Tuesday 7 November 2017

When Eight Bells Toll

Sir Anthony Hopkins is no-one’s idea of an action hero.

Short, mumbly and shuffling, even in his prime the Welsh luvvie hardly exuded the flinty toughness of Seventies icons such as Lee Marvin or Charles Bronson. His appearance always suggested awkward college professor rather than iron-jawed super agent: he was more woolly cardigan than sharp tuxedo.

And yet, back in the early Seventies, a couple of Hollywood producers bafflingly decided he was just the man to lead an explosive new spy series. One that would strip James Bond of his licence to thrill.

Obviously, it must have seemed a good idea at the time. But as the twenty-fifth Bond film rolls into production, the sequel to When Eight Bells Toll (1971) still remains curiously absent from our screens.

The plot

When a series of ships carrying millions of pounds’ worth of gold bullion goes missing, Philip Calvert - a ‘maverick’ (natch) naval intelligence officer - is ordered to investigate.

Our nautical hero’s search takes him to the remote coastline of the Scottish Isles. Once there, he comes across wealthy shipping magnate, Sir Anthony Skouras, who not-at-all-suspiciously has decided to moor his luxury yacht among the pissing rain and howling winds of the Inner Hebrides. Instead of, say, Monaco.

As a top intelligence officer, Calvert detects something fishy in Skouras. (Plus, the only other living creatures within 200 miles are three inbred farmers and a few thousand sheep, so the suspect list is not extensive.)

With a target in his sights, Calvert sets about the task of stolen treasure hunting. Can he find the missing loot? Is Skouras really the mischievous mastermind behind the mystery? What might happen when eight bells toll? And will there ever be a sequel? No.

Who’s in this?

First question: how on earth did Wee Tony land this particular gig? And if he was the best option, who else must have been on the shortlist – John Cleese? Christopher Biggins? But not so fast, sceptical reader. Actually, there was a wonky logic to the casting.

At the time, our Tony was a sizzling talent on the London stage, seen as intense, edgy and brooding. So the producers reasoned he had the goods to create a grittier, moodier spy hero to rival 007’s increasingly fantastical exploits.

What they didn’t consider is that it’s much easier to appear tough on a stage where everyone else is wearing tights and saying ‘Hey, Nonny’, than it is in a movie where grown men are trying to kill you.

So while the dimunitive Taff brings a suitably flinty edge to his spoken scenes with arrogant superiors and lofty villains, ultimately that’s still Wee Tony swinging his little paws about in the fight scenes. Daniel Craig, he is not.

Playing the baddie is Jack Hawkins, that pug-faced star of Fifties British cinema, who earned international acclaim for his performances in The Bridge Over The River Kwai and Ben-Hur.

By the Sixties, both poor Jack’s career and health were on the wane. Diagnosed with throat cancer, Hawkins had his entire larynx removed, which robbed him of his distinctive voice. (Think: constipated Mongolian throat yodeller).

Here, as in many films at the end of his career, a sickly-looking Hawkins (who could only speak with an electronic voice-box) is dubbed by the mellifluously voiced Charles Gray. It’s a sad sight to see the once powerful actor appearing as such a pale shadow of his former self.

Is this any good? 

While Eight Bells Toll does have a certain ap-‘peal’ (see what we did there?), it also ‘rings’ a few false notes.

The basic plot - an underwater search for missing gold - is fine. Swap the ingots for nuclear weapons and you essentially have Thunderball.

But that film was set on the sun-kissed shores of the Bahamas and played out against a background of Caribbean carnivals, colourful henchman and beautiful damsels. This film takes place among the cold, wintery waters of the North Sea. When the only people wearing skirts are gruff, knobbly-kneed Scotsmen trying to kill the tiny hero, you know you’re in trouble. It couldn’t be less glamourous.

Exploding helicopter action 

But still, there is at least one scene which we care about: the exploding helicopter. In an effort to find the gold, Hopkins conducts an aerial search in a chopper. As he surveys the coastline he runs into a posse of heavily armed villains who open fire on the whirlybird with machine guns.

The gunfire damaged helicopter spirals downwards, crashing onto rocks next to the shoreline. The tail of the helicopter explodes, but the cockpit remains intact. As flames start to consume the fuselage, Hopkins finds himself trapped inside the crocked copter.

The jeopardy increases when the wrecked whirlybird slips from the rocks and plunges into the sea threatening to drown our hero. As the cockpit fills with water, Sir Anthony is finally able to free himself and swim to safety. Phew!

Exploding helicopter innovation 

The method of destruction – machineguns and crash landing – is very familiar territory for any self-respecting chopper fireball aficionado. But Exploding Helicopter enjoyed the way the scene teased with a tempting twosome of first a fiery and then a watery death for our hero.

