“To build a city at the bottom of the sea…insanity! But where else could we be free from the clutching hands of the parasites? Where else could we build an economy that they would not try to control? A society that they would not try to destroy? It was not impossible to build Rapture at the bottom of the sea…it was impossible to build it anywhere else.” — Andrew Ryan
During the first half of the 1990s, Hong Kong was wire-fu crazy. It seems like all you had to do to get your movie made was show up at a studio waving around a napkin with “guys in robes fly around, then there’s a fart joke” scrawled on it. Even if the studio already had ten movies exactly like yours in production, producers saw no reason they couldn’t add one more to the pile. New Legend of Shaolin, starring Jet Li when he was the undisputed king of being hoisted around on wires, is the epitome of mediocre 1990s wuxia. It’s bad but not enragingly bad. It’s fight scenes are terrible but not “really terrible.” And as was almost always par for the course, the tone jumps wildly and without any transition from slapstick fart comedy to atrociously overwrought melodrama. It’s a textbook case of by-the-numbers, don’t-give-a-shit Hong Kong film making from Wong Jing, the master of by-the-numbers, don’t-give-a-shit Hong Kong film making.
In November of 1989, The Berlin Wall — perhaps the most potent symbol of the Cold War other than Ivan Drago — became a minor speed bump as the physical, social, and political barriers separating West and East Germany collapsed. As Germans began streaming back and forth across the once imposing border, the entirety of the Soviet-era Iron Curtain began to crumble as well, and before anyone knew what was happening, the world had changed. In the ensuing weeks and months, East and West German were reunited into a single country, the Berlin Wall was demolished, and the Soviet Union ceased to be while the satellites that had once comprised it became new countries. It was a heady mix of joy, terror, confusion, elation, and ambivalence that I remember well.
It makes me happy to wake up and discover, more or less totally by accident, that the world of film is still surprising and delightful. I have no idea how I heard of Norwegian Ninja. Perhaps appropriate to the subject matter, awareness of the movie simply popped into my head with no external stimulus at all, like the world knew that I needed to know Norwegian Ninja existed, and the cosmos took whatever metaphysical steps were needed to enlighten me. There it was all of a sudden on my television, and I was pretty happy. After this and Troll Hunter, maybe I should start paying attention to Norway beyond making jokes about the black metal scene and how their scary devil make-up isn’t as scary as they think it is when all those people pose for a photo out in their back yard.
Generally, it only takes a fella like me sticking his hand into the fire a few times to learn to stop sticking my hand in the fire. Sometimes, though, learning whatever lesson life, pain, and horrible blistering has to teach me just doesn’t happen, and laughing like a buffoon, I just keep sticking my hand into those warm, enticing flames. And few flames are as warm, enticing, and unbearably painful as the films of zero-budget Indian horror director Harinam Singh. His movies are made with a disjointed stream of consciousness that James Joyce would kill to accomplish, and many others would kill to not have to experience. He assembles his footage with an apparent total disregard — and perhaps even disdain — for the linear narrative, splicing together scenes in a random order, reusing the same scene multiple times, or spending some time with a scene that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie and may, in fact, have been stolen from another movie just to pad out the running time. His films fail miserably not just to be good films, but to be films at all.
Of the many pleasures in life available to be sampled by an aging and debauched, lecherous libertine like myself, the “misguided celebrity cross-over attempt” hardly beats out “a night with half a dozen young Russian models and a video camera,” but it runs a close second. Or maybe third. And maybe not that close, actually. Anyway, the point is, I get a hearty chuckle out of the disasters that occur when a celebrity in one field aspires, either because of a raging ego or genuine creative impulse, to become a star in another field. Actors recording albums. Musicians starring in movies. Sports personalities trying to do either. And while the world is littered with terrible albums recorded by people who were famous for something other than music, it’s “making a movie” that seems to be the baseball cap of ill advised — though totally understandable — efforts. Just like how every other sport has a baseball cap associated with their team (you don’t see baseball players walking around in casual football helmets, after all), it seems like it eventually comes down to the person famous in that genre of celebrity wanting to make a movie. Most of the time, they simply pop up as a star or co-star in a disposably idiotic movie. But sometimes, the celebrity has enough money and staggering enough delusions of grandeur that they can give the world that most special gift: the vanity project.
