Saturday 30 November 2013

Piranha 2: The Spawning

There always was something a bit soggy about James Cameron.

Certainly, the ocean has been a curiously recurrent theme in his career. The bearded wonder gave us watery weepie Titanic, submerged sci-fi thriller The Abyss, and not one but three award-winning oceanic documentaries. The man probably goes to bed in a life-jacket.

Even before all those Oscars and smashed box office records, he was out there sniffing the cinematic briny with his directorial debut: Piranha 2: The Spawning (1981). Unfortunately, it would appear the critics smelled something else entirely.

This cheapo Italian exploitation flick was one of a shoal of fishy thrillers churned out in the wake of Jaws’ all-consuming box office success. Predictably, given it’s origin as an unashamed cash-in, no-one wanted to rock the boat by having the plot swim too far from the formula of its carnivorous forefather.

So, in an entirely intentional parallel to Steven Spielberg’s mega-hit, the action takes place in picturesque coastal resort town. With cynical similarity, the seaside idyll is shattered when bodies start mysteriously floating ashore just as the town’s holiday season is about to begin.

Afraid of scaring off the tourists, would you believe the town’s unscrupulous bigwigs are reluctant to take action? Zounds. And so it falls to local sheriff Roy Scheider-sorry-Lance Henriksen to save the day.

So far, so seen it all before. But conscious of the jaundiced ennui of sofa-bound critics, the producers have lined up a surprise to jolt jaded viewers from their bored complacency. And that surprise is: these piranhas fly.

"Fly my scaly friends, fly!"
Yup, you did read that right. Where Jaws managed to get through a full movie without sprouting wings and Godzilla – to the best of Exploding Helicopter’s knowledge – never grew gills, Cameron clearly felt his fish absolutely needed to fly, goddammit.

Unlike your average piranha – equipped only with razor-sharp incisors – these fishy fiends use their fins to burst from the waves, zip about in the air, and dive-bomb unsuspecting sunbathers on the beach.

It sounds ridiculous. It is ridiculous. But it’s actually an inspired way to significantly up the jeopardy, since no-one, even if they’re on dry land, is now safe from the meat-hungry critters.

Attempting to swim against such a rising tide of silliness would leave most actors hopelessly lost at sea. Fortunately Lance Henriksen exudes an air of unperturbed cool in the face of increasingly implausible events.

It helps that he looks the part. Supermodel thin, with a baked-on tan and straggly unkempt hair tied back by a bandana, he roars around the ocean in a police speedboat looking more pirate than chief of police.

Luckily, Lance brings his trademark louche insouciance to the film’s primary attraction: the helicopter explosion.

Henriksen: More pirate captain than police chief
Piloting the police chopper (small and sleepy this town may be, but it‘s got a full complement of official vehicles), Henriksen flies out to sea to help a boat which has got into trouble.

Not having one of those fancy whirlybirds with floats that can land on water, Lance has to figure out how to get down and lend assistance to the distressed mariners.

Demonstrating the old adage that the best ideas are always simple, Henriksen solves the problem by simply leaping from the helicopter. With no-one at the controls, the chopper veers off, out-of-control, and crashes into the waves before exploding.

Artistic merit

The helicopter that’s destroyed is clearly a model, but the scene is well enough staged and, when it comes, the fireball is big enough to hide all sins.

What’s particularly winning is the casual way in which Henriksen, having no more use for the chopper, simply abandons it to meet its doom. People have thrown away Styrofoam coffee cups with less abandon.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Henriksen's police chopper meets its watery demise
Helicopters have exploded after crashing into water in other films – for example, in The Guardian and Men Of Honor, but it’s a pretty infrequent occurrence. This is perhaps the earliest known example of a chopper meeting a watery demise.

Do passengers survive?

Obviously, Lance Henriksen survives as he still has to save the town. And help Ripley destroy the Alien in several later, unrelated movies.


You might be wondering how the piranhas in this film developed the ability to fly. Luckily, here comes a crowbarred-in scene of clunking exposition to shed light on things. As a bit-part actor robotically explains, the flying piranhas are the result of that hoary old plot standby: the experiment gone wrong.

