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Posts Tagged ‘1980s’

When we consider the history of the fantasy film, there are a few things which we have to accept as fact. I suppose I should make clear what I actually mean by a fantasy film, given that anything which isn’t a documentary is technically a fantasy (i.e. made up) – and for me, if we’re going to be reductionist about this, a fantasy film is one which has wizards and/or magic in it. (So a lot of horror movies are also doing double duty in the fantasy genre, not to mention most superhero movies and the Star Wars franchise too.)

You can mock and grumble about the popularity of superhero films, but Marvel Studios in particular have done the fantasy genre an enormous favour by making so many good movies – one of those unfortunate historical facts is that most fantasy films, particularly in the traditional sword and sorcery genre, have been pretty rotten. In fact, with the possible exceptions of Excalibur, the first Schwarzenegger Conan and Krull, I would struggle to name a good sword and sorcery film from the twentieth century.

And then the other day I finally got to watch Hawk the Slayer, a ground-breaking British sword and sorcery film from 1980, directed by Terry Marcel. And it is quite extraordinarily entertaining, clearly setting out the boundaries of the genre for decades to come. It’s also pretty rotten, of course, but it’s an ambitious British film from the dog days of the turn of the seventies, so you kind of expect that.

Top billed is imported American star Jack Palance, rocking a tricky helmet-eyepatch combo as the villainous Voltan. Palance gets proceedings underway by breaking into the castle of his father (Ferdy Mayne). Given the age gap between Voltan and his pa is apparently in the low single digits, something rum has possibly gone on, but this is not dwelt upon. Voltan wants the ‘last Elven mind stone’, which his dad has lying about the place, but it’s a no-no from the elder generation. So Voltan stabs him to death and strops off somewhere. Arriving just too late to confront Voltan, and get the film over in the first five minutes, is Voltan’s brother Hawk (John Terry, whose most prominent roles were probably in Full Metal Jacket and The Living Daylights).

This time Pa does decide to hand over the mind stone, which attaches itself to Hawk’s sword and allows him to summon the blade into his hand through the power of mystic otherworldly forces (and running the film backwards). Hawk dutifully swears to avenge one family member by killing another, but it probably makes sense if you’re there.

One of the few ways in which Hawk the Slayer doesn’t rigorously cleave to genre conventions is in Voltan’s evil scheme – despite seemingly being sponsored by the Powers of Darkness, he’s not out to collect apocalyptic plot coupons, he just wants to get rich by terrorising the countryside. One of his victims, Ranulf (W Morgan Shepherd), turns up at a convent, closely followed by Voltan himself. Voltan decides to take the Abbess hostage, so the other nuns pack Ranulf off to tell the local Abbot. The Abbot in turn tells Ranulf to find Hawk. (Yes, the plotting is a bit long-winded, but there are a lot of guest stars to find parts for.)

Hawk duly turns up to save Ranulf from Voltan’s goons in the nick of time (it might be less of a close call if Hawk didn’t ride everywhere in slow motion) and agrees to help out. At this point the film suddenly decides it is going to be The Magnificent Seven for a bit, as Hawk decides to assemble a team of warriors to help him – not quite seven though (budget issues). Helping him out with this is a witch (a fairly thankless role for Patricia Quinn). So he duly teleports about, recruiting a dwarf (played by someone who is a bit on the short side), a giant (Bernard Bresslaw, who is at least quite tall) and an elf (someone doing a so-so Mr Spock impression, although this itself is probably anthropologically significant). And off they go to rescue the Abbess from Voltan’s clutches.

If all of this is giving you a kind of ‘bog-standard D&D on a night when the Dungeon Master didn’t have much time to prepare’ vibe, then I commend you for your insightfulness – it’s all fairly tropey fantasy stuff, with a distinct whiff of real-ale-drinking New Wave of British Heavy Metal about it (the actual soundtrack is by Harry Robertson, who also produced the film and wrote the screenplay, and betrays a rather closer affection for Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, to my ears at least). It would all be rather dreary stuff under normal circumstances.

Four months after Hawk the Slayer came out, John Boorman’s Excalibur was released, which I think is in its way a great film. These days, despite a budget of $11 million, it all looks a bit clunky. So you can imagine that time has been absolutely beastly to Hawk the Slayer, which was made for about half a million quid. Personally I have to confess to a certain admiration for a film which so fully commits to a range of special effects so reliant on silly string, front axial projection, and trick effects in the editing suite. (The matte paintings used to depict the exteriors of the various locations brought back fond memories of many church pantomimes I attended in my youth.) The sheer brass neck of the film in trying to get away with this stuff is genuinely endearing.

What elevates it, in a certain way, is the fact that the late 70s were a dark time for the British film industry and so lots of proper film stars were wandering about looking for work in a movie – any movie, really. The usual deal at this time was that a famous actor would work for a reduced fee if they were credited as a ‘special guest star’. So it is that Hawk the Slayer ends up with a list of ‘special guest stars’ which is probably longer than the cast list of non-special guest actors in it. Certainly it has an astonishingly good cast for the kind of film it is – apart from Palance and Bresslaw, who are both proper actors, Harry Andrews plays the Abbott, Annette Crosbie plays the Abbess, Roy Kinnear is an innkeeper, Shane Briant is Palance’s adopted son, Patrick Magee plays a priest, and so on. If you’re looking for the missing link between City Slickers and Carry On Cowboy, or indeed Shane and One Foot in the Grave, then Hawk the Slayer is the film for you.

Admittedly, some of these people seem quite bemused by it all, but then if Hawk the Slayer takes you unawares it is likely to have that effect, I’m afraid. Objectively, this is a terrible film, despite the game performances from most of the cast. It’s almost like the type specimen for a certain kind of bad fantasy film. And yet it is so energetic and seemingly unaware of its own shortcomings that it becomes almost impossible to genuinely look down on. I’m not sure the fabled ‘so bad it’s good’ film genuinely exists – but if there are such things, then Hawk the Slayer is certainly amongst their number.

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The one-hit wonder, such an established part of the music business, doesn’t really have a counterpart when it comes to international cinema. I use the word ‘international’ with intention; some individuals have one-off hits and never go on to have substantial careers off the back of them – but countries tend to either have thriving export markets or not. I mean, apart from America, films from Japan, Korea, France, Scandinavia, India and Poland all seem to turn up in UK cinemas (okay, some of them independents and art houses) fairly regularly, but when was the last time a film from (say) Peru or Canada got a wide release?

Normally I would add South Africa to the list of countries who, if they have any kind of domestic film industry, have no joy in persuading the rest of the world to partake of it – but there are always exceptions, which brings us to Jamie Uys’ The Gods Must Be Crazy!, released in its own country in 1984. Uys had a long career as a film director, which seems to have been at least somewhat opportunistic – ‘serious’ films rub shoulders with comedies, and he often appears in the films as an actor. He won a Golden Globe for his 1974 film Animals are Beautiful People (apparently a comedic nature documentary, so not exactly a crowded field) – it was this which gave him the idea for his best-known film.

