Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Deadly Prey

There are good films, and there are bad films. There are even ‘so bad they’re good’ films. And then there is Deadly Prey (1987).

This movie exists in its own universe. Like a comet, it hurtles past the Good and Bad constellations, briefly orbits planet So-Bad-It’s-Good, before exiting our galaxy for as yet uncharted regions of critical understanding.

But, lest we become lost in deep space, let us pause to consider the plot, which is very much rooted in our own earthly world.

In the backwoods outside Miami, a team of mercenaries – led by ruthless Colonel Hogan (David Campbell) – is rigorously preparing for a covert mission. To hone his soldiers into finely tuned killing machines, Hogan has adopted an extreme and unconventional approach at his training camp.

You see, the Colonel is the type of man who laughs at mere assault courses, who snubs his nose at bayonet-holed straw dummies. Not for him the tired fakery of pretend military exercises, oh no: Hogan prefers to keep it much more real and lethal.

In fact, his approach revolves around having his soldiers hunt and kill ‘runners’ – ordinary people kidnapped off the street and forced to flee for their lives in a secluded wood before they’re caught and killed.

The film opens with the latest ‘runner’ being easily chased down and murdered. Unimpressed, Hogan orders his men to head into town and bring back some fresh meat. By a huge coincidence, the elite mercenaries make the mistake of snatching Mike Danton (Ted Prior).

Unbeknown to them, Danton is highly trained ex-soldier and Vietnam veteran, who doesn’t take kindly to being used as glorified human bait. Instead of trying to scarper out the woods, Danton turns the tables on his kidnappers and starts to hunt them down, picking them off one-by-one.

So, given these kill-or-be-killed stakes, only one question remains: can Colonel Hogan and his mercenaries kill Danton, before Danton kills them?

Now, this may not sound like a plot that you’d need a PHD in astrophysics to understand, but – much like the mysteries of our solar system – Deadly Prey asks questions baffling enough to leave even Stephen Hawkins’ electronic voice box speechless.

Why, for instance, does Danton spend the entire film running around naked, except for a pair of skin tight denim shorts cut so short they verge on the pornographic?

Why, despite fighting for his life against a team of elite soldiers, does Danton decline to pick up a gun? I made it fully 49 minutes before Danton, having fought off numerous assailants, finally thinks to picks up a weapon. (Having said that, Danton had in fact killed 20 people by this point with relative ease, so maybe that’s a moot point.)

And why does Danton’s girlfriend, having seen him kidnapped and bundled into the back of a van, call – not the police or any other recognisable form of law enforcement – but her freaking dad, for heaven’s sake?

I know I ask these questions, but your time would be better spent searching for the origins of the universe than trying to find answers in the plot. With Deadly Prey it’s not so much a case of suspending your disbelief, as completely erasing it.

This is nowhere more evident than in the credulity-shattering scene where Colonel Hogan, examining the crumpled corpses of two of his men, is suddenly struck by a chilling realisation.

“I know this, I know this style… It’s my style… Danton? Mike Danton, it’s gotta be.”

“Know him?”

“Know him? I trained him.”

Really, where does one start? With the fact that Hogan and Danton just happen to be old foes from the army? That, by complete chance, they find themselves pitted against each other courtesy of a random kidnapping?

I especially enjoyed the in-no-way-unbelievable revelation that the Colonel can recognise precisely who killed the two men by the nature of their butchery. What did our hero do, carve ‘Danton wuz here’ into their abdomens? Utter piffle.

Still, for all its brain-dead tomfoolery, Deadly Prey is a thoroughly enjoyable romp, particularly when Danton tears about the woods employing the kind of advanced cub scout skills seen in First Blood or Predator.

Yes, the acting is universally horrendous but, combined with the lamentable editing which leaves everything happening a beat too slow, the film gradually begins to take on an odd, mesmeric charm.

This works best in moments of inspired gonzoid genius – such as when Danton severs an opponent’s arm during a fight, then uses the dismembered limb to beat him to a bloody pulp. It’s like the famous Monty Python and the Holy Grail black knight scene, only played straight – and all the funnier because of it.

So there’s certainly plenty to enjoy, and that’s even before we get to the exploding helicopter.

Intent on finishing off Danton, Hogan deploys a chopper to track down and kill the pesky veteran. Caught in open ground, it doesn’t look good for Danton as he desperately tries to evade machine gunfire from the aerial vehicle.

Finally, after ineffectually firing his own machine gun at the helicopter, Danton remembers his weapon is also fitted with a rocket-propelled grenade. One shot later, and Colonel Hogan has no more air support for his manhunt.
Artistic merit

One moment the chopper is there: the next it’s a dirty great fireball. It’s almost like they didn’t actually blow up a real helicopter. That’s low budget filmmaking for you.

Exploding helicopter innovation

First, and only, known destruction of a helicopter by a man wearing stone-washed, skin-tight denim shorts.

Positives

While it makes precious little sense, Danton’s refusal to pick up a gun until halfway through the film does have some benefits.

