Thursday, August 9, 2007

Deeds Not Words?

Time for another installment in my tribute to the summer films of 1982! With our upcoming September Fantasmo dedicated to the films of Hal Needham (more info coming soon), I thought it a good time to highlight the film that marked the beginning of the end of his directing career – Megaforce. In a summer that was filled to the brim with classic films, Megaforce was the odd man out . . . an indefensible turkey! Still, I must confess upfront that Megaforce holds a special place in my heart . . .

Given that the only individuals likely to remember Megaforce are those who grew up in the early 80’s, a brief synopsis is probably necessary. In a nutshell, super soldier Ace Hunter (Barry Bostwick) leads a top secret, international military team known as Megaforce against worldwide threats to peace. When Ace’s former ally Guerera (Henry Silva) decides to invade a country with his crew of mercenaries, Ace/Megaforce spring into action to put an end to his diabolical plans. Mayhem ensues.

That’s a pretty generic plotline, and in most cases would not make for a very interesting film. Certainly to pit such a film against the likes of Blade Runner, The Thing, Star Trek 2, etc., seems ill-advised (and indeed it was). However, Megaforce defies all odds and is undeniably memorable not for its story, but for its awe-inspiringly horrid execution. Director Needham manages to fill every frame of the picture with tired action clich├ęs, ridiculous dialogue, inappropriate wardrobe, and some of the worst special effects to grace the silver screen. How could such a film be unleashed in the competitive summer season on an unsuspecting public? Deeds not words baby!

Up until Megaforce, Hal Needham (formerly a Hollywood stuntman) had managed to helm a string of highly successful action pictures (several featuring Burt Reynolds) including: Smokey and the Bandit, Hooper, The Villain, Smokey and the Bandit II, and The Cannonball Run. In fact, most folks tend to forget that Smokey and the Bandit was the second-highest grossing film of 1977 (right behind Star Wars)! As a result of this success, Needham had generated a good deal of respect from the studios (if not from the critics). With this in mind, putting him in charge of a big summer action movie such as Megaforce was not an unreasonable course of action. Unfortunately, Needham’s luck was about to run out . . . big time.

In and of itself, the plot of the film is standard Needham. Have hero . . . have villain . . . have lots of vehicle stunts and explosions . . . roll credits. Where things go horribly awry begins with the casting. Burt Reynolds was busy making The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, so Needham had to find a new leading man. So who does he choose? Barry Bostwick?!? Not to take anything away from Mr. Bostwick, but he doesn’t exactly scream action hero (except in the comical sense he portrayed in The Rocky Horror Picture Show). To make matters worse, Needham outfitted him in a bleach blond hairdo, baby blue headband, and a tight-fitting spandex jumpsuit (standard issue to all members of Megaforce). I don’t know what image you conjure when thinking of the leader of an elite military unit, but that certainly isn't what I'd have in mind. The cast is then rounded out by a team of B-list ne’er do wells including: Michael Beck (Xanadu), Persis Khambatta (Warrior of the Lost World), Edwin Mulhare (Knight Rider), and Henry Silva (Alligator). To be fair, I love all those actors, but their presence does not bode well for creating a summer blockbuster.

Next on the list of problems is the script. Even for the director of The Cannonball Run this is some truly amazing stuff. It’s hard to completely fault the actors when they are given such mercilessly cheesy dialogue to spout. If you enjoy endless discussion of blatantly implausible military tactics, dead on arrival jokes, and largely non-amusing repartee, prepare to be blown away. The only moments that have any life are when Beck hams it up as a country bumpkin, and a couple of lively interchanges between Bostwick and Silva. Otherwise it’s a train wreck of epic proportions. Here are a few samples:

#1 - Dallas (Michael Beck) is insulted by Megaforce’s resident genius Egg (George Furth):

Egg: Dallas, if a person doesn’t have less on, they have . . .

Dallas: More on.

Egg: Exactly.

#2 – Dallas tries to comfort Ace (Bostwick) before a combat drop:

Dallas: You love 'em in blue, and you love 'em in red, but most of all you love 'em in blue.

Ace: That’s totally inapplicable to anything that’s going on here, and it’s dumb. Who told you that?

Dallas: You did.

Ace: But it’s very wise.

#3 – Perhaps the greatest line of the film comes when Ace faces off against Guerera (Silva) after his team escapes a trap:

Ace: Oh Duke, I just thought I’d remind you that the good guys always win . . . even in the 80’s! (Personal note: I like to drop this line in casual conversation frequently).

