Wednesday 1 December 2021

High Risk

You’ve probably heard of ‘diss tracks’ – hip hop songs where the primary aim is to verbally attack or ‘disrespect’ another artist. 

For years, these songs were seen as mundane exercises in put-downs and point-scoring – bouts of schoolyard posturing from showy characters with brittle egos. But then one verbal joust between Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls sparked a series of shootings that left both men dead, and suddenly the jingly japes didn’t seem quite so hi-larious. 

Still, the tradition did live on in other ways. And High Risk (1995) can lay dubious claim to being an actual ‘diss film’. The moviemaker behind it – renowned Hong Kong producer, Wong Jing – really did carefully shape the movie’s content to construct a new (and unwelcome) orifice for legendary martial artist, Jackie Chan, while also eviscerating his action man credentials. 

The score-settling result is a savage – and surprisingly effective – send-up of the cinematic chop-socky star. What you might call a kung fu kick in the reputational goolies. 

The plot 

Frankie Lane is a martial arts movie star famous for doing all his own stunts. (Remind you of anyone?) But in reality – or the reality of High Risk - Frankie can’t be bothered with the rough stuff, so secretly delegates all the dangerous stunts to his bodyguard. Ouch. 

Unfortunately for Frankie, an ambitious news reporter has cottoned on to his fraud and is threatening a television expose. Then, just when it seemed his day couldn’t get any worse, our hero finds himself trapped in a skyscraper that’s been taken over by terrorists. Crikey! 

The backstory to the beef 

To say the Frankie Lane spoof of Jackie Chan is a bit ‘on the nose’ would be a gross understatement. (For a western equivalent, imagine watching a movie about a musclebound Austrian coward who’s scared of guns and loud noises, and called Harold Schwitzaneuger. You get the idea.) But why is everyone’s favourite, rubbery-faced risk-taker being portrayed in such an unfavourable light? 

The answer lies in a movie that Wong Jing and Chan made together a couple of years earlier: City Hunter (1993). Envisioned as a triumphant collaboration between two titans of Hong Kong cinema, the production quickly deteriorated into furious rows and on-set shouting matches – and Chan even tried to get Wong booted off the movie. 

Despite their feuding, the project did get finished – even if it was to no one’s satisfaction. (Years later, a still disgruntled Chan described it as the worst film of his career.) For Wong though, revenge was a dish best served in celluloid. And when he made High Risk – a formulaic Die Hard knock-off – a couple of years later, he saw an opportunity to get even with his former foe. 

A study in character assassination 

Playing the role of Frankie, Jacky Cheung presents an instantly recognisable caricature of Chan. With his mop-top hairstyle, bumbling manner and exaggerated facial expressions, he neatly skewers Chan’s clownish screen persona. Worse, Frankie is portrayed as a womanising drunk and coward no longer willing to do fight scenes or his own stunts, due to years of soft living. Miaow! 

It's raucous stuff and, for the most part, hugely enjoyable. But there’s one slight problem: Wong’s obsession with settling an old score ends up unbalancing the rest of the story. And that’s because Cheung’s Chan-baiting character, who dominates most of the screen time, isn’t actually the film’s hero. 

That role falls to Jet Li, who plays Frankie’s bodyguard and unofficial stunt double. So, it’s the pint-sized pugilist who leads the hostage rescue, does the heroics, and ultimately kills the villain – you know, standard movie hero stuff. But his character is continually side-lined throughout the film, so Wong can pour yet more merde on the Chan character’s head. To illustrate: think of Die Hard’s terrorist negotiating yuppie sleazeball Ellis. Now, just imagine if he had been given as much screen time as Bruce Willis, and you’ll see the problem. 

High Risk, High Reward 

Still, this is a minor quibble about what is unquestionably a wildly entertaining film. Ultimately, Wong presents grandly staged action sequences, cartoonish villains, and a deliciously acerbic critique of a cinema superstar. It’s a spectacular feat. 

And it’s worth dwelling for a moment on the singular nature of the filmmaker’s accomplishment. Despite being full of preening narcissists and swivel-eyed sociopaths (‘Hello, Harvey!’), the movie industry resolutely keeps its axe-grinding out of public view, instead presenting a vision of a world where everyone is super-fun to work with and simply a ‘dah-ling’. 

In that context, it took enormous chutzpah for Wong to make a major motion picture which had the explicit purpose of exacting personal revenge against an A-list colossus of the industry. That’s putting some serious cojones on display… 

Exploding helicopter action 

While Wong’s primary interest was clearly in obliterating Jackie Chan’s reputation, it’s nice to see that he also found time to do some truly horrific damage to a whirlybird. 

