At this point in Teleport City’s existence, I think we can skip the introductory material regarding the post-apocalyptic films of the 1980s. Suffice it to say that the wake of the good ship Road Warrior is cluttered with some truly ridiculous flotsam, the vast majority of which seems to have drifted over from Italy, occasionally with a grinning Fred Williamson clinging to it, trademark cigarello clenched firmly between his teeth. And we don’t want to short-change The Philippines, whose contributions to the genre may be fewer and less “famous” but are even battier than their Italian counterparts. And occasionally, the United States would decide that if it was the country that most movies would hold at least 50% responsible for the post-apocalyptic setting, then the US might as well get in on the game.
Perhaps because we were stocked with the biggest nuclear arsenal in the world, many US productions wrong-headedly tried to present a more “realistic” interpretation of what the world would be like after the collapse of society, rather than relying on the tried and true leather-clad mohawk guys tearing about in dune buggies that the rest of the world seemed to happy with. Less Road Warrior, more Mad Max, in that way. But every now and then, the United States would get its head out of its ass, stop producing dull claptrap like The Day After (so dangerous and shocking that the people made it weren’t even sure if we should watch it — seriously, they claimed to expect people flocking in for shock and post-traumatic stress disorder after witness the stark horrors the mini-series had in store for us. That’s near William Castle levels of brilliant), and make something that just through its hat into the ring of goofball post-apocalyptic adventure.
Coming as it did in 1991, Neon City sort of missed the boat. The Soviet Union was no more. The threat of nuclear annihilation was receding into the background. It was looking like that bomb shelter I’d built with my friends back in the woods and stocked with tins of Dinty Moore and Beanie Weenies was not going to be needed (though as far as I know, it’s still back there, right about here). Despite a brief foray into Middle Eastern warfare in 1990 and a mild recession, things were looking up. The environment for a post-apocalyptic action film was less inviting than it had been during the height of Reagan era Cold War paranoia. Luckily, Neon City decided to eschew nuclear annihilation as the way to get us all into football pads and assless leather pants and relied instead on a more 1970s style of tearing the world apart: environmental devastation. Contending with a ravaged environment is a standard part of any post-apocalypse movie, but more times than not, at least during the 1980s, that environment had been ravaged by nuclear war, which for some reason, the people of the near future could call nuclear war, opting instead to always give it some hokey, vaguely Biblical name like “the great cleansing” or “the time of fire.”
I guess something gets into the drinking water that causes our post-apocalyptic to give things more flowery, poetic, and creative names than what we did with wars like “World War II” and “The Hundred Years’ War.” But movies in which the wrecked environment is the cause, rather than a symptom of, the end of the world are farther between than the more common “you blew it up!” variety of film. However, with the two great super powers of the world turning their ICBMs into planters and having their old war bunkers blessed by crystal wielding new age priestesses (or something like that), a post-apocalypse latecomer like Neon City had to cast its net back to the decade of gas rationing and the great paranoia about the environment. It’s not that big a surprise, then, that the fish this movie pulls back into the boat resembles something more from the 1970s than the Reagan era post-apocalypse action movies with which we’d grown so familiar. Ozone layer depletion was still a hot topic at the time, so seizing on that as the cause of our doom was only natural.
Neon City is a decidedly more somber affair than movies like New Barbarians, 2020 Texas Gladiators, or Cherry 2000, to name just a few. It still boasts the hallmarks of the 1980s post-apocalypse movie — a big ass truck, marauders on motorcycles, questionable trends in fashion, a droning synth score — but it presents them in a much less cartoonish fashion, opting instead of a tone that is bleak, depressed, and surprisingly believable. The world of Neon City is successfully convincing as an actual post-apocalyptic society, one in which law and order exists in miserable, grimy pockets alongside large swaths of the country that have devolved into lawlessness. The future is such shit because the ozone layer was being eaten up at a frightening pace. In an attempt to halt and repair the damage, NASA hired a brilliant scientist who concocts some crazy sort of laser experiment. Unfortunately, all it does it accelerate the decay, thrusting the earth into a gloomy future where clouds of poison dust roll across the wasteland and people can be fried alive during certain conditions that create some crazy sort of intensification of sunlight. Civilization, or at least large swathes of it, couldn’t be sustained. The United States fractured into fiefdoms, each one ruled by a security force that seems at least tangentially loyal to whatever government remains, but ultimately cut off from any real central authority and thus left to fend for themselves.