Interesting fact 

The term "eight bells" is a nautical reference to the hour of midnight.

Review by: Jafo

Sunday 24 September 2017


With Charade (1963), a light-hearted Hitchcockian mix of mystery, romance and comedy, director Stanley Donen earned a deserved box office smash.

So hopes were high when, three years later, Arabesque hit cinema screens with the same formula of Hollywood stars, glamourous European locations and a racy espionage plot.

But where the first movie deftly mixed its ingredients into a delicious, light confection, Arabesque served up a congealed mess – the cinematic equivalent of school dinner mashed potatoes.


An Egyptology professor (Gregory Peck) finds himself at the centre of international intrigue after he’s hired by a mysterious Arab (Alan Badel) to decipher some hieroglyphics. (Naturally, Badel is in fact Caucasian, but absolutely nails the ‘Arab’ part thanks to some dusky make-up and a ridiculous, panto-villain accent.)

The seemingly innocent code-breaking takes a sinister turn when Badel’s girlfriend (Sophia Loren) warns Peck he’ll be murdered once he’s decoded the message. Fearing for his life, gangly Greg – whose real name was Eldred, fact fans – absconds with Loren, only to be pursued by Badel’s goons.

Admittedly, this fulsome-sounding summary scarcely covers the first 20 minutes of the film. But by common consent, Arabesque has a torturously complicated and unwieldy plot. (Greg may have solved the pharaonic riddle, but no bugger alive can work out what’s happening by Act Three.) So for the sake of brevity (and your sanity), let’s leave it there.

Suffice to say, the rest of the film involves much regulation issue double-dealing, sinister skulduggery and murderous mayhem as a bevy of unsavoury villains try to get hold of the ancient text and its secrets. And the audience tries to figure out just what the buggery is going on.

Who’s in it?

Gregory Peck plays the bookish academic who becomes unwittingly embroiled in this imbroglio. With his dark looks, formal manner and patrician air, Greg was made for austere roles that emphasised much troubled scowling and deep, introspective brooding.

But for this light-hearted caper, he’s obliged to deliver droll one-liners, engage in a whirlwind romance and insouciantly dodge danger. It is by no means a comfortable fit. Imagine Werner Herzog starring in Police Academy 7 and you’ll get the idea.

In fact, as you watch Eldred shuffle awkwardly through the film, it’s hard to not think that rascally charmer Cary Grant would have been much better for this role.

And as it happens, that’s an opinion shared by the film’s director, Stanley Donen, who’d had the part specially written for the North By Northwest star but was then unable to secure his services. Rubbing salt in the wounds, apparently dour Gregory, every time he flubbed his lines during filming (which was often), liked to remind Donen: “Remember, I’m no Cary Grant.” Ouch.

Co-starring in the film is Italian beauty Sophia Loren, widely considered one of cinema’s greatest female actors. Not that you’d know it from her Hollywood output, though.

While her European CV is full of award-winning performances in meaty, issues-led dramas, Tinseltown invariably cast her as exotic eye candy in insubstantial bits of froth. Like this movie.

And Loren’s turn here – oozing allure in a progressively outrageous array of glamourous outfits – largely renders this talented actress little more than a glorified clothes-horse.

Still, the role does bring one significant challenge. Because our long-legged lovely is called upon to look hopelessly smitten by fifty-something Eldred, while he awkwardly exudes all the sexual charisma of a kitchen fridge.

A puzzle, wrapped in a mystery, shrouded in a very confusing film

Readers who’ve made it this far (and Exploding Helicopter thanks both of you) will already have gleaned some of the reasons Arabesque doesn’t work.

The plot – and it’s hard to overstate this – is hopelessly convoluted. It’s never entirely clear what is going on, or why Peck – a fusty academic who spends his day reading dusty scrolls – continues risking life and limb to solve a mystery that neither he, or the audience, understand.

Further befuddlement is added by director Stanley Donen. In previous films, such as On The Town and Funny Face, he’d always directed in a conventional style. But he photographs Arabesque as if he’s just dropped a tab of LSD, swamping the screen with psychedelic colours, crazily angled shots or peculiar framing. It’s like totally groovy man!

Sadly, it turns out our Stanley wasn’t having a mid-life crisis or experimenting with a new style: his reasoning was entirely cynical.

After spending $400,000 dollars on script rewrites, he realised the story was still utterly incomprehensible. “Our only hope,” he confided to the film’s cinematographer, “is to make the film so visually exciting the audience never have time to work out what the hell is going on.”

Exploding helicopter action

Still, Arabesque does get some things right. And by that we mean the inclusion of an exploding helicopter.

