Film Review: The Running Man (1987)

Also known as: Battle Runner (Japanese English title)
Release Date: November 13th, 1987
Directed by: Paul Michael Glaser
Written by: Steven E. de Souza
Based on: The Running Man by Stephen King (as Richard Bachman)
Music by: Harold Faltermeyer
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Richard Dawson, María Conchita Alonso, Jesse Ventura, Mick Fleetwood, Dweezil Zappa, Yaphet Kotto, Marvin J. McIntyre, Jim Brown, Kurt Fuller, Lin Shaye, Professor Toru Tanaka

Braveworld Productions, Taft Entertainment, HBO Pictures, TriStar Pictures, 101 Minutes

Review:

“Killian, here’s your Subzero! Now… plain zero!” – Ben Richards

This is a Stephen King story, even if the author wrote this under a pseudonym. It was brought to life by the screenplay of Steven E. de Souza, who also penned the scripts for Die Hard 12Commando48 Hrs. 12 and a bunch of other cool shit.

Add in a cast that boasts manly badasses Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, Jim Brown and Yaphet Kotto and there are almost too many iron balls on the screen. This is a festival of testosterone and broken bodies.

You also have Richard Dawson, who was the perfect choice for the role of Killian, and María Conchita Alonso, who I’ve been crushing on since about fourth grade.

This story takes place in a dystopian corporate future where an innocent soldier is framed for a massacre that he actually tried to prevent. He escapes prison and goes on the run, using a very apprehensive TV executive to help him get to freedom. She freaks out in the airport though and the soldier is caught and forced to compete in a strange game show. The soldier and his allies have to fight their way through derelict city blocks, fighting off gimmicky warriors that the live studio audience chooses to apprehend and murder them in cold blood for their entertainment. As the soldier starts offing these warriors, public opinion changes and the people start cheering for this “criminal” against the corporate system that is trying to snuff him out.

The film’s themes are very similar to two films from 1975: Death Race 2000 and Rollerball. This certainly doesn’t make this story a rehash of those, however. This is unique and just a cool twist on the manhunt genre.

I always loved Schwarzenegger in sci-fi settings, especially ones dealing with a dark future. While this isn’t anywhere near as good as the first two Terminator movies, it is a lot of fun and still holds some social and political relevance today, over thirty years later.

The effects are good for the time, the characters are twisted but cool and this almost feels like a mashup of American Gladiators, old school WWF and Blade Runner.

I still love this movie and even if it hasn’t aged too well, it is a product of the awesome ’80s and still works within the context of its creation.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: Other ’80s Schwarzenegger films. For style and themes, it works with the original Rollerball and Death Race 2000.

Film Review: Mars Attacks! (1996)

Release Date: December 12th, 1996 (Hollywood premiere)
Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: Jonathan Gems
Based on: Mars Attacks by Topps
Music by: Danny Elfman
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Rod Steiger, Tom Jones, Lukas Haas, Natalie Portman, Jim Brown, Lisa Marie, Sylvia Sidney, Jack Black, Christina Applegate, Pam Grier, Paul Winfield, Joe Don Baker, O-Lan Jones, Ray J, Frank Welker (voice)

Tim Burton Productions, Warner Bros., 107 Minutes

Review:

“They blew up Congress! Ha ha ha ha!” – Grandma Florence Norris

While this isn’t one of Tim Burton’s most popular films, it is one of my favorites and I feel like it missed its mark because it’s not the type of film that would resonate with most people.

Mars Attacks! came out in late 1996, not too long after Independence Day ruled American culture that same summer. Maybe people were confused that this was a ripoff of it or that one big alien invasion movie was enough to digest but either way, I don’t think people realized that this was vastly different and sort of a parody of the genre while also being an incredible live action adaptation of the Mars Attacks trading cards that Topps put out in the 1960s. It’s like those who were kids in the ’60s no longer cared and the teens of the ’90s didn’t know the reference.

Still, this is a hilarious romp starring dozens of top notch celebrities where not a single one of them is actually safe. I mean, these Martians murder Congress, the President and even try to crush a troop of Cub Scouts with the Washington Monument. They are sick, sadistic and really, just friggin’ awesome. They are also voiced by Frank Welker, the guy who gave life to Megatron from the original and still greatest Transformers cartoon.

By the star power that this movie has, it’s clear that Hollywood got the joke and appreciated it even if audiences didn’t flock to see this. Still, it wasn’t a massive failure, by any means. It did fairly well but not as well as what Warner Bros. was probably hoping for with Tim Burton being a mega earner for the studio. While it took some time, the film did earn back the $100 million that was put into it. It was considered a box office bomb in the United States but it fared much better internationally.

