Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Movie Review(s): The Octagon (1980) & Ninja III: The Domination (1984)

I’ve never done a double-review here on the blog, but I happened to watch these two gems within a week of each other and it struck me as appropriate (and I just can’t bring myself to do a whole column on The Octagon). You see The Octagon and Ninja III: The Domination sort of represent the beginning and end of the greatest era of the ninja film. To be sure there have been many films after Ninja III: The Domination (including the entire American Ninja series) that highlighted these shadowy figures, but the window between 1980-1984 was where all things ninja captured the public imagination. Prior to this moment in time martial arts stardom was the domain of Bruce Lee and kung fu style pictures, and afterward came heroes such as Van Damme and Seagal. Those eras were marked by personalities and marquee names, but the cycle of the ninja was more about the mystique of this particular brand of “kung-fu treachery” (my new favorite term courtesy of Black Dynamite). Ninjas employed stealth and a deadly arsenal of wild looking weaponry to practice the art of assassination, and for some reason a generation of 13-year-old boys thought that was pretty cool. Actually I guess a lot of boys aged 17+ did as well, but my local mall cinema didn’t get too stingy on the whole ratings system guidelines. As the films that kicked this trend off and brought it to an end, The Octagon and Ninja III: The Domination are interesting to view in the context of the phenomenon's alpha and omega.

In The Octagon Chuck Norris plays a karate champion named Scott James. He was raised by a foster father/martial arts master, who trained him in the deadly arts alongside his own son (played by Space Academy’s Brian Tochi in a rare evil role). This relationship plays out in flashback (in which young James is portrayed by Norris's real son Mike), and ends when the master’s son Seikura cheats in a race to retrieve a ninja sword. James would have reached it first, but due to “kung fu treachery” Seikura claims the prize. Not blind in the least the master recognizes the foul play and awards James the sword. He also wastes no time in utterly disowning Tochi, thusly establishing a rivalry that will play out in thrilling fashion throughout the film.

When we catch up with the adult Scott James he is enjoying a night out at the theater with his best friend A. J. (Art Hindle), and hooks up shortly thereafter with a woman who starred in the performance they’ve just seen. The two head back to her place where she is promptly killed by ninjas. James is so upset with this development that he begins to think in whispered tones to himself about what he has just witnessed. We are treated to this internal monologue throughout the rest of the film, as he basically provides exposition for the convoluted plot. Just to get it out of the way right here and now, it is this internal thought device that begins the lumbering process by which The Octagon travels off the rails. You see Chuck Norris, who at his height was never much of an actor, is even less of a thespian at this early stage of his career. Nowhere is this more evident than in this constant stream of consciousness he spouts. People often complain of Harrison Ford’s narration in the theatrical cut of Blade Runner being subpar (personally I like it). To those folks I say sample a taste of The Octagon and prepare to heap praise on Harrison Ford's delivery.

To be fair the plot is an absolute mess once you get beyond the basic rivalry between James and Seikura, so the monologue is a kind of gift. The story involves something about Seikura training terrorists in the ninja arts and a rich lady who hires James to be her bodyguard. She’s also mixed up with the terrorists somehow. Oh and Lee Van Cleef shows up as a crusty old partner of James. Normally the presence of Van Cleef is enough to help matters in worst of films, but he seems sort of on autopilot here. Even so he outdistances Norris by a mile on the performance meter. There’s also a raven-haired beauty who is fighting to bring down Siekura’s training camp and hooks up with James also. While the details are a little fuzzy, the whole movie boils down to these various parties trying to get James to take on Seikura. Apparently his reluctance is due to the fact that Seikura is his brother, and this allows him to ignore the body count that racks up over the course of the film. It all adds up to a snoozefest however, as the bulk of the running time is spent following James around as he meets these various people and has conversations with himself about stuff that isn’t very interesting.

