Friday 23 November 2012

Lasko - Death Train

Monks have never been stars of the silver screen.

Mostly commonly sighted in historical dramas, they act as a kind of period window dressing – generally portrayed as stout, jolly fellows, whose love of God is only matched by their love of mead.

True, Asian martial arts films in the 70s and 80s often featured monks of the Shaolin variety, kicking god-fearing ass while dispensing cryptic wisdom (usually with a badly-dubbed English accent). But in Europe, monks have only ever had a marginal presence – the only notable contribution being period murder mystery, The Name Of The Rose.

So, it’s against this unpromising backdrop that we come to Lasko: Death Train (2007), a film which bravely smashes the stone tablets of convention and preaches a new gospel: a ‘monk cinema’ for the 21st century. Say it loud: I’m a monk and I’m proud.

Naturally, though, our hero – Lasko (Mathis Landwehr) – isn’t just any old monk: that would be boring. Our man is a member of a secret order of deity botherers - known as the ’Fist of God’ - who are dedicated to protecting the church.

Just as well, really. Because, while accompanying a train-full of pilgrims on a trip to see the Pope, Lasko only finds himself caught up in a plot of international intrigue after terrorists steal a deadly virus.

Attempting to make a covert getaway after their theft, the terrorists - led by Arnold Vosloo - hitch a ride on the pilgrim train disguised as monks and nuns. However, when their plan is discovered it’s up to Lasko to stop Vosloo before he can release the virus.

Now, you might think a monk trying to stop terrorists poisoning a train full of nuns and priests sounds like a disastrous cocktail. But while these ingredients really shouldn’t gel together, the film – in some crazy, mixed up way – works. Proof, if ever you needed it, that God does indeed work in mysterious ways.

Fittingly for a member of a secret sect called the Fist of God, Lasko is a supernaturally good martial artist, and you’ll be unsurprised to hear he’s given bountiful opportunities to demonstrate his face-pummelling prowess as he tries to foil the terrorist plot.

This though, presents a problem: how to reconcile Lasko’s devout religious faith with the need to get biblical on villainous ass? Fortunately the scriptwriters, aware of this contradiction – and showing no little knowledge of the Catholic Church’s stance on confession and absolution – permit Lasko to briefly regret each life he takes by making the sign of the cross over the body while looking mournfully into the middle distance.

So, to recap: meet baddie, punch baddie repeatedly till face resembles a tenderised steak, snap baddie’s neck like it was a cheese-stick, stand over corpse and look a bit guilty for a second. Are we all up to speed? Good. On such logic are the great religions of the world built.

Director Diethard Kuster craftily takes the opportunity to run with various religious motifs throughout the film. So when Lasko has to dispense a vaccine for the lethal virus amongst the passengers, he administers it via holy wafers. Not so much the body of Christ, as the anti-bodies.

Despite the bonkers premise, Lasko: Death Train is a thoroughly entertaining film. As Lasko, Mathis Landwehr has got good martial arts chops and the fights are excitingly choreographed. Appropriately for a train-set thriller, the whole thing rattles along enjoyably, building up a satisfying head of steam courtesy of a director who keeps the story on track throughout.

Of course, as fun as this film is, I wouldn’t be telling you about it unless it contained an exploding helicopter or, in this case, two.

The first comes when the police attempt to stop Vosloo escaping with the virus. They order in a helicopter full of commandos to storm and seize the train. As the chopper hovers above the moving carriages, the brave commandos slide down ropes to try and get onboard.

Unfortunately, the villains are prepared for this eventuality and have sneakily brought along a rocket launcher as carry-on luggage for their journey. One of the baddies leans out a carriage window and fires a missile at the chopper. There’s no time for the pilot to take evasive action and the helicopter explodes in a huge fireball.

The second moment of chopper carnage happens near the end of the film. In order to make his escape, Vosloo whistles up his own helicopter to whisk him off the roof of the train and to safety.

Naturally, Lasko isn’t going to allow this, so after also clambering up onto the train’s roof the pair proceed to have their long awaited showdown.

Unsurprisingly, Lasko prevails in the fight leaving Vosloo (the scoundrel!) to resort to dirty tricks. He pulls out a pistol – rather begging the question why he didn’t do this earlier – to shoot our hero. But Vosloo’s aim is inexplicably bad and, in attempting to kill Lasko, he succeeds only in haplessly shooting the pilot of the chopper hovering nearby.

