Wednesday, 19 February 2020

The Domino Principle


Over the years, Exploding Helicopter has seen a good few baffling movies (Memento), some incomprehensible ones (Terence Malick’s Tree Of Life) and a special handful that seem to operate entirely within their own parallel continuum of logic. (Step forward, Ron Howard’s insane papal-nuke-thriller, Angels & Demons.)

But it turns out these movies were actually models of storytelling clarity, at least in comparison to one infamous work. For there is one particular Seventies conspiracy thriller so bonkers, so defiantly opaque, that it has earned a special place in Exploding Helicopter’s Cryptic Cinema Hall of Infamy. Ladies and gentlemen: meet The Domino Principle (1977).

Why even bother with this one? you’re probably not asking. And true, on one level, reviewing such a famously impenetrable mess of a movie may seem like asking for punishment. But when you’ve spent a decade only cataloguing films where helicopters blow up in strange and often unconvincing ways, you get to know a thing or two about fruitless endeavors.

The plot

Former army sharp-shooter Roy Tucker (Gene Hackman) is quietly serving out a lengthy prison sentence when he gets a visit from two mysterious men.

They offer to arrange his escape, reunite him with his wife, and set him up with a new life in another country. Only – and maybe step back and take a deep breath, here – there’s a catch.

In return for his freedom, Tucker must agree to carry out an unspecified job. (And for the sake of simplicity, let’s just clarify now that it’s an assassination.) Obviously, our judicious jailbird is initially reluctant to accept the enigmatic deal, but eventually agrees.

So far, so kind-of-clear, right? But not so fast: at this point, the whole situation (and the movie itself) quickly starts to spin out of control. And if you’re wondering how it all turns out, join the queue.

There’s a reason this movie has baffled audiences for over 40 years. And by the time you finish reading this review, chances are you’ll also be scratching your head and reaching for the paracetamol.

The cast

The great and grizzly Gene Hackman plays Tucker. Always a compelling screen presence, Big Gene lends his character the intense, coiled rage that is the hallmark of his best work (The French Connection, Unforgiven). But as ever, the question is: just how much ‘acting’ is the famously combustible Hackman actually doing?

Famous for chewing out directors (he once commanded fey indie darling Wes Anderson to ‘pull up his trousers and act like a man’) and public brawling (even administering one beat-down at the ripe old age of 82), it’s probably fair to say Hackman could start a fight in an empty room – and still claim the other, non-existent guy started it.

Playing the villains are two of cinema’s perennial bad guys: Richard Widmark and Eli Wallach. Able to effortlessly convey either snake-like charm or sinister menace, the pair spent decades deceiving, duping and double-crossing countless co-stars in their films. In other words, they’re perfectly cast here.

And fittingly for such a bizarre film, there’s a queasy cameo from a Hollywood star of old, Mickey Rooney. The pint-sized actor came to fame in the Thirties, as a child starring opposite a pig-tailed Judy Garland in a string of wholesome musicals.

Viewers with fond memories of those golden-era offerings will therefore be more than a little perturbed by his appearance here. Cast as Hackman’s foul-mouthed cellmate, he gleefully lusts after teenage girls while continuously picking at his chest hair. No wonder Hackman decided to escape.

Confusion reigns

Why is The Domino Principle such an obtuse film? Some context might help here. The film was part of a cycle of conspiracy thrillers that emerged in the early Seventies.

But coming in the wake of a wave of increasingly complex and twisty classics – such as The Parallax View, All The Presidents Men and The Conversation – the producers were clearly worried. How do you surprise an audience now used to the idea of shadowy cabals of men with nebulous agendas undermining, overthrowing, or bending governments to their will?

In retrospect, their answer was simplicity itself: just never explain the conspiracy.

That’s right. Instead of learning, over the course of the film, the identities, motives or aims of the main players, here, the audience learns precisely nothing. Zip. Zero. Zilch. When the curtain comes down, the viewer is just as confused as they were 20 minutes in when their headache first started forming.

So, to recap: we never find out who Gene Hackman had to kill. We don’t know why they needed to be killed. We have no idea who is behind the conspiracy. And even Wallach and Widmark, the front-men for the mysterious murder plot, don’t know the answers. As they’re at pains to point out during the film: they’re just cogs in the machine. It’s not their job to know.

No doubt, the producers were initially delighted with their own cunning. What could be cleverer than a conspiracy so vast and complex that no one involved – including the actors, the director and the poor audience – ever understands it? That’d be, like, totally radical man!

Er, no it wouldn’t. Actually – and Exploding Helicopter can’t emphasise this enough – it’d be blood-boilingly annoying.

Imagine a stand-up comedian telling a long-winded joke, then walking off stage just before the punchline. A cordon bleu chef painstakingly preparing a beautiful meal before your eyes, then flipping it into the bin. A Scooby Doo episode where at the end, the whole gang simply says, “Nah, we dunno who did it’, and drives off.

The whole point of a mystery movie is that it gets solved at the end. But not this one. The Domino Principle is all conspiracy and no thriller. Ultimately, the real mystery is how this piece of cinematic bobbins got made.