Actually what the movie sort of reminded me of was an episode of an 80’s TV melodrama like Falcon Crest or Dallas, with ninja action sprinkled sparsely throughout. The entire cast, save for Van Cleef and Brian Tochi, would have fit right into that mold. Norris’s name Scott James sounds like a character off of one of those shows, and his wardrobe matches the part. It also struck me as particularly hilarious when he chose an equally cheesy alias later in the film, calling himself Scott Colby. I mean come on that's not much of a departure! If they wanted to mimic 80’s TV for crossover appeal they should have included Patrick Duffy, Linda Evans, Morgan Fairchild, and other familiar faces. It would probably be more interesting than the lineup we’re provided with, and would be more upfront. The good news is that in the final 20 minutes or so James is willing to battle Seikura when A. J. makes the foolish mistake of (inexplicably) taking it upon himself to raid Seikura’s heavily fortified compound solo. Here the movie shines as James enters the deadly octagon maze of challenges and squares off in a final duel with Seikura. Better late than never!

Watching The Octagon now is somewhat of a chore, although the last 20 minutes is decent enough to merit attention. It’s easy to see how this played well in the early 80’s when it was enough to sprinkle action here and there and get by. In the era of non-stop Transporter style mayhem there’s no way audiences would sit still for Norris’s whispered monologues and endless deliberation on whether he should or shouldn’t take on the bad guys. What makes The Octagon an “important” film is that it introduced the ninja concept to American audiences. We do get to see ninjas using throwing stars, scaling walls, and employing some rather unusual tactics. I can tell you as a kid this movie was the subject of many a lunchtable discussion. Our cinematic palates were not yet fully developed, and we were able to look past all the boring parts. All we cared about was the fact that there were these amazing guys called ninjas, and Chuck Norris took everybody out at the end of the film.

On a side note this movie is a classic illustration as to why Chuck Norris isn’t quite on the same level as Seagal, Willis, Stallone, and his other 80’s comrades. Norris is clearly a capable martial artist, but he just lacks charisma and presence. He has been in some great B-action films such as Silent Rage, Lone Wolf McQuade, and Missing in Action 2: The Beginning, but those were largely great due to the quality surrounding Norris. He’s a serviceable action hero, but there’s a difference between Seagal walking into a room and Norris. Don’t believe me? Compare the bar fights in Above the Law and Silent Rage. You’ll notice the difference. Personally I think Chuck’s finest hour was in his showdown with Bruce Lee in Return of the Dragon. He spoke not a word, but he had a significant presence in that film. When things get talky the house of cards starts to topple. Nowhere has that been more clear than The Octagon which features so much chatter. My two cents.

So The Octagon kicked things off and a flood of ninja films followed. In my mind it is without question that among all those competing in that ninja sweepstakes, the heart of the 80’s ninja experience was contained within the loosely connected “ninja trilogy” from Cannon films. It started with Enter the Ninja which featured Franco Nero as the heroic ninja, who was ridiculously dressed in white to make the point he was a good ninja. Honestly if the whole purpose of being a ninja is employing stealth this made absolutely no sense. Thankfully the show was stolen by the evil ninja played by Sho Kosugi, who would be the link between the films. Kosugi was a quiet, intimidating presence who relied more on actions than words. While die hards certainly were aware of him during this period, he never became a true marquee name. Rather than promoting his own persona, Kosugi succeeded in making the ninja idea popular. This allowed for numerous ninja films to be unleashed without consideration of star power. Not that this stopped Cannon from trying to make Kosugi a household name. Revenge of the Ninja came along in 1983 and featured Kosugi in the leading man role. It’s a much better film, arguably the best ninja movie of the decade, and we showed it at an anniversary Fantasmo a few years back to much acclaim.

Despite their wild popularity the good times couldn’t last forever for the ninja films. The enthusiasm started to wane by the time Ninja III: The Domination hit theaters in fall of 1984. It’s not so much that studios would quit trying to squeeze money out of the concept, as that audiences started to not care. It’s sort of like the precipitous decline Seagal experienced after Under Siege. Up until that point he had been ascending to the throne of superstardom, but then the outrageous On Deadly Ground saw audiences begin to tune out until he ultimately ended up in DTV. Not so different with the ninjas. Box office receipts kept going up to the mid-80’s until the waters started getting muddied with stuff like American Ninja starring Michael Dudikoff. For the record, and to throw a little good will Chuck Norris’s way, he’s much better than Dudikoff. Take that for what it’s worth. Post-Dudikoff audiences started to trickle off until ninjas also found their way into DTV. Not until recently with the big screen release of Ninja Assassin have we seen an attempt to return to those glory days.

