Commando (1985, Mark L Lester)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

Commando

Watched: 6 October 2019
Format: A DVD I bought many years ago.
Seen before? Oh fuck yes. 

I first saw Commando soon after it was released on VHS. I was only about eight years old and was absolutely enraptured: it felt like the perfect film. I’ve rewatched it many times in the three decades or more since, always thoroughly enjoying it, so here are 10 reasons why this 80s action classic is so entertaining. Spoilers ahead…

1. Arnold Schwarzenegger
Commando presents Arnie in such a way that all the aspects of his carefully moulded Hollywood persona are contained in one character. The plot features plenty of action and violence, for example, which utilise his enormous muscular body and towering presence. (His first shot is a mission statement: he’s carrying a fucking tree.) The script also uses the kind of comedy that Schwarzenegger was developing film by film in the 1980s. His dialogue around this time often favoured deadpan, James Bond-style quips and puns, which pepper and enliven Commando, adding a self-aware edge to the macho storyline (‘Where’s Sully?’/‘I had to let him go…’). But there’s also a big change going on here too, one that’s very important in the context of Schwarzenegger’s career. John Matrix is arguably the actor’s first *normal* character. (Well, relatively speaking.) He’s not a Greek god, a prehistoric warrior or a cyborg from the future – the roles that had made Schwarzenegger’s name but which didn’t call for much emotional depth. Here, when we meet Matrix during the film’s opening credits, he’s a kindly single father living a life of pleasurable retirement. He takes daughter Jenny (Alyssa Milano, spirited) for ice cream and teaches her self-defence. We soon learn that he has a past as a stealthy military assassin, but – give him his due – Schwarzenegger never forgets that Matrix is a reluctant hero who just wants a quiet life…

2. The script
In fact, the only reason Matrix leaves his idyllic rural cabin and gets involved in the wider world is because Jenny is kidnapped by mercenaries. They then attempt to blackmail John into killing a Central American politician, which they hope will incite a fascist coup. But of course our hero is smarter than the bad guys. He gives his handlers the slip (by, you know, killing them) then ignores his mission and heads off to rescue his daughter… The fictional country at the centre of the plot, Val Verde, was later referenced in 1990’s Die Hard 2, which like Commando was written by Steven E de Souza. A writer whose style is full of attitude and momentum, de Souza was brought onto the project to rejig an existing script after Arnold Schwarzenegger had been cast. Commando might not be Shakespeare, but it’s not trying to be. It’s a sugar-rush, action-driven thriller, with stunts and spectacle as well as humour and humanity. It’s full-on and full-throttle, but the closer you look the more you also see a sense of playfulness. Far from spoof, it nevertheless has its tongue in its cheek.  

3. Rae Dawn Chong
John Matrix is on a mad dash to find Jenny before the bad guys realise he’s free, and he soon crosses paths with a woman called Cindy, played by Rae Dawn Chong. She’s an air stewardess whose sports car Matrix appropriates when he needs to give chase to the slimy henchman Sully. At first Matrix’s terrified hostage, Cindy then realises that this is a desperate man who needs her help and the pair become allies. (Extremely conveniently for the plot, she has been learning to pilot small aircraft, which comes in handy when Matrix learns that Jenny is being held on an island.) Playing the frustrated, sarcastic dialogue for all its worth, the actress lifts the character above the usual ‘female sidekick’ function and adds a huge amount of fun to the film, not least when she haphazardly uses a rocket-launcher to rescue Matrix from a temporary spell in police custody. Refreshingly, there’s no romance between the two leads. Why would there be, when Matrix is focused on saving his daughter’s life? (A sex scene was shot then wisely cut from the finished movie.)

4. The violence
The film’s opening scene is murder in suburbia. A middle-class couple are awoken one morning by the sound of a garbage truck, so the husband races outside to make sure they collect his bags. The two binmen then starkly gun him down in the street… We later see many more scenes of brutality: deaths, gunplay, stabbings, explosions, scalpings, dismemberments, a man plummeting down a cliff, a man being impaled on a pipe, and so on. (Some of the more extreme shots were trimmed out of the print originally released in the UK.) It’s the kind of ultra-violence you don’t get in this type of film any more. The 1980s saw savagery go alongside sass in many high-profile genre films, especially those starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was understood that adult audiences could decode fact from fiction, and take harmless pleasure from the cartoon action. But since then – for financial reasons – there’s been a split. The big-budget action successors to movies like Commando (the Avengers series, for example) are courting a wider age range of viewers so contain watered-down violence. It’s never too graphic, never too challenging. The really hard-core stuff, meanwhile, is mostly found in lower-profile films like John Wick and Drive. Times change; fashions shift; cinema evolves. Commando now feels old-fashioned but – if you’re of a certain age – in a brilliantly nostalgic way.

5. Vernon Wells
Every great action thriller needs an entertaining bad guy. And Commando has a beaut. A colleague of John Matrix’s from their old special-forces days, the thug Bennett is a moustachioed Australian dynamo of testosterone and arrogance. He dresses in a macho-gay outfit, all string vest and tight leather trousers, and comes off like some kind of sadistic Freddie Mercury. Bitter at his firing from the military (for being a nutjob), he teams up with Central American fascists and helps kidnap Matrix’s daughter; he even stages his own death to disguise his involvement. A thoroughly nasty piece of work, Bennett snarls and snarks and smirks his way through the movie. This is not a misunderstood character with a deep psychology: he’s just a shit. But actor Vernon Wells (Mad Max 2, Weird Science, Innerspace) knows that and plays up the campy villainy in such a gleeful way that you miss Bennett whenever he’s not on screen.