To be honest, The Gods Must Be Crazy! starts off looking like a nature documentary too, complete with cheery narration by Paddy O’Byrne. A crash-zoom takes us from an animated Earth seen from space to the heart of the Kalahari – which looks like an idyllic wilderness, but is apparently one of the most demanding places to live in the world. The only people who have mastered the art of survival are the Kalahari bushmen, and the film goes on to describe them and their lifestyle in a bit more detail.

The bushmen seem to have a pretty good time of things, as their society is untroubled by such stifling western concepts as laws, guilt, property, or money: everything is taken from nature and held in common by the tribe. However – and here the film touches on something genuinely interesting in a sociological sort of way – this changes when a plane flies over their territory and the pilot casually drops an empty Coca Cola bottle out of the window. The bottle survives the fall intact and is taken by the bushmen to be an artefact sent to them by the gods, for they have never seen anything like it before.

The bottle initially seems to be a genuine blessing, as it proves to have all sorts of uses undreamt of by a soft drink company – but soon trouble is brewing, as its arrival has suddenly transformed the tribe’s world into one of scarcity – everyone wants to use and own the bottle, and soon bickering and unhappiness are spreading amongst the people. The film’s presentation of the concept could be better, but the idea is a persuasive one. Eventually, one of the tribe, a man named Xi (played by N!xau, and that really is his name), decides to resolve the issue by taking the bottle to the edge of the world and throwing it off, thus sending it back to the gods.

The rest of the film is about Xi’s strange odyssey to the edge of the world, and gets progressively less and less interesting. This is because it gradually stops being about Xi and his perspective on the world, and increasingly occupies itself with stories about other characters – a journalist from the big city (Sandra Prinsloo) quits her job to become a school teacher out in the bush, which entails her being collected by an amiable but clumsy biologist (Marius Weyers). Meanwhile, a gang of terrorist guerillas is on the loose, threatening to cause all sorts of havoc.

The film eventually settles down to being a broad and really quite naive farce, albeit with the occasional effective moment. It sometimes resembles an episode of Daktari crossed with The Benny Hill Show: the cartoony slapstick and sight gags are not underplayed, and Uys manages to contrive various scenes with Prinsloo’s character appearing in her underwear. Xi loses his central role, really, becoming just someone that the other characters talk about and try to help – which is understandable, given that N!xau was a genuine San tribesman who had no experience of western culture before making the film (legend has it he simply threw away the money he was given by Uys for appearing in the film, not appreciating it had any value). This does result in a certain unevenness of tone. Xi’s early scenes are all narrated to explain what’s going on (Xi himself speaks Southern !Xun throughout), but this device is dropped once he starts interacting with Meyers and the others.

To be honest, the narrated sequences about bushman life do come across as a bit patronising, at least until the scene switches and the same narrator starts to discuss the peculiarities of life in western society with the same scholarly detachment and the same cheery manner. It seems to me that there was potential here for something genuinely thought-provoking, along the lines of Koyaanisqatsi but with more laughs – but it turns into the knockabout caper described above.

As such it’s an amiable film, a strange mixture of the potentially deep and the determinedly shallow – the low budget shows and it does have a sort of cobbled-together feeling about it. But the central idea – a stranger comes to western society for the first time and we see its oddness through his eyes – is a strong one, and I would be astonished if Paul Hogan didn’t owe his international film career to having seen it at some point: really, the film that most resembles The Gods Must Be Crazy! is Crocodile Dundee, which downplays the sociological angle in favour of a more adroit central comic turn, but sticks to broadly the same premise. It’s an odd film, an okay piece of entertainment, but more really something to watch out of sheer curiosity.

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As we have established, I love a dinosaur movie, all things being equal – and after watching a vintage dinosaur movie, I often turn to my copy of The Illustrated Dinosaur Movie Guide (Jones, 1993), to see if I agree with it.¬† Let’s see what it says about My Science Project, written and directed by Jonathan R Betuel in 1985:

Entertaining teen comedy in which likeable student John Stockwell raids an old Air Force base for his end of term science project. But the machine he steals comes from a crashed UFO and pretty soon it has opened up a time warp which could destroy the world. With (blah blah blah…).

I’ll say one thing for Steve Jones, he’s got the art of the concise plot synopsis down pat, hasn’t he? There’s nothing I’d necessarily argue with there except some of the adjectives. However, the joy of having your own blog means you can ramble on for as long as you like.

No film of the modern age is entirely an island – at least, none that immediately occurs to me. The Terminator is just an exceptional example of a kind of punk sci-fi thriller of which there was a whole slew in the early 1980s – the difference is that most people have never seen or even heard of Trancers, Cherry 2000 or Night of the Comet. Something similar is true of the high-school sci-fi comedy genre, which briefly blossomed in the mid-to-late 1980s before equally rapidly fading away. The film of this type that everybody knows is Back to the Future, again because it is so exceptionally well made, though you could certainly suggest that Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure has left its mark on the culture, and I suppose Weird Science has a sort of following. Films like Real Genius and My Science Project really do seem to have slid into oblivion, though.

The film opens in the late 50s with the USAF delivering a crashed flying saucer to a base out in the desert. Eisenhower turns up and orders the thing destroyed, which the air force guys promptly get cracking on. It’s an interesting scene but it somehow seems to be lacking a big gag, image, or punchline; they wheel on a UFO and the US President just to do some exposition, which feels like a bit of a waste. This lack of big beats is a consistent issue throughout the film.

The story jumps forward to 1985, where student Michael Harlan (John Stockwell) needs to pass his high school diploma. (Stockwell also played – snigger – Cougar in the first Top Gun and, and here is something I bet you didn’t know, his niece is Florence of the Machine fame.) To do this he needs a successful science project, and just rebuilding a carburettor won’t cut it, according to his science teacher (Dennis Hopper, who is good value). This is a shame as working on cars is his main interest in life. As if that wasn’t bad enough, his girlfriend dumps him, and there’s trouble at home with his father’s new girlfriend.

Harlan ends up recruiting his bookish classmate Ellie (Danielle von Zerneck) to help him find something to impress his teachers – she thinks they are on an actual date, he does not. They end up nicking a weird piece of electronic gadgetry from an abandoned bunker on a local air force base. This turns out to be the engine from the UFO, of course. Well, maybe engine isn’t quite the right word, as it seems to function by sucking the energy out of anything close to it, whether that’s a car battery or the local power grid, and then using it to open a portal to the space-time continuum.