Ninja III: The Domination represented a final kitchen sink approach on the part of Cannon to use what life was left in the ninja cycle for one last hurrah. Until this past week, the last time I saw Ninja III: The Domination was at a neighborhood friend’s house during a sleepover circa 1985. Somehow I managed to miss it in the theater, which was a rarity for me in those days. All I remembered was that we were all blown away by a siege on a golf course by a lone ninja. It featured the ninja in a golf cart chase that rivals the truck chase from Raiders, an attack on a police helicopter, and a final duel with a S.W.A.T. team that recalls key action sequences in Robocop. All in the first 15 minutes of the film! Watching it again now I couldn’t believe how well it held up, and found myself marveling that Cannon could have made a film that paid off to such a degree.

Sadly things fall apart pretty quickly after that, but thankfully in a most entertaining fashion. You see the evil golf course ninja survives long enough to impart his spirit to a telephone repairwoman played by Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo star Lucinda Dickey. She may seem like an odd choice for the role, and I can only guess that Cannon was trying to make her into a star by stretching her beyond her Breakin’ persona. Unfortunately, like Cannon was so apt to do, they simultaneously tried to capitalize on her familiar trademarks. So Dickey spends most of the film in leotards and legwarmers, and they even throw in a jazzercise sequence for good measure. It’s pure madness. Dickey’s running around to cheesy 80’s synth music possessed by the spirit of an evil ninja. Don’t get me wrong this is one of those developments that turns out to be incredibly entertaining – but for all the wrong reasons. Yes it’s a textbook case of a movie that’s so bad it’s good. What’s frustrating though is that it short circuits what started out as a completely awesome action film, which is why to me this represents the beginning of the end for the golden age of the ninja film. Once the top dog of the cinematic ninja world can’t take itself seriously, it goes without saying that trouble would follow.

As I said though this is a great movie in terms of entertainment value, if you can get past how it derails after that first 15 minutes. The 80’s cheese is a blast, and most importantly Sho Kosugi shows up to take care of business about midway through the film. Incredibly they also do a great job of making the possession stuff fly, including a showstopping sequence where James Hong (Big Trouble In Little China) tries to exorcise the evil spirit. Perhaps the only true disappointment is that the final battle between Kosugi and the reconstituted evil ninja doesn’t quite measure up to that first 15 minutes. I know I keep going on about how cool it is, but trust me it is that cool. Just to illustrate this point I mentioned to a co-worker I had watched the film recently, and almost the first words out of his mouth were “golf course.” It is a sight to behold and if you’re a fan of this type of film you owe it to yourself to at least watch that opening!

I should mention that what got me on this kick in the first place was discovering that Ninja III: The Domination was available on Itunes. Yes this is another one of those films that is not available on video or DVD, but that you can download off the Itunes site. You may recall past discoveries I’ve reviewed here such as the Dark Shadows theatrical films and The Island. More keep cropping up all the time, and I’ll do my best to keep highlighting them. It’s a great way to see films that haven’t been available otherwise in quite some time. On a scary note I noticed they’ve put up the Vanilla Ice film Cool As Ice (in widescreen no less)! I may have to gather my courage for that one, but revisiting Ninja III: The Domination was a pleasure. Thankfully (or not, your mileage may vary) The Octagon is readily available on DVD. So if you want to see the films that started and ended the glory days of the ninja era, now you can thanks to the digital revolution!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Fantasmo Episode 54: Atkins!

Hey Superfans!