6. The other bad guys
Bennett is just one of a gaggle of entertaining foes in this film. The boss is pompous wannabe dictator Arius (Dan Hedaya), and like a Bond villain he has baroque underlings. The goons who try to coerce Matrix into flying to Val Verde, for example, include Cooke and Sully. The former is an ex-Green Beret (‘I eat Green Berets for breakfast!’ quips Matrix) and is played with a stern expression by Bill Duke, who co-starred again with Arnie in 1987’s Predator. The latter, meanwhile, is a slimy, suit-wearing 80s twat who thinks his seedy chat-up lines will work on Cindy. He’s played by David Patrick Kelly (The Warriors, 48 Hrs).

7. The director
When Mark L Lester got the Commando gig, his CV was a mixture of now-forgotten genre flicks, a roller-disco musical featuring Linda Blair, and the hit horror film Firestarter. Tasked with an Arnold Schwarzenegger action vehicle, he pushed all the dials up to 11. This is not a movie about nuance. Made today, Matrix would have a drinking problem or an estranged wife (Jenny’s mother is never mentioned), but Commando works so well because it’s stripped down to the essentials. There’s nothing but plot, action, humour and excitement. It might have cost $10 million to make, but it’s essentially and tonally an exploitation film; directed crisply and sharply, with lots of driving momentum and no flab to the storytelling. Lester understands the idiom so well, taking the story *just* seriously enough that it flies but never forgetting that this is an arch, escapist fantasy. He also provides us with plenty of vivid, well-chosen locations, such as the Californian woods where Matrix lives, a vibrant shopping mall (which was later used in another Arnie classic: Terminator 2), and Arius’s island compound (which was actually an estate built by the silent-movie star Harold Lloyd). The action sequences, meanwhile, often have a James Bond-style panache, whether it’s Schwarzenegger swinging across a food court or jumping off the undercarriage of a jumbo jet during take-off. Commando is 90 minutes long and packs a huge amount in.

8. The tooling-up scene
If one moment typifies both Commando as a whole, and Arnie’s mid-80s career generally, then it’s when Matrix has arrived on the small island where his daughter is being held prisoner. Cindy has flown them the two hours off the Californian coast in a seaplane, and now Matrix has come ashore in a dinghy loaded down with supplies. In a meticulously edited montage lasting 19 seconds, we see our hero ‘suit up’. He ties laces, clicks buckles, straps on guns, pockets ammunition, sheaths knives, cocks handguns, zips up his jacket, streaks war paint across his muscles and face, then strikes a pose like a superhero on the cover of a comic book. It’s a scene that adds little to the plot – all it’s saying is that Matrix has guns with him – but it’s hugely important on a more primal level. Psychologically – if that’s not too highfalutin a word to evoke when it comes to this film – we’re seeing Matrix prepare for the most important battle of his life. It’s pure ritual. (In 2007, this kind of tooling-up scene was spoofed with affection in Edgar Wright’s millimetre-perfect action comedy Hot Fuzz.)

9. The music
Commando’s score was written by James Horner, a man whose career was typified by exciting, vibrant and memorable work on films such as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Aliens, The Rocketeer, Sneakers, Patriot Games, Titanic and many more. Riffing on ideas he’d recently used in the cop film 48 Hrs, here his music is a joyous collision of electro sounds, sax gurgles and steel-drum melodies. (What do steel drums have to do with the plot of Commando? Nothing. They just sound cool.) The score drives the action and embellishes scenes with wit. As the credits roll at the end of the movie, with the bad guys vanquished and Jenny returned safely to her father, we also get to hear a rock song that was specially written for the film. Sadly, We Fight for Love by the supergroup The Power Station is one of those tracks you start to forget while it’s still playing.

10. The line
‘I’ll be back, Bennett,’ promises John Matrix when he’s being shipped off to Val Verde. As most viewers – both then and now – will have realised, this is a reprise of an especially memorable line of dialogue from The Terminator. In fact, it’s the *first* reprise of ‘I’ll be back’ – and it would be far from the last. The line has since been repeated or referenced in many other Arnie movies: all the subsequent Terminators, Raw Deal, The Running Man, Twins, Total Recall, Kindergarten Cop, Last Action Hero, Junior, Eraser, The 6th Day, The Expendables 2… But here is where ‘I’ll be back’ evolved from a quotable bit of one movie and became a Schwarzenegger-specific catchphrase.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘I was riding the great wave of action movies, a whole new genre that was exploding during this time. Stallone started it with the Rocky movies. In the original Rocky, in 1976, he’d looked like just a regular fighter. But in Rocky II, he had a much better body. His Rambo movies, the first two especially, also had a giant impact. My 1985 movie Commando continued the trend, coming out in the same year as the second Rambo and Rocky IV. Then The Terminator and Predator expanded the genre by adding sci-fi dimensions. Some of these movies were critically acclaimed, and all of them made so much money that the studios could no longer write them off as just B movies. They became as important to the 1980s as Westerns were in the 1950s.’

Ten promises to kill you last out of 10

Next: The Terminator

Shazam! (2019, David F Sandberg)

Shazam!

