Horror director Tobe Hooper made three flicks with Cannon in rapid succession, but the relationship only further sullied his artistic reputation. Together they coughed up the derided remake Invaders from Mars, a comedic sequel to his blistering Texas Chainsaw, and the box office bomb Lifeforce.
Still, at least this sci-fi flick has reached cult status and it’s not hard to see why as it lobs in everything from a 150-mile-long spaceship and a straitjacketed child killer to martial law and an exploding St. Paul’s Cathedral. Not to mention zombie hordes and a drugged Patrick Stewart chatting in a woman’s voice. You can’t fault this one for ambition, but it sure is one over-egged sci-fi pudding.
The crew of a space shuttle investigating Halley’s Comet finds an alien craft hiding in its tail. Colonel Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) goes aboard and makes the slightly unwise decision to bring back three naked humanoids in suspended animation, despite them being surrounded by giant, desiccated bat-like creatures. Back on Earth the space girl (Mathilda May) wakes up and charmingly presents us with one of the best pairs of breasts in cinematic history. She then causes some localized havoc before walking off nude into the night…
Carlsen remains unapologetic. “She was the most overwhelmingly feminine presence I’ve ever encountered,” he babbles which, roughly translated, means: “Oh, God! I so wanted to bang that babe!”
Amusingly, the authorities at London’s European Space Research Centre decide the best way to recapture this intergalactic bit of totty is to bring in the SAS, a good indication of how in thrall the Brits were to those lionized elite soldiers in the 1980s. Hence, we get to meet the miscast Peter Firth as an SAS colonel, who spends the next ninety minutes going head to head with Railsback in trying to deliver the worst performance.
With a $25million budget, Lifeforce is a long way from most of Cannon’s cheapo productions. The special effects range from competent to really quite good (check out a groovy autopsy) while its restrained but intriguing opening in outer space gives little indication of the grand spectacle ahead. Bit by bit this straight-faced vampiric flick becomes mad, a bizarre and unpredictable slice of fast-paced hokum that I do believe I’m recommending. Penned by Alien writer Dan O’Bannon, it’s preferable to Ridley Scott’s woefully unsatisfactory Prometheus and more fun than that other piece of nudey space girl trash, Species.
In this one Chuck’s an ex-CIA operative living in Florida’s Everglades. He owns a pet armadillo, captures alligators and eats frogs. He loves his big truck and wears black gloves like a giallo killer. I think this is called characterization. On the macho front he out-jumps a rocket propelled grenade (again) and can squeeze a dude’s beer bottle-holding hand so hard the glass breaks. He tells one alleged hard man: “If you come back in here I’m gonna hit you with so many rights, you’re gonna beg for a left.”
We do our best to believe him.
Story wise, this is a typically ambitious Cannon effort. These guys rarely did subtlety but even so, this one really goes for it. A blonde Soviet terrorist Mikal Rostov (Richard Lynch) attempts his best Rutger Hauer impersonation while importing a load of trigger-happy international malcontents to attack the good ol’ US of A.
You tell me.
To be fair, Rostov attempts an explanation when he tells a henchman: “America has not been invaded by a foreign enemy in nearly 200 years. Look at them. Soft. Spineless. Decadent. They don’t even understand the nature of their own freedom or how we can use it against them. They are their own worst enemy.”
All right, but what is the terrorists’ ultimate goal? Is all this imminent mayhem just a Cold War grudge?
Anyhow, to hell with rational motivation and let’s get on with the action. I liked the bad guys coming ashore in their hundreds in landing craft akin to a reverse D-Day amphibious assault. I also loved them firing RPGs into tinsel-strewn suburban homes at Christmas time. This is as good a depiction of wanton slaughter and destruction as I’ve ever seen. It’s amazingly mean, kinda like that bonkers Halloween movie in which the baddies try to wipe out all the world’s children in one night.
