Absolon (2003)

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When you start recognising the landmarks that low-budget movies are filmed around (either Canada or Eastern Europe), it’s a good sign that you’re perhaps wasting your life. And that’s sadly how I felt when giving yet another post-fame Christopher Lambert movie a try – a potentially interesting dystopia ruined by a lack of anyone seeming to give a damn.

 

Incompetence is handy, in a way. If you see it early on, you know you can mentally check out, start thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner, pay attention to the cat that’s climbing all over you, that sort of thing. So, right at the beginning of this movie, when we get both a text info-dump and then, immediately afterwards, a guy narrating the plot to his grandson, you’re all “ah, they’ve had to do all this to explain this garbage, it’s going to suck”. But in case you’re not sure, or you’re one of those innocent fools who insists on giving a movie a fair crack of the whip, here goes.

 

After environmental disaster, a virus hidden underneath the rain forests is set loose, and wipes out more than three-quarters of the world’s population. Some scientist guy invents Absolon, the drug that holds back the virus’s progress, but needs to be taken every day and the UPC corporation controls the drug. Plus, we don’t have money any more but time – Lambert’s character Detective Norman Scott says he only earns 500 hours a week – which seems somewhere on the pointless/confusing axis; although if you’re a primacy junkie, you could note that the Justin Timberlake movie “In Time” used the same concept several years later, only they bothered to make it work.

"Well...that was disappointing"

“Well…that was disappointing”

Some other scientist guy (I think, although it might have been the same one) has managed to invent a complete cure, and naturally UPC aren’t thrilled with this, so boss guy Ron Perlman sends agents from the World Justice Department to kill him. He hides the disk with the important information, under his desk in an envelope which luckily the bad guys don’t think to look for, and for reasons too tedious to go into Scott and his team only have three days to crack the code on the disk, find the antidote and start producing it. Scientist guy’s old assistant Dr Claire Whittaker (Kelly Brook) helps Scott out, and the two of them go on the run, with the cops helping them and the WJD trying to kill them.

 

Along with a few twists and turns, that’s pretty much it for the plot. The thing I like about conspiracy movies like this is how quaint they seem in the post-Wikileaks world. While our governments haven’t tried anything quite this evil on us yet, all they’d need to do would be to claim the scientists were socialists, or Islamic sympathisers, and gangs of thugs would do their work for them and no-one would take the antidote, even if it were free. That they go to such lengths to suppress it, and are so absolutely terrible at hiding their global conspiracy, is like a relic of a far simpler age. There’s secret handoffs of documents, sneaking “clean” phones to your partner, all that Cold War-looking stuff.

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“Absolon” is awful, of course. Lambert was clearly coasting at this point in his career, and looks washed out; him being the love interest of Kelly Brook, 22 years younger than him and (to be fair) way way out of his league, is worse even than the Hollywood standard. This is Brook’s first push into the US market, as this was from roughly the same time she was doing her recurring role on “Smallville”, leaving her days of TV presenting in the UK behind. It was the start of a decade or so of small roles on film and short recurring roles on TV, and from here she certainly got better at acting, although not too much admittedly. Talking of odd acting, Lou Diamond Phillips and Ron Perlman clearly realised what sort of movie they were in quite early on and just chewed scenery and shouted randomly – plus, I’d lay good odds on Perlman only being paid for a day or two, as he shares basically no screen time with the rest of the cast and does his entire part from one office. Lambert’s cop sidekick Ruth (Roberta Angelica) looks like a reject from some mid 90s rave movie, all wild hair and with the crop-top / ultra-baggy trousers combo.

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Even ignoring the problems that come from this being a cheap TV movie (budget, filming schedule) it’s no good. A script which feels like it sat in a cupboard for 20 years from a scriptwriter who made a weirdly large number of Christopher Lambert movies, a director who should stick to the storyboarding where he seems to have most of his credits, and a cast who seem unsure why they were all brought together.

 

Rating: thumbs down

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Highlander 2: The Renegade Version (1995)

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When “Highlander 2” came out, people were mad as hell – I remember, because I was one of them. It was so stupid! Aliens? Who dreamed this rubbish up? But I find, as an older more jaded man, a film that was so completely OTT inspires fonder memories than some barely-above-average, much more sensible movie. Unluckily for me, the people behind this movie didn’t agree with me.

