186-187: Back to the Future I & II

Back to the Future

Back to the Future was one of the first movies I clearly remember seeing on the big screen. It was the actually the first movie the new movie theater in my hometown screened. Before that we had to go to the next big town and we just didn’t have the time and the money to do that in my family. With the new theater the next phase in my life began and it started with Back to the Future. From that point on I could go to the movies whenever I wanted to and I assure you that was what I did… a lot. It is therefore no surprise that Back to the Future occupies a very special spot in my heart. And I am glad to say that after nearly twenty-eight years it still holds up. Though some of the humor and visual effects don’t hold up so good Back to the Future makes up a lot of the wear and tear with a tremendous amount of good old-fashioned fun. This movie is bursting at the seams with situations and performances that are totally engaging like the diner scene where Marty meets his father for the first time or the confrontation between Biff and George that seals the deal for Marty. Or the entire character of Doc Brown, for that matter. I return to Back to the Future on a regular basis, just like someone will return to their favorite ice cream to feel better.

Back to the Future Part II

Back to the Future Part II isn’t regarded as a very good sequel. I happen to like it, though. I like the way the uppity tone from the first movie is turned upside down to create an atmosphere that is totally menacing. From the moment Marty arrives in the future you know this is not going to end well. True, the catalyst that sets off the adventure (the sports almanac) isn’t the strongest in the world, but it gets the job done. It sets in motion a mind-boggling time travel adventure that takes us to several of our favorite moments from the original movie, but now shown from a slightly different perspective. It is great to analyze how these scenes were transformed and reenacted from different viewpoints. It is uncanny how Zemeckis managed to do this. I look back on Back to the Future Part II like I do on Alien3, I know it is flawed, but I recognize the way it expanded on the original material and enriched it. I would even go so far as to say that I like Part II better than Part III, because I never actually understood the whole appeal of moving the story to western times. But that’s one for a future piece.

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112: Missing in Action

Let’s get it out there: Missing in Action is bad, really bad, but that probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone. As some of you will know by now I grew up in the ’80s and that’s when my movie sensibilities were formed. This meant growing up on masterpieces like E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future and so much more. It was a beautiful time to discover movies as a kid. It was also a time when cheap film-making became even more prolific than before because of the wide acceptance of the VCR. This meant that besides good movies I also saw my fair share of terrible movies. One of which was Missing in Action, although I must admit I don’t remember much of that initial viewing.

Some of the worst offenders of the ’80s bad movie boom were Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the guys who bought The Cannon Group in 1979 to indulge their adolescent fantasies of making movies in Hollywood. The result was a great many B-movies that were released during the ’80s that included several Death Wish sequels, the American Ninja series, Sylvester Stallone’s Over the Top and Cobra and most famously a lot of movies with Chuck Norris, possibly one of the worst actors ever. His most successful movie was Missing in Action, which rode the wave of First Blood‘s success and even (literally) took a page from Rambo’s playbook.

Around that time rumors went around that there were still prisoners of war left behind in Vietnam somewhere in the jungle. An intriguing subject that was picked up by none other than James Cameron. He wrote a treatment about an ex-soldier going back to Vietnam to see of he could find these lost souls. The result would eventually be Rambo: First Blood Part 2, but not after the treatment passed through the hands of Golan-Globus. They figured they could also make a movie like this, but with their own muscleman Chuck Norris. They decided to put the first two Missing in Action movies directly into production in order to get them into the theaters before Rambo would and avoid some legal trouble.

Missing in Action turned out to be something of a hit. It undoubtedly made its money back and it managed to entertain a lot of people. Some still look back on it fondly, Lord knows why. I was definitely not one of them. I happen to like the Rambo movies much more, because as bad as the Stallone vehicles get Missing in Action tops it in sheer awfulness. There are some clever sequences, but those are few and far between. Like when Norris must leave his hotel in secret to pay a visit to a nefarious General and sneak back into the hotel. It is a fun sequence, but that is all there is to it. The rest is just ludicrous. For example: Norris tries to escape from a group of thugs and reach the boat he needs to take up the river to the camp. Instead of jumping on the boat and make his escape he jumps in a truck to start a whole new chase sequence that is totally out of context and just there to be filler. It is astonishing how badly written this movie is.

From that point on the movie is really just one big orgy of gunfire, stupid dialogue and senseless violence. The culmination of which comes when Norris rises in slow motion up from the dirty river water with an enormous gun in his hand to take out (supposedly very stealthy) three guards. There is literally nothing here to lend the movie a shred of credibility. Not that we expected that from Missing in Action, but you always hold out hope for that small glimmer of something that could resemble a decent movie. In the end Missing in Action just makes Rambo look like The Deer Hunter. It should be forgotten and never brought up again.