This is one of the most hysterical films of the ’90s put out by a major studio. The humor is perfect, the tone is great and it pokes fun at so many different facets of Americana that it almost feels like it was written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

The special effects look dated but they looked sort of cheesy in the mid ’90s. The film was supposed to have a hokey, old school vibe to it though. Really, the effects are great and they work for what this picture is. It’s not Independence Day and didn’t need to take itself as seriously in the visual effects department.

From a stylistic standpoint, the film really has a timeless feel to it. It merges modern style with ’50s and ’60s style in a seamless way that gives this film a magical quality.

Additionally, this picture boasts one of my favorite Danny Elfman scores of all-time. The theme is powerful and perfect and really fits that old school Elfman sound. Frankly, watching this film makes me appreciate and miss the quality of Burton and Elfman’s old school collaborations.

What really resonates with me is how this film balances comedy with how dark it actually is. It’s an absurd picture in the best way possible and shows that Tim Burton really has a dark sense of humor. Well, Beetlejuice was really effective in showing that aspect of Burton as well.

Mars Attacks! was underappreciated when it came out in 1996. It is still underappreciated today, as people that like to list out their favorite Tim Burton films always have this near the bottom of the list. Like I said, it isn’t for everyone but Burton fans, who understand Burton’s influences, should really love this picture.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, Joe Dante’s Matinee and alien invasion B-movies of the ’50s.

Film Review: Slaughter (1972)

Also known as: Massacre (France), Masacre (Mexico), Kill Julian Drake (working title)
Release Date: August 16th, 1972 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Jack Starrett
Written by: Mark Hanna, Don Williams
Music by: Luchi de Jesus
Cast: Jim Brown, Stella Stevens, Rip Torn

American International Pictures, 91 Minutes

Review:

“You’re really far out, you know that? I mean we go out to that house and let them know we are lookin’ to get killed, and all of a sudden your sittin’ on top of the world like your King Shit! Man, you’re weird Slaughter, I mean goddammit, you’re just weird!” – Harry

Jim Brown is a badass and there is no question that the man could pretty much beat the crap out of anyone else in his presence. However, he never seemed to have the command of the screen in the same way that Fred Williamson, Issac Hayes, Jim Kelly, Rudy Ray Moore and Richard Roundtree had. He was sexy, had a certain panache and could carry his own but it had to be hard to compete with the more charismatic male stars who were also making their mark in the blaxploitation era. Regardless, Brown still has an acting career that has lasted longer than the others.

I think that the reason why is because what you see is what you get. I think Jim Brown just plays Jim Brown. Sure, from film to film he has a different occupation or a different purpose. At the core of all his characters though, is authentic Jim Brown.

I feel like Brown’s vehicles also weren’t as good as the other blaxploitation stars. In all honesty, this is probably his best film of that era and it isn’t very good. It’s also not bad but it’s pretty tame and just lacks the style and energy of the other films in the genre.

I do like that this primarily takes place in Mexico though. It isn’t a rehash of the American urban blaxploitation shtick and gives us something refreshing while keeping a familiar formula. Jim Brown plays an ex-Green Beret that has to avenge the murder of is parents. This takes him to Mexico where he must take on an Italian drug cartel and get to a final showdown with the great Rip Torn, who makes a solid heavy in this.

The finale of the film was pretty good but just about everything else is fairly mundane. One thing that was annoying about this movie is that it often times used these weird fish-eye effect action shots that felt like they were cut into the editing just sort of randomly. These shots looked bad and were a distraction to the flow of the action.

Slaughter just isn’t very exciting or engaging. You want to really like Jim Brown’s character but he just never seems to turn the volume up enough.

Rating: 6/10
Pairs well with: Other Jim Brown ’70s pictures: Slaughter’s Big Rip-OffBlack GunnI Escapred From Devil’s IslandThree the Hard Way, etc.

Film Review: Killing American Style (1990)

Release Date: 1990
Directed by: Amir Shervan
Written by: Amir Shervan
Music by: Alan DerMarderosian
Cast: Jim Brown, Robert Z’Dar, Harold Diamond, Joselito Rescober, John Lynch, Veronica Paul, Jimmy Williams

Rex Films, Cinema Epoch, 90 Minutes

Review:

After having revisited Samurai Cop and seeing its sequel Samurai Cop 2, as well as recently revisiting Miami Connection and a lot of Cannon Films’ action pictures, I wanted to keep that vibe alive. So I figured I would check out one of Amir Shervan’s (director of the first Samurai Cop) other pictures.