During the film’s big climax. Peck and Loren are being pursued across the countryside by the villainous Badel, who’s aboard a Bell 47J Ranger with some machinegun-wielding goons.

Our heroes escape takes them to a large iron bridge that is currently undergoing repairs. They run on to the bridge while the baddies take pot-shots from the chopper swooping above.

Clambering down onto a gangway on the metallic structure, Peck finds a ladder that’s been left by maintenance workers.

As the helicopter flies underneath the bridge to make another pass, Greg drops the ladder into the whirlybird’s rotor blades. The damaged chopper spins off, before crashing into the river below and exploding.

Artistic merit

Judged against today’s standards the scene is pretty terrible. The special effects involve the use of a very obvious model helicopter and some extremely ropey back projection. However, allowances need to be made for the fact that this is one of cinema's earliest exploding helicopters (only two films predate it, From Russian With Love and The Giant Behemoth).

There are some nice shots from inside a real helicopter showing the panicked passengers as the aircraft plummets, out of control, towards the ground. Curiously, someone decided to add in that high-pitched whining sound effect you typically get when planes crash. It’s highly doubtful that the aerodynamics of a plunging helicopter would actually generate this noise, but what the heck.

The shot of the fuselage hitting the surface of the river and breaking apart does look good. As does the fireball it generates. Weirdly, part of the wreckage appears to be on-fire and underwater at the same time. It’s a while since Exploding Helicopter took a GCSE in science, but we’re not sure that’s possible.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Only known destruction of a helicopter by a ladder.

Interesting fact

Legendary Hollywood stuntman Vic Armstrong – listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's most prolific stunt man – earned his first screen credit on this film as Gregory Peck's stunt horse-riding double. But Greg did all his own worried scowling.


Ultra mod, ultra mad, ultra mystery.

Review by: Jafo

Still want more? Then listen to the Exploding Helicopter podcast episode on Arabesque. Listen via iTunes, Podomatic, Stitcher or YourListen.

Friday 25 August 2017

The Alternate

A team of thieves-posing-as-terrorists take the occupants of a tall building hostage. One grizzled law official leads the fightback – climbing lift shafts and swinging around outside the building. All the while helped by a buddy cop down on the ground.

Sound familiar? Yup, you guessed right: it’s The Alternate (2000). Why, what else were you expecting?

Similarities to, ahem, another hostage building-based movie are of course entirely intentional. The marketing blurb on the cover even makes a feature of its plagiarism, proudly boasting: ‘In the tradition of Die Hard’. Presumably, in much the same way those knock-off sports vests with upside-down ticks are ‘in the tradition of’ Nike. You have to admire the chutzpah.

Still, we shouldn’t be churlish. Who doesn’t want to watch another movie filled to the brim with expertly choreographed action, pulse-quickening drama and witty one-liners? Unfortunately, this isn’t it. What you get here is more Try Hard than Die Hard.

The plot

While hosting a charity function, the American president is taken hostage by a group of terrorists. But unbeknown to POTUS, the abduction is actually a PR stunt to boost his re-election campaign. (Quite what the Prez has done to get himself in lumber with the voters isn’t specified. But it’s no doubt much more serious than publicly mocking disabled people, championing white supremacists, or bragging about grabbing strangers vaginas, because these days such actions are guaranteed ratings winners.)

Anyway, as is often the way with smart movie plans, something goes wrong. Unsurprisingly, one of the ‘fake’ kidnappers realises there’s much more money to be made by genuinely grabbing the commander-in-chief and demanding a humungous ransom.

All looks lost. But luckily for the fate of the free world, a ‘maverick’ CIA agent is on hand to save the day.

The cast

Eric Roberts: once a hotly tipped young gun
Let’s call a spade a spade. Much like Alan Rickman’s baddie (though with none of his roguish charm), this movie sets out to commit a daring, wholesale robbery – namely of the plot and characters of Die Hard. So let’s look at the actors, such as they are, through the prism of the Bruce Willis classic.

In the John McClane role, we have jobbing actor-for-hire, Eric Roberts. Yes, that Eric Roberts. The one who started out as a hotly-tipped young gun in such well-regarded movies as The Pope Of Greenwich Village and Star 80.

And yes, the one who, after some spectacular substance issues and a series of poor career choices (and let’s face it, one problem may well explain the other) saw the juicy roles dry up. Today, the one-time Oscar nominee is mostly known for being Julia Roberts’ estranged older brother.

Unusually, the role of ‘happy, friendly cop on the ground’ has here been taken by gravelly grumbler and sometime ear-slicer, Michael Madsen. Long known as one of Hollywood’s laziest actors, Big Mike has been phoning in performances for straight-to-DVD junk such as this for over two decades.

