Sunday, 30 December 2012

The Swarm

So here we are: not so much a disaster movie, as a disastrous movie.

The Swarm (1978) is a film of such unspeakable awfulness that director Irwin Allen, scarred by the critical and commercial evisceration it received, banned anyone who worked with him from ever mentioning its name again.

Even The Swarm’s star Sir Michael Caine, one of the towering figures of bad cinema (and a man, incidentally, who makes no apology for Jaws 4: The Revenge), considers this the worst film he has ever made.

But before we speak about the disaster that is the film, what about the disaster it’s meant to depict?

As the film’s title suggests, the source of terrifying peril are bees. Not your honey-producing, flower-pollinating common or garden variety, but deadly African killer bees.

So, when a swarm of the lethal insects invades the USA, Caine’s top entomologist – or bug expert to the uneducated likes of you and me – is put in charge of saving the day.

Not a premise entirely without promise, you might think – especially with Irwin ‘Master of Disaster’ Allen, the producer of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno at the helm. Well, you’d be wrong. Very, very, wrong.

The film barely begins before taking the first of many catastrophic mis-steps. We enter the story with the swarm having overwhelmed a nuclear missile base. The military personnel lie dead and America’s nuclear arsenal sits unguarded and unmanned.

The nadir of Caine's career. Not a lot of people know that.
Having seen the cutting edge of Uncle Sam’s weapons technology rendered useless by one blistering attack, the viewer giddily waits to find out how the drama will be escalated.

Will there be a nuclear meltdown? Will the bees head for Washington to continue their assault on the USA’s military infrastructure? Perhaps they’ll take over the White House and transform it into a massive hive from which they can busily – and buzzily – rule the country?

No. Instead, Allen has the bees – and all the action – lurch sideways to a small, white picket-fenced town that, with ill-timed misfortune, just happens to be holding a flower festival.

Rarely has tremulous expectation been scythed so swiftly. One minute we’re worrying about the readiness of the United States’ intercontinental ballistic missiles, the next it’s all about whether the town’s mayor will have to call off the begonia competition.

This non-development is symptomatic of the way the film blindly staggers about under Allen’s scattergun direction. His previous disaster epics had the sense to confine their drama within, respectively, the walls of a burning tower block and an upturned cruise ship.

In this movie, without the natural constraints of a tight location, Allen seems clueless as to whether he should be providing grand spectacle or keeping the danger up close and personal.

Such confusion results in a unholy hodge-podge of scenes, seemingly from entirely different films. The story jack-knifes from large-scale destruction at a nuclear power station and the ensuing deaths of thousands, to picnickers impotently trying to fight off the swarm with a can of fly spray they‘ve puzzlingly packed along with the cheese triangles.

"It's behind you!"
This ever changing kaleidoscope of calamity simply serves to emphasise how none of the action is either a) frightening or b) remotely believable.

The whole thing enters through-the-looking-glass territory when our heroes, not content with having the deadly bees to deal with, start to inflict entirely avoidable disaster upon themselves.

For example, take the scene where Henry Fonda’s saintly old Professor – the only man in the world who can develop an antidote to the bee venom – tests out an experimental cure on himself. And promptly dies. Wasn’t there something a little less irreplaceable – a hamster, maybe – they could have tested it on first?

Or how about when the bungling soldiers, trying to fight off a bee attack, set fire to their own headquarters by using flame-throwers indoors. Like, totally, duh!

The same dunderheaded idiocy again rears its head in the exploding helicopter sequence. This occurs early in the film, before the nature of the threat has been established, when a couple of military helicopters encounter the swarm.

Unsure what to make of the black, buzzing mass in front of them, the hapless pilots naturally decide against trying to ascertain the potential threat from a safe distance. No, instead the gung-ho aviators choose to fly headlong into the swirling unidentified phenomenon.

While this recklessness does indeed allow the pilots to correctly identify their enemy as bees, the manoeuvre predictably causes an unspecified aerodynamic problem for the helicopters. The pilots lose control and the choppers plummet from the sky, crash into the ground and burst into flame.

Artistic merit

If you ever wanted to see a Airfix helicopter kit blow up, then this is the film for you’ve been waiting for.

Without any CGI, the filmmakers had to rely on scale models to create their special effects.

So, as the small plastic chopper meets its fiery demise, one should spare a little sympathy for the poor bugger who must have spent painstaking hours intricately gluing together the flimsy model. His handiwork is only briefly seen before the special effects team to blow it all to smithereens.

Sadly, it’s one of the least convincing chopper explosions on record: even the ground and the plant-life looks totally wrong.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Without doubt, the first known apiary-related destruction of a helicopter.

Positives

The single positive aspect of The Swarm is that it is so epically bad. Such ripe terribleness has a richness that elevates the film’s copious failings to the level of high art.

The only way to truly appreciate what a Herculean achievement of appalling awfulness this film is to watch it.

Negatives

That thought that repeatedly nags away at the back of your mind for much of the film, as death and disaster lays waste to whole communities, is this: why didn’t people simply stay indoors and keep their windows closed? Amazingly, despite the presence of so many top scientists and military generals, no-one ever seems to have thought of this.

Favourite quote

In a film filled to brimming with lumpen dialogue, my favourite exchange comes right at the end of the film. Caine’s plan to stop the bees involves luring the swarm out to sea where the army intend to blow them up. (Please, don’t ask.)

To do this, Sir Michael fits out a couple of helicopters with megaphones through which he intends to broadcast a special frequency the bees will be helplessly drawn to. Aware of the ridiculousness of such cod-science, the scriptwriters try to make a lame apology and have Caine’s helper say: “Won’t the noise of the helicopter drown out your sound?”