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A foster child is given magical powers by an ancient wizard – and now has the ability to switch into an adult superhero persona…

Like a TV interview done over a live satellite link-up, there has sometimes been a delay with the DC series of superhero movies. They’ve often seemed like they’re lagging behind the rival Marvel Cinematic Universe, with DC movies coming off as reactions to MCU successes. For example, 2019’s Shazam! sees the franchise attempt the comedic and youthful tone already seen in Marvel’s Spider-Man films. But there is a key difference. Despite its 12-certificate rating from the BBFC (‘Moderate violence, threat, horror, innuendo, bleeped strong language’), Shazam! is essentially an old-fashioned kids film.

Before the cheeky sense of humour used for most of the runtime, we do actually start with the kind of dark, sombre, taking-itself-seriously mood that dogged some earlier DC movies. In the 1970s, a young boy called Thaddeus Sivana encounters the mysterious, cave-dwelling wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou, who played a different role in DC’s Aquaman). Shazam is searching for a worthy successor to take over his role of… protecting goodness or something? Being a champion against evil? Something nebulous like that. Anyway, Thad is swiftly rejected because Shazam realises the lad is tempted by evil and corruption.

Cut to 45 years later, in Philadelphia, and we’re introduced to a much more likeable young boy: 14-year-old foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel). We first see him conning a pair of cops so he can hack into their computer and search for his long-estranged birth mother. It’s economic storytelling, quickly demonstrating that he’s both street-smart and troubled. When the authorities catch up with him, he’s then placed with a new foster family: a diverse bunch of kooky kids, each with their own easily sketched personality, and all overseen by a kindly, laid-back couple called Victor and Rosa.

Meanwhile, the superhero element of the plot kicks off when Billy too has a dreamlike encounter with Shazam (does this wizard have an especial fondness for puberty-age boys or something?). Billy is more successful than Thad, though, and before you can say rushed and arbitrary origin story, he has been endowed with special abilities – the most notable of which is that he can switch instantly from an innocent-looking teenager to an muscular adult superhero who wears a cape. The alter ego is played by Zachary Levi from TV comedy Chuck.

The film comes alive as Billy rather haphazardly road-tests his new powers. Initially, the only other person who knows his secret is his new foster brother Freddy (an impressive Jack Dylan Grazer). He’s a disabled wiseass who acts as both Billy’s comedy sidekick and his conscious when Billy gets too big for his new superhero boots. Together they experiment, trying out which abilities the grown-up Billy has – flight, invisibility, shooting lightening bolts out of the fingers, hyper-speed, super-strength… and buying beer underage. The scenes are largely played for laughs and some are scored by Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now. It’s zippy and playful wish-fulfilment stuff, and the events of previous DC films are used smartly to explain why Billy and Freddy are aware of superhero cliches.

But after a while you do start to wonder what it all means. It’s a bit empty, a bit too flippant. We’ve already had a setup where our lead character is essentially chosen for greatness at random and then the story throws up a spectacularly vague threat. Mark Strong plays the grown-up Thaddeus, who now has an obsession with rediscovering the mysterious Shazam and claiming his power. He’s a blood-and-thunder character with a frown standing in for any emotion, daddy issues instead of any compelling motivation, and the plot is a fairly standard taking-on-the-bullies narrative we’ve seen countless times before.

There is more substance, thankfully, in the subplot about Billy’s search for his mother, which is a storyline that throws in a couple of unorthodox beats and adds a bit of heart. It’s also in the film’s favour that they’ve cast age-appropriate kids, rather than the 20-somethings we’re used to seeing as youngsters in John Hughes movies or the various recent Spider-Man tellings. The central idea of the lead character being played by two actors is a very fine needle to thread; we have to believe in both versions individually and as a pair. Casting actors with an age gap of 22 years certainly helps (imagine if the ‘young’ Billy actually looked about 25?!), but it’s got to be said that you never really buy the idea that they’re playing the same person. The performances are just too different, and Zachary Levi in particular pushes his wide-eyed wonder and goofiness over into irritating.

An obvious comparison here is with the 1988 comedy drama Big, which starred Tom Hanks as the adult version of a boy magically aged by a wizard. (Well, in Big’s case, the wizard is a mechanical, wish-granting vending machine.) Shazam! even contains a sly reference to the earlier film when characters run across oversized piano keys in a department store. But one of the reasons why Big was more successful is that lead character Josh Baskin only switches bodies twice: from 12-year-old to seemingly adult, then much later back again. Shazam!’s repeated flicking between the two actors gets in the way of Billy popping through enough. It never really feels like *his* story. We never fully invest in him.

What Shazam! does feel like, though, is a children’s film with modern superhero trappings. There are big action sequences and lots of CGI and tie-ins with other movies, but at its heart this movie has more in common with, say, Flight of the Navigator or Honey I Shrunk the Kids. The violence is never too harsh; the danger is never too intense; there are reassuringly dependable parent characters. Children embark on fantastical adventures, outsmart some grown-ups, and get the better of some rather tame school bullies. There’s slapstick and silliness alongside moral lessons. Many, many people – including previous blogs on this website – have criticised the DC film series for being po-faced and overly grim and laughably pretentious. Shazam! redresses the balance by going so far the other way that, while having some charm, the film ends up feeling too small. Too unambitious. Too low-key. Not Big enough.

Six walkie-talkies out of 10

The Expendables (2010, Sylvester Stallone)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

TheExpendables

Watched: 6 October 2019
Format: A DVD bought from the Rochester, Kent, branch of Oxfam.
Seen before? Yes, on TV a few years ago.