But perhaps his somnambulistic approach to the actor’s craft reached its very apotheosis here, as Madsen literally spends the whole movie yakking to Roberts on a mobile phone. Yet you still get the impression he can’t really be bothered.

There are many bad and lazy actors out there, but perhaps only Madsen could view the task of saying a few words into a pretend phone for a lot of money as an unreasonable ask.

Canadian B-movie beefcake Bryan Genesse
And of course no Die Hard imitation would be complete without an urbane villain to engage our hero in a compelling battle of wits. It appears that the peerless Alan Rickman must have had clashing film-scheduling commitments and been unable to grasp at this career opportunity gold. So instead we have Canadian B-movie beefcake, Bryan Genesse (Cyborg Cop III, Cold Harvest).

Genesse plays a rogue CIA agent whose blackmail plan requires him – at various points in the film – to pretend to be an Arab terrorist called Ahmed. In order to keep the ruse going, big Bryan puzzlingly adopts a French accent whenever speaking as the not-obviously-Gallic extremist. (When you think about it, Le ISIS doesn’t really have a ring to it.) It’s all hopelessly confusing.

Given such a dog’s breakfast of a character and such painful dialogue, most actors might simply shrug their shoulders and console themselves with this thought: “Hey, I didn’t write this.” That’s not so easy for ‘Le Bryan’, however: he penned the script.

Die Hard try hard

For all its Die Hard similarities, The Alternate does have a unique if rather surreal spin on the whole ‘terrorists in a tower block’ trope.

For instance, we’ve yet to see Bruce Willis electrocute a henchman by booby-trapping a cup of coffee, or fight off a female villain wielding – I kid you not – a sharpened lipstick.

These scenes are mere preludes though, for the film’s action coup de grace. This sees Eric Roberts engage Bryan Genesse’s baddie in a machine-gun duel while swinging across a swimming pool on piece of bunting. It may sound terrible – and indeed it is. But console yourself that it’s still not quite as bad as anything in A Good Day To Die Hard (whose reviews contained such high praise as ’crassly opportunistic’, ‘irrevocably stupid’ and ‘like a near-death experience’).

Exploding helicopter action

Part of Genesse’s plan involves faking his getaway, and making the world believe he died in a big explosion. (Yup, there really isn’t a single Die Hard plot device this film doesn’t snaffle for itself.)

In an extraordinarily convoluted sequence, our rogue-CIA-agent-turned-French-Arab-terrorist-impersonator makes an escape by flying off from the roof of the hotel in a helicopter. But wait! As he does so, Genesse jams the controls of the chopper and – unseen from the ground – jumps from the whirlybird back onto the hotel’s roof.

As the aircraft comes into view of the police, one of them pulls out a rocket launcher (apparently standard issue for the LAPD) and fires it at the chopper. Whereupon it crashes to the ground and explodes.

Artistic merit

Horrendous. It looks like the shell of an actual helicopter is dropped on to the road (presumably from a crane). But once it hits the asphalt it disappears in an entirely unconvincing cloud of CGI. Risible.

Exploding helicopter innovation

It’s not often that you see a pilotless helicopter explode. Other examples can be seen in Piranha II: The Spawning and Angels & Demons.

Interesting fact

Ice T has a small role in the film as a secret service agent whose only notable contribution to the film is yell: “Prepare for all surprises, assassination is not in my goddamn vocabulary!” Moments later, inevitably, he is bumped off.

That isn’t the end of the indignity for the rapper-turned-actor. As one of the ‘star’ turns in the film, his name appears on the cover of the DVD above a picture of someone who very clearly isn’t Ice T.

Apparently, whichever jobsworth lazily photo-shopped the cover design used a picture of the only other black man in the cast.

It’s an ugly mistake to be sure, but a perfect metaphor for the film. When you can’t even get the cover details right, what hope is there for the actual movie? So take Exploding Helicopter’s advice. If you’re tempted to watch this movie, try the Alternate instead – and just stick to Die Hard.

Review by: Jafo

Friday 4 August 2017

Behemoth The Sea Monster

During the Fifties, cinemagoers just couldn’t get enough of the sight of mutant monsters destroying American cities.

Barely a week went by without some radioactive, scaly monstrosity laying waste to yet another bustling metropolis. It was the age of the ‘creature feature’.

But after San Francisco was mangled by a giant octopus (It Came From Beneath The Sea), Los Angeles invaded by super-sized ants (Them!) and New York reduced to rubble in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, moviemakers found themselves with an awkward problem.

Having effectively demolished the United States, there was nowhere left for their boisterous, building-bothering beasts to run amok. Then someone had a bright idea: why not shift the action across the Atlantic and have their latest atomic doom-monger destroy London instead?

