Friday, August 8, 2014

Worth Mentioning - Missiles and Soldiers and Spies, Oh My

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody has seen a whole lot of action, science fiction, and suspense.


With Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel Studios has, for the first time ever, produced a movie starring a group of characters with which I had absolutely no previous familiarity. I was a Marvel kid, but I mostly stuck with the street level heroes and supernatural titles, rarely straying into books that dealt with the cosmic. I did pick up a couple issues of Guardians of the Galaxy in the early '90s, but that was a different roster in a different setting (the 31st century). This team the film focuses on was assembled for the 2008 volume of the title, and even though most of the characters have been around since at least the 1970s, I have never read a single comic book featuring the likes of Peter Quill/Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, Groot, or Rocket Raccoon.

Being a fan of Marvel, of the cinematic universe they've been building since the release of Iron Man in 2008, and of director James Gunn (Slither, Super), who also co-wrote the Guardians screenplay with first-timer Nicole Perlman, I was very interested in checking the movie out, and it was a given that I would see it on opening weekend. But I have to admit, it was with some trepidation that I entered the theatre. This is, after all, a movie in which a lead actor known so far for comedy (Chris Pratt) is being paired with a living tree and a talking raccoon... Would it be too silly? Too aimed toward children?

Guardians of the Galaxy doesn't ease you into its world, it just drops you right into its weirdness and hopes that you'll hold on for the ride. It smashes shifts in tone over your head, going from an opening scene featuring young Peter Quill watching his mother die of cancer in 1988 to Chris Pratt playing the adult version of the character, now dancing and being a goofball as he mishandles CGI critters on a distant planet during the title sequence. It presents the sights of such things as a talking raccoon and a living tree working as bounty hunters or of the massive severed head of a "Celestial" floating in space and being mined of its organic resources, a head big enough to fit a city inside of it, as if these are the most natural things ever put on the screen. The Marvel cinematic universe has come a long way since the days of wondering how The Avengers could possibly happen, having Tony Stark meet up with the otherworldly likes of Thor, when the Iron Man movie had striven to be so grounded.

I found Guardians to be very jarringly weird at first, and it took me a while to adjust to it. Because of this, I believe it's a movie that will benefit from repeat viewings, as once I did fully accept what Gunn was showing me, the movie became a total blast to experience.

This is a film that is most certainly odd and silly, it leans heavily on its comedy, comedy which is often hilariously funny, but it also takes its characters seriously and has a heart the size of a Celestial's head.

Each member of Gunn's titular group of heroes is damaged in some way. Peter Quill was abducted from Earth mere moments after watching his mother pass away, raised by a band of murderous scavengers (actually, they call themselves Ravagers), and all he has left to connect him to his home is the awesome mix tape his mom made him of pop songs from her youth - a mix tape which also provides the film with a fantastic soundtrack. Rocket is a talking, bounty hunting raccoon, but that is not a normal thing, not even in the reality of the movie. He's one of a kind, and he was made this way through torturous experiments. His only friend is Groot, this simple tree that can only say the words "I am Groot" in different intonations. Hulking, raging Drax the Destroyer is seeking revenge for the murder of his family at the hands of the tyrannical Ronan the Accuser. Gamora also lost her family, who were murdered by the death-obsessed mad titan Thanos. Thanos raised her as his own child, enhancing her abilities, making her a living weapon. She also wants revenge for what was done to her.

The MacGuffin that brings them all together is an orb that houses an Infinity Stone, one of several such items that Thanos seems to be seeking out. Ronan the Accuser has agreed to obtain the orb for Thanos, and in return Thanos is to destroy Xandar, home planet of the intergalactic police force called Nova Corps, an organization which apparently has a rough history with the Kree, Ronan's people. The plans of the supervillains are thwarted when Quill (who has given himself the outlaw name Star-Lord, but it hasn't quite caught on yet) just happens to steal the orb right out from under them. Quill has a bounty on his head which Rocket and Groot mean to collect, and Gamora is sent by Ronan, not knowing that she plans to betray him, to retrieve the orb so it can be delivered to her adoptive father. An altercation between this group lands them in a prison which already houses Drax. As they all come to realize the gravity of the situation they're stuck in the middle of, and with a couple of them having vendettas against those who want the orb, the group are forced to put aside their differences and work together, to step up and become heroes for once in their lives.

The fate of Xandar lies in the hands of this group of emotionally broken freaks and nobodies. These are five characters who have nothing in the universe. Until they find each other.