Here’s what happens: with the terrorists in control of the skyscraper, Jet Li hijacks a police helicopter – which of course, he can effortlessly pilot. As he ascends to the floor where the hostages are being held, the villains open fire, so our hero makes an improbable leap from the chopper onto a window ledge. The result? The pilotless copter crashes through the window, exploding multiple times as the wrecked fuselage skids across the floor. 

Artistic merit 

Excessive, extravagant, entertaining and extremely unlikely. It’s a bravura scene, in which the helicopter not only explodes multiple times, but we also get to see a baddie cut clean in half by a rotor blade. Huzzah! Added bonus: the viewer is treated to a frankly weird ‘point of view’ shot from the helicopter as it careers out of control and in flames. Encore, Mr Wong! Encore! 

Exploding helicopter innovation 

We’ve previously seen helicopters crash through the inside of buildings – in Heaven’s Fire, Golgo 13: The Professional and American Heist. But this one is a real doozy. 

Interesting fact 

Such was the aggravation caused by High Risk that Jet Li subsequently felt moved to apologise to Jackie Chan for his involvement in the film. 

Wednesday 9 June 2021

General Commander

In the motor trade, they call them a ‘cut and shut’: a scam where you take the remains of two wrecked cars, weld them together, then flog the newly created ‘vehicle’ to an unsuspecting punter.

Obviously, the workmanship of these Franken-motors is criminally substandard and likely to cause serious harm to anyone encountering them. But, don’t expect the fraudsters to care. They’re just out for a quick buck.

Such unscrupulous behaviour was doubtless the inspiration for the recent Steven Seagal vehicle, General Commander (2019).

At first glance, it appears to have the bodywork of a functional action film. But lift the bonnet, and you realise with horror that bits of a TV series have been clumsily welded on to a movie format in such a hap-hazard fashion it should be immediately consigned to the scrapheap. 

But before we explore our automotive analogy further, let’s kick the tyres of the plot...

The plot

Big Steve leads a team of CIA agents who are trying to bring down a global crime syndicate. But when the bust goes wrong – and one of the aikido arm-waver’s buddies is killed – the agency moves to shut down the investigation and disband his unit.

Appalled by the decision, the Putin apologist and his comrades quit, so they can mount their own vigilante operation to stop the mobsters and avenge their dead chum.

So, with Seagal and his friends having put themselves Above The Law, the only questions we need ask are, who’s going to be Hard To Kill and which baddie is Marked For Death? (See what we did there?)

Cut and shut: the movie

One question that cineastes across the globe would surely be asking about General Commander, if any had bothered to see it, is this: How did the movie manage to become such an unsightly mess – the cinematic equivalent of a Range Rover engine crammed onto the chassis of a Mini Metro?

Turns out there’s a simple answer. Although Big Steve’s latest opus has been released as a movie, the project actually started life as a 12-part TV series. But with just two episodes in the can, the whole shebang was mysteriously abandoned.

No official explanation was offered. And it would take a much harsher critic than Exploding Helicopter to draw any link between this sudden shelving and the unsavoury sexual assault allegations swirling around Seagal at that time. 

Nevertheless, the costly cancellation left producers with an expensive problem. Having already sunk thousands into the production, how could they salvage some quick cash from the wreckage?

Their solution was worthy of Arthur Daley himself. They would simply bolt the existing footage together and try to pass it off as a complete film.

Unfortunately for them (and not to mention the viewer), there’s no disguising the shoddy workmanship here. All the awkward joins and lapses that come from shunting together disparate scenes are clearly visible. The exposition-heavy plot lurches along like a car with a clogged fuel line. And the all-too-scarce action scenes are as exciting to watch as a traffic jam.

The curious case of Big Steve’s barnet

Faced with such dire fare, the disappointed viewer must look elsewhere for entertainment. And sadly for the Buddhist-botherer, there’s nothing more riveting in this parade of dreck than the increasing absurdity of his follicular arrangement.

Seasoned Seagal watchers well know that the great man has long employed tonsorial enhancement measures. (The receding hairline he sported in debut Above The Law had mysteriously disappeared by break-out hit, Under Siege.) But like Michael Jackson and his nose, the famously vain martial artist has never been able to stop surgically fiddling with his barnet.

Modern science may never be able to unravel the exact combination of transplants, plugs and weaves that went into creating the Seagal barnet. But be assured: the wiry, brillo-like substance currently perched atop his head is unlike any other Earthly hair form. More than anything, it resembles the black skull cap favoured by intergalactic dictator, Ming the Merciless. (And we all know how much Steve, a noted Putin-botherer, enjoys a little tyrant time.)

However, with a 70th birthday fast approaching, it appears that Seagal’s extraordinary plug-weave-wig-monster has finally allowed a single concession to the passage of time. Whisper it gently, dear reader, but there are now actually small patches of silvery white dust along the sides of his otherwise obsidian crown.