Vanity movie projects can undo even accomplished movie makers, who should already know better. But it’s a particularly sublime sort of vanity project that comes along when the person indulging their own ego and — again, totally understandable and relatable — desire to make a movie. Few people working today seem quite as committed to totally insane vanity movie projects as mixed martial artist and UFC superstar Hector Echavarria. When you read a one-line summary of his life, Echavarria himself sounds like the villain in any number of dumb direct-to-video action films from the 1990s — an Argentine millionaire businessman and kickboxer? Come on! How many of those did Jalal Merhi take down in 1993?
But the thing is, Hector’s background also prepares him ably to be the hero in any number of the same films, probably teaming up with Jalal to take down a gang consisting of…I’m gonna say John Miller and Bolo Yeung. Because according to the legend, Hector Echavarria was a sickly youth who was eventually taken under the wing of a fleeing Shaolin monk who had defected from China. The monk began training the young boy, and as the years progressed, the association with monk Kou Tsao enabled Hector to train with a variety of famous sifus, masters, and senseis. But life was tough for the kid, and he soon entered the seedy world of underground streetfighting. When he was arrested after breaking an opponent’s ribs, a cop told Hector he better clean up or end up in prison. Hector heeded the cop’s sage advise and eventually became a professional tournament fighter. Remember — this is not a summary of the plot of the movie I’m eventually going to get to. This is Echavarria’s real, or at least “officially sanctioned,” biography. No word on how much of his life was taken up with training montages set to bland synth-and-guitar-driven music, but I assume it to be a substantial amount. Also no word on how much of it is utter bullshit.
Rather than his background leading him to throw down against a local crime lord while also fighting to save the community arts center from greedy developers, Echavarria’s life took him in the direction such backgrounds usually take people in real life: he decided to open a gym in Miami. It was there that Hector met someone associated with a edgy new television show that was about to shoot its first season: Miami Vice. Echavarria must have enjoyed the experience, because he kept at it, and eventually he got the attention of producers back in his native Argentina. A string of roles followed, and Hector must have saved most but not all of his pennies (he probably had to spend some on sweet Ed Hardy shirts, after all) until he could cash in on them and his fame to do what you, I, and many others would likely do given the same opportunity: write, direct, and star in a really bad direct to DVD action movie with all his buddies, crammed with tons of gratuitous violence and nudity. And know this: despite all else that I may write about Never Surrender from this point on, the ultimate thing to realize is that Hector Echavarria made exactly the same movie I would have probably made in his situation. It is without a doubt the heir to all the direct to video action films of the 1990s, with a healthy dose of full frontal Andy Sidaris style sex and nudity thrown in for good measure.
As if the rampant macho wish fulfillment wasn’t already obvious enough, get a load of the plot: Diego is the baddest man on the MMA circuit. All the other MMA guys (played by actual MMA fighters) want to hang out with him. But Diego’s drive to always be the best leads him to a seedy underground fighting circuit where the winner gets to fuck the loser’s girlfriend. No, seriously. What you have here is pure, unadulturated MMA fanfic in which Hector Echavarria is casting himself as the quintessential “Mary Sue.” For those who need clarification, in the world of shitty, most fan-generated fiction, a “Mary Sue”is a character that is a blatant stand-in for the author. Only it goes beyond that. Mary Sue will be the absolute best at everything, and all the formerly competent characters occupying some work of fiction will suddenly fawn endlessly over and constantly need the help of Mary Sue, who’s just the bestest and smartest and prettiest and Legolas will totally fall in love with her and marry her and they will go on a honeymoon to Sanrioland.
Diego is basically the MMA fanfic version of a Mary Sue, with Echavarria wishing himself into a role where actual MMA guys all fawn over him and tell him how awesome he is and want to ride around in his stretch Hummer limo. Plus, he could beat them all up if he wanted to, and he makes super-love to ladies. As far as I know, Echavarria himself never actually worked the mixed martial arts circuit, which makes it even sweeter that he would cast himself as the number one pit fighter in the world, then wave enough money in front of legitimate MMA fighters to convince them to show up for a few hours and tell him how awesome he is, and how they all wish they could be more like him. Of course, the entirety of his plan was to pay fighters to show up and praise him. He didn’t really know what to do with them beyond that, so you get a steady procession of guys like BJ Penn and Rampage Jackson showing up out of nowhere, saying, “Diego, you da man!,” maybe having a fight scene with some thugs, and then their character disappears for the rest of the movie.