Exploding helicopter action

While the overall film may miss the target, it at least hits the bullseye with its exploding helicopter.

The action occurs after the big hit. Hackman escapes the scene in a helicopter, flying a short distance before landing and transferring to a getaway car.

To cover their tracks, a waiting villain throws a very fetching leather briefcase inside the chopper. But this is clearly no ordinary piece of luggage, because everyone suddenly starts running and a few seconds later the helicopter explodes. Kaboom!

Artistic merit

We’re big fans of this chopper fireball. The eruption of flame is spectacular, and wreckage is impressively flung through the air.

One particularly striking aspect is just how close the actors are to the pyrotechnics. They’re only a few feet away when chopper blows up. In fact, they look to be in real danger of being horribly maimed by flying shrapnel.

Such is the apparent disregard for the safety of the cast, it’s worth considering whether there was a cock-up in the timing of the detonation. Or maybe Hackman had managed to piss off the crew so much that, by this point, they were literally trying to kill him. Probably the latter.

Exploding helicopter innovation

The method of destruction here is unusual, but not unique. A helicopter was blown up by a bomb disguised as a piece of luggage in Diamonds Are Forever.

Best critic’s comment

“I felt sorry for the actors wasted on such a stupid script…but I felt sorrier for myself for having to sit through it.” Ruth Batchelor, LA Free Press

Interesting fact

Gene Hackman is Hollywood’s emperor of bad career choices and his “I’ll take the money” approach to filmmaking is to thank for his appearance here. Roles in Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind were among the many better films he snubbed in order to make this slice of cinematic merde, simply because the paycheck was bigger.

Review by: Jafo

Still want more? Then check out the Exploding Helicopter podcast episode on The Domino Principle. Listen via iTunes, Spotify, Acast, Stitcher or wherever you get your pods. Alternatively, just hit play below...


Thursday, 30 January 2020

Bad Boys For Life


That’s right: for life. Or maybe watching this movie just seemed that long.

After a hiatus of 17 years, the ageing Miami cop duo – stretching the word ‘boy’ to its very outermost limits – bring their franchise creaking along for a third instalment that looks every bit as bloated and weather-worn as its stars.

This time, a wronged criminal is out for revenge. Will Smith is out to prove he’s still got it. And Martin Lawrence, by the look of him, has mostly been out for dinner. Of course, there’s the usual crash, bang and pyrotechnic wallop, and a supporting crew of millennial police moppets for eye-candy purposes.

But clearly, no-one was asking for this movie, so why are we here? With its crashing pratfalls, shouty jokes and swaggering self-confidence, it resembles nothing more than a drunk, uninvited guest at a party. And for Exploding Helicopter, it was just about as welcome.

The plot

Years ago, detective Mike Lowrey (Smith) busted a Mexican drug lord, who later died in prison. Now his villainous widow has been sprung from clink by her equally violent son, and they’re both bent on revenge.

Early on, the young tyke shoots Smith point blank in the chest three times. Certain death, surely? But no: following a few montage scenes of fellow cop Marcus Burnett (a king-sized Lawrence) tearfully wobbling his jowls beside his partner’s hospital bed, the not-so-Fresh Prince is apparently good as new.

Initially, Lawrence refuses to join Smith in hunting down the baddies, until they also kill the pair’s police captain. Only then – and Exploding Helicopter only hopes you’re sitting down for this next revelation – he agrees to team up one last time.

Joined by an incredibly hot young police crew who, like, use computers and stuff, they hunt down the evil Mexicans via a predictable cavalcade of car chases, punch-ups, weak puns and face-to-face sub-machine gun battles in which literally nobody gets shot. (Hey, there’s that ‘15’ certificate to think about here…) Then it all culminates in a Mexico City showdown.

The cast

Someone once observed that, by the final season of Baywatch, David Hasselhoff had the biggest breasts on the show. It’s not a kind line, but it does underscore a valid point – old actors replaying their younger roles is not generally a good look.

Who could forget a corseted and bewigged William Shatner in the Star Trek movie series? Or the supposedly immortal Christopher Lambert growing greyer and jowlier throughout the Highlander series? And in last year’s Last Blood, Sly Stallone, largely filmed skulking around subterranean tunnels, looked like nothing more than a freshly embalmed Egyptian mummy.

So let’s not forget, the ‘boys’ in question here are Will Smith (51) and 54-year-old Martin Lawrence. At least Smith, blessed with that Tom-Cruise-style steely self-discipline common among deeply weird Scientologists, still looks in prime condition.

Lawrence however, all wattles and artfully cut dark clothes trying to hide his pot belly, appears to have enjoyed every one of his five-plus decades. Exploding Helicopter is not sure how many dollars he got paid for this movie, but he’s apparently storing them in his cheeks.

However, the real major crime in this movie is how Joe Pantoliano, an effortlessly charismatic actor who was unmissable throughout two seasons of The Sopranos, is tasked with playing a lazy blend of Angry Police Captain™ and Proud Paternal Figure (“He’s like a son to me”).  Now, that’s criminal.