Harlan and his friend Vince (Fisher Stevens, possibly still best known for playing a comedy racial stereotype in Short Circuit out in the wider 80s sci-fi comedy genre) play around with the thing and find themselves inadvertently transported two hours into the future. Science teacher Hopper is shown the gizmo, gets carried away, and promptly finds himself zapped to parts unknown. The gizmo gets switched on and off a few times (probably once too many, as the film feels a bit slow and repetitive in the middle) before a swirling vortex opens over the high school, in which Ellie has become stuck with an obnoxious classmate. Harlan and Vince find themselves obliged to go inside and unplug the vortex before something really bad happens.

You know, on paper ‘high schoolers find an alien device which opens a rift in the space-time continuum’ isn’t that much less promising a premise than ‘high schoolers use obscure means to create the perfect synthetic woman’, ‘high schoolers use time machine to get famous historical figures to help them graduate’ or even ‘high schooler uses time machine to accidentally go back and stop his own parents from meeting’. It’s got potential; the issue is one of how you realise it, and here is where My Science Project really falls down.

The main problem is that it’s simply not very funny – I can’t remember a single decent joke in it – and on top of that, it’s very slow in getting going. It feels like the film should really be about the characters going into the temporally-scrambled school to shut down the gizmo and rescue Ellie, but this doesn’t happen until the third act, possibly for budgetary reasons, possibly because they just couldn’t think of much material for this part – there are fights with mutants, cavemen and an okay dinosaur puppet, but not much in the way of plot. Most of the film is thus busily setting up a climax which isn’t really worth the wait, and it becomes very dependent on the charms of the young cast to stay interesting – and while they’re good, they’re not that good.

The best of the high-school sci-fi films work because they are both genuinely funny and genuinely clever in the way they employ the ideas they have co-opted. Back to the Future is loaded with witty and creative little elaborations on its main idea, developing it in all sorts of unexpected and satisfying ways. Bill and Ted does something similar, although to a lesser extent. The problem with My Science Project is that the basic premise of the film – high-schoolers use a UFO gizmo to tear a hole in space-time – also serves pretty well as its plot synopsis. There is occasionally something worth seeing in this film, but not often; it’s the kind of movie which is mainly valuable in reminding you just how good other, similar films really are.

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There is perhaps something to be explored in the fact that the decline of the British Empire coincided with the contraction and dwindling of the British film industry – the sun was setting, finally, on the former over the same period of time that Britain went from making films like The Third Man and A Matter of Life and Death to Confessions of a Driving Instructor and Carry On Dick. Declaring the death of the British film industry became a bit of a cottage industry itself in the 1980s and 1990s, although these days it does seem to be ticking along, sustained by bonnet operas, true-life hats-and-fags comedy-dramas and the occasional rom-com. We seem to have given up on the idea of the ‘new dawn’, the rebirth of British films as a major force to rival Hollywood – although given the number of British actors and directors routinely employed by the big American studios, perhaps that’s an outdated notion anyway.

Nevertheless, the scriptwriter Colin Welland was moved to shout ‘The British are coming!’ at the 1982 Oscar ceremony as an expression of just that sentiment, and for a couple of years it looked like it might actually be the case – the following year saw Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (a film specifically about the beginning of the end of the British Empire) do rather well, while Welland was there to pick up a statue for Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire.

I was really quite young when Chariots of Fire came out, but I still remember it being a cultural sensation at the time – you could hear the theme tune everywhere, and the opening sequence was endlessly parodied too (the familiarity of this bit of the film is probably why it’s the sequence that was recreated in a recent episode of The Crown in which the production of the film is a minor plot element). Not that there’s anything too radical about it – it’s exactly the kind of film you can imagine being made nowadays, a true story set in the early part of the 20th century, with a cast of familiar faces.

The plot itself is essentially a container for a number of different storylines, all linked by the fact they concern members of the British Olympic team at the Paris Games in 1924. This results in a slightly unusual structure where the two main strands of the film occasionally interact  but are basically quite separate. The first of these concerns Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), a Cambridge student for whom success at running is a weapon against the establishment prejudice he faces (he is Jewish). He is a driven man, unconcerned by matters of tradition or politeness, running primarily for himself.

In stark contrast to this, the other story starts in working-class Scotland and concerns Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), a gifted athlete who is also a devout Christian. Liddell’s long-term plan is to go back to China (where he was born to a missionary couple) and become a missionary himself, but in the meantime he is shrewd enough to realise that his fame and success in athletics will do his spiritual cause no harm either. In an early meeting between Liddell and Abrahams, it is the Scot who is victorious.

Both men, along with a few minor characters, eventually end up going to Paris. Here the major crisis of the plot is revealed – the incident which initially inspired producer David Putnam to make the film. Liddell discovers that the heats for the 100m sprint, the event he is down to compete in, are taking place on a Sunday, a day which his religious faith precludes him from running on. Considerable pressure to change his mind is brought to bear on him by various establishment members of the British Olympic Committee (which includes the then-Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII) – will his faith prove equal to this challenge? Has he in fact gone all the way to Paris for nothing?

Well, of course not, and his eventual decision to (spoiler alert for the 1924 Olympics) switch to the 400m sprint means that both of the film’s heroes can enjoy a medal-winning moment of triumph – the film is a little bit selective as to which elements of history it actually includes: both Abrahams and Liddell competed in the 200m final in Paris, where Liddell won a bronze, but this isn’t mentioned in the film, while Liddell knew well in advance of going to Paris that the problematic heats took place on a Sunday, rather than only discovering it while on the boat to France.

It is in no respects a particularly bold or innovative piece of film-making – no envelopes are pushed, nor horses frightened, it’s another expression of the English love affair with costume dramas that saw the same year’s TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. There are a lot of decent posh chaps in the background both there and here (not to mention appearances by John Gielgud), even if both Abrahams and Liddell are ultimately slightly iconoclastic figures. And perhaps that love affair is not so very surprising given that the British are afflicted with a faint conviction that, perhaps, our best days lie somewhere in our past. What does it say about us that we still hanker after days of repression and deference? (Vide Downton Abbey, amongst many other things.)

One shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss Chariots of Fire simply because it is another expression of nostalgia and the myth of British exceptionalism. The acting and script are very solid, and Vangelis’ score is justly famous, and a sign of something new. The phenomenon of the historical movie with an electronic soundtrack seldom had very agreeable results – I remember having particular problems with Ladyhawke, a medieval fantasy film struggling with rather intrusive synth music – but here it somehow works.

The Fayeds’ involvement in the production of Chariots of Fire is, naturally, somewhat ironic: as noted, this is a sports drama about two men who – for different reasons – both stood up to the British establishment, but made – in Mohammed al-Fayed’s case at least – by a man desperate for acceptance in the highest circles of British society. That world still casts a spell, or at least the idea of it does. Chariots of Fire is, if nothing else, one of the more agreeable films which makes use of that strange enchantment.

