Tron

There’s a whole cult of denial surrounding Tron.  It failed to attract much support during its original theatrical release in the summer of 1982 because, the conventional wisdom goes, it was way ahead of its time.  People weren’t willing to open their eyes and embrace these early technological advances, they argue.  They were too scared to see the possibilities.  Plus, the special effects are great, they claim with a straight face.

As someone who enjoyed the film as a young child (my family rented it for one of my birthday parties), it does not please me in any way to report that more than 30 years since I first excitedly watched it with my equally excited friends on full-screen Beta that it is not this timeless gem die-hard supporters just can’t get enough of.

No, it is not a good film at all, not even on Blu-ray.

It takes 20 minutes for the basic purpose of the film’s plot to even emerge.  Jeff Bridges is a disgruntled ex-programmer relegated to running an arcade after being pushed out by rival David Warner who has managed to get a major corporate promotion for taking credit for five video games he didn’t make.  The only way Bridges can get compensation for any of his shitty creations – Space Paranoids? Give me a break – is through whatever meagre percentage of profits he can squeeze out for housing the machines in his arcade.

When we first meet him he’s trying to hack into his former company’s system to try to retrieve some mysterious, elusive file which he claims is the only evidence that can prove he’s the sole author.  Some quick, obvious questions.  Before writing a single line of code, didn’t he draw the tanks and Recognizers on sheets of paper so he’d have some idea what he would be animating?  Didn’t he generate any paperwork whatsoever?  Is it really believable that he wouldn’t prepare beforehand for the possibility of being ripped off?  I mean, honestly, this guy’s a computer genius?  By the way, he’s been trying to get justice….for three years!  Good God, man, have you ever heard of legal representation?

As he types commands into an old-school PC (always fascinating to watch in real time), the computer version of himself (who sounds more robotic and has a very girlish scream) is shown in one of those tanks ultimately failing to fight off said Recognizers, the least intimidating video game vessels ever created.  (They’re no Tie Fighters, that’s for sure.)  No longer able to hack on his home turf, he has to be snuck into his former employer’s building by former girlfriend Cindy Morgan and her current boyfriend Bruce Boxleitner who wears painfully nerdy glasses.  Boxleitner himself has been shut out of Encom’s computers because Warner is well aware of Bridges’ unauthorized hacking and is apparently operating from the Nixon playbook, which strangely doesn’t arose any suspicion from the company whatsoever.

But instead of deleting the evidence that would prevent Bridges from fully making his case against him, the Master Control Program, which apparently is the real CEO of Encom and is an unapologetic information addict (shades of the modern-day NSA), decides to just hide the fucking thing so it can’t be retrieved.  Oh right.  He dangles the possibility of its exposure to Warner in order to keep him in line.  Still, with Bridges determined to continue hacking, is it really worth keeping it for blackmail?

During his second attempt to infiltrate the system, MCP actually warns Bridges that if he persists he will make another dumb decision.  He’ll suck him into the computer world and force him to participate in crappy sports not realizing that Bridges is the Michael Jordan of video games.  (In an early scene, he sets a new record for the ho-hum Space Paranoids which features those same Recognizers he’ll be encountering throughout the movie.)

It’s within this dull, not so inviting world that Bridges meets a couple of “programs”, one of whom is Tron (also played by Boxleitner without the ridiculous glasses), one of the key elements to defeating the dopey MCP who rules this world like a dumb Hitler.

And this of course leads to the famous game sequences that have not aged particularly well.  There’s just no suspense.  After Bridges survives his electronic scoopball challenge, he refuses to finish off his opponent.  So Sark (the computer version of David Warner in a ridiculous costume) does it for him.  And just when he’s about to do the right thing by eliminating the victorious Bridges as well, the fucking moronic MCP stops him!  He reminds his overeager underling that he wants to give the “user” more false hope before he gets killed in action.

