Universal Soldier 2: Brothers In Arms (1998)

Knowing nothing about this, it becomes extremely obvious that it’s nothing more than a pilot for a proposed “Universal Soldier” TV series. The only two reasonably sized stars (who appear for more than five seconds) get killed off, but everyone else survives; there’s a “here’s what the plot of the series will be” bit of business at the end; and the main villain ends the movie completely unknown to our heroes, ready to launch many attacks on them throughout the course of a season’s worth of sexy adventures.

I’m not mentioning this to