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Red Heat, released in 1988, is a Walter Hill action thriller starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. It is possible that it is not necessary to say all this, because it is almost exactly the kind of film you would expect Walter Hill and Arnold Schwarzenegger to make together in 1988. You probably know exactly who Arnold Schwarzenegger is already; you may not be so familiar with Walter Hill, who has had a pretty good career as the maker of thrillers of different flavours – he wrote and directed the stylish The Warriors and The Driver, both in 1979, and got writing credits on the first two Alien sequels. (He is also credited as producer on most of the Alien franchise.) One of his bigger successes of the 1980s was the buddy-cop thriller 48 Hours, which Red Heat in some ways resembles.

The movie opens in a banya, or Russian sauna, somewhere inside the Soviet Union. Banyas are traditionally not mixed, but as we are in a Walter Hill film this is not the case, allowing some nice leery shots of well-upholstered female extras lounging around in the nude (need it even be said? The men have all been issued with little aprons to protect their modesty, of course). In walks Arnie, displaying a weird-looking navel that looks like a horizontal slit across his belly, playing tough Moscow cop Ivan Danko. He is in pursuit of thorough-going scumbag Viktor Rosta (Ed O’Ross), and soon enough he is in a naked fistfight outside in the snow with some sleazy-looking dudes.

Following this is another sequence in which Arnie (now dressed) walks into a bar, picks a fight with a guy, and then tears his leg off. It turns out to be a fake leg, which is to say even more fake than everything else in this movie, which he is hiding cocaine inside. (Walter Hill has said he bought a whole other script on the strength of this scene, just to incorporate it into Red Heat, and believes it to be the high-point of the movie. We are probably about ten minutes into the film.) A shoot-out with Rosta ensues, in which Arnie’s best friend is killed. (The best friend is just in this one scene and is blatantly here just to get shot and provide more motivation for Arnie’s character.) Rosta gets away, of course.

The scene switches to Chicago, where we meet fast-talking loose cannon cop Art Ridzik (James Belushi), the other element of the film’s odd-couple pairing. He is working for strait-laced boss-cop Laurence Fishburne (looking very dapper and thin), who disparages him as a slob, but this doesn’t get in the way of Ridzik saving him from having his head blown off by a drug dealer. Ridzik and his buddies take time off from high-risk drug busts and end up arresting Viktor Rosta for a traffic offence, not realising he is looking to greatly increase connections between the US and Glasnost-era Russia by putting together a drug deal that will flood the USSR with cocaine.

Needless to say, Danko is despatched to the States to oversee the extradition, resplendently wearing his Russian cop dress uniform (which makes him look like a cross between an old-fashioned ice cream seller and Postman Pat). He is under orders to keep schtumski about the Soviet drugs problem, naturally. But of course things go wrong: Rosta’s American accomplices spring him on the way to the airport, killing Belushi’s partner in the process. It does not bode well for US-Soviet relations. It falls to Ridzik and Danko to put aside their differences and team up to crack the case – this involves Danko going undercover, or at least as undercover as it is possible to go when you look like a tree wearing a suit…

And the film proceeds more or less as you’d expect for the rest of its duration. It feels like Arnie shoots someone every twenty minutes with almost metronomic regularity, initially with an enormous (and fictitious) Russian handgun (the ‘Pobyrin 9.2mm’), and later with a .44 Magnum (mainly, one suspects, so they can do a bit where Arnie looks blankly at the camera and says ‘Who is Dirty Harry?’). There’s more gratuitous nudity from pretty much every significant female character except Rosta’s American wife, who is played by a young Gina Gershon, but this is, as I say, SOP for a Walter Hill movie – I saw one of his films about ten years ago and it was pretty much the same then too.

It’s all very much like a Walter Hill film, really, rather than the more fantastical sort of thing you perhaps associate Schwarzenegger with. The most distinctive element of the story – the Soviet connection – is only there because Hill couldn’t imagine any way to have Arnie playing an American character (he was apparently ‘tough to use credibly because of his accent’). There aren’t really the big stunts and action sequences you get in the movies that Arnie made with Jim Cameron, except perhaps for a bit with a crashing bus near the end. Nor does Hill seem interested in letting Arnie do much more than loom and look stern – it’s clear that James Belushi is here to be The Funny One.

The thing is, he’s not that funny. The poster almost seems intended to suggest that this is some knockabout odd-couple comedy film – Arnie brandishes his gun, Belushi a cup of coffee – but it isn’t that, on any level. They’re not really an odd couple: they’re actually quite a similar couple, in that neither of them is particularly funny, or interesting. They both just look stern and occasionally shoot people.

You’d honestly expect better from a film which credits Troy Kennedy Martin as a screenwriter – Martin was the creator of Z Cars, screenwriter of the original version of The Italian Job, and in 1988 was relatively fresh from writing the outstanding BBC drama Edge of Darkness. Then again, according to a source on the production, ‘there was no script,’ with scenes written as the production went along. Perhaps here we are getting to the truth of why the film is so generic and frankly indifferent: the idea for the movie is not without promise, but it feels undeveloped and hackneyed. The result is a kind of intent-free, uninspired naturalism operating on a sort of level of minimal competence. Arnie is never at his best in this kind of film, and the result is one of the least distinctive of his early movies.

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My default position when it comes to John Carpenter is that he is basically one of those people who did their careers backwards – most of us, when starting out in a new field, have results which are a bit hit and miss, until we figure out what we’re up to and (given sufficient time, dedication and natural talent) eventually master whatever it is we’re doing. Carpenter’s career isn’t like that. Even though his first film Dark Star is flawed, it’s still arguably the most influential science fiction movie of the last fifty years, while Assault on Precinct 13 is flat-out brilliant, and Halloween changed the face of the American horror movie. And then, at some point, he just went off the boil – by the late 1980s he was making schlocky films like Prince of Darkness, a decade later it was warmed-over rehashes like Escape from LA, and after 2001’s Ghosts of Mars (a fairly dreadful film) he more or less gave up.

A sad decline. Most people point to the tipping point being the commercial failure of his version of The Thing, which was competing at the box office with E.T. and came off distinctly second-best. I disagree: I think the last genuinely really good Carpenter film came a couple of years later, in the form of Starman. It seems to be a film that slips easily from the mind when it comes to discussing Carpenter’s work, perhaps because it is so uncharacteristic of the films he’s known for.

The film opens with the slightly hackneyed plot device of the Voyager 2 probe being intercepted by an alien intelligence. The aliens give it a good checking out, paying special attention to the gold disc placed aboard, and return the favour by sending their own probe ship to Earth to see if it’s as nice as the LP suggests. You know those Earth people, they’re devils for sending mixed signals, and the probe is shot down by the US Air Force somewhere over Wisconsin. It crashes near the home of recently-widowed Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) and the pilot – an immaterial being of pure energy – zips around the house curiously before settling on one of her mementoes of her late husband Scott; a lock of his hair. The alien uses this to grow itself a new body to inhabit, a body which is naturally the spitting image of Scott (Jeff Bridges).

