpark) being split among the two kids. The narration makes it sound like these apocalyptic events go on for hundreds or thousands of years, but when we cut back to the kids they’ve merely become two muscular young men. One is blond and the other has black hair, so at least we can tell them apart. The women, known as the Kuniat, set the two a’fightin’, which they do rather lamely. Apparently they don’t like each other much. Oddly, even though all this decades-long revolt of nature stuff happened, everybody still seems to be around. So the heroes still have a villain to avenge themselves upon.
The black haired brother goes to visit Marga, the village wise-woman. Although she’s youngish for this job (it turns out the women of this tribe are immortals – whatever), she has a bowl exuding dry ice fog, not to mention a snake, so we know what she is. It turns out that neither boy was ever given a name. The prophecy provided only one moniker, and they didn’t know who to give it to. Brunette Guy knocks her to the floor in a fit of anger, and in a poor optical effect she very slowly turns into a extremely bored looking lion. I think she’s supposed to be enraged, but the actress isn’t helping us much here. Oh, and you can see the restraining chain around the lion’s neck if you look closely enough.
There’s some mystical babble which doesn’t amount to much. To sum up, there’s gonna be a match between the two brothers, and the winner will be named Zukan the Invincible. Then the Heavens should be satisfied and stop acting out. And so the contest begins, rather like the various challenges on Survivor. First is a footrace. This hilariously is accompanied by really bad Chariots of Fire knock-off music and, of course, largely filmed in slo-mo. It’s also apparent that the film was shot in some extreme widescreen format, and that the panning-and-scanning on the video ain’t helping any.
The next leg is a horse race. Continue the slo-mo. Once they finish that, it’s a swordfight. Because the framing is locked in the middle of the image (there’s not any actual ‘panning’), we don’t really see much of it. Eventually the blonde brother wins, although he refrains from actually killing the Brunette one. And so Blondie is named Zukan and given the traditional bigass Mystical Sword. Marga shows him via the obligatory Mystical Pool the face of Noriak, the Evil Warlord who killed his parents. (The video box refers to Noriak as ‘Magen,’ but there’s no way my hearing’s that bad.) Brunette Guy, who I’ll call Bob, is spying and sees all this also. It turns out that Noriak had seduced Zukan’s mum. This is the act that resulted in the whole ill-fated twins thing and nature’s revenge and all that.
Bob steals the amulet of Zukan, which he accomplishes because his ‘godlike’ brother is a very sound sleeper, and leaves the village. Two minutes later he’s run across Noriak performing various sundry acts of evil. Like he tells one prisoner that she’s free to go, and then he has her killed. That sort of thing. As you might have expected, Noriak is looking for Zukan. Then he’ll kill him and prevent the prophecy from coming true. You know, that’s the same plan all these guys have, and it never works. Anyway, Bob, presents himself to Noriak as Zukan, whereupon he is swiftly killed. (I guess the tribe picked the right guy.)
The real Zukan shows up and finds that in death Bob’s head has turned to wax and been mounted on a post. Zukan’s quite broken up about this and cries like a girl, even though earlier the brothers seemed to hate each other. Needless to say, he also takes to opportunity to vow his revenge. Luckily Noriak left the Amulet of Zukan behind (?!), so he reclaims it and takes off. Soon he’s single-handedly slaying a band of Noriak’s brigands by running his mystical blade along the outsides of their bodies. This is all shot in slo-mo and adds up to one of the most boring action sequences I’ve ever seen. Still, the wigs of the villains are hilarious.
Noriak is chagrined to hear of these events, since he believes he slayed Zukan. (By the way, all of the sudden his hair and beard are all gray, although in the scene when he killed Bob – supposedly a few days ago – both were noticeably black.) He orders Zukan’s death, but his men are frightened. So Noriak vows to do the job himself.
Meanwhile, Zukan is scouting out some more of Noriak’s men. He hides himself while doing this, although he leaves his sword sticking up from the ground in plain sight. The men approach the Sword and Zukan swims up behind them and attacks. Apparently his great powers included striking his opponents deaf and blind, because otherwise this never would have worked. And while they’re stealing from various legends, one guy tries to pull the Sword from the ground but can’t. Soon all the bad guys are dead, two by being tossed into a lake. This doesn’t seem overly fatal, but then Zukan can kill his foes by lightly hitting them with a Sword that clearly doesn’t cut through anything. Which probably explains why the blade never gets any blood on it.
