cast: Sean Connery, Charlotte Rampling, Sara Kestelman, John Alderton, and Sally Anne Newton

writer, producer & director: John Boorman

101 minutes (15) 1974
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Peter Schilling

It’s 2293 AD, and human civilisation has splintered into disparate groups. Within shielded enclave, the Vortex, live the eternals: a matriarchal order of impotent, sleepless telepaths, hiding their society’s failures – the old and senile renegades, and the bored immortal apathetics – from the attention of exterminators and the unenlightened brutals that roam the outlands. Beyond the confines of the Vortex, a giant stone head (sculpted in the likeness of director Boorman!) floats down from a foggy sky, then spews guns from its mouth in exchange for grain harvested by slaves, which incites an uprising against the dominance of the eternals. Zed (a hirsute Sean Connery) leads this macho rebellion by penetrating the Vortex and destabilising its complacent and fragile society, where crimes such as ‘psychic violence’ are duly punished by ageing, not prison or forced labour. Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) is fascinated and repelled by the permitted scientific studies of Zed, a sexually active catalyst for change and destruction…
The problem with Zardoz is its overabundance of ideas. It’s an allegory of the class struggle, a satire on religion, an art house psychodrama of hippie commune lifestyles – in a post-nuclear, rural idyll of crystalline intelligence and inflatable buildings, and it’s also a vision of man’s future at once more horrifying and complex than that of The Time Machine (1960). Shot on location in the Wicklow Mountains for a paltry $1 million, Zardoz was inspired by The Wizard Of Oz (Baum’s book, not the famous Judy Garland musical movie) and, while it’s amusing to consider Connery as protagonist ‘Dorothy’, Boorman’s self-indulgent yet undeniably ingenious re-interpretation of archetypal fantasy tropes remains entertaining to this day.
Geoffrey Unsworth, the cinematographer of Kubrick’s 2001 (1968), performs cut-price miracles using in-camera effects, ghost glass tricks, and rear projection techniques to create the strange world of Zardoz, without any post-production effects. Many of these visuals still look remarkable, even in our time of CG marvels, and Boorman is rightly proud of his film’s many achievements. Only one sequence here drags on too long (as Boorman confesses, he’d shorten it if Zardoz was re-edited); and that’s when Zed is drawn (absorbed?) into the Tabernacle AI, the cue for an hallucinatory montage of surreal images, filmed in a hall of mirrors.
Whether it’s viewed as a parody of SF, or as a radical revision of genre themes, Zardoz is a memorable film that repays several viewings and it deserves to find a new generation of fans with this release on disc.
DVD extras: an intriguing and candid director’s commentary (during which Boorman is delighted to point out his cameo as a farm worker, shot and killed by Connery as exterminator Zed), plus a gallery of artwork, stills and posters. Also a trailer and four radio spots, scene index in 24 chapters, 14 language subtitles.

cast: Rutger Hauer, Jeroen Krabbé, Susan Penhaligon, and Edward Fox

director: Paul Verhoeven

167 minutes (15) 1977
widescreen ratio 16:9
Tartan DVD Region ‘0’ retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden

A group of Dutch students react to German invasion and occupation in different ways.
Paul Verhoeven’s Soldaat van Oranje (aka: Soldier Of Orange), the religious excesses of his Flesh + Blood (1985) not withstanding, is probably the closest the director has come to an epic. At the equivalent of $2.5 million, it was the most expensive Dutch feature film made at that time. It was also the film which brought him to the attention of Hollywood, exemplified by Spielberg’s call to him after seeing the film: “What are you doing in Holland? Come to the USA, things are better there!”
During his childhood in The Hague, Verhoeven had been witness to the activities of the occupying Nazis, which made a great impression on him. He remembers vividly his father hiding in a cellar and seeing dead bodies in the street, for example. As one biographer has noted, Soldier Of Orange “was a theme he could taste, feel, and breathe,” a film shot with of honesty and verisimilitude, if perhaps less of the director’s characteristic excess, though still with distinctive vision and style. There are some familiar faces in the large cast: Jeroen Krabbé (as Guus Le Jeune) who took the lead in De Vierde Man (aka: The Fourth Man) is a key protagonist, and the svelte and good-looking Rutger Hauer, as the central character Erik Lanshof. The blond Hauer, who had until now been utilised by Verhoeven as a working class hero in such films as Turks Fruit

