Wednesday 1 December 2021

High Risk

You’ve probably heard of ‘diss tracks’ – hip hop songs where the primary aim is to verbally attack or ‘disrespect’ another artist. 

For years, these songs were seen as mundane exercises in put-downs and point-scoring – bouts of schoolyard posturing from showy characters with brittle egos. But then one verbal joust between Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls sparked a series of shootings that left both men dead, and suddenly the jingly japes didn’t seem quite so hi-larious. 

Still, the tradition did live on in other ways. And High Risk (1995) can lay dubious claim to being an actual ‘diss film’. The moviemaker behind it – renowned Hong Kong producer, Wong Jing – really did carefully shape the movie’s content to construct a new (and unwelcome) orifice for legendary martial artist, Jackie Chan, while also eviscerating his action man credentials. 

The score-settling result is a savage – and surprisingly effective – send-up of the cinematic chop-socky star. What you might call a kung fu kick in the reputational goolies. 

The plot 

Frankie Lane is a martial arts movie star famous for doing all his own stunts. (Remind you of anyone?) But in reality – or the reality of High Risk - Frankie can’t be bothered with the rough stuff, so secretly delegates all the dangerous stunts to his bodyguard. Ouch. 

Unfortunately for Frankie, an ambitious news reporter has cottoned on to his fraud and is threatening a television expose. Then, just when it seemed his day couldn’t get any worse, our hero finds himself trapped in a skyscraper that’s been taken over by terrorists. Crikey! 

The backstory to the beef 

To say the Frankie Lane spoof of Jackie Chan is a bit ‘on the nose’ would be a gross understatement. (For a western equivalent, imagine watching a movie about a musclebound Austrian coward who’s scared of guns and loud noises, and called Harold Schwitzaneuger. You get the idea.) But why is everyone’s favourite, rubbery-faced risk-taker being portrayed in such an unfavourable light? 

The answer lies in a movie that Wong Jing and Chan made together a couple of years earlier: City Hunter (1993). Envisioned as a triumphant collaboration between two titans of Hong Kong cinema, the production quickly deteriorated into furious rows and on-set shouting matches – and Chan even tried to get Wong booted off the movie. 

Despite their feuding, the project did get finished – even if it was to no one’s satisfaction. (Years later, a still disgruntled Chan described it as the worst film of his career.) For Wong though, revenge was a dish best served in celluloid. And when he made High Risk – a formulaic Die Hard knock-off – a couple of years later, he saw an opportunity to get even with his former foe. 

A study in character assassination 

Playing the role of Frankie, Jacky Cheung presents an instantly recognisable caricature of Chan. With his mop-top hairstyle, bumbling manner and exaggerated facial expressions, he neatly skewers Chan’s clownish screen persona. Worse, Frankie is portrayed as a womanising drunk and coward no longer willing to do fight scenes or his own stunts, due to years of soft living. Miaow! 

It's raucous stuff and, for the most part, hugely enjoyable. But there’s one slight problem: Wong’s obsession with settling an old score ends up unbalancing the rest of the story. And that’s because Cheung’s Chan-baiting character, who dominates most of the screen time, isn’t actually the film’s hero. 

That role falls to Jet Li, who plays Frankie’s bodyguard and unofficial stunt double. So, it’s the pint-sized pugilist who leads the hostage rescue, does the heroics, and ultimately kills the villain – you know, standard movie hero stuff. But his character is continually side-lined throughout the film, so Wong can pour yet more merde on the Chan character’s head. To illustrate: think of Die Hard’s terrorist negotiating yuppie sleazeball Ellis. Now, just imagine if he had been given as much screen time as Bruce Willis, and you’ll see the problem. 

High Risk, High Reward 

Still, this is a minor quibble about what is unquestionably a wildly entertaining film. Ultimately, Wong presents grandly staged action sequences, cartoonish villains, and a deliciously acerbic critique of a cinema superstar. It’s a spectacular feat. 

And it’s worth dwelling for a moment on the singular nature of the filmmaker’s accomplishment. Despite being full of preening narcissists and swivel-eyed sociopaths (‘Hello, Harvey!’), the movie industry resolutely keeps its axe-grinding out of public view, instead presenting a vision of a world where everyone is super-fun to work with and simply a ‘dah-ling’. 