Zukan catches up with Noriak, who seems like a sort of minor thug considering all this Cosmic Prophecy jazz. Zukan easily could have killed him, but he’s a bit of a motor mouth. Besides, we’re only fifty minutes into the film. After a long speech he prepares to deliver the fatal blow but instead takes an arrow from one of Noriak’s guards. And so he runs away. (He is tough, though. The arrow hit his back and the head comes out through his chest, and according to its position the shaft must be sticking straight through his heart.)
Somehow, despite seeming to have run maybe a hundred yards away before passing out, Zukan awakens to find himself undetected. Also, his tunic is now off one shoulder, although it wasn’t when he lost consciousness. And the exposed wound is much higher than where the arrowhead was sticking out. Must be the Will of the Gods or something.
Back to the Kuniat village, where female captives are being prepared as breeders. (Why a female tribe of immortals would need children is left to our imaginations.) "Prepare them for copulation!," their leader commands. At this point Zukan the *cough, cough* Invincible comes stumbling into view, half-dead. Gee, I wonder if he and Leni, the blondest and hottest of the captives, will become an item.
Marga the Wise Woman, who apparently has a secret crush on Zukan the Inept, nurses him back to health. This allows for some time-wasting flashbacks to things we’ve already seen. Which are followed by a poorly shot topless scene for Leni. The suddenly healed Zukan is seen looking upon this sight (or sights, technically) with some appreciation. Good thing Leni has been prepared for copulation. After a typically weird all-over-the-map conversation the two end up making out. This, apparently, much to the distress of the nearby Marga.
We next see Zukan and Leni walking hand-in-hand, so it must be love. While walking in the woods three guys jump them and knock Zukan out. Frankly, that ‘invincible’ tag is getting a bit tattered. And wasn’t this the same guy who earlier was slaughtering foes by the dozen? Apparently they’re just three dudes looking to rape Leni, allowing for another, if rather more distasteful, topless bit. Since Zukan’s suddenly tied to a tree there's not much he can do about the situation. (Why is he still alive?) Luckily the three dudes start brawling over who gets firsties with Leni. She runs off (still topless) during this and a chase scene results. Then the ropes suddenly fall off of Zukan (?) and he follows. He wreaks his vengeance and the extraneous time-wasting scene is over.
Zukan carries the topless Leni back to her little dress and helps her put it back on. This involves snaking a cord through the leather outfits’ metal rimmed eyelets and drawing the fashionable outfit tight. I guess now that her breasts are covered we’ll have to be content with her taut be-thonged buttocks. Leni is concerned about what will become of her when Zukan leaves on his quest. He tells her not to worry, as he’s sure Marga the Wise Woman will see to her safety. Well, folks, that’s why the film isn’t called The Astute Barbarian.
Back at the village, though, we see Zukan being exiled from the village. Why? They don’t really say, so I’m assuming it was against the rules for him to sleep with Leni. Or something. In any case, I’m sure the jealous Marga is behind it. He demands that Leni be allowed to come with him, and they refuse, so he offers to engage in your basic ceremonial battle to the death for her. Marga is terrified at this, for the Kuniat warriors are considered invincible in combat. And so Zukan faces off in slo-mo with a woman half his size, whose fighting moves pretty easily fail to live up to the billing. Still, I guess she is a great warrior after all. I mean, whenever Zukan failed to hit anyone with his sword before they died anyway. She doesn’t. In any case, he quickly gets her on the ropes, but her magic shield throws a whammy on him or something.
Still, he’s impressed the Kuriat with his courage, and Leni is given to him. Plus he gets to stay in the village until he kills his Pops. A severe Italian close-up reveals that Marga is less than pleased with this. Later she summons Our Hero to her tent, before which she removes her slip and lies down on her bed in her own leather bikini. She thinks he’s come for a little action, but instead he merely asks that she watch over Leni for him. He’s a little surprised when he finally figures out what she’s after, because to touch one of the Kuniat is forbidden. He just walks away and she more or less shakes her fist at him and does one of those "I’ll get you!" sort of things.
