Back in October of 2003, when I was still gainfully employed as a writer at Toyfare magazine, I was given the following assignment: using my vast and shameful knowledge of things both Transformer and GI Joe, I was to write an article, using a series of pre-determined questions and criteria, pitting the two iconic toy lines against each other in a battle for overall supremacy. Hey, it’s the sort of things we did back then as grown men and women. I can’t say I went into the article without some degree of personal bias. I had a huge GI Joe collection when I was in middle school. My Transformers collection was OK, but GI Joe is where all my time and money went — partly because there was so much more you could buy, and partly because collecting GI Joe figures was a lot easier on a lawn mowing allowance than collecting the much pricier Transformers figures. And for a kid with a big, wooded back yard, the potential play value of GI Joe was considerably more substantial — and yes, I was eleven years old; I played with my GI Joes.
There’s a story about the day Sho Kosugi first arrived in the United States in pursuit of his dream of movie stardom. As the legend goes — for surely anything related to Sho Kosugi must qualify as legend, shrouded in myth, mist, and mystery — Sho stepped off the plane at LAX and meant to board a bus bound for Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district, where he intended to begin building his new life. Unfortunately, the young Kosugi could neither read nor understand very much English and so got on the wrong bus. Eventually, he found himself deposited in a rough part of town where he was promptly set upon by a trio of knife-wielding thugs. Calling upon the martial arts training he’d had while living in Japan, he quickly dispatched one of the assailants and sent the other two fleeing in terror. Somehow, a police car showed up and, after a detour down to the station, Sho finally found his way to Little Tokyo.
It’s customary (and a tad predictable) at this point for me to preface any review of an older anime title with some rose-tinted reflection on how it was in “the old days,” when we were trading VHS tapes by U.S. mail and had but a smattering of titles available for rent or purchase here in the United States. So let’s skip that part, since as fun as it is to drag those hoary old chestnuts out into the realm of public discourse yet again, the truth of the matter is it was never very much fun when we all had to do it. Nostalgia for “a simpler time” aside, I really don’t miss running off tapes on clunky old VCRs, waiting in disorganized lines at the overcrowded post office, then hoping that the virtual stranger at the other end of the transaction actually receives the package and, even more importantly, actually gets around to reciprocating. And then you finally have your own copy of whatever it was you were trading for, complete with shaky quality and occasional tracking problems.
When the idea was pitched for a “counter culture” theme for a B-Masters Round Table, I was both excited and apprehensive. On the one hand, it was a subject with which I had acute first-hand experience, which meant I wouldn’t have to rely simply on theory and supposition to extract some sort of a review from the material. I could ramble on endlessly about some obscure thing that happened to me back when I was sixteen and the world was new. I was, however, also apprehensive, as I am sometimes loathe to throw myself into public discourse regarding the counter-cultures with which I have some connection. Not because I’m ashamed, mind you. Hell, I’m still associated in some way with pretty much every loony thing I ever believed in or adopted as an identity. But I’ve read a lot of the “studies” about these things.
Let me be up front: the whole reason I wanted to watch this film in the first place was because the poster art featured a torch-wielding naked woman riding atop a tormented centaur. I knew it was probable nothing like that would ever occur in the actual movie (and I wasn’t disappointed in my pre-disappointment), but I felt like I owed it to the movie never the less to give it a look see. And while it doesn’t feature a naked woman galloping about on a centaur, it still turned out to be, to my old eyes, a surprisingly effective and creepy, if somewhat modest, tale of Satanism and revenge from beyond the grave.
The years 1976 to 1986, roughly spanning ages four to fourteen for me, seem to be when I discovered the bulk of what I would end up liking for the rest of my life. At the time, my enthusiasm for entertainment that was sometimes, to be charitable, of dubious merit, could be chalked up to simple naivety — the juvenile tastes of a juvenile. Perfectly acceptable, even if it did mean that I was prone to celebrating things like Treasure of the Four Crowns and Gymkata. However, years — nay, decades — later, I find that when I go back and revisit these films so beloved in my youth, rather than having a quiet chuckle at how silly I was back then, I actually enjoy them just as much. And sometimes even more.