In that context, it took enormous chutzpah for Wong to make a major motion picture which had the explicit purpose of exacting personal revenge against an A-list colossus of the industry. That’s putting some serious cojones on display… 

Exploding helicopter action 

While Wong’s primary interest was clearly in obliterating Jackie Chan’s reputation, it’s nice to see that he also found time to do some truly horrific damage to a whirlybird. 

Here’s what happens: with the terrorists in control of the skyscraper, Jet Li hijacks a police helicopter – which of course, he can effortlessly pilot. As he ascends to the floor where the hostages are being held, the villains open fire, so our hero makes an improbable leap from the chopper onto a window ledge. The result? The pilotless copter crashes through the window, exploding multiple times as the wrecked fuselage skids across the floor. 

Artistic merit 

Excessive, extravagant, entertaining and extremely unlikely. It’s a bravura scene, in which the helicopter not only explodes multiple times, but we also get to see a baddie cut clean in half by a rotor blade. Huzzah! Added bonus: the viewer is treated to a frankly weird ‘point of view’ shot from the helicopter as it careers out of control and in flames. Encore, Mr Wong! Encore! 

Exploding helicopter innovation 

We’ve previously seen helicopters crash through the inside of buildings – in Heaven’s Fire, Golgo 13: The Professional and American Heist. But this one is a real doozy. 

Interesting fact 

Such was the aggravation caused by High Risk that Jet Li subsequently felt moved to apologise to Jackie Chan for his involvement in the film. 

Wednesday 9 June 2021

General Commander

In the motor trade, they call them a ‘cut and shut’: a scam where you take the remains of two wrecked cars, weld them together, then flog the newly created ‘vehicle’ to an unsuspecting punter.

Obviously, the workmanship of these Franken-motors is criminally substandard and likely to cause serious harm to anyone encountering them. But, don’t expect the fraudsters to care. They’re just out for a quick buck.

Such unscrupulous behaviour was doubtless the inspiration for the recent Steven Seagal vehicle, General Commander (2019).

At first glance, it appears to have the bodywork of a functional action film. But lift the bonnet, and you realise with horror that bits of a TV series have been clumsily welded on to a movie format in such a hap-hazard fashion it should be immediately consigned to the scrapheap. 

But before we explore our automotive analogy further, let’s kick the tyres of the plot...

The plot

Big Steve leads a team of CIA agents who are trying to bring down a global crime syndicate. But when the bust goes wrong – and one of the aikido arm-waver’s buddies is killed – the agency moves to shut down the investigation and disband his unit.

Appalled by the decision, the Putin apologist and his comrades quit, so they can mount their own vigilante operation to stop the mobsters and avenge their dead chum.

So, with Seagal and his friends having put themselves Above The Law, the only questions we need ask are, who’s going to be Hard To Kill and which baddie is Marked For Death? (See what we did there?)

Cut and shut: the movie

One question that cineastes across the globe would surely be asking about General Commander, if any had bothered to see it, is this: How did the movie manage to become such an unsightly mess – the cinematic equivalent of a Range Rover engine crammed onto the chassis of a Mini Metro?

Turns out there’s a simple answer. Although Big Steve’s latest opus has been released as a movie, the project actually started life as a 12-part TV series. But with just two episodes in the can, the whole shebang was mysteriously abandoned.

No official explanation was offered. And it would take a much harsher critic than Exploding Helicopter to draw any link between this sudden shelving and the unsavoury sexual assault allegations swirling around Seagal at that time. 

Nevertheless, the costly cancellation left producers with an expensive problem. Having already sunk thousands into the production, how could they salvage some quick cash from the wreckage?

Their solution was worthy of Arthur Daley himself. They would simply bolt the existing footage together and try to pass it off as a complete film.

Unfortunately for them (and not to mention the viewer), there’s no disguising the shoddy workmanship here. All the awkward joins and lapses that come from shunting together disparate scenes are clearly visible. The exposition-heavy plot lurches along like a car with a clogged fuel line. And the all-too-scarce action scenes are as exciting to watch as a traffic jam.

The curious case of Big Steve’s barnet

Faced with such dire fare, the disappointed viewer must look elsewhere for entertainment. And sadly for the Buddhist-botherer, there’s nothing more riveting in this parade of dreck than the increasing absurdity of his follicular arrangement.

Seasoned Seagal watchers well know that the great man has long employed tonsorial enhancement measures. (The receding hairline he sported in debut Above The Law had mysteriously disappeared by break-out hit, Under Siege.) But like Michael Jackson and his nose, the famously vain martial artist has never been able to stop surgically fiddling with his barnet.