Soon a mounted Marga (I mean she’s on a horse, you perverts) is leading a bound Leni through the woods. They end up in a cave and ominous music plays. It turns out to be the cave that Noriak and her followers live in, and that Marga intends to make a gift to him of Leni. Man, those women scorned, eh? His henchmen proves a tad surly ("Get out, or I’ll kill you," one offers), but Noriak bids them enter. Marga explain that Leni is Zukan’s special friend and can be used as bait against him. Her Mission of Evil accomplished, Marga takes her leave.
Zukan, meanwhile, is preparing for his own mission by doing one handed push-ups. He quits upon leaning that Leni is Noriak’s prisoner. He’s so pissed (I’m guessing; again, the actor’s not helping me much here) that he refuses to take one of the Kuniat’s magic shields with him. He’d prefer instead to slay Noriak without mystical help. Although he does take his sword with him. Isn’t that magical? I can’t remember, and I really don’t care enough to go back to figure it out.
The Village Leader Chick warns Zukan that he’s playing into Noriak’s hands. Our Hero is undeterred. "I will kill that bastard Noriak with my own hands!" he boasts. "I swear it to you!" And so he goes off running – why yes, in slow motion – over to Noriak’s cave. Where ten seconds later he gets caught in a net. Good one, oh, Invincible Barbarian. Meanwhile, back home Marga is still spewing bile. "I admit I was the one who had Leni brought to Noriak," she proclaims. "It’s an example of how pride, treachery and inflexibility finish up. We’ve all become a bunch of crybabies and weaklings! All of it that overgrown monkey’s fault!" Leader Chick warns that if anything bad happens to Zukan it’ll go poorly for her.
Back at Noriak’s cave, we see the yet again topless Leni standing at attention. Noriak is taunting Zukan at some ponderous length before killing him, so I guess the trait runs in the family. We now see that Our Hero is laying on a table with a bunch of spikes secured over him. Before he dies, however, Noriahk has one last hideous torture in store. This involves having the topless Leni lain atop Zukan’s prone figure. "Let me refresh your memory about what you’re going to lose," Noriak sneers. Well, if you gotta go…
Noriak starts having the spikes lowered and they start penetrating Leni’s back. (Nice movie.) Then the bad guys leave, knowing that the spikes will slowly work their way deeper into her body. "The poor thing will die in your arms," Noriak gloats. Man, when are villains gonna learn to just kill the hero rather than leaving him unobserved in these elaborate death traps?
After they go, Leni manages to slide off the ropes binding her wrists, probably because they were really, really loose. Her back bleeding profusely, if not very convincingly, she unties Zukan’s bonds. Soon they are free. Gee, if only Noriak had left a guard. He did leave Zukan’s sword there, though.
Actually, it turns out the two are locked behind bars, but they’re the kind you can open from the inside. (!!) Prison technology wasn’t very advanced in the Fifth Millennium of the Fifth Illumination. Zukan sends Leni off and begins searching for his father. Then a Kuniat war party shows up, pretty much out of nowhere. Apparently they also have the mystical ability to know when the climax of the movie is at hand. The fighting gets so fierce that we actually see wounds and even some blood on Zukan’s sword. Meanwhile, the Kuniat chicks slaughter their foes at will, since they have the advantage of magic weapons. Jeez, why not give them tanks and submachine guns while you’re at it?
Soon only Noriak is left alive, and it’s time for a slo-mo battle of extraordinary lameness. Eventually he gets his belly slit open by Zukan’s sword (so much for that "kill him with my bare hands" stuff) and stands there groaning for about a minute straight – literally – before Zukan polishes him off.
So Zukan and Leni bid farewell to the Kuniat and the Narrator comes back and bores us one last time, this time about Zukan’s sword. "In the fifteenth illumination," he portends, "it came into the possession of a noble and worthy king who used it to dispense justice in a distant kingdom called Camelot." And thereafter is a sequel to Invincible Barbarian foretold. I guess we should have been cheering on Noriak after all.
Summation: Makes Ator movies look quite awesome.
Plot: Uh, there’s a big snake, and…
Geez Louise, the last thing I expected when I rented this movie was that I’d like it.