 

So, I’d like to give a crash course in Hollywood doublespeak. “Highlander 2” was filmed mostly in Argentina, but when they went over-budget (or, depending on who you believe, a crash in the value of the Argentine peso left them broke, a story which makes no sense) filming was stopped and the footage was taken out of the hands of the producers by the guarantors, edited as best they could manage, and released. What’s important to remember, and what the producer and director didn’t tell you in the featurette attached to the DVD, is that these insurance people didn’t write or film any new scenes. So when you see the first “Highlander” movie completely ignored to be a story about the immortals being aliens from the planet Zeist, and them handwaving away the death of Sean Connery in part 1, that was their plan from the beginning!

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The theatrical version is considered one of the worst movies of all time, so in 1995 Russell Mulcahy, to his credit, realised he’d made a horrible mistake and secured funding to get the rights to the movie back, plus all the filmed footage. He re-edited, filmed a few new scenes, and released the “Renegade Version” – although if you watched the featurette you’d have no idea whose idea the stupid alien thing was (hint: it was Mulcahy’s). Filmed interviews from the set during the original filming even have Christopher Lambert saying “none of us wanted to do a sequel unless the story was right”, which gives the lie to the whole “it was the accountants’ fault” rubbish.

 

But anyway. What’s this version like? Rather than being aliens from the planet Zeist, all the immortals are just from Earth’s far-distant past (a past that has crashed space-ships in it, but don’t let that worry you). Ramirez (Sean Connery) and McLeod (Lambert) are the leaders of the resistance against the evil General Katana (Michael Ironside), and after being captured are given a rather bizarre punishment. Because they’re immortals, which not all the past-people are, they’re to be sent to the future, to fight with all the other immortals who’ve had a similar punishment, until there’s only one left…then that guy can either become mortal or go back to the past. This makes far less sense than just saying “they’re aliens” (did they wipe their memories? Why send them all back to different times?), and has the added bonus of being much more boring.

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The majority of the film takes place in 2024, though. McLeod used “The Prize” from the first movie to become super-smart, it would seem, and goes from being an antique dealer to inventor of a giant red bubble-shield-thing which protects the earth from the destroyed ozone layer. This bubble has messed up everything, though, to the point the entire Earth looks like the sleaziest bits of “Blade Runner” (which the producers are careful to say they definitely didn’t rip off). Some environmental activists, led by Virginia Madsen, believe the layer has healed itself and the shield can be turned off; the guy in charge of the Shield Corporation, John C McGinley, naturally has another opinion. Katana sends some mean hombres forward in time to kill McLeod, but when they fail (at the same time, giving him their Quickening, turning him from an old man into prime young Lambert) he decides to go forward himself and finish off the job.

 

Undoubtedly, some of the edits and changes make it better. It’s longer by 18 minutes but that 18 minutes was needed – some motivation is fleshed out and there’s more of a sense of why people want to fight other people. It is, definitely, a more competent film. But when you’re cutting round footage that was intended to tell one story, and trying to tell another, joins will start to show. Virginia Madsen has a speech which was clearly intended, at around the halfway mark, to refresh everyone’s memory about the plot, but changing them to time travellers whose immortality is dependent on which time they’re in leaves it making zero sense.

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One of my main problems, with both versions of the movie, is the lack of prime Connery and Lambert. They bounce off each other superbly, and while we get some awesome scenes of Connery adapting to 21st century life (although how he got on an intercontinental flight with no passport is never revealed), the two of them don’t meet up til 1:15, and Connery is gone by 1:30. Ironside tries, leaving no scenery unchewed, and Madsen is good in a thankless role, but it’s not the same.

 

Okay, it’s a “better” film. But it’s still not like it’s any good, really – going from F- to D+ isn’t that much of an improvement – and the original “Highlander 2” is so odd and incomprehensible that, in a way, it’s much more entertaining than the “Renegade Version” (ooh, those millionaire Hollywood directors and producers are “renegades” now?). But if you’ve ever read a recap of the original version and felt personally insulted, this could be the movie for you.

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Mortal Kombat (1995)

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Films based on martial arts computer games have three things in common – cheesiness; starring a teamed-up white guy and an Asian; and (to date, anyway), being surprisingly good. “Street Fighter”, “Double Dragon” and both “Mortal Kombat” movies all pitch themselves at that OTT, self-referential market and while none of them got stellar reviews, they’re all loads of fun.

“Mortal Kombat” also has the added benefit of the TMAMP – the Typical Martial Arts Movie Plot (star’s brother is killed by a villain in a different country, star has to move back in order to get revenge on villain in a tournament, taking in a bit of ancient wisdom along the way). There are “Realms” and the Emperor of Outworld has sent Chang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, ISCFC favourite) to Earthworld (our planet, I guess) to get him to open a portal to allow an invasion. For reasons which presumably made sense to the people who closed the portals, Chang Tsung and his Outworld cronies need to win ten fighting tournaments to open it up, and at the beginning of the movie they’ve won nine. EXCITEMENT!