Don’t forget the kids…

Ah yes, the millennials. Remember how The Expendables 3 added a buff, young supporting crew to the mix, so we wouldn’t have to spend two hours staring at a bunch of septuagenarians trying to hold their stomachs in? This movie does the same, sprinkling in a deeply uninteresting quartet of what we suppose should technically be called ‘characters’.

There’s a saucy leaderene to smoulder at Smith, a cocky young rebel to bristle against him, a musclebound hunk who – get this! – is a bit of a nerd, and a fit young woman who, er, has an interesting haircut. It comes to something when you’re left complaining that a movie lacks the nuance of Stallone’s later work, but this is where we find ourselves.

The opposite of chemistry

This Bad Boys series makes much of the supposed schtick between Smith and Lawrence, but watching the pair together is utterly wearying. All they do is shout banalities and clich├ęs at each other, as if the booming volume and simple ‘bro’-ness of it all will obscure any lack of wit.

With Lawrence, in particular, almost every line he bellows is a clunking piece of exposition or plot point: Hey, best buddy. Remember that time you were working that case and…. It’s pretty artless stuff.

Also, for two friends who have supposedly been inseparable since childhood, they often sound bemused to hear even the most rudimentary facts about each other. At one point, Lawrence learns that his brother from another mother once spent almost a year working deep undercover for a Mexican drug cartel. What: he didn’t notice at the time?

Admittedly, action movies are not generally big on character – and nobody’s expecting Kramer vs Kramer here. But the writing is deeply shoddy even by base, generic standards.

The trouble with Mexicans

It’s worth noting that, while American movies appear terribly woke these days, Mexicans remain the last minority group that it’s still kind of okay to go full Jim Davidson-racist on, particularly in shoot-em-up yarns like this one. Thus, the drug lord’s widow is more a demented, murderous pastiche than a real person, and – get this – is also rumoured to be an actual witch.

Perpetually stuck in either hissy whisper or screeching mode, she’s pure pantomime. In characterisation terms, it’s the equivalent of portraying a Native-American woman in face-paint and making “Woo! Woo!” noises while tapping her mouth and dancing round a fire.

It’s a bizarre phenomenon, particularly given the spending power of the US’ native Hispanic population, but just seems to be one of those things – like the black character dying first in every horror flick.

Exploding helicopter action

So, to the final showdown in a ruined building in Mexico City. It is, natch, a dark and stormy evening. (Such conditions are famously CGI-friendly.) And let’s cut to the quick here: the building handily contains the kind of glass roof and huge central atrium that would be perfect for a crashing helicopter to slowly crash-spin down, almost hitting all the main characters along the way.

So, what do you think happens? After much punching, kicking, shooting and chasing (with nary a bruise visible on the main characters), a chopper heads in to pick up the widow and Lawrence shoots the pilot. The whirlybird comes careering in through the roof and spirals downwards to the ground, where it briefly lies in state before bursting into flames.

Artistic merit

Let’s look, shall we? Chopper implausibly brought down by protagonist with small firearm on a roof. Check. Comes crashing down very, very slowly, usefully eating up camera time. Check. Almost hits every major character on the way down. Check. Comes to a whirring halt inches away from protagonist. Check. Eruption of sudden CGI fireball. Check.

If they were handing out awards for originality, this movie would not be in the running. In fairness, this movie is unlikely to be in the running for any awards, unless the Razzies come calling.

Interesting fact

Recognise the scraggly-looking emcee in the wedding scene of Lawrence’s screen daughter, the one looking like the kind of ageing surfer who wouldn’t be permitted within 100 metres of a school? That’s Michael Bay, the famously long-winded and pyrotechnic director of the first two Bad Boys movies.

Friday, 13 December 2019

Hijack!

“Breaker, breaker, this is Bulldog headin’ South on old Double Nickel. Anyone out there got their ears on?”

Ah, the Seventies! When sideburns were long, trousers flared, and the world couldn’t get enough of truck drivers.

It’s true. During the decade, driving a vehicle for a living implausibly became the epitome of cool. Cinemas were gridlocked with films such as Smokey and the Bandit, Breaker! Breaker! and Convoy. Radios blared with the twangy sound of ‘truck-driving country’. And millions of people inexplicably tried to decode the mysteries of truckers’ CB radio slang.

Trying to explain such a strange moment in human culture is beyond the purview of this humble website. So instead, let’s ‘break 1-9’ and remain ‘cool on the stool’ to review Hijack! (1973). (And no, Exploding Helicopter doesn’t know what any of that means either).

The plot

Two truck drivers are hired to transport an obligatory ‘mysterious cargo’ across the country. They’re told it’s a top-secret job on behalf of the government, and for reasons of security they can’t be told the contents of their load.

At first they’re reluctant to take on the job, until they see the big bucks on offer. But they quickly (and predictably) come to rue the decision. To absolutely nobody’s surprise, a ruthless gang of villains – intent on stealing their mysterious cargo – starts giving chase as soon as they’re ‘ten-four, good buddy’ing down the freeway.

Can our heroes of highway haulage safely complete their risky run? Will the baddies succeed in their fiendish plans? Do viewers have the slightest hope of understanding a fifth of the CB-flavoured gobbledygook being spouted throughout? Probably not.