Now, everyone has different tastes for this kind of thing, so let me give you some perimeters here. Let’s see…I liked Anaconda. Didn’t love it, but I liked it. (On the other hand, King Cobra was so boring that I fast forwarded through about half of it, and believe me, I’ve sat through some boring crap in my time.) Deep Blue Sea was lame. So was Lake Placid. The recent TV movie trilogy of Octopus, Crocodile and Spiders ranged from, respectively, poor to lame to not bad. Probably the best giant monster movies I’ve seen in the last number of years, and these are modest winners, were Deep Rising and Ticks.
Actually, the sad thing is that a modestly successful film like Python, a movie that can be accurately summed up as "dumb fun," stands so much taller than most of its brethren. Us genre fans are so used to complete garbage, I guess, that a film that doesn’t completely insult us warrants enthusiasm. Python’s plusses are ones that any film should provide. A little wit. People who can actually act. A cast of characters that we can actually apart, who are likeable and aren’t complete idiots. Is that too much to ask? Apparently. Deep Blue Sea couldn’t provide any of those (although it did waste some good actors), and it cost, conservatively, twenty times or thirty times what Python must have.
Again, the thing to bear in mind here is that Python is a flawed film. It can fall back on the same old clichés, and its budget kept its monster from being as convincing as it could be. But that’s OK, because the monster is often the least important bit. I only wish more movies understood that.
We open on a cargo plane containing a Mysterious Monster Box. (Character actor Ed Lauter is the pilot, and pretty much wasted on a nothing part.) A guy hears noises from it, as you tend to from MMBs. The pilots orders him to open it up, and he cracks a plank, and screams, and the thing inside breaks out, and the plane crashes, etc. At this point I was rolling my eyes, expecting another frustrating viewing experience. I mean, is the snake -- that’s what was in the MMB, in case the title didn’t clue you in – supposed to be able to break out because a guy with a crowbar broke part of its crate? Because this thing is so huge that the thought it would be stored in a wooden box is moronic to begin with. Again, I was here expecting the worst. (The director on the commentary track notes that someone else filmed this bit at the producer’s request, and it was tacked on after he had finished the film.)
Cut to the small town of Ruby. Here we get a typical cast of characters. John is a pro dirt biker who left town and has since returned. He ended up back with his old girlfriend Kristie, who had been engaged to his one-time high school friend, Deputy Greg Larson. Needless to say, things have become strained between John and Greg. John’s best friend is Tommy (Wil Wheaton!), a slacker type with dyed purple hair. His girlfriend is Theresa. There’s a mad scientist, Dr. Anton Rudolph (Robert Englund!) and a gov’ment spOOk, Bart Parker (Casper Van Dien!). Rounding us out is Kenny "The Closer" Summers, Ruby’s most successful business man; Lewis, the irritating comic relief deputy; and Sheriff Griff, the town’s Andy Griffith-ish law officer.
To make my point about how a merely decent movie sadly seems better than it should, I will list both some good and bad points about the film. One of the things that pushes Python over into the ‘good’ column is that things that look bad at first are then turned into good things. This might be a seeming cliché that receives a deft twist, or merely a better than usual execution of a tired concept.
Bad: First, the snake we see later would not fit in that cargo crate. Second, there’s no way that crate could hold it.
Good: It’s always nice to see a familiar face like Ed Lauter.
Bad: It’s a nothing part for him, though.
Good: The CGI effects at the beginning are generally serviceable.
Bad: Even under the captain’s orders, it’s a bad idea to open a "top secret" crate covered with warning labels.
Bad: We open with lovers having sex in the woods. They will be our first victims. (After, that is, the guys in the inserted cargo plane sequence.)
Good: During the sex scene we realize that both of the participants are women. This is a funny twist, the first of several modestly successful gags the film will toss us. Now, some will complain that the film is ‘punishing’ lesbians, since its assumed that people who die in horror movies ‘deserve’ it. There’s another way to look at it, though. The lesbian lovers die here after having sex, exactly as heterosexual lovers would have. And yes, they’re being exploited to titillate the audience, but again, so would heterosexuals here. If equality is what we’re going after, then that’s what the film provides. The scene is only offensive if you think that insular minorities, to use the jargon, should solely be portrayed in an unswervingly complimentary fashion.
Bad: OK, time for a moratorium on acid-spitting monsters. Enough already.