That’s right.  If Sark had just pressed that goddamn button sending Bridges plummeting into nothingness below the electronically collapsible game grid never to be heard from again, MCP would have nothing to worry about for the rest of the movie.  But no.  He lets him live.  For fuck sakes!

After Bridges, Tron and another program named Ram escape during the lightcycle game (it’s just not that impressive anymore), they become fugitives on the run.  Eventually, they hook up with Yori (Cindy Morgan’s computer program) who is hot and heavy with Tron which is meant to mirror Morgan and Boxleitner’s offline romance but makes zero sense in the computer world.  (Programs have sexual feelings?)  When Tron needs to communicate with the real-life Boxleitner they meet with Dumont (Barnard Hughes) who lurks all alone in a tower, twirls around while sitting in what looks like a giant bowl and wearing a very silly pope hat.

Inevitably, there is yet another opportunity for MCP and Sark to be triumphant over our plucky neon heroes but they fuck up yet again and well, I don’t have to fill in the blanks here.  You know how this all ends.  And it’s terribly underwhelming.

The cult of Tron truly believes this movie was robbed of a popular run back in 1982, that it even deserved an Oscar nomination for Visual Effects.  (Ha!)  But 1982 had much better science fiction offerings with superior technical achievements which have held up a whole lot better.  Consider the second Star Trek movie and the immensely popular E.T. for starters.  Then move on to John Carpenter’s creepy, underrated remake of The Thing before ending with one of the greatest films of all time, Blade Runner.

I mean just compare the stunning visuals of Ridley Scott’s dystopian, futuristic film noir masterpiece alone with the very dated and limited appeal of Tron’s harsh, primitive, angular computer graphics.  It’s no contest.  While the Blu-ray does a superb job of bringing out the reds and blues of these scenes (they have never looked more vivid), they also expose a considerable lack of imagination.  And because it’s a Disney movie, there isn’t much intensity in the action and torture scenes.  There’s also not much doubt how it will all turn out, either.

Throughout the film, I could not understand the motivations of MCP.  What is its actual purpose?  Beyond collecting international data & computer programs and making David Warner’s life difficult, why does it exist?  More importantly, it never feels like much of a threat to the world at large.  At one point, it casually mentions wanting secret information from the Pentagon.  Why?  To launch an attack?  Why is it acquiring all this knowledge electronically without any clearly stated objectives?  And what’s with all these fights to the death?  If these programs are such a threat, why not just delete them permanently?  Why the video game charade?

As for Warner, how is he able to get away with stealing Bridges’ creations without producing any new games for Encom?  It’s difficult to accept that his blatant fraud would remain undetected for so long by so many within the company.  A whole lot of idiots must be looking the other way the entire time.

None of this matters to Tron fans who care more about the film’s overrated look than its story which has been recycled and parodied for decades.  Falsely seen as some kind of cinematic oracle for the future, it’s really a routine story about a copyright dispute with uneven, less than dazzling effects and weak-ass action scenes.  Even the naturally affable Jeff Bridges is not enough to justify its unwarranted cult reputation.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, September 29, 2018
4:01 a.m.

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Published in: on September 29, 2016 at 4:01 am  Comments (1)  

Death Wish: The Face Of Death

The villain in Death Wish:  The Face Of Death looks so much like “Rowdy” Roddy Piper I wonder what the real Hot Rod could’ve done with the same role.  God knows he would’ve been an improvement over his inept doppelganger, Michael Parks, who can’t generate heat to save his life.

Mild-mannered architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson collecting an easy paycheck) is now a professor with a changed last name (he’s in the Witness Protection Program presumably because of the mostly hilarious events of the ludicrous Death Wish 4:  The Crackdown).  Once again, he’s found love.  This time, he’s fallen for British fashion designer Olivia (the lovely Lesley-Ann Down).  But she’s trouble.  Her ex-husband Tommy O’Shea (Parks) is a notorious New York mobster who won’t let her go.  He’s hijacked her entire operation and has his cartoonish goons shake down her competition for “protection money”.  (Shouldn’t they just buy them out of business?)