Eventually, through sheer force of human intelligence, Diego surmises that maybe, just maybe, the women aren’t as willing participants in this exchange as you would think. I mean sure, all of hem like fucking Diego, but the rest of the time, they’re basically sex slaves. Obviously, it’s up to Diego to fight for their freedom and put an end to this whole sordid business. It could also be that Diego doesn’t actually realize what he’s taking part in is wrong; it could be that Hector Echavarria realizes that the one person in the world he really wants to make love to is Hector Echavarria, so he might as well fight to free all these chicks. Standing in the way of Diego and supreme righteousness is bloodthirsty thug Patrick Kilpatrick, who apparently traveled into the Face/Off universe and stole Randy Couture’s face.
You know the grunting noise a rutting feral hog makes? This movie is the embodiment of that sound. This movie is an Ed Hardy shirt. Hell, this movie doesn’t just feature stretch limo Hummers; it is the cinematic embodiment of a stretch limo Hummer, and chances are if you think stretch limo Hummers are totally bad-ass and classy, then this is probably the movie for you. Or, if you are like me and just love totally goofy, incompetent movies packed to the gills with tough guy swagger, naked strippers, and dudes punching each other in the face, well, you’ll probably be happy too. 100% USDA prime meathead dialogue, an inability to string scenes together in any coherent sort of way, characters who pop in and out of the movie at random and purely because Echavarria was able to convince them to show up and do a scene — this is a shitty, sleazy b-movie the way they used to make ‘em, and I was overjoyed watching every sordid, idiotic frame. Never Surrender is a pretty terrible movie by almost any sane measure, but as long as you aren’t looking for good or logical writing, quality acting, well-executed fight scenes, or any sense of good taste or decency, there’s untold amounts of entertainment to be mined from a movie this absurd. It really was just like staying up late to scope out titty movies on Cinemax back in the 1980s, only instead of Jack Scalia solving an insurance fraud case involving Shannon Tweed, mixed martial arts dudes would show up in between the sex scenes with anonymous strippers to beat each other up. If you have any sort of fondness at all for that sort of irredeemable crap, let Hector Echavarria ensure you that, if nothing else, he’s still respecting the tradition.
The film does have some potentially decent fight scenes, but unfortunately, Echavarria is about as good at directing a film as he is at acting in one. He has no real grasp of how to stage fights for the camera, and the result is a lot of messy fights with lots of editing and no real rhythm. Echavarria himself looks particularly sluggish in some of the scenes, and his desire to do as many spinning, high kicks as his kickboxing background will allow him doesn’t really fit with the whole MMA vibe. For those old enough to remember, when MMA first began its march to popularity, the matches threw together a bunch of different sized fighters using a bunch of different styles of fighting. It didn’t take too long before people noticed that the guys who tried to break out the funky styles got destroyed, and every match was dominated by the guys who knew grappling disciplines like jujitsu. By the time Never Surrender was released, the idea that an MMA circuit could be dominated by a forty-year-old dude spin kicking and doing the splits was, at best, quaint.
At the same time, bringing a truer MMA style to the screen, where two guys circle each other, throw a few kicks and punches, then spend the next ten minutes on the ground maneuvering for a choke hold to end the match, does not particularly compelling cinema. In the hands of a creative and talented choreographer, just the right balance of what happens in the ring and what we wished would happen in the ring could be obtained. The driving force behind many of the current crop of low budget MMA action films, Tap Out, worked hard to get it right, and most of the time, they succeed. Echavarria, on the other hand, flails about, and the film’s fight scenes suffer from his lack of attention to anything but filming himself with a naked hooker grinding on top of him in slow motion. Even the veteran MMA guys who show up to pretend like they give a shit about Hector Echavarria are undermined by the director’s poor grasp of how to stage and shoot a fight for film. Although, once again, if you are looking to relive the ridiculous low-budget actioners of the 80s and 90s, Echavarria at least handles himself in a fight as well as Jalal Merhi, and substantially better than, oh, let’s say Julie Strain.
Never Surrender (the 1000th film to have that title) is ultimately a movie about how awesome Hector Echavarria is, playing to the tough guy (and more importantly, wannabe tough guy) fantasy he and his target audience doubtless harbor: to be the baddest mother fucker in the world, out-fighting and out-fucking every other man on the planet. It’s obvious from the get-go that only by writing, directing, and starring in the movie himself could Hector Echavarria ever hope to communicate to the rest of us just how awesome Hector Echavarria is and how awesome it is to be Hector Echavarria. Every frame of this movie is designed specifically for Hector to remind you of how cool and tough Hector Echavarria is. He can beat up anybody, and every hot chick with fake boobs wants to have sex with him (and actually, probably did to get their three minutes of “fame” in this movie, pretending to do what they did in real life to get the role). Because he’s a classy guy, Hector stops short of adding DVD audio commentary in each sex scene to the effect of, “We’re pretending to have sex here, but we did it for real also.” So I don’t know. If this movie is just a self-indulgent way to pander to his own ego and let the world know how great it is being Hector Echavarria, maybe he’s right.