Bad: Some early elements that don’t work or are overly obvious include John being a bike champion (why, yes, this does come into play later on in the movie), his goes-nowhere strained relationship with his brother, and the fact that they both run dad’s old chemical plant, one filled with huge vats of acid. This provides circumstantial evidence against John later, when acid eaten bodies are found, as well as, duh, an eventual weapon against the snake.
Bad: Best friend Tommy seems a typical Shaggy-like slacker sidekick. In the first of the film’s characterization twists, however, it turns out that Tommy’s ambition is to be the next Kenny Summers, the town’s highly successful real estate agent. Nor is this mocked (overmuch) by his friends, although they are not overly impressed by his ambitions either.
Bad: Overly obvious false scare with a snake (previously owned by Lisa, one of the female sex partners killed earlier.)
Good: Lisa turns out to have been the town’s, er, sexually emancipated self-actuated young woman. Kristie and Theresa are both annoyed at the way John, Tommy and Greg all seem to have, uh, known her quite well. "Everybody used to date her," is the recurring comment. This sounds pretty lame, but it’s actually done well and manages to be kind of funny.
Bad: Lewis, the comic relief doofus deputy, is just too irritating a character.
Bad: Greg seems a little less shook up seeing Lisa’s horribly mutilated body than I think he should have been.
Bad: The film starts going in too obvious a direction in terms of the investigation into Lisa’s death. First, John used to date her. Then Greg found him with Lisa’s snake. Plus John works in the only place in town with large supplies of acid, plus Greg has a grudge against John because of the Kristie situation.
Good: Although seeming like the kind of plot device that will drag out through much of the movie, and although initially some circumstantial evidence points in John’s direction, Greg himself starts seeing holes in the idea almost immediately. Let me state this again, and as plainly as possible: Greg is pissed off at John but he isn’t monstrously vindictive nor is he an idiot. Nor is the Sheriff, for that matter. How refreshing.
Bad: When we meet Kenny the Closer, he turns out to be the stereotypical blow-hard...
Good: …but not, as most other films would play him, a complete and utter jerk. A standard ploy, for example, would be to have Kenny attempt to sabotage Tommy’s sales in order to get the commissions himself. Think of the role as it might be played by Charles Napier, for example. Here, Kenny actively tries to help Tommy succeed, and is actually kind of likable, if a BS artist.
Good: The film is very successful is promoting the feeling that this is a small town where everyone knows everyone else. A running gag involves young Billy, apparently the town’s Dennis the Menace-type kid.
Good: Jenny McCarthy (!) has a comical cameo as a sexpot potential client of Kenny’s. There’s a surprisingly funny sequence in which they try to seduce each other while looking over a property. Only while McCarthy is trolling for sex, Kenny’s objective is to sell her the house.
Good: Good gravy, Casper Van Dien in this movie is Suck-a-riffic!! (I think he’s basing his role on Marlon Brando’s lisping performance in Reflection of a Golden Eye.) And I love it!! And look at his outfit! A plum blazer, a black crewneck T-Shirt and a gray vest? It’s Miami Vice…for the ‘90s!! Oh, and Casper. Let me be frank, some guys shouldn’t try to grow a mustache. And if they do, they should shave it off when they see it isn’t working.
Bad: Uh, oh, Englund’s playing the all-too-typical Mad Scientist Who Cares More About His Project Than People.
Bad: There is no possible way the snake we see later could hide in that little garage. (This is acknowledged by the director on the disc’s commentary track – they just couldn’t find a bigger garage.)
Good: The snake CGI effects are cheesy, but a good cheesy.
Bad: Except at the end when it sprays acid – that looks too cheesy.
Bad: By the way, back to when I was commenting about whether it was ‘fair’ to ‘punish’ movie characters because they’re having sex. I know this annoys some people (Liz over at the And You Call Yourself a Scientist site is no fan of this trope). Still, isn’t it funny that the same viewers probably wouldn’t even think to question Kenny’s being similarly ‘punished’ -- oops, sorry -- for being a *gasp* high pressure salesman? Also, I’m always weirded out whenever a comic relief character dies such a horrible death.
Good: If you’ve ever wanted to see Jenny McCarthy decapitated by a giant acid-spitting snake – and who hasn’t? – this is the film for you!