It’s an almost touchingly pathetic gesture towards verisimilitude, like putting pieces of coal on a snowman’s face and expecting it to talk. And of course, it does not work. The idea was clearly to lend the big man a slightly distinguished air. But in reality, it looks like he lost his balance in a grocery store and crashed into the talcum powders.

Exploding helicopter action

Putting tonsorial tomfoolery aside, let’s get down to the serious business of exploding helicopters.

Having finally tracked the villains down, Seagal and his team engage in the obligatory final confrontation. This involves a car chase and a gun battle during which a helicopter appears because… well, who knows? (By this point, Exploding Helicopter had long since stopped trying to find any logic in the proceedings.)

While taking heavy fire from the chopper, one of the good guys pulls out a rocket launcher that happens to be sitting in the boot of their vehicle.

He fires at the whirlybird, which explodes in a far from convincing CGI fireball. As our hero admires his pyrotechnic handiwork, he yells, “Merry Christmas, motherfucker!” And seasons greetings to you too, sir!

Artist merit

Overall, it’s perfunctory stuff. Only the foul-mouthed (and festive-themed) one-liner manages to perk up the mood – but that line, like much else in the film, is totally baffling.

You see, at no point during the previous action has it ever been established what time of year it is. And given that the film is set in the broiling Philippines, Christmas is ho-ho-hardly the first thing on the viewer’s mind while sitting through this nonsense. (Presumably, the Christmas references ended up somewhere on the cutting room floor.)

Interesting fact

The credits provide further tortured evidence of the struggle it took to re-fashion General Commander into a film. Despite a listed running time of 85 minutes, this film actually lasts just 76 minutes.

And those extra nine minutes..? Desperate to fill out time, the director has pointlessly regurgitated bits of the film you’ve just watched as a backdrop while the end credits (a hall of shame for everyone involved) slowly scroll up the screen.

Want more?

Check out the review of General Commander by our buddy the DTV Connoisseur.

Saturday 27 February 2021

The Wolf's Call

Is there anything harder to love than French cinema? Not in Exploding Helicopter’s experience.

If their filmmakers aren’t bamboozling the audience with avantgarde narrative structures, they’re boring them rigid with angst-laden characters discussing existentialism amid clouds of Gauloise smoke. The idea of simply entertaining the viewer seems positively offensive to their intellectual sensibilities.

This propensity for pretension would be bad enough were it confined solely to their prestige productions. But even when embarking on the most generic of genre films, our Gallic cousins still appear incapable of excluding their artier affectations. And if you want a case in point, look no further than la submarine drama, The Wolf’s Call (2019).

On its watery surface, this looks like just the kind of Hunt For Red October thriller you’ve seen countless times before. But peer beneath the waves, and you’ll soon detect the usual signs of showy self-regard, pulsing away like a pompous sonar. Mon dieu!

The plot

A French submarine crew find themselves at the centre of an international crisis when Russia launches a nuclear missile at their country. With their nation under attack, they’re ordered to sail in to position and fire a retaliatory nuke. Sacre bleu!

But wait! No sooner have the crew been given their irrevocable instructions, than the attack is found to be a heinous trick! The Ruskies didn’t fire the missile, after all. It’s actually some generic Jihadists (the villain du jour for lazy screenwriters) who are intent on destroying the West. Or at least France, so perhaps they’re not all bad.

The ‘grand fromages’ of the French military are now faced with a terrible dilemma. With their nuke-armed submarine already en route to blast an unwitting Russia into radioactive rubble, they have no choice but to send out a second submarine to seek and destroy their own men. Merde!

Submerged in self-importance

If you’ve watched any American action movies over the last 30 years, you’ll know how this story usually plays out.

An impossibly buff hero with perfect hair will hyperactively bounce through a series of obstacles before saving the day at the last minute (usually by disobeying orders and improvising a solution). Then he’ll grab an enviably hot girlfriend and motorcycle off into the blush of dawn. (Think Tom Cruise in Top Gun).

Au naturalment, our Froggy neighbours could never bring themselves to do anything so gauche. Instead, our protagonist is a spoddy sonar operator who spends most of the film, brow furrowed, listening to propeller cavitation on a pair of oversized headphones. Arnold Schwarzenegger, this is not.

With such strong nerd credentials, you’d think our big-eared hero would be unlikely to enjoy any romantic entanglements. Au contraire! You forget that France is a country where brainiacs and philosophers are more revered than rock stars. They’re practically pin-ups.

So, after pulling an unfeasibly hot bookshop owner (while attempting to buy a mathematics textbook, no less!), he gets to enjoy a passionate night of rumpy-pumpy. Oh-la-la!

But any viewers hoping to see the earnestly cerebral tone briefly enlivened with a bit of naked nookie will be left feeling decidedly limp.