Sans gun, Danton has to improvise weapons and traps out of sticks, branches and whatever else is lying around the woods, making for some highly entertaining methods of despatching bad guys.

Negatives

The music in the film is bizarre. A keyboard heavy ballad, it sounds like the score for a daytime soap opera rather than a testosterone-fuelled, macho action movie. Again, cost considerations probably played a part in all this.

Favourite quote

Exposition is an art. When it’s done well, it can effortlessly give the viewer vital information about the story without getting in the way of scene. Conversely, when it’s done badly an actor can be left slowly chewing big chunks of indigestible dialogue.

Deadly Prey’s scriptwriters imaginatively opt for a third way and seek to short-circuit the whole process. So when Danton unexpectedly runs into yet another old army buddy, we get to hear the immortal zinger: “Mike Danton? I haven’t seen you since you took a bullet trying to save my life.”

Were there any other important details you needed about their relationship?

Interesting fact

The cult around Deadly Prey’s has steadily grown over the years. So much so, that it appears a sequel Deadliest Prey with Ted Prior himself is on the cards for next year.

Review by: Jafo

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Surrogates


Imagine a world where you can sit on your arse all day in the comfort of your own home and get someone else to do your work for you. Sounds great doesn’t it?

In fact you could argue that people living on benefits in this country currently enjoy this luxury (ooh, little bit of politics there). But wouldn’t there be a price to pay for creating a bland and safe facsimile of society? What would happen to our self-esteem and social skills? Wouldn’t we all just end up sitting around in our pants, stuffing our faces with crisps, looking like Elvis circa 1977?

This is the dystopian future envisioned by Jonathan Mostow in the surprisingly cerebral sci-fi actioner Surrogates (2009). In the future people don’t go out in the real world. Instead, they sit at home, remotely controlling idealised robotic versions of themselves, living out their lives vicariously through these “surrogates“.

Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) is one such sluggard. He’s an FBI agent called in to investigate the deaths of two people who mysteriously die when their surrogates are destroyed - something that should be technically impossible.

Greer’s sleuthing leads him to the anti-surrogate movement whose leader The Prophet (a bizarre mix of Bob Marley and Martin Luther King, played by a virtually unrecognisable Ving Rhames) wants to wipe out surrogacy. He wants to get everyone back to experiencing life directly, or at least washing once a month.

Ving Rhames: With a wig dafter than Bruce Willis'
But, just in the same way you can never be sure that the 18-year old underwear model you think you’re talking to in a chat room isn’t a 44-year old truck driver from Burnley, nothing is quite what it seems. Slowly Greer realises the murder is part of a vast and terrible conspiracy.

In a genre dominated by dumbed down studio fare with no intellectual returns, I found Surrogates to be an unexpected pleasure. The film reunites the team behind Terminator 3, writers Michael Ferris and John Brancato, along with director Mostow. They create a fully realised, plausible universe with great touches such as robots “jacking” with electronic “drugs”, beauty salons that resemble garages and roadside surrogate battery chargers.

Willis is not his usual bullet proof self and shows a refreshing vulnerability when dealing with some of the movies philosophical themes. Similarly, his flawed relationship with his wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike) elevates the film above the standard sci-fi action fare that normally relies on fancy effects and a blue tint for its authenticity.

Mostow keeps the action moving and at an economical 90 minutes the film doesn’t outstay its welcome either. Fortunately, amidst all the futuristic fun there’s still time for the retro thrills of a helicopter explosion.

Willis is in a police chopper tracking the murder suspect. The police on the ground move in and corner the suspect not knowing he is in possession of a developmental weapon which has the ability to kill people through their surrogates. After using it to wipe out the pursuing police the weapon is unleashed on chopper, overloading the pilot’s circuits and blowing his eyes out.

The out of control chopper spins wildly for what seems an eternity, clips the top of a building, before crashing down, flipping over like a child’s toy until it explodes.

Artistic merit

Whilst you have to appreciate the way Mostow’s prolongs the suspense, the helicopter was only ever heading one way - and that was down.

The crash itself looks surprisingly cheap and CGI’d compared to some of his previous efforts. The washed out yellows looked uncannily like the old Amiga game Persian Gulf Inferno.

Exploding helicopter innovation

None

Do passengers survive?

Survive is perhaps not the most apt verb in the scene is a robot. The chopper pilot does not surface after the fireball but Willis escapes with his arm torn off seeping some sort of green fluid which may or may not be absinthe.

Positives

The fact that in this fantasy world everyone has flawlessly beautiful surrogates to hide the fact that in the real world they are so ugly they couldn’t get a date from a calendar is a concept anyone familiar with Second Life will well appreciate.

Negatives

As with most sci-fi you can pick holes in the minutiae until the cows come home. Why, for example, have coffee shops for robots that don’t need to drink coffee? Don’t be a smart arse, its called artistic licence.