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(aka: Turkish Delight, 1973), and afterwards in Spetters (1980) is here transformed into a prosperous war hero, modelled on Erik Roelfzema, the author of the original dramatic memoir. Much of the fraught virility usually associated with Hauer is suppressed here, although it briefly reappears during his dalliance with Susan (Susan Penhaligon).
That Erik/Hauer is the focus of the film is suggested by his first appearance, although the episodic nature of much that follows in the narrative sometimes sidelines his significance. He is inserted, Zelig-like into opening newsreel footage, the ‘single aide’ at the postwar return of Queen Wilhemina. Like so many of his Dutch contemporaries, Erik is comfortably well off, a man to whom (if only at first) the conflict seems just another grand adventure. Previously the middle class had been presented in Verhoeven’s work as exploiters (as in Keetje Keeple, 1975) or as sexually ludicrous in Wat Zen Ik? (aka: Business Is Business, 1971). Such boisterous social irony is, in the present film, conspicuous by its absence as if the contemplation of war forced a different responsibility upon the filmmakers. Erik and his class of 1939-40 may sometimes be made effete, never risible.
Made at a time when Netherlanders were starting to face the realities of their wartime existence, unpleasant facts about home collaboration and acquiescence to occupation, Verhoeven’s film confronts these issues with a tale of student friends torn apart by war, having to face moral dilemmas and choices. Soldier Of Orange, complete with its stirring title music, is a title with a singular subject, implying a monolithic view of an individual at war. But the film actually focuses on a plurality of men, an ensemble of half a dozen privileged students, each of them responding to the conflict in a different way. Although Erik is the nominal hero, his actions are often ineffectual and have dubious results. His counterweight is Alex (Derek de Lint). Having served in the Dutch army, he sees his mother interned and decides to join the Waffen SS. The two meet only twice after: at a parade, where the Dutch civilians give flowers to the Germans, and at a dance where the two tango face to face, with obvious connotations of identity and mutual resemblance. Of the other friends, Robby (Eddie Habbema) betrays his colleagues to save his girlfriend, while another stays out of it entirely – one of only two surviving out of the initial group picture.
Soldier Of Orange begins, aptly enough, with an initiation ceremony. Cowed, humiliated, then celebratory, Erik and the others have to undergo rituals to be accepted into the student body. Of course the mocking cruelties they undergo echo the Nazi repression of later on: the fear, the anal torture and the firing squads. More immediately the process confirms for us the circle of friends, frozen in a group photograph, set to be tested further – what begins as a student’s club ends as a man’s struggle. This opening initiation is the coming conflict in microcosm. Soon it will be the flames of war, rather than the soup comically poured over Erik’s head, that offer a definitive rite of passage.
Verhoeven manages some exciting set pieces during the course of the film: the bombing attack on the barracks, the beach shootings scene, the initiation and the aborted seaplane rescue being standouts. There are also some quieter, poetic moments, such as the overhead and point-of-view shots of Jean’s white shirted execution in the dunes. (A striking scene which makes one regret Verhoeven’s recent descent into the special effects laden un-subtlety of the Hollow Man.) The episodic nature of the narrative is both a blessing and a curse: while the number of characters and subplots makes it possible to examine a society from a range of viewpoints, the lack of a single, strong momentum leads to occasional slacking of tension.
The abiding impression gained at the end of this long (167 minutes) film is that nothing in this war has been black and white, and Verhoeven has faithfully suggested the historical revisionism of the time. Out of these moral uncertainties, he has crafted an exciting and engrossing work, one that he now considers his best Dutch project. Although the ambiguities helped make Soldier of Orange’s initial critical reception lukewarm, it was exceptionally well received by the Dutch public. Interestingly, for overseas release the film was renamed Survival Run – a change that suggests a work much less of a complex national portrait than it actually is.
DVD extras include a trailer for the original release and that for Survival Run, subtitles, profiles and an introduction.

cast: Anna Faris, Shawn Wayans, Regina Hall, Marlon Wayans, and Tim Curry

director: Keenen Ivory Wayans

75 minutes (18) 2001
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Dimension DVD Region 2 rental
Also available to rent on video

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Porl Broome

When it comes to film parodies, Wayans has always been one of the better proponents. His blaxploitation parody I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988) is a classic comedy movie, and while the original Scary Movie didn’t quite scale to the same comedic heights it still proved entertaining and charmingly crude. This time around the action is centred on a parody of The House On Haunted Hill, with Scary Movie’s original cast (and a couple of newcomers) being summoned to Hell House by their psychology lecturer (played by a particularly lecherous Tim Curry) for a supposed experiment in insomnia. Of course, his motives are far from innocent, and his true intent (apart from groping co-eds) is to capture evidence of paranormal activity.
The parody comes thick and fast this time around, with everything from Charlie’s Angels, It, Little Shop Of Horrors and even Dude, Where’s My Car? and The Weakest Link getting the Wayans brothers treatment. There’s no denying that to an extent you have to check your brain at the door, and if you’re easily offended by dick jokes and copious amounts of bodily fluids then stay clear

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(Wayans has never been one to play the PC card). There are laughs to be had here, however the puns are very hit and miss – as is evidenced by the painfully unfunny Exorcist take-off (starring a wildly misguided James Woods) which opens the film. In the end, it’s the more outrageous character performances which carry the film – Marlon Wayans reprises his OTT empty-pothead role as Shorty, Anna Faris does the Neve Campbell thing very well once more, David Cross is very good as Tim Curry’s indignant paraplegic assistant, and Chris Elliot is disgustingly fascinating as Hell House’s creepy butler. Some of the others (particularly Curry) appear to be going through the motions somewhat, and the fact that a foulmouthed parrot steals some of the scenes should, I suppose, tell us something.
All in all, this is an entertaining movie, with some very funny ideas, which at least flies in the face of common decency (not a bad thing, in these namby-pamby days). Let’s just hope the train stops here and that the rumours of ‘Scary Movie 3’ remain just that.