Inspired by our man’s profession as a sonar operator, the sex scene focusses exclusively on the sounds of the couple’s conjugal canoodling. So, rather than shots of bouncing boobs or thrusting buttocks, you instead get abstract close-ups and the amplified sounds of racing heartbeats and heavy breathing.

In what is already a very French film, this seems like an impossibly French thing to do – the movie scene equivalent of a mime artist with a white-painted face pretending to be trapped inside a glass cube. Frankly, it’s a wonder we were spared the sonic stylings of our hero padding off to the khazi for a post-coital piss.

Mercifully though, once the action moves from the boudoir to the ocean bed, things do pick up and start resembling the Crimson Tide-style thriller you’d hoped to be watching all along.

Reda Kateb (A Prophet, Zero Dark Thirty) and Omar Sy (Lupin, Jurassic World) lend some welcome grit and gravitas as the two grim-faced, sweating sub commanders. And the final hour, in which the two submarines engage in an underwater game of cat and mouse as the clock relentlessly ticks towards doomsday, is genuinely tense.

Despite its loftier ambitions, The Wolf’s Call does turn out to be an intelligent and suspense-filled drama, which is well worth submerging yourself in for a couple of hours.

Exploding helicopter action

But enough aquatic theatrics: what about the aerial action? The exploding helicopter sequence occurs refreshingly early in the film, when a Syrian chopper is hunting a French submarine that’s trapped in shallow water.

Unable to submerge and escape, the sub captain instead opts to confront the threat head-on. Grabbing a conveniently handy rocket launcher, Captain Bullseye (literally) takes aim and blasts the bothersome whirlybird to smithereens. Problem solved.

Artistic merit

While the method of destruction is routine, the setting certainly isn’t. This is the first-ever submarine versus chopper encounter recorded at Exploding Helicopter. (Unless of course, you count The Spy Who Loved Me and the famous encounter between Roger Moore’s submersible car and Caroline Munro’s shortly-to- be-destroyed helicopter. But then, expert readers like yourself already knew that, right? Right?)

Interesting (and still unknown) fact

Readers who’ve made it this far may be wondering what lies behind the film’s cool sounding yet puzzling moniker: The Wolf’s Call. Apparently, it’s something to do with sonar – though precisely what, we can’t tell you. 

There’s a short, expository scene at one point where one character gamely attempts a garbled explanation, but it made precious little sense. Exploding Helicopter has watched the film twice now and is still none the wiser.

Sunday 7 February 2021

Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes

As Shakespeare almost said: some films are born with cult status, some achieve cult status, and others have cult status thrust upon them.

But if Bill the Bard never quite uttered those words, it’s clearly only because he never lived to see Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes! (1978) - a film with a cult following bigger than Jim Jones.

Made for a mere $90,000 by a bunch of have-a-go filmmakers, the film was panned by critics and largely ignored by audiences on its release. Yet as the years passed, a curious thing happened. The film steadily acquired a dedicated following – and at this point there have been three sequels, a computer game, a comic and an animated TV series. (Inevitably, a reboot is also in the works).

How did such an inauspicious film acquire the illustrious status it enjoys today? Exploding Helicopter set out to forensically investigate the issue. Or just glance at Wikipedia, if that was too much work.

The plot

When scientific efforts to improve the humble tomato go wrong, it transforms the normally docile salad staple into a murderous, human-hungry fruit. Yikes!

Naturally, in this moment of crisis, the Government calls in their top experts to tackle the fearsome fruit threat. The crack team includes a paratrooper who drags an open parachute behind him, a diver who's never out of scuba gear, and a master of disguise who conceals his appearance by dressing as a black Adolf Hitler. Well, we did say the world was in trouble.

The scene is set for an apocalyptic man versus lycopersicum showdown. Can our heterogenous heroes save the day? Will America succumb to the deadly Red Menace? And, most importantly, do you say ‘tomayto’ or ‘tomahto’? Let’s call the whole review off…

Attack of the B Movie parody

If all this sounds like it’d make a deeply terrible film, you’d be absolutely right. But then, that was always the point.

Inspired by old science fiction B-movies, Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes parodies the z-grade films that clogged up drive-ins during the Fifties and Sixties. (Who can forget such terrifyingly titled efforts as Attack Of The Mushroom People?)

At first glance, ‘Killer Tomatoes’ appears to be as bad as the films it’s supposed to be sending up. The acting is terrible, the sets shaky and the special effects profoundly non-special. (This was a product of the film’s cheap ‘outside the film industry’ origins rather than intentional homage). But despite the readily apparent limitations, it possesses an oddly infectious – and undeniable – joie de vivre.

The first half hour is terrific fun. It includes an amusing title sequence, a tomato-based Jaws parody,  and a terrifically daft sequence where senior military bigwigs hold a high-powered meeting in a comedically small room. And the quickfire style of the gags, which blend silliness, satire and slapstick, make it feel like a forerunner of the disaster movie spoof, Airplane! (1980).