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Lord Rayden, a sort of deity, is protecting Earth, and he’s assembled the world’s best fighters to take on the Outworld crew. We’ve got Liu Kang (the guy whose brother died), Johnny Cage (the world’s greatest martial arts movie star, seeking to regain his honour after some gossip mags say he’s not for real, although why movie fans insist on martial arts stars being real fighters in this world is never mentioned), and Sonya Blade, a cop. On Chang’s side are Kano (with a metal plate sort of welded on to his face, who Sonya is tracking down), a whole army of goons and Goro. Goro is a good 9 feet tall with two sets of arms, and is presumably one of the less nice things in Outworld, but his origin is never brought up. In one of the many similarities between this and “Enter The Dragon”, they’re taken to a mysterious island where the tournament takes place on a battered old boat.

Although I’m a gamer of 30 years standing, I never played any of the Mortal Kombats (apart from a few very occasional goes at a party) so presumably there’s references that went over my head, although I did notice them crowbar in the three most famous catchphrases from the game – “Flawless victory”, “Finish Him” and “Fatality”. So while I recognise the characters, I don’t have any love or deep knowledge of the franchise and have to treat it like any other martial arts movie.

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First thing to notice, this wasn’t cheap. The sets, weirdly gothic and slightly alien, are large and elaborate and aside from some rotten CGI on the part of “Scorpion”, the effects are decent too. The fights are all done well, easily the equal of any of the “proper” martial arts movies of the time, with the fun addition of not having to obey the laws of physics due to nearly everyone having magic powers of some sort. The plot, while being a smidgeon odd, is perfectly understandable and there’s a decent sense of humour running through things as everyone with the exception of Chang Tsung camps it up. Bridgette Wilson, as Sonya Blade, insisted on doing all her own stunts including the fights, which shows a sense of dedication this movie perhaps didn’t deserve.

I haven’t even mentioned Christopher Lambert yet! He’s Lord Rayden, basically playing him as a smirking superpowered version of MacLeod from “Highlander”, and he never takes himself or the movie seriously for one second. His “you have learned all I can teach you” line, when you realise what caused him to say it, is the funniest joke in the entire movie. Lambert was almost joined by Cameron Diaz as Sonya (broke her wrist before filming began) and Brandon Lee (died before filming began). That would have been fascinating.

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This made a ton of money when it first came out, and that got us this movie, a sequel and a TV series (but more on those later). While I guess you’re unlikely to pop on a 20 year old computer game adaptation accidentally, if you see it on TV I’d definitely recommend watching it. It’s fun, fast, and full of good performances.

Rating: thumbs up

Highlander (1986)

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Nostalgia has a lot to answer for. Chances are there are plenty of films you love that, objectively, aren’t all that great. For a lot of people, that’s pretty much the Star Wars franchise (as beloved as they are, none of these films are particularly well written, directed or acted). Highlander is very much in that category.

The 1980s appears to have spawned an entire range of films that are neither critical nor commercial successes but some have somehow gained cult appeal, leading to numerous sequels and TV spin-offs.

This particular cult film follows the exploits of Connor MacLoed of the Clan MacLoed, as played by the Frenchman, Christopher Lambert (complete with majorly dodgy accent). Connor is an immortal, one of a small number of people who can only be killed by decapitation.

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“This is just how the Kurgan greets people.”

These immortals are involved in a competition to be the last immortal alive (for reasons) and as the only way to kill them involves cutting their head off, this explains why they are all running round with swords.

Each time an immortal kills another immortal, they gain the power of all the people they have killed, until the last remaining immortal gains the Prize. You may well ask why they are immortal or why they are fighting for the Prize but don’t expect an answer in this movie as everyone is too busy having sword fights.

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And really, that’s the point of this film: people having poorly choreographed sword fights in various locations in New York City. The sort of thing that 10 year old boys think is super awesome.

We learn about Connor’s past through flashbacks, some of which are hilarious (like the 18th century duel with the French aristocrat who keeps stabbing Connor until he yields just to put an end to it). Connor is taught all about being immortal by Sean Connery, who is an immortal Egyptian who became part of the Spanish nobility (for reasons).

That pretty much sums up how little anyone seems to care in this movie. Neither Christopher Lambert nor Sean Connery make any attempt to mask their accent and just seem to have a lot of fun being larger than life immortal warriors.