Imagine a film filled with this sort of writing and you have a pretty good idea of what to expect.

Perhaps the most egregious error on the part of Needham is what should be his greatest strength – the action and effects. Specializing in stunt work, Needham is mysteriously asleep at the wheel here. He does manage to assemble an impressive number of cool-looking vehicles, but then puts them through rather uninspired chases and battles. While watching the film, there are really no stunts that stand out as interesting or memorable, with the exception perhaps of Ace Hunter’s introduction in the beginning of the film (which is more due to Bostwick’s silly appearance than the stunt itself). Furthermore, the effects work is perhaps the worst I’ve ever seen in a major studio release (and I’ve seen a lot in my time). Blue screens are the order of the day, and Needham uses them with a vengeance. A scene featuring a skydiving tryst between Bostwick and Khambatta, and a rocket cycle escape by Ace in the finale are perhaps the most uncalled for blue screen sequences in the history of the cinema!

I have to believe that if in fact there was a test screening process (or at least a screening for the studio execs), Megaforce would not have received the high profile release bestowed upon it. No right thinking individual could possibly come to the conclusion that this film could compete in the summer season, or any other for that matter. It is so inept at every juncture, that the only possible assessment of its chances at financial success was imminent misfortune. Either way, Megaforce was launched with a publicity campaign to end all publicity campaigns. You literally could not pick up a genre magazine or comic book that summer without seeing Ace Hunter’s smiling visage staring back at you from the back cover, beneath a banner proclaiming “deeds not words.” And of course there was an obligatory toy line and Atari 2600 video game, not to mention an official Megaforce fan club (talk about overconfidence)!

Despite the forceful marketing push, nothing could save Megaforce from a bevy of critical derision and audience aversion. Bowing on June 25, 1982, the film was skewered and disappeared quickly, practically killing the careers of all involved. Only Bostwick managed to keep his head above water, but he never became an A-lister. Michael Beck and Persis Khambatta, both promising talents, were relegated to obscurity. Hal Needham, incredibly, was given a reprieve with the following summer’s high profile action/comedy Stroker Ace (again starring Burt Reynolds). If it was possible to outdo the horror of Megaforce, Needham succeeded with flying colors (in the process also destroying Reynold’s reputation). While he would get a few more chances to direct studio films (including the ill-fated Cannonball Run II), his decline was a mostly a foregone conclusion.

So why does Megaforce hold such a special place in my heart given its admittedly poor characteristics? Because it is the most gleefully awful film I have ever seen. I think everyone has that one guilty pleasure film that for whatever reason they love and defend to the death. My guilty pleasure was born in a cruddy mall cinema in the summer of ‘82, as I watched the dreadful spectacle that is Megaforce unfold. Even then I knew I had been sold a bill of goods that bore no resemblance to the promised experience. Nevertheless, it was fun to laugh at Megaforce that afternoon and during countless HBO screenings throughout the early 80’s (for some reason it was played on a regular basis for years).

It’s a bit hard to find now on video (having been released years ago on VHS and CED disc), but if you love bad cinema (and are a summer of '82 completist) it’s required viewing. There is even a widescreen DVD import from Japan that is worth investing in if you’re crazy like me (deeds not words). After all, to truly appreciate the visual grandeur of Needham’s canvas, you absolutely must witness Ace Hunter’s feats of derring-do in the original theatrical aspect ratio. Anything less would be uncivilized : )

On a closing note, you can see Megaforce star Michael Beck in action at 10:00 p.m. tonight (8/9) at The Boot in Norfolk, as Klaxar’s Focus Group screens another notorious 80’s flick . . . Xanadu! Admission is $3.00. For more info contact Klaxar regular George Booker at:


Pamela K. Kinney said...

How can you forget that Persis Khambatta was also in the first Star Trek movie: Star Trek: the Motion Picture. And believe it or not, my husband loved this film. We saw this when it came out in the theaters at the time. It was okay, but I just wasn't thinking it would win film of the year.

Jim Blanton said...

Oh believe me, I didn't forget . . . I just didn't want to mention Star Trek: TMP in the same breath as Megaforce (which again, I do love in a wacky sort of way : )

She also co-starred with Sylvester Stallone, Billy Dee Williams, and Rutger Hauer in the terrific 1981 thriller Night Hawks. Makes you wonder how she ended up in Megaforce!

Anonymous said...

Good guys always win...even in the 80's. (no www. on that)