I discovered the late 80s action cheapie Laser Mission as a thrift store purchase of what appears to be a DVD bootleg transferred from a straight-to-VHS release. The absence of a legitimate production budget is apparent as soon as its opening diamond heist sequence. The “most precious and largest” diamond ever mined in Africa is stolen from a banquet hall while masked villains gear up & load ammo against a black background. The effect feels like cutting between amateur camcorder footage of a VFW hall wedding and a TV commercial for car alarms. An 80s rock ballad recorded by Dire Straits co-founder David Knopfler wails, “In the violence of the night, his heart beats like a hammer, like the backbeat of a song. And the fire burns in him. He knows he don’t belong. Mercenary man, mercenary man, mercenary man,” before reaching its inevitable crescendo of a saxophone solo. It’s the film’s sole soundtrack selection and will repeat endlessly until the end credits. Laser Mission is Everything Is Terrible action cinema, a genuine VHS era version of Neil Breen’s weirdo vanity projects or Tim Heidecker’s Decker series. It’s flatly acted, looks like it was filmed in a backyard, and does not at all earn the confidence needed to pull off its sub-Commando sense of bravado. There’s something infectious about its constantly apparent cheapness, though, and by the end credits I found myself singing “Mercenary man, mercenary man, mercenary man” along with its one-song soundtrack while reaching for more box wine. It’s a “bad” movie, but it wasn’t a bad time.
Years before he went goth (and tragically died) for The Crow, Brandon Lee stars in his first deviation from the early career martial arts schlock that relived the legacy of his father, Bruce Lee. He appears here as the smartass superspy action hero Michael Gold. Lee lacks any of the charisma that makes the Stallone & Schwarzenegger characters he’s aping work on the screen. He’s also not nearly as physically imposing as those towering meatheads, so any direct attempts to make him look like a super cool, tough-talking badass fall humorously flat. When he shows up for secret meetings at US embassies wearing only an undershirt, he looks like a joke. When he calls a woman he meets for the first time “bitch” for turning down his sexual advances, he sounds like a chauvinist monster. Attempts to disguise himself for acts of espionage range from pathetically applying a fake mustache in a makeup mirror to monstrously adorning brownface & the rags of a crippled beggar. It also doesn’t help that Lee’s sub-Schwarzenegger one-liners are embarrassingly weak. Exchanges include the awkward, “Are you acquainted with theoretical physics?” “No, I specialized in recess and girls,” “Ha, very funny,” and a disgruntled “You know? You guys really know how to win friends & influence people.” The only thing that prevents Laser Mission from being a total embarrassment is Lee’s undeniable skill with martial arts. Practically no money went into producing this disposable schlock, but what little was there was all poured into its gun violence, explosions, and endless supply of nameless baddies for Lee to mow down with ease. The action is the only semi-legitimate element at play in Laser Mission (besides maybe its phenomenal theme music), which honestly wasn’t the worst choice it could have made in terms of VHS era craft. There’s nothing wrong with playing to your strengths.
Laser Mission‘s surface pleasures are so slight that it doesn’t even treat the audience to its titular lasers. Michael Gold is tasked by US special forces to retrieve a Russian scientist (Ernest “What Am I Doing Here?” Bornigne) famed as “the world’s leading expert in laser technology” before the KGB can nab him first. The race against the clock is especially dangerous because of the KGB’s possession of the comically oversized diamond from the opening heist, which they supposedly want to use to create the world’s most powerful laser cannon or some such nonsense. We, of course, never get to see said laser cannon because the movie can’t afford to depict it. Instead, we watch Lee evade capture from two bumbling Scooby-Doo level goons as he works his way closer to Borgnine’s laser scientist, eventually teaming up with that target’s daughter to complete the mission. In between disposing of baddies with liberally fired bullets & casual karate chops, he openly gawks at his new partner for her ability to fire guns & drive a getaway truck in heels even though she’s a woman. They eventually fuck, the scientist & the laser diagmond are recovered, and a few go-nowhere twists are revealed in a dry fart of a finale that sets up Michael Gold’s next mission, obviously never to come. Besides not delivering on the lasers it brazenly promises, it’s not too bad of a cheap action plot; at least, it wouldn’t be if the jokes were actually funny and the bravado was actually earned.
Laser Mission is mildly enjoyable as a late 80s curio. It’s at least amusing to see what happens when the Stallone/Schwarzenegger formula falls flat in less capable hands, even if the embarrassment for Brandon Lee’s failings as a leading man are palpably awkward. I can’t recommend the film at face value as a legitimately well-made action flick, but as a real world example of the kinds of VHS schlock Decker & Neil Breen are calling back to, it’s both fascinating & adorably campy. The only thing it’s missing, really, is a few lasers.