Review: Featuring a cast of grizzled, ageing action stars, this rather laughable film pays homage to the tough-guy movies of the 1970s and 80s – both top-end fare such as Commando and First Blood, and the kind of exploitation knock-offs like Missing in Action and Invasion USA. It’s headlined by Rambo himself, Sylvester Stallone, who also co-wrote the script and directed this first instalment of what became a trilogy. Assisting him are old war horses such as Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke and Jet Li as they take on Eric Roberts’s bad guy. It’s a midlife-crisis Ocean’s 11, with the comparatively fresh-faced Jason Statham as the Brad Pitt to Stallone’s George Clooney.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s involvement is minimal (just one day’s filming, actually). Early on, lead character Barney Ross (Stallone) is hired for a dangerous mission by a shadowy man known only as Mr Church – so named because that’s where, for some reason, their meeting takes place. Mr Church is played by Bruce Willis, but before he and Ross get down to business they have to wait for the arrival of a third party. Right on cue, Trench Mauser – an old adversary of Ross’s – walks in. Schwarzenegger’s entrance into the scene of course means that the three most famous backers of the restaurant chain Planet Hollywood are in the same room. It’s quite a collision of movie stars, but cinematographer Jeffrey Kimball doesn’t seem keen to frame more than two of them at the same time. (You wonder if Willis shot his coverage separately.)

Quite why Mauser shows up at all is a bit of a mystery. He stays less than two minutes and is happy to let Ross take the gig on offer because he’s too busy to do it himself. When Mr Church wonders why, Ross says, ‘He want to be president.’ This in-joke references the fact that Schwarzenegger was still the 38th Governor of California when this film was made. The US Constitution actually barred him from going one step up the political ladder, because to be President you must have been born in the United States, but Arnie was then lobbying for a change to the law.

Compared to the stories it’s evoking, The Expendables is stunningly lacking in any irony or flair. As violent and harsh as some of those old movies could be, there was often some substance, some self-awareness or a heightened sense of popcorn entertainment. Here, though, we get ludicrous macho posturing; videogame-style fight scenes edited to within an inch of their stunt doubles; a grimy, dour colour palette; and earnest actors taking themselves seriously as they wade through a humourless storyline about mercenaries hired to destabilise a crackpot dictator on a fictional Central American island. An interesting comparison can be made with the rival Fast and Furious series, which also gives us overblown action and tough-guy characters – but does it with a knowing smirk.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Humor was what made me stand out from other action leads like Stallone, [Clint] Eastwood, and [Chuck] Norris. My characters were always a little tongue in cheek, and I always threw in funny one-liners.’

Five half-ass governments out of 10

Next: Commando

Horror Marathon: Leprechaun

Over the last few months I’ve watched all eight movies in the beyond-bizarre horror series Leprechaun. They have a dreadful reputation and I wasn’t expecting them to be anything special, but it was still a shock just how appalling most of these films are.

Here’s my journey into darkness. Happy St Patrick’s Day, everyone…

1. Leprechaun (1993, Mark Jones)
A father and daughter travel to a cabin in the countryside, where they encounter a recently revived leprechaun…

Screenshot 2019-05-19 15.51.20

Often described as a ‘comedy horror’, this rotten piece of B-movie trash is not much of either. What it does have is a mish-mash of Emerald Isle cliches – pots of gold, rainbows, wells, four-leaf clovers and drunks – thrown into a standard horror-movie set-up. Bratty teen Tory (Jennifer Aniston, just a year or so before Friends superstardom) travels with her father out to the sticks for some time away from the big city. There, doing up their cabin, are a trio of handymen – a hot one, a grown man who talks like a child, and a child who talks like a grown man. Soon, due to an accident, a 600-year-old leprechaun is released from a wooden crate he was trapped inside due to a curse and he begins to rather tamely terrorise them… The leprechaun is played by Warwick Davis (Return of the Jedi, Willow) and he’s clearly having some fun with the role, which is a Freddy Krueger-style quipster. But the script is abysmal and the direction does it no favours – you’re never quite sure if the film knows how ludicrous its concept is. Aside from Davis, the not-bad incidental music, a spirited Aniston and occasional goofy gags, there’s not much to enjoy.
Four boxes of Lucky Clover breakfast cereal out of 10

2. Leprechaun 2 (1994, Rodman Flender)
In 1990s LA, the Leprechaun is intent on finding himself a new bride – so targets a descendant of his former slave…

Screenshot 2019-06-01 15.07.36

Other than Warwick Davis’s title character, this dreary sequel contains no reference to the first movie. We begin in 10th-century Ireland, on St Patrick’s Day, which is the Leprechaun’s 1,000th birthday. (So we’re immediately contradicting the first film’s timeline.) He’s trying to ensnare a bride but his enthralled slave – who happens to be the target’s father – scuppers his plan, so he instead curses the whole family in perpetuity. A thousand years later, the Leprechaun is resurrected in LA. Still keen on finding a young, blonde, pretty bride (aren’t we all?), he goes after a dippy woman called Bridget (Shevonne Durkin). Her boyfriend, Cody (Charlie Heath), is a tour guide trying to deal with a drunken schemer of an uncle – so much so that after Bridget is kidnapped and held prisoner, both he and the film seem to forget about her plight for a while… The cast is mostly dreadful, aside from Davis and Seinfeld’s Sandy Baron as Uncle Morty, and the story beyond terrible. Not even some comic gore – such as a risible scene where a teenage boy is tricked into kissing the moving blades of a lawnmower because he thinks they’re Bridget’s naked breasts (!) – can rescue an exceedingly drab horror film.
Two sacred vows of the wee people out of 10