Bad: Is that snake supposed to be fouling up the automatic garage door mechanism on purpose? I mean, even if it’s supposed to be smart, how would it know who a garage door opener works?
Bad: John showing up at the house where Kenny and Jenny McCarthy have just been killed is way too coincidental. This is when the whole "John as a murder suspect" thread really started giving me gas.
Good: Although silly, I like the way the initial scenes with Englund and Van Dien in the latter’s office (we cut back and forth from their hostile conversation to the events in Ruby) are filmed like they represented a superstar acting face-off, like the Al Pacino/Robert De Niro in a coffee shop scene in Heat.
Bad: Oh, brother. Smirking Mad Scientist Englund warns Van Dien that he doesn’t know what he’s up against. Van Dien expresses total confidence in his specially trained mercenaries, who are trained to handle anything. I mean, could I please never hear this exchange in any movie ever again?
Bad: Also, I can’t believe that anyone still has the gall to script in the line "We are talking about a perfect killing machine."
Bad: OK, so the snake is really big (129 feet!) and really fast (can travel at upwards of 50 miles an hour). But no way am I believing that its scales could "deflect an anti-tank round." There’s stuff you can get away with and stuff you can’t get away with. And this falls pretty safely into the latter.
Good: The scene where Greg and John blow their tops, get into a cathartic fistfight and then patch things up shouldn’t really work, but it does. Credit the actors mostly, although I have to admit that there’s a reason scenes like this are a cliché. That’s how guys act.
Bad: OK, the comic relief Doofus Deputy is really getting on my nerves.
Bad: I realize they were constrained by budgetary factors, but that team of Super Gov’ment Soljers is pretty motley.
Bad: OK, another thing I never want to hear again? A character obsessed with capturing a monster to use it for weapons research.
Good: Still, I like the fact that Van Dien is actually concerned that people are getting killed. Wow, and him being a Gov’ment SpOOk and all.
Bad: Penalty!! Gratuitous use of slo-mo!!
Bad: The whole scene with the team hunting the snake, thinking they got it and then being killed does nothing for me. I’ve seen it done too many times before, and often better.
Bad: Well, someone’s seen Tremors. And Evil Dead.
Bad: The idea of a giant predator that won’t kill you if you stand real still was dumb in Jurassic Park, and it hasn’t gotten any better in the interim.
Good: The bit where Therese gets caught in the shower (where else?) by the snake and she attempts to defend herself with the rather ineffectual weapons at hand, including no-tears shampoo, a towel and a rubber duck, is pretty funny, and also makes her a little spunkier than most characters in such scenes.
Good: Wow, a character who thinks to grab their car keys while fleeing the monster. What’ll they come up with next?
Bad: Theresa hides in the inevitable small gap in the rocks. There’s some definite Hero’s Death Battle Exemption stuff going on with when the snake decides to spit acid at people. (Actually, the snake was supposed to be spitting acid here, according to the commentary. However, the scene was filmed in a state park and they weren’t allowed to use the fake acid for fear that it would somehow damage the local ecosystem. The filmmakers evince some despair at this turn of events, especially as the ‘acid’ was simple gelatin, not exactly a corrosive or toxic substance.)
Good: I have to say, some of the giant snake stuff here rather pleasantly recalls the giant monster movies of the ‘50s.
Bad: I kind of wish the snake would stop changing size all the time.
Good: Yay! Deputy Lewis got killed!!
Good: Wow, the Mad Scientist is actually showing remorse. Go figure.
Bad: So you’re being chased by a giant monster, and you find shelter, but you don’t close the door behind you?!! Please.
Bad: I’m sorry, but people confronting the imminent deaths of their friends and neighbors don’t make wisecracks. C’mon, folks, you’ve been writing better characters than that.
Bad: Sheriff Griff just flat out disappears from the movie. I’m assuming he supposedly got killed, but we never find out. At one point he’s there, then we never see him again.
Bad: Hmm, their plan to capture the snake in the underground bunker seems to leave an awful lot to chance.
Bad: So that giant explosion still didn’t kill the snake? Now we’re just getting silly.
Bad: Why are the characters reacting to the giant snake before it breaks through the wall?
