Friday, April 18, 2014

Worth Mentioning - Never Screw with America

The puppets are back, but Cody wasn't as thrilled as he wanted to be.


Like the previous entry in the Puppet Master franchise, 2010's Puppet Master: Axis of Evil, Axis Rising is set in 1939 Los Angeles, and despite the fact that all of the returning characters have been recast, this sequel continues directly on from its predecessor's cliffhanger ending.

Axis of Evil's climactic sequence involved patriotic young American Danny Coogan leading the living puppets created by original puppet master Andre Toulon in an assault on an opera house in the Chinatown section of L.A. which was being used as a base for a terroristic plot being cooked up by an alliance of Nazis and Japanese soldiers led by a woman called Ozu. Danny and the puppets successfully thwarted their evil schemes, but during the battle the puppet Ninja, powered by the lifeforce of Danny's brother Don, was irreparably damaged, and Ozu managed to escape from the theatre, taking with her a sack that seemed to contain several of our puppet heroes.

As Axis Rising shows us, Ozu didn't make it very far with that sack before being stopped in an alleyway by a carload of Nazis AoE hadn't made us aware of, a group fronted by Commandant Moebius. Tensions between Ozu and Moebius quickly rise and the scene ends with them making a rather unfair trade - Ozu hands the sack, which contains only Tunneler, over to the Nazis, and in exchange Moebius "sets her free". By shooting her dead.

Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge established that the Nazis were endeavoring to find a way to reanimate the dead, and the occult-obsessed Moebius is continuing to pursue this goal, holding an Austrian scientist named Emil Freuhoffer hostage in a secret laboratory and forcing him to develop a machine called the Resurrection Device. They can't quite figure out how to make it work. The machine is able to zap a corpse back to life, but when the zombie steps out of it, its flesh begins to melt and then it collapses, returning to the land of the dead.

In his downtime, when he's not being tormented by the sexuality of Moebius's buxom blonde female sidekick Uschi, Freuhoffer likes to fashion baby dolls into monstrosities and build his own puppets, so Moebius hands Tunneler over to him to be examined.

The Resurrection Device is a bust, but by studying Tunneler and the fluid he extracts from the puppet, Freuhoffer discovers an alternate way to raise the dead.

Meanwhile, the military is now on the trail of the Nazis based in L.A., and they want Danny and his girlfriend Beth out of the equation. Veteran soldier Sergeant Stone is ordered to watch over them and keep them safe... But rather than just hanging out with them at Danny's place (somehow his Chinatown apartment turned into a two-story house in the hours since Axis of Evil), Stone joins them in a rescue mission to retrieve Tunneler from the clutches of Moebius.

Going up against Moebius, they find that Freuhoffer has created his own force of puppets; female puppet Bombshell, who has guns hidden in her breasts; Nazi werewolf Weremacht; the very un-PC, bomb-toting Kamikaze; and a machine gun-equipped, electricity-blasting tank called Blitzkrieg. This is confusing, however, because each puppet has always been inhabited by a separate person, and while Bombshell is infused with the lifeforce of Uschi, it's not clear where the lifeforces for the other three came from... Freuhoffer finds a way to synthesize the life-giving serum, are his creations just soulless, diluted fakes?

Encounters between the two groups of puppets build up to another climactic raid sequence, as Danny, Beth, and Stone lead Toulon's creations on an attack on Moebius's secret base. But Freuhoffer's puppets are powerful. To have a chance in this battle, Danny's puppets need reinforcements in the form of Six Shooter.

In Axis of Evil, Six Shooter wasn't in working condition, he required Danny's woodworking skills to be operational again. Axis Rising really functions as a build-up to the return to action of the six armed, six gunned cowboy.

Even though Axis of Evil hadn't lived up to the expectations I had for it, my expectations were again high for Axis Rising. This was because of the man in the director's chair: the head of Full Moon himself, Charles Band.

Band had directed the wraparound segments of the series recap clip show Puppet Master: The Legacy, but Axis Rising was the first time he had directed a full PM feature himself. This was exciting to me, because Band's directorial efforts tend to be a bit on the nuttier side. See him putting a topless woman in a gorilla mask in Hideous!, or watch another killer doll movie he made called Blood Dolls, a movie which I love due to its insanity and endlessly quotable dialogue. In the build-up to its release, it appeared that Rising would have touches of insanity as well - the machine gun breasted Bombshell (a variation on a puppet that was originally designed in the mid-'90s for a Puppet Master spin-off that didn't happen called Puppet Wars), Kamikaze, a Nazi werewolf puppet...

As it turns out, Axis Rising wasn't nearly as insane as I was anticipating. Like Axis of Evil, AR's budgetary limits required that most of its running time consist of dramatic dialogue scenes, while also restricting what could be done with the puppets when they do get to have some action. Because of this, the character interactions are what need to be appealing to you for you to really get enjoyment out of the movie, and aside from some scattered moments the character interactions (and some of the acting on display) aren't all that great.

There are certainly some fantastic ideas at play in Axis Rising - an occult-obsessed Nazi, his horny right hand woman, a Nazi werewolf puppet (that guy just can't be mentioned enough), a zombie machine - and yet the movie has a rather lifeless feeling to it that keeps it from reaching the level of fun that such elements should be providing.

Axis Rising received some scathing reviews, but even though it didn't live up to my expectations, I can't join in on putting it down, either. It's Full Moon! It's Puppet Master! I always get some enjoyment out of these movies, and Axis Rising does have ideas in there that I like. Like Axis of Evil, it's one that I had to step back and reassess before I could really find that enjoyment in it, it didn't come immediately like my appreciation for some other Puppet Master entries did, but I'm glad to have this installment in the series and look forward to what's coming next.

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