cast: Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Elizabeth McGovern, Forest Whitaker, and Lance Henriksen

director: Walter Hill

89 minutes (15) 1989
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Momentum Take One DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 5/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden

A facially disfigured minor criminal is persuaded into a robbery, which leaves a friend dead, and himself in jail. Later, after reconstructive surgery, he plans revenge?
This is a minor Walter Hill film, partly redeemed by a couple of strong performances and an excellent score. Mickey Rourke (whose last good film, perhaps, this is) plays John Sedley, alias ‘Johnny Handsome’, and labours for the first part of the film under makeup presumably inspired by The Elephant Man, as well as a handicapping mumble recalling the actor’s idol Marlon Brando. Hill, one time Peckinpah protégé, has seen better days with such films as The Warriors, 48 Hours, Streets Of Fire etc, and here struggles to make a rather bald plot dynamic. Essentially, it’s a tale of crime gone wrong, betrayal, brooding then final revenge, enlivened with rather peremptory love interest. The surgery side of the story, in which Sedley is miraculously remade into handsome Mickey Rourke, is no more than a detour from an underworld tale we’ve all seen before.
Hill characteristically provides memorable opening sequences for his films. This strength is apparent here, as details of the cast appear over the preparation for the initial robbery, cut together effectively and precisely. The director fades the colour on these opening, planning scenes and, later, also includes a brief and horrific flashback in black and white. There are two robberies in the film, central points about which much of the drama revolves, carried off with some flair by the participants and the editing department. There’s something of the flair of Hong Kong crime cinema as the masked villains burst into shops and offices to make their ‘killing’. Elsewhere things flag a little – especially in the unconvincing Sunny and Rafe relationship, played respectively by an aggressive Ellen Barkin and the normally excellent Lance Henriksen. Sadly the character and motivations of the chief villain remain one-dimensional, and Rafe’s bare-armed menace never rises above stereotype.
Sedley struggles to first rebuild his face, then his life, while courting the rather insipid Donna (Elizabeth McGovern) and hatching his master plan. Although his motivation for revenge is clear, in between surgery and larceny he rather languishes. Donna is a ‘nice girl’ – either naďve or forgiving, however one chooses to see her, whose role in the final denouement is also deemed ‘nice work’. This vaguely pejorative epithet, as well as her ill-judged covering up for a former boyfriend, provides her character’s most defining moments. Her presence fails to give Sedley the impetus he needs, and her final abduction is sadly predictable. The attempt to work up another major character, this time through the doctor-with-a-social-conscience who treats Sedley (a peculiarly be-whiskered Forest Whitaker) is only partially successful. After a brief couple of confrontations with the implacable, and splendidly named, police Lieutenant A.Z. Drones (Morgan Freeman), he disappears. On the plus side, Rourke gives a generally good performance, being especially affecting in the scene when he examines his new face. Despite the limitations of the script, and even with the affected mumble, the actor avoids dropping into bathos in this critical scene, actually convincing the viewer of his pleasure in his new identity. His convincing gratitude to those who have changed his appearance pays dividends at the end of the film, during his confrontation with the vengeful Rafe. Rafe’s pummelling of Sedley’s face and vicious attack on his newly constituted features with a knife is truly disturbing, precisely because Rourke has so successfully communicated the humanity behind the criminal and surgical subject earlier.
As Drones (whose dogged perseverance reminds one of Inspector Javert in Les Miserables), Freeman is excellent. An actor whose distinctive tones and modulated performances give class to any film, he raises his part far above the lines he is given here, and goes a way in making up for weaknesses elsewhere. During his few prison scenes with Rourke, in fact, one can shut one’s eyes listen to his voice, and summon up the much greater pleasures of The Shawshank Redemption (1994). It is he who recognises the reality at the centre of the film: that Sedley can change his appearance, but can never change what is inside of himself or where it will lead: “I know what you are,” he says to the felon at one point. “And we both know where you’re going, don’t we Johnny?” At the close of the film, after bullets have flown and dust settled, Sedley finally acknowledges this fact using an ironic phrase which implies both physical and moral assessment: “How do I look?”
Fans of Rourke and Freeman will certainly want to see this film, although others will find there is rather less to it than meets the eye. Ry Cooder, a regular collaborator with the director, turns in a superb score full of slide guitar work, with dramatic bass lines for the action sequences. This makes one regret that the final package to which he contributed so valiantly is ultimately so unmemorable. Admirers of Hill, wanting to see one of his late urban thrillers with more interest, will be better off with Trespass of three years later.
The DVD offers a basic package of scene access, German and English language options, and a trailer.

