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 na├»ve 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.

Tagline

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