Tired of his meddling ways, she agrees to testify against him in a possible court case.  (Preposterously, he has already eluded the authorities for 16 years.  Trust me, he ain’t that clever.)  Somehow, one of Tommy’s hired assassins, a cross dresser with a dandruff problem (I’m not kidding), brutally rams her head several times into a restaurant bathroom mirror just moments after she accepts the cursed Kersey’s marriage proposal during a dinner date.

Realizing that it’s a bad idea to call the district attorney (the always good Saul Rubinek in a nothing role) because someone is always listening in, Kersey tells him over the phone that Olivia’s changed her mind.  But when he makes a surprise impromptu visit to his home, he tells the D.A. she will still take the stand.

Unsurprisingly, the word still gets back to Tommy and you can guess what happens to poor Olivia.  With her young daughter Chelsea (Erica Lancaster) now back in the custody of the impotent crime boss (which partially explains why his marriage fell apart), Tommy absurdly keeps his ex-wife’s fashion line going.  Two words: stripper wear.  His attire is no better than Olivia’s less than spectacular designs.

Now thoroughly pissed off, Kersey springs back into action.  God knows the cops aren’t getting anywhere.  (When one of Olivia’s bullied factory employees wears a secret wire to try to get some incriminating comments on tape, the results are predictably disastrous.)  One by one, Tommy’s pathetic henchman get dispensed with rather easily.  The most fitting method:  death by cannoli.

As Tommy and his men keep going back to that same church for funeral after funeral, it takes him a ridiculously long time to finally view Kersey for the serious threat that he is.  His idea of setting a trap is so transparent, though, Kersey has absolutely nothing to worry about.

Neither does Chelsea who has no problem escaping the clutches of her deadbeat dad.  (She’s one of the only female characters in this series who doesn’t need the protection of a man.)  Tommy O’Shea is such a weak heel (like numerous other moments in the film, Parks is laughable at times) it’s extremely difficult to accept him as an intimidating toughie.  He’s supposed to be this scarily violent, misogynistic racist but Parks is too sleepy to bring out the character’s edge.  And why is this Irish-American trying to sound Italian?  Who’s he trying to impress, exactly?

Death Wish:  The Face Of Death has the dubious distinction of being Bronson’s final movie.  (He would end his 50-year career with a trilogy of TV movies.)  I’ll say this for it.  It’s not as bad as Death Wish 3.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, September 11, 2016
4:12 a.m.

Published in: on September 11, 2016 at 4:13 am  Comments (2)  

Death Wish 3

How stupid is the villain in Death Wish 3?  At any moment, he can dispose of the hero.  Any moment!  But what does he do instead?  He talks and threatens.  And waits.  And waits some more.  By the time he has the hero in a very vulnerable position, instead of finally pulling the goddamn trigger already, he just can’t shut up about his precious bulletproof vest.

Roger Ebert famously called this cliche The Fallacy Of The Talking Killer.  God knows it’s been employed by lazy screenwriters for decades.  Maybe it’s time to retire this overused technique for good.

In the original Death Wish (a good, challenging film worth seeing), mild-mannered architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson in his most famous role), a lifelong pacifist, sees his happy little world completely shattered after a band of thieving rapists assault his family in their own apartment.  His wife murdered and his daughter institutionalized, he can’t track down the assailants (one of whom is played by a pre-stardom Jeff Goldblum) because he doesn’t know what they look like.

Instead, armed with a powerful Wildey Magnum he receives as a gift from a friend, he lures other would-be muggers into a trap and blasts them, turning him into an unlikely folk hero for the public and a constant frustration for law enforcement.  By the end, a deal is reached.  There won’t be a prosecution if Kersey leaves town.

