Incredibly, one man sought to defy the odds. One brave, lone wolf dared to throw off the shackles of a monicker which spoke less of face-pummelling prowess and more of middle management tedium, soporific sales conferences and quarterly reporting. Inevitably, that remarkable man was named Jeff Speakman.
For those unfamiliar with his oeuvre (and let’s be frank, we’re talking big numbers there), ‘The Speak’ was a second tier action star who ploughed a yeoman-like straight-to-video furrow during the Nineties. But by the end of that decade, the dim lustre of Jeff’s star was fading and so he found himself in Land Of The Free (1998) a project which, ironically, freed him from the prospect of having a future career.
In the film Jeff plays Frank Jennings, campaign manager for a smarmy politician played with self-satisfied smugness by the high priest of preening narcissism, William Shatner. It’s worse than that, he’s over-acting, Jim.
Predictably, the schmaltzy patriotism of Shatner’s public image is merely a façade behind which lurks a crazed right-wing lunatic with secret links to a bunch of extreme ultra-nationalists hell bent on seizing control of the country. (Remember, this was made before George Bush Jr and the Tea Party, so such an idea might well have seemed fantastical and frightening at the time.)
After Jeff stumbles on the conspiracy, the story becomes a race against time - can Speakman reveal the truth to the world before Shatner’s militia goons silence him?
|Jeff Speakman exuding danger, or possibly not|
I’m not saying Jeff’s overweight, but the only thing bulging in this movie is his waistline, and the only things in danger of being ripped are the buttons on his tautly-fastened shirt. In fact, other than DTV-era Steven Seagal or Big Lol Fishburne in Matrix Revolutions, we can confidently surmise no other martial arts guru has had to strap themselves into karate pyjamas of such tent-like dimensions.
Curiously for a socky-choppy violent thriller, there’s a distinct lack of any sense of danger in Land of the Free, and that’s largely due to Jeff’s friendly, placid, almost bovine demeanour. His sappy face, coupled with such a well-upholstered physique, makes him look less like an action star and more like the ‘dad’ figure in some middling TV sitcom about suburban family life. Say what you like about Big Steve Seagal’s acting skills, at least he always looked as if he’d like to kick somebody in the face, if only his girdle wasn’t so tight.
Still, Speakman’s unthreatening and un-athletic appearance serves one useful purpose. Given his opponent in the film’s climatic, mano et mano showdown is the 67-year old Shatner (hairpiece and corset in place), our roly-poly hero’s lack of physical presence at least makes the bout seem slightly less one-sided and ridiculous. But only slightly, mind.
And, while we’re talking of predictable outcomes, it will doubtless come as no surprise that the helicopter featured in this film meets a sudden and explosive end.
|William Shatner the high priest of preening narcissism|
Unsurprisingly, with Speakman’s considerable girth dangling beneath it, the chopper struggles to gain altitude. Speakman plants a timed explosive on the aircraft, but Shatner spots the device and both men leap to safety before the helicopter explodes.
In a film which rarely misses an opportunity to underwhelm, the helicopter explosion is effectively staged. A realistic looking chopper is destroyed and the fireball fills the screen with a delicious liquid hue of reds and oranges.
Exploding helicopter innovation
Slow motion footage of the helicopter exploding - check. Repeated slow-mo playbacks of the explosion from multiple angles - check. Wreckage crashing to the ground in dramatic fashion - check. A shot of the hero silhouetted against burning debris - check. Yes, it’s fair to say that this film breaks no new ground in the art of exploding helicopters.
Still, while there’s no effort at innovation, at least the director delivers every staple of the helicopter explosion genre with gusto. It might not be original, but it sure is satisfying.
Do passengers survive?
Speakman survives having briefly been a passenger of sorts. Shatner though, only enjoys a temporary stay of execution before he boldly goes where many villains have gone before.
Given that Speakman has been trying to help put a swivel-eyed loon into elected office, it’s fair to say our boy isn‘t the sharpest tool in the box. This may help to explain a scene where Jeff hacks into Shatner’s computer to find his secret plans.
How will he break into the password protected files you ask? Will Jeff use a hitherto unknown expertise in cryptography? Or some whizzy, algorithm-crunching gizmo that’ll make the computer spill its secrets?
No. Jeff’s plan involves nothing more complicated than simply guessing the password. And what inspired guesses they are. Top of our boy’s list are ‘predator’, ‘deceit’ and ‘conquest’. What about trying ‘crazed neo-Nazi nutcase’ Jeff? The safety of the free world couldn’t be in better hands.
Perhaps embarrassed by its attempts at high-tech, techno-thriller chicanery, the Land Of The Free quickly heads for the safety of that reliable action movie genre trope, the car chase. But this poses a problem: how to freshen this hoariest of movie clichés?
The answer here is commendably simple and involves nothing more complicated than putting a sofa on top of one car and a canoe on another. It’s certainly never been done before, if only because everyone else thought it a terrible idea.
An FBI agent tries to reassure Speakman about his safety: “Trust me, the witness protection programme works.”
With half the film remaining, the hollowness of this promise makes a deafening echo.
Made at the tail end of the Clinton administration, Land Of The Free serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of a right wing loony coming to power. Two years later, George Bush Jr was elected President.
Review by: Jafo