While every Fantasmo is a cause for excitement and celebration, every now and then there is one that promises something truly special. Our March edition will represent one such Fantasmo! You see here at Fantasmo HQ we have a few cult movie icons that qualify as our heroes. Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., Paul Naschy, Steven Seagal, etc. Standing head and shoulders with such legends in our book is one Tom Atkins. Anyone who was reared on 80’s horror knows exactly who we’re talking about, but Mr. Atkins could be classified as a little obscure to the uninitiated. Atkins is a hero cut in the classic tough guy mold, a fellow who would’ve been right at home in crime thrillers and mysteries. As it happens he found a nice in the horror genre, and the genre is better for this fact. Atkins came to prominence beginning with his leading man role in John Carpenter’s The Fog, and starred in several high profile genre films through the 80’s. These include titles such as Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Escape From New York, Maniac Cop, etc. Pretty terrific stuff!

For this very special edition of Fantasmo, we’ll be highlighting what is perhaps Atkins’ greatest two films. First off will be his initial splash in The Fog, and second his portrayal of a zombie hunting cop in Night of the Creeps. But that’s not all! Additionally we’ll be screening The Fog in 4-D Fantasmovision, which will be a truly immersive experience. You think Avatar’s cool? Think again. James Cameron has nothing on your Team Fantasmo! So without further ado here is your full Episode 54 details:

When: Friday, March 19th, 8:00 p.m.

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road, Chesapeake, VA 23322

Films:

8:00 p.m.: John Carpenter's The Fog (in stunning 4-D Fantasmovision)

9:45 p.m.: Night of the Creeps

Yet another exercise in perfection, Episode 54 promises to be one of the greatest Fantasmos ever! You dare not miss these classics on our bigger than life screen . . . THE WAY THEY WERE MEANT TO BE SEEN! Not to mention you dare not tempt fate and incur the wrath of Atkins! See you on the 19th : )

Monday, February 8, 2010

Steven Seagal is The Keeper!

2010 is really shaping up to be quite a year for fans of Steven Seagal. Things kicked off with his surprisingly good reality show (okay in fairness its goodness came as no surprise to me, but for some maybe . . . ), he has an interesting looking DTV effort called Dangerous Man coming out later this month, and he’ll be back on the big screen in Robert Rodriguez’s Machete in April. Not too shabby. Perhaps the only thing that could make it complete is a new album coming out, or the long fabled Root Beer Rush flavor of his Lightning Bolt energy drink making it to store shelves. In the meantime we’ll have to be satisfied with an equally fine treat in the form of the much anticipated DTV effort The Keeper.

The trailer for The Keeper has been on YouTube for quite some time and, at least in Fantasmo circles, has been something of a curiosity. Unlike most of the DTV trailers for his films, this one featured some rather quirky moments that promised potential greatness. Sure it had the standard chases and explosions one would expect, but it also showcased Seagal wearing a cowboy hat and talking in a Texas-style Western accent. The highlight of the piece was him explaining to the girl he’s protecting in the film how he can find her no matter where she is using what looks like a CGI-souped-up Iphone. The possibilities for craziness made the mind reel. So it was with a fairly significant amount of excitement that I fired up the DVD player early last month and checked out the proceedings.

The box descriptions for just about all of Seagal’s DTV efforts are far more interesting (and imaginative) than I could ever hope to be in describing the plot synopsis. Whereas I am biased by the reality of what actually happens in the film itself, the folks writing these things are not hindered by such considerations. So here is the official description of The Keeper:

Steven Seagal (Driven to Kill) unleashes his wrath – and his fists – in this fast-paced thriller about an ex-cop caught in a web of deceit, racism and murder. Full of high-octane stunts and eye-popping action, The Keeper is a nonstop adrenaline rush!

Double-crossed by his rogue partner and forced to retire, Los Angeles street cop Rolland Sallinger (Seagal) accepts a gig guarding the beautiful daughter of a wealthy businessman. But when mobsters kidnap her, Sallinger’s job turns from protector to hunter as he untangles a dangerous web of lies and murder. Now, in a race against time, Sallinger must use his wits, weapons and brute force to get her back – before it’s too late!”