It’s time to start paying attention to martial arts movies again. We’re not quite out of the desert through which we’ve been wandering, but there’s definitely an oasis on the horizon. Long years of Hong Kong turning its back on the genre, or making movies so bad that you wish it’d turned its back, might finally be over. The new school that Hong Kong forgot to train to take over when guys like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung got too old seems to finally be graduating, thanks largely to the potentially vast pool of talent in mainland China being opened to fim makers who want a little more authenticity in their action stars. It was slow going. For years after the handover of Hong Kong by the Brits back to China, the behemoth and the city-state were like two people on an awkward first date, trying to figure one another out, making stuttering attempts at small talk. Then came Zhang Yimou’s Hero, which mixed up Chinese and Hong Kong casts and crews and took over the world. Slowly, the two partners got more and more comfortable with each other. And by 2008 or so, they were ready to consummate the union, so to speak.
Following the trail blazed by Yimou, we started getting a slew of impressive looking, giant-scale historical epics, some with more martial arts than others. Having limped along for so many years with nothing at their disposal but pop stars more interested in sculpting their hair and male model abs than in learning the craft of making an action film, Hong Kong film makers suddenly had the best and brightest of China at their disposal, and the mainland Chinese seemed absolutely raring to prove themselves to disillusioned fans. Plus, having weathered the pop idol decade, there was now a new generation of directors who were hungry for the sort of slam-bang kungfu films with which they’d grown up in the 70s and 80s. They wanted new faces who wanted to be martial arts stars, and they wanted to bring back the old guard to serve as mentors. And all of a sudden, we were getting movies like Little Big Soldier and Gallants and 14 Blades. Like I said, we’re only just now starting to rebuild, but the new foundation looks more promising than anything we’ve seen in years. I never felt like I needed to learn the difference between Stephen Fung, or Edison Chan, or any of the other goofy young things that devoured most of the last decade. Now we’ve got a whole new batch of names to learn, though, and some of them are worth learning.
First and foremost, learn the name Jiang Lu-Xia.
One of the things I remember most fondly from the 80s and early 90s are the fighting femmes who took over the screen. Names like Moon Lee, Yukari Oshima, Michelle Yeoh, Cynthia Khan, Cynthia Rothrock — the movies they starred in during those years may not have always been the best written or best acted, but they damn sure delivered the action. Insane stunts, brutal fights, blazing energy — even the worst of them had enough over the top action to make it worth suffering through the missteps. And if the fightin’ lads suffered during the first decade of the 2000s, the fightin’ ladies all but vanished. The old school “girls with guns” class retired, or they moved on to more upscale prestige projects, or they found their genre was no longer favored by film goers and so sought work in The Philippines and other places where they were still a few years behind what was hip in Hong Kong.
As for us fans of the genre, we had nowhere to go. Cynthia Rothrock came back to the United States, but her movies here were mostly terrible. Hong Kong couldn’t come up with anything better than CGI’ing around Charlene Choi and Maggie Q. There was no action actress who instilled genuine fear in the viewer the way Sonny Chiba-trained Yukari Oshima used to be able to do. There was no one with the innocent-but-deadly charisma of Moon Lee. And there certainly wasn’t another Michelle Yeoh. Luckily, when directors and production companies decided to start making martial arts actioners again, they didn’t settle on the crop of cute pop idols and models that were slinking around the joint. If no actress in Hong Kong was going to put herself through what it took to really become an action star, then they’d just go calling elsewhere. That’s when China’s Jiang Lu-Xia picked up the phone.
If you want to draw comparisons to past greats, Jiang is less “the next Michelle Yeoh” and more “the next Jet Li,” albeit with a dash of Yukari Oshima thrown in. Like Li, Jiang is a wushu superstar from the mainland, and her prowess at martial arts turned her into a one-woman self-defense industry. She started training in martial arts at the age of seven, in Mongolia, and eventually pursued training at various spots in China. Before breaking into film, she was kicking ass in a host of tournaments, not to mention working as a referee, starring in self-defense instructional videos and television shows, appearing on a competition-based reality series called The Disciple, and becoming an internet sensation when she started uploading videos of herself under the name “Mao Er Bao Bei.”