Chris Pratt proves highly capable of carrying a blockbuster on his shoulders with his very likeable portrayal of Quill. Zoe Saldana is reliably strong in the role of Gamora. Vin Diesel provided Groot's varations "I am Groot", with the special effects artists doing wonderful work to ensure that it clearly comes across on the screen that this tree is a creature with feelings that run deep. Pro wrestling fans don't generally seem to be that fond of Dave Bautista, but he turns in a performance that makes the soft-spoken, always literal Drax the Destroyer one of the most enjoyable characters to watch.

Standing out above all, however, is Rocket the raccoon. Rocket isn't a sight gag, he's not just there for laughs. He is a real, complex character with brains and emotions. (Especially anger. He has a lot of that.) He is essentially the Han Solo of this movie, with Groot as his Chewbacca. This tough-talking, gun-toting raccoon is brought to life through some incredible CG effects and great vocal work by Bradley Cooper.

The action in the movie comes almost as often as its laughs, and its fights and chases are impressively realized, building up to an aerial dogfight that showcases some tactics I had never seen in quite this way before.

Guardians of the Galaxy is funny, exciting, and at times quite touching - I never expected to get choked up during such a movie the way I did during some of the scenes in here. Its characters are memorable and layered, and it doesn't take long for them to work their ways into your heart, just like they work their ways into each other's.

I had never spent time with the likes of Peter Quill/Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, Groot, or Rocket Raccoon before seeing this movie, and now I can't wait to spend some more time with them.
Thankfully, Gunn and Marvel end the film with a promise: The Guardians of the Galaxy Will Return.

GUNHED (1989)

Japan's Toho Studios held a screenwriting contest in an effort to find the perfect story to base the follow-up to 1984's The Return of Godzilla around. Dentist Shinichiro Kobayashi had the winning submission, and his story provided the basis for 1989's Godzilla vs. Biollante. But coming in second place wasn't a loss for American screenwriter Jim Bannon, who had submitted a script that found Godzilla doing battle with a supercomputer. Toho decided to produce his screenplay as well, but not as an installment in the Godzilla series.

Writer/director Masato Harada was hired to bring Bannon's story to the screen with all Godzilla elements stripped from it, and Harada clearly gave the script a complete overhaul, because there is no indication anywhere within the finished film that Godzilla could have possibly fit into its scenario. The film Harada made is actually a very straightforward play on Alien and Aliens, albeit one with a complicated backstory delivered to audiences at the beginning.

In 2005, on the tiny island 8JO, one thousand miles off the Asian coast, an industrial complex was built in which the most advanced robots ever known would be manufactured. This complex was controlled by a supercomputer called the Kyron-5. On July 4, 2025, Kyron-5 decided that human beings were useless and declared war on the world. A battalion of combat robots called Gunheds (Gun Unit Heavy Elimination Devices) were dispatched to 8JO to put Kyron-5 out of commission. On the 373rd day of battle, the Gunheds made one last push to power down Kyron-5.

In the early 2030s, despite the whole Kyron-5 kerfuffle, mankind was gladdened to find a substance called Texmexium, which enabled the entire world to be controlled by a new generation of supercomputers. Unfortunately, the depletion of Earth's natural resources has led to a scarcity of the materials required to build our new supercomputer controllers, so conductive plastics and computer chips have become more valuable than gold. Treasure hunters scour the world looking for them, even venturing into forbidden zones.

With all this exposition out of the way, we have reached the film's setting of 2038, when a group of treasure hunters infiltrate the long abandoned industrial complex on the largely forgotten island 8JO, planning to steal some Kyron chips... Yes, all the story told at the head of the film really does is serve to confuse the viewer, because it's not clear whether or not Kyron-5 is still in power or if it had anything to do with humanity putting supercomputers in charge, and if 8JO was home to a computer that declared war on the world, how has it been largely forgotten just thirteen years later? None of this makes sense, so let's just get to the action.

Once the treasure hunters enter the complex, they find that its robotic security measures are still very active. They were seeking fortune and glory, but now they're trapped in the multi-story complex, roaming its dingy floors full of hanging chains and leaky steampipes. They're not the only ones here - there are also a couple of children hiding within the complex (shades of Newt in Aliens), as well as a female Texas Ranger who has pursued a rogue, homicidal Biodroid all the way from her homestate to 8JO.

The complex's security measures and the Biodroid pick off the cast of characters one-by-one, forcing the survivors to get one of the damaged old Gunheads left over from the days of battle on 8JO back into working order to fight back against the evil robots and escape from the island... Maybe not with computer chips, maybe not with Texmexium, but at least with their lives.