Apparently, during the Vietnam war the US military top brass came up with a plan to win the bloody and intractable conflict by releasing genetically-engineered super piranhas into the Mekong Delta. And people wonder how America lost.


Already struggling to be taken seriously, Piranha 2 makes the galumphing mis-step of attempting some moments of ill-advised comedy, which fall horribly, horribly flat. Exploding Helicopter would rather be gnawed to death by the titular fish than sit through these gruesome gags again.

Favourite quote

There’s not a line here that bears repeating. Instead, let’s re-visit James Cameron’s own verdict on the film. Aware that this perhaps wasn‘t his finest directorial hour, he later offered the following tongue-in-cheek appraisal of his own work: “I believe The Spawning is the finest flying piranha movie ever made.”

Interesting fact

While this is officially where Cameron’s career began, our Jimbo was reportedly sacked during the making of the film. Accounts vary as to what stage he collected his P45, with some saying Cameron completed photography on the film but was locked out of editing, while others insist Jim was fired after a week with the film’s producer shooting the film. He must have been heartbroken.

Review by: Jafo

Friday 22 November 2013


Who hasn’t wanted to be a soldier? Running around in the mud with a machine gun and a camouflaged, paint-smeared face. Wot larks.

If you didn‘t, then you probably wanted to be a pilot, scorching through the skies at Mach-2 while locked in a deadly aerial dogfight.

Odds are, however, you never longed to be in the Navy, meandering slowly around the world’s oceans doing, doing…..what is it they do, exactly?

Yup, there’s no hiding it: the Navy is boring.

It’s just a duller world – geared towards the complexities of fleet management, integrated modern weapon systems and sophisticated engineering mechanisms. Sorry, did you drop off for a moment there..?

When the brains behind Battleshit (and no, that’s not a typing error) came together, they no doubt swiftly realised they had a problem. How the hell do you make the dull logistics of modern Navy life thrilling to cinema’s key audience: pimply-faced teens?

Their answer, while not pretty, does have a certain base logic to it: give ‘em aliens, sex and guns. So they make the Navy repel an alien invasion, squeeze Rihanna into a booty-licious sailor outfit, and get Liam Neeson (cast here as a grizzled Admiral) to gruffly shout ‘Fire!’ a lot.

And that’s it, frankly. In the face of such brutal reductionism, nothing so flagrant as a coherent plot was ever going to make the cut. Everything here is about maintaining the attention of pubescent boys. That’s probably why – and try to keep a straight face here – the alien trouble starts when scientists try to contact another world by tweeting them. (Presumably something like: @E.T. r u aliens LOL.) See, kids, the movies are just like your life!

Rihanna: "Bring me a baby panda to cuddle NOW!"
Incredibly, this genius idea backfires. (Maybe one of the scientists got drunk and sent a snapchat pic of their knob.) Whatever, the cousins from outer space send their reply in the form of five heavily-armed attack ships, rather than an amusing video of a cat repeatedly falling off a sofa.

As intergalactic conflict breaks out, Hopper, the buff hero, flexes his pecs and starts saving the day. It’s never explained why a work-shy pussy-hound is in the Navy, where slacking-off and fraternising with women are court martial offences, but that’s the least of this film’s inconsistency worries.

Oh, yes. Very soon, a much bigger question looms: does this day actually need saving? Weirdly for an alien invasion movie, these evil spacemen don’t actually seem too bothered about global conquest. For long stretches, they do na-da. Like intergalactic pikies, they just shuffle up, make a big mess of the ocean, then loaf around doing nothing.

This boring stalemate continues for ages, leaving the audience in the awkward position of having to watch actors hired for how buff they look actually trying to speak. (Neeson, the sole capable thesp, looks pig miserable in these scenes.)

It’s snore-worthy fare, though Exploding Helicopter was impressed by how they got Rihanna to stay in front of a camera for two consecutive minutes without baring her arse.

On and on it goes, like a leaky old boat taking on water. And by the time an old WWII battleship performs a handbrake turn (The Fast and the Funnelled, anyone?), everyone’s too weary to point out that ships don’t really do that.

Neeson watches his own soul die as he delivers
another deathless line of dialogue
And yet, just as the eyelids start to close, Battleshit comes up with chopper fireball action aplenty.