In Death Wish 2 (a terrible movie), Kersey relocates to Los Angeles where another band of thugs (one played by Laurence Fishburne wears sunglasses from the Jesse Ventura collection) steal his wallet and then break into his house to assault his maid who is never seen or heard from again.  By the time he arrives on the scene with his now mute daughter after a day of bonding, they attack him and kidnap her.  After she is again assaulted, she accidentally kills herself while trying to escape.

Because he actually saw their faces (and apparently has an incredible memory), he systematically tracks them down over a series of nights and assassinates them.  (He doesn’t believe the cops will ever arrest them.  Kersey refuses to cooperate with the investigation.)  After murdering the last one in a mental hospital (yep, the same one that once housed his traumatized daughter), his once skeptical new squeeze Gail (Bronson’s real-life wife Jill Ireland), a radio journalist who believes in criminal justice reform, quietly breaks off their recent engagement.

Which brings us to number three.  When it begins, a stone-faced Kersey returns by bus to New York City to visit an old friend who is in the process of being beaten up by, you guessed it, another band of violent thieves, who demand money for “protection”.  It is such an unconvincing scene, one of many in what is easily the silliest chapter in the Death Wish saga thus far.  (Would you believe one of them is played by Ted’s future pal Bill, Alex Winter?)

After arriving in his friend’s apartment in the slums, Kersey is wrongly nabbed by the cops who think he killed him.  (Yep, they’re not too bright, either.)  Once back at the precinct, they start beating him up for some reason until their boss calls them off.  He gets a cheap shot in, as well, and then recognizes Kersey.  (He was using Kimble (an obvious Fugitive reference) as an alias.)

Temporarily thrown in one of two holding cells filled with stereotypical toughies, he encounters Manny Fraker (Gavin O’Herlihy), a gang leader who looks like David Carradine with Road Warrior Hawk’s haircut.  He also has an equal sign with a red line through it on his forehead, the lamest gang sign I’ve ever seen.  (All his followers have it, as well.)  Among many dumb mistakes he makes, he calls out Kersey and even orchestrates an attempted assault on him that doesn’t exactly go well.  Oh yeah, and then after he’s released (how in the hell does he have a clean record?), he foreshadows what he’ll do to an old lady on his “turf”.  It’s one of the only times O’Herlihy’s performance is genuinely scary.

The rest of the time he’s a complete moron.  After Kersey makes a deal with the anti-Constitutionalist police chief who is now suddenly super friendly (why the initial suckerpunch, motherfucker?), Fraker is stunned to see his new enemy move into his area of control.  (Why did you pick a fight with him, you dope?)

But does he have him immediately killed?  Nope.  He calls him to offer a warning.  Why?  For Christ’s sake, why?  I mean, he knows Kersey is there to take him down.  He knows this!  (Kersey has free rein to do what he pleases.  Plus, Fraker’s goons killed his friend.)  He has many loyal members in his gang willing to do his bidding.  In fact, one is sent to Kersey’s old friend’s apartment (where our hero is temporarily residing) to spy on him (but not kill him).  Unfortunately, he’s as discreet as Anthony Weiner.  Which means the next time he sneaks in through the bathroom window, Kersey has left a rusty surprise for him.  Should’ve looked down before taking that first step, dumb dumb.

As the neighbours in this dilapidated hellhole get shaken down for their money and their belongings (while the women here get routinely harassed and assaulted including Marina Sirtis, the future Deanna Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation), because he can’t get to Fraker (he’s always surrounded by his loyalists) Kersey can only take out a few of his goons at a time.  For instance, he rents a car using it as bait to attract a couple of thieves who get blown away the minute one of them threatens his life.  (Like Kersey’s life is ever seriously threatened in these movies, rare stab wounds notwithstanding.)

In another, he dares an elusive mugger to steal his camera which he dangles temptingly over his shoulder.  With his trusted Wildey Magnum brought out of retirement, The Giggler is no longer laughing.  (He really did enjoy his mugging.)  His stupid nickname inspires unintentional laughs when his fellow gang members mourn his death.