While she was busy honing her skills and uploading videos, veteran Hong Kong action film stuntman, supporting actor, and choreographer Xiong Xin-xin (you know him as Clubfoot from the Once Upon a Time in China series, and he popped up more recently in Bad Blood and the unwatchable Circadian Rhythm) was trying to get a new project off the ground, one that would continue the trend of Hong Kong martial arts films getting back to the spirit of the 1980s, when they ruled the action universe. It would also be Xiong’s first time as director. Xiong soon had Jiang brought to his attention, and like many, he saw her potential as a major new martial arts movie star. Unfortunately, those many people didn’t include many studio execs, who were hesitant to put their faith in this supposed kungfu film revival unless the movie was a period piece featuring Andy Lau in a fake beard. Xiong is well-known and respected, but he’d never directed before, and this chick from…where was it? China? Mongolia??? Why the hell would anyone greenlight a movie like that?
Luckily, just as Andy Lau showed faith in a goofy little idea that became Gallants, and was willing to fund the movie when no one else would, Xiong eventually found backers among friends and the Hong Kong entertainment old guard, including the not-so-secretly most powerful man in the world, pudgy little comedy dwarf Eric Tsang. Seriously, have you ever read about him? That dude could have you killed if he wanted to. Anyway, Jiang Lu-xia threw herself into the role, emotionally and physically, with a gusto and willingness to injure herself that we haven’t seen from Hong Kong since the apparent stuntman death wish they had in the 1980s moved to Thailand. Her skill and enthusiasm for the role turns what is an otherwise clunky film into a fairly enjoyable experience, one that focuses almost entirely on watching Jiang Lu-xia beat the shit out of people in a series of increasingly improbable set-ups.
Jiang plays Nie Yi-yi, a teacher at her family’s martial arts academy. When a freak accident causes the death of her father, she sort of drops out of life until an old friend, Chung Tin (Bio Zombie‘s Sam Lee) runs into her and convinces her to take a job as a bodyguard, where she will be able to beat people up while wearing a business suit. Shortly after taking the job, however, Yi-yi is beset by more problems, as her charge and his family is targeted by a seemingly endless stream of goons. Although Yi-yi beats the crap out of most of them, they still succeed with the kidnapping. Yi-yi and Chung Tin launch a mission to get their boss back, but the deeper in they go, the more it seems like something else entirely is going on.
Yi-yi eventually notices that the the various fights she’s having as part of her mission are being video taped, and before too long, she gets the right people to beat the information out of: none of this is about her boss. It’s about her, and one of the favorites of low-budget fight films: a ring of jaded rich people who enjoy watching and betting on life-or-death street fights. They’ve been secretly video taping all of Yi-yi’s fights and broadcasting them on the Web for gamblers — funny, I guess, given that Jiang herself became a star thanks to using the Web to show off her fighting skills. Obviously, the people using her for her ass kicking skills need to have their asses kicked.
Coweb is, like a number of recent low-budget fight films, a throwback to the 80s and early 90s in pretty much every sense — and that includes the daft writing. But like the movies that are its heritage, Coweb seeks to make up for its narrative shortcomings by making sure we never have much time to dwell on them before all is forgiven by watching Jiang Lu-xia in action once again. Xiong Xin-xin is shaky in his first outing as a full-on director, and some of the film’s action sequences feel a bit awkward, like everyone is still feeling things out. Even when he’s restricted simply to being an action director, Xiong can turn in somewhat uneven work, and that’s once again the case here. But one need not fear, because Jiang Lu-xia comes to the game with such intensity and a willingness to do pretty much anything that’s asked of her that her fight film charisma carries the day. Even in a somewhat half-assed film like Coweb, it’s impossible for me not to love watching Jiang in action — and while some of Xiong’s choreography is off the mark, he also gives us more than enough of it to ensure that he has as many hits as he has misses.
Jiang’s throw-downs against henchmen in a kitchen is fun. While the set-up of her fight in a disco’s shallow pool of water is completely convoluted and absurd, the end result is Jiang fighting a chick in a short dress in a pool of water. Then she fights a dude with ill-advised hair, has some fun on that old Hong Kong action movie friend (bamboo scaffolding), and takes on some kungfu breakdancers before she works up to the main challenge: Kane Kosugi! Like I said, the fight choreography isn’t perfect, but I don’t ask for perfection. I thought it was all pretty entertaining. If Xiong is a bit shaky as director, Jiang looks like she’s been doing this her whole life. Oh wait — basically, she has, hasn’t she? Anyway, she’s the most obvious recent example of the massive gulf between what Hong Kong was doing for the past decade plus — relying on camera tricks, CGI, and pop starlets — and what I hope they start doing instead –which is relying on women who walk the walk.