Invasion USA has a thoroughly enjoyable first hour. There are cool scenes like a bunch of would-be assassins streaking across the wetlands in their airboats to kill Chuck. The main villain also does a pretty good job in that he likes to hurl screaming women out of windows and shoot men in the balls. And then spit on them. However, his intense rivalry with Chuck is never explained. “As long as he’s breathing, he’s a threat,” Rostov says before dreaming about his nemesis. Boy, these two really have a hard on for each other.
Invasion USA becomes increasingly daft, but my enjoyment level didn’t drop off too much. With its explosions, executions, car chases, tanks, helicopters, the National Guard, and a couple of dancing topless babes, this one checks a lot of boxes. There is one major disappointment in that the terrorists attempt but fail to blow up a church full of singing Christians. Better luck next time, fellahs.
Also, I didn’t care for the bolshie female news reporter who happens to be at not one, but three terror incidents as they kick off. I don’t think so. So she meets Chuck and keeps calling him ‘cowboy’. Not once does she grasp her redundancy. Listen, lady, this is a guy flick. Women are not required unless in a state of undress. You don’t do this so please piss off and allow the combatants to get on with blowing loadsa shit sky high.
As for Chuck, the way he gets out of (or defuses) dicey situations can only be explained by telepathy, divine guidance, sheer bloody luck or not giving a shit about a wildly implausible script. Not that he saves every life. Take the scene where he’s gazing upon the wreckage of a fairground and trying to look heavyhearted. “For every one I stop,” he says, “a hundred succeed.” It’s tricky not to notice that as an actor he barely uses the lower half of his face. He can’t communicate emotion. He appears to be feeling the same thing whether kicking someone in the face, saving a busload of children or signing up for another fitness equipment infomercial.
Perhaps one day we’ll learn Chuck Norris wasn’t actually human but rather some sort of bearded cyborg prototype.
Runaway Train (1985)
Three Oscar nods? For a Cannon film? And yet this action thriller managed just that, although it was a long way from being a runaway success at the box office.
Jon Voight stars as Manny, a psychopathic bank robber in an Alaskan maximum security prison who’s so tough the warden has welded him into his cell. He’s a man that ‘believes in nothing and is capable of anything’. However, a court order frees him from solitary and within two shakes of a lamb’s tail he’s busted out with a talkative, none too bright fellow convict, Buck (Eric Roberts). Unfortunately, they jump on a departing train (naughtily without a ticket) as its engineer keels over from a heart attack. How the fuck is the speeding choo-choo gonna be stopped now?
This is a tense, well-paced and professionally constructed flick built on a mostly solid script. The dialogue might be perfunctory, but it has good stunts, plenty of outdoor filming, a decent score, faces that fit, some nifty violence and none of Cannon’s usual faults. With its existentialist underpinnings, it’s also open to interpretation. Or as Manny says: “Win or lose? What’s the difference?”
This major box-office hit starts with Stallone gravelly intoning there’s a murder every 24 minutes in America and 250 rapes a day. Cripes, hope they don’t all happen on the same street.
Cobra’s tagline is one of the best in history: Crime is a disease. Meet the cure. Does the flick live up to such a juicy enticement? No, but nonetheless it’s a violent piece of breathless nonsense that’s worth a look. Its opening supermarket hostage siege holds no surprises whatsoever but, hey, this is Stallone during his action heyday. And so we get to see a shottie-wielding madman blow the shit out of the fresh fruit display before turning his weapon on warmer prey. How long before Sly turns up and wins everyone over with his sunny personality?
As it happens, about twenty-five seconds, because that’s all the cops spend negotiating with the gunman before one turns to the other and says: “Call the Cobra.” I don’t think I really need to detail what happens next, but it’s safe to say it doesn’t end in hugs and kisses.
Cobra feeds into the rightwing fantasy that only a decisive good man with a gun can stop an armed dirt bag. Anyone who objects to our hero’s unorthodox methods (that some might suggest wander into outright murder) is depicted as a bleeding heart half on the side of the perps. Or as Cobra later tells his boss: “As long as we have to play by these bullshit rules and the killer doesn’t, we’re gonna lose.” Cobra, in other words, is a dead ringer for Cannon’s earlier system-hating cop, 10 To Midnight’s Leo Kessler.