The cast

In the film’s proverbial driving seat is TV legend, David Janssen. The passing years and the actor’s premature death make it easy to forget what a huge star he was during the Sixties and Seventies. His trademark show – The Fugitive – was a colossal hit, pulling in a mind-boggling 72% of the American population for its climatic episode, a now unimaginable figure.

Riding shotgun – so to speak - is grizzled character actor, Keenan Wynn. A familiar, whiskery presence in countless westerns, he’s perfectly cast here as Janssen’s rough n’ ready driving buddy, always ready with a salty one-liner and a two-fisted approach to problem-solving.

It’s worth noting that poor Janssen, a raging alcoholic and heavy smoker, was just 42 when he made this movie but looked a good 15 years older. His 27-year-old romantic interest Lee Purcell meanwhile, scarcely looked out of her teens, which lends a distinctly queasy and implausible flavour to their interactions.

Hijacking your time

Exploding Helicopter is going to cut to the chase with this review: Hijack! is not a very good film.

What promises to be a high-octane thriller, filled with burning rubber and roaring engines, in fact turns out to be a pedestrian drama that never gets out of first gear. Despite a brief 75-minute run-time, it still manages to spin its wheels through several torpor-inducing sections. And it’s so blandly staged that you wonder if the director fell asleep at the wheel.

Exploding Helicopter couldn’t help but compare this duff automotive offering unfavourably to a very similar TV movie made just a few years earlier, Duel (1971).

The two films share an almost identical premise (one features a truck pursuing a car, the other a car pursuing a truck), and both featured a big television star (David Janssen vs Dennis Weaver). But while Duel is now considered a minor classic, Hijack! is rightly all but forgotten. That’s probably because a young Steven Spielberg directed Duel, while Hijack! was helmed by a TV hack, Leonard Horn, who churned out Sixties genre fodder such as Mission: Impossible and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Or in this case, Voyage to the Bottom of the Barrel.

Still, the film does have some high points. The villains’ wardrobe is fabulous. Their leader – a thick-set, middle aged man – wears an electric pea-green suit that even Elvis in his Las Vegas, coke-snorting and crotch-thrusting heyday would’ve baulked at.

Not to be outdone, his top henchman sports a pair of trousers featuring an eye-bleedingly complex pattern of purples and mauves (perhaps a vain attempt to distract you from the fact he’s as bald as a coot). Clearly, these master criminals were not particularly concerned about remaining incognito.

Exploding helicopter action

Having spent so much time stuck on the highways and byways of Texas, the movie takes a pleasing aerial turn at its climax.

Following several failed attempts to stop Janssen, the villains take to a helicopter to stop the troublesome trucker.

An onboard gunman fires at the lorry with a machinegun, peppering the windshield with bullets. As the vehicle grinds to a halt, it appears that they’ve finally got their man. The helicopter lands so the villains can seize their prize. But wait: Janssen’s not dead! He’s just been lying doggo.

He shifts the truck into gear and rams the parked whirlybird, which instantly explodes. The lorry roars away badly dented, on-fire and with Janssen looking badly shaken by his ordeal – or perhaps just worrying about his no claims bonus.

Artistic merit

It’s often mentioned on this blog that helicopters in Seventies movies were remarkably combustible – the slightest graze could have them erupting into a fireball. And so it is here. While the truck gives the chopper a fair old shunt, there’s no earthly reason for it to violently explode.

Mustn’t grumble though, because it’s not every day you get to see a helicopter blow up after a vehicular game of British Bulldog.

Exploding helicopter innovation

The chopper fireball in Hijack! is unusual, but not unique. Chuck Norris’ trucker tale, Breaker! Breaker!, also sees a is destroyed in similar fashion.

Interesting fact

Despite being a small-screen star, David Janssen has appeared in a surprising number of films with an exploding helicopter. Check out his work in The Green Berets, Birds Of Prey and High Ice.

Review by: Jafo

Friday, 8 November 2019

Terminator: Dark Fate

By this point, “I’ll be back” has started to sound less like a promise and more like a grim cinematic threat.

Imagine, for a moment, walking out of a screening of the original “Terminator” in 1984 and being told that the film’s stars would still be playing those action roles 35 years later.

That a waxen-faced, 72-year-old Arnie Schwarzenegger and a profoundly haggard Linda Hamilton (63) would still be hobbling around in biker leathers, toting over-sized guns and spouting inanities about ‘holes in der fabric of tiiime…’ You’d find the prospect more incredible than the movie you’d just seen.

And yet here we are. It’s 2019, and Arnie is back doing his shtick as everyone’s favourite T-100. To paraphrase Michel Biehn in the original film: “The Terminator franchise is out there. It can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with, and it absolutely will not stop until you are dead (bored of these endless sequels).”

The Case of the Missing Movies

You know how the Terminator movies often end with a knackered-looking robot being slowly lowered into a huge smelting vat? Well, that’s apparently what the makers of Dark Fate decided to do with T3, Salvation and Genisys.

With James Cameron back in the driving seat as producer, this new movie follows directly on from the last half-decent Terminator film – T2: Judgment Day – and unblushingly pretends that nearly three decades’ worth of increasingly confusing sequels simply never happened. (If only the poor audience was afforded the same luxury.)