However, like an eight-day-old tomato, it does all start to feel a little squelchy and off at around thirty minutes in. Plot lines quickly go nowhere, and it gradually dawns that the comedic value of some of the two-dimensional characters have an incredibly short shelf-life. But still, a few jokes continue to hit the target and the whole production’s full-blooded commitment to the absurd inspires forgiveness.

None of this, though, explains how the film went from obscure curio to cult classic. Let’s be clear: there is no shortage of god-awful-but-with-a-bit-of-kitschy-charm movies gathering dust in the world’s cinematic vaults. But what saved ‘Killer Tomatoes’ from obscurity was its inclusion in a very influential book: The Fifty Worst Films Of All Time.

The book-fuelled publicity saw the film become a fixture of ‘midnight movie’ slots at independent cinemas and a surprise hit on the (then newly launched) home video market. Eternal cult status was assured. But, you ask, what about the really important question: the calibre of its exploding helicopter credentials?

Exploding helicopter action

As police gamely battle the homicidal tomatoes in a field, a small helicopter carrying some random dignitary comes in to land. But as it descends, the tail rotor clips the field surface and breaks off. Instantly, the wounded whirlybird starts spinning wildly before crashing to the ground and tumbling over on its side.

The action cuts away momentarily to a crowd of people running for cover. When it cuts back, the helicopter is already a flaming, molten ruin, with smoke billowing everywhere. Sensing his Oscar moment may be at hand, one character loudly exclaims: “My God! Did you see that? A tomato flew into it!”

Artistic merit

Given this is a zero-budget movie with famously terrible effects – remember, it largely revolves around people pretending to be scared of red balls of foam – the chopper conflagration looks great. It is surprisingly, grippingly realistic – as in documentary-level accurate and convincing. And it turns out there’s a good reason for that: the helicopter really did crash and explode.

You see, while the helicopter was merely meant to land in the field, the pilot cocked it all up and crashed the bloody thing. As the giddy cameras whirred, it really did spin violently then roll over on its side.

But here’s the best bit. As genuinely terrified actors disembarked and ran for their lives from the smoking vehicle, which quickly caught alight and erupted in an inferno, the production crew – resourceful as always – hastily sketched out a scene on the spot and improvised some lines around the burning wreckage. Miraculously, no one was harmed in the crash. And with a little quick thinking, the smouldering chopper became just another victim of those deadly tomatoes.

Exploding helicopter innovation

First and only known helicopter destroyed by a tomato.

Favourite line

“It’s not blood, it’s tomato juice.”

Interesting fact

A ‘before he was famous’ George Clooney has an early starring role in the sequel, Revenge Of The Killer Tomatoes (1988).

Review by: Jafo

Still want more then check out the Exploding Helicopter podcast episode on Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes. Listen now on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and all other major podcatchers.

Saturday 10 October 2020

Angel Has Fallen

Admit it: you were expecting something more like ‘Standards Have Fallen’.

After the grim uber-violence of Olympus Has Fallen, and the queasy xenophobia of London Has Fallen, it’s fair to say hopes weren’t high for instalment three in Gerard Butler’s presidential protection franchise.

The film looked for all the world like a last desperate cash-grab before the series was consigned to the scrapheap (or even worse, the dingy netherworld of DTV sequels). This impression was only heightened by news of a slimmed down budget and scaled down cast (series stalwarts Angela Bassett, Aaron Eckhart, and Melissa Leo are all notably absent).

So, imagine Exploding Helicopter’s surprise when Angel Has Fallen (2019) turned out to be a rollickingly good action romp.

How on earth did that happen? And please can we have some more?

The plot

Gerard Butler once again finds himself in the centre of bullet-strewn bedlam after an assassination attempt on the President. After waking in a hospital, Jowly Gerry quickly learns that his entire team is dead, POTUS is in a coma, and he’s the FBI’s chief suspect in the attempted hit. Zoiks!

Naturally, it’s not long before Big Gez escapes and goes on the run in an effort to clear his name. Along the way, he must work out who’s masterminding the conspiracy, avoid the mercenaries hunting him down and reconnect with his estranged father. All while trying to decide if he wants to take a desk job at work. Apparently, the dental package is very attractive...

Standards had fallen

You’d be forgiven for thinking all this makes Angel Has Fallen sound remarkably like its knuckleheaded predecessors. But watching the film, it becomes clear there’s been a deliberate tonal reset.

While the grisly violence of past entries remains intact, the unpleasant strand of quasi-racism – “Why don’t you go back to Fuckheadistan?” bellows Butler in the London entry – has been quietly expunged from the formula. (Viewers wanting to see that unsavoury combination should instead check out Stallone’s thoroughly nasty Rambo: Last Blood.)