Her supporting cast is all right, but frankly, we’re here to watch Jiang Lu-xia. Kane Kosugi is one of those actors who deserves better than he gets. He’s not all that impressive a thespian, but within his limits he’s effective — and he, like Jiang Lu-xia, can walk the walk. The man basically finished Ninja Warrior! that he didn’t get credit for beating the course is a matter of a couple fractions of a second, which I thing should be negated by the fact that he did the whole thing in the rain. The prospect of finally getting to watch him in an action movie with a real opponent — instead of being in awkward scenes with stars who don’t have any talent for martial arts — had me pretty excited. Xiong Xin-xin must have felt the same way, because he gives the two of them a good twelve or so minutes to beat on each other. No gimmicks, no fancy directing — just two very, very good martial arts actors doing what they do best. It’s not Jackie Chan versus Benny Urquidez in Dragons Forever, but it’s still pretty awesome.
Coweb ends up being a lot of great raw material that never fully coalesces into a great film, but for those who are accustomed to rolling with the sloppy writing we forgave in the old girls with guns movies, there’s nothing about Coweb‘s sundry sloppy mistakes and silly plot that will prove to be an impediment to enjoying the movie. Jiang Lu-xia shines, and watching her has made me more excited about the future of martial arts films than anyone in a long time. She probably deserves a better director and choreographer in the future, but the inexperience of both her and Xiong Xin-xin gives this movie a rough around the edges underdog appeal. I seem to have enjoyed Coweb a heck of a lot more than many other people, even among those whose opinions on film I take with some degree of seriousness. But whatever the case, I just found it really easy to roll with. It felt like it was 1992 all over again, with a bunch of us huddled around my shitty little television watching Iron Angels or Righting Wrongs for the first time. I had a big, dumb smile on my face after all was said and done. There’s very little pretense about the type of movie this is, and as much as I love the current trend of humongous overblown epics and haunted warlords in medieval China, I’m also a huge fan of lean, no nonsense ass kickers. On that level, Coweb more than satisfied me.
Release Year: 2009 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Jiang Lu-Xia, Sam Lee Chan-Sam, Eddie Cheung Siu-Fai, Kane Kosugi, Wanja Gotz, Chan Kwok-Bong, Mike Moller, Peggy Tseng Pei-Yu, Wai Cha Go Si, Ho Chung-Lam, Geung Kam-Kui | Screenplay: Sunny Chan Wing-Sun | Director: Xiong Xin-Xin | Cinematography: Parkie Chan Chor-Keung | Music: Mak Jan-Hung | Producer: Joe Ma Wai-Ho, Eddie Chan Shu-Chi | Original Title: Por Mong
Movies try to evoke a wide range of emotions and reactions from their viewers. Shock, delight, sadness, joy, despair — in the century or so that humans have been making movies, the bag of tricks film makers use to manipulate our emotions has become large indeed, and the range of emotions and experiences movies seek to simulate has grown to encompass pretty much everything we’re likely or unlikely to ever encounter in real life. There are, however, a few mental states and experiences that, while a movie could potentially ask us to invest ourselves in, it probably shouldn’t. At the top of my list of experiences I don’t need recreated for me by a movie would be the frustrating tedium of phone-based customer support.
I tried real hard, Circadian Rhythm. I tried real hard to like, then tolerate, then at the very least, appreciate on some level what you were doing. But in the end, I just couldn’t pull it off. There just wasn’t any salvaging this date, and although you were cute and I liked your glasses and haircut, and I respected that you were trying to be sort of weird and different, I don’t think we should have a second date.
If Neon City is an example of American-made post-apocalyptic science fiction that strives for a more realistic, bleaker tone than is usually seen in Road Warrior rip-offs, then Cherry 2000 is a very interesting companion piece that comes from the opposite end of the spectrum. It envisions a future not terribly different from the one in Neon City — in which some manner of apocalyptic disaster has left large swathes of the United States lawless and scoured, while pockets of urban civilization seem to chug along despite the blight surrounding them — but where Neon City is an exercise in bleakness and some cursory attempt at realism, Cherry 2000 gleefully embraces all the excess, quirks, and questionable art and design decisions that embodied the 1980s, resulting in a film that comes across sort of like a post-apocalypse film as imagined by Patrick Nagel.