The plot

But even with such radical surgery, the plot of this movie is still a mess – hurriedly tying up loose ends and conjuring up whole new story arcs with scraps of cranky exposition. It starts with a flashback in which annoying teen, John Connor – the original saviour of the world, remember – is casually killed by a CGI-young Arnie. (In other words, everything that was achieved in the first two movies was a complete waste of time.) The action then clunks over to Mexico, where a new ‘good’ Terminator and obligatory liquid-metal bad guy both arrive in search of the latest saviour, a feisty young auto-worker.

Naturally, within five minutes there’s a Terminator fight and car chase. Linda Hamilton turns up, armed with a massive bazooka and, even more worryingly for the viewer, yet more nigh-unlistenable exposition. Then they all go to visit Arnie, now living incognito as a curtain salesman called Carl. (Yes, you did just read that correctly.) The bad guy finds them again. There’s another fight. Then another, on a plane. Then it’s on to the obligatory climactic fisticuffs in a giant industrial setting. And by this point, the action has essentially morphed – Terminator liquid metal-style – back into the first two movies.

You’ve almost got to admire the studio’s unabashed intent to put on a karaoke-style tribute to the franchise’s glory days, but the result should be more coherent. Apparently, new director Tim Miller and the famously combustible Cameron had radically different ideas for the script and did not get along. Word is they essentially waged a Hollywood jihad on each other as they wrestled for creative control, and you can see the results in the lumpy storytelling and uneven tone.

The cast

However, the studio did manage to muster some innovation with its cast. Showing some serious post-#metoo savvy, they decided to feature three female leads. In theory, this was a good idea. The franchise has had more than its fair share of macho meatheads – Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, the abominable Jai Courtney – so switching chromosomes felt like a fresh and bold move. Unfortunately, all the main roles have been woefully underwritten and the actors themselves are largely terrible.

The ‘good’ Terminator – a genetically enhanced human, this time – is played by gangly-limbed tomboy, Mackenzie Davis, who is great at ass-kicking but otherwise seems totally lost, unsure whether to emote or act tough. Playing the chosen-one-who-mustn’t-be-killed, Hispanic actress Natalia Reyes alternately bleats and wails and gets angry, but all to no discernible purpose. Only Leathery Linda is able to instil her character with a bit of steely resolve, spitting out withering asides and giving everyone the stink-eye.

As always, Big Arnie’s performance seems stuck between acting like a robot and being the robotic actor that he really is. Gabriel Luna does manage to bring a chilling menace to his role as the new bad terminator, but when the actor being singled out for praise only speaks about 30 words in the whole movie and is basically a CGI-composite for 80 per cent of his scenes, that’s pretty telling.

Get to the action, for God’s sake…

Luckily, the film-makers seem to have realised what a load of complete bobbins their story and actors were, so opted to throw a boat-load of action at the screen – and the formula largely works.

Following an opening contretemps in a car factory, the film really gets going with a prolonged (and hugely destructive) giant lorry chase along a freeway. And while, post-Matrix, this kind of scene is becoming a little too familiar, there’s a lot of stunts-and-explosions creativity on display.

Later, the gang somehow find themselves locked up in an immigration holding facility, until Old Liquid Stabby Arms turns up and starts slicing and dicing his way through everybody. (It’s a wonder Trump hasn’t tried to hire him.)

From then on, it’s basically non-stop action. The extended dust-up inside an airborne C-130 is pretty rousing stuff, then it’s a hair-raising fall to earth in a Jeep attached to a wonky parachute, followed by two minutes avoiding soggy murder at the bottom of a lake and a chase across a dam. As mentioned, the climactic battle takes place in a ma-hoosive industrial plant handily equipped with plenty of Terminator-unfriendly materials. In short, it’s a full-on barrage of blows and bullets.

…because it might stop them speaking. 

Exploding Helicopter has witnessed some truly appalling guff during its decade-long existence, but certain talky scenes here might well make the blog’s Mount Rushmore of Terrible Exposition. They are epically, finger-gnawngly bad. In one rambling early scene, where the main players are meant to be establishing themselves while holed up at a motel, you can actually see that chunks of dialogue have been overdubbed in post-production. And in the screening attended by Exploding Helicopter, a couple of Linda’s angry, gun-totin’ “Die, Metal Motherfucker!’ lines were met with open guffaws, which is never a promising sign.

But things truly fall through the floor when Arnold the Reformed T-100 starts waffling on about his wife and kid, and finding ‘ver beauty in hoo-man liiife’. It’s a monstrously misjudged scene, which the Teutonic Timber is not close to being able to deliver. You can almost picture Tim Miller sat behind the camera, head in hands, while Arnie rote-reads his moving soliliquy with all the delicacy and touch of a Speak-Your-Weight machine. It may well be the worst individual scene you’ll see on screen this year.