Vosloo leaps onto the rope ladder dangling from the chopper, in the expectation that he’ll be flown away. But the mortally wounded pilot can only manage to dimwittedly steer the chopper into the path of the onrushing train. Ka-boom.

Artistic merit

These are two absolutely first class chopper fireballs. There really isn’t anything like watching the real thing, and here the extravagantly huge explosions are clearly executed using pyrotechnics and without the use of CGI.

The second fireball is especially praiseworthy as we get to watch the train plough into the helicopter and, moments later, its debris. Lasko: Death Train was nominated for best action in a foreign film at the Taurus World Stunt Awards and it’s not hard to see why.

Exploding helicopter innovation 

While the quality of the helicopter explosions are beyond dispute, they’re not particularly innovative. Chopper destroyed by rocket launcher is a routine method of destruction and, though rare, we’ve seen helicopters destroyed by trains before, most notably in Blue Thunder.

Do passengers survive?

At least two commandos survive the first exploding helicopter. Realising that the chopper they’re dangling from is about to be destroyed, a couple of the quicker-thinking soldiers jump from their ropes. Two of them can clearly be seen in a later shot examining the helicopter’s wreckage.


Some comic relief is provided courtesy of two pilgrims travelling on the train – one blind and one with gout – who remain oblivious to the drama unfolding around them through a series of escalating coincidences.

The pair bring to mind the great double act of Caldicott and Charters from Hitchcock’s own train-based thriller, The Lady Vanishes. In that film, despite the murder and kidnapping taking place around them, the duo are amusingly only concerned with getting back to London in time for a cricket match.

While not in that league, the pair here do entertainingly compliment the main story.


Unfortunately, director Diethard Kuster decides to use the film’s opening sequence to prove he’s completed a correspondence course in editing from the Michael Bay School of Retina Damage.

This renders the first action set-piece – the theft of the virus from a Government facility – into a dizzying, whirling, jumble of epilepsy-inducing edits.

The effect is compounded by Kuster’s love of showing the same event taking place from multiple camera angles. It creates a kind of Groundhog Day feeling, where you begin to feel you’re trapped in a permanent loop of the same events.

Thankfully, it looks like Kuster exhausted even himself with this initial effort and he reins in the technique a little for the rest of the film.

Favourite quote

“Look I joined a monastery. I didn’t think I was joining a paramilitary organisation.”

Interesting fact

Proving that God’s work is never done, a spin-off TV series appeared two years later, which chronicled Lasko’s further adventures defending the church.

Review by: Jafo

Still want more? Then listen to the Exploding Helicopter podcast episode on Lasko Death Train. Listen via iTunes, Acast, Stitcher, Player FM or right here

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Austin Powers in Goldmember

As Skyfall, the third Daniel Craig Bond film, provides a chopper fireball fix for cinemagoers, it seems an appropriate time to revisit the third of the 007 spoofing Austin Powers’ franchise.

Too tenuous a link? Perhaps. But the film does have the only ingredient necessary for a review on this hallowed website - the warming orange glow of a helicopter explosion.

We all remember Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997). The series debut was hilarious, lampooning the sexual innuendo, contrived plots and simplistic henchmen of the Bond franchise.

With the public hungry for more, a sequel seemed an obvious winner. However, with the best gags used up, The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) quickly descended into puerile joke-making. They may have doubled the budget, but unfortunately they halved the humour.

It's against this unpromising backdrop that we arrive at the third installment, Goldmember (2002) which was presumably made for no other reason than a desire by creator/producer/writer/actor Mike Myers to have a final, pocket-lining, payday.

The story is simple. Blofeld parody Dr Evil (Mike Myers) hatches a plan to take over the world by using a "tractor beam" to crash a meteorite into the Earth, melting the icecaps and causing a global catastrophe of a scale normally only seen in Kevin Costner films (Waterworld, The Postman, et al).

To do this, he needs a key ingredient (that shares a name with popular Hemorrhoids treatment "Preparation H") from a Dutch scientist from the past, Johan van der Smut AKA "Goldmember" (Mike Myers again). However, Evil's plan is foiled early doors by British agent Austin Powers (take a guess, his initials are MM). Or so it would seem.

M equivalent, Basil Exposition, cock-blocks a potential threesome with Japanese twins to inform the newly-knighted Powers that his father, Nigel (played by the actually-knighted Michael Caine), has been mysteriously kidnapped. The only clue to go on is the Golden Members the kidnapper has painted on the overpowered guards. Can you guess who's behind this?

