Wednesday, 3 July 2019


Creating a hit film is easy right?

You take a best-selling novel, hire some big-name actors, sprinkle on a few hundred millions dollars’ worth of special effects and exotic locations…and hey, presto!

This seemingly fool-proof formula has produced some cripplingly bad movies over the years. And right up there, in the very top tier of infamy, sits Sahara (2005).

Few films have failed so magnificently, on such a grand scale, and for such a duration as this cataclysmically terrible piece of cinematic guff. It almost re-wrote the rule book on how spectacularly wrong moviemaking can go. (Time Magazine calculated the studio lost nearly $150 million, making it the fourth most costly failure of all-time.)

Not only was it a box office catastrophe: the film also spawned a famously venal, seven-year legal battle as the author and studio tried to pin the blame on each other. After spanking away an impressive $20m in legal fees, the case collapsed in a legal stalemate without anyone collecting a dollar. Oh, hum.

The plot

Dirk Pitt, an adventurer and naval salvage expert, goes in search of a ship from the American Civil War that went missing while carrying millions in gold.

His hunt takes him to Mali in Africa, which is currently in the middle of its own civil war. Along the way, Pitt falls in with a United Nations doctor who’s trying to find the source of a mystery illness that is killing hundreds of people.

Will Pitt find his missing treasure? Can the good doctor stop the deadly disease? Will anyone be able to explain why an American Civil War ship – you know, one of those things that travels on water – is smack-bang in the middle of the largest, driest landmass on the planet? Don’t count on it.

The cast

Matthew McConaughey plays aquatic adventurer, Dirk Pitt. Today, the Texan drawler is best known for his Oscar-winning dramatic roles – but during the Noughties, he was stuck on a treadmill of dire romantic comedies. Tired of cooing coyly at female co-stars, Sahara was supposedly Buff Matt’s big opportunity to recast himself as an action lead. (His previous attempt, dragon yawn-fest Reign of Fire, had gone up in flames.) But after the film bombed Matty Mac had to starve himself to death in Dallas Buyers Club before Hollywood took him serious as an actor.

Penelope Cruz plays the do-gooding doctor. Despite lauded roles in critically acclaimed European films, Hollywood has only ever used the Spanish siren as exotic eye candy. Here, she does little more than spout exposition, get periodically rescued and maintain immaculately glossy hair.

Bulking out the cast are a pay cheque-collecting William H Macy (hey, those university fees for his daughter don’t pay themselves) and Exploding Helicopter fave, Delroy Lindo. Always a reliable supporting turn, Del Boy has racked up an impressive number of films – Domino, The Last Castle, Broken Arrow – featuring some form of chopper conflagration.

The script 

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but one has to wonder whether Clive Cussler’s blockbuster novels were ever ideal material for a film. Even the books’ biggest fans would concede that their credulity-stretching plots – Atlantis discoveries, Mayan death cults – are bat-shit crazy.

Compounding matters was the notoriously curmudgeonly Cussler himself. Scarred by an earlier, botched adaptation of his work, the novelist demanded – and got – final script approval. Worse, he insisted that all the loopier elements of his story should remain intact.

No less than eight writers tried to make sense of the novelist’s hokum, but curmudgeonly Clive refused to accept any script version that didn’t have every one of his bonkers notions present and correct. Finally, with filming set to commence, the producers simply stopped answering his calls and shot their preferred script. Cue the legal battle…

The director

Given that Sahara was an expensive, effects-laden film, with big-name stars, extensive location shoots, and a dog’s breakfast of a script, the film desperately needed a veteran director.

You know the type: a grizzled tyro who could stride about the set, bullwhip in one hand, megaphone in the other, and knock the thing into shape through sheer force of personality.

So naturally, the directorial reins were handed to first-time – yes, that’s first-time – filmmaker Breck Eisner. Obviously, young Breck won this film-making gig purely on merit. But it probably was nice that he could also get regular visits on set from his dad, Disney head honcho Michael Eisner.

Exploding helicopter action

After locating the missing 150-year-old battleship, McConaughey and company find themselves in a sticky spot when the film’s villain turns up in a helicopter gunship. Scrabbling around inside the rusty vessel, they – let’s say, yes, improbably – find a working onboard cannon.

Boom! The cannonball crashes through the windscreen of the helicopter – and for a moment, it seems as though that’s the only damage it’s going to cause. But then a small fuse burns down and the iron projectile detonates.

Artistic merit

This scene is really the only reason to watch this film. That, and Penelope Cruz’s immaculately maintained glossy hair.

Exploding helicopter innovation

It goes without saying that you don’t often see helicopters destroyed by 19th century weaponry. Certainly, this is the only time a whirlybird has been blown up with a cannon.

