Tsui Hark’s one modest ambition in life was to forever change the way movies were made in Hong Kong. Just that. A small order, right? The amazing thing is that he managed to pull it off. His work in the early 1980s served as one of the foundations of what would become known as the Hong Kong New Wave — that heady period of filmmaking from the 1980s through to the middle of the 1990s when new filmmakers and new styles of filmmaking were running rampant and turning Hong Kong into the most interesting movie making mecca in the world. It’s no accident that Hark found himself in the middle of this cinematic upheaval, just as it’s no accident that what happened in Hong Kong then so closely mirrored what had happened with American filmmaking in the 1970s. The old guard was puttering along, making movies that were out of touch with what young filmgoers wanted. The hungry new generation was waiting to bust out from under the thumb of their mentors and flood the market with bold new approaches and ideas. And finally it got to the point that the next generation could not be contained. They took control, and nothing was the same again.
No genre is so simple that it’s well suited by being made a genre, just as no individual member of a race is justly served by being made part of said race. But in the quest to classify or define easy descriptions, these broad-sweeping categories are the best we people can come up with. It is a concept that dismisses any sense of variation or individuality, and while I admit that generalization is often a necessity for making it through everyday life, it’s also a big part of why we tend to miss out on so much wonderful stuff. Take the Spaghetti Western, for example, or the Western, since that’s how most people tend to see it. I can’t even begin to process the number of people I’ve spoken to who hate Spaghetti Westerns even though they’ve never seen one. They equate the Western with polished American films, with John Wayne or Gene Autry, or they simply hate country music, thus they hate cowboys, thus they hate Westerns. An entire genre of film is then dismissed despite the fact that there are hundred of films that break the mold, that would prove entertaining to these people if they could only get over the fact that the people in them are from the wild west.
“It’s bad enough to have a ship that looks like this and a captain who looks like me without having a chief officer who looks like you.” — Captain Alan Gaskell
When the winds roar and the rain whips at the streaked windows of my abode on tumultuous Saturday nights, plunging the world into an inhospitable maelstrom of rumbling thunder and fury that sinks all aspirations of going out for a gay night on the town, there are few things that make me feel warmer and more comfortable than pouring myself a tumbler of bourbon and curling up with an old black and white movie full or romance, adventure, dashing leads, and bombshell femme fatales. And on nights such as those, the 1935 high seas adventure romance China Seas delivers an abundance of everything I hope for in such a film, along with more uses of the words “Toots” per minute than any film previously or since made.
Inhabiting the skin of hard-drinking steamer captain Alan Gaskell, Clarke Gable is picture perfect as he struggles to pilot his ship from Hong Kong Harbor to Singapore, doing his best to avoid rip roaring typhoons and marauding Malay pirates. This being an adventure movie, of course, he will successfully avoid neither. But he will look damn good while failing. As the tough talking, hard drinking ship captain who trades sneers and insults and kisses with Jean Harlow’s chain smoking, street tough “China Doll” Portland, Gable crackles with energy and charisma. And Harlow’s somewhat obnoxious Portland matches him sneer for sneer, insult for insult as they ply the waters of the South China Seas with a superb cast of characters, including the drunk writer, the sailor with a dark past, the wide-eyed rookie deckhand, the elegant lady, the wise old mentor with a handlebar mustache and pith helmet permanently grafted to his head, and of course the jovial businessman who ends up being a dastardly traitor.
Much of the film is taken up with banter and witty exchanges between the principals, all of whom perform remarkably well. The setting is exotic. Who wouldn’t want to be aboard an old steamer ship — one possibly laden with a secret shipment of gold — sailing across the China Seas while one dons a tux, drinks champagne, and worry about pirates? It’s a picture perfect old-school adventure setting, and that and the chemistry between the actors as they rattle off the whip-smart dialog is all this film needs to propel between its two main action setpieces. Using just the old sets and practical effects, China Seas manages to successfully convey both a ship-rattling typhoon and a pirate attack. Both sequences deliver the thrills with ease, though ultimately this is a movie carried entirely on the shoulders of Gable, and he’s more than up to the task.