In addition, the stakes for our hero are made more personal. Not only must Gezza prove his innocence and defend his family, he’s also thrown together with his absentee father (Nick Nolte) – a PTSD-addled Vietnam veteran who’s now living off-grid like a crazed doomsday prepper. Or, as Butler observes: “One step down from the Unabomber.”

This move allows the film to make some surprisingly thoughtful nods towards the mental toll taken by a life of violence. There’s even an emotional reunion between these two grizzled warriors as they weigh the personal cost of the sacrifices they’ve made for their country.

Admittedly, the pair then seal their reconciliation by bloodily butchering a team of military contractors who’ve been sent to kill them. But hey, this is a ‘Has Fallen’ film, not a Bergman-esque reckoning of the human condition.

So, while Exploding Helicopter can enjoy having a little fun at Angel Has Fallen’s expense, the film absolutely succeeds on its own terms. You get muscular set pieces, a well-rounded story and meaningful character beats. What more could you ask for? To which the obvious answer is….

Exploding helicopter action

….an exploding helicopter. Or, in this case, four. The first occurs during the attempted coup d’etat. While relaxing on a fishing trip, the president and his protection team are attacked by a flock(?) of exploding drones. (Answers on a postcard as to what the collective noun for these murderous machines should be.)

Packed with explosives, the miniature aircraft dive straight at their targets like robotic kamikaze pilots. They wipe out a few Secret Service agents and then smash into the presidential helicopter, Marine One, and two accompanying Osprey V-22, blowing them up.

But wait: that’s not all.

At the end of the film Danny Huston - the scenery-chomping villain of the piece - tries to make his getaway in a helicopter that’s about to lift-off. But before he can make his escape, Butler detonates the whirlybird using the grenade launcher under his machine gun. Perhaps they should have called this one Aircraft Has Fallen.

Artistic merit

We give top marks to the chopper fireball staged at the end of the film as part of the film’s big finale. Its burning carcass acts as a haunting backdrop for the climatic mano-a-mano knife fight between Huston and Butler.

Sadly, the earlier scene is a bit of a disappointment. While it’s hard to fault the scene overall, the chopper fireballs are a little blink-and-you’ll-miss-them.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Together with Independence Day and The Sentinel, Angel Has Fallen can be added to a small but perfectly formed group of films that boast the fiery destruction of a presidential helicopter. Impressively, the film also features the first use of a drone to blow up a chopper.

Interesting fact

Readers with long memories may have noticed that Angel Has Fallen’s story bares no relation to the one trailed in much of the advance publicity. That’s because it was originally meant to feature terrorists hijacking Air Force One.

But with Butler unhappy with the script, veteran screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen (Taken, The Transporter) was called in to fix things. And ultimately, this ‘repair job’ involved junking the entire thing and coming up with a completely new story.

Only one problem remained: how to explain the title they were now stuck with? Cue a newscaster on the Exposition News Network droning the improbable line: “Tonight, the President’s guardian angel has fallen…”

Still want more?

Why not check out our review of Angel Has Fallen on the Exploding Helicopter podcast. Listen on iTunes, Acast, Stitcher, Spotify and wherever you get your podcasts. 

Tuesday 22 September 2020


Here’s a challenge: name a Michael Winner film not called Death Wish. Tricky, isn’t it?

For a man so famous for being a film director, he really didn’t make very many famous films. These days, if anyone remembers him at all, it’s as a notoriously waspish restaurant critic or a smug-faced presence in car insurance commercials.

But never let it be said that this blog is afraid of terrible movie-making. Throwing any notion of quality control to the wind, Exploding Helicopter has dived into one of the dustier corners of the Winner cinematic canon, so you don’t have to.

And so we present the bonkers, twisty, unforgettable-but-not-in-a-good way thriller: Firepower (1979).

The plot

Sitting comfortably? Good. Now, maybe pop a couple of paracetamols before reading on…

This insanely confusing story begins when a scientist is killed by an explosion in his laboratory. His widow (Sophia Loren: yes, that Sophia Loren) is convinced that the untimely death is the work of a crooked industrialist, called Stegman.

Sultry Sophia turns to the FBI for help, but they’re unable to act since Stegman is living on a Caribbean island with no extradition laws. Faced with such an administrative challenge, the Feds do what any reasonable law enforcement organisation might do: employ a shady mafia boss (Eli Wallach) to kidnap Mr Big and spirit him back to the US on their behalf.

So far, so sensible, right? But we’re only getting started... Next, the mafia don calls up a retired hitman (James Coburn) to carry out the killing. And the contract killer’s first step is to recruit his secret identical twin brother – also played by James Coburn. At this point, you’re barely ten minutes into the film, and the layers of bunkum and confusion just continue to multiply and sprawl. Half an hour in, Exploding Helicopter needed to have a nice lie-down on the sofa.