Just to set the record straight the second paragraph generally gets things correct, but to say Seagal “untangles a dangerous web of lies and murder” is probably a bit of a stretch. Basically he just follows a couple of people around and hears a conversation or two that lay everything out in perfect clarity. The whole “untangling” language makes it sounds like he’s doing some heavy intellectual lifting, when in fact he just goes for a leisurely afternoon drive. He’s also fortunate that the folks he’s following have absolutely zero powers of observation, as he practically tailgates them and then menacingly watches them at a lunch gathering. As for the first paragraph mileage will vary widely depending on what one considers “high-octane,” “eye-popping,” and a “non-stop adrenaline rush.” I guess if this were the only action movie you’d ever seen you might elevate it to the level of something like The French Connection or the like, but honestly if you have even a passing familiarity with action cinema you will recognize this as standard DTV fare. Not that it’s particularly horrible, but neither is it anything to write home about.

The film does indeed open up with Seagal being double-crossed by his “rogue partner.” The two bust in on some sort of illegal deal, and the partner decides they should steal the money lying around. Seagal disagrees and gets shot for his trouble point blank in the chest. If he’d been wearing the LAWMAN vest from television this wouldn’t have been such an issue, but since he isn’t the injury represents a temporary inconvenience. I should mention also that this sequence opens up with Seagal being dubbed which got me worried. Thankfully it’s only that one scene (at least that I could detect), but it was an effective way of unapologetically giving a firm heads up that the viewer is in for a classic Seagalian DTV ride. What is rather memorable about this whole opening betrayal is that it replicates in the span of about 10 minutes a substantial chunk of the plot from Hard to Kill. Seagal is betrayed, hospitalized, escapes an assassination attempt, and the goes through a training montage to recover his skills. The only thing missing is the classic “superior attitude” speech and a corrupt senator, but it functions pretty well as a Cliffs Notes version nonetheless.

Where The Keeper departs from Hard to Kill is that Seagal, despite establishing his innocence and taking out the bad guy, is medically retired from the police force. The injustice of this turn of events is highlighted by a boatload of fake looking certificates on his wall relating to his prowess in S.W.A.T. style skills, a fact repeated by a visiting female cop friend who says he was an inspiration to everyone in the unit (of course). This brief scene between the two functions as the stock moment in the film where Seagal’s character is mythologized for his abilities. It’s not on the level of an On Deadly Ground style tirade, but it does the job . . . and the certificates on the wall are a nice touch. In fact now that I think about it, this could qualify as a new development. I’m not sure that the standard “Seagal is highly skilled” scene has ever taken place in a room filled with awards recognizing his accomplishments. Kudos to the makers of The Keeper on that one!

So Seagal is barely into his newly realized retirement when he gets a phone call from an old police friend from Texas. The fellow has apparently struck it rich in oil, and his daughter was the victim of an attempted kidnapping. Needless to say Seagal is all about helping an old friend and gets on the first plane out to the Lone Star state. A funny thing happens on the way there though, in that Seagal magically adopts a now-you-see-it/now-you-don’t Western drawl. It comes as no surprise to seasoned Seagalogists who are used to his chameleon like abilities of adaptation, but it may jar some viewers. He is inexplicably harassed right off the plane by a local detective, who is apparently wary of any former law officers who decide to visit his state. He must have a sixth sense about these things, and it doesn’t help matters that Seagal is trucking in a small arsenal of weapons and surveillance equipment. Seagal tries to smooth things over with his newly adopted Texas accent and laid back manner, but the local cop isn’t buying it and promises to keep an eye on him.

Seagal finally gets to the ranch and meets up with his old friend. Although flown out to the locale at great expense, Seagal informs him that he will only take the job if he can do it his way. Seems like he could have mentioned that on the phone before the expensive charter flight, but the friend has no problems with accepting. Clearly Seagal is the only man for the job! Seagal is then introduced to the daughter, who apparently remembers him from her childhood. She has grown up into a bit of a spoiled brat, and is dating a fighter who also happens to be the one betraying her to an evil businessman out to swindle the father out of a uranium find on his land. After this introduction we finally get to the wonderful sequence where Seagal gives the girl a necklace/tracking device that he can follow using his Iphone. Yes there’s an app for that!