And so, Behemoth The Sea Monster (1958) was born. Or, in this case, reawakened from its prehistoric slumber.

The plot

When thousands of dead fish mysteriously wash up on the beach of a Cornish fishing village, two plucky scientists are sent to investigate.

At first they can find no logical explanation. But after encountering further strange events, the boffins finally learn that a giant radioactive dinosaur is on the loose. Which, in fairness, would explain the fish. What’s worse, it appears that the skyscraper-sized horror, like many a naïve newcomer to these shores, has decided London is absolutely the place to be. (Clearly, it hasn’t heard about the tube congestion and outrageous rents.)

A nation gravely waits. Will the foul behemoth next trample the Houses of Parliament, break up Buckingham Palace, use Nelson’s column as a toothpick? Perhaps Blighty’s last remaining hope is that the monster lands in Hoxton and consequently disappears up its own arse.

Still, with the Big Smoke facing imminent destruction, it now falls to our scientific heroes to stop the radioactive menace. If the beast is to be defeated, then our plucky heroes will have to come up with a last-minute heroic act of derring-do in the very nick of time. As happens in every one of these monster movies. Really, the tension is almost non-existent.

Who’s in this?

Gene Evans and Andre Morell
Having shunted the action to good old Blighty, the producers were clearly keen to emphasise the point by giving a prominent role to a British stereotype.

Enter Andre Morell. He plays the scientist leading efforts to stop the monster. With his plummy voice and urbane manner, Morell enjoyed a profitable career playing upper class officer types throughout the Fifties and Sixties (most notably in The Bridge On The River Kwai).

But, wisely calculating that no-one wants to see Godzilla vs the Chinless Toff, Morell is partnered with American B-movie tough Gene Evans. With his craggy face and whiskey-soaked voice, our Gene was normally found growling his way through war movies and westerns.

Here, he’s unconventionally and unconvincingly cast as a radiology expert. Stiffly shuffling around a laboratory, awkwardly delivering mouthfuls of pseudo-science, Action Man Evans’ discomfort is plain to see. He’s clearly longing to throw off his lab coat and bayonet another Nazi or wrestle a tomahawk wielding Indian. So, when the film’s denouement requires a volunteer to take on the sea monster in a submarine, it’s no surprise to see whose hand goes up for the job.

A little local difficulty

The Giant Behemoth, another unwanted American tourist
Anyone who’s watched a few monster movies will likely think they know how the plot runs: monster emerges from the ocean’s depths, stomps on buildings, and sends the civilian population into a hysterical panic.

But those films weren’t taking place in Britain – home of John Bull, the stiff upper lip and that famous English reserve. Rather than run screaming from a radioactive giant that has just squished his house, the average Englishman is more likely to stand his ground and enunciate: ‘I say. That’s a bit rich.’

So when the radioactive dinosaur starts marching across England’s green and pleasant land, it doesn’t encounter the usual cowering populace. Oh, no. In fact, its first encounter is with a ruddy-cheeked, trigger-happy farmer who tries to see off the beast with his trusty shotgun. Literally: ‘Get orf my land!’

It quickly becomes apparent, in fact, that our heroes’ main battle may not be with the creature at all but with Britain’s government, who remain singularly unmoved by the threat they’re facing.

After laying out their plan to tackle the monster, one decidedly unimpressed Whitehall mandarin huffs and comments: “All this? For an oversized crocodile?”

Very droll. But while such moments may accurately reflect the stuffy calm of the British character, they do rather rob the film of sense urgency.

Exploding helicopter action

The doomed helicopter about to make cinematic history
During the film, an aerial search for the beast is launched by a couple of expendable extras in a Westland WS-51 Dragonfly. (These unlucky chaps are the Fifties monster movie equivalent of the Star Trek crew members in red jumpers who teleport down to an unknown planet with Captain Kirk. You just know they won’t need a return ticket.)

Our pilots locate and close in on the creature which uses its radioactive powers (which the film never actually specifies) to destroy the helicopter.

One moment the aircraft is there, the next there’s an intense white glow and sudden shower of sparks. And poof! It’s gone.

Artistic merit

Cinema’s most significant trope had to begin somewhere, but it’s a pity such a momentous cinematic tradition began with such a modest example.

History is made, cinema's first chopper fireball
The special effects are about as spectacular as an indoor firework. And further marks have to be deducted for a continuity error where the helicopter - a WS-51 Dragonfly - suddenly turns into a WS-55 Whirlwind seconds before it explodes. (I know, Exploding Helicopter is terribly fussy about such things).

Still, this is film history so the director deserves credit for seeing the audience-thrilling possibilities of blowing up a helicopter in a movie. Sir, we salute you.