Interesting fact

Sahara wasn’t Hollywood’s first disastrous attempt to bring Dirk Pitt to the big screen.

In 1980, media mogul Sir Lew Grade splurged millions on the soggy sea adventure Raise The Titanic, which sank faster at the box office than did the titular ship.  Later, the uber-producer wryly observed that rather than Raise The Titanic it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic.

Review by: Jafo

Still want more? Then check out the Exploding Helicopter podcast episode on Sahara. You can listen via iTunes, Spotify, Acast, Stitcher or right here and now...

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Hitman: Agent 47

How do you make a movie based on a computer game seem authentic?

That was the problem facing the creative geniuses behind Hitman: Agent 47 (2015). But after much scratching of heads (and very probably some industrial-level coke consumption), they hit upon an ingenious, albeit counter-intuitive, solution.

Why not take the glaring limitations of computer games – two-dimensional characters, hopelessly complicated storylines and no real emotional involvement – and instil those very qualities into the film itself?

The result is Hitman: Agent 47 – a movie it can feel uncomfortable to watch without a PlayStation controller in your hand.

The plot

Our protagonist is ‘47’, a genetically enhanced super-soldier or ‘agent’, created as part of a now defunct Government experiment. He’s out to stop a shadowy group called The Syndicate, who (natch) want to revive the Agent programme for their own nefarious purposes.

As is very often the case in such movies, there’s a reluctant, beardy scientist (named Litvenko) who’s now rueful of the destructive programme he created and so has gone on the run. That means both sides are Looking for Litvenko, which sounds like a middling Russian rom-com and might actually have made for a more interesting movie.

The hunt leads to the missing boffin’s daughter, who is also trying to track down her errant father. Inevitably, Baldy ’47 and the chick team up. Can they find the secretive scientist before the sinister Syndicate? Will they be able to prevent the reboot of the agent programme? And do you get 10,000 bonus points for shooting two baddies with a single bullet? (Sorry, we forgot this isn’t a game for a moment.)

The cast

The titular hero is played by Rupert Friend (taking over from Timothy Olyphant who played the cue ball-headed assassin in the previous film). Although not nearly so robo-handsome as Tim, Rupert is fine in the role – but then again, this this has to be the easiest thesping gig on the planet. As a genetic kill-machine, Agent 47 is utterly incapable of expressing any sense of character, nuance or emotion. Looking back, it’s a miracle Keanu Reeves wasn’t bagged for the role.

Taking on the villain role is the slightly other-worldly Zachary Quinto, best known for playing Spock in the Star Trek re-boot movies. Now, Quinto is very much an odd bird. There’s such a strange, alien quality to his performance that it’s like watching a Vulcan straining a little too hard to play a human. Still, his peculiar nature is weirdly suited to this video game movie, and he proves an interesting antagonist for Friend to butt heads – and fists, and feet, and bullets, and blades – with.

Rounding out the cast is Ciarin Hinds, playing the much sought-after beardy scientist. As a seasoned veteran of many genuinely good films – Munich, There Will Be Blood etc – Big C clearly had mortgage payments in mind when taking this job, and his post-it-in performance reflects that.

It's not all bad

Any bozo could tell that this movie is based on a computer game. The endless scenes of frantic running and shooting – a smorgasbord of unrelenting action – carry all the hallmarks of a typical first-person shoot-em-up game.

So on the surface, this obviously does meet the standards of a truly terrible movie. And certainly, the critics who pilloried its arrival in cinemas thought as much. (“Uniquely boring”, “an idiotic mess” and “utterly banal” were among the warmer verdicts.) But actually – and whisper this gently, dear reader – Exploding Helicopter quite enjoyed it.

For all its myriad flaws, the film has a number of deftly choreographed action set-pieces (an escape from an underground car park, and a subway chase are particular highlights), and the imaginative locations lend the movie the superior gloss of a Bond film.

There’s also a neat plot switcheroo at the end of the first act. And oddly, there are even a couple of decently written scenes that give the characters a smattering more depth than the usual paddling pool dimensions found in similar fare.

Overall, there is a freshness to the fromage on display here. And so long as your expectations are properly calibrated, this is not a difficult film to enjoy.

Exploding helicopter action

Despite the despairing efforts of 47, the film’s denouement sees the Syndicate capture Litvenko. They spirit him away on board a helicopter as our follically-challenged assassin looks on.

However, there’s a surprise in store for the villain. As he revels in his success, Litvenko – who the film has already established is suffering from a lung condition – triggers an explosive he’s hidden inside his ever-present inhaler. Kaboom! The helicopter explodes. What a cunning wheeze!

Artistic merit

In an interesting twist on the usual chopper fireball scene, the helicopter crumples inwards as it explodes. Burning wreckage, illuminated against the night sky, then artfully falls towards the ground. Nice.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Unsurprisingly, this is almost certainly the first time a cinematic helicopter has been destroyed by an asthma inhaler.