Despite the fact that the script is a total mess, Gunhed is a somewhat enjoyable take on the old "characters trapped in a sci-fi setting" concept. Its storytelling is lacking, but it does have a fantastic visual style, and moves along at a decent pace. There's nothing at all Godzilla left in it, but it does provide some cyberpunk thrills.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Pilot Episode (1966)

With James Bond 007 leading the fray by becoming a worldwide sensation, spies were big business in the entertainment industry in the 1960s. TV and movie screens were regularly occupied by characters in espionage. In 1966, producer/writer/director Bruce Geller came up with an idea for his own spy show, and while it could never reach the heights of Bond, the franchise created by Geller is a rare case in that it's a Bond successor that is still alive, popular, and successful to this day.

Titled Mission: Impossible, Geller's show would follow agents in the international organization the Impossible Missions Force as they went on their supposedly impossible missions... And that's all there was to be to it. Geller didn't want to delve into the personal lives of the spies or give details on IMF, each episode was to show the lead agent getting the mission details, gathering the team he would require to pull it off, and then getting it done. All we would know about the IMF agents is how good they are at their job.

The most famous M:I team leader (at least until Tom Cruise stepped in as Ethan Hunt in the movies) was Peter Graves as Jim Phelps, but Phelps didn't come into the series until the second season of its seven season run. For the first season, Steven Hill was in the lead as agent Daniel Briggs. Hill's eventual departure from the series was due to religious objections to the show's shooting schedule. Keeping with Geller's "no personal stories" mandate, Briggs's departure and replacement with Phelps was not explained or questioned at all.

The pilot episode of Mission: Impossible, which first aired on September 17, 1966 (about nine months after the release of the James Bond movie Thunderball and nine months before the release of You Only Live Twice), starts off with a title sequence set to the theme music by Lalo Schifrin, immediately drawing the audience in and getting them hyped up with one of the best score tracks ever composed.

The story begins with Daniel Briggs entering an "odd lots" store, where the store owner gives him privacy so he can listen to a record album that has been set aside specifically for him. On this album is the voice of an IMF higher-up laying out details on the mission Briggs is being offered.

The way phrases from these mission briefings are often quoted don't quite match up with how they're delivered in the pilot. Rather than "Your mission, should you choose to accept it", the voice on the record says "...should you decide to accept it", and rather than self-destruct, the album decomposes when it's finished playing.

Briggs accepts the mission, and it's a high stakes objective that any viewer could get behind. An enemy power has provided General Rio Dominguez, dictator of the (fictitious) Caribbean island of Santa Costa, with two nuclear warheads, which the dictator intends to use against the United States. An IMF team needs to infiltrate Dominguez's base of operations, the Hotel Nacional, and steal the warheads from the hotel's time-locked vault.

To pull off this heroic theft, Briggs assembles a team consisting of Martin Landau as master of disguise Rollin Hand, Wally Cox as soft-spoken safecracking demolitions expert Terry Targo, Greg Morris as techie Barney Collier, Peter Lupus as strongman Willy Armitage, and Barbara Bain (Landau's real life wife) as seductive model Cinnamon Carter.

The IMF team is in Santa Costa within the episode's first 8 minutes, with the remaining 43 minutes entirely focused on showing, in a tense and thrilling manner, just how they carry out the mission. Things do not go smoothly, unexpected obstacles arise, and the team operates under the constant threat of certain death if they fail and are captured. IMF would disavow any knowledge of their actions, leaving them to face the wrath of Dominguez and his military.

Of course, this being the pilot of a long-running series, we know the mission isn't going to be a total loss, but Geller does an excellent job keeping the viewer interested, intrigued, and on the edge of their seat. And when the mission is over, so is the episode. There's no celebratory epilogue, no messing around, just credits.

Looking back from a time when heroes regularly have some sort of mental torment and personal stake in their adventures, Mission: Impossible's dedication to simply showing the missions is a refreshing change of pace.

Some spy shows that have followed have gotten bogged down by dealing too much with uninteresting character stories and complicated personal relationships. Bruce Geller made sure that wouldn't happen to his series.

The only thing Mission: Impossible's writers and directors had to do was make sure the adventures were a blast to watch, and Geller fully delivered on that with his pilot episode.


Stuart Gordon's futuristic prison film Fortress was originally developed as a starring vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger. In fact, it was Schwarzenegger who recommended that Gordon direct the project after he met the director during the making of his debut film, Re-Animator, which the action hero's body double had a part in as one of the film's raging zombies. Eventually, Schwarzenegger moved on to other things and the film's budget was cut down to a quarter, or less, of what it would have been had Schwarzenegger remained in the lead role. Still, Gordon stayed on board and saw it through.