Exploding helicopter innovation

It all began here folks. This exploding helicopter is the earliest chopper fireball we’ve yet discovered. (Previously that distinction had been held by James Bond’s sophomore outing From Russia With Love).

It is also the only known exploding helicopter shot in black and white.


Nobody could accuse the marketing team of underselling the film with this description:

“SEE the Beast that shakes the Earth! LIVE in a world gone mad! WATCH the chaos of a smashed civilization! FLEE from the mightiest fright on the screen! NOTHING so Big as Behemoth!”

Interesting fact

The cast here is pretty unremarkable, but British sitcom fans should keep an eagle eye out for a disturbingly young Leonard Rossiter (Rising Damp, Reginal Perrin) who has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit part. No sign of ‘Oooo…Miss Jones’, though.

Review by: Jafo

Thursday 2 March 2017

The Expendables 3

It had to happen eventually: the Frankenstein of Hollywood has gone and made a big lurching Franken-movie.

Little Sylvester Stallone has always looked a bit cartoonish, and in recent years it’s become increasingly hard to tell him apart from his own Spitting Image puppet.

That sloping, strokey mouth. Those freakish, pumped-to-the-point-of-bursting muscles. (Thanks, human growth hormone!) The surgically smooth, semi-melted-waxwork face. Whatever’s going on with that tar-black blanket on his head we’re supposed to think is his hair. The platform shoes so stacked they’d make Bono blush. He’s an absolute riot.

And with The Expendables 3 (2014), he’s finally made a film that is as odd, over-stuffed and unlikely looking as himself.

Bursting at the seams with a parade of famous faces in a mind-frazzling array of cameos, this bloated sequel to a sequel becomes swollen to the point where it no longer resembles a normal film. The movie’s poster alone features 17 – yes, 17 – stars. That’s not so much a movie poster as a committee meeting. Or, given the result is such total wank, a bukkake party.

At heart, the first two Expendables movies worked because they followed a simple formula – build an ensemble cast, then add a carefully chosen smattering of guest stars.

But one gets the sense that ‘less is more’ possibly isn’t a dictum by which Sly leads his life. Thinking mathematically (and counting on his fingers), the old boy probably really did think that having literally twice as many characters in the new movie would make it twice as good. As opposed to shit.

The plot

Sly and his gang are getting old. At a certain point, all the hair dye and face lifts in the world can’t hide the fact that half this doddering lot are older than the cast of Last of the Summer Wine. So, after sacking the original Expendables crew, our ageing action star recruits a bunch of young, fresh-faced whippersnappers to take their place. (Cue a crazed, carousel-like introduction of new ‘characters’).

The first mission for the new team is to kidnap a notorious arms dealer (Mel Gibson) who also happens to be Stallone’s arch nemesis. Naturally, the assignment goes tits-up: the Italian Stallion barely escapes with his life and all his eager pups are captured.

With no time to introduce yet more characters, Stallone is forced to reunite with his old buddies (Statham, Lundgren, et al) in order to rescue the newbies who made such a Horlicks of their very first mission.

Will Sly save his kindergarten comrades? Can he settle his grudge with Gibson? Have all the elder Expendables taken their daily aspirin? Oh, the tension…

Who’s in this?

Frankly, with a cast this size, it’d be quicker to tell you who isn’t in this film. But here goes. First, the usual gang of Expendables are all in attendance: Stallone, Statham, Lundgren, Crews, Li, Schwarzenegger and Couture. Tick.

Wesley Snipes: Keeping the receipts this time
They’re joined on this outing by Nineties action also-ran Wesley Snipes, for whom this movie was something of a comeback effort following an unfortunate two-year spell in Sing-Sing for tax evasion. In the hi-larious opening scene, our Wes is – nudge-nudge, wink-wink – sprung from a top security prison by our jowly heroes. Ho, ho. See what they did there? Snipes really was in prison in real life, and now they’re showing him locked up in the movie and…oh, you did get it. Sorry.

Also relishing the opportunity of a little light career rehabilitation is Mel Gibson. Work has understandably been a tad scarce for Mad Mel in recent years, due to him being so busy with his alcoholic, wife-beating, anti-semitic and homophobic commitments. (Incidentally, if we’ve left anything out, forgive us; it’s hard to keep up with Mel’s misdemeanours).

And the additions don’t end there. There are walk-on roles for a clearly bored Harrison Ford, a mugging Antonio Banderas, a redundant Kelsey Grammer and walking Clearasil advert Robert Davi as the uber-villain. Phew!

Mercifully, there is one noticeable absentee: Bruce Willis. Despite appearing in the previous two entries, the chrome-domed diva was promptly dropped after demanding $1m dollars a day to work on the movie.