3. Leprechaun 3 (1995, Brian Trenchard–Smith)
On the loose in Las Vegas, the Leprechaun searches for a lost gold shilling…

Screenshot 2019-06-08 17.33.29

The first straight-to-video film in the series has tame scares, crummy gore, and a meandering, focus-free plot about a wish-granting coin, a casino boss, loan sharks who think they’re in Get Shorty, and a desperate stage magician. The story plays out in Las Vegas and our two lead characters are a pair of new friends called Tammy (Lee Anderson) and Scott (John Gatins). You can’t claim the film is taking itself too seriously. Director Brian Trenchard-Smith allows a lot of goofy humour and Warwick Davis has said this is his favourite Leprechaun movie because of the comedy. But *some* truth or drama might have been a help. It’s a film so bad, so risible, so loose and so undisciplined that it almost creeps over into some kind of conceptual art. How can a movie exist with such little tension or substance? However, the increasing amounts of sleaze and misogyny mean you can’t even enjoy the movie for camp or kitsch reasons. It’s 89 minutes and feels far longer.
One Elvis impersonator out of 10

4. Leprechaun 4: In Space (1997, Brian Trenchard-Smith)
A century into the future, the Leprechaun is attempting to wed a princess so he can take over her planet – but then a group of space marines show up, intent on killing him…

Screenshot 2019-06-15 20.02.05

A horror franchise resorting to an ‘in space’ story is not unique. Hellraiser: Bloodline, released the year before this Leprechaun film, had taken Pinhead onto a space station in the year 2127. In 2001, the tenth Friday the 13th movie, a pulpy romp called Jason X, resurrected its killer on a space ship in 2455. So Leprechaun 4: In Space is part of a minor tradition. Before you can say, ‘Aliens‘, a gang of rough space marines are on a search-and-destroy mission and are joined by a woman they don’t respect (Jessica Collins’s Dr Tina Reeves). Their quarry is the Leprechaun (Warwick Davis), who is inexplicably in the year 2096 and attempting to marry a distant planet’s princess so he can take over her kingdom. (The princess is played by New Zealand actress Rebekah Carlton and her odd-couple double act with Davis is one of the film’s few highlights.) Meanwhile, Guy Siner (Gruber from 1980s BBC sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo) hams it up something foul as a loopy Germanic scientist. The movie merges lame horror (which is never tense) with crass comedy (which is never funny). As events unfold, we also get the Leprechaun using a green lightsabre (a cheeky reference to Return of the Jedi – which Davis starred in, of course) plus a scene where the Leprechaun has possessed a soldier and then bursts out of his body via his penis (an obvious Alien reference). Add in body horror, cross-dressing, tit-flashing, Yamaha keyboard incidental music and primitive CGI, and it’s all just shockingly terrible. It also has virtually nothing to do with the Leprechaun myth. But at least it’s not boring.
Three mineral rights (and that’s net not gross, no bonus) out of 10

5. Leprechaun in the Hood (2000, Rob Spera)
A young budding rap star and his friends accidentally awaken the Leprechaun when they steal a magic flute from a music promoter…

Leprechaun in the Hood

Just when you think this franchise can’t get any more gob-smackingly turgid… After a 1970s-set prologue in which a character played by Ice-T in an Afro wig discovers the Leprechaun trapped in a statue, we cut to 20 years later. Mack Daddy is now a music mogul, who signs a young rapper called Postmaster P (future Star Trek: Enterprise star Anthony Montgomery). He has that name because, unlike many other rap stars, he delivers a positive message – but Mack then drops him when he’s reluctant to be more lyrically aggressive. In order to get back at him, Postmaster P and his hangers-on break into Mack’s office to steal his prized magical flute. (No, honestly.) But in doing so, they awaken the malevolent Leprechaun… This appallingly directed, sloppily written dross is full of blunt dialogue delivered in direct-to-video close-ups. It’s also loaded to the point of collapse with black-culture stereotypes and clichés: incidental music that sounds like the theme from Shaft, lots of uses of the N-word, an obsession with spliffs, a reference to Martin Luther King, mentions of bitches and hoes, a cantankerous granny character, an evangelical church scene and a cameo from Coolio. It’s also the second Leprechaun film in a row to attempt to wring laughter by mocking crossdressing. We then end with a music video showing the Leprechaun rapping in a nightclub surrounding by vacant-eyed dancers.
One “Smack your bitch up, shoot your motherfucking homeboy in the face”-type shit out of 10

6. Leprechaun Back 2 tha Hood (2003, Steven Ayromlooi)
When a group of friends discover the Leprechaun’s stash of gold coins, he’s awoken from his hibernation and attempts to kill all those who have acquired them…

Screenshot 2019-07-06 18.50.58

An animated prologue effectively returns us to the Dark Ages/fairy-tale context that had been abandoned in the more recent sequels. (Although, the map of the British Isles involved in telling the backstory is… missing the island of Ireland!) Then the bulk of the movie takes place in modern-day downtown LA: a group of young friends are dreaming of better lives but are being terrorised by local gangs. When the likeable Emily (Tangi Miller) finds an ancient chest containing gold coins (which glow on people’s faces, a la the briefcase in Pulp Fiction), she generously shares the wealth around with her pals. However, Warwick Davis’s Leprechaun has been awoken and begins to hunt down the coins, killing anyone who has ‘stolen’ one… Back 2 the Hood is certainly a poor film. However, because it features characters with a *bit* of depth to them, it’s not as bucket-fillingly pukeful as some of the previous movies. It also remembers that this series is meant to be *both* horror and comedy: so next to a funny scene that deconstructs the use of the N-word is some enjoyably graphic violence.
Five beached whales out of 10

