Silent Trigger (1996)

It’s tempting to root for the mid-90s Dolph Lundgren action cheapie Silent Trigger as a lost gem. Directed by Australian genre nerd Russell Mulcahy (the mastermind behind the absurd action-fantasy series Highlander), Silent Trigger is at the very least crafted with a distinct sensibility. Couched in an introspective flashback structure and frequently interrupted by time-elapsed nature footage set to Enya-style New Age 90s jams, it’s something of a novelty within its action cinema context, which tends to favor explosions & guitar riffs over those softer touches. It also initially pairs its muscly macho star, Lundgren, with a female partner equal to his skill level (Gina Bellman) instead of relegating women to mere damsel-in-distress roles, which is even more of a novelty in its specific era of action cinema. Unfortunately, I can’t heap too much praise on Silent Trigger for those deviations from the 90s action movie template, however, since it eventually shits the bed in its male-female duo dynamic by relying on the laziest, least appealing go-to for easy genre film tension around: the threat of rape.

On its face, this is one of the many, many Die Hard knockoffs that cropped up throughout the 90s. It’s initially difficult to recognize it as such, though, since the film’s structure is so unusual for the genre. Lundgren & Bellman co-star as a pair of trained mercenary assassins who are tasked to set up for a long-distance kill at the top of an unfinished skyscraper. There’s more time piddled away on waiting for the kill than there is on the fight to reach that pinnacle, emphasizing the quiet hangout energy of a traditional stakeout. In this pre-assassination wait time, the killer pair reflect back on a botched mission where they previously met years earlier, suggesting a conspiracy among their employers in hiring them for the skyscraper job. The introspective quiet of piecing this puzzle together in flashbacks is unusual for the action genre, especially since it’s accentuated with the surreal time-elapse Nature imagery Mulcahy also experimented with in the first two Highlander movies. Almost as if afraid that indulgence would test the audience’s patience, however, the film stirs up an in-the-moment threat to buy time until the conspiracy plot reaches its boiling point. That’s not a fatal mistake in itself, but the particular villain it opts for is a violent rapist creep, a choice that entirely sours the mood of a film otherwise notable for its quiet sensitivity.

The rapist in question is a slimy security guard who’s tasked with monitoring the tower while it’s under construction. As soon as he spots the female assassin in his building, he immediate starts salivating at the prospect of assaulting her. Once she lies about being a computer programmer contracted for building maintenance and pulls a gun on him to neutralize his threat, he only doubles down on his singular, repugnant mission. That escalation of the guard’s rapist fervor could be read as thematic commentary on the dangerous fragility of the male ego, since he absolutely cannot handle being bested by a woman. It’s not nearly thoughtful enough to justify the endless, unrelenting presence of this vile character, however, whose threats to “fuck” our female lead “to death” makes Silent Trigger a thoroughly miserable watch, especially since he has no direct influence on the film’s overall plot. Besides providing an in-the-moment conflict while the actual plot quietly hums in the background, all he accomplishes is reducing the female star of the film to a whimpering damsel to be rescued by Lundgren. In other words, he actively ruins one of the few aspects of Silent Trigger that makes it special within its genre. The film has no time to recover from that fall from grace because he will not go away, no matter how loudly you shout “Fuck you!” at the screen.

With the security guard rapist plot removed, Silent Trigger might satisfy as a decent-enough action cinema oddity. As quietly introspective as the film can feel, it’s often punctuated by bizarre genre spectacle touches like a slow-motion helicopter crash that Lundgren simply leaps out of the way of, an order to assassinate a politician while she’s holding a baby, and a hallucinatory attack of CGI spiders that appear virtually out of nowhere. The dialogue dabbles in almost enough action genre mumbo jumbo like “Target approaching kill zone,” & “The war ended, but the hunt didn’t” to convince you that this is a totally normal, run-of-the-mill 90s action cheapie. Still, Mulcahy’s New Age nature footage and quiet stakeout introspection clearly distinguish it as more of an outlier than a business-as-usual rubber stamp. It’s a total shame, then, that so much energy & screentime is squandered on a mood-ruining sexual assault subplot that suggests a total lack of imagination & self-awareness. It’s a frustrating, prolonged act of self-sabotage that tanks the entire enterprise.

