Of all the wonderful genres running through the golden age of VHS (early 80s to late 90s?) my personal favourite was always proper sci-fi, with spaceships, weird guns and so on. We’ve covered a fair few of them here, and it’s always nice to discover another one, especially as the decent budgets allowed for movies back then (straight to video being reasonably lucrative) meant they tended to look okay and weren’t quite as difficult to watch as some of today’s bargain-basement efforts.
It’s a welcome and quick return to the ISCFC for Olivier Gruner, last seen by us in “The Circuit 3”. For a former martial artist, he’s an okay actor, and doesn’t seem crazy like a Seagal or a Van Damme. He’s recently moved into writing and directing (with apparently disastrous results, which means I’ll be reviewing them soon), but this is from his strongest era – from 1999 to 2002, he appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows. Add in director Philip Roth, who seems to have spent his career giving the world exactly the sort of movies I like, and we should be on for a good time; and a good time it is, although it really requires you to not think about the plot at all, for reasons which will hopefully become apparent during the course of this review.
Gruner is Ray Stokes, Enforcement Division (ED) officer. He gets a couple of crooked ED guys arrested, so the people who were benefiting from all the crookedness decide to get even with him. Right at the very beginning, the plan gets crazy convoluted, and I don’t feel I can unpick it without telling you all of it – don’t worry, it’s all right at the beginning and doesn’t spoil too much. Ready?
The guy in charge of the moon of Ramanaya, and the Ramanaya Mining Corporation, John Dawson (Craig Wasson, “That Guy” actor extraordinaire), is married to Stokes’ ex-wife. Marriage contracts are fixed-term in the future, but Stokes wanted to stay married, although he was a marine at the time, though, and was away for years. They had a baby who died during one of those times away, so Dawson helped her with the medical bills and then swooped in when she was vulnerable. This woman is so remarkable, though, and Dawson wants to keep her so much, that he arranges for Stokes to be on duty when the chief of all the galaxy’s ED comes to the moon; then, he plants a bomb which kills that guy, and gets one of his other goons to kill Dawson’s fellow officer in the ensuing chaos, pinning the murder on him. I hope you’re asking “why didn’t he just kill Stokes and make it look like an accident?”, to which the answer is “he didn’t want to make his wife sad, because she still loves Stokes”. All that, just because he wanted a quiet life at home! He then, of course, ruins this by arranging for Stokes to be given the worst ED detail possible, then mocking him as he leaves the moon, without a care for how his wife feels. And all this is the beginning of the first act!
So begins yet another “Die Hard in space” clone, with the added bonus of it being a bit like “The Count Of Monte Cristo”. I’ll give “Velocity Trap” credit for doing a lot of work in setting up its universe, though, with the main driver of this one being cyber-crime has rendered electronic money transfers impossible. Humanity has gone back to paper money, and moves billions of dollars from outlying banks back to Earth via heavily armed ships (they have super-cool auto-cannons which blow up anything which gets within a certain distance, which we see thanks to a TV advert for them at the beginning of the movie). The ships are largely automated, with a skeleton crew – captain, navigator and engineer – but on this one, ED has decided to put an officer on board who’ll stay awake for the entire six month journey while the crew is in cryo-sleep.
Joining Stokes is the captain of money ship FED 397 (Bruce Weitz, “Hill Street Blues”), who according to IMDB is called “Turd” Fenner; Cruz, the engineer; and Beth Sheffield, the navigator (Alicia “no relation to the famous ones” Coppola, a fine actor). For some reason, Beth and “Turd” take an instant dislike to Stokes, but Cruz is cool…although if you watch this, see if you can think of a reason why Cruz should perhaps be slightly worried about his presence on the ship. Anyway. “Fun” fact: Coppola was only on the movie because the original Beth got injured by shrapnel early in filming and quit.
3 months into the journey! Stokes is dealing with the boredom by making elaborate patterns out of chewing gum and doing a spot of ballet dancing, but his fun is interrupted when the Endeavour, a huge freighter long thought missing but now crewed by space pirates, plucks the FED 397 out of space and goes about stealing all the $40,000,000,000 from it. It then tries to be Die Hard for about ten minutes, as Stokes wakes up Beth and gets her to lie about there being anyone else on the ship…until he just emerges from behind a wall and threatens them. Idiot! So, from then on, it’s Stokes and Beth against the criminals, led by Nick Simmons (Ken Olandt, “April Fool’s Day”, “Leprechaun”) and his wife Alice Pallas (Jorja Fox, who must have signed up for “CSI” right after making this). They’re really good, and one thing Roth is superb at is sketching a character out well in very little time.
Apologies if your eyes are glazing over right now, but there’s more lunacy to come. One thing you’ll notice is that this ship, carrying unimaginable amounts of wealth, has zero security or safety features (once the baddies are given inside info to disable the auto-cannons from attacking them). “Turd” takes Stokes’ bullets away because they might tear through the hull of the the ship – I think if you’re in space and a single bullet could do you in, you need to redesign your ships. But luckily, one of the villains fires a space-bazooka later on and the ship is fine – the bazooka is a prop so spectacularly cheap looking that even the most amateur cosplayer would be ashamed to carry it round. There’s one bit where Stokes is trying to escape, ends up in a service tunnel…and gets attacked by a huge robot with lasers! Hey, robot, why weren’t you protecting the rest of the ship? Why were you not mentioned before or after? At every stage where you’d expect a space ship months from humanity to have a feature to deal with a problem, it doesn’t.
“Velocity Trap” is absolutely packed to the gills with stuff. Enough plot for two sci-fi B-movies, a wild pace that ensures you’re never bored and don’t get too long to question the bonkers thing you just saw, and plenty of funny little moments too. There’s so much, that every now and again they have a newsreader to fill us in on any plot points we missed! The ending, when the two survivors (no spoilers!) decide what to do with the money is a wonderfully clever little bit of business.
I really liked it, while acknowledging it’s full of plot holes and a bit on the silly side. Gruner is a fine lead, Coppola is excellent (and they’re freed from having an annoying love interest plot, because he just wants his wife back, and she hates him) and if you have any love for straight-to-video sci-fi, this’ll be right up your street. I think we’ll be doing some more Philip Roth movies, so look out for some 90s recommendations over the next week or so.
Rating: thumbs up