As I said way back when in our first review of a Chor Yuen film, and likely in every subsequent review of a Chor Yuen film, discovering his body of work was one of the best cinematic things to happen to me in years. Since that day I first brought home the then newly released DVD of Killer Clans, I’ve made it a point to purchase any of the wuxia films he directed for the Shaw Brothers Studio. Needless to say, the films are not as surprising as they were during those heady first few dates, but I can say we’ve definitely settled down into a very comfortable and happy relationship. His films still prove immensely entertaining, and the more familiar I become with it, the more I notice the differences that occur from one film to the next within what I reckon we should refer to as Yuen’s Martial World.
It seems like there was a period in the history of Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. Studio when Sir Run Run Shaw had a bright red rotary telephone stored under a cheese dome sitting atop his desk. Whenever a completely loony script landed on his desk, he would calmly pick up the phone and it would automatically dial a pre-programmed number which would be answered by Danny Lee, sitting across the studio, presumably wearing a tight polyester shirt adorned with some distasteful paisley pattern. How else can you explain the man’s appearance in a string of the studio’s first real forays into the world of crazy kungfu? Although the Shaws would produce no small number of truly batty kungfu films, especially during the late 70s and early 80s when the company was on its final leg, their early forays into left field all seemed to have the common denominator of young star Li Hsiu-hsien, soon to become Danny Lee.
When innovative Shaw Bros. studio director Chor Yuen teamed up with martial arts novelist Lung Ku and the Shaw’s top kungfu film star, Ti Lung, they made beautiful music together. In 1977 the trio collaborated to create two of the best martial arts films ever made, Clans of Intrigue and Magic Blade. The success of the films, as well as their recognition as some of the greatest looking films to come from the martial arts genre in decades, made it a pretty simple decision to keep a good thing going. Less than a year after audiences were dazzled with the complexly tangled web of swordplay, sex, and suaveness that made up Clans of Intrigue, the trio got together for a sequel called Legend of the Bat. Legend of the Bat is about Ti Lung smirking and stabbing people and trying to unravel a mysterious plot chocked full of secret identities, ulterior motives, and booby trapped lairs. In other words, it’s more of the same, and the same is worth getting more of when it’s as cool as Clans of Intrigue.
Really? This movie made so many “worst of” lists for the year it was released? I guess this is just one of those instances in which I find myself with a different opinion from the rest and supposedly saner masses of humanity. But is this really “worst of” material, especially in a year that saw the release of Norbit and Daddy Day Camp? I mean, to be sure, Primeval is no great film. In fact, it’s pretty dumb. And the smarter it tries to be, the dumber it gets. I think the film was undone for most people by the things I liked most about it: misguided and moronic attempts at “social conscience,” and a bizarre marketing campaign that framed the movie as a Wolf Creek/Hills Have Eyes new style slasher film while doing everything it could to obscure the fact that this was, in fact, a movie about a giant crocodile. It’s these two key elements that make Primeval one of the most authentic throwbacks to the era of Italian jungle and crocodile/alligator exploitation films. I said of the movie Grindhouse that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez set out to make fake grindhouse movies and failed, while Sylvester Stallone simply set out to make a movie (Rambo) and made the year’s most authentic grindhouse film. Primeval definitely deserves to be placed alongside Rambo in that regard. And heck — both of them even use real-world war atrocities as backdrops for exploitation filmmaking.
The plot involves a recently disgraced journalist (Dominic Purcell) who gets saddled with a seemingly sensationalist assignment: to accompany a TV show host (Brooke Langton) and animal wrangler on a trip to Burundi to capture a legendary giant crocodile that has killed hundreds of people — not, it seems for food or survival, but simply because it enjoys killing people (thus the serial killer angle the marketing took). Purcell is initially disgruntled, because apparently as a journalist looking for big, important stories, he wanted to be in the U.S. to cover an S&L scandal or something. Eventually, it dawns on the idiot that he’s about to be dropped smack dab into the middle of one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars, and that hey! Maybe there’s a big, important story there, too. So he and his trusty (as in, you can trust him to annoy the hell out of you) cameraman Orlando Jones pack up and head to Burundi, where the small crew quickly discovers that there’s just as much to fear from local warlord Little Gustav as there is from Big Gustav, the crocodile.