cast: Dennis Quaid, Louis Gossett Jr, Brion James, and Lance Kerwin

director: Wolfgang Petersen

104 minutes (12) 1985
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2 retail
[released 3 June]

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Steven Hampton

This space castaway drama (based on a story by Barry Longyear) is an SF version of John Boorman’s Hell In The Pacific (1968), inspired by Robinson Crusoe. As such, there’s no avoiding comparison with Byron Haskin’s Robinson Crusoe On Mars (1964) and yet, in spite of all these genre and literary associations, German director Wolfgang Petersen’s story of tolerance and unlikely friendship is still an entertaining film, one that’s emotionally intense without being too melodramatic or sentimental.
During an interstellar war, space fighter pilots from opposing battle fleets are stranded together on the unexplored and inhospitable alien world of Fyrine IV. In no time at all, human spacer Davidge (Quaid), and reptilian drac, Jeriba – alias Jerry (Gossett), are trying to kill one another to follow the dictates of prejudice and propaganda their respective races have given them.

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Slowly these bitter enemies overcome the language barrier that hinders co-operation, and work together to ensure mutual survival. Their antagonistic jibes of ‘toadface’ and ‘irkman’ are set aside when frequent meteor storms and indigenous life threaten both of their lives. There’s also the matter of the drac race’s hermaphrodite reproductive cycle. Davidge becomes an uncle to the orphaned offspring and must return this young alien to its home world…
Dennis Quaid had starred in psychic thriller Dreamscape (1984), and went on to his breakthrough role as a cop in The Big Easy (1986), before returning to genre SF for Innerspace (1987). Here, he’s on good form, especially when playing opposite his co-star, black actor Louis Gossett. Gossett does an excellent job playing the lizard-like alien dubbed ‘Jerry’ by his human friend. The actor’s hissing and purring to suggest an alien language makes this a film that the creators of Star Trek and Star Wars ought to study more closely. When Davidge makes an attempt to learn the drac’s culture and philosophy, the drama becomes mystery for the planet squatters, but later events move too quickly.
The birth of baby drac, Zammis (Bumper Robinson), and subsequent human education only ensure the bond between man and alien child will cause Davidge to rescue his young ‘nephew’ from scavenger villains (led by Brion James, playing OTT evil scum of the universe) using aliens as slave labour in their secret mine on Fyrine IV. The finale has a rushed air that’s at odds with the slower pace of earlier scenes, and this detracts from much of the thought-provoking SF elements. What makes Enemy Mine an unforgettable film is the excellent design work and superb cinematography, by Rolf Zehetbauer and Tony Imi, respectively. Their use of rich colour schemes helps to create a fantastic milieu for the story, both on and off the alien planet.
DVD extras: scope presentation with Dolby digital 4.0 sound (in English, Italian or French), three photos, original trailer, extended scene (three minutes) in ratio 4:3 from the German TV version.

cast: Jon Pertwee, Caroline John, Nicholas Courtney, and Ronald Allen

director: Michael Ferguson

171 minutes (U) 1970
BBC VHS retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Ian Shutter

One of the early stories from Jon Pertwee’s four-year reign as many TV fans Time Lord of choice, this seven-parter scripted by David Whitaker (with uncredited re-writes by Malcolm Hulke), continues the then-current Doctor Who scenario with the Doctor stranded on Earth, helping paramilitary o rganisation UNIT sort out threats to UK and world security, and investigate bizarre happenings of the sort now commonly dealt with on The X-Files.
The Ambassadors Of Death is about a manned mission to Mars, and what goes wrong after the spacecraft makes contact with weird aliens. A rescue capsule returns safely to Earth (fulfilling the British Interplanetary Society’s ambitiously optimistic dream of a UK-based space programme!), but its three-man crew have disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The Doctor becomes suspicious on hearing reports that space-suited figures were seen committing a robbery, and he learns of a criminal conspiracy to use radioactive ‘astronauts’ for crimes, while a warmonger, General Carrington (John Abineri), campaigns for a nuclear first strike against the visiting aliens.
At mission control, console chief Ralph Cornish

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(Ronald Allen, from the old version of soap opera, Crossroads) detects coded messages between orbit and London that, after much subterfuge, turns out to be communications from the bad-guys and the ET space travellers. There’s an amusing mix here of Quatermass SF and hi-tech gangsters, as the London-based villains have flat caps and handguns, while a more uncanny menace is provided by the walking spacesuits (what’s inside them?), unfazed by bullets, emitting high energy bursts to kill humans.
In addition to UNIT boss, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), the Doctor’s assistant is Liz Shaw (Caroline John), still quite fetching in her white boots and miniskirt, on the run from kidnappers, getting into a car chase in old Bessie (the Doctor’s temperamental car), and generally making herself useful as one of the smartest Who companions ever. Eventually, of course, the Doctor has to ride a rocket into orbit to solve the mystery of the missing astronauts and get the aliens to reconsider plans for destroying the world.
This nearly three-hour video release is partly in black and white, due to BBC’s loss of their original broadcast tapes. However, some colour material was found on NTSC domestic cassettes in America, making this worthwhile viewing despite the intrusive and irritating background sounds.