"I'm not sure Sean Connery has ever really cared about what he stars in."

“I’m not sure Sean Connery has ever really cared about what he stars in.”

Add in Clancy Brown as the antagonist (who is an immortal giant because shut up), who is brilliant hamming it up as a pantomime psychopath, and you can see why this film wasn’t exactly critically acclaimed.

"So boss, he just stapled his own head back on."

“So boss, he just stapled his own head back on.”

And it really is a crazy movie that makes little sense upon close examination. For instance, the female love interest is a Police Technician (who is an expert in metallurgy, with a specialisation in ancient swords because shut up) who tries to get close to Connor and ends up falling in love with him (for reasons).

The whole film just seems to have been written by someone who just threw a load of ideas in that he or she thought would be ‘super awesome’ without making any attempt to explain it or at least make it plausible.

It’s the sort of film which could only have been made in the 1980s. It just seems to steamroller over things like explanations or reasoning by knocking up the ridiculous to the next level (for example, the final fight has a massive set piece on top of a building, which just looks amazing, despite being nearly 30 years old). And in that, it is glorious.

That said, Highlander hasn’t aged well. As I said earlier, the fight choreography looks pretty poor by today’s standards, the effects leave a lot to be desired having been animated by hand (not to mention the wires they fail to hide for one practical effect) and the foley artist has some really dodgy sound effects for the sword fights. Plus, Christopher Lambert, Sean Connery and Clancy Brown are all ridiculous.

"We'll just edit that out in post... in about 15 years time when such technology actually exists."

“We’ll just edit that out in post… in about 15 years time when such technology actually exists.”

And yet, for all that, it is still a highly enjoyable movie. From the fantastic soundtrack (original music provided by Queen, of all people) to the sheer craziness of it all, it is still a thoroughly entertaining movie.

I love the film and completely accept that I’m viewing it through rose-tinted glasses but if you have any interest in watching a cult ‘80s film, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Highlander. Just don’t go near any of the sequels. For your own sanity.

TL:DR “Bonkers 1980s movie about an immortal Scotsman who is trained by Sean Connery, who plays an Egyptian Spaniard, to sword fight a giant. That will tell you all you need to know about whether you’ll enjoy this or not.”

Fortress 2 (1999)

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After discovering that one of my recently reviewed films – https://iscfc.net/2013/09/01/fortress-1992/ – had a sequel, I absolutely had to track it down and watch it. I can only assume it made a steady profit on home video, because 7 years is a long time to wait to make a second film, and I doubt Christopher Lambert was too busy in the intervening years.

In the world of the film, it’s about 10 years since the events of the first film, and John Brennick (Lambert) and his family are involved in some sort of resistance against the MenTel Corporation. I thought they’d escaped over the border, but perhaps MenTel bought Mexico in the intervening years. Brennick is re-captured pretty quickly after a group of rebels are tracked to his remote home, although he puts up a good fight, including blowing up a helicopter with a rocket launcher and collapsing a tunnel so his wife and kid can escape. He wakes up…back inside prison! There’s a twist here, though, and it’s a hell of a twist. A twist so big I need to start a new paragraph for it.

The prison is in space! It’s actually part-prison, part slave labour for some energy generator which will allegedly supply cheap electricity to the world. All the people from the resistance cell are there, along with some Russian mobster types. We even get a nice prison guard, played by the yellow-eyed demon from “Supernatural”, to go along with the psychopath prison guard, and a warden with an evil plan.

Now, I think picking apart the silliness of low-budget films is pretty low hanging comedy fruit when it comes to film reviews, but sometimes you just have to. The prison back on Earth was so secure that only one person ever escaped from it, so building an even more secure one in space seems overkill. Also, how much does it cost to transport a person to an orbiting space station? It just makes no sense, financial or otherwise. They let the prisoners kill each other too, which just adds to the financial waste of it all. There are a lot of fires on this space station – now, I’m no genius, but if you’ve got a finite amount of oxygen to keep people alive, then having a bunch of fires all over the place doesn’t seem like the most sensible idea ever. Also also also, whenever you see people in space you don’t seem them in huge high-ceilinged rooms, for all sorts of sensible science reasons. It’s like they built half the sets before anyone told them it was going to be set on an orbiting prison-cum-power station.

This is all important because it just strikes me as really lazy. There must have been someone in the production process who went “fires in space are a pretty bad idea, you know, guys” and at least one other person, higher up the food chain, who replied “who cares?” I’m a firm believer in films being able to be about anything at all, set anywhere at all, as long as they bother to think about it first and do a bit of world-building. I couldn’t shake the idea while watching this that the first Fortress must have made a decent profit on video over the years, so they decided to knock out a sequel using whoever was cheap and available.