In a honking great blockbuster like this, one exploding helicopter was never going to be enough for the film’s conflagration-hungry teen audience. Instead we're treated to a record breaking eight helicopters being blown to smithereens in one short orgy of rotor-bladed mayhem.

It begins peacefully enough, with the octuplet of helicopters parked innocently at their base posing no threat to anybody. Nevertheless the aliens head straight for them, providing a visual treat as the weird spherical spaceship devices barrel through the parked whirlybirds.

At times like this, one bemoans the lack of a collective noun for exploding helicopters. If a murder of crows or a conspiracy of lemurs, then why not a con-flame-gration of choppers? Hey, it could catch on.

Suffice to say, the eight vehicles explode spectacularly.

Artistic merit

There’s much to be said for exploding helicopter scenes that are unnecessary and gratuitous – and this one is the very apogee of needlessness.

The helicopters here aren't strategically important, they're not fitted with secret anti-alien devices. There's no reason to think they pose any kind of danger.

This palpable lack of threat lends the scene an aesthetic purity. It suggests exploding helicopters are an elemental property of film, above the mere petty demands of plot or logic – a phenomenon to be appreciated on its own terms and in reference only to itself. Which is to be applauded, of course.

Number of exploding helicopters

A historic and record breaking 8.

Exploding helicopter innovation

The destruction of helicopters by aliens in this kind of actiony, sci-fi movie has become a yawn-inducing commonplace. (See Independence Day or Battle: Los Angeles for just two examples).

Given the choppers always get absolutely pummelled – and that such a contest is the aerodynamic equivalent of Macaulay Culkin vs Vinnie Jones with a nailed club – it’s actually refreshing to see the lumbering helicopters not even make it off the ground. And more realistic.


Watching Rihanna trying to act never gets old. Even mid-line, she looks about ready to throw an insta-strop and demand one of her ‘people’ bring her a truffle smoothie and baby panda to cuddle NOW.

Throughout Battleshit, many of the cast wear t-shirts saying ARMY or NAVY, presumably so she can tell the difference. (In earlier cuts, rumour has it the invaders also had to wear ALIEN t-shirts for the same reason.)


Almost everything. In particular, there’s a depressing certainty of knowing that, at some point, someone will have to drop the famous tag-line. So when Liam Neeson, of all people, finally says ‘You sunk my battleship!’ you can almost see his soul die a little inside.

(Fair enough: the film’s pay check probably bought the big man a swanky Malibu beach house. But if so, you can bet every time he sits out on the deck and suddenly remembers how he paid for it all, that iced cocktail will curdle in his mouth.)

Interesting fact

The most famous review of this lumbering, over-long mess was a model of economy from which the film could have learned much.

It was, simply: ‘Miss’.

Review by: Donny Pebbles

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Saturday 9 November 2013

The Expendables

After a run of box office duds in the early Noughties (Get Carter, D-Tox, Driven), Hollywood decided that Sylvester Stallone was himself expendable and consigned him to the movie scrapheap.

Unable to get an acting gig, Sly licked his wounds for a few years before rebooting his career with sequels to the two franchises that had established him as a star in the first place. And while critical reaction to Rocky Balboa and Rambo was lukewarm, both films made handsome returns at the box office.

Counting purely on his own firm resolve – and some industrial-sized injections of human growth hormone – Sly proved, against all expectation, that there was indeed a market for watching pension-age action stars creak arthritically through the butt-kicking moves of their youth.

No surprise then that, for his first venture into ‘original’ material since the great comeback, Stallone opted not to stray too far from the profitable formula. If nothing else, The Expendables (2010) has no shortage of ultra-violence dispensed by doddery old folks.

The token plot (and let‘s be honest, this isn’t a story that invites scrutiny) has Stallone as the leader of a bunch of mercenaries for hire. They’re paid to assassinate a military dictator who is running a massive drug operation. Other than the obligatory rogue CIA agent, that’s about it.

Technically, this is an original work. However, despite his dopey features, Sly is much too sharp to have not recognised that the success of Rambo 4 and Rocky 6 lay in their nostalgic groove. Audiences don’t want him to move with the times, so much as go back in time. Retro, therefore, is the order of the day.