“Where’s Church?” asks Stallone in a pointed reference to Bolshie Bruce’s character. “He’s out the picture,” replies Harrison Ford, winking at the camera. It says a lot that this is not even close to being the crassest line of dialogue in the movie.

Excess all areas

While that outline of the cast may have been exhausting, it wasn’t exhaustive.

Human punching bag Rhonda Rousey
As brighter readers will have noticed, Exploding Helicopter hasn’t yet mentioned the baby Expendables – which includes Twilight heart-throb Kellan Lutz and MMA badass Rhonda Rousey (these were the days before too much lounging around movie sets transformed her from an undefeated cage marauder into a human punch bag).

As you may have guessed by now, there are a lot of ‘main’ characters. And therein lies the film’s problem. There are simply too many people on screen, waiting around to deliver their one line of unconvincing dialogue. There’s no plot to speak of, just a succession of scenes crowbarring another actor into the action.

At times The Expendables 3 feels like watching a Royal Variety show. A succession of famous faces take centre stage for a couple of minutes, perform a potted version of their most famous act, then gladly disappear off into the wings. Had Bruce Forsyth suddenly come tap-dancing across the screen, it wouldn’t have been too much of a surprise. And he’s probably younger than half of them.

Exploding helicopter action

Given the film’s whole-hearted commitment to excess, you won’t be fazed to learn there are no fewer than three exploding helicopters to report.

One chopper bites the dust early in the film, always a cheering sign for aerial conflagration groupies. Having completed the daring Snipes rescue raid, and with no further use for the whirlybird, Stallone gives the viewer a cheap thrill by triggering an explosive charge and blowing it up.

The next chopper fireball scene, which takes place during the climatic action sequence, admittedly comes as quite a surprise. When two enemy choppers close in to take out our heroes, who should suddenly appear expertly piloting a helicopter but, er, Harrison Ford. Before you ask: Yes, that is the same Harrison Ford who, in real life, crashed a plane onto a golf course two years ago and, earlier this month, almost hit a commercial airliner carrying more than 100 people. Was this really the best casting decision? Maybe in the next instalment, Mel will be playing a gay rabbi who volunteers at a women’s shelter.

Step away from the controls Mr Ford
Luckily, contrary to popular rumour, fiction is way, way stranger than the truth. Because once the cameras are whirring, it turns out our Harrison is an excellent pilot. First, he effortlessly shoots down one whirlybird using his machineguns.

Then, pursued by the second baddie, old Han Solo deftly weaves in-between the giant chimney stacks of an old industrial factory – going perilously close to certain death – until his opponent loses control and crashes explosively into one of the vents.

And at no point during this scene does Harrison crash onto a large open green space nor almost fly into a crowded Boeing 737. Aren’t movies wonderful?

Artistic merit

A definite case of quantity over quality. The chopper fireballs are done with embarrassingly poor CGI. In a film with a near $100m budget, it’s inexcusable. Having said that, chopper fireball cliché fans will enjoy the classic hero shot of the Expendables coolly walking away from an exploding whirlybird.

(Note: The movie’s final conflagration once more brings up a perennial bugbear of this website: why are movie chopper pilots incapable of avoiding entirely observable buildings?)

Favourite line

When Schwarzenegger turns up in a helicopter to evacuate our heroes, he gets to rather predictably yell: “Let's get to the CHOPPA!”

It’s a groaner, but you can’t help but enjoy it.

Review by: Jafo

Wednesday 25 January 2017

The Cat From Outer Space

You probably won’t remember this, but in the late Seventies Disney coughed up a huge, cinematic fur ball.

Cineastes like to portray the Disney story as one long, unspooling reel of movie success. And certainly, for generations now – from Fantasia to Jungle Book to Toy Story and right up to Frozen – the studio has served up many cast-iron hits that will endure.

But study their back catalogue carefully and you’ll soon find that not every movie is a hidden gem. The Seventies, in particular, was a very tough time. After creepy old Walt died (and, according to legend, was stuffed in a cryogenic chamber, like a billionaire deep-frozen pizza) the wheels rather came off the Disney bus for quite a few years.

Bad decisions were made, and bad movies were the result.

Suddenly, the studio that had always been associated with a singular mouse became famous for a multitude of turkeys. And for a prime example of the kind of hokum Mickey’s men served up, look no further than The Cat From Outer Space (1978).

The plot

When his spaceship malfunctions an extra-terrestrial, with the appearance of a domestic cat, crash lands on Earth.

In order to repair his craft, the interstellar feline – who happens to have telekinetic powers - enlists the help of a friendly earthling.

But the Martian moggy’s task is complicated by the US army who seize his spacecraft and begin a hunt for the alien invader.