cast: Sylvester Stallone, Burt Reynolds, Kip Pardue, Til Schweiger, and Estella Warren

director: Renny Harlin

112 minutes (PG) 2001
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Warner DVD Region 2 retail
Also available to rent on video

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Steven Hampton

Written and co-produced by Sylvester Stallone, who may have intended this to be a sort of Rocky on wheels, Driven became a different film entirely with Renny Harlin (who directed Stallone in Cliffhanger, 1993) at the helm. Instead of being about a failed champ’s comeback, it focuses on fresh hotshot talent being primed to win.
By all accounts, Formula One racing is the most popular sport in the world. It’s certainly the most glamorous in a society where speed is sexy… F1 rookie Jimmy Bly (Kip Pardue) obviously needs a wise mentor not a smart manager, so his car’s owner, Carl Henry (Burt Reynolds in a wheelchair), calls on his old pal Joe Tanto (Stallone) to coax the whiz kid away from bland influence of his pushy brother DeMille (Robert Sean Leonard), and the romantic distraction of blonde groupie Sophia (Estella Warren, from the Planet Of The Apes remake), a rival driver’s girlfriend. This change of emphasis from Stallone’s mature drama to telling the coming of age story of a boy racer means Driven is fast, flashy and lightweight rather than a film about characters.

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There is difficulty in making the first trial Ethereum Code selection rate. Most fun is the car chase through Chicago at night (filmed in Toronto, where they closed many of the city’s streets), but don’t try that at home! Gina Gershon does her queen bitch routine (again), but to even less import than usual, so what makes the biggest impression here is the excellent visual trickery.
Apart from dealing with the logistical circus of filming at real life international sporting events in Brazil, Australia, Japan and Germany, Driven is a remarkable showcase for racing in which mini-cameras put viewers into the driving seat for a pretty wild ride. These 1,000 horsepower, nearly plastic-weight cars move at 250 mph, pulling five Gs on the turns. What makes this film even more unusual, and I think, particularly intriguing, is the particular use of digital effects. CG shots, like the ‘tunnel vision’ experienced by drivers at high speed may seem a bit gimmicky, and the slo-mo digital rain looks like a cartoon, but the movie features a couple of amazing CG-enhanced stunts, utilising the computer toolkit’s full potential.
The aesthetic of this technology is how it may be used to distort and, crucially, control time and space on cinema or TV screens with an impressive exactness. In particular, The Matrix has established this trend with its virtual reality backstory, proving that CGI opens up more possibilities for filmmakers than just economical depiction or representation of physical objects including static buildings, moving devices (Japanese styled mecha seems a natural for digital), and exotic creatures, using new desktop techniques to replace ‘outmoded’ model animation and matte paintings. Driven has over 600 effects shots, a staggering number made possible only because Harlin’s production set-up their own makeshift digital department, and their greatest triumph is surely Memo’s crash. Here, the car is airborne, nose down, and time almost stands still for a view from the ill-fated driver’s cockpit of other cars passing in a blur below. This is a dazzlingly achieved quiet moment of judicious stillness in a film that’s often all too hurried along, by rapid cutting and thunderous rock music.
DVD extras: director’s commentary, deleted scenes (52 minutes) about character of Tanto with commentary by Stallone lamenting his writing and acting efforts that were cut. Making-of footage (15 minutes) by HBO First Look, a documentary Conquering Speed Through Live Action And Visual Effects which only amounts to 10 minutes about a pit-stop fire that isn’t even in the film, trailers for the film and spin-off game, index of 34 chapters, choice of soundtracks (English, French, Italian) in Dolby digital 5.1 plus 12 subtitled languages.

cast: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong, and Victor Wong

director: John Carpenter

95 minutes (15) 1986
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Tony Lee