Jenny herself takes this about as well as you might expect, but there is more bad news on the way – the alien Starman’s colleagues are coming to Earth to pick him up, but, for important reasons of plot, their agreed rendezvous will be in Arizona in a few days time. Road trip! The chances are it will take just long enough for Starman to learn to appreciate the beauties of life on Earth and for him and Jenny to fall in love. Meanwhile a scientist from SETI, on the government’s payroll (he is played, very capably, by Charles Martin Smith), is hunting for the visitor, but increasingly beginning to question the rightness of the uncompromising approach taken by the authorities.

As you can perhaps see, it’s a fairly straightforward story without big twists or deep complexities. It’s not an exploitation movie or an action movie, nor is it a western modulated into a different setting, and as such it’s a fairly atypical project for Carpenter to take on. Mostly it’s a romantic comedy drama about two people sitting in a car, with the qualifier that one of them happens to be an alien.

The history of Starman is fairly interesting if you’re a student of the genre: Columbia started developing it at the same time as a script called Night Skies, which eventually became E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The studio eventually abandoned the latter project, which of course went on to be a massive hit for Universal – this in turn resulted in Starman, deemed a more adult-oriented take on similar material, being put into production. (Carpenter was hired ahead of Tony Scott and Peter Hyams, and was keen to change his image as a director.) The similarities are obvious enough; this is clearly a post-Spielberg science-fantasy film. But what struck me about the film, watching it again recently, was the extent to which it also feels like it’s parallelling The Terminator in some ways – not really in terms of the trajectory of the plot, but when it comes to the imagery of some sequences – the main character materialises naked, out of thin air, at the start of the story, and the central relationship ends up becoming an archetypal James Cameron-style romance – which is to say it concludes with a one-night stand in an unlikely setting.

Nevertheless the film has a kind of understated sweetness and authenticity to it which isn’t quite there in any of the films it resembles – the road movie element also helps to make it distinctive, Carpenter apparently keen to explore the Americana of the story. It only really has four significant characters (the other is Richard Jaeckel’s Air Force heavy) and most of it is about two of them sitting in a car or a diner together. Both Allen and Bridges are really excellent; you do wonder why Allen didn’t have a more significant career considering she’s so good here and in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Everyone seems to accept now that Jeff Bridges is one of the best actors of his generation – he remains, to the best of my knowledge, the only person ever to be Oscar nominated for playing an alien. He’s not afraid to come across as initially weird and unsettling as the Starman, before gradually toning it down and creating a credible and sympathetic character. It is, I think, one of the best ‘playing an alien’ performances anywhere.

There are lots of good things about Starman, even if the story feels a bit low-octane and familiar in places. The real flaw that jumps out at me, however, is that the script is so keen on the character-building, phatic scenes between Jenny and the Starman that some of the connective tissue that allows the script to function is a bit skimped on. For example, one scene ends with Jenny getting a fright as she bumps into the Starman, who has only just appeared in her house. The next time we see them both, he is wearing her late husband’s clothes and she is preparing to drive him to Arizona. A whole lot of quite significant stuff seems to have happened between scenes, which one would quite like to have seen. How did he explain all this to her? How does she feel about it? Is she down with the alien turning himself into a clone of her husband? And so on.

Nevertheless, the scenes we do have retain a considerable charm, and you can usually figure out for yourself what happened off-screen in the bits we’re not privy to. It’s a well-made, entertaining film for a mainstream audience, and as such fairly unrecognisable as a John Carpenter project. As I say, for me it’s the last really good film he directed – but despite good reviews, it wasn’t particularly successful and within a couple of years the director was back to making more energetic and derivative schlock. A shame – on the strength of this road movie, the road not taken by Carpenter would surely have been at least as interesting as the way his career actually went.

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I’m not sure anyone would describe John Carpenter as one of cinema’s great stylists, but it’s certainly the case that many of his films, particularly the ones from the later 1980s, have a kind of distinctive collective identity. Perhaps this is just a generous way of saying that they all look and feel pretty much the same. The cinematography is the same, the acting is the same (indeed, many of the casts are frequently largely the same), the music is the same, and the scripts are often the same – collections of genre tropes occasionally given a pulpy new spin.

Carpenter’s 1987 film Prince of Darkness is a bit of an outlier, on the last point at least. The premise of this film is a bit out there, even by Carpenter’s standards, and the way in which it is developed somehow results in a film which consistently feels completely bonkers. Certainly there is very little sense of a connection between the narrative elements which appear in the opening scenes of the movie: there are various ominous, suggestive images, some get-to-know-you scenes involving a quantum physics professor (Victor Wong) and his students, and an elderly Catholic priest is found dead by one of his colleagues (Donald Pleasence, who was practically a Carpenter regular by this point).

It turns out the dead priest was the guardian of a derelict monastery in downtown Los Angeles, which belonged to an old and secretive (but still very influential) order of monks known as the Brotherhood of Sleep. In the cellar of the monastery the priest finds what looks like a large glass cylinder filled with swirling green slime. (The cylinder is surrounded by dozens of candles, but who has been keeping them lit is one mystery the film opts not to investigate.) Pleasence gets onto Wong and his team and invites them all to come to the monastery for a few days so they can do a proper investigation of the cylinder and its contents.

So far, so… well, it is a bit odd, but the film has barely got started yet. After the investigators move in and set up, the monastery is surrounded by an army of insect-infested schizophrenic homeless people who kill anyone attempting to leave (one of the more prominent is played by Alice Cooper, who at one point manages the neat trick of impaling someone on a bicycle). The ancient books around the cylinder turn out to contain modern equations, and a warning that the green slime is actually the embodiment of Satan. Green slime Satan is actually the offspring of ‘Anti-God’, an intelligence of pure evil which resides in a universe of anti-matter which can be accessed using mirrors as portals. Jesus Christ, you may be interested to learn, was a space traveller who came to Earth to warn about the danger of releasing green slime Satan from its captivity, but ended up being misunderstood. Catholic teachings on the nature of evil have (perhaps understandably) got all this a bit mixed up and conflated pure evil as a spiritual concept with the less traditional notion that pure evil is a swirly green slime.

As you might expect, slime-Satan finds a way out of its glassy prison and ‘infects’ one of the monitoring team, naturally without anyone noticing it. Soon enough the uninfected scientists find themselves having to fend off their possessed colleagues, as leaving the building is obviously not an option (due to the mob of homicidal homeless people hanging around outside). Green slime Satan is looking to create a suitable host body so it can bring Anti-God into the real world.