Caine’s reply is majestic: “No, it’s on an entirely different sonic level.”

Oh, okay. That’s alright then.

Interesting fact

Real bees were used to film The Swarm. Legend has it that Sir Michael, upon finding small yellow blobs on his clothes during filming assumed it was honey and began eating it, unaware that it was actually bee excrement.

Having inflicted this cack on the world, it’s probably only fitting that he had to eat some too.

Review by: Jafo

Still want more? Then listen to the Exploding Helicopter podcast on The Swarm. Listen on iTunes, Podomatic or YourListen


Friday, 28 December 2012

The Secret Agent Club

Success breeds imitation. In Hollywood this means that, whenever a big box office hit rakes in the readies, it is swiftly followed by a slew of thinly disguised, cheap and cheerless knock-offs.

So when the Arnold Schwarzenegger spy caper True Lies became a global mega hit, originality-adverse Hollywood producers rushed to cash in, and The Secret Agent Club (1996) was born.

Inferior in execution and ambition, the film steals True Lies’ central premise, re-works it as a kids’ film, and replaces Arnie with Z-grade action star Hulk Hogan – possibly the only man alive who could make the lumbering Austrian look like Sir Laurence Olivier.

Hogan plays Ray Chase, the remarkably unlikely owner of a toy shop, who appears to be living a dull and innocuous life in small-town suburbia. When he isn’t selling water pistols and whoopee cushions, he’s the klutzy and bumbling father to Jeremy (Matthew McCurley) to whom he’s a permanent embarrassment. However, quelle surprise, Hogan’s day job is merely a cover for his secret life as an agent for a shadowy intelligence service called, erm, SHADOW.

Inevitably, Hogan’s private and professional lives become messily entwined when his efforts to retrieve a deadly laser weapon from a campy villainess (Lesley Anne Down) go awry. And when she takes Hogan captive, it falls to the Hulk-ster’s son and his pre-teen friends to rescue him and the weapon.

So, just to summarise: where True Lies offered Jamie-Lee Curtis frolicking in her drawers and being genuinely funny, this film gives you a bunch of highly punchable pre-teen brats. Genius.

The story limps along like a three-legged dog, the action having as much bite as a toothless chihuahua. In fact, if this film were a dog, most viewers would surely have little compunction about taking it for a long, one-way walk in the woods.

Hogan, in particular, reeks to high heaven. Rarely has so awkward a screen presence ever graced the silver screen (and remember, this is someone whose performance – by definition – is here being measured against that human oak-tree of inexprssion, Schwarzenegger). Slowed by his muscle-bound body and advancing years, he labours through each progressing scene with the grace and subtlety of a collapsing building.

That said, Hulk does bank some credit for being the only unapologetically bald action star. Not for him the designer pates of Bruce Willis or Vin Diesel – whose grade zero shaves almost look cool. No, Hogan frames his folically-challenged scalp with a lustrous, blonde mullet. Sir, we salute you. In many respects, the peroxide mullet gives the best performance of the movie.

Curiously, for such a flawed film, the supporting cast are surprisingly good. As the chief villain, Lesley-Anne Down eats up her role with pantomime gusto, providing what little entertainment there is to be gleaned.

There are also game performances from Jack Nance as a mad scientist, Barry Bostwick as a double-dealing secret agent, and the ever reliable James Hong. It’s just a pity the flaccid script gives them so little to work with.

The exploding helicopter scene opens with Lesley Anne Down auctioning off the laser to a roomful of terrorists and war-mongering dictators. (No, George Bush and Tony Blair aren’t present, before you ask.)

To demonstrate the weapon’s unique power, Down incinerates an expendable member of her retinue. (I hear he was a trifle slow circulating the canap├ęs at the pre-auction soiree, but I digress). Unimpressed by the casual murder of a mere underling, one of the assembled audience of evil-doers calls for a more substantive demonstration.

Irritated at having the credentials of her wares questioned, Down walks to a nearby balcony and fries the baddie’s helicopter, which is parked in the courtyard outside. “I’ll guess you’ll be walking home now,” she quips.
Artistic merit

In common with much else in the film, this scene is entirely bereft of both artistry and merit. We don’t witness an explosion so much as a white cloud of smoke, which partially clears to reveal some non-descript, easy-on-the-budget wreckage.

Frankly, it was only professional diligence that made this reviewer watch the whole film. And had I realised at this point that there would be no further helicopter action, it’s unlikely the closing credits would have been reached. From woeful beginning to lamentable end, it is utterly uninspired stuff.

Positives

I'll have to get back to you on those.

Negatives

Jeremy’s friends – who band together to rescue Hogan – are the kind of central casting, identikit younglings (the nerd, the girl, the fat one, the cool one) that you’ll be familiar with from a thousand other teen-centric comedies and dramas.

Perhaps it’s just the advancing years, but I invariably find children in films irritating. Unless of course they’re tortured, killed and eaten.

Favourite quote

James Hong gets to utter the cod-Chinese proverb: “Even a one-legged man sometimes kicks butt.”

Interesting fact

The continuity in this film is risible. The most shockingly example comes at the end of the film when Hogan and his little helpers, attempting to escape from the villain’s lair, are confronted by Down.

All Hogan has to do to escape is blast Down with the laser. But suddenly the action jumps forward, missing out an entire sequence. We then resume the action with Down now holding the weapon, which has somehow been set to self-destruct.

How any of that happened remains a mystery to the viewer. Assuming they care by that point.

Review by: Jafo