What follows, as previously mentioned, is a rather lazy cat and mouse game where Seagal drives around a bit and hears some conversations . . . untangling the dangerous web of lies and murder. This is interrupted briefly for moments where the film suggests there will be a romance between Seagal and the daughter. Thankfully someone must have realized how creepy this would be, and that plot thread is wisely abandoned . . . although not before a ridiculous sequence about an umbrella Seagal brought back from the Far East for the daughter when she was a child.

For the most part up until the grand finale where Seagal and company attempt a rescue of the daughter from the bad guys, The Keeper is a reasonably entertaining piece of DTV fun. It’s not as memorable as something like Urban Justice, but it’s no turkey either. The biggest gripe I have is that it never reaches the level of insanity of the best Seagal DTV entries, and the finale is particularly disappointing on this front. There’s a shootout and then the film just abruptly ends. The only thing of note during the shootout at the end is that a fuel dump pops up out of nowhere just so there can be an explosion. That would be fine except that the explosion doesn’t even serve a purpose. No bad guys or good guys are hindered by the situation. It’s as if the makers of The Keeper felt that people watching these things just like to see things blow up for no rhyme or reason. Maybe they’re right, but this one really stands out as unnecessary. On a side note it reminds me of a theory I perpetuated for years among friends that every good action movie requires a helicopter. Just watch any random action movie from the 80’s and you’ll see that a helicopter figures in at some point. I didn’t watch this as closely in later decades, but I’ll bet it still holds true. The Keeper doesn’t have a helicopter, so draw your own conclusions there.

Perhaps the most interesting thing for me in viewing The Keeper was that it represents the first Seagal film I’ve watched since taking in season one of LAWMAN. That just wrapped up this past week, and for the most part I have to say it’s made me look at Seagal in a much different light. Yes the show features much of the trademark absurdity we’ve come to expect with things like “Seagal Vision” and endless talk of how martial arts has prepared him for police work, however that is just a small part of it. More time is spent showing how Seagal reaches out to the community to assist the police in fostering a positive relationship. Let’s be honest Seagal doesn’t have to do any of this, and you can tell he is absolutely sincere in what he’s trying to accomplish. Think what you will of his acting chops, but it’s hard not to admire the guy for giving of himself in this way. So in watching The Keeper I kept thinking about the other Seagal, and no matter how silly things got I still was able to enjoy knowing that the guy’s heart always seems to be in the right place (even if the final product doesn’t pass muster). After all as the opening credits to LAWMAN state, he's Steven Seagal . . . “that’s right, Steven Seagal.” And really isn’t that enough?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Movie Review: Hardware (1990)

It’s been a busy couple of months at Fantasmo HQ, particularly with preparations for the unfortunately due to snow canceled Freeplay event (which will be rescheduled!), but I have managed to check out a few cool films . . . including the latest Steven Seagal epic The Keeper (expect a review soon). I thought I’d kick off the new year of reviews with a blast from the late 80’s/early 90’s called Hardware. This is a true cult classic, one of those movies that has an extremely loyal following yet only a handful know about. Well thanks to the folks at Severin, a pristine new DVD was put out last year that finally does the film justice. Over the holidays I had an opportunity to give it a spin, having not seen it since the original theatrical run, and I was pleased to find out it holds up pretty well. Even though it was released in 1990, it is in every way a child of the 80’s (although you can see the 90’s coming in some of its sensibilities), and I would call it the last great post-apocalyptic film of that era (and perhaps since). It treads a lot of familiar ground, but South African director Richard Stanley has a visual flair somewhere in between Ridley Scott and Russell Mulcahy, which elevates the film above its low-budget brethren. So it’s not quite Road Warrior, but neither is it a 1990: Bronx Warriors.