The set-up is perfect Italian exploitation fare. Take a real-world horror and use it as a backdrop from your monster movie, trying in some ham-handed fashion from time to time to excuse your sleazy tastelessness by making an “important,” poorly communicated, and completely hollow feeling “point.” Primeval‘s point seems to be that civil wars in Africa suck as much as being eaten by a giant crocodile, but as long as the white people make it out alive, who really cares if the civil war, the crocodile, or both keep killing black people? It’s easy to see Ruggero Deodato or Sergio Martino churning out the same type of film (only with nudity) in 1979 or ’80. The results so many years later are pretty much the same, only with flashier camera work and a crocodile made of computer bits instead of latex and chicken wire.
The film stumbles over its desire to tell us civil war in Africa is horrible (because, you know, who could have guessed that?) by also portraying every African as either evil and violent, scared and superstitious, or smiling while splashing in the river just long enough to get eaten by a crocodile. Why not make the reporter black? Or the TV show host? Oh wait, they made the cameraman black. That’s cool, right? Except that Orlando Jones is in minstrel show overdrive, constantly bugging out his eyes (actually, I think that might just be the way his eyes look), trying to teach the Africans how to speak “black” and appreciate hip hop, and generally playing up every “wacky black guy” stereotype that action/horror cinema has thrown at us in the past thirty years. He even does that thing where he walks through the jungle talking to himself out loud in a way that no one actually does.
I don’t know what the deal is with Jones. I really don’t think he’s innately obnoxious and irritating, and I bet he could be a pretty good actor. Perhaps he’s just a victim of the age-old Hollywood prejudice against non-white leading men, coupled with Hollywood’s addiction to wisecrackin’ black men — and especially to wisecrackin’ black cameramen. In a movie that uses the horrors of the war in Burundi as a backdrop for a movie about a crocodile that eats people, you’d think there would be plenty of room for offensive missteps, but nothing of the African content of this film is as offensive and unenjoyable as unleashing Orlando Jones and his steady barrage of dick jokes.
All that said, and despite Jones, this movie is pretty tolerably entertaining if you already of a mindset that lets you tolerate things like Big Alligator River. Most of the performances are pretty good (Orlando Jones may be stupid, annoying, and intolerable — but his acting isn’t necessarily bad) or at least passable. Jurgen Prochnow shows up as the requisite “white guy gone local who is wise and knows the ways of the bush.” If, however, you are hoping for a performance as deliciously batty as Jon Voight’s in Anaconda, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. For some reason I can’t fathom, Prochnow plays the whole thing solemn and understated instead of unhinged and raving, which is the way it should have been. Purcell and Langton are there mostly to look concerned and run away from either the crocodile or Little Gustav’s death squad, and sometimes both.
The characters constantly make stupid decisions that end up with them in the river yet again. If you are being attacked by a 25 foot croc, why would you sleep on a rickety wooden veranda out in the middle of the river? But these fools can’t stay out of the rivier. It’s liek the more definite Gustav’s presence nearby is, the less ability the characters have to keep from randomly splashing around in the river.
From time to time, a pick-up truck full of thugs drive by the hassle and execute people, which becomes a point of concern when Jones’ captures one of the executions on camera, thus making the crew target number one for Little Gustav’s men. Oh, and there’s the crocodile. It doesn’t show up a whole lot, and when it does, it looks a step or two above all the CGI crocs that attack has-been actors in Sci-Fi Channel original movies. However, it does show up whenever it’s opportune for the plot — such as when Langton is about to be raped, only to be saved when Gustav shows up to eat the rapist without also attempting to eat Langton.
So I guess there’s a lot of bad and some good in this film, and both were of a type that made the movie appeal to me even as I was aware of how ridiculous the whole thing was. It’s like someone watched Hotel Rwanda and thought, “Man you know what would make this movie good? If Don Cheadle had to battle a giant crocodile! And also, if instead of the main guy, he was a sidekick who made lots of dick jokes. Get me the guys who wrote Catwoman!”
And the end? Seriously? They let the white people bring the random African kid back on the plane with them? The random kid and a random stray bush dog? Has no one who worked on this film ever gone through customs? you can’t even bring a foreign apple into the United States, let alone a kid and a dog.
So yeah. It’s a bad movie, though the kind I like. But worst movie of the year? Someone needed to see more movies in 2007. The best way to summarize the duality of this film is with a spoiler: the movie is good in that it kills off Orlando Jones. But this movie is bad in that it does it off screen. Had this been released to drive-ins in 1979, it would have been a hit. Instead, it sank at the box office and caused other, better killer croc films to get delayed and eventually end up on DVD (Rogue and Black Water, both from Australia), which is also where Primeval probably deserved to be.