-Brandon Ledet

Don’t Kill It (2017)

The first ten minutes of Don’t Kill It promise a wonderfully executed modern B-picture: a return to form from former action star Dolph Lundgren and a pointedly satirical takedown of modern Southern Conservativism by way of gory supernatural violence. Unfortunately, that film never arrives. Director Mike Mendez, who was also responsible for the moderately entertaining but gloriously titled Big Ass Spider!, seems to be far too comfortable with settling into an easy groove of direct-to-VOD schlock.  Don’t Kill It distinguishes itself from made-for-SyFy dreck only through the R-rating freedom of its gore, tits, and cusses. Mendez directs Lundgren as a world-weary demon hunter who has to save a small Mississippi town from a demon that hops from body to body as its human hosts are destroyed (hence the title). Along the way, he stumbles into what’s very nearly a brilliant social satire on a Get Out-level of gleeful transgression, seemingly entirely on accident. That’s why it’s a huge letdown, then, that any and all satirical elements fade into distant memories and the movie plays like It Follows by way of Walker Texas Ranger (yet not nearly as fun as that combination sounds).

Don’t Kill It opens with its best ideas on its sleeve. A camo-wearing white man hunts deer in the Mississippi woods where he’s possessed by a mysterious demonic force. With pitch black eyes and a hellish scream he returns from his hunting trip to murder his entire family with a shotgun. When he’s eventually taken down the demon that possesses him jumps to the body of another white man, who in turn kills a black family that lives nearby. Mendez establishes a modern nightmare in this way, one where Southern Conservative White Men are literal demons who must be stopped at all costs. The man tasked with stopping them, the hilariously named Jebediah Woodley (Lundgren) is introduced pounding liquor in a dive bar where a nearby bro won’t take “No.” for an answer from a young woman. Woodley kicks the jerk’s ass, teaches him the meaning of the word “consent,” and then follows the girl home himself for a sexual rendezvous. She rides him like a mechanical bull in a Refn-like, neon-lit bedroom until he hallucinates that their encounter was a demonic, evil exchange and the whole ordeal devolves into a nightmare. It’s quite an opening.

The movie immediately tanks from there. A grotesquely macho punchline about sex work cheapens the “consent” exchange from the previous sequence. Woodley then gets wrapped up in convincing an FBI investigator that demons have been behind the recent string of small town murders and, because she’s a woman in a for-the-boys action horror, eventually seduces her with his old man masculinity (between commands to shut up and wait in the car). Similarly, the film itself gets wrapped up in its own mythology and largely forgets what initially made it interesting. The rules of the demon’s body-hopping antics as well as unnecessary details about angels & alternate dimensions dilute the initial impact of the film’s political satire. The idea of scary white men snapping and going on killing sprees is somewhat echoed in later sequences, like when a Tea Party-type town hall meeting devolves into a chaotic bloodbath or when a man is impaled on taxidermy deer antlers. The movie just never calcifies or weaponizes that mode of satire in any significant way. It seems much more concerned with making Dolph Lundgren: Demon Hunter appear to be a late-in-life badass. I know the actor has his dedicated fans, but his persona is never big enough here to justify that loss of interest in the initial conceit. It’s a letdown.

If you’re only looking to Don’t Kill It for a light mood and moments of over the top violence, it delivers in a lot of ways VOD cheapies tend not to. Bodies are slashed, shot, exploded, and boiled as the It Follows-style demon hops from host to host. The problem is that the stretches between those bursts of violence are painfully dull when they really don’t have to be. Don’t Kill It sets itself up with a brilliant central metaphor and sense of purpose in its first few scenes, only to immediately drop them to make room for more Dolph Lundgren hero worship and unnecessary world-building. It’s an okay, goofy-enough film that feels like it was one or two rewrites away from being something truly great.

-Brandon Ledet

Masters of the Universe (1987)

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I was a huge He-Man fan as a kid. Huge. The biggest. My light-up, plastic He-Man sword that made electronic clashing noises when you banged it against imagined enemies & inanimate objects was a prized possession. That is, until I moved onto the next well-marketed obsession: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, WWF, whatever. It’s curious that although I watched the cartoon religiously & loved my plastic sword that bellowed “By the power of Greyskull!” when you pressed the right button on the handle, I somehow never watched the He-Man movie (not that I can remember, anyway). Promised by infamous schlock producers Golan-Globus to be “the Star Wars of the 80s”, 1987’s Masters of the Universe bombed. Hard. Critics hated it. It failed to make a profit. It still, nearly three decades later, holds a mere 17% on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer. In short, the film was & remains a failure.