Bad: Uh, why is there an exposed electrical lead just hanging there? I don’t know, wouldn’t that be against OSHA safety regulations or something?
Bad: Didn’t he just fire that six shot revolver like nine times?
Bad: Yep, definite Hero’s Death Battle Exemption stuff.
Good: The acting ranges almost exclusively from serviceable to quite good, with a surprising amount of the players on the latter end of the scale. I especially like William Zabka as Deputy Larson. Meanwhile, Robert "Freddy Krueger" Englund, an actor I’ve become wary of, does some good work here. He finally seems to be accepting the fact that he isn’t the new Karloff or Lugosi or Cushing or whatever. Instead, as shown here, his main chance is as the new Donald Pleasance. Let’s hope he takes the hint. Of all the actors, and I’m including Jenny McCarthy, only Van Dien – what’s sustaining this guy’s career, anyway? – provides an all-out horrible performance. And it’s so bad that it’s a pleasure to watch. His hideous "Southern" (I think) accent alone is worth the price of a rental.
As the above list shows, this is hardly a perfect film. Still, the goods outweigh the bads here.
The disc also provides an interesting commentary track with director Richard Clabaugh, Visual Effects Director Andrew Hofman and Visual Effects Artist Kevin Little. As usual, commentaries by people who’ve made low-budget films are often more entertaining and informative than one’s for big budget studio films.
What’s especially intriguing here is the general and quite evident dissatisfaction the three evince with their product. Despite making a pretty decent little film, especially under the circumstances (again, compared to Deep Blue Sea they have little to apologize for), they tend to chew over what could have been had they a bit more time and money. This somewhat reminds me of Joe Dante’s commentary for Piranha, another novice director (at the time) who apparently was overly unimpressed with his efforts. Maybe the fact that the filmmakers remain ambivalent towards work that is actually reasonably good – unlike, say, the smug commentary provided by the makers of the horrendously boring King Cobra – isn’t entirely coincidental.
Another element worth mentioning is the tension between the filmmakers, especially tyro director Clabaugh and Little, who provided the CGI snake effects. Clabaugh remains unhappy with many of the rushed computer generated effects in the film. He mentions more than once a prosthetic snake head he feels he should have used more extensively. Little, meanwhile, obviously believes his computer effects to be the much better technique and is defensive about less than perfect shots that were necessitated by the rushed production schedule. (While it’s impossible to say without seeing how the scenes would have worked with the prop head, I have to admit a preference for practical effects over computer ones. So I’m going to side with Clabaugh on this.)
This eventually comes to a head, with Clabaugh all but trashing Little’s work while Little argues that his effects in fact saved the film. This seems like either an old argument or a long simmering one, and things become pretty heated. Just when voices started getting raised, though, we hit a short silent section on the commentary; apparently the recording session was stopped until the participants calmed down. Still, this all represents an honesty regarding the compromises inherent to filmmaking that I’ve never heard on any other commentary track.
Clabaugh and Hofman provide most of the commentary. Having worked together for UFO, the production company that made the film, they seem to have a natural rapport. There’s much conversation throughout on the compromises engendered by the sparse eighteen-day shooting schedule. Unsurprisingly, bitching is also heard about how the film’s producer, Phil Roth, screwed around with the picture. Roth, for example, was responsible for the prolog sequence in the cargo plane. He also was the one who suggested (and shot) the lesbian sex scene.
Despite the paucity of his contributions, Little remains the real smart ass of the group. In retrospect, his comments display a certain level of frustration and hostility towards the picture that climaxes during his snit with Clabaugh over the effects. Little’s withering remarks on Van Dien’s acting are hilarious, especially given that commentators on these things generally go out of their way to praise their coworkers.
As someone who mostly performs post-production work, Little perhaps felt free to be snide about the on-camera ‘talent.’ Actors and directors and such, on the other hand, may be understandably reticent about attacking people they may end up working with again in the future. (Or wanting to work with. You can’t afford to alienate someone who may go on to become a star; who knew that out of the various performers in the typically skid row slasher flick He Knows You’re Alone that bit player Tom Hanks would become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars?) In fact, if you listen closely, Clabaugh initially keeps trying to steer things back to safer shoals whenever Little starts ripping on things.
Summation: A rare better-than-expected monster movie.
-by Ken Begg