As the convolution reaches breaking point, Powers travels back in time (been there, done that in the preceding film), picks up Beyoncé as easily as she picks up the pay cheque for her role as Foxy Cleopatra, jumps back to the future, and after following a lead provided by Fat Bastard (played by, yes, you guessed it, Mike Myers) tracks down the recently-escaped Evil, Goldmember, and his Dad in order to save the day.

And if all that sounds exhausting you’d be right. Indeed, by the end, trying to follow the plot had become such a pain in the proverbial that I felt in dire need of Dr Smut’s Preparation H myself.

But you have to rewind to the opening scenes for the airborne explosive action. The film begins with what initially looks like an over-the-top action sequence. Actually it’s a fake trailer to "Austinpussy", a pretend Austin Powers biopic directed by Steven Spielberg.

It's a great moment of self-parody, with some brief but hilarious cameos from Tom Cruise as Powers, Gwyneth Paltrow as Powers-girl Dixie Normous, Kevin Spacey as Evil and Danny DeVito as Mini-Me.

As part of the sequence we see a chopper in pursuit of the motorbike-riding Dixie. Powers skydives out of a plane into his car, the Shaguar, in order to take care of the chopper and save Dixie.

Powers lines up the Shaguar to charge at the onrushing chopper, and then as it nears, launches into an acrobatic somersault - clearing the chopper and enabling him to fire at the bearded pilot, causing the helicopter to burst into flames.

Powers casually lands on the road by the rubble, before Cruise removes the glasses and utters the franchise catchphrase “Yeah Baby!”

Exploding helicopter innovation

Nothing special about the explosion, but the ridiculously implausible stunt does merit appreciation - the leap, somersault, gunfire combo, over an in-flight chopper. We know absolutely nothing about the reason why the helicopter pilot deserves to fall to a fiery end - we just know it's right, and bask in the resultant warm glow.


The opening trailer featuring the explosion is a genuinely enjoyable scene. I'm also sure I'm not the only one that has a soft spot for the shadow scenes from all three of these films. Simple. Childish. Hilarious.


While a step up from The Spy Who Shagged Me, by the end you're left with the question of 'wouldn't it have just been better for everyone (other than Mike Myers) if this hadn't been made?' - the answer being a decisive 'Yeah Baby!'

Favourite quote

Nigel Powers: "There are only two things I can't stand in this world. People who are intolerant of other people's cultures... and the Dutch."

Review by: Joseph Clift

Still want more? Then check out the Exploding Helicopter podcast episode on Austin Powers In Goldmember. Find it on iTunes, YourListen, Acast, Stitcher, or Podomatic.

Friday 16 November 2012


The name’s Bond. Emo Bond.

Yup. Forget Brosnan’s lazy charm, Connery’s flinty coolness, crap Roger’s independently moving eyebrows. This time Sam Mendes – renowned for his emotionally wrought character studies – is in the directorial driving seat, so it’s all about 007’s angst and inner pain. We can only be grateful that Skyfall, unlike American Beauty, doesn’t open with our hero disconsolately cranking one out in the shower.

So, the story: Bond gets ‘killed’ in the opening scene (except of course he doesn’t) and cyber-terrorists steal a hard drive containing a list of secret agents’ names, which they then leak online. It’s Wikispooks, essentially.

We soon find Bond living in a beach hut, drinking heavily and even growing a beard to show us how much he’s really hurting inside. When the MI5 headquarters in London are blown up, he comes out the shadows so he can look pained and bicker with M (Judi Dench). During re-training, our struggling hero can’t shoot straight, fails the fitness tests and even throws a hissy fit during the psychological assessment. Are you getting the picture yet – he’s REALLY VULNERABLE, okay?

Given all this navel-gazing, Skyfall is unquestionably more talky-talky than most Bond movies, which in itself isn’t a bad thing. (Quantum of Solace, produced during the Hollywood writer’s strike, had about six lines of wonky dialogue). Most of the actors – Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Rory Kinnear – are pretty solid. Young Ben Whishaw, as Q, is great in the single scene – a verbal joust with Bond – where he’s allowed to do more than rat-a-tat at a laptop, squeaking: ‘They’ve hacked into our system!’. (Note: this happens a lot.)

But we already knew Mendes could ‘do’ talking – the problem is he just isn’t really into the action stuff, and it shows. He’s the directorial equivalent of the brainy, speccy boy at school, and there’s a sense that the livelier scenes for him must feel like a double Games lesson in the rain.