Schwarzenegger was replaced in the role of John Brennick by another action star with a thick accent, Highlander's Christopher Lambert.

The story is set in 2017, by which time the United States has been taken over by oppressive fascistic forces. One of the new rules in the country is that every woman is only allowed to have one child. Even if their child dies, as John and Karen Brennick's child did, that still counts as her one child and they can't try to have another.

So now that Karen (Loryn Locklin, looking remarkably like Barbara Crampton, the female lead in Gordon's Re-Animator and From Beyond) is pregnant for a second time, she and her husband are criminals.

The film begins with the couple attempting to cross the border into the more child-friendly Canada, with Karen wearing a flak jacket under her clothes in an attempt to get her developing fetus past the border patrol's scanners. When a guard notices the jacket, John and Karen are identified as "breeders" and end up in prison.

Far out in the desert is the Fortress, an underground prison that stretches thirty-three stories below the surface and is owned by the Men-Tel Corporation. The place is run by Kurtwood Smith as Prison Director Poe, with the aid of female-voiced supercomputer Zed-10. Every inmate has a behavior control device called an Intestinator implanted in them upon their arrival at the prison. If they misbehave, their Intestinator can be activated to either cause them intense pain or to explode, blowing their stomach open and killing them, depending on the severity of their transgression. Even the dreams of the prisoners are monitored, and they can be intestinally punished for what's going on in their subconscious.

The Fortress is where John is sentenced to serve thirty-one years of hard labor working to help expand the facility. Once locked up there, despite the hi-tech security, John is not a model prisoner and is constantly fighting back and plotting against his oppressors. Especially after he finds out Karen is imprisoned on one of the Fortress's top levels.

While bonding with some fellow prisoners (Clifton "Gonzales Gonzales" Collins, Jr., Lincoln Kilpatrick, Gordon regular Jeffrey Combs), having antagonistic interactions with others (Tom Towles, Vernon Wells), and facing constant threats of intestination or mind wiping, John works at figuring out a way to get his wife and unborn child out of this place. As he does, he finds himself with a rival for her affections. Poe himself.
If John and Karen don't get out of the Fortress before she gives birthto their child, it will be confiscated by Men-Tel to become an "enhanced" human like Poe, who doesn't have to eat or sleep but is also unable to... "get intimate".

A very Schwarzenegger-esque backstory was retained for the character of John Brennick. He used to be a military man, was in fact the most decorated soldier in the history of the Black Beret, but he quit in disgrace after losing an entire platoon under his command. Karen was in the Army herself, where she was a computer technician. The skills both of them learned in their military days will come in handy as they attempt to escape from the Fortress.

Will the Brennicks make history and get away from the Fortress, or will they die like everyone else who has tried?

There are much more popular prison escape movies out there, but for me Fortress is where it's at when it comes to this particular type of film.

The special effects are great, as you would expect of a Stuart Gordon movie, the science fiction elements are intriguing and fun, and the cast is, for the most part, fantastic. Christopher Lamber's John Brennick comes off as a rather bland everyman despite his history, but Kurtwood Smith makes for a wonderful villain, as anyone who has seen RoboCop knows, and genre icons Jeffrey Combs and Tom Towles are always a welcome presence on the screen.

With the future of a baby at stake in the storyline, it's easy to invest in the characters and get behind their endeavors.

Fortress hits some of the familiar prison movie beats, but the technology of the world Gordon and screenwriters Troy Neighbors, Steven Feinberg, David Venable, and Terry Curtis Fox created makes this movie's version of the situations interesting in their own unique way. There aren't many other movies out there that feature prisoners fighting on a retracting bridge hundreds of feet above the ground with bombs in their stomachs.

The climactic escape attempt sequence is packed with action, and the prison's security system doesn't make it easy for the characters. Casualties are sustained, characters you like and care about are not safe.

Stuart Gordon has spent his film career working primarily  in the horror genre, but he has branched out a few times, to dark dramas and sci-fi movies. With the likes of Robot Jox and Fortress, he has proven himself capable of handling large scale action on small budgets. It would have been interesting to see what he could do with more money at his disposal. Maybe if Arnold Schwarzenegger had stayed on Fortress... But I'm very happy with Fortress exactly the way it turned out.


Although the 1989 detective/serial killer movie Relentless has seemingly faded into obscurity, it clearly did satisfactory business for its investors, as the existence of this sequel proves.