Through this stark land strides Stark (Michael Ironside, from everything), a bounty hunter with a haunted past. He’s bringing a fugitive named Reno (Vanity, The Last Dragon), but discovers that he can’t actually collect her bounty in the city at which he arrives. Instead, he has to travel to Neon City, the major remaining hub of civilization in the region. Travel to Neon City isn’t unusual, but it is dangerous thanks to a gauntlet of brigands, nutcases, and environmental madness. The local lawman wants Stark to ride shotgun with the Neon City Express, the beast of a truck that makes the run with civilian passengers. Stark would rather take his chances on his own, at least until his truck “mysteriously” explodes. Stark and Reno thus end up boarding the armored transport along with a group of other travelers who hope to make the risky run to Neon City, each one with hopes of a better life. If you’ve ever seen the classic John Huston/John Wayne western Stagecoach, you may recognize the scenario. Neon City draws heavily from that movie, and in general, the greater portion of post-apocalypse movies can be easily compared to westerns, though most of them opt for a sort of Sergio Leone vibe — not surprising given the Italian lineage of both Leone westerns and 1980s post-apocalypse movies. So perhaps it’s no accident that the US-produced Neon City looks a bit further back, to American produced westerns of the early era, just as it did in plucking environmental disaster from the 70s.
What this means, however, is that we have an ensemble cast, and as just about any fan of b-movies can tell you, that almost always devolves immediately into poorly written, endless bickering and sniping. The set-up seems to point to exactly that sort of tedium. Besides gruff, angry Stark and his equally pissed off charge, the driver turns out to be Bulk (former football player Lyle Alzedo), Stark’s former partner who stark put away for five years on account of Bulk beating a guy to death. You might think that this ends up being important, but Bulk seems to have adopted a live and let live attitude, so whatever tension might have depended on that dynamic is dissipated pretty quickly. There’s also Sandy (Valerie Wildman), who happens to be Stark’s estranged ex-wife. Seems that whatever government remains in the blighted year of 2053 doesn’t take too kindly to “mutants,” making sure they are killed off at birth. When Stark and Sandy had a child, it suffered from a couple relatively mild abnormalities which the government identified — incorrectly, Sandy maintains — as mutations. So the child was killed. In a rage, Stark decided that Sandy had been covering up some sort of mutation in herself that was manifested in the child. Needless to say, the marriage had as much chance of surviving as the baby.
It may seem contrived for so many people with personal connections to one another to end up on the same trip to Neon City, but it seems there are so few people left that it doesn’t come across as improbable as it might otherwise. Fleshing out the cast are a vaudeville style comedian (Richard Sanders — you know him as Les Nesman), a doctor with abysmal taste in shirts and hairstyles (Nick Klar), a sheltered socialite who’s been riding the collapse of society out in Sweden (Juliet Landau, daughter of Martin and eventual reoccurring actress in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Justice League Unlimited, and a bunch more voice work), and an old Asian guy (Sonny Trinidad). I wasn’t in the mood for ninety minutes of clumsily written character conflict, and luckily, Neon City surprised me. Although we hit some of the expected notes — Stark and Sandy don’t get along, socialite Twink can’t understand why the government allows everything to be so dangerous, Vanity is pissed off at everyone — the movie never wallows in it. Most conflict is dealt with quickly, and we move on. Hell, for the most part, most of the people seem to get along with and help each other, and this is one of the few low budget post-apocalyptic movies where pretty much everyone we’re supposed to like is actually likable. Who ever heard of such a thing?
The only real fly in the ointment is sleazy Dr. Tom, who we know to be an impostor with sociopathic tendencies, but even that is handled in a relatively deft manner. We know the eventual conflict is coming, but we don’t have to sit through endless scenes of “who’s the bad guy.” And in fact, even though he’s the scumbag, he’s also well aware of the fact that he needs to pitch in and help out if any of them are going to survive the run. It seems almost that he doesn’t even want to hurt anyone, but his masquerade as a doctor keeps getting him called upon to perform some actual medical service, for which he has no talent. The only way he sees to cover his ignorance is to make sure the patients tragically pass away. Even though most of the characters are one-note caricatures, they were an easy lot to get along with, especially Sander’s ever chipper Dickie Devine (whom I expected to become odious comic relief, but he never does) and big galoot Bulk.