“Your number’s up.” Geddit? Not that there’s really that much to get.

Review by: Jafo

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Hard Ticket To Hawaii

B-movies have a long and - let’s be honest - not terribly noble Hollywood history.

Invariably cheaply produced, these films endeavour to make up for what they lack in big name stars, expensive sets and well-crafted drama by giving audiences plenty of ‘good bits’ (ie: sex and violence)

Many enterprising filmmakers, from Roger Corman to Russ Meyer, have made a lucrative living by following a simple formula – rustle up any old guff, but remember to throw in enough breasts, punch-ups and explosions to keep audiences distracted. Then in the Eighties, maverick moviemaker Andy Sidaris ramped up the stakes by re-inventing the genre.

His films concentrated on giving the audience three simple pleasures: bullets, bombs and babes. And so was born the ‘triple B’ or ‘BBB’ movie.

The plot

On a remote Hawaiian island, two undercover government agents accidentally stumble upon a diamond smuggling operation and confiscate the contraband.

Unsurprisingly, the local criminal kingpin is not best pleased and sends his heavies to retrieve the sparkles before police reinforcements arrive.

Meanwhile, in a sub-plot seemingly unrelated to the rest of the film (and totally unrelated to any notion of credibility), a radioactive killer snake – yes, you read that right – is loose on the island. The wee guy pops up in an early scene then slithers away for over an hour, emerging only at the denouement (from a toilet, naturally) to bite the baddie.

So, can our heroes cuff on the crook before they’re killed off? What say might the sinister serpent have in proceedings? And most importantly, will the viewer get to gorge on plenty of guns, girls and good bits? You bet.

Exploiting the exploitation genre

So, who was Andy Sidaris? For many years, he was an award-winning sports television director, covering everything from the Olympics to American football. Famously, he pioneered the ‘honey shot’, the now ubiquitous cutaway to an attractive woman in the crowd.

But Andy ultimately grew tired of sports and relaunched himself as a DIY filmmaker, self-producing a dozen straight-to-video films during the Eighties and Nineties. His signature ‘BBB’ formula is literally all over the screen in Hard Ticket To Hawaii, which is chock full of gun battles, blow-ups and blown-up breasts.

As writer, director and producer (and probably chief bottle washer) on his movies, Sidaris had no-one to stop him indulging the wackier elements of his imagination. For example: he liked to fill his movies with beefcake guys and buxom dames. So what if they couldn’t really act? That’s what he wanted, goddammit!

He was also known for putting together notably bonkers action scenes. In this movie, our heroes fight-off a skateboarding-riding assassin before using a bazooka to blow up a sex doll. Then they decapitate someone with an explosive frisbee. You don’t get that in a Chuck Norris movie.

But what about the babes?

Here too, Hard Ticket To Hawaii delivers. All the leading ladies in the film are played by Playboy playmates (March 1984, May 1984, July 1985, and October 1985, for you vintage pornography fans out there). They may not be the greatest actors in the world, but you can’t fault the other *ahem* assets they bring to the production.

And the funny thing is, it all kind of works. No-one is ever going to mistake this movie for high art, but it does make for a rollicking piece of entertainment. If you’re looking for a film with plenty of ‘good bits’, you won’t go wrong with this.

Exploding helicopter action

Talking of good bits, what of the exploding helicopter action? Fittingly, it combines both a babe and a bazooka.

As the action nears its end, a couple of villains attempt to escape in a helicopter. Exchanging gunfire with our heroes as the chopper lifts-off, it looks like the baddies may make a successful getaway. But wait! One of our undercover cuties has brought along a bazooka.

Dressed only in a skimpy bikini, she lines up the whirlybird in her sights and blows the helicopter out of the sky.

Artistic merit

The method and execution of this chopper fireball is very standard, but Exploding Helicopter did derive an unexpected amount of pleasure from the sight of a beautiful, buxom woman, brandishing a bazooka. One to raise at the next therapy session…


To get to paradise, they’ll have to go through hell.

Review by Jafo

Still want more? Then check out the Exploding Helicopter podcast episode about Hard Ticket To Hawaii. Listen via iTunes, Acast, Stitcher, Spotify and all good podcatchers.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Furious 7

The rise and fall of a film franchise used to be predictable.

They’d begin with a box office smash that left giddy audiences clamouring for more.

This would be followed by a slew of sequels that would steadily decline in quality until the now sorry saga would be killed off. (Or, in these creativity-free days, rebooted a few years later.)

It’s a cycle we’ve seen repeated hundreds of times. (And that’s just the Spider-Man series.) But every rule has an exception.