7. Leprechaun: Origins (2014, Mark Lipovsky)
Four American friends run into trouble during a day trip in rural Ireland…

Leprechaun Origins

This reboot of the series abandons any comedy and replaces it with dreary torture-porn. It’s six of one, half a dozen of another whether this makes it worse, but it certainly makes it tedious. A group of naïve American students (Stephanie Bennett, Andrew Dunbar, Star Trek Beyond‘s Melissa Roxburgh and Brendan Fletcher) are on holiday in the Republic of Ireland and visit a village with some interesting Celtic standing stones. When they get chatting to a man in a pub, he offers to show them some local culture and – nothing suspicious here! – drives them into the countryside and locks them in a cabin with no electricity. Obviously, they’re soon being attacked by the Leprechaun. However, it’s not the Leprechaun we’ve been watching for the previous six films. Warwick Davis has departed; so has the idea that the Leprechaun is a quipping trickster character. Now he’s a savage monster, more like the creature in the movie Alien, and all he seemingly wants is to murder the tourists violently. Nothing that happens in this film is interesting or engaging. You also have to contend with Irish accents that veer all over the place.
Two lucky charms out of 10

8. Leprechaun Returns (2018, Steven Kostanski)
The daughter of Tory from the first film visits the same house in the countryside to help renovate it – but the Leprechaun is soon resurrected…

LeprechaunReturns

This made-for-TV sequel is one of those modern sequels that ignore all the previous sequels. Lila (Taylor Spreitler from US sitcom Melissa & Joey) is the daughter of the Jennifer Aniston character from the 1993 original. As part of a sorority project, she visits the same rural cabin from that movie, but – GUESS WHAT! – the Leprechaun is soon awakened and starts his normal brand of low-urgency terror. Warwick Davis declined the chance to play the eponymous villain again, so Linden Porco has taken over (and is doing a fairly accurate recreation), while Mark Holton from the first film reprises his minor character of Ozzie. It’s a surprisingly watchable conclusion to one of the limpest horror franchises going. Spreitler is a really good lead (strong, brave, clever, funny), while there’s some inventive gore and the whole thing is directed more confidently than any other entry in the series. What’s most impressive is the tone, which steadily gets both funnier and more horrific the longer the movie goes on. By the last third, it’s close to the arch, baroque energy of Evil Dead II.
Seven solar panels out of 10

The 6th Day (2000, Roger Spottiswoode)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

The6thDay

Watched: 4 October 2019
Format: A DVD bought in a branch of CEX in Woolwich, south-east London.
Seen before? No.

Review: Let’s start with the positives… This film, which was released 20 years ago, accurately predicts a lot of recent developments. We’re never told in which year the story takes place, other than it being ‘sooner than you think’, but we could be in 2020 given the instances of driverless cars, SatNavs, FaceTime chats, people rudely forcing others to listen to their FaceTime chats, obtrusive and targeted advertising, and Alexa-style AIs in the home… It’s a shame that so much else in the film is wide of the mark.

In the years before our plot begins, the US has passed Sixth Days Laws banning the science of human cloning. (Cloning other animals is allowed, in part because religious groups are less concerned with scientists meddling with the souls of pets.) Arnold Schwarzenegger – slipping inelegantly down the backslide of the action-movie phase of his career – plays Adam Gibson, a charter helicopter pilot. After a brief encounter with a cloning billionaire called Michael Drucker, Adam’s life is thrown into turmoil when he returns home to find a clone imposter of himself playing the role of father and husband. Our Adam must go on the run, chased by operatives of Drucker’s, to find out why he’s been replaced. His quest eventually leads to an encounter with the replacement Adam, and scenes featuring two Arnold Schwarzeneggers must surely have been a major selling point during this film’s pitch meetings. Then with the hollow, leaden clank of tiresome inevitability comes the most obvious plot twist you could possible have in a story about a man who discovers he’s been replaced by a duplicate.

The movie is directed by Roger Spottiswoode, who a few years earlier had a hit-and-miss experience working on the James Bond series. Despite its flaws, however, Tomorrow Never Dies had far more hits than the misfiring The 6th Day. This is a terrible film. A thriller with no thrills, it features an action plot that fails to hit home, comedy that stinks the scenes up, stakes that never seem that high, violence and sexual content that feels like it’s been neutered in post-production, and the kind of flashy editing that makes you want to chew off your own head. The script and Spottiswoode’s staging also seem tone-deaf to plausibility. This manifests itself in minor moments such as when a doctor declares a star sportsman paralysed *within earshot of his fans*, or major story points such as when a clone casually disregards his love for his family.

There’s also a huge central flaw. At the time of The 6th Day’s development, cloning was a big story. Dolly the sheep, the first mammal to be cloned, had been born in July 1996 and revealed to the world a year later. (By the way, she was cloned from cells taken from an adult sheep’s mammary gland – so the name Dolly was a jokey reference to Dolly Parton.) Fears about the implications of this new science, especially from religious groups, was front-page news for a short while. But in its attempt to ‘sci-fi up’ the concept, The 6th Day combines the real science of cloning bodies with the gobbledegook drivel of transferring a human being’s entire personality across from one body to another. In reality, a clone – while genetically identical to a previous animal – is still a unique life form. In the cod world of The 6th Day, cloning equals a kind of Frankenstein resurrection of the dead. It should have stayed on the slab.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘In mid-February, when we were in late-night negotiations [during Schwarzenegger’s time as a Governor of California], sometimes I would remind myself that this was nothing compared to being up to my neck in freezing jungle mud in Predator or driving a Cadillac down stairs in The 6th Day.’