The film’s curious elision of a flavour of science fiction with supernatural horror, coupled with the fact that the script is credited to one Martin Quatermass (actually Carpenter himself working under a pseudonym), makes it fairly clear what was going on here: Carpenter is paying tribute (or making a homage, if you will) to Nigel Kneale, estimable British scriptwriter of – most pertinently in this case – Quatermass and the Pit and The Stone Tape (whose path Carpenter had crossed a few years earlier when they both contributed to Halloween III). This being a Carpenter script, it is not really up to the same standard of intelligence and subtlety as either of those: Carpenter is much more in love with hitting the audience’s revulsion reflex trigger than Kneale ever was. The charitable might say that it is clearly meant as an affectionate act of homage (in much the same way that Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers also seems to owe a clear debt to Quatermass and the Pit) to an influential figure in the genre. Kneale himself, characteristically enough, was not in the mood to be charitable: the kind of homage one could do without, he sniffed – the use of the Quatermass name was highly regrettable, as it might lead the uninformed to conclude that Kneale had had something to do with the script. You can see his point.

The story never quite coheres or convinces in the manner of the films this is seeking to emulate, with the result that it just comes across as a bizarre mixture of outlandish pseudo-scientific notions and schlocky pulp horror tropes: almost as if, before making Hellraiser, Clive Barker had read A Brief History of Time. It has been suggested that on some level the film is a metaphor for the AIDS epidemic which was concerning many people at the time it was made: the possession-effect is spread by people spraying bodily fluids (usually saliva) at each other, while at one point a character who has previously alluded to being gay finds himself menaced by two (female) characters who have been taken over; naturally, he hides in a cupboard. Quite how many levels his ‘Help! I’m trapped in the closet!’ line is meant to work on is not clear: this is not the sort of level you would generally expect a Carpenter film to work on.

But in general this is business as usual for a late 80s Carpenter movie – it has a couple of character actors in it you may have heard of (Donald Pleasence does his stuff here, but rather seems to be going through the motions), but most of the main cast is quite anonymous, the script kind of hangs together and has the occasional good moment (there’s a subplot about prophetic dreams the cast are having, as a result of tachyon transmissions from the year 1999, or something, which is moderately creepy), and on the whole the movie just kind of bulls its way along, content to be a mid-budget genre movie. Like practically every Carpenter film made after 1982, you look at Prince of Darkness and wonder what happened to the guy who made Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, and The Thing: he was someone who really knew how to make a movie. The John Carpenter who made this is a journeyman – one capable of the occasional inspired flourish, but nothing more substantial than that.

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Being an international figure is all very well, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’re viewed the same way all over the world. My assumptions on this topic took a well-deserved whacking a few years ago when I was discussing politics with a bunch of NGO officials in the Kyrgyz Republic. Not surprisingly, recent Euro-Asian history came up and the way in which different politicians are viewed – and I mentioned in passing the positive opinion of Mikhail Gorbachev which still prevailed at that point. To my surprise, mention of his name was greeted, if not quite with bared teeth and snarls, certainly a real chilliness. Many citizens of the former USSR, especially those sections which have not prospered, viewed and still view Gorbachev as very nearly a traitor. Nevertheless, he was and remains an iconic figure in recent history and culture, and perhaps it is here we may discover a hint as to what it was that motivated and inspired him.

Very little about Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky IV (originally released in 1985, not long after Gorbachev had come to power) indicates that this was a big-budget prestige project, not least the way that it opens (after a daft moment where US and USSR-themed boxing gloves bang into each other and explode) with a lengthy reprise of the end of Rocky III, wherein Stallone puts the beatdown on Mr T and bonds sweatily with his friend and rival Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).

Various slightly bemusing scenes of the extended Balboa family at leisure ensue: sentimental not-quite-comedy, mostly focusing on Rocky’s grumpy brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young). The main hook for these moments is Rocky’s birthday present to Paulie: a wobbling, chrome-plated, mantis-headed domestic robot, like something out of a gimmicky sitcom. To say these scenes strike a very peculiar note is an understatement.

Luckily, the main plot is soon in session, with the arrival in the USA of enormous Soviet android Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, making his American movie debut). Drago’s backers in the Soviet government have sculpted him into an unstoppable pugilistic force and he is here to demonstrate his superiority over the bloated capitalist Americans. (Lundgren doesn’t actually get much dialogue beyond things like ‘You will lose’ and ‘I must break you’; most of the exposition goes to Brigitte Nielsen, who’s playing his wife (but was actually married to Stallone at the time).)

First up into the ring is not Rocky himself, however, but Apollo Creed. I must confess that until very recently I’d never actually seen Rocky IV all the way through – but I had caught the second half on a couple of occasions. I had always dismissed the film as a load of Reaganite nonsense, based on that, but there are actually flickers of a potentially interesting movie at this point. Rocky questions why Apollo, who has long been retired, feels the need to take on Drago in this way, even if the Russian is the pushover Apollo has declared him to be.

Apollo’s answer is that he can’t accept the prospect of getting older and becoming less than the man he once was: he talks of the warrior’s code, and the need to keep fighting until you can no longer fight. It’s a strikingly resonant theme, and Weathers’ performance is great – in fact, Carl Weathers is probably the best reason for watching Rocky IV, giving Creed something of the presence and charisma of Muhammad Ali, the man he was based on. Of course, for this to follow the classic story structure that has just been set up, Apollo has to be punished for this flaw in his character, and so – following a tacky spectacle in Las Vegas – he is duly beaten to death in the ring by Drago, eventually dying in Rocky’s arms.

With the death of Apollo, all glimmers of intelligence and thoughtfulness are snuffed out of Rocky IV, and it proceeds to not be the film you’re expecting (in terms of a functioning drama about coming to terms with mortality) and simultaneously be exactly the film you’re expecting (in terms of Reaganite nonsense). For the scenes with Apollo to have any value – and I stress again they contain the best acting and dialogue in the movie – the rest of the film would have to be about Rocky slowly coming to the conclusion that there is another way to live, that he doesn’t have to keep doing what he does, and he is not compelled to go off to Russia and risk brain damage and death in a rematch against Drago.

The film is not nearly so brave or interesting, and instead concerns Rocky going off to Russia to risk brain damage and death in a rematch against Drago (Rocky V indicates that serious brain damage did indeed result, but this has kind of been forgotten about in the subsequent films featuring the character). This is strikingly cack-handed storytelling, and what makes it worse is that most of the rest of the film fails to engage with this story in any meaningful way – there’s the odd sentimental scene between Rocky and the people in his camp, but most of the rest of it is handled by a succession of montage sequences.