Considering that Killing American Style featured both Robert Z’Dar and Jim Brown had me interesting in watching this movie first. It also features Joselito Rescober (the gay waiter in Samurai Cop) in a much larger role as a Japanese doctor. The film also stars Harold Diamond, who I guess was a regular in Shervan’s bizarre yet fun pictures.

Let me start by saying that this film is no Samurai Cop. That being said, I still loved it for a variety of reasons.

The first reason is Robert Z’Dar. I love him in just about everything but never has he been this great. He was damn committed to the role of Tony Stone and he sold it hard. Maybe too hard but he knew what kind of film this was and it called for some over the top insanity. Z’Dar delivered in every conceivable way and this may be his magnum opus. It is refreshing seeing him really come alive and push the envelope, especially as his character here is the complete opposite of his most famous role, the title character in the Maniac Cop film series. He isn’t a silent hulking giant any longer. Here, he is a loud and brash criminal douchebag.

Another thing I love about this is seeing Joselito Rescober be more than a funny bit character with a cameo. While he isn’t as funny as the waiter in Samurai Cop he is still enjoyable as Dr. Fuji and he had some good moments.

I also really liked Harold Diamond. He was a good hero for this sort of film and even though he is immobilized, for a brief stint in the movie, he isn’t some pussy even with his family’s lives in danger. He never stops trying to defeat his home invaders. His son is also awesomely hilarious.

The rest of the cast between the family members living in the house and the criminals who invaded their home, are all pretty good. Yes, this is a poorly acted ham and cheese festival but all of these people nail their roles in just the right way.

While this isn’t as great as Samurai Cop and certainly doesn’t have its cult following, it exists in the same vein as that film. It is another superb outing from Amir Shervan but his movies aren’t for everyone. You have to be a big fan of over the top, mostly insane, cheesy yet testosterone-filled 80s action flicks.

In fact, it is great that these movies remained mostly undiscovered until now. It is like reliving the feeling of seeing something like this for the first time back when I was a kid bin-diving in mom and pop video stores in the 80s and 90s.

Film Review: Three The Hard Way (1974)

Release Date: June 26th, 1974
Directed by: Gordon Parks Jr.
Written by: Eric Bercovici, Jerrold L. Ludwig
Music by: The Impressions
Cast: Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Jim Kelly, Alex Rocco, Corbin Bernsen

Allied Artists Pictures Corporation, 89 Minutes (DVD), 105 Minutes (TV), 93 Minutes (theatrical)

Review:

Three The Hard Way is a film I have heard a lot about for several years. Philly rapper Bahamadia did a great song that referenced it on her first album. Other rappers and film buffs have also talked about it since I started paying attention to pop culture. Well, it wasn’t until now that I finally got to check it out.

The film is bad ass simply for the fact that it stars three bad asses from the height of the blaxploitation film era: Jim Brown (SlaughterBlack Gunn), Fred Williamson (Black CaesarBoss Nigger) and Jim Kelly (Black Belt JonesEnter The Dragon). All this movie needed was Rudy Ray Moore and Richard Roundtree and we could’ve had a 1970s black Expendables. That can still be made, right? Most of these guys are still alive, right?

The film sees these three men working together to stop a plot by white supremacists out to eliminate the black population by poisoning the water supply of major cities with a chemical that is only harmful to the black race. Bad science aside, the evil whites in this picture are pretty ballsy and potentially stupid in trying to hatch a plan like this. They probably failed biology and chemistry.

Anyway, this picture has a lot of great action. It also has some pretty impressive scenes of vehicular destruction. It feels as if the budget on this thing is bigger than it actually is.

On the flip side, the film isn’t as exciting as I had hoped. It has real gravitas and it has three men who could scare off a tiger with just a glance in its general direction but it is just lacking something. It is almost too serious and not as stylistic and playful as a lot of the other blaxploitation films. I’m not saying that it needs to be a cookie cutter effort but it could’ve used a bit more humor, at least with the camaraderie between the heroes.

It is still a good movie and it is nice to see a film in the genre take itself a bit more seriously but it is hard to see it as such when the evil plot within the film is so ridiculous. For comparison sake, imagine sending in Daniel Craig’s James Bond to stop an evil scheme from Dr. Evil of the Austin Powers films, that’s kind of what this feels like.

At the very least, Three The Hard Way is a journey alongside three of the biggest black action stars of the 1970s. It is still fun, bad ass and an entertaining picture.