I always like to personalize the movie going experience when I can in these reviews, particularly when it comes to the 80’s. As I’ve mentioned in the past I was blessed with a local mall cinema that exclusively showed both the schlockiest B-movie fare of the era, or the artsiest stuff going. So one week I might be watching a Cannon film starring Chuck Norris, and the next might be David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. We’re talking a wide spectrum here. One of the coolest things about that weekly experience that is hard to appreciate nowadays, is that I would only find out what was showing when checking the newspaper on Fridays. There was no Internet so the unpredictability factor was off the charts. In many cases I hadn’t even seen previews for the movies being shown, particularly those that were foreign films. Such was the case with Hardware, which seemingly came out of nowhere. Although I knew nothing about it, it certainly had a cool poster (pictured above) – and that was enough for me! What I recall about the experience was being absolutely blown away by the style of the movie, which featured an orange-bathed landscape, a city that effectively combined elements of Blade Runner and Road Warrior, and the meanest cyborg since Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. Although it resembled other films from its genre, it was fresh in the way it explored and interpreted the elements.

Another aspect of the film that is often remembered is the over-the-top violence, which was criticized by many at the time. Indeed I remembered that clearly. Now that wouldn’t be so unusual, save for the fact that there had been a lot of violent sci-fi films (not to mention horror) on display throughout that decade. Road Warrior, The Terminator, Predator, Robocop, and Aliens, to name but a few, didn’t pull any punches when it came to that sort of content. For something to come along and register as boundary pushing at that late stage was quite something. I recall coming out of the theater feeling a bit shell shocked by Hardware. Between the violence and its thumping music (particularly the theme song by Public Image Ltd.) it was overpowering. During that initial run it took a bit of a thrashing between being called too violent, or cited as a Terminator rip-off. Frankly I think it was that overpowering quality that led to the criticism. Folks walked into it and received a 90-minute assault on the senses, and it was more than most could handle. To a certain extent I understand the criticism in that Stanley does seem to be a style-over-substance sort of director. He is caught up with the look and feel of the film, and ignores to a large extent the details of the actual tale. Even so I am going to argue that he is one of the few guys out there for which this tendency is okay, largely because the result of his labors is so arresting.

Having established that my own personal experience was that of being blindsided and shellshocked when taking in Hardware, I’ll go ahead and get the basics of the plot out of the way. In the not too distant future, following some presumably nuclear catastrophe, junk peddlers haunt the wasteland looking for scrap to sell. Dylan McDermott (yes Dylan “The Practice” McDermott) is one such scrap hunter, and has returned to the city with his latest haul. When he visits the local merchant to unload his wares, he runs into a fellow scrap hunter who has landed a dangerous piece of merchandise called the M.A.R.K. 13. The M.A.R.K. 13 is a deadly robot produced the military, which is designed to paralyze its prey with injector arms, and then rip them apart with its saw attachments (cue some heavy foreshadowing there). All Dylan McDermott sees is the head, which he buys off the peddler as a Christmas present for his estranged girlfriend. That might seem like a weird gift, but she’s a metal sculptress (how convenient) so actually it’s not weird at all. In any case he takes it home to her, and she indeed likes it a lot, or at least enough to completely forgive Dylan McDermott for being away such a long time.

Of course the movie doesn’t end with their joyous reunion and a cool art creation. The merchant who bought the rest of the M.A.R.K. 13 starts doing some research and discovers its origin and purpose. He calls up McDermott to tell him the news, but the M.A.R.K. 13 (sans head) pulls itself together and kills him. As it turns out the M.A.R.K. 13 can reassemble itself from its constituent parts using scrap metal . . . which is pretty dangerous when you’re a metal sculptress who has a heap of scrap metal lying about. McDermott heads out to see what the merchant had to say before he was abruptly cut off, leaving his girlfriend alone in her apartment with the M.A.R.K. 13. You can see where this is going no doubt. The M.A.R.K. 13 comes alive like a malicious Johnny 5 from Short Circuit and wreaks deadly havoc. The only thing you probably couldn’t guess is that a deranged neighbor played by William Hootkins (Porkins from the original Star Wars) shows up to creep the audience out – and boy does he. It totally erases any sympathy you might have for his fate during the Death Star attack.