All the while, Fraker takes forever to attempt to extinguish Kersey’s life.  None of them are ultimately successful because he has remarkably shitty aim and he fucking talks too much.

Oh, I forgot to mention Deborah Raffin.  She plays Kersey’s public defender who meets him once at the police precinct early on and then takes a cab all the way to this shitty war zone later on just to ask him out.  (Really?  An instant attraction with old stone face after a 30-second conversation?  She must have a thing for vengeful psychos.)  Unlike Jill Ireland in number two, she’s no reformer.  Tired of defending unrepentent scum in court (well, someone has to do it), she wishes for a tougher system.  (If only she knew about Kersey’s methods.)  What ultimately happens to her is predictable and I have to say, laughable.  Gratitituous explosions in dumb action films have that effect on me.

What’s puzzling about Death Wish 3 is by the time we reach the inevitably violent conclusion, where the gang call in reinforcements for their escalated war with the neighbourhood, we learn that these traumatized residents could’ve protected themselves right from the start.  (On the other hand, what was stopping the gang from kicking everyone out of their apartments to avoid all of this?  Why do you prefer to live in absolute squalor, idiots?)  I mean what’s the point of having guns in your apartments if you never use them?  Yes, the cops confiscate one such weapon from the nice, elderly Jewish couple but they have a spare we only know about once it’s retrieved from its hiding spot.

Speaking of that, are the cops in cahoots with the gang?  It’s never fully explained why they let the gang do what they want (but give parking tickets to the law-abiding residents) until things get way out of hand.  Then, they suddenly start caring.  (Remember, this movie was released in 1985, well before the NYPD’s implementation of Broken Windows.)

Kersey learns through a local he befriends that his old war buddy (the one killed off in the opening scene) hid a couple of giant war time machine guns he was somehow able to slip past customs.  As it turns out, only one of them still works.  And, as you can imagine, unintentional hilarity ensues.  The whole time he fires, Branson somehow maintains a straight face.  I couldn’t.

As the war rages on in the third act, Fraker slips into Kersey’s friend’s apartment (what happened to the board of nails?) in what should be a successful assassination mission.  His bulletproof vest he’s so goddamn proud of initially saves his life.  But then he starts yakking.  Less chitty chatty and more bang bang, dipshit.  I mean you had one job, one fucking job, Manny!  Jesus.

The Death Wish franchise began during a high crime period in the mid-70s and ended two decades later during the year Joe Biden wrote a destructive “tough-on-crime” law that over time would institutionalize America’s already heartless mass incarceration state and target the most vulnerable populations, mostly for drugs.  Only the first one cleverly captures the hopelessness and paranoia of a time where citizens had legitimate reason to fear for their lives and their loved ones.  It’s a skillfully made thriller.  I understand Kersey’s rationale even if I don’t necessarily agree with his actions.

Death Wish 2 is a simple-minded urban revenge fantasy that transforms the once likeable Bronson character into a despicable assassin.  He’s no better than a mob hitman.  As Entertainment Weekly correctly pointed out 20 years ago, it blatantly recycles the set-up of its superior predecessor.  Any attempts to challenge the idea of vigilantism are minimized without further discussion.  The radio reporter barely gets any time to make her case for sensible, non-violent reform.  As she’s about to do a story on it, the film completely cuts her off.

Death Wish 3 is an unintentional howler, a self-parody of an action film, a cinematic wet dream for right-wing drug warriors who refuse to see the undeniable connection between their racist “justice” policies and the severe poverty that results from them.  In Death Wish movies, violent, rapey, drugged out degenerates are everywhere, especially in this particular neighbourhood, and it is only with ruthless, unapologetic force that they can be stopped.  To hell with their Constitutional rights.

As the real-life Wars on Drugs and Terrorism stumble on years after they began, we now know that’s no solution at all.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, September 5, 2016
4:00 a.m.

Published in: on September 5, 2016 at 4:00 am  Comments (3)