Character actor Leo Rossi came back to reprise the role of NYPD-turned-LAPD detective Sam Dietz, but neither the first film's director William Lustig nor its writer Phil Alden Robinson returned to do those jobs the second time around. Since Robinson used a pseudonym on the first film, his absence is no surprise, but I do have to wonder why Lustig didn't helm the sequel. Too busy dealing with the troubled production of Maniac Cop 3? Not interested? Not asked?

Whatever the reason was, the director's chair on the set of Relentless II was filled not by Lustig, but by Michael Schroeder, who handled the job capably. The screenplay was written by Mark Sevi... and in the mid-'90s, I was fascinated by Sevi's career. Here is a screenwriter whose first eight writing credits consisted on an uninterrupted streak of sequels. Relentless II was his first movie, and it was followed by Class of 1999 II, Fast Getaway II, Ghoulies IV, Relentless IV (yes, the series continued for two more installments), Scanner Cop II, Dream a Little Dream 2, and Excessive Force II. As a franchise-obsessed youngster, I thought this was totally awesome. Sevi was living out the dream career. I wanted to churn out sequels in a similar manner.

Now, the quality of the sequels Sevi wrote for varies greatly, but I would rank Relentless II as the best of the bunch.

The story finds Sam Dietz dealing with the aftermath of the events of the first film. The serial killer played by Judd Nelson had gotten very close to harming Dietz's family, so close that he actually had a gun to the head of Dietz's son Cory, so that has really shaken them up. Dietz and his wife Carol (again played by Meg Foster) have separated, Cory regularly has nightmares about what happened, and so does his father.
While Dietz is trying to get his personal life back together, another serial killer starts murdering people in Los Angeles. But this is not your average serial killer. He picks different types of victims that seem to have no connection at all to each other, strangles them, slashes them, and leaves occult symbols at the scene, drawn in blood.

There aren't many better ways to introduce a character as a formidable force than to show them besting hulking bodybuilder/black belt/stuntman Sven-Ole Thorsen in a physical confrontation, and that's exactly what the killer here, played by Miles O'Keefe, does in his first scene.

In his down time, the killer gets messages hidden in the personals section of the newspaper that refer to him as Red Rover and update him on how the police investigation is going, relaxes by taking baths in a tub full of ice, and has flashbacks to his days in the military.

Dietz handles this very strange case, and he's forced to work with an FBI agent named Kyle Valsone (Ray Sharkey) while doing so. Valsone has been tracking the killer ever since his spree started back in Washington, D.C. The first kill seen in the movie, the murder of the mechanic portrayed by Sven-Ole Thorsen, was actually the killer's twenty-second kill. Dietz is uncertain about Valsone, especially after noticing that the reports he's privy to are lacking information.

As Dietz investigates further, he finds that the people that have been getting murdered are on record as already being dead, with dates of death going back twenty years in some cases.

Amidst the mystery and murder, Rossi gives a reliably strong performance, again making Sam Dietz a likeable guy who's worth following through this story. Sharkey's Valsone provides him with a tough obstacle to overcome in his investigation while O'Keefe has great presence as the silent and seemingly unstoppable killer.

I find the story that Sevi devised for this movie to be one of the most intriguing detective/serial killer tales ever, and Schroeder perfectly executed it in a way that always keeps the viewer wondering just what is going on here. Victims that were already dead? Ice baths and occult symbols? Can Valsone be trusted? It's a mind-bending crime thriller and further proof that the Relentless series deserves a lot more recognition than it gets. I'd recommend these films to anyone who enjoys the police procedurals that are all the rage on television these days.


  1. I knew I should had watched Guardians of the Galaxy! Being a fan of Rocket Raccoon, I should have! I WILL SEE IT NOW!!!!

  2. Cody,

    I was poking around the interwebs and found this - thanks for the kind words. RII was my first sale (writer-for-hire) and I loved every minute of it. I truly did have a great run after it as the go-to guy for Cinetel. The reason I did so many sequels is because Cinetel bought a bunch of titles for films to do as sequels. The Relentless series was theirs but the others I wrote sequels for were by other production companies. Cinetel trusted me to write the sequels and I was thrilled to do them.
    Anyway, this is a great review (because it's nice to me :0) and I appreciate the thoughtfulness that went into it.
    Mark Sevi

    1. Thank you very much for the comment! It's great to know that you saw and liked this review. I've been fascinated by your sequel streak ever since reading about your work in an issue of Fangoria, so it's cool to hear the story behind it.

      - Cody

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