Modern science may never be able to unravel the exact combination of transplants, plugs and weaves that went into creating the Seagal barnet. But be assured: the wiry, brillo-like substance currently perched atop his head is unlike any other Earthly hair form. More than anything, it resembles the black skull cap favoured by intergalactic dictator, Ming the Merciless. (And we all know how much Steve, a noted Putin-botherer, enjoys a little tyrant time.)

However, with a 70th birthday fast approaching, it appears that Seagal’s extraordinary plug-weave-wig-monster has finally allowed a single concession to the passage of time. Whisper it gently, dear reader, but there are now actually small patches of silvery white dust along the sides of his otherwise obsidian crown.

It’s an almost touchingly pathetic gesture towards verisimilitude, like putting pieces of coal on a snowman’s face and expecting it to talk. And of course, it does not work. The idea was clearly to lend the big man a slightly distinguished air. But in reality, it looks like he lost his balance in a grocery store and crashed into the talcum powders.

Exploding helicopter action

Putting tonsorial tomfoolery aside, let’s get down to the serious business of exploding helicopters.

Having finally tracked the villains down, Seagal and his team engage in the obligatory final confrontation. This involves a car chase and a gun battle during which a helicopter appears because… well, who knows? (By this point, Exploding Helicopter had long since stopped trying to find any logic in the proceedings.)

While taking heavy fire from the chopper, one of the good guys pulls out a rocket launcher that happens to be sitting in the boot of their vehicle.

He fires at the whirlybird, which explodes in a far from convincing CGI fireball. As our hero admires his pyrotechnic handiwork, he yells, “Merry Christmas, motherfucker!” And seasons greetings to you too, sir!

Artist merit

Overall, it’s perfunctory stuff. Only the foul-mouthed (and festive-themed) one-liner manages to perk up the mood – but that line, like much else in the film, is totally baffling.

You see, at no point during the previous action has it ever been established what time of year it is. And given that the film is set in the broiling Philippines, Christmas is ho-ho-hardly the first thing on the viewer’s mind while sitting through this nonsense. (Presumably, the Christmas references ended up somewhere on the cutting room floor.)

Interesting fact

The credits provide further tortured evidence of the struggle it took to re-fashion General Commander into a film. Despite a listed running time of 85 minutes, this film actually lasts just 76 minutes.

And those extra nine minutes..? Desperate to fill out time, the director has pointlessly regurgitated bits of the film you’ve just watched as a backdrop while the end credits (a hall of shame for everyone involved) slowly scroll up the screen.

Want more?

Check out the review of General Commander by our buddy the DTV Connoisseur.

Saturday 27 February 2021

The Wolf's Call

Is there anything harder to love than French cinema? Not in Exploding Helicopter’s experience.

If their filmmakers aren’t bamboozling the audience with avantgarde narrative structures, they’re boring them rigid with angst-laden characters discussing existentialism amid clouds of Gauloise smoke. The idea of simply entertaining the viewer seems positively offensive to their intellectual sensibilities.

This propensity for pretension would be bad enough were it confined solely to their prestige productions. But even when embarking on the most generic of genre films, our Gallic cousins still appear incapable of excluding their artier affectations. And if you want a case in point, look no further than la submarine drama, The Wolf’s Call (2019).

On its watery surface, this looks like just the kind of Hunt For Red October thriller you’ve seen countless times before. But peer beneath the waves, and you’ll soon detect the usual signs of showy self-regard, pulsing away like a pompous sonar. Mon dieu!

The plot

A French submarine crew find themselves at the centre of an international crisis when Russia launches a nuclear missile at their country. With their nation under attack, they’re ordered to sail in to position and fire a retaliatory nuke. Sacre bleu!

But wait! No sooner have the crew been given their irrevocable instructions, than the attack is found to be a heinous trick! The Ruskies didn’t fire the missile, after all. It’s actually some generic Jihadists (the villain du jour for lazy screenwriters) who are intent on destroying the West. Or at least France, so perhaps they’re not all bad.

The ‘grand fromages’ of the French military are now faced with a terrible dilemma. With their nuke-armed submarine already en route to blast an unwitting Russia into radioactive rubble, they have no choice but to send out a second submarine to seek and destroy their own men. Merde!

Submerged in self-importance

If you’ve watched any American action movies over the last 30 years, you’ll know how this story usually plays out.

