80’s Action Is No Laughing Matter: Part 2

Chuck Norris in Firewalker

Loathed by the critics, Chuck’s first shot at comedy in 1986 was a box-office dud that helped finish off his benefactor Cannon Films. Good work, son.

Plusses: I couldn’t really follow the premise, but we end up with two adventurers and a pretty bird trying to find buried treasure in Central America. Chuck, complete with tash and the beginnings of a fine mullet, spends the whole flick looking for a funny line. He comes up short, although he does add a compelling layer of characterization by chewing gum now and again. “I’m in charge of charm,” he says with supreme confidence. Hmm… His co-star is Lou Gossett Jr., a man whose early 80’s Oscar win for Officer and a Gentleman couldn’t prevent him from regularly appearing in dreck like this. The only fun I had was spotting the queer banter between the two, such as Gossett fondly gazing at Chuck while murmuring: “He has a way of getting things outta me that I never knew I had in me.” Chuck (after repeatedly failing to fuck the aforementioned pretty bird) reciprocates with lines like “I never realized what a spunky devil you are” and “I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you’re my partner.” Toward the end he lovingly places a jewel-encrusted tiara on Gossett’s shiny bald head.

Debits: Sloppily directed and edited, Firewalker is a labored watch that feels like a Romancing the Stone rip-off. The ridiculously macho things Chuck does here are little different to the stuff he accomplishes in his regular outings. For instance, at the start he squeezes a bottle so hard he breaks the glass without even cutting his hand. Well, he did this trick a year earlier in Invasion U.S.A. Is he parodying himself? He also can’t shoot straight, which is a definite send-up, but no one involved in the production seems to grasp that Chuck’s action flicks are already snigger-inducing so any attempt at comedy is somewhat superfluous.

Firewalker’s saddest aspect is a frail, shrunken Will Sampson (the memorable six-foot-seven Chief Bromden in Cuckoo’s Nest) spouting some supernatural bollocks in his final film appearance before dying a year later. The guy deserved a better send-off, but at least Chuck didn’t beat him up.

Chuck tried again to intentionally make us laugh by pairing himself with a mutt in 1995’s even worse Top Dog. He also lobbed in murder and race hate just in case his four-legged friend didn’t produce enough smiles. Dog turned out to be his lowest grossing theatrical release before he sank into direct-to-video irrelevance. What a shame. If only Firewalker and Dog had worked, he could’ve found a second wind and renamed himself Chuckle Norris.

Steven Seagal in The Onion Movie

This is a sharp, foul-mouthed satire of journalism, news standards, current affairs and human stupidity that will appeal to fans of Network, Ali G and especially British TV shows like The Day Today and Brass Eye. Its plot is very loose, preferring to make its points through a series of well-performed, pitch-perfect skits boldly skewering everything from Islamic terrorism and race to over-sexualized teen pop stars and homosexuality. Promo snippets of a fictional Seagal movie are shown throughout in which he plays a garishly dressed, ultra-smug character called Cock Puncher, subtly undermining the widely held belief that the man is incapable of humor.

Plusses: Well, I like his mockingly delivered catchline: “I don’t think you have the balls.” In truth, Seagal is hardly in this one until he memorably tackles a bunch of scimitar-wielding terrorists at the end. I think he even takes the mick out of his portly frame by telling them: “I’m hungry. I sure could go for a sundae topped with crushed nuts.” Extreme testicular violence follows.

Debits: None. The Onion Movie is fearless and on the money from start to finish. And what’s more, I only found it because of Seagal. Thank you, Steven.

Mel Gibson in Bird on a Wire, Maverick & What Women Want

After establishing himself with a string of critically acclaimed, hugely popular and iconic stuff from 1979 onward, Gibson finally had a go at comedy in 1990. He’s a better actor than most of the others here, but that doesn’t mean he succeeded in being funny.

Plusses: The nonsensically-titled Bird on a Wire (with its peculiar, deeply forced zoo-bound finale) was a big hit, but it’s more of a light-hearted action movie than anything else. FBI informant Mel, who’s been in witness protection for fifteen years after testifying against some murderous drug-dealing types, has his cover blown and goes on the run with an unfortunate bushy ponytail and old flame Goldie Hawn. Goldie, whom I can categorically state is Not A Fave, screams, wails, and bleats about needing a manicure when the camera isn’t perving up her dress. Mel, meanwhile, doesn’t get much of a chance to show his comedic chops, given the flick’s plethora of frantic chase sequences. There’s one mildly amusing one-liner about a sex drought (“Mr. Wiggly has been on bread and water for five long years”) and a running joke/wild implausibility that during his time in witness protection he was brilliant at every allocated job, even if such employment involved being a gay hairdresser. So here’s the funniest bit: Mel mincing around with some left-footers. At one point he does actually bite a pillow. Take it or leave it, folks.

Apart from Blazing Saddles, the term comedy-western has always been a bit of an oxymoron. I dunno, but for me there’s something wrong about the setting and such efforts do tend to lean toward forgettable lameness e.g. Going South and The Frisco Kid. It was therefore with some trepidation that I approached Richard Donner’s Maverick, a 1994 effort that quickly met expectations. It’s a consistent movie in that every minute is handsome, predictable and deadly dull. Writer William Goldman did a much better job with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but even that fresher flick is a long way from being a fave. All the characters in Maverick are dishonest, faking, indulging in sleight of hand or out for themselves so the plot twists and stabs at humor become increasingly telegraphed after about ten minutes. Gibson, a suave, capricious gambler, is trying to drum up a final three grand to enter the ‘poker game of the century’ where half a mil is up for grabs. This involves occasionally providing an unnecessary voiceover while overstating the comedy e.g. holding his hand of cards the wrong way around. At least he fares better than co-star Jodie Foster, who is simply irrelevant.