The future of Cherry 2000 is the future that could only be imagined in the 1980s, when we were all pretty sure we were living in the future anyway. This means lots of neon, random tube lighting, exaggerated eye make-up, metallic spandex, guys in baggy suits with square-bottom ties and women in short skirts and long jackets with oversized shoulder pads. In other words, the future of Cherry 2000 is the 1980s, only with robots — but not just any robots. As we all know, the evolution of robots goes a little something like: car manufacturing robots, followed by robot dogs, followed by fully human looking sexbots, followed inevitably by murderous killbots determined to eradicate humanity until we defeat them with that “this statement is a lie” conundrum. With Cherry 2000, we’re in the sexbot phase of development, that glorious time when we could built robots that look, feel, and act almost entirely human, but we still have 8-bit graphic displays on all our other computers.
Diligent office worker Sam Treadwell (David Andrews, who went on to work with a robot policewoman in the very short-lived series Mann and Machine, then had a decidedly different experience with female robots in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) isn’t down with the bar scene of the future, where casual sexual encounters involve attendant lawyers and complex contracts negotiated by a still unestablished Lawrence Fishburne. Despite the ribbing Sam takes from his friends, he’s happy to go home every night to Cherry (Pamela Gidley, “hot” off her turn in another giant of the 80s cult movie scene, Thrashin’), his top-of-the-line fembot. Although she’d definitely there to satisfy his hankering for hanky panky, the relationship between Sam and Cherry seems substantially more committed than is usual, something as close to love as you can expect from a man and his robot girl — not unlike those crazy Japanese guys who fall in love with and marry their anime hug pillows or favorite video game characters. Hey, Teleport City says, “whatever makes you happy, man.” And while Sam’s friends may wonder what he has against relationships with real women or how he can find fulfillment in the companionship of a robot, the fact is that he does.
At the same time, however, his relationship can hardly be called “healthy” in that it is sort of one-sided, the embodiment of the 1980s “me generation” ethos. While Sam seems happy, and Cherry is a computer that feels however she’s programmed to feel, the fact is Sam’s happy largely because he has a pre-programmed partner who is going to be totally satisfied with him no matter what he does. Thus, the relationship is ultimately only about Sam making himself feel better. Unfortunately, Sam soon discovers that Cherry — built to look and act like a human, including partaking in sexual intercourse — has one fatal flaw: no one thought to make her waterproof. Or even water resistant. While the happy couple are writhing about a pool of overflowing sink water, in the throes of clothed ecstasy, Cherry suffers a fatal short circuit. Which, at least for me, begs the unsavory question — how has Sam been cleaning his Cherry 2000 if even the slightest puddle of water causes her to explode?
Distraught Sam takes Cherry in to the local fembot repair shop but discovers that the Cherry model is just too advanced. Since society has largely collapsed, there’s no way to get parts to repair her anymore. The shop owner tries to interest Sam in a new model — just as lifelike, but not quite so state of the art. But proving once again that his relationship with Cherry, though unorthodox, was something more than that between a man and his sex doll, Sam refuses. He loves Cherry, after all, and he’ll only be happy with a model that can accept her memory disc. When he hears there’s a place somewhere out in the wasteland that might still have a stock of new Cherry bodies, he packs up and heads out of the relative safety of future Anaheim and toward the rough and tumble frontier. He’s been told to seek out a tracker named E. Johnson — the proverbial “best in the business.”
E. turns out to be Edith (a young Melanie Griffith with awesome red hair), proving that decades after it should have died, someone still thought the “but…you’re a girl!” gag was hilarious. Sam doesn’t believe that a woman could be a competent tracker. Plus he seems slightly squirmy around non-robot women, so he decides to seek help elsewhere. He meets a couple of would be trackers (one of whom is Brion James) who agree to take the job, or take him to Six-Finger Jake, the most legendary tracker of all time. But it turns out they’re just a couple of scam artists. Sam ends up hiring E. after all, so the two load up in her cherry red Mustang and head for the economical desert wasteland where all low budget post-apocalyptic movies spend most of their running time.