Can't you see he's hurting, he hasn't shaved
A big set-piece in a Shangai casino is a massive damp squib. Filming the scene apparently chewed up entire weeks and millions of pounds, but somehow it’s arse-numbingly boring.

Bond simply breezes into the enemy’s lair, announces his real name, chats up the baddie’s girlfriend, beats up some henchmen, narrowly avoids the obligatory deadly animals in a pit and breezes out again. So, when did that ever NOT happen? It’s all been done before with much more aplomb, and Mendes brings nothing fresh to the mix. It’s Karaoke Bond, essentially.

The movie’s big success is Javier Bardem, playing the bonkers, campish villain. He’s a truly bizarre sight, his big, meaty Spanish features topped with a straw-coloured wig that makes him look like a Catalan cousin of the late, unlamented Jimmy Savile. This unsavoury impression is heightened when he starts stroking a tied-up Bond between the legs. You half expect him to suddenly spout: “Now, then. Now, then...”

However, even a creature so magnificent as Jimmy Bardem is soon neutered by the lumpen direction and formulaic plot. Almost as soon as he’s introduced, the flaxen fanatic gets caught – with suspicious ease – and is taken to MI5’s new secret HQ. Once there, he trades insults with M, chews a bit of scenery then promptly escapes again. As Q helpfully exposites, while rat-a-tatting on a keyboard: “He’s actually been PLANNING this for years…”

Now, that shuffling, grating noise you can occasionally hear throughout this 20-minute sequence is the sound of Heath Ledger spinning in his grave, because the whole thing is a bare-faced lift from his identical stunt as The Joker in The Dark Knight. Except this time, obviously, the entire conceit is transparent from the outset – and thus a bit pointless.

Now then, now then, Mr Bond
However, it’s in the film’s final act that things really unravel. There are lots of uncertainties in the world, but one thing you could always count on was an explosive final half hour in a Bond movie, involving a huge set (preferably inside a volcano), hundreds of disposable extras, a cat-stroking maniac and some proper excitement.

Instead, Bond drives M to his bleak ancestral home in the Highlands so they can sort out his ‘mommy’ issues. There’s a misjudged, semi-comic turn by Albert Finney as the family retainer and, just as the movie should be cranking up to grand finale mode, the audience spends a full ten minutes watching what looks like out-takes from Emmerdale.

Finally, as night falls, Jimmy Bardem and a gang of goons arrive in a huge helicopter. It lands. The baddies jump out. They shoot big guns at the house, and Bond, M and Albert fire rifles back. The helicopter takes off again, ostensibly so it can resume shooting at the house, but really so Bond can blast it with a couple of gas canisters that happened to be hanging around in the kitchen (just next to the teabags).

Inevitably, the chopper crashes and a CGI fireball fills the screen, much as a palpable sense of anti-climax fills the mind of the viewer.

Exploding helicopter innovation 

Not much to report, really. Once hit, the big, Chinooky-type chopper slowly sinks and crashes into the side of the house, lighting up the night sky with a massive explosion. Mendes’ deft and realistic touch with an action scene is once more in evidence, as Bond and Bardem remain entirely unscathed by a huge volley of burning petrol and molten metal, despite standing right next to – and, in Bond’s case, virtually underneath – the unfortunate conflagrating vehicle.


There are a lot of individual good scenes, and it’s a genuine pleasure to see talented actors in a generic movie raising the bar with more than the usual action guy tough talk…


…but Skyfall often meanders and forgets that it is, after all, supposed to be a Bond movie. Despite all the critical hoopla, it reminded me in parts of Timothy Dalton’s discouraging turn as ‘new man’ 007 in the Eighties. Existential angst does not a good Bond movie make.

Favourite quote 

“Now, then. Now, then.” [Javier Bardem]. Note: I may have just imagined that, due to the wig.

Interesting fact 

What with Bond's 50th anniversary, Dame Judi's final turn as M, the celebration of British-ness theme, the celebrated home-grown director, post Olympics and Jubilee euphoria – this movie was never going to get anything other than a soft and comfortable critical landing. What most reviewers seemed to miss is that, for long stretches, it's actually pretty boring.

Review by: Chopper

Still want more? Then listen to the Exploding Helicopter podcast episode on Skyfall. You can listen via iTunes, Player FM, Stitcher, Acast or right here...