Over two very long hours, the film hits you with an unrelenting barrage of double-crosses, secret identities and hidden agendas. You’re left with the sense that nobody in the film really has the faintest clue what’s going on – and if they do, they certainly didn’t tell Michael Winner.

The cast

Befitting a film that’s so all over the shop, the cast is an eclectic jumble of famous actors, familiar faces, and ‘what the hell are they doing in this?’ cameos.

Topping the bill is lanky-limbed leading man, James Coburn and Euro-cinema royalty, Sophia Loren. They’re both fine actors, but as an onscreen pairing they have all the easy rapport and natural chemistry of breakfast telly’s Piers Morgan and Susannah Reid.

Alongside them, there’s a rogue’s gallery of character and bit-part actors including the aforementioned Eli Wallach, Vincent Gardenia (Death Wish) and Dominic ‘Junior Soprano’ Chianese. Bringing a further positive, rosy glow to the proceedings is OJ Simpson who, as per usual, murders his lines with the same alacrity with which he reputedly murdered his own wife. (Fun fact: for some reason, Simpson seems to appear with puzzling regularity in films where helicopters explode.)

Anyone not already dizzy from this pick n’ mix bag of job-hungry thesps will surely be knocked out (pun very much intended) by the appearance of legendary boxer, Jake La Motta. As a villain’s henchman, the original Raging Bull turns in a performance so woefully inadequate that you’ll be wishing for one of his roundhouse punches just to get it all over with.

Finally, as a ridiculous cherry on the top, Fifties Hollywood beefcake Victor Mature wanders in from a busy retirement on the golf course to half-heartedly appear in a solitary scene. Less hole-in-one: more one-scene-and-gone.

Winner proves a winner

With such an impenetrable plot and a dog’s breakfast of a cast, Michael Winner would seem a potentially fatal choice to direct this (or frankly any) film.

Boasting a filmmaking style variously described as “crass”, “primitive” and “suitable for people who like to slow down at traffic accidents”, Bolshie Mike might appear singularly ill-equipped to salvage this project. And yet, it’s his blunderbuss approach that prevents Firepower from being a total disaster.

With nothing to be gained from engaging with the material, the reliably artless Winner simply ignores it. Instead, he simply stuffs the film with a dizzying kaleidoscope of car chases, gun fights and exotic locations – all meant to distract you from the fact that the whole thing is unfathomable guff.

And should any viewers find the movie’s sensory assault and lack of narrative sense a bit much, just remember the immortal words of its late director: ‘Calm down, dear.’ Firepower may not make a lick of sense, but it doesn’t lack for spectacle – and it’s certainly never boring.

Exploding helicopter action

After kidnapping the Mr Big Industrialist, Coburn makes his getaway pursued by the villains’ henchmen. (Incidentally, by this point it seems utterly unclear which of the ‘twin’ brothers Coburn is meant to be playing, not least to Michael Winner.)

Luckily, Old Longshanks (or his twin) has anticipated the baddies’ pursuit plans, and cannily placed a series of time-delayed bombs in their vehicles. One of them, as you can doubtless surmise, is a helicopter.

A hectic chase ensures, and after a few minutes one of the bombs reliably detonates and puts paid to a pursuing car. But that still leaves a helicopter buzzing ominously overhead and a small posse of horse-riding heavies on Coburn’s trail.

The villains close in and it looks like it’s about to get sticky for Big Jim. Fortunately, with contrived good fortune, the chopper chooses that very moment to blow up. And if that wasn’t lucky enough, the falling debris knocks out the henchmen on horseback. It’s like three cherries lining up on a one-armed bandit.

Exploding helicopter verdict

We get an all too brief shot of the helicopter blowing up, although blowing apart would be a more accurate description. The combusting chopper is clearly an Airfix-quality model, and there’s a noticeable lack of actual fire – though predictably the whole thing is engulfed in blazing flames by the time it crashes to the ground. Having said that, continuity is the least of this film’s problems.

Interesting fact

Apparently, the script for Firepower started life as a Dirty Harry sequel. Clint Eastwood can consider himself very lucky, punk, that he never got embroiled in such a ghastly, giddy mess.

Saturday 20 June 2020

When Time Ran Out

Or, as it should be known, When Time Ran Out... on the disaster film.

That's right. When Airport (1969) became a box office smash, it kicked off a decade-long boom in films where ageing Hollywood stars met their melodramatic deaths in elaborately staged set-pieces.

For a time, these films were a sure-fire recipe for blockbuster success. But as the Seventies wore on, audiences began to weary of their predictable formula and increasingly daft scenarios. And when this notoriously naff, volcano-themed piece of whimsy showed up, the whole genre finally blew-up like… well, a volcano.

Both a critical and commercial catastrophe, the movie stank at the box office and lost millions. It also ended careers. (Notably, one of its stars was so mentally scarred they never referred to it by name again.)