The rematch is arranged via a montage (Rocky has to give up his title to go and fight, which you would have thought might merit a scene or two, but no), then Rocky and his team arrive in Russia in another largely dialogue-free sequence. This is soundtracked by another Survivor song with almost exactly the same bassline as ‘Eye of the Tiger’, entitled ‘With a Burning Heart’. You get the impression that the soundtrack songs were bought as a job lot, as not long after there’s a very similar song called ‘Heart’s on Fire’ to accompany the next lengthy montage. Boxing arenas and sinister Soviet labs excepted, Russia is depicted exclusively as snow-covered wasteland in which Rocky must train for the fight (as the Soviets have neglected to provide him with a flight of steps to run up, he makes do by running up a mountain instead). There’s some predictably unsubtle coding going on in this scene: Rocky chopping wood and bench-pressing sleighs is intercut with Drago surrounded by high-tech equipment and a team of scientists, the implication being that Rocky is an authentic, self-made individual, while Drago is just a tool who has been artificially manufactured by the Soviet state (it’s heavily implied he’s on steroids).

And then we’re off for the grand finale, which is Stallone and Lundgren knocking seven bells out of each other at great length in Moscow (on Christmas Day, no less), before an audience of Soviet military officers, proles, and senior party officials – even Gorbachev himself is there (or someone cast for a strong resemblance to him, albeit without the birthmark which seems to have fascinated so many western onlookers). To be fair, the opening section of the final bout is rather excitingly staged – Rocky takes a beating, Drago complains to his handlers it’s like hitting a lump of iron, then our hero finally manages to land a significant punch and the match becomes more level – and then we’re off to Montageland again until the final round.

This is not the kind of film to wrong-foot its audience with a downer ending or anything especially unexpected. Suffice to say it concludes with Stallone draped in the Stars and Stripes, making one of the rambling, borderline unintelligible speeches which punctuate the Rocky series. After concluding that he and Lundgren giving each other blunt-force cranial trauma is at least preferable to nuclear war, he suggests that, ‘If I can change… and you can change… then perhaps everyone can change.’ There is massed applause at this point, with even faux-Gorbachev rising to his feet and clapping. There you go, folks: the seeds of glasnost and perestroika, sown by Sylvester Stallone beating Communism in a boxing match.

Except – it doesn’t hang together. The Russian audience may have changed – by the end of the match they are cheering for Balboa – but Rocky himself hasn’t appreciably changed at all. He’s still a big lunk who finds his fullest means of expression by punching people in the head. There’s nothing to suggest he has learned anything from what happened to Apollo Creed – the very fact he’s there fighting at all suggests exactly the opposite.

The jingoistic Cold War trappings are what make Rocky IV faintly risible to watch nowadays, but what makes it a really flawed and not very good movie are the fact that it fluffs its moral premise and subtext so very badly well before the end. Did Apollo Creed die for nothing? Nearly – but if nothing else his demise inspires Rocky to go and fight Drago. So is this then a movie about personal revenge, rather than standing up for the values of the American system? It really doesn’t work as a coherent, satisfying narrative – or as jingoistic flag-waving nonsense, for that matter.

Possibly this is why Stallone decided to re-edit Rocky IV a couple of years ago. No doubt this was done in the wake of the success of Creed II, a film which is essentially a sequel to this one. Apparently Paulie’s robot disappears entirely, along with most of Brigitte Nielsen’s performance (possibly she got to keep the footage in the divorce), and the focus is entirely on Rocky’s relationship with Apollo. I must confess to a genuine curiosity about the revised version of Rocky IV, quite simply because the really disappointing thing about the original version is not that it is bad, but that it showed signs that it really didn’t need to be.

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In the past we have occasionally touched on the odd phenomenon of what happens to movie titles when they crash through a language barrier of one kind or other. It seems to me to be greatly preferable to leave things be and not make any changes at all, if the alternative is films ending up with titles like The Indestructible Iron Man Fights The Electronic Gang (one of the Asian titles of A View to a Kill) or Archie and Harry are Too Old to Do It Anymore (an alternative name for the 1986 comedy Tough Guys).

I suppose you can sort of understand why Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Der Himmel uber Berlin got retitled for its English-language release: The Heaven Over Berlin strikes me these days as a rather evocative and thoughtful title for a movie, but back in the 1980s if you mentioned Berlin to anyone it probably had a rather different set of associations. Getting an audience to go and see what’s undeniably a German art-house film probably demanded a different approach, and so the film received the title it got back then and has just recently been re-released under: Wings of Desire.

The setting is, as mentioned, Berlin, a grey and divided city nearing the back end of the 1980s – or perhaps that should be two Berlins? Not just the East and West Berlin of temporal geography, but two versions of the city on different metaphysical planes, one home to all the usual humanity you might expect (and filmed in glorious colour), the other a monochrome world which hosts (and I use the word with precision) angels, tasked with overseeing, or witnessing, the lives of men, women, and children – something which is made considerably easier by their supernatural powers of telepathy, or possibly clairvoyance.

The main angels in the story are Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), and much of the film is relatively plot-free, the camera simply accompanying one or other of the duo as they carry out their appointed taask. Tableaux of city life unfold on the screen, the interior monologues of whoever’s on screen murmuring away as the angels pass unseen amongst them. It’s quite hypnotic and occasionally very moving; something about the conceit generates an enormous sense of humanity and compassion. Intermingled with this are a number of continuing threads – a trapeze artist named Marion (Solveig Dommartin) has to come to terms with the news that her circus is closing, while visiting American movie star Peter Falk (played, not entirely surprisingly, by Peter Falk) ruminates on various philosophical concerns of his own. If the presence of Falk playing himself (in one sequence he is followed by a crowd of fans chanting ‘Co-lum-bo!’) isn’t off-kilter enough, a later scene includes a live performance from a very young Nick Cave and his band (Cave was apparently based in West Berlin at the time and a fixture on the city’s cultural scene).

Much of the film is unrepentantly arty and it all seems very unlikely as the source material for an American remake with Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan. And yet such a film exists (1998’s City of Angels). Needless to say, the remake is mostly drawn from the final movement of Wenders’ film, which adopts a rather more conventional narrative mode: Damiel grows weary of his role as an eternal onlooker, and seeks the full breadth of human experience, including a relationship with Marion. It does feel like the beginning of some sort of slightly offbeat romance or romantic comedy, but it is here as a conclusion to the film, and as such it works rather effectively.

Prior to this the film is… well, I told the woman of my life (who is of German extraction) that they were showing this classic piece of West German cinema locally and asked if she wanted to go and see it, and she sort of grimaced at me, having already tried to watch it once before. If gripping narratives are your thing, watching Wings of Desire is unlikely to be a particularly happy experience – most of the film is ruminative, stately, and not particularly concerned with providing a singular storyline for most of its duration. Some of the dialogue between the angels, in particular, comes across as especially stagey; the dialogue (often more accurately a series of monologues) in the scenes depicting the lives of the mortal characters is much more naturalistic.

That said, naturalism isn’t really the name of the game here, as you might expect – the film’s debt to a whole range of classic cinematic fantasies is clear from the start (the list starts with A Matter of Life and Death and proceeds from there). Any threat of things becoming too portentous – which is a danger – is countered by the film’s unexpected (and presumably entirely made-up) revelations about the biography of Peter Falk (the actor was apparently cast at the suggestion of Claire Denis, who I know is a respected director these days but still seems to specialise in really dingbat ideas). Even Falk thought the film was a bit crazy but he certainly seems to be enjoying himself in it.