Exploding helicopter action

Two thirds of the way through the film, our heroes make their way to a military base to collect an incredibly powerful macguffin-I-mean-weapon, handily packaged in a case small enough to qualify as carry-on baggage with RyanAir. But wait: here comes Mr Liquid Metal in a helicopter! Arnie and pals board the tailgate of a lumbering C-130 military plane, and as it takes off they shoot at the pursuing chopper. The evil terminator leaps from his damaged chopper on to the tailgate of the plane, eager for some metallic mayhem. Meanwhile, the now pilotless helicopter explodes, hitting the runway and rolling over multiple times.

Artistic merit

As you might expect in a movie that cost $185 million, everything looks fairly realistic and exciting. But there’s so much other stuff going on during this sequence – speeding vehicles, falling masonry, speeding terminators – that not enough time is devoted to relishing the true glory of the helicopter explosion.

Interesting fact

Terminator: Dark Fate was originally planned as the first offering in a new trilogy. But the cataclysmic box office showing (even the famously undiscerning Chinese audience, so often the saviour of mediocre Hollywood movies, has turned its collective nose up at it) means that it may finally be time for Arnie to say Hasta le Vista, Baby.

Friday, 25 October 2019

The Diamond Mercenaries

The Seventies were a golden era for heist movies. Back then, filmmakers spoiled us with a myriad of variations on the traditional stick-em-up. We had Sam Peckinpah’s gritty The Getaway, George Roy Hill’s stylish caper The Sting, and Sidney Lumet’s moving Dog Day Afternoon.

But naturally, Exploding Helicopter is not reviewing one of those illustrious efforts. Instead, you’ll be getting the lowdown on The Diamond Mercenaries (1976) – almost the very definition of a run-of-the-mill hack-job – which was directed by cinematic journeyman, Val Guest.

The reason for this is fairly simple. It appears that there are good heist movies, and then heist movies with exploding helicopters in them. Like a Great Dane and a Chihuahua, the two entities don’t tend to mix.

The plot

A team of mercenaries plot an audacious raid on a seemingly impregnable diamond mine. But when rumours of the heist reach the owners, they bring in their top security man to foil the raid.

The stage is then set for a battle of wits. Can our merry band of thieves pull off their daring robbery? Or will the sly security chief outfox his prey before they steal the gems?

To find out, you’ll either have to watch the film or keeping reading this review. (Assuredly, both will be a terrible waste of your time, but at least reading this drivel won’t take you an hour and half.)

The cast

Heading the cast – in more ways than one – is the late, great, extremely follically-challenged Telly Savalas, a monumental TV star in the Seventies. (Heck, he was even named after the television.) Known universally for his role as the cue-ball-headed cop, Kojak, Big Tel here plays the security chief tasked with preventing the robbery.

It’s a tricky job, and not made any easier by having to wear an eye-melting selection of garish Seventies shirts. (Exploding Helicopter’s particular favourite is a hallucinogenic emerald green number with, yes, owls splattered all over it.)

Starring alongside our top baldy sex symbol is Sixties counter-culture icon, Peter Fonda, who features as a diamond mine employee charged with infiltrating the gang. The Easy Rider and LSD enthusiast cruises through the film with a blissed-out cool that suggests he might have smuggled a healthy-sized collection of happy pills onto the set. Or perhaps he just stared at Telly’s shirt for too long.

You’ll likely notice a couple of other famous faces among the criminal clique, some more welcome than others. Christopher Lee – everyone’s favourite blood-sucking vampire – pops up as a poetry-reading British soldier gone bad.

And speaking of creepy men who stick sharp objects into young women: everyone’s least favourite acquitted murderer, OJ Simpson, also squeezes in a guest appearance. The “Juice” is famously a very poor actor (he struggled mightily with the role of ‘innocent person’ at his own trial, for example) and he’s on typically bobbins form here. Bleurgh.

A theft of your time

Heist movies have been reliably entertaining audiences for decades, by following a very simple three-point formula.

First, show the team – generally a ragbag assortment of misfits – being brought together. Second, outline the painstaking preparations for the big ‘job’. And third, deliver an exciting finale where the robbery is carried out in all its elaborate detail.

Really, it’s a fool-proof plan. Or at least, it was until director Val Guest started tinkering with it.

So, instead of seeing the gang recruited, the criminal coven in The Diamond Mercenaries comes ready-formed. And their preparations for the job? That involves nothing more than some desultory leaning over a table, looking at a giant map. Compelling drama, this is not.

Mercifully, things do improve once the heist begins – or more precisely, goes completely tits up. Once the raid is rumbled, the last half hour transforms into a veritable action bonanza.

The gang have to shoot their way out of the diamond mine, before making their getaway in a Jeep. This sets-up an exciting desert-set car chase, with each side trading gunfire as vehicles race across the sand dunes.

But this climactic surge of excitement is, frankly, too little too late. Ultimately, The Diamond Mercenaries is no 24-carat sparkler. It is a very dim gem, indeed. Perhaps they should have named it The Diamante Mercenaries.

Exploding helicopter action

All this brings us to what should be the crown jewel of every film: the exploding helicopter. This conflagration actually occurs at the start of the film, during a sequence designed to establish the formidable defences of the diamond mine.

What happens: a couple of criminals are attempting to sneak in, when their presence is detected. Natch, a helicopter (a Bell Jet Ranger, fact fans!) is despatched to investigate.