So that’s the plot in a nutshell. In some ways it’s easy to see why it gets called a Terminator clone. There’s a robot on the loose, bent on destroying a gutsy heroine, and it absolutely will not stop. The only thing standing in its way is a raggedy wasteland warrior (McDermott substituted for Michael Biehn), who will sacrifice all before the day is over. On the surface yes it does bear a passing resemblance. In implementation though this monster is nothing like the Cameron film, as Stanley is concerned about how the whole thing feels rather than spinning a sci-fi yarn. Say what you will about Cameron being obsessed with effects in this Avatar era, but if you look at his works on the whole they always have a strong focus on characters. He’s a true storyteller who knows how to combine impressive visuals with a compelling narrative. I would not accuse Stanley of this same ability, and I don’t mean that as a slight. It is clear from the word go that Stanley is attempting to provoke a reaction on the back of a stream of over-the-top images. From the opening shots in the wasteland and the blaring rock music, the audience is treated to a mostly continuous barrage. And make no mistake it is a barrage. You’ll feel like you’ve been through the ringer with the characters.

The problem, if there is one, is that it’s difficult to particularly care about anyone in the film. From McDermott on down the line no one registers as sympathetic. If you take Hardware as sort of a mood piece that’s forgivable, but if you want to invest emotionally prepare to be disappointed. I think that might have bothered me a little in my first viewing of the film, but now I can totally look past it with the understanding that Stanley likely didn’t intend to dwell on the traditional story elements. They are merely window-dressing and act as a vehicle for him to lay out the images. Don’t get me wrong, there are some interesting character moments. The aforementioned Hootkins certainly makes an impression, and Iggy Pop as a ranting radio DJ is memorable, but that’s about it. The success of these peripheral characters suggests that Stanley is adept at coming up with larger-than-life bit players, but not with the folks we are nominally sharing the journey with . . . which fits perfectly with his artistic style. These individuals, in their over-the-top displays, are yet another part of his barrage. Once again you’ll either embrace this or you won’t, making Stanley somewhat of an acquired taste.

If I have any gripes with Stanley’s Hardware it’s that he tries to insert political and religious overtones. It’s not that I have a problem when directors try to make a statement on these fronts. Many genre films have done so quite successfully. In the case of Hardware the elements are just too obvious and heavy handed. For example our sculptress paints the robot head like the American flag, and Iggy Pop rants about government weaponry run amok. Perhaps this sort of message might have been novel in the early 80’s before it had been done 100 times, but on the eve of the 90’s it had lost a little of its luster. As such while it’s fine if Stanley wanted to carry that torch, he should have sought a more clever way of doing so. The whole thing feels like a bit of an afterthought, and an exercise in been there done that. Thankfully it’s not excessive enough to undermine the successful qualities of the film, yet it is regrettable in that it brings down the experience a notch. When caught up in the mood Stanley has managed to produce, it’s jarring when he throws in a political jab or Dylan McDermott spouting prophecy.

Hardware is without question a challenging film. Stanley sets out to assault viewers from the word go, seemingly caring little about the narrative and characters. Consequently it’s easy to lob accusations of style over substance at this visually stunning piece of work. I ask you though, is style over substance always a bad thing? I guess if you are a die hard substance seeker the answer is yes. In my mind though it’s perfectly okay for a movie to be strictly about creating a mood for 90+ minutes. It seems clear that is what Stanley was going for, and if you watch his other most noteworthy effort Dust Devil it only bolsters this argument. That film too favors style over substance (and is definitely worth checking out). The only time Stanley falters is when he deviates from this purpose with half-hearted attempts at character development, or at delivering some sort of message. This intrusion is minimal however, and certainly doesn't qualify as a deal breaker.

Not surprisingly between his avoidance of traditional narratives, use of graphic violence, and near constant unleashing of loud noise and mind bending imagery, Stanley never became a mainstream darling. The closest he made it to Hollywood was being replaced by John Frankenheimer as director on Island of Dr. Moreau after a short stint. That’s okay though. Moreau wasn’t very good, and I would think that the studio system would crush all that Stanley has to offer. He’s done some interesting sounding small projects I’m looking forward to seeing, and here’s hoping his signature style returns to the big screen in the near future . . . just not the near future predicted in Hardware!