This has long been one of my favourite Carpenter films – an ever watchable blend of comedy adventure, ghost story, kung fu, action thriller, monster movie, fantasy romance, it deftly mix ‘n’ matches genre elements with a crowd pleasing style. It was the director’s 11th film, after the teen and killer-car horrors of Stephen King adaptation, Christine (1983), and the upbeat science fiction of Starman (1984), Big Trouble In Little China moved in yet another direction.
After a pre-credits scene in which Chinese tour-bus driver Egg Shen (Victor Wong – a gifted actor who makes you want to believe in magic, weird science, or whatever he says!) starts explaining to a lawyer (Jerry Hardin, who went on play ‘Deep Throat’ in first season of The X-Files) what really happened in Chinatown, we flashback into the introductory scene for trucker Jack Burton (Kurt Russell, former Disney player who made several films with Carpenter, including Escape From New York, Elvis, and The Thing). Although Egg has just described Jack as saviour of the situation, we immediately grasp that he is actually something of a ridiculous blowhard, promoting his fuzzy philosophy to anyone listening on the CB radio. His truck is called the Pork Chop Express, and he’s either bold enough or unashamed to use hilariously bad clichés, such as “on a dark and stormy night” – as he waffles on regardless of whether what he says makes sense. Most surprising of all is that this commentary is relevant to both the freewheeling plot and Jack’s unconventional character.
When Jack arrives in the busy markets of San Francisco’s Chinatown district, we meet Wang Chi (Dennis Dun, who played the doomed police informant Herbert Kwang, in Michael Cimino’s excellent Year Of The Dragon, 1985), a headstrong restaurateur who appears nervous about meeting his fiancée, Miao Yin (model Suzee Pai, making her film debut), at the airport. Here, Carpenter hints at one of the film’s often-misunderstood twists: in which traditional roles of all-American hero and foreign (whether black or Asian) sidekick are reversed. It’s not that Jack is a coward in Big Trouble; he’s simply an ineffective macho protagonist. The true champion of this adventure is Wang, partly because he understands the cultural background, but also because – unlike Jack – he believes in the powers of magic from the start.
Other characters are introduced in rapid succession, with some clipped Hawksian dialogue, in sequences of confidently pared-down economy. There’s feisty and attractive, crusading lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall, now a TV star in Sex And The City), the inexperienced but eager reporter, Margo (Kate Burton), and central villain David Lo Pan (James Hong) an ancient 2,000-year-old magician. Each of the supporting cast brings a welcome, wholly necessary, sense of humour to their largely unambiguous stereotyped characters.
A street gang, called the Lords of Death, kidnap Miao Yin from the airport and when Jack and Wang pursue them back into Chinatown, our heroes are involved in a riotous back-alley fight scene. This is where the fantasy element kicks in with one surprise following another, as Jack runs his truck straight through the ghost form of Lo Pan, and a dignified Chinese funeral procession is disrupted by a wild gun battle between the Chang Sings and Wing Kong, rival tongs that go hand-to-hand with sticks and blades when they run out of ammo. This brawl is broken up by the arrival of the three ‘Storms’ – supernaturally bulletproof, Thunder (Carter Wong), Rain (Peter Kwong), and Lightning (James Pax). Though strange, offbeat and unusual, events have been fairly normal until this moment, but now we enter the realm of magic and wonders as the flying Storms make short work of all their foes. There’s more of this to come in the next major visual effects sequence, when Jack clumsily leads the way for Wang’s attempt to rescue his captured girlfriend from the White Tiger brothel. Again, the super-powered Storms, arriving with an explosive blaze of emerald fire, while still wearing their splendid lampshade hats, intervene to snatch Miao Yin away into the mystic night.
One thing that Carpenter does exceptionally well in terms of film comedy is the next scene, where he directs the actors to deliver backstory speeches with tongue-in-cheek style. Playing this key expositional stuff, which sets everything up for the film’s second half, for laughs distracts us from acknowledging the group’s failure to save Miao Yin, and makes the heroes realise they can’t tackle the evil powers of Lo Pan without the expert help of wise sorcerer, Egg Shen.
Here’s the gist: Lo Pan needs to marry and then sacrifice a girl with green eyes to appease Chinese demon Ch’ing-ti, and get his flesh and youth back. When he gets his clawed hands on both Miao Yin and Gracie (both have green eyes), he sees a way to subvert the prophesy – taking his life back while keeping his chosen bride alive. He plans to marry both women in a colourful wedding ceremony featuring an act of act of blood drinking that’s wholly necessary for this arch fantasy story’s internal logic but, of course, the heroes arrive just in time to prevent the villain’s plan to conquer the universe from succeeding. Throughout all the action scenes, the chases, fights and escapes, the pace remains compelling, with each and every break perfectly timed. W.D. Richter, who wrote the original treatment, achieved a similar balancing act of wacky ideas in a headlong rush of narrative with his own cross-genre cult movie, The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai: Across The Eighth Dimension (1984).
Much of the criticism of Big Trouble emphasises the incompetence of Jack as a hero figure – but fails to recognise this was always the filmmakers’ intention, while simultaneously bemoaning the fact that Russell (having made an ironic ‘Clint Eastwood’ antihero impression as Snake Plissken in Carpenter’s Escape From New York/ and L.A. movies), takes on John Wayne’s swaggering manner. But Carpenter experiments with more than one kind of humour in this tale. In addition to parody and satire, there’s comic-strip surrealism in visual gags and a bumper pack of literary and cinematic references, from Alice In Wonderland to Beauty And The Beast and The Wizard Of Oz.
Finally, by engaging Lo Pan in a magical duel of wills (not unlike the climax of The Raven, 1963), Egg defeats the evil forces, helping Wang save his fiancée, and allowing Jack to get his stolen truck back. This struggle between devious wisdom and evil lust ultimately brings “order out of chaos” – a resolution in wholly keeping with the themes of defeating monstrous invaders, so typical of Carpenter’s auteur horror thrillers. And so, having given the ‘pillars of heaven’ a damn good shaking, Jack moves on. He doesn’t get the girl (though Gracie almost proposes to him), in fact he doesn’t even kiss her goodbye. Jack must fulfil the strict demands of his role as a Western loner. He has weathered three Storms, proving he can handle whatever comes his way. In Big Trouble, Jack has paid his dues… yes, “the cheque is in the mail.”
This long awaited two-disc DVD release features a letterbox version with Dolby digital 4.1 sound plus 11 subtitled languages. There’s a commentary with director and star (though Russell laughs too much!), scene access in 44 chapters, and neat animated menus. Disc Two has deleted scenes (46 minutes, though much of this material brackets previously unseen clips with familiar stuff) compiled from poor quality of work-prints and Betamax tapes, making-of featurette (seven minutes), film notes from the original press kit, filmed interview with visual f/x supervisor Richard Edlund complete with photo inserts (13 minutes), filmographies of stars and director, interactive reprints of in-depth magazine articles, extensive gallery of photos, three trailers, and a rare music video in which Carpenter sings the film’s theme with his band the Coupe de Villes.