> IMDb

103: Commando

After watching Missing in Action I was in the mood for some more shlocky ’80s action movies. Over the weekend I was writing my review of Missing in Action for Battleship Pretension when I read about Matt Singer hosting a 35mm screening of Mark L. Lester’s Commando with the director in attendance for a Q&A. I would have loved to be there, but the event was in New York and that is on the other side of the country. A little far away for just one screening. So I got Commando on blu-ray… it was on sale at BestBuy.

Commando is the story of John Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger), an ex-soldier who tries to live a quiet life out in the woods with his daughter (Alyssa Milano) now that he is retired from the army. At least that is until his old teammates are picked off one by one by a mysterious organization. A general comes to his house to warn him, but it’s already too late. The thugs have kidnapped Matrix’ daughter and they want him to murder somebody in South America so they can seize power down there. Of course Matrix doesn’t want to cooperate, but what choice does he have?

From that moment on Matrix is constantly either running from or chasing the bad guys. He is accompanied by pilot Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong), who gets involved in this mess when one of the bad guys hits on her. I guess it’s not her day. We tag along while Matrix trashes a shopping mall, a hotel, a weapons store and finally a small island. Every fight is more ridiculous than the next, which are filled to the brim with one-liners for Schwarzenegger to utter with his adorable accent. Hearing him say lines like “I eat Green Berets for breakfast. And right now, I’m very hungry!” or “Don’t disturb my friend, he’s dead tired.” is worth the price of admission alone.

Commando is a ridiculous movie by any means. Matrix escaping from a plane by way of the front wheel and dropping into a swamp. Matrix lifting a phone booth above his head to get his opponent to give up. Matrix smashing a car through the front window of a gun store to get some weapons. Director Lester, who would go on to direct such gems as Showdown in Little Tokyo with Dolph Lundgren and Extreme Justice with Lou Diamond Phillips, relishes everything screenwriter Steven E. de Souza (who would perfect his one-liners in Die Hard a few years later) has dumped into the screenplay. Every over-the-top set-piece, every stupid piece of dialogue, every gratuitous shot of Arnold’s muscles (those were actually demanded by the studio), he goes all out with it. And that makes Commando such a joy to revisit once in a while. It is shameless entertainment and that makes it so much better than Missing in Action, which is truly an embarrassment to movies.

> IMDb

024: Legend

This is the third movie in my Ridley Scott retrospective.

Well, another older Ridley Scott movie passed before my eyes and, dare I say, what a train wreck it was. Legend is Scott’s fourth feature film and was released in 1985, right when a small resurgence of the fantasy film was happening with movies like The Dark Crystal, the Star Wars movies, and later LabyrinthThe Princess Bride and Willow being the closer in 1988. Elements of all these films can be found in Scott’s Legend and not in a good way.

Legend is a criminally uneven film that wants to be everything at once. Scott has a general idea of what he wants to show and of course how to show that, but during most of the movie he is grasping at straws to make ends meet. For example during supposedly dark scenes we are ‘treated’ to some annoying goblins clearly meant as comic relief that feels totally out of place here. Admittedly, the first half of the movie is slow, but there is still a sense of purpose, albeit muddled by terrible dialogue and acting. It is the second half where Legend truly falls apart.

The heroes end up in a spooky dungeon, the heroine is enslaved by the devil and dances like there’s no tomorrow. There is a lot of other stuff going on that is just not interesting and poorly executed. It would have helped a lot to have protagonists to root for. The young actors playing the leads, Tom Cruise (just before he hit it big) and Mia Sara, are not up to the task. Cruise looks confused a lot and Sara just looks afraid and bland. They totally drown in Scott’s lush imagination and have no clue what to make of it all.

It can be said that every successful director has his or her breaking point. A point where hubris and talent don’t perfectly match up anymore. Scott dodged a bullet with Blade Runner, a movie that was quickly embraced by a cult audience, because that is really a good movie. With Legend Scott wasn’t so lucky. He bit off more than he could chew with this one and it put him back on Earth with both his feet. I understand that there is a cult following for this fantasy epic, but that is totally unrealistic and based on people having seen the movie as a kid and still believing that the movie is as good as it was in their young eyes.

Legend is not a good movie. It is slow, boring and just not fun to watch. You can take any of the titles mentioned above (especially Labyrinth) to have a good time with a fantasy story. Let’s leave Legend where it belongs… in Scott’s imagination.

(For the purists: I watched the Director’s Cut with the Jerry Goldsmith score.)

> IMDb