Three SimPals out of 10

Next: The Expendables

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (2019, Mike Mitchell)

LegoMovie2

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Various heroes including Batman must team up after an invasion by the Duplo aliens results in the Lego world of Bricksburg being turned into a post-apocalyptic wasteland…

After the pop-art explosion of joy that was the first Lego Movie, and a still-enjoyable spin-off film that centred on Batman, events turn darker in The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part. This is a film about annihilation and invasion… albeit told through the franchise’s kid-friendly storytelling means of relentless jokes, bold colours and frenetic cutting.

We mention the film on this blog, of course, because of the inclusion of Batman. Again voiced by Will Arnett and again a lot of fun, Bats gets swept along on another adventure and is given plenty more self-referential gags to aim at the adults in the audience, mostly revolving around his laconic loneliness and arrogance. ‘How many movies have they made about you?’ he bitterly asks the Elizabeth Banks-voiced Wildstyle at one point. ‘Because there are, like, nine about me and, like, three others in various stages of development.’

This is the fourth Lego-based film in five years – there was also a Ninjago-based entry in 2017, without Batman – so the immediate impact has dulled and there’s a sense of seen-it-before. But this still contains thrillingly inventive, Mad Max-style action sequences slammed up against messages of positivity and inclusivity. A kaleidoscope of cultural references fills the frame and the stiletto-sharp animation is again a wonder to behold. You have to admire it for its sheer, unapologetic, full-on energy, even if some of the awesomeness from the 2014 original has begun to wear off now.

Seven catchy songs out of 10

REDUX REVIEW: Predator (1987, John McTiernan)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

Predator

Watched: 28 September 2019
Format: A second-hand DVD found by my friend who works in the St Christopher’s Hospice charity shop in Sydenham, south-east London.
Seen before? Yes, when it was first released on VHS and a few times since.

Note: I have already reviewed Predator on this website. I wrote about it in 2016 when I considered all the Alien and Predator movies as if they were part of the same series. You can check out my original Predator blog here, while this piece will focus on the film’s star.

Review: Before he was an actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a bodybuilder. A childhood liking for sports led to a teenage fascination with physical training, and while completing his Austrian national service in 1965 he actually went AWOL in order to attend a bodybuilding competition. (He subsequently served a short spell in the cells.) Titles such as Mr Universe and Mr Olympia followed, the latter seven times between 1970 and 1980. Schwarzenegger’s global fame began to grow.

At the 1975 Mr Olympia championships in South Africa, in fact, Arnie’s experiences were documented by a film crew and the resulting feature, 1977’s Pumping Iron, went a huge way in popularising both the sport and its most notable competitor. (It also boosted the career of Schwarzenegger’s rival Lou Ferrigno, who was soon cast as the title character in the TV show The Incredible Hulk.) Having appeared in some small films and a major Robert Altman movie, Schwarzenegger now shifted focus to an acting career…

He’s far from the only Hollywood performer to have transferred into the profession from elsewhere, and indeed there’s been a constant stream of action stars who were known in other fields first: swimmer Johnny Weissmuller and diver Jason Statham, footballer Vinnie Jones and gridiron player Fred Williamson, fighters Steven Seagal, Bruce Lee, Gina Carano, Hulk Hogan, Chuck Norris and Jean Claude Van Damme, drummer Luke Goss… The 1987 jungle-mission movie Predator actually has a trio of them. Supporting Schwarzenegger in the cast are ex-NFL player Carl Weathers and pro-wrestler Jesse Ventura.

But there’s something different about Arnie, something that distinguishes him from all the others. It’s not his acting, which even by the time of Predator (his 12th movie) was still flat and unconvincing. (Carl Weathers, conversely, makes you believe in his character totally.) No, it’s that indefinable X factor: star power. In Predator, for example, Schwarzenegger’s performance is in no danger of being confused with Robert De Niro. The appeal and success of Major Dutch Schaefer as a character is not in the delivery of the dialogue or an ability to convey hidden meaning. It’s in the sheer charisma, the panache; the way Schwarzenegger lights up a cigar or arm-wrestles with a colleague or smirks in the face of adversity. It’s physical, visceral, primal, even a bit sexual. (Predator is loaded with homoerotic visuals.) By 1987, with hits such as Conan the Barbarian and The Terminator behind him, Schwarzenegger was a huge draw who commanded a salary of $3 million. People liked him and there was patently something special going on in these films. Something that still defies reasoned analysis. Simply put, they were *cool*. So was their star.

And while Predator has its flaws – see my earlier review for a more detailed discussion – it’s still a well-staged and exciting action movie. Having enjoyed seeing it again, in fact, I think that my 2016 review was a touch harsh in scoring it seven out of 10. Let’s boost that up by one here.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Predator was more of an ordeal than a pleasure to make. There were all the hardships you’d expect in a jungle: leeches, sucking mud, poisonous snakes, and stifling humidity and heat… [Director John] McTiernan turned out to have been a great choice, and you could see from Die Hard the next year that his success with Predator was no fluke.’