cast: James Caan, Mandy Patinkin, Terence Stamp, Leslie Bevins, Jeff Kober

director: Graham Baker

86 minutes (18) 1988
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2 retail
[released 3 June]

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Rob Marshall

You’ve probably seen this standard American sci-fi flick before on TV. It’s the one where James Caan plays an LA cop partnered, begrudgingly at first, with a potato-head alien played by Mandy Patinkin (who had just appeared in Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, 1987). Alien Nation is an above average SF production, but fails to do much with an intriguing concept, opting for a simple but appealing level of humour to leaven ordinary action scenes.
Caan plays veteran detective Matt Sykes, determined to catch the bad guy who killed his black partner. What makes this different from the usual buddy movie is that Caan’s enemies are aliens, and so he needs a new alien partner to help catch the villains. Matt’s new sidekick is named ‘Samuel Francisco’ (Patinkin), one of an alien race being integrated into regular society after their slave ship arrives on Earth. These aliens struggle to fit into human civilisation, facing greater prejudice than foreign refugees because many of them act too eager to please – having previously lived a hard life as slave labourers. This, coupled with important fact that the ‘newcomers’ (also dubbed ‘slags’, without explanation) have no sense of humour, means they annoy a lot of people – including Matt.
Going into the ghetto community of Slagtown to track down a cop-killer alien, Sam (hastily renamed George!) helps Matt understand the newcomer culture but keeps some discoveries that are relevant to the case secret from the human cops. Harcourt (Terence Stamp) is a wealthy and highly respected alien among men, running a chemical lab to make powerful and addictive drugs for illicit sale to other aliens. We can guess that he’s behind the film’s central plot because he’s so smarmy you instantly want him shot dead (preferably in a violent battle with human cops). The stereotyping of alien characters with wholly human traits is one aspect of Alien Nation that dates this movie. Nowadays, a creative effort (at the script stage) would try to identify something entirely non-human about the newcomers, as a race, which makes them unique – instead of just having them adopt all mankind’s flaws.
There are jokes at the expense of both humans and aliens. The newcomers get drunk on sour milk, and seawater burns their flesh like acid, but in one amusingly played scene between Matt and George (alias, Sam, remember?) we learn that the aliens may have substantially bigger dicks than men and, despite their difficulties understanding comedy, the slags prove to be physically much stronger – due to genetic origins in slavery. When Matt questions an alien female at a strip club, there’s a question of whether he can get away from her without being raped.
However, nothing much is made of the potential for drama, horror or slapstick these ideas offer. Caan and Patinkin work hard to make their characters likeable, and Stamp does a decent job as their ambitiously menacing antagonist, but even actors of their calibre fail to save this film from succumbing to mediocrity at times. The director Graham Baker made The Final Conflict (the third Omen film), underrated thriller Impulse (1984) and, more recently, Beowulf (1999). Clearly, then, he’s not top of the class as a genre filmmaker. What’s interesting about Alien Nation is that it was successful enough a get a spin-off TV series, and the TV movies (directed by Kenneth Johnson) following it were able to explore some of the SF ideas Baker’s so-so effort ignored. Ultimately, this is a B-movie with an A-list cast. For superior aliens-in-our-midst comedy thrills, see Carpenter’s They Live, made the same year.
DVD extras: featurette (seven minutes), behind-the-scenes footage (four minutes), a trailer, TV spots, scene finder (16 chapters), 13-language subtitles.