So what’s crawled up Lieutenant Marion Cobretti’s ass? Basically, the good people of LA are being terrorized by an ongoing series of murders that involves claw hammers, axes, knives and the odd supermarket shotgun blast. There’s an interesting idea here in that it’s not a serial killer’s work but rather an ‘army of killers’ on the rampage. They’re called The New World and want to reshape society by applying a bit of good ol’ fashioned social Darwinism. Shame this half-decent idea is fumbled, but that’s partly down to Cobra’s troubled post-production in which half an hour of footage was chopped. This results in a vague and confusing depiction of The New World. What these guys are about, how they recruit, their ethnicity, age and class (some wear suits and one’s a cop), the criteria for selecting victims, and their ultimate goals are all barely touched upon.
Instead we get some grimy assholes meeting in a warehouse, standing with feet apart while rhythmically clinking their double-headed axes together and… well, I’m not sure, but it seems to involve dementedly pursuing Brigitte Nielsen, our towering damsel in distress, to the ends of the Earth. Perhaps they’re psychics who knew how bad Beverly Hills Cop II was gonna be and were determined to prevent it ever coming into existence.
Anyway, at one point the leader does his best to put across the group’s perfectly reasonable philosophy by telling Cobra: “We are the hunters. We kill the weak so the strong survive. You can’t stop The New World. Your filthy society will never get rid of people like us. We are the future.”
And… that’s it.
So, in short, Cobra’s not a satisfying movie, despite its $25million budget. It’s better to try to enjoy its moments like a bewigged Nielsen posing with some nerdy robots during a fashion shoot; the wince-inducing squashing of a security guard; the killer’s knife, which is easily one of the nastiest fucking weapons you’ll see in the movies; an OTT car chase; a confrontational, by the book detective played by Andrew Robinson (whom you might remember as Scorpio from the vastly superior Dirty Harry) in a furrow-browed role who only exists to get slugged by our matchstick-chewing, no-nonsense hero; and the sweaty killer bellowing: “I want your eyes, pig!”
Stallone appears to be channeling a Faith-era George Michael throughout, especially the gay icon’s designer stubble, coiffed hair, dark shades, pointy boots, and pert, blue jeans-clad butt. At one point Sly even says: “You gotta have faith.” Disappointingly, his flat cap-wearing partner looks nothing like Andrew Ridgeley, pre or post-nose job. Plus, I enjoyed Nielsen inquiring, “Do you ever get involved?” to which our Wham! frontman, sorry, Cobra, replies: “With a woman?”
Not often women give Bronson the run around, but within the opening twenty minutes he’s been kicked in the balls by a would-be car thief, had his life threatened by a budding assassin and endured the humiliation of watching his estranged wife get her tits out to appreciative hoots in a downtown strip club. One of these disgruntled ladies even calls him a ‘snot-licking donkey fart’ and suggests he has a two-inch pecker.
In short, the disheveled, borderline alcoholic cop Jack Murphy (Bronson) is not having a good time. Having watched this contrived, badly written dreck, I know how he feels. There’s nothing hugely wrong with its preamble, which features a good pace and regular bursts of violence, but a few dreadful scenes around the half-hour mark rapidly drain plausibility. Then you start wondering if it’s turned into a comedy. After all, this is a Cannon flick. Saying that, there’s nothing remotely funny about the sidekick Murphy gets landed with. Kathleen Wilhoite’s performance is eye-gougingly irritating.
For the first hour Chuck Norris is barely in this flag-waver. Is that why I thought Delta Force’s first half is much better than its second?
As in Invasion USA, he plays a retired dude pulled back into combat by those naughty terrorists. This time they hijack an American passenger jet. For Cannon this is surprisingly well done, the well-directed scenario proving tense and compelling (although the score doesn’t help). Both Muslim terrorists give convincing performances, frightening a pregnant lady and pistol-whipping American ‘imperialist pigs’. They’re civilized, rational and articulate, yet committed, unstable and violent. The passengers, including a bunch of Jews and a concentration camp survivor, also do a good job, portrayed by the sort of folk (Shelley Winters, George Kennedy) who regularly turned up in those 70s disaster flicks. The pic touches upon German war guilt and international politics, only occasionally embarrassing itself through clunky dialogue.