Surveying the devastation, Tinseltown bosses collectively pronounced the whole genre dead, and swore never again to make a film like When Time Ran Out (1980)

The plot

When a volcano erupts on a pacific island, it looks very much like the glamourous guests at a nearby luxury hotel will be engulfed by molten magma. Yikes!

But fear not! For screen icon Paul Newman is on hand to save the day. With molten lava flowing down from all directions, Old Blue Eyes rallies a small group of survivors and leads them on a perilous journey to safety.

Naturally, this being a disaster movie, the escape is complicated by a pressing need from many characters to resolve a giddy mix of personal dramas. (Quite why no one can put off dealing with mom-didn’t-appreciate-me-enough until the crisis is over, is a mystery the genre has never resolved.)

With the island swiftly turning to liquid magma, the questions come thick and fast. Who will live? Who will die? And will the two old codgers harbouring a decades-old grudge tearfully reconcile in this moment of peril? At this point, you’d got to think there’s an outside chance they probably will.

When Time Ran Out…. On The Disaster Film

This movie’s reputation as a cinematic stinker is well deserved, and its problems - woeful special effects, lamentable soap opera sub-plots, listless action scenes – have been well documented.

So, rather than look at why this film is so bad, let’s to delve into how it came to be quite so awful.

When Contracts Ran Out

With Paul Newman, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons and William Holden, When Time Ran Out boasts no fewer than four Oscar-winning actors.

So whatever its flaws, you wouldn’t think the acting would be an issue. And yet there’s a strange, dead-behind-the-eyes quality to each of their performances – almost as if they didn’t want to be there. Which, in fact, they didn’t.

You see, none of the garlanded Oscar worthies wanted to be anywhere near this merde-fest; they were all forced into it because of old contracts they’d signed. Newman later admitted it was the only film he ever regretted and refused to even mention its name, referring to it only as ‘that volcano movie’.

When Confidence Ran Out

You’d assume that such a major movie with an all-star cast and humungous budget would have top-notch director – so why was TV journeyman James Goldstone at the helm? The short answer: the studio was desperate to avoid giving the reins to the movie’s creator, Irwin Allen.

You might know Allen as the creative force behind such mega-hits as The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. But by this time, his career had taken a double nose-dive – with the bad-cinema classic ,The Swarm, and soggy seafaring sequel Beyond The Poseidon Adventure – so Warner Bros insisted he not direct.

Allen’s answer? Hire a pliable stooge like Goldstone, who agreeably sat like a lump in the director’s chair while Allen sneakily pulled all the strings – and produced his third cinematic turkey in a row.

When Money Ran Out

Already buckling under the above challenges, the movie finally keeled over and died under the strain of constant studio budget cuts, which forced emergency (and often comedic) cost-saving measures.

So, if that tropical island looks a bit like California, that’s because…well, it’s clearly California. And the infamous special effects in the movie were straight out of Blue Peter. As a viewer, it’s hard to cower in the face of a terrifying volcano when it’s fashioned from an old washing-up liquid bottle and some cardboard tubes. You can almost see the sticky-back plastic.

Unsurprisingly, the end result was a truly terrible film. And while the pitiful box office takings were bad enough, the death knell of the entire disaster genre sounded just months later when Airplane! (1980), a scalpel-sharp dissection of disaster conventions and clich├ęs, was a massive hit.

Exploding helicopter action

Given that destruction is at the heart of all disaster movies, it’s no surprise to learn that a helicopter ends up being an early casualty.

As magma rolls towards the luxury hotel, the panicked guests look a nearby helicopter for a quick escape. There’s a stampede, and people either cram themselves inside or cling desperately to the landing skids as it takes off.

Overloaded, the chopper struggles to remain airborne. Weaving around in the sky for a few moments, it suddenly plunges straight into a cliff and explodes. A case of When Copters Run Out.

Artistic merit

It’s a short and sweet scene: one moment the whirlybird is spinning around in the sky, the next it’s charging straight into a cliff.

The resulting fireball is rendered in far from convincing model-work. But rather than lingering, the camera sensibly cuts quickly to the horrified reactions of those that witnessed the crash.

On the plus side, the bunfight to get on the chopper is hugely enjoyable as those lucky enough to be inside kick and punch others trying to join them. Chivalry, it seems, is well and truly dead.

Exploding helicopter innovation

When Time Ran Out is not the only volcano-themed film to feature an exploding helicopter. Nearly twenty years later, a chopper in Dante’s Peak crashes after its engine becomes choked with volcanic ash.

Interesting fact

While the film lost money at the box office (it made just $4m against a $20m budget), it has gone on to make over $500m in the years since. Well, sort of.

That’s because Paul Newman used his fee from this financial disaster to launch Newman’s Own, his famous philanthropic range of salad dressings and sauces.

Review by: Jafo