As the chopper flies overhead, one of the intruders fires a solitary rifle shot at it. And before you can say, “Surely a single small calibre bullet is never going to damage a helicopter…” POOF! The whole thing disappears so magically fast you’ll be looking for David Copperfield’s name in the end credits.

Artistic merit

This singularly underwhelming helicopter explosion is a strong example of a phenomenon that regularly plagued films of this vintage: spontaneous combustion.

You’d think a vehicle robust enough to fly and carry multiple people would be able to absorb a reasonable amount of small-arms fire before being fatally damaged. And yet, during the Seventies, you basically only needed to sneeze in the general direction of a helicopter before it would erupt in flames. They really did seem to explode at the slightest provocation

Presumably, film audiences of that era were simply an impatient bunch and overly eager to get to the bit where everything blew up. And so filmmakers gave ‘em what they wanted. But looking back, maybe someone should have mentioned that anticipation is half the pleasure.

Interesting fact

Obviously, nothing about the movie itself is interesting. But the cast and crew of this yarn do have a spookily high number of connections to the James Bond franchise.

Both Christopher Lee and Maud Adams appeared in The Man With The Golden Gun. Telly Savalas played 007’s cat stroking nemesis Blofeld in On Her Majesties’ Secret Service. And Val Guest was one of the many directors who worked on the Sixties Bond parody Casino Royale.

Eagle-eared listeners will also identify a further connection to the famous British spy series. That’s because the dulcet tones of Robert Rietty can be heard providing the voices for several of the supporting characters. Dubbed ‘the man with a thousand voices’, Rietty memorably voiced Emilio Largo in Thunderball, and Tiger Tanaka in You Only Live Twice, as well as many other minor characters throughout the series.

Review by: Jafo

Thursday, 19 September 2019

The Park Is Mine

Remember that time Tommy Lee Jones played an unhinged Vietnam veteran who leads an armed takeover of New York? No, Exploding Helicopter didn’t either.

And little wonder. The Park Is Mine (1986), which was originally made for Canadian TV, is a curious wee turkey. At first glance, this tale of a ‘Nam soldier going on a violent rampage after being pushed too far looks like just another one of the Rambo rip-offs that plagued the Eighties.

But wipe away its camouflage paint-smeared exterior and you’ll find a far, far weirder film. Because in this movie, the loon-eyed shouty guy with a bag of explosives is presented not as a violence-crazed domestic terrorist, but a public folk hero.

And if you’re already confused, there’s bad news on the way: we’ve not even reached the plot yet.

The plot

Take a deep breath, now. Disgruntled Vietnam veteran, Mitch (Tommy Lee Jones), gets a posthumous letter from an old war buddy who’s just committed suicide, containing plans for a paramilitary takeover of New York’s iconic Central Park. The dead pal asks Mitch to commandeer the park in order to, er, highlight the way veterans have been forgotten by society.

So, using a secret weapons cache (natch!), Mitch does exactly that. And when he also fends off a counter-offensive by the NYPD, the public takes to the streets in his support for some reason that is not immediately clear, possibly even to the film’s director.

Humiliated by this scenario, the dastardly NY deputy mayor secretly orders two mercenaries to kill Mitch. But Mitch instead bumps off the mercenaries, then gives himself up to the police.

And that’s it.

At no stage is the question of what the point was of the whole exercise even remotely addressed.

Drama-free zone

This is confusing stuff, certainly, but unfortunately it’s not in the least dramatic. You see, in order to retain the audience’s sympathy, the film refuses to let Mitch actually hurt anyone. Remember, kids: he’s fighting ‘the man’, not individual people.

So incredibly, the grizzled vet effects a wholesale paramilitary takeover of Central Park using nothing more lethal than blank ammunition and smoke bombs. (Exactly how the assembled might of the NYPD fails to notice this is just another baffling element that’s never explained.)

Talking of unsolved mysteries, the film also never really explains quite what Mitch is protesting against or campaigning for. What’s more, he’s only threatening to stay in the park for three days, until Veterans’ Day, so it’s always evident that the whole situation could be peacefully resolved by simply doing nothing.

Heaping confusion onto unlikelihood, the film gradually veers farther and farther away from a realistic scenario. Like one of the fake bombs used in the takeover, it splutters ineffectually before finally fizzling out.

The cast

Tommy Lee Jones was almost 50 before The Fugitive made him ‘Tommy Lee Jones’, the movie star. Before then, the baggy-eyed Texan spent 20 years slogging his way through bit parts and dreck-ish TV movies such as this.

It’s a testament to TLJ’s future greatness that he’s able to at least partially humanise such a thinly written character as Mitch and make him in half-way sympathetic. The only other familiar face the great Yaphet Kotto (Alien, Live And Let Die), playing a policeman drafted in to handle the crisis.

Exploding helicopter action

Speaking of no drama… About halfway through the movie, police snipers in a helicopter are ordered to fly over the park and take out Tommy Lee Jones. Our Rambo-impersonating hero fires at them, but very pointedly only aims only at the chopper’s tail rotor, damaging the whirlybird.