If there’s any weakness in the film, it’d be Harlow’s China Doll. Most sassy femme fatales have some characteristic that makes them worthy of redemption, or at the very least, we can understand why the hero would destroy himself over this woman. But China Doll is less fatale and more just irritating. While Harlow delivers clever dialog and obviously works incredibly well alongside Gable, I found I had a hard time understanding why Gable was so haunted by their relationship with one another. And this coming from a man who willingly and actively seeks out dangerous women I know will destroy me and plunge my life into a state of decadent destruction. It’s real easy to believe the scenes where Gable looks like he just wants to haul off and dump her overboard, but less so the scenes where he supposed to be struggling with the smoldering flame of their love. But whatever — that’s love, right? And when I point this out as a potential weakness in the film, I also need to point out that it’s an extremely small weakness, and the sheer force of personality and the interplay between Gable and Harlow is more than enough to carry the film over any tiny rough patch it may hit.
Mystery, pirates, exotica, typhoons, romance, rum drinking, and Clark Gable’s pencil thin mustache and perfect old-school tough, dashing guy hair all get drawn into a script that is lean and streamlined but never crude or lacking in elegance, making China Seas cracking good adventure romance cinema from the golden age of the silver screen.
Release Date: 1935 | Country: United States | Starring: Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, Rosalind Russell, Dudley Digges, C. Aubrey Smith, Robert Benchley, William Henry, Liev De Maigret, Lilian Bond, Edward Brophy, Soo Yong, Carol Ann Beery, Akim Tamiroff, Ivan Lebedeff | Screenplay: Jules Furthman, James Kevin McGuinness | Director: Tay Garnett | Cinematography: Ray June | Music: Herbert Stothart | Producer: Albert Lewin | Availability: DVD (Amazon)
I haven’t seen a whole lot of Bollywood films, but those I have seen, on the whole I’ve liked. I’ve seen just enough of them to act like a shocking poseur among my immediate circle of acquaintances and work colleagues. “Slumdog Millionaire? Very impressive, but really only a Western distillation of the vibrancy and colour of a real Bollywood film. Also, I got the Amitabh Bachchan reference so clearly I am better than you.” I’m not proud of such behaviour, but then it’s not difficult to feel intellectually superior to most of the people I encounter at work. Just having seen a theatre production without any songs in it is enough to mark me out as an ivory-tower elitist in my office.
Simply calling Da Khwar Lasme Spogmay “a Pakistani film” would likely send any serious minded booster of that nation’s cinema into paroxysms of despair. The Pashto language film industry that produced Da Khwar Lasme Spogmay, which serves an overwhelmingly male audience in the country’s northern border region, is considered to be pretty much the absolute gutter of Pakistan’s film making culture. For Americans, you’d have to imagine meeting a person from a foreign country whose only exposure to American cinema was through seeing Manos: The Hands of Fate, and who tried to characterize the whole of the U.S.’s filmic output based on that.
As I am now, so too was I as a child: a very forgiving viewer. I’m sure there is some sort of mathematical algorithm that can predict exactly what amount of cool stuff (as defined by me) a movie has to have to make me forget the probably greater amount of boring stuff in it, but I haven’t been good at math since seventh grade, so I’ll leave it to the eggheads with their supercomputers and pulsating frontal lobes to figure that one out. Suffice it to say that my brain, caffeine and alcohol addled place that it is, has a tremendous capacity for screening out the crap in a movie and only remembering the bits it thought were entertaining. It’s the sort of mental agility that allowed me as a child and continues to allow me as an adult to squeeze enjoyment out of bloodless stones that crush others. That’s why I can watch a movie like Treasure of the Four Crowns or Ator: The Fighting Eagle and walk away, unscathed, and perhaps even mildly satisfied with what I’ve just seen.
I learned two important things from this psychotronic adaptation of Edgar Wallace’s novel, Die Blaue Hand. First, you can’t casually watch one of these Edgar Wallace movies from Danish film studio Rialto. Turn away for five seconds, and when you turn back to the television, you will be completely lost. They are so fast moving, and so insanely convoluted, that you have to concentrate on them with an intensity usually reserved for deriving the Unified Field Theory. The second thing I learned is that while quantity doesn’t equate to quality, featuring double the Klaus Kinski in your film is a sure thing. He shows up here as twin brothers, and unfortunately, that lead to the aforementioned distraction as I started daydreaming about what Crawlspace would have been like if Klaus Kinski was slinking around, peeping on…Klaus Kinski!
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
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.