It turns out the “robot graveyard” requires they cross the most dangerous part of America, an area controlled by a ruthless warlord named Lester. OK, so it’s no “Lord Humongous,” but since Lester is played by Tim Thomerson, there’s no worries. Lester and E. both suffer from the same basic problem — the “informed attribute.” That’s when a character in a movie is put forth as having some particular trait or skill — “he/she is the best of the best” — despite the fact that the movie never once shows us anything to justify the claim. The character is “the best” because other characters keep talking about how good he/she is at whatever. In the case of Edith, we’re constantly told that she’s the second best tracker to ever work the wasteland — second only to the mysterious Six Fingered Jake. However, no matter how many times we’re told how great a tracker she is, Edith never does anything to show that she’s anything other than largely incompetent or that she could have ever survived more than an hour on her own out in the wasteland. From the very start of the journey, when she and Sam have to run a barricade set up by wasteland brigands, she seems to have no idea how to do anything. I mean, the barricade is a pile of stuff blocking a two-lane highway, manned by maybe half a dozen guys. She could just turn the headlights off and drive around it. The terrain off-road is flat and easy to navigate. Instead, she has to ram it head on while everyone shoots at the car. Everything else she does is accompanied by dialog where she says “I’ve done this dozens of times” then when asked if she knows what she’s doing, says “I’m making it up as I go.”
Similarly, Lester supposedly rules the wasteland with an iron fist, commanding an army of murderous thugs who prowl the desert roads in search of unlucky travelers who thought they could make it across Lester’s domain. But when we meet Lester, he’s a big goofball in a Hawaiian shirt, with maybe twenty guys at his disposal. How the heck do a few guys with an RV and an ice cream truck rule the entire American Southwest? It doesn’t matter, I guess. Cherry 2000 never really puts any sort of thought at all into the structure of the society it proposes. It mostly just throws things up on screen that the writer and director thought would be quirky. Lester, for instance, is obsessed with recreating the mythological idyllic existence of 1950s suburbia in the desert. So he and his men dress like they’re on their way to a backyard BBQ — which they frequently are. The women in his tribe are done up in cocktail dresses and pearls. Tim Thomerson’s character may not make a lick of sense, but he’s totally awesome regardless. I love Thomerson, and this is a role that lets him really ham it up and go all out. But amid all that silliness, there really is something kind of creepy about him, like realizing your jovial, friendly suburban neighbor who, during some innocuous BBQ, leads you down into his basement, where he has a bunker full of weapons and is planning for the coming race war.
The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Melanie Griffith looks fantastic but is totally unconvincing as a tough as nails wasteland tracker. She turns in what might be the worst performance in a career that is pretty much defined by worst performances. David Andrews is bland but adequate. The chemistry that supposedly develops between him and Griffith is another of the film’s many “informed attributes,” because it’s certainly not communicated on screen. Robert Z’Dar shows up briefly wearing really disturbing booty shorts, and fans of direct to video action and sci-fi fare might be left wondering, as I was, why you’d bother to hire someone as distinctive as Robert Z’Dar then have him be little more than a background extra. Pam Gidley is supposed to be a vacant representation of a humanoid robot and, if nothing else, she does that well. In fact, outside of Griffith’s truly terrible (though still somehow endearing) performance, this movie is filled with seasoned vets and character actors who do a proper job of delivering a totally silly movie.
The direction by relative newcomer Steve De Jarnatt is solid enough. Unlike more recent directors who are new to the job, he doesn’t overcompensate for his inexperience by cramming the movie full of gratuitous, meaningless editing and camera tricks (and CGI, but that wouldn’t have been an option in 1986 regardless). Instead, he just points the camera in the right direction, keeps everything in focus, and lets the rest of the movie do its job. Screenwriter Michael Almereyda went on to a career that garnered him a few awards, mostly for his work on arthouse vampire film Nadja and Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World. Cherry 2000 finds him on his first big gig, and his screenplay is full of offbeat, interesting idea that are never fully baked. If he can call me up and tell me some day what the hell was going on during the crane scene, I’d appreciate it.
Cherry 2000 is a sloppy movie with very little internal logic, but that doesn’t stop it from being a fun time. Despite never really coming together into a cohesive whole, it still has a lot of fun ideas and tries, with varying success, to insert a few speculative thoughts and ideas about modern/future society and human relationships into the mix, and I admire its ambition. Ultimately, it’s pretty easy to roll with it. Once you get to the mildly infamous crane scene, the movie becomes so nonsensical, the actions on screen so impossible to decipher (just what the hell is going on in that scene anyway? Who controls the crane? Why is anyone …oh, to hell with it), that you realize you’re better off throwing up your hands and surrendering to the film’s goofball charms. At least, that’s what I did, and I was pretty happy with the results. And even if it’s impossible to figure out exactly what’s going on during that scene, the stunt work performed during it is utterly fantastic. Oh, for the days when you could pay an actual human to dangle from an actual car suspended from an actual crane over an actual ravine.