However, the tension drains away when the hostages are split and ferried to other locations. I can understand the director’s decision to do this as it broadens the action, but it mainly results in losing the relationships it built up during the first hour.
Chuck and his beard now take center stage, demonstrating a penchant for smashing through windows or destroying things with a rocket and machine gun-equipped motorbike that belongs in a Bond flick. That grizzled old bastard Lee Marvin (Point Blank, Dirty Dozen, Prime Cut) is also along for the ride in his final role. Sure, he can play such army-boss-on-a-mission stuff in his sleep, but he still gets to kill a few baddies in a vaguely pleasing sign off.
Delta never reaches the nutsiness of Invasion, but I didn’t mind it. It’s weird, but Chuck doesn’t seem to be an essential ingredient in a Chuck Norris flick. I ‘get’ the appeal of Stallone and Arnie, but Mr. Norris could be replaced by any actor, preferably hirsute, with the ability to glower, wear black gloves and never cry.
The most intriguing aspect of his role here is the way he doesn’t go near a woman or even mention one in passing. Instead, he lives alone and only has eyes for a blonde, younger colleague. At the start of Delta Chuck runs back to a burning helicopter and (despite dire warnings) plunges in to save this guy’s life. How did he even know he was unaccounted for in the first place? Later he starts calling him Butch. “Watch your ass,” he tells him at one point. The only time Chuck threatens to become emotional is when Butch gets injured again, resulting in him rushing to his side, softly speaking and showing a much gentler side.
I have no further comment.
52 Pick-Up (1986)
Miracles do happen. Jesus did that walking on water stunt while Cannon managed to put out a flick or two with a consistent tone. Obviously, I’m more impressed with the latter.
Based on an Elmore Leonard novel, this one sees Roy Scheider knee-deep in porn, skag, strippers, murder and all-round aggro. He plays construction boss Harry Mitchell, a successful man enjoying an extra-marital fling with a young bit of skirt. Unfortunately, it’s not love and she’s setting him up. Harry is forced to watch an incriminating videotape, supplied by three memorably skuzzy blackmailers who happen to be a gay coward, a black sociopath and someone whom even Jesus couldn’t save.
Fair play, I enjoyed 52 Pick-Up. It builds smoothly, has some juicy exploitative elements, and a nice sense of unpredictability. Most of all, things play out in a natural manner.
Golan and Globus had already filmed Leonard’s book as The Ambassador (and completely changed it) two years earlier. Perhaps that’s why director John Frankenheimer was mercifully left unmolested to deliver a faithful version.
Street Smart (1987)
This is the one that got Morgan Freeman noticed. He plays a potty-mouthed, gold-toothed pimp facing a murder rap, a role that snagged his first Oscar nomination. I dunno why. Whenever he’s required to act tough, he badly fails. Look at the scene where he jams a broken bottle against a tart’s cheek as she pleads for him not to mark her face. “It’s not your face, bitch,” he snarls. “It’s my face. My tits and my ass.”
So there you go. Morgan Freeman has a whore’s tits and ass.
The talky plot, which is sparked by lackluster reporter Christopher Reeve writing a fabricated magazine story about a pimp, is hideously contrived. It just about does enough to keep you watching, but it’s easy to see why barely anyone bought a cinema ticket. Mysteriously R-rated, this one is in desperate need of that extra-special Cannon touch: namely, Freeman slipping on a ninja outfit, slicing up a couple of his misbehaving girls with a Samurai sword, and hurling their bloodied remains into outer space.
I’ve read some Bukowski. Stuff like Ham on Rye. He’s a good writer, one of those brainworms who’s capable of getting at the unvarnished truth. I also know a little about his life and the way he lived it. Compromise was not in his nature, a dedicated pisshead who drank so much that even his shits stank of liquor. I imagine if I had to live one day as the unapologetic fucker, I’d probably find religion the next.