As well as running the prison, the MenTel Corporation are after Lambert’s wife and son again. At one point, the warden and the evil guard are lusting after a picture of her, much like the warden from the first film ruining his career by bringing her into his quarters (even though she’s played by a different actress). I mean, she’s pretty and all, but to that extent? While that’s happening, Lambert and his new cell buddies, luckily with the same skillsets as in the first film, are plotting an escape. For such an impregnable place, their security is pretty lame, but if it weren’t it would be a dull film. “Fortress 2: Lambert Stays Locked Up This Time”. There’s plenty of distraction for the British viewer of this film, with the sheer number of former soap opera actors and other supporting players of stage and screen in it. You’ll go “hey, it’s that guy!” at least three times, or I’ll eat my hat.

Sadly, there was no Fortress 3 as, by the millennium the golden age of video rental was just about over, meaning there was less and less money to make these sort of movies. The gap between the top of the cinematic tree and the bit with films like this on it got bigger and bigger. If Fortress 3 was made this year, it’d all be green screen and the rest of the cast would be drama school dropouts who’d have to supply their own costumes.

If you’re a fan of the B-movies of the 80s and 90s, then you’ll probably have already seen this, but if not it’s certainly worth a go. Not too many lulls in the action, a decent cast and if you’re awake enough, plenty of plot holes to mock with your friends.

Lambert busts out his second facial expression

Lambert busts out his second facial expression

Fortress 2 on IMDB
Buy Fortress 2 – Re-Entry [DVD]

Fortress (1992)

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“Fortress” is one of those films I’d have absolutely loved if I’d seen it when it first came out, when I was in my teens. It’s a big budget B movie, and Christopher Lambert was one good performance away from joining people like Arnie and JCVD at the top of that straight-to-video tree (at least for a while there).

Lambert and Loryn Locklin, who seems to have not acted on screen since the millennium, play a husband and wife trying to get across the border into Canada. It’s immediately obvious we’re in a dystopia, and this particular one appears to have something to do with babies – only one allowed per family. Er, wouldn’t this eventually kill off the human race? Ah well, turns out our heroes are expecting their second baby after the first one died, which is a big no-no, and they get captured and sent to the super-super-maximum security prison which gives the film its title.

Kurtwood Smith, post Robocop but pre- That 70s Show, plays the villain of the piece, Vernon Wells – the all time great movie bad guy from “Commando” – has a small part, and Lambert’s cellmates are people you’ll be going “Hey, it’s that guy!” at throughout. Luckily, the cellmates have a variety of critical skills and ethnicities, which allows them to formulate their escape plan (spoiler, I guess, although there are few prison movies where everyone just stays put). The security and methods of keeping them in line are all very futuristic (and quite clever, if I say so myself).

There are an awful lot of hefty coincidences in this film. Considering how enormous the prison is, Lambert only really meets the five people in his cell (one of them is the trustee who cleans the warden’s rooms, conveniently); and his wife, while being very pleasant looking, certainly isn’t the sort of woman who’d make the warden almost ruin his career for, moving her into his quarters so Lambert can easily rescue her later.

FIlms like this just don’t get made any more. B-movies with decent sets and casts like this are a thing of the past – digital filmmaking has meant all sets are CGI, and the drop in production costs means good actors are priced out of the market. Its closest relation of recent years is probably the Guy Pearce-starring “Lockout”, which cost over $20 million dollars to make (Fortress cost $8 million, and I don’t think inflation is running at over 100% for the intervening years). Films need to be either small enough to make money back off home video or very big, and the inbetween stuff like “Fortress” is sadly gone.

But still! We get to watch them whenever we like, and enjoy the products of the good old days. “Fortress” is terrible, make no mistake – Lambert was increasingly revealed by the early 90s as a man who had one acting style, and while it works in “Highlander” it doesn’t work here. Kurtwood Smith is too restrained – he needs to chew that scenery!, and of the rest of the cast, Jeffrey Combs probably acquits hmself the best, even if his death scene is one of the stupidest things I’ve seen in a while.

As corporations take over more and more of our lives, this film seems less and less outlandish, but there’s still plenty of good moments and director Stuart Gordon can make a decent film. So, if you’re in the mood for a blast from the past, you could do worse, but maybe find something a bit better or a bit cheesier to enjoy.

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Fortress on IMDB
Buy Fortress [DVD] [1994]