I won’t spoil it for you but the dénouement is too farfetched to be plausible for such a massive company with undoubtedly hundreds of fail safes to prevent their units from malfunctioning on a monumental scale.

Favourite quote

(Willis questioning an attractive female surrogate lawyer)

Female Lawyer: Agent Greer, we're not doctors. Tom Greer: Honey, I don't know what you are. I mean, for all I know, you could be some big, fat dude sitting in his arm chair with his dick hanging out.

Interesting fact

Oddly, Disney did not hold any press screenings for Surrogates. This is normally the sign of a studio in full damage limitation mode with an absolute turkey on their hands that they don’t want universally panned before it’s had a chance to see the light of day.

Perhaps Disney should have had more faith as subsequent reviews have been, at worst, “mixed”. Disney’s failure to back a sci-fi film with brains does the film and the movie industry in general a disservice.

The future isn’t particularly dangerous, in fact crime is virtually non-existent, but there is no underestimating mankind’s desire to do as little as possible. First came the remote control and now this.

Review by: Neon Messiah

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Day The Earth Stood Still


Keanu Reeves is an artist who divides opinion. Some say he is a rubbish actor with the emotional range of a pork pie and the personality of an Easter Island statue, whilst other more generous critics merely refer to him as “bollocks”.

Whichever side of the fence you reside, it is surely a mystery how the man has managed to cultivate such a long and illustrious career (whose zenith is still arguably Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) with a delivery as flat as Keira Knightley’s chest.

His ability to act with an almost zombie-like detachment was probably what drew casting directors to award him the part of the robotic alien Klaatu in Scott Derrickson’s remake of the B-movie classic The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Humans are raping the Earth so Keanu and his tree-hugging alien chums touch down intent on wiping our destructive asses off the planet in order to preserve the Earth’s unique flora and fauna for the benefit of…well, no one.

After landing in Central Park, Klaatu is met by a hostile welcoming committee of stereotypical hoo-ha-ing marines who set about interrogating him Guantanamo style. With reluctant scientist Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) in tow, Klaatu uses his extra-terrestrial powers to affect an escape and finish his mission destroy mankind.

Dr Benson attempts to change Klaatu’s mind about wiping us out by taking him deep into the forest to see Nobel prize winning Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese). He persuades Klaatu that we aren’t all bad eggs and that mankind has the capacity to change. Just as he is about to buy that baloney Dr Benson’s brat-ish stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith) ruins the argument by grassing up Klaatu to the cops and leading them to his hideout.

As the law move in, a pair of police choppers loom over the tree line and home in on Klaatu. Before they can mow him down, he uses his powers of telekinesis (or bad acting) to fry the helicopters circuitry causing the pilots to clutch their heads as their telecoms unit malfunctions in a cacophony of high pitched interference.

With the pilots disabled their helicopters go into a traditional tailspin before smashing into each other and breaking apart. The debris plummets to the ground and goes up in a delicious ball of flame.

Artistic merit

The film is chock full of choppers so it was only a matter of time before one went to helicopter heaven. The explosion here is nicely realised with some rich and satisfying oranges and is all the more impressive for silhouetting Reeves in much the same style as Hugh Jackman in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It would have been nice to see the wreckage hit the floor but there is no doubt about the chopper’s demise.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Helicopters destroyed by alien mind control - this is quite an unconventional take-down.

Do passengers survive?

We don’t know for sure as Derrickson refrains from showing us the impact of the stricken choppers on the ground but chances are the pilots are barbecued to a crisp in the chunky fireball.

Positives

For a film that relies so heavily on special effects it is just as well Weta Digital made the visuals plausible. I particularly liked the swarms of tiny nano-machines programmed to wipe out every man made device and bring the earth back to its natural state.

Oh, and James Hong (Big Trouble In Little China) turns up for a cameo in a bizarre scene which only really succeeds in reminding you that this film isn’t as good as any of the other films you’ve seen him in.

Negatives

The film has very few interesting elements to distract you from a pedestrian plot chock full of genre clichés, product placement and forgettable performances. It is a by-the-numbers blockbuster lacking wit or imagination and unforgivably ends up being a bit preachy and up its own arse.

Substituting the original film’s anti-war message for the remake’s environmentalist guff really doesn’t wash within the parameters of the original story, and by the end you couldn’t care less if the world’s population lives or dies.

I was forced to watch it due to contractual obligations imposed by the litigious hierarchy at Exploding Helicopter H.Q. It was either watch this and write a half-arsed review or engage in sexual activity (not the good kind) with a senior member of staff. If anyone knows any good employment lawyers please email me their details.

Favourite quote

Helen Benson: "Have you done your homework?"
Jacob Benson: "School's cancelled on account of the aliens."

Interesting fact 

A photo of GORT the humanoid robot and purveyor of destruction alongside Ringo Starr dressed as Klaatu graces the cover of Ringo’s 1974 Goodnight Vienna album. Rumour that purchasers of said album wanted the world to end after hearing it could not be verified at the time of going to press.

Review by: Neon Messiah