An impossibly buff hero with perfect hair will hyperactively bounce through a series of obstacles before saving the day at the last minute (usually by disobeying orders and improvising a solution). Then he’ll grab an enviably hot girlfriend and motorcycle off into the blush of dawn. (Think Tom Cruise in Top Gun).

Au naturalment, our Froggy neighbours could never bring themselves to do anything so gauche. Instead, our protagonist is a spoddy sonar operator who spends most of the film, brow furrowed, listening to propeller cavitation on a pair of oversized headphones. Arnold Schwarzenegger, this is not.

With such strong nerd credentials, you’d think our big-eared hero would be unlikely to enjoy any romantic entanglements. Au contraire! You forget that France is a country where brainiacs and philosophers are more revered than rock stars. They’re practically pin-ups.

So, after pulling an unfeasibly hot bookshop owner (while attempting to buy a mathematics textbook, no less!), he gets to enjoy a passionate night of rumpy-pumpy. Oh-la-la!

But any viewers hoping to see the earnestly cerebral tone briefly enlivened with a bit of naked nookie will be left feeling decidedly limp.

Inspired by our man’s profession as a sonar operator, the sex scene focusses exclusively on the sounds of the couple’s conjugal canoodling. So, rather than shots of bouncing boobs or thrusting buttocks, you instead get abstract close-ups and the amplified sounds of racing heartbeats and heavy breathing.

In what is already a very French film, this seems like an impossibly French thing to do – the movie scene equivalent of a mime artist with a white-painted face pretending to be trapped inside a glass cube. Frankly, it’s a wonder we were spared the sonic stylings of our hero padding off to the khazi for a post-coital piss.

Mercifully though, once the action moves from the boudoir to the ocean bed, things do pick up and start resembling the Crimson Tide-style thriller you’d hoped to be watching all along.

Reda Kateb (A Prophet, Zero Dark Thirty) and Omar Sy (Lupin, Jurassic World) lend some welcome grit and gravitas as the two grim-faced, sweating sub commanders. And the final hour, in which the two submarines engage in an underwater game of cat and mouse as the clock relentlessly ticks towards doomsday, is genuinely tense.

Despite its loftier ambitions, The Wolf’s Call does turn out to be an intelligent and suspense-filled drama, which is well worth submerging yourself in for a couple of hours.

Exploding helicopter action

But enough aquatic theatrics: what about the aerial action? The exploding helicopter sequence occurs refreshingly early in the film, when a Syrian chopper is hunting a French submarine that’s trapped in shallow water.

Unable to submerge and escape, the sub captain instead opts to confront the threat head-on. Grabbing a conveniently handy rocket launcher, Captain Bullseye (literally) takes aim and blasts the bothersome whirlybird to smithereens. Problem solved.

Artistic merit

While the method of destruction is routine, the setting certainly isn’t. This is the first-ever submarine versus chopper encounter recorded at Exploding Helicopter. (Unless of course, you count The Spy Who Loved Me and the famous encounter between Roger Moore’s submersible car and Caroline Munro’s shortly-to- be-destroyed helicopter. But then, expert readers like yourself already knew that, right? Right?)

Interesting (and still unknown) fact

Readers who’ve made it this far may be wondering what lies behind the film’s cool sounding yet puzzling moniker: The Wolf’s Call. Apparently, it’s something to do with sonar – though precisely what, we can’t tell you. 

There’s a short, expository scene at one point where one character gamely attempts a garbled explanation, but it made precious little sense. Exploding Helicopter has watched the film twice now and is still none the wiser.

Sunday 7 February 2021

Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes

As Shakespeare almost said: some films are born with cult status, some achieve cult status, and others have cult status thrust upon them.

But if Bill the Bard never quite uttered those words, it’s clearly only because he never lived to see Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes! (1978) - a film with a cult following bigger than Jim Jones.

Made for a mere $90,000 by a bunch of have-a-go filmmakers, the film was panned by critics and largely ignored by audiences on its release. Yet as the years passed, a curious thing happened. The film steadily acquired a dedicated following – and at this point there have been three sequels, a computer game, a comic and an animated TV series. (Inevitably, a reboot is also in the works).

How did such an inauspicious film acquire the illustrious status it enjoys today? Exploding Helicopter set out to forensically investigate the issue. Or just glance at Wikipedia, if that was too much work.

The plot

When scientific efforts to improve the humble tomato go wrong, it transforms the normally docile salad staple into a murderous, human-hungry fruit. Yikes!