The expectation is that Alzedo — a former Oakland Raiders defensive lineman who, sadly, passed away shortly after this movie in May of 1992 — will be terrible, or he’ll just do the silent, dangerous act. But he really gives it his all and comes across with a lot of charisma. He has a freak-out scene that’s a little overplayed, but he tears into it with such earnestness that it doesn’t really matter. I’m primed for everyone in these types of movies to be cynical, unsympathetic, and overly acidic. It’s a bit of a joy to discover one where both the script and the performers have decided that maybe it’s OK to actually enjoy the company of the characters. Alzedo’s Bulk could have been the heavy or the jerk. Instead, he’s the center of the film’s charm.
Most of the cast is similarly committed. there’s no sense that anyone was handling this as though they thought it was just some idiotic straight-to-video sci-fi film, and there’s charisma enough to go around. The one failing is in the relationship between Stark and Reno, which is supposed to go from enemies to lovers. Which it does, but with almost no transition or development at all and with no chemistry between the two. But like everything else in this movie, the plot doesn’t linger on it for very long, so you can keep rolling without too much fuss. The relationship between Stark and Reno fails not because of the actors as much as it does the script. Vanity had a lot of natural charm, but the few times I’ve seen her act, she wasn’t all that great. Her character probably could have used more to do and say in this, although limited as it is, it doesn’t give Vanity’s weaknesses as an actress any time to surface. Unlike, perhaps, more current movies, the movie doesn’t try to pass her off as an unstoppable killing machine. She knows her way around a fight, having grown up as an orphan in the wasteland, but she makes believable mistakes and is never anything more than barely competent — just like everyone else.
For his part, Michael Ironside is, well, Michael Ironside. It’ll always be hard for him to convince me he’s actually the good guy, so recognizable is he as a guy who does things like make people’s heads explode. His character, like Vanity’s is the focus of the story while also being the least interesting. He turns in a fine performance. And I really like the idea of Ironside as the hero. He’s in shape but not ripped. He’s losing his hair. He looks like a regular guy with an unusually effective steely-eyed glare. Like everything else in this movie, he looks lived in, worn down, and how you’d expect someone surviving in this future to look. Whether it’s a conscious decision or merely a function of the film’s low budget, no one looks glamorous — not even Vanity, and that’s quite a feat. Well, OK, maybe you can still tell it’s Vanity underneath the rags and ponchos, but even she manages to be convincing otherwise. She was, for those of you who may not remember the 80s quite so clearly, one of several female proteges of Prince when he was at the absolute height of his power. Vanity, Apollonia Kotero, and Sheila E. all tried their hand at acting. Apollonia did OK in Purple Rain and continues to pop up from time to time in TV work. After playing herself in Krush Groove, Sheila E. decided to rely more on the fact that she was the one protege who had a staggering abundance of actual musical talent.
But Vanity…Vanity starred not only in Neon City, which as you may be gathering, I think is a pretty good movie, but also appeared in one of the greatest movies of the 1980s: The Last Dragon. If she never did anything else, those two things alone would qualify her for the much coveted Teleport City Medal of Merit. Sadly, she retired from the business in the middle of the 1990s and launched a career as a born-again evangelist, which I cannot say I have followed as closely as I did her turns in Action Jackson and Tanya’s Island.
And I won’t claim that I’m the only person to own albums by both Vanity 6 and Apollonia 6 (as well as most of The Time and Sheila E’s albums, but that’s a lot more common), but that’s got to put me in some sort of elite crowd. I even have a Wendy and Lisa solo albums. Damn, Prince made a lot of money off of me. It’s a wonder I never bought solo albums by “that guy from The Revolution who dressed like a doctor” or “that guy from the Revolution who looked like a less stately version of Prince.”
I do think that the main characters of Reno and Stark are actually the supporting players, and the journey toward redemption for both Wing and Bulk is the film’s real heart. The best scenes belong to Lyle Alzedo and Sonny Trinidad. The friendship that develops between the hulking driver and the wispy old man is far more organic and interesting than the rushed and clumsy romance between Stark and Reno. All in all, though, the cast does well, and even moments of bad acting come across with a naturalness that makes them work with the characters. I think it might have something to do with the fact that director Monte Markham was an actor by trade, having worked for years as a supporting player and one-off character in countless television shows. He got one starring turn, in the series Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, but for the most part, he was strictly a one or two appearance performer. So I think he must have a soft spot for supporting casts, which is why they perhaps get the better end of the deal in this script.