The style, mood and even cast – action stalwarts Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, and Gary Daniels are exhumed from their DTV careers to co-star – are all classic vintage. The film couldn’t be more Eighties if you permed it’s hair, dressed it a shell suit and made it dance to Kajagoogoo.

Despite all the snapping bones and non-stop fighting, a warm, feel-good vibe permeates the film – one that trades heavily on the audience’s affection for these grizzled old bears going through the motions all over again. After all, besides baddies and grenades, they also now have to contend with lumbago and the possibility of losing a bit of wee mid-action scene.

In many ways, with its familiar cast of ageing reprobates getting up to no good, it’s like a peculiarly violent episode of Last Of The Summer Wine. At any given moment, one almost expects the Stath to slip on a woolly hat and start eulogising about Nora Batty’s saggy tights. (As it is, he instead opts for repeatedly pummelling someone’s face into a scarlet mush, but you get the general idea.)

Cheap bon mots aside, there is a serious point to be made. The Expendables works because Stallone understands why people love Eighties action movies – because they featured larger than life characters who visibly enjoyed their ass-kicking antics.

Compare, let’s say, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Commando (1985) to the po-faced seriousness of the Bourne films, where Matt Damon blankly beats the bejaysus out of everyone with the bored indifference of a supermarket checkout worker. It’s easy to admire the Bourne films, but pretty hard to love them.

The Expendables may be full of genre clichés, but they’re delivered with love and affection rather than being cynically trotted out as a tick-box exercise. As such, it’s no surprise to see the movie delivering on the ultimate genre staple: the exploding helicopter.

At the end of the film, Stallone and his men launch a huge assault on the villain’s HQ. Realising the game is up, Eric Roberts attempts to make a getaway in a helicopter. And with Sly prevented from reaching him by a wall of fire – and the whole base going up like a fireworks display – it’s looking like he’ll succeed.

Fortunately, Old Stroke Features comes up with an inspired piece of improvisation. One of his unfeasibly musclebound cronies throws an artillery shell (that conveniently happens to be lying around) towards the chopper and, as it arcs through the air, Stallone fires his pistol at the shell. Ba-boom! One flambéed helicopter coming right up.

Artistic merit

The explosion is a whopper, big enough to satisfy every red-blooded chopper fireball fan, even if the CGI is a trifle too noticeable.

There’s also a good shot of Stallone diving away from the explosion in classic action movie style as he‘s nearly dismembered by a piece of flying shrapnel.

Exploding helicopter innovation

The ‘MacGyver style’ improvisation with the artillery shell and the pistol is a nice touch. While helicopters have been destroyed in more unusual ways, it’s rare to see a character being so intellectually creative in the execution of his plan. (And of course, having the words ‘Sly Stallone’ and ‘intellectually creative’ in the same sentence is a novelty in itself.)

Still, such ingenuity is not unprecedented. That renowned intellectual heavyweight, Steven Seagal, once used only a knife, paint-stripper and some advanced cub scout skills to blow up a chopper. (The film was Under Siege, fact fans). But then, you can tell Big Steve really clever by the way he almost says his lines.


The plot is commendably simple: kill the baddie and rescue the girl. At some point around the late Nineties, filmmakers started worrying that this formula had become exhausted and started throwing in lots of arsey sub-plots involving double and even triple crosses.

One day, Exploding Helicopter will get its protractor out and draw you the graph showing the inverse relationship between plot complexity and audience interest.


As much as we love the ensemble cast it does create a problem: how to squeeze everyone in?

Eric Roberts, ostensibly the main villain, has to share too much screen time with David Zayas’ inferior evil General and his character feels a bit undercooked as a consequence. Roberts’ henchman (played by Gary Daniels and Steve Austin) are also left with little to do other than scowl in the background before becoming human punch-bags in the film’s extended showdown ending.

Still, you can’t say Sly isn’t a learner. In The Expendables 2, which has a similarly sprawling cast, everyone is given a suitably memorable moment in the spotlight.

Favourite quote

In a movie that celebrates action cinema, it’s pleasing to hear Randy Couture utter perhaps the genre’s ultimate cliché: “We got company”.

Interesting fact

Dolph Lundgren’s character was originally killed off, but audience reaction to the blonde lunk in test screenings was so positive that scenes were re-shot to show he hadn’t died.

Review by: Jafo