The smash hit rom-com What Women Want is one of those movies I went into wanting to dislike. For a start it’s set in the loathsome world of advertising, a world populated by cunt-like leeches attaching a dollar value to everything and constantly trying to sell us shit we don’t need. However, you know mainstream fluff like this is never going to try to drive the dagger in. Gibson is well cast as an aging, entitled and incredibly smug poon hound who’s not above sexist jokes and a lightning fast grope of a passing woman in a coffee shop. He also resents the growing female influence on twenty-first century life. “There’s way too much estrogen on TV these days,” he grumbles.

Things worsen for this dinosaur when his boss not only passes him over for an expected promotion, but gives the job to Helen Hunt in a bid to perk up the company’s ailing fortunes. “It’s a woman’s world out there,” he’s told, “and getting into a woman’s psyche is not exactly your strong suit.” I guess I was mildly amused by the scene where Gibson painfully tries a whole load of feminine products, such as leg wax, mascara and the latest pantyhose, in a bid to come up with a marketing direction (“Gotta think like a broad.”) His conclusion..? “Women are insane.”

Luckily, salvation is just around the corner when a bout of bathroom electrocution enables him to hear the opposite sex’s thoughts. Yeah, not too sure that’s plausible, but I’ll go along with it because it’s an undeniably fascinating premise. I’ve long been interested in the contrast between the rawness of our thoughts and the bullshit we come out with in a bid to keep up our own peculiar fronts. Indeed, this flick could easily be played as drama, horror or anything else given that it focuses on a man who can hear everything from withering putdowns to suicidal fantasies.

Gibson occasionally over-emotes with his wide eyes and flailing hands, but that’s to be expected in such a middle-of-the-road outing. Nevertheless, he’s not too bad in a watchable first half.

Debits: The slick, professional sheen of Bird on a Wire starts to blister and peel after fifteen minutes. The overlong, mirth-free Maverick can’t do anything with its clich├ęs, exemplified by a lengthy Indian segment in which the jokes fall staggeringly flat. Hell, the bursts of humor in a serious western like Outlaw Josey Wales were far sharper. What Women Want starts well enough, but lacks funny characters and dialogue, preferring to coast on its setup. It’s no surprise Mel gets feminized and drifts away on a sea of morality and romantic pap during its long, god-awful final hour. Ultimately What shoots itself in the foot because it shows that the thoughts of an insipid woman like Helen Hunt aren’t worth hearing.

Conclusion? Mel’s luxurious mullet in Turd on a Fire is far funnier than any of his comedic efforts.

Charles Bronson in Twinky aka London Affair aka Lola

By the end of the sixties ol’ granite face had made his action name with the likes of Magnificent Seven, Guns for San Sebastian, Great Escape, Once Upon a Time in the West and Dirty Dozen. So what better way to kick off the new decade than star in a rom-com about banging a hot, sixteen-year-old schoolgirl?

Plusses: There’s nothing else like it in Bronson’s catalog. He plays a 38-year-old writer of dirty books. The tone is set early on when a school uniform-clad Twinky (Susan George) sneaks into his bedroom and jumps on him. “Twinky…” he grumbles from beneath the covers, as if two or three other schoolgirls have already pleasured him that morning. “Not now.” Bronson, sans tash, stumbles through events without a whit of enthusiasm, hardly ever responding to her hugs and kisses. Most of the time he’s gritting his teeth, tutting, heavily sighing or putting his hands over his ears in response to her yen for loud music. Indeed, Bronson is noticeably unfunny. I don’t think he even tries, although the script doesn’t offer any assistance. That doesn’t mean this time capsule isn’t occasionally fascinating. “Was I any good in the sex department?” a teary Twinky asks at one point. “I mean, what sort of mark would you give me?” “Straight As,” Bronson replies, with the sort of dead expression he usually reserves for a bout of imminent murder.

There are also other things to enjoy, such as its jaunty theme tune. ‘Twinky, I think you’re growing up too soon, girl… When we touch I feel like Peter Pan.’ Er, what? Did Peter Pan have a thing for schoolgirls? Director Richard Donner obviously did with all his close-ups and freeze-frames of thighs, knee socks, laughing youngsters on push bikes and Twinky’s friends in states of undress. George, nineteen at the time of filming, might be a bubbly geyser of big-eyed femininity, but Donner (who peppers this early effort with fantasy inserts, montages and flashbacks) is a long way from the glories of The Omen and Lethal Weapon. Somehow this utter piffle attracted a few established names, including a bespectacled Bond girl and an aging Brief Encounter star ordering a bunch of squealing schoolgirls upstairs to have a bath while rubbing his hands.

Debits: I kept expecting some badly dressed street punks to abduct the stupidly-named Twinky and do unspeakable things to her before she ended up impaled on some railings prompting Bronson to pull out a massive handgun and vow bloody vengeance. Perhaps this non-development is why he appears so bemused throughout, obviously not enjoying his newfound foray into lighter matters. Indeed, from 1970 onward he racked up one of the modern era’s most impressive body counts, appearing in more than forty flicks and never again straying anywhere near something as distasteful, demeaning and plain wrong as humor.

Dave Franklin’s movie book Go Fuck an Iceberg! is available from Amazon and other outlets.

About Dave Franklin

Dismayed by the state of post-2000 cinema, Dave Franklin hasn't visited a movie house in more than a decade. He can usually be found in a dingy room dressed up as Marilyn Monroe, pining for the lost days of 70's cinema. Saying that, he will visit you for an appropriate fee to read excruciating excerpts from his novels.