Eight ugly motherfuckers out of 10

Next: The 6th Day

Rambo: Last Blood (2019, Adrian Grunberg)

LastBlood

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While living on a peaceful farm in Arizona, John Rambo learns that his friend’s granddaughter has gone missing in Mexico, so he crosses the border to search for her…  

What does Stallone do? He co-wrote the script and plays John Rambo for a fifth time. Well… Sort of. He’s certainly credited as playing John Rambo for a fifth time. In truth, the writing is so indistinctive that the lead character might as well be called Generic Geriatric Action Hero (a point that’s also been made by David Morrell, the writer of the novel that introduced Rambo to the world). With a face that’s not so much granite as landslide, Stallone limps through the film with a permanent scowl and a sense that he’d rather be somewhere else. John Rambo’s never been an upbeat man, but this sinks to new strata of tedium… It’s been 11 years since we last saw our hero. He’s now living a sedate life with a platonic friend and her granddaughter, Gabriela, who he dotes on like she’s his own. But he’s still haunted by flashbacks of his Vietnam War stint and has taken to building elaborate systems of tunnels underneath his farm, where he likes to hide away from the world. When Gabriela then secretly heads to Mexico to search for her deadbeat father – and subsequently doesn’t return – John drives south to look for her…

Other main characters:
* Maria Beltran (Adriana Barraza) is the matriarch-like friend who John now lives with.
* Gabriela (Yvette Monreal) has been pining after her long-skedaddled father, for reasons that passeth understanding. Both John and her gran tell her that he’s a waste of space who abandoned her, and she has few clear memories of him, but the old storytelling crutch of a parental pull is being used here. When she arrives in the kind of Mexico that Hollywood films seem to love – muted colours, lots of scenes at night, deprivation, poverty, music – she finds her dad, Miguel (Rick Zingale). He’s a twat who tells her she’s hot but otherwise doesn’t want to know. She’s then at a nightclub when a local sleazo spikes her drink. She wakes up as a prisoner of a crime gang and forced into prostitution.
* Hugo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and Victor Martinez (Óscar Jaenada) are the local gangsters who hold various young women hostage as enforced prostitutes. Like most successful crime lords in these types of films, they’re also whackjobs with short tempers. Of course they are.
* Carmen Delgado (Paz Vega) is a woman who comes to John’s aid after he confronts the Martinez brothers and has the shit kicked out of him. A journalist investigating the Martinez drug cartel, she offers help without ever feeling like anything other than a plot device.

Key scene: Last Blood’s critical reaction has featured many mentions of its gore and violence. It’s easy to see why. In the final third of the film, John deliberately provokes the Martinezes into coming after him, then holes up in his tunnels. He prepares a number of traps and weapons, all the better for picking off the pesky Mexican bad guys one by one in a variety of gruesome ways. Heads are cleaved, legs are chopped off, bodies are pierced. But rather than any shock value, the sequence is just *boring*.

Review: This is a hopelessly tired, sluggish movie, always quick to go for the easy option and always keen to be obvious. Hackneyed stereotypes practically trip over each other as a simple-beyond-belief plot is played out with leaden, lumpy crassness. We’re a very long way from the character study and subtexts of the original Rambo film.

One cross carved into your cheek out of 10

The Long Goodbye (1973, Robert Altman)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

TheLongGoodbye

Watched: 22 September 2019
Format: A DVD found in a great little shop called Music & Video Exchange in Greenwich, south-east London. Its basement of secondhand DVDs is an absolute treasure trove.
Seen before? Yes, when I was at university, though I didn’t remember much.

Review: Released the year before Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, The Long Goodbye is a similarly revisionist film-noir. It’s a movie that is aware of the genre’s clichés – a cynical private detective, a convoluted case, a parade of oddball characters – but it’s willing to subvert and mock as well as celebrate them. We’re in the modern day of 1973. Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe is a perma-smoking, sarcastic and drily laid-back private eye who becomes embroiled in at least two mysterious cases, neither of which he fully understands. Bad guys are searching for some missing money, while a writer’s wife is searching for her missing husband. The fact we all know that these two strands will eventually intertwine is part of the fun. There are also assorted diversions along the way such as a hungry cat, yoga-loving hippies, frustrated cops, the sinister manager of a dry-out clinic, and a recurring piece of lounge music. 

The film is directed by Robert Altman in his idiosyncratic style – a drifting camera, long lenses, slow zooms, low-level lighting, an unpolished sound mix, a mixture of toughness and humour. Like much of his work, the storytelling also veers from the sharp and vital to the loose and meandering. Meanwhile, the script – which is more or less based on  Raymond Chandler’s original story – is by Leigh Brackett. She was a woman with superb film-noir credentials, having co-written Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep, a 1946 mystery film that brought new meaning to the word labyrinthine. (She also later wrote an early draft of The Empire Strikes Back.) Partly a satire, partly an exercise in style, and mostly an examination of existential angst, The Long Goodbye is a marvellously enjoyable experience. But where does Arnold Schwarzenegger come into it?

In 1973, he was a bodybuilder in the middle of a five-year reign as Mr Olympia, essentially making him the best bodybuilder in the world. But, ever ambitious, he was already keen on a movie career. The Long Goodbye was his second film, and in some ways it was a comedown. After the starring role in Hercules in New York (1969), here he’s simply an extra: a dialogue-less goon who hangs around in a gangster’s office. Arnie’s one scene is largely comedic. In an attempt to intimidate Marlowe, the gangster orders all of his henchmen to strip naked; the astonishingly ripped, pumped-up and moustachioed Arnie gets down to his briefs before the scene moves on.

Schwarzenegger Says: Nothing. Very oddly, Arnie fails to mention his uncredited cameo in his autobiography.

Eight tins of Courry Brand cat food out of 10

Next: Predator