Even Twink, who should be the most annoying character, is written and played with sympathy. She’s naive, but she’s basically nice and naive, rather than the usual “bitchy sheltered rich girl,” and that was, after so many years of Sci-Fi Channel movie characters, unbelievably refreshing. Thank God Juliet Landau had the good sense or lack of experience enough to take the tolerable, likable route with the character. She does a lot of work on cartoons I like a like — most notably as Tala on the much missed Justice League cartoon, as well as roles in the more recent Ben Ten series and the direct to DVD movie Green Lantern: First Flight (which, incidentally, was absolutely awesome).
Lest you think this is all character drama, let me assure you that the army of writers that worked on this movie (there were four, though only Markham and Jeff Begun had any experience before — or after — Neon City) never forget to pepper it with action. Stark and the gang are pestered every step of the way by roving gangs of killers, culminating in a few well-executed action scenes and a lot of competently executed action scenes. Neon City is surprisingly adept at balancing character drama and action, and while we’re not looking at stunts and adrenaline on the level of Road Warrior (though the final chase and fight scene is obviously plucked from that movie’s finale), it still manages to be pretty exciting. There are some pretty hairy looking motorcycle crashes, a lot of explosions, and plenty of gunfights.
Tying the whole movie together is the world these characters inhabit. As you no doubt know, post-apocalypse movies tend toward either the grimly dull or the outlandishly cartoony. Neon City does its best to walk the line between the two. Sure we have the biker gangs, and most of the clothes and decor are the typical post-apocalyptic mish-mash of antiques and what people int he 80s thought stuff int he future was going to look like, but it’s all put together with an expert eye. This stuff doesn’t look like prop room leftovers that some thoughtless art director threw together and called the future. It looks lived in. It looks, if not exactly real, then at least awful close to it. There are, of course, anachronisms. Though we’re not entirely certain when things got as bad as they are in 2053, it’s still safe to assume that we would have better computers than the 1980s.
At the same time, I always like seeing old computer equipment, and I think anyone who rips into a film from, say, the 1980s for not accurately predicting what computers would like in the future really is missing the point. And int he case of Neon City, it even sort of works. the world is so believably run down and worn out that it almost seems plausible that we’d all be back to using 286 computers with monochrome displays. Similarly, the outside world seems believable enough. Filmed in Utah at least partially during the cold months, Neon City achieves the “driving across the desert” look that was requisite of all post-Road Warrior movies while still being something a little more — though not entirely — unique. It reminded me a lot of the look of an earlier, not as enjoyable post-apocalyptic movie, Warlords of the 21st Century starring Michael Beck.
The movie also gives the characters a believable reason to be farting around out in the wasteland. Unlike many post-apocalypse movies, where people seem to drive around the desert for no reason at all other than it’s cheap to film in the desert and Road Warrior was filmed in a desert, Neon City at least explains it. Our heroes don’t want to be there; it just happens to be the only road to where they need to be. And the biker gangs are out there because, well, they’re bandits. Furthermore, the existence of cities and pockets of civilization, however miserable they may be, lends Neon City an extra dynamic. We get the feeling that things are bad in a lot of places, but not everywhere. Neon City itself seems like a little nation-state, though one that is relatively safe and stable, and apparently the Swedes are getting along just fine. There is a lack of cohesive centralized government in the United States, but it’s not total anarchy. You get the sense that someone, somewhere, is desperately trying to keep things from unraveling any more than they already have.
I was surprised by Neon City. I didn’t expect much from it, but it really entertained me. I like sci-fi films that have nothing to say, and I like sci-fi films that are so preposterously ham-fisted with what they have to say that it becomes absurd. Neon City is the rare sci-fi film that has a little to say and says it well. Not a whole lot, but just enough to give it that extra bit of depth. Mad Max was really the opening salvo in the Reagan era post-apocalypse boom, even though it’s more outrageous sequel became the template. It’s debatable whether or not Neon City is the last film in the trend, but regardless, it’s fitting that it would be among the last and is, in spirit so much more similar to Mad Max than it is Road Warrior. If Neon City has one big weakness, it’s that it’s a good movie. Not a great movie that can enthrall anyone, and not a terrible movie that can amuse anyone. It’s merely good (though I think very good), and that means for it to be entertaining, you have to like it, not like laughing at it. It’s not like indulging in some gloriously ludicrous nonsense like New Barbarians. It’s a pretty serious movie, executed competently, which means it doesn’t have that party film vibe about it. But if you’re looking for some decent sci-fi action, or if you have an affinity for post-apocalypse movies in general, then low-key, modest little Neon City is really a forgotten gem.