There is certainly something pleasingly upbeat and life-affirming about Wings of Desire, as is often the case with stories about exotic outsiders who become enamoured with what initially seem to be just very ordinary lives. It’s not at all what you’d expect from a film set in a divided Berlin, which is not to say that the shadow of the wall does not loom over the project. Much of the film concerns the angels bearing witness to the individual experiences of the people they encounter – there’s an Eleanor Rigby-ish sense to some of it – and the divisions and separations between them are surely reflected in the larger division of the city itself.

I suppose, in the end, it’s a film about the value of human experience – the film’s strongest card is Ganz’s performance, and his shift from cool detachment to almost palpable joy as he elects to pursue a mortal existence. You can’t help but be dragged along and conclude that life is really not that bad and something to be savoured. This may not be the most profound message ever committed to celluloid, but it’s still a worthwhile one, and Wenders handles it with enough wit and warmth and style to make this a satisfying film, worthy of its reputation and a return visit to the big screen.

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Sherlock Holmes purists are inevitably on a bit of a sticky wicket when it comes to movie adaptations of their hero’s exploits – the very first such movie, Sherlock Holmes Baffled from 1900, is a 35-second gimmick film, and you could argue that many more recent outings for the character (the Guy Ritchie films, for instance) were pretty gimmicky too. As well as Robert Downey Jr.’s Kung-Fu Sherlock, recent years have seen Old Sherlock (Ian McKellen in Mr Holmes), Anime Sherlock (The Empire of Corpses), Worthless Rubbish Sherlock (Will Ferrell in Holmes & Watson), and Garden Ornament Sherlock (Sherlock Gnomes).

When you look at it that way, the 1980s were actually a fairly strait-laced time for adaptations featuring the character – the original copyright still being in effect may have been a factor. There was, of course, the very impressive TV series with Jeremy Brett, and also Peter Cushing’s final outing as the character in The Masks of Death. Pushing the envelope a bit, on the other hand, were Rodent Sherlock (Basil the Great Mouse Detective) and Young Sherlock (er, Young Sherlock Holmes – a film which I’m actually really fond of). Mixed in with all of these, and perhaps most unlikely of all, is Stupid Sherlock, in Thom Eberhardt’s Without a Clue.

A brief glance at this film’s particulars indicates something a bit odd on the cards before we even get to the plot: it’s an ITC production, one of the very last of a line that included such schlocky fun as The Eagle Has Landed, The Medusa Touch, Saturn 3, Capricorn One, The Boys From Brazil and Hawk the Slayer, but directed by Eberhardt, whose highest-profile movie prior to this was the cult sci-fi semi-spoof Night of the Comet (aka Teenage Comet Zombies). The omens are curious and not entirely promising.

The movie opens with an attempted break-in at one of London’s foremost museums, but the robbery is foiled and the culprits apprehended after the intervention of Sherlock Holmes (Michael Caine) and his faithful assistant Dr Watson (Ben Kingsley). Holmes proudly declares the case closed, but when Scotland Yard and the press have all gone, Watson berates him furiously: ‘A case isn’t closed until I say it’s closed!’

The conceit of the film is this: Dr Watson is actually a brilliant detective, who for reasons of professional propriety found himself obliged to credit his successes to a fictional character, Sherlock Holmes. The public clamour to learn more about Holmes forced Watson to hire an actor to embody his creation – his eventual choice being one Reginald Kincaid, a lecherous, boozy, and generally slightly debauched idler.

Watson finally tires of Kincaid getting all the credit for his work, and generally being disparaged as a fool by everyone around him, and sacks him as Holmes, planning on a series of new stories focussing on himself as ‘the Crime Doctor’. But the Strand magazine just wants more Holmes stories and Watson is forced to take him back, especially when representatives of the government insist that only Sherlock Holmes can help them with the problem of some stolen printing plates which will allow the thief to destroy the economy of the Empire by producing a limitless quantity of dodgy fivers…

The thing about Without A Clue is that the central joke only really works if you’re already deeply familiar with the premise of the Sherlock Holmes stories and the characters in them: the very existence of the film is a testament to the deep penetration of Conan Doyle’s work into our culture. It’s not necessarily the kind of film – almost a spoof, not to put too fine a point upon it – which you would expect to be the work of dedicated Sherlockians, but apparently the writers really knew their stuff and the original script contained many more references to the canonical stories. Only a few of these remain: the fiendish Professor Moriarty (Paul Freeman) has in his employ one John Clay, and the opening robbery likewise seems to have been inspired by The Red-Headed League. The net seems to have been cast wider than the short stories, too – one plot element shows every sign of having been swiped wholesale from Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and an offhand line about Holmes-Kincaid catching the Loch Ness Monster sounds very much like an in-jokey reference to that film.

Nevertheless, for all that it’s an out-and-out comedy, it does seem to have come from a genuine place of love for Sherlock Holmes, which is perhaps why it’s a much more likeable film than many supposedly serious efforts which show zero sensitivity to the actual tone and texture of the original stories (see, for example, the Asylum’s 2010 Sherlock Holmes, aka Sherlock Holmes Vs Dinosaurs).

There seems to have been a very definite effort to make the film appealing to as wide an audience as possible: most of the comedy is very broad indeed, and it’s by no means above employing slapstick pratfalls and corny sight-gags if the situation allows it. But it’s not just a gag dustbin – the running gags make sense, and a lot of the jokes inform one of the film’s main themes, namely Watson’s irritation at being overshadowed by his creation (there is, perhaps, a bit of a subtext where Watson is essentially a proxy for Conan Doyle, whose irritation with the popularity of his most famous creation and attempts to kill him off are well known). At least one gag has not aged well, to the point where some members of a modern audience might find it objectionable, but on the whole this remains a consistently funny and inventive film.

Much of this is thanks to a bravura comic turn from Michael Caine as Kincaid – not, perhaps, a natural choice to play Holmes (even at a slight remove), but well capable of leading a film like this one. Ben Kingsley is saddled with the role of straight man for much of the film, but manages to get some laughs out of Watson’s exasperated eye-rolling and sighing. The rest of the playing is competent and well-pitched; Paul Freeman plays Moriarty as a villain straight out of central casting, but then many supposedly serious Holmes films are guilty of doing exactly the same thing.

There’s a relentless jolliness about Without A Clue which I could imagine some people finding a bit wearing; it also resembles the kind of cut-price bonnet-opera which many studios ended up making in the 1980s. Nevertheless it does have a weird charm and energy to it; on top of which it’s genuinely amusing and, in its own way, respectful of the source material. The result is a Sherlock Holmes film which isn’t exactly great, but certainly entertaining and rather hard to dislike.

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