So, can the cosmonautic cat return safely to space? Or will it be captured, forcibly interrogated and subjected to horrific, vivisectional experiments by a secretive military intelligence unit?

Of course, Exploding Helicopter would never dream of spoiling the ending for you. But given this is a Disney kids’ film, one can be reasonably confident that the movie doesn’t close on a shot of the puss’ surgically-opened ribcage.

Who’s in this?

The cast provides an early indication that this film is made by a studio executives not entirely at the top of their game. Without an encyclopaedic knowledge of American television in the Seventies you’d be hard pushed to recognise the main actors. But there are a few more famous names among the players.

Harry Morgan plays General Stilton, the gruff, order-barking army man tasked with hunting down the titular cat. Best known as the avuncular Colonel Potter in the legendary and long-running comedy MASH, Morgan appears to relish the opportunity to play against type.

The mellifluous voiced Roddy McDowell (Planet of the Apes and its many sequels) also turns up as a saboteur seeking to snag the alien’s technology for his evil boss. Now, our Roderick was always an entertaining and playful performer, and it takes a special talent to drag a bad performance out of him – but this movie manages it.

The poor lad is utterly wasted in a small and woefully underwritten role. (It’s worth noting that he managed to convey much more emotion in the Apes movies, and that was with two pounds of monkey-plastic hanging off his face.)

There’s also a part for James Hampton. While the name may not be familiar, his perennially genial face certainly will be. Seemingly born into the world as a middle-aged suburban dad, he enjoyed a long career in family-friendly television programmes. Though he is perhaps best known to film fans as Michael J Fox’s father, and fellow lupine, in Eighties favourite Teen Wolf.

From Walt Disney to Walt Dismal

So, how did Disney become so dismal?

After old Walt shuffled off to that great Iceland freezer in the sky (well, Los Angeles) in 1966, the company became gripped by a terrifying artistic malaise. Robbed of their creative catalyst, the studio’s output increasingly came to lack the spark with which it had made its name. (Who remembers, or for that matter has ever heard of, Napoleon and Samantha, Run Cougar Run, or Ride A Wild Pony?)

There’s an overwhelming sense of safe choices and pulled punches. And those traits are on painful display here.

Consider the film’s premise: stranded alien befriends human. It’s loaded with possibilities. Just look at what Steven Spielberg did with it in E.T a few year later.

But where the bearded boy wonder gave us a deft blend of drama, comedy and pathos, The Cat From Outer Space gives us feeble wordplay, lamentable slapstick, and shoddy spectacle. The whole enterprise is so lacking in inspiration it doubtless had Walt spinning in his grave (or cryogenic tube, assuming you believe the rumours).

Exploding helicopter action

Given the torpor that pervades the rest of the film, it’s not surprising to find that the exploding helicopter action is similarly underwhelming.

Late in the film, the real villains turn out to a group of industrial saboteurs who want to seize the alien’s technology. When their plan fails they take a female hostage and try to escape in a helicopter (a Sud Aviation SA 341G Gazelle for all you rotor-bladed geeks out there).

For unknown reasons, the chopper suffers a malfunction that will only let it fly straight line. Unable to steer the aircraft, the bad guys don parachutes and jump out, leaving the damsel in distress to her fate. It's then up to the psychic powered feline to save her.

Using an old biplane the whiskered world traveller effects a thrilling mid-air rescue where the woman has to climb down from the Gazelle into the biplane. The pilotless copter finally sputters, goes into a spiral and disappears behind a hilltop where it explodes off-screen.

It’s a damning moment. When a film can’t even be bothered to blow up a helicopter, you know you’re in trouble.

Artistic merit

While there’s some fun and novelty to be had from watching the fixed-wing and rotor-bladed aircraft carryout an airborne joust, this good work is undone by the explosion. Or rather the complete lack of one.

Having a helicopter disappear from view before blowing-up is a directorial cheat Exploding Helicopter is sadly all too familiar with. But here, we reach a new low.

Most embarrassed auteurs would have had the good grace to send a plume of smoke skyward or give us a shot of the wreckage as token indicator that the whirlybird has been destroyed. But whether through a lack of budget, imagination or both, the director leaves the work to the sound effects – dubbing a generic explosion noise onto the soundtrack. Pathetic.

Exploding helicopter innovation

The aerial duel between helicopter and biplane is quite good. There’s some genuinely impressive stunt work as a couple of professional daredevils clamber around the outside of the helicopter and biplane. But for a better example of a dogfight between these two craft you’d be much better off watching Capricorn One which oddly came out in the same year.

First know destruction of a helicopter involving a cat with telekinetic powers.


Sadly, the film’s funniest joke is actually its tagline. The actually quite amusing: “Close encounters of the ‘furred’ kind.”

Review by: Jafo