Naturally, in this moment of crisis, the Government calls in their top experts to tackle the fearsome fruit threat. The crack team includes a paratrooper who drags an open parachute behind him, a diver who's never out of scuba gear, and a master of disguise who conceals his appearance by dressing as a black Adolf Hitler. Well, we did say the world was in trouble.

The scene is set for an apocalyptic man versus lycopersicum showdown. Can our heterogenous heroes save the day? Will America succumb to the deadly Red Menace? And, most importantly, do you say ‘tomayto’ or ‘tomahto’? Let’s call the whole review off…

Attack of the B Movie parody

If all this sounds like it’d make a deeply terrible film, you’d be absolutely right. But then, that was always the point.

Inspired by old science fiction B-movies, Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes parodies the z-grade films that clogged up drive-ins during the Fifties and Sixties. (Who can forget such terrifyingly titled efforts as Attack Of The Mushroom People?)

At first glance, ‘Killer Tomatoes’ appears to be as bad as the films it’s supposed to be sending up. The acting is terrible, the sets shaky and the special effects profoundly non-special. (This was a product of the film’s cheap ‘outside the film industry’ origins rather than intentional homage). But despite the readily apparent limitations, it possesses an oddly infectious – and undeniable – joie de vivre.

The first half hour is terrific fun. It includes an amusing title sequence, a tomato-based Jaws parody,  and a terrifically daft sequence where senior military bigwigs hold a high-powered meeting in a comedically small room. And the quickfire style of the gags, which blend silliness, satire and slapstick, make it feel like a forerunner of the disaster movie spoof, Airplane! (1980).

However, like an eight-day-old tomato, it does all start to feel a little squelchy and off at around thirty minutes in. Plot lines quickly go nowhere, and it gradually dawns that the comedic value of some of the two-dimensional characters have an incredibly short shelf-life. But still, a few jokes continue to hit the target and the whole production’s full-blooded commitment to the absurd inspires forgiveness.

None of this, though, explains how the film went from obscure curio to cult classic. Let’s be clear: there is no shortage of god-awful-but-with-a-bit-of-kitschy-charm movies gathering dust in the world’s cinematic vaults. But what saved ‘Killer Tomatoes’ from obscurity was its inclusion in a very influential book: The Fifty Worst Films Of All Time.

The book-fuelled publicity saw the film become a fixture of ‘midnight movie’ slots at independent cinemas and a surprise hit on the (then newly launched) home video market. Eternal cult status was assured. But, you ask, what about the really important question: the calibre of its exploding helicopter credentials?

Exploding helicopter action

As police gamely battle the homicidal tomatoes in a field, a small helicopter carrying some random dignitary comes in to land. But as it descends, the tail rotor clips the field surface and breaks off. Instantly, the wounded whirlybird starts spinning wildly before crashing to the ground and tumbling over on its side.

The action cuts away momentarily to a crowd of people running for cover. When it cuts back, the helicopter is already a flaming, molten ruin, with smoke billowing everywhere. Sensing his Oscar moment may be at hand, one character loudly exclaims: “My God! Did you see that? A tomato flew into it!”

Artistic merit

Given this is a zero-budget movie with famously terrible effects – remember, it largely revolves around people pretending to be scared of red balls of foam – the chopper conflagration looks great. It is surprisingly, grippingly realistic – as in documentary-level accurate and convincing. And it turns out there’s a good reason for that: the helicopter really did crash and explode.

You see, while the helicopter was merely meant to land in the field, the pilot cocked it all up and crashed the bloody thing. As the giddy cameras whirred, it really did spin violently then roll over on its side.

But here’s the best bit. As genuinely terrified actors disembarked and ran for their lives from the smoking vehicle, which quickly caught alight and erupted in an inferno, the production crew – resourceful as always – hastily sketched out a scene on the spot and improvised some lines around the burning wreckage. Miraculously, no one was harmed in the crash. And with a little quick thinking, the smouldering chopper became just another victim of those deadly tomatoes.

Exploding helicopter innovation

First and only known helicopter destroyed by a tomato.

Favourite line

“It’s not blood, it’s tomato juice.”

Interesting fact

A ‘before he was famous’ George Clooney has an early starring role in the sequel, Revenge Of The Killer Tomatoes (1988).

Review by: Jafo

Still want more then check out the Exploding Helicopter podcast episode on Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes. Listen now on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and all other major podcatchers.