Well, at least Golan-Globus & the Canon Group got the Star Wars claim partly right. Sure,  the film was far from the technical marvel, financial goldmine, or cultural landmark that Star Wars was, but Masters of the Universe at least made its best effort to mimic the visual style of the George Lucas classic. While the film was at it, it was also keen to borrow some visual ideas from Jack Kirby. And the covers to oldschool fantasy novel paperbacks & story records. The resulting aesthetic is a fascinating mix of bleep-bloop sci-fi machines & the medieval sorcery of skulls, magical crowns, and wizard staffs. Masters of the Universe excels most in costume in set design. Yes, you can see constant Star Wars reminders in the format of the opening credits & costuming (“These soldiers aren’t Star Trooper knockoffs! They’re uniforms are black! They’re different!”), as well as Skeletor’s irrefutable Darth Vader vibes, but there’s oh so much more going on. Besides the medieval wizardry adding an extra layer of visual cool (I’m serious!) to the Star Wars appropriation, the film is also bold enough to take the freakshow on the road. He-Man (played by a perfectly cast Dolph Lundgren) & his three intergalactic cohorts take a trip through a portal (somewhat resembling God’s anus) that results in their arrival in 1980s California. By the time Skeletor & his cronies arrive in a morbid parade procession in downtown Los Angeles, bent on world domination, the film reaches its full potential as a goofy trifle trying to modernize/cash in on that Star Wars magic.

The reasons why large stretches of the He-Man movie are set in America, even outnumbering the scenes set in the fictional land of Eternia, don’t really matter. There’s a MacGuffin called “The Cosmic Key” (presumably the same one that provides motivation for pro wrestler Stardust) that lands He-Man & his crew in California, but it honestly doesn’t amount to much significance. Masters of the Unvierse is far more entertaining if you clear your mind of plot-related concerns & focus on the ridiculous visual feast laid before you. For instance the question of why He-Man would bring a sword to a laser fight isn’t nearly as satisfying as the cartoonish spectacle of He-Man weilding a sword in a laser fight. The exact reasons why Skeletor’s third act acquisition of grand galactic power would transform his costume into a golden, intergalactic, imperial ensemble that feels like the best Jack Kirby knockoff to ever grace the silver screen don’t matter nearly as much as the image itself, which is a wonder to behold, however brief.

Similiarly, it would be smart for dedicated fans of the He-Man cartoon (if they’re still out there) to disregard all plot & character details they remember from the television show. Instead of the all-powerful Sorceress’ gigantic eagle headdress, she wears a complex crystal crown. There’s no mention of He-Man’s gigantic feline sidekick Cringer/Battle Cat. Nor is there any mention of He-Man’s “true” identity, Adam, which is really just He-Man wearing more clothes than usual (not that his own parents can recognize him in his skimpy costume). Gone also is He-Man’s awful Prince Valliant haircut. It’s kind of interesting what elements do remain of the original cartoon, however accidental. Many of the episodes of the original show consist largely of He-Man & pals searching for one thing or another instead of actually battling Skeletor & his evil gang. In the movie, this search happens to be a pursuit for the Cosmic Key. Curiously, what also remains from the show is the oddball sexuality seeping through the characters’ skimpy costumes & penchants for sadomasochistic torture. Very early in the film it becomes apparent that Masters of the Universe is just as interested in He-Man’s pectoral muscles as Russ Meyer would’ve been if they happened to be gigantic breasts. There’s also a scene where our hero (who Liz Lemon would almost certainly refer to as a “sex idiot”) is getting beaten at Skeletor’s command that I’m pretty sure has inspired a new fetish in me: laser whips.

However, a lot of what makes Masters of the Universe a fun watch, besides the surprising high quality of its set & costume design as well as its visual effects, is when it disregards its source material & basic reason completely. For instance, once The Cosmic Key is in the hands of a bonehead Californian musician, its keys are revealed to have musical tones to them that allow it to be played like a synth. Because of this detail, it’s rock & roll that saves the day just as much as, if not more than, He-Man. With some goofy rock & roll/medieval space wizard culture clashes like this, combined with roles filled by Lundgren, Billy Barty, and Courtney Cox, as well as some super cool villains that include a humanoid lizard, a werewolf-looking beast thing, a humongous bat, and their space age Rob Halford friend, Masters of the Universe makes for a really goofy picture. The visual accomplishments occasionally elevate the material, but it’d be untruthful to sell the film as being good for anything but a lark. Fans of shoddy Star Wars knockoffs, 80s cheese, and Jack Kirby cosplay are all likely to find something of value here. I wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about the He-Man film as I used to be about my toy He-Man sword (how could I be?), but I ended up enjoying it far more than I expected.

-Brandon Ledet