Trailing smoke, the damaged helicopter spins around in the air before making an emergency landing. All the crew jumps out to safety long before the aircraft suddenly combusts.

Artistic merit

While there’s a spectacular fireball to enjoy, its impact is defused by the yawn-worthy staging. The helicopter crew takes an absolute age to safely disembark – you’ll see faster exiting in an episode of On The Buses – and only then can the pyrotechnics supervisor trigger the explosion. And frankly, a stationary and empty helicopter explosion isn’t all that interesting to watch.

Favourite quote

“I have a message for New York. Central Park is mine.”

Review by Jafo

Still want more? Then have a listen to the Exploding Helicopter podcast episode where we review The Park Is Mine. Find us on iTunes, Stitcher, Acast, Spotify and all the usual place.

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

The Final Countdown

Along with death, taxes and a Meryl Streep Oscar nomination there is one more certainty in the world: mention the words ‘Final’ and ‘Countdown’ to anyone, and they will start humming: “Der-ne-ner-ner, der-ne-NE-NE-ner…”

Thanks to Eighties pop-rockers, Europe, the Final Countdown has become synonymous with poodle perms, tinny synths and a horrific, caterwauling chorus. (Which, be in no doubt, was unquestionably used as audio torture during the darkest days at Gitmo.)

But once upon a time (well, 1980 to be exact), the phrase was perhaps best known as the title of a film with an intriguing time travel premise. So come with Exploding Helicopter, as we spiral backwards through the cinematic time tunnel.

The plot

A present-day American warship is caught in a mysterious electrical storm that sends it spinning back through time to 1941 and – Cor, lummy! – the hours before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.

Understandably, the ship’s patriotic captain is all for using the might of his modern-day weaponry to prevent the infamous Japanese attack. But what if – as other conscientious members of his crew point out – this might alter the course of history in unintended and unpredictable ways?

The stage then is set for some classic time-travel speculation about the consequences of America never entering World War II. Would Europe still be under the jackboot of Nazism? Could the hammer and sickle of Soviet Russia now be fluttering over the continent? Most importantly: might any combination of actions have avoided Trump? And if so, is it too late to maybe give them a shot?

The cast

Topping the bill is human dimple Kirk Douglas. The singularly-chinned thespian plays Captain Yelland, the straight-arrowed military man who has to make sense of his crew’s time-travelling travails.

Alongside him is Martin Sheen, whose main role is to sport a magnificent plume of beautifully coiffured hair, of the kind not generally seen outside a show ring at Crufts. When not tossing his lustrous locks from side to side – a move that seemingly leaves him in constant danger of a neck injury – his other job is to butt-heads with Douglas about the consequences of meddling with history.

The rest of the cast is a weirdly eclectic mish-mash of actors. There’s Superfly himself, Ron O’Neal, cult movie impresario Lloyd Kaufman and Asian utility actor Soon-Tek Oh who is cast as (hold on to your seats, folks) a kamikaze crazy Jap.

Revered character actor Charles Durning also has a role as a shady US Senator, which seems fitting as – if anyone knows about being stuck in time – it’s the prematurely aged Chuck, who has spent the majority of his forty-plus year film career playing crusty old codgers.

Is this any good?

On one level, The Final Countdown is a terrific idea. The film’s characters have to grapple with a moral quandary centred on one of the defining moments of World War II. And with the fate of the world at stake, the drama literally couldn’t be higher.

Except. The trouble is, well, we already know how all these events played out. Clearly, everything the characters are worrying about will never come to pass – so there’s no real sense of high stakes, jeopardy nor tension.

Instead, like the aircraft carrier on which the action takes place, the drama chugs slowly and predictably forward across its 100-minute run-time. Ironically for a film about time travel, it feels an awful lot longer.

All told, it’s more the final let-down than countdown.

Exploding helicopter action

In order to prevent the space-time continuum being dangerously damaged, Captain Yelland orders that two characters be left stranded on a deserted island (He reasons that they’ll be rescued later, but not before they can raise the alarm about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour).

The pair are flown out to the isolated outcrop in a helicopter. But when one realises the plan, he grabs a flare gun and threatens the pilot. A struggle breaks out, during which the flare gun goes off, causing the helicopter to explode.

Artistic merit

The chopper fireball is incredibly brief. It’s only on-screen for a couple of seconds before the action cuts away. You can only conclude that they were trying to hide the poverty of their special effects with such a rapid edit.

Exploding helicopter innovation

The Final Countdown is far from the only example of a time-travel exploding helicopter. Biggles: Adventures in Time (1985) and Samurai Command 1549 (2005) both feature helicopters exploding in eras where they did not belong. This movie, though, made in 1980, has the distinction of being the first one to pull off this feat.

Interesting fact

As the copious amount of military hardware onscreen may suggest, The Final Countdown was made with the full co-operation of the American Navy.

So pleased were the Navy with the outcome, they included footage in their recruitment drives. It is unlikely, however, that any film schools felt similarly compelled to use excerpts from the movie to promote the virtues of quality movie-making.

Review by: Jafo

Check out the review of The Final Countdown by our friends Bulletproof Action.