Anyway, to Barfly, a semi-autobiographical flick in which Bukowski’s portrayed by his alter ego, Henry Chinaski (Mickey Rourke). Like his writing, this movie requires an appreciation for griminess and the outlaw spirit. Chinaski is unshaven, lank-haired and lives in a God-awful hotel room. He shuffles rather than walks and spends his days drinking, fighting, thieving and writing the odd page of prose. Obviously intelligent, articulate and filled with pithy, hard-earned wisdom, he has a peculiar sense of pride, if not a code. To put it another way, he does not bow to The Man. ‘Some people never go crazy,’ he writes. ‘What truly horrible lives they must live.’
Then he spies the damaged alcoholic Wanda (a deglamorized Faye Dunaway) sitting on a bar stool looking like ‘some kind of stressed goddess.’ Her first words? “I can’t stand people. I hate them.” It’s music to Chinaski’s ears, especially as he’s already been told by a barman that she’s crazy.
Barfly has a sprinkling of decent dialogue (“The last time you ever paid for a drink was the first time” and “Nobody in this neighborhood can swallow paste like I can”), but barring a few fights it lacks action and feels like a filmed play. It certainly wobbles more and more the longer it goes on, especially in the blackly comic scenes involving Chinaski’s neighbors, a pair of dismissive, wisecracking paramedics and an implausible book publisher. The supporting characters are undernourished. Rourke gives a mannered performance like he’s channeling Brando, but Chinaski’s furious honesty gives way to romantic pretentiousness. In the end, I don’t think Barfly adds up to a lot and I certainly prefer the grimy realism of Bukowski’s prose. If you want a more compelling take on alcoholism, try the nightmarish 2019 German effort, The Golden Glove. That one’s enough to drive you to drink.
Nothing illustrates Cannon’s insanity better than making a movie about arm-wrestling. You know, a ‘sport’ that has no variation whatsoever and might be over in half a second flat. Surely there’s no way such a motion picture can be any good?
Too bloody right.
Over the Top is an unbearably sappy family drama with a bad soundtrack, a lot of product placement and the usual Cannon implausibility. It’s one long life lesson in which we mainly learn you can beat a bigger, stronger guy at arm-wrestling by using mind over matter. And if that doesn’t work, then turning around your baseball cap definitely will.
Stallone is Lincoln Hawk, a mumbling, blue-collar trucker with a dying wife, an estranged kid, a hostile father-in-law, and an interest in making a bit of cash on the side through arm-wrestling. Five minutes later he’s somehow at the World Arm-Wrestling Championship in Las Vegas as a 20-1 outsider with his hideous kid alongside giving motivational advice. About the only chance this movie had was for Sly to inadvertently reverse his truck over his deeply irritating offspring within the first ten minutes.
All insane things must end and the Golan-Globus partnership finally crashed into a flaming ditch with an appropriate depiction of chaos in a post-apocalyptic action movie by the name of Cyborg.
What a shame this bellow-filled nonsense rarely raises a flicker of interest. I thought Van Damme was going to be an invincible, ass-kicking cyborg in some sort of belated Terminator cash-in/rip-off. That’s what I expect from Cannon. Instead the titular creature is a girl who’s barely in it. I know it’s unwise to expect much from the Muscles from Brussels, but here he alternates between being a long-haired doofus and a mopey avenger forever staring into space (although he does get to demonstrate how Jesus could have got off that cross if only the Son of God had some martial arts training).
What’s worse, even Cyborg’s fights are a snooze fest while the one-note bad guys look like they’ve just been thrown out of Twisted Sister. I’d tell you a bit more about the plot, but I can’t be bothered. Cyborg’s structure is bloody awful, resulting in a flatly directed, poorly edited film that’s constantly flicking back and forth in time. It’s like it’s got a sheet of glass in front of it, preventing you from falling into its world. I was so bored I was left wondering how women manage to shave their pits in such an electricity-free wasteland.
But that’s life, isn’t it? You want worthwhile things like Cannon to finish with a big glitzy hurrah (or even something fitting like a tit-filled biopic of Icarus) but instead you get a damp, Belgian-flavored squib.