cast: Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright Penn, Tom Noonan, Helen Mirren, Sam Shepard

director: Sean Penn

119 minutes (15) 2001
Warner VHS rental
Also available to rent or buy on DVD

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden

“I made a promise, Eric. You’re old enough to remember when it meant something.” The Pledge, downbeat and slow moving, inevitably divides viewers probably used to a different sort of crime movie. A remake of an earlier film by Ladislao Vajda (Es Geschah am Helllichten Tag, aka: It Happened In Broad Day Light, 1958), from a novel by Durenmatt, Penn’s third feature is both his finest to date as well as that rarest of commodities in American cinema: a contemplative thriller. It also marks to return to form of Jack Nicholson who, after a number of disappointing appearances, creates a vivid and moving portrait of retiring, alcoholic cop – Jerry Black, with one last brutal murder to solve.
Like the itch on his ankle, which opens and closes the film, the killing of the little girl is something that Black finds continuously nagging. He’s an angler, promised a trip to land the catch of a lifetime in Mexico by his colleagues, a man at the very end of his working life. He promises on his “soul’s salvation” to find the Larsen child’s killer. The result is suggestive of a ‘fisher of men’, Black waiting for the right catch, whether marlin or murderer. Perhaps the presumably twice-married, now separated detective feels that his remaining life needs commitment and a purpose. His motives for taking his last case, and investing so much in his dogged pursuit of the truth, are otherwise unclear. Whatever the reasons, his sincerity pledged to the victim’s mother, that troth sworn on the dead girl’s straw crucifix, makes Black’s investigative obsession suggestive of a religious quest – as does the grandmother’s tearful story of the angels, and his own straight-faced confirmation to the mother that “there are such devils.” Add the birds wheeling around Black’s head as he stumbles and drinks, his blundering into the church service held by the suspect Jackson, the child at the picnic ground singing ‘The Bible tells me so’ and so on, mean clear spiritual parallels are at work. Of course the final, shocking scene, which leaves the ravaged detective mouthing his convictions to the air is a bleak one. It suggests of a loss of faith, if not in God, certainly in himself. But, if we recall the Christian philosophy of good works done in secret, with no hope of earthly reward, the conclusion is less bleak. Black is unaware of his ‘success’ and has sacrificed his last chance at mortal happiness. Like God, the viewer at least is privileged to know the truth.
As Black’s belated chief suspect, Jackson’s appearance unfortunately telegraphs likely guilt to any cine literate audience. The actor Tom Noonan, playing Jackson, has had several villainous parts in his career. He earlier played the demented killer Francis Dollarhyde in Mann’s frightening Manhunter (1986), as well as the parody villain in McTiernan’s Last Action Hero (1993). Only because concrete elements of the case remain tantalisingly unresolved at the end is this one unimaginative casting decision off the hook.
Black’s retirement at the start of the movie, intelligently intercut with the discovery of the body, recalls that of Inspector Prendergast in Falling Down (1993). Like Black, Prendergast is in the last hours of employment with the force, and his successors and superiors treat his insights on this new case impatiently.

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The Pledge features a cop who has made his pledge to a victim’s mother while Falling Down has a detective promising his wife to retire gracefully. Black’s decline is more distressing because he has sacrifices the chance of what little happiness he finds, to solve a case. In a further parallel, Falling Down’s final scene shows Prendergast’s ultimate self-assertion, perhaps reconsidering plans for early retirement. Black’s end is one of despair and isolation, talking to himself outside of a dilapidated diner.
It is interesting to consider whether the hero is a victim of fate or circumstance. Is Black’s final misery foreordained, or just the result of an unlucky accident? Part of the problem lies in how we take the character of a man who can be his own worst enemy. Like the miniature porcupines offered by the murderer to his young victim, Nicholson’s cop is a prickly, independently minded creature. More explicitly, Penn frames the action of the film between scenes of Black’s obvious mental confusion, making mental ambiguity a point of narrative reference. Beside the hero, there is the Indian Wadenah (the original suspect in the case), as well as the presumed disturbance of the real killer to contend with. Nicholson’s performance is superb, his character alternating between crusty, confused, and convinced.
As his ex-colleagues point out, his retreat into obsessive retirement affects his ability to stay objective. For much of the film he is working ‘on a hunch’, relying on circumstantial evidence at best. Past experience of such scenarios suggests that such long shots tend to work out correct, but of course we can never be sure. As a disinterested third party, the profiler/doctor whom he visits (Helen Mirren) certainly has her doubts. She questions in turn his chain smoking, sexual dysfunction, and his distinction between reality and fantasy.
Black’s abstention from sexual relations, whether forced or not – until he hesitantly embraces Lori (Robin Wright Penn) is in stark contrast to the interview of Wadenah by Detective Krolak. Less of an interrogation than an act of sexual humiliation, Krolak’s work is profoundly uncomfortable for Black, on a personal and professional level. One senses that Black is a man who is awkward with intimacy – a further example of his ‘disengagement’ from normal human relations. The fact that he is willing to sacrifice a possible family of his own just to close the case, says it all. Ultimately, while Krolak reaffirms his status by an aggressive invasion of another’s personal space to elicit a confession, Black, broken by what he perceives as private and professional failure, retreats further into himself. The result is a frightening film, dark and adult.