For one franchise that has defiantly bucked this tried and tested trajectory. One series started indifferently, got much, much worse, then unexpectedly transformed itself into one of the most successful franchises around.

Ladies and gentlemen: Exploding Helicopter gives you the Fast & Furious films.

The plot

Movie number seven opens on an optimistic note for the Fast and Furious gang. After being granted amnesty for their crimes at the end of the previous film, life seems surprisingly quiet.

But the opening titles have barely finished before any sense of tranquility is unceremoniously mowed down, then crunchingly reversed over again. It turns out that Deckard Shaw - the brother of the villain they stopped in instalment six – wants revenge and begins to hunt Vin Diesel and his homies down.

Enter Mr Nobody, the mysterious head of a government covert ops unit. He offers to help Big Vin stop Shaw, but only if he- ah, here we go – steals a high-tech McGuffin (copyright: every action movie ever) that’s about to fall into the hands of terrorists.

What follows is a game of cat and mouse (or, more accurately, car and mouse) as each side competes to complete their mission.

Could this be the end of the road for Vin and his crew? No. Or will he and his chums get to drive off into the sunset and a potential endless stream of sequels? A resounding yes. Will there be a folksy, aw shucks end scene featuring the heroes, complete with a toe-curling speech about ‘family’. You betcha.

The cast

Once again, the cast is headed-up – both literally and physically – by the follically-challenged double act of Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson. Stood together, they resemble a pair of well-trimmed testicles from an LA porno flick.

And lest viewers were unsatisfied by the number of muscular bald men onscreen, chrome-domed action star Jason Statham joins the cast in the role of Deckard Shaw.

Also making his debut is Kurt Russell as Mr Nobody, the shadowy government agent who gives the gang their mission.

Rounding-out the ensemble are returning favourites Michelle Rodriguez, Paul Walker, and, erm, the other ones (who, apart from the Fast & Furious films, mercifully don’t tend to trouble cinemagoers too much with their ‘acting’. We’re looking at you Tyrese...).

Long and winding road to success

When Furious 7 became one of the highest grossing films of all-time (appropriately it’s seventh on the top movie list) it capped a remarkable transformation for the franchise.

This franchise may be an action movie behemoth today, but it’s easy to forget that the first Fast and Furious film was only a moderate hit. Despite being instantly forgettable, it somehow did enough business to spawn two predictably awful sequels (Even Big Vin, hardly the most astute judge of a script, considered them beneath his questionable talents and declined to appear).

However, after the third film Tokyo Drifted (geddit) in and out of cinemas the whole enterprise looked to be heading for the cinematic scrapheap. It was only after the unlikely appearance of a fourth film that producers finally hit upon a winning formula.

Dwayne Johnson: Magic ingredient
The street-racing plot lines were abandoned, with the focus moved to elaborate heists featuring over-the-top vehicular action. And the cast was rejigged with a ‘greatest hits’ of characters assembled from the previous instalments (Vin Diesel and Paul Walker were brought back to lead proceedings).

And then, in the fifth film, they added a magic ingredient: Dwayne Johnson.

The introduction of the The Rock added a new dynamic – not to mention some badly needed charisma – into proceedings. An unexpected critical and commercial hit, Fast Five (2009) made almost as much in ticket sales as the first three films put together.

Since then the series has powered on, becoming a global phenomenon at a point when most franchises are being handed a revolver and told to take a long walk in the woods.

Exploding helicopter action

Like every aspect of Furious 7, the exploding helicopter sequence is spectacularly convoluted. For the sake of brevity, let’s cut it down to the basics.

Having stolen the McGuffin, our heroes find themselves pursued by a heavily armed attack helicopter.

Seeing his friends in trouble, Vin Diesel jumps into a car and drives at high speed off the roof of a multi-story car park.

Vin and his vehicle corkscrew towards the airborne whirlybird as if trying to ram it from the sky. Unfortunately, the car only clips the chopper, and it seems the aircraft has escaped. But wait!

Remember that bag of grenades we saw a few minutes earlier? Well, they’re now hanging beneath the helicopter’s fuselage. (Big Vin having cleverly hooked them to the whirlybird as he whizzed past).
Before you can shout, “that’s convenient foreshadowing”, The Rock fires a pistol at the explosives causing them and the chopper to explode.

Artistic merit

A truly bravura exploding helicopter.

Like one of those giant domino displays, this chopper fireball requires a torturously elaborate sequence of events to happen in exactly the right order.

Unlikely it may be, but you cannot help but applaud the ingenuity.

Interesting fact

Vin Diesel loves a franchise. The big lunk has appeared in 29 films and more than half – 16 to be exact – are related to franchises. And with Fast & Furious 9 and 10, XXX 4 and another Riddick sequel still to come, it’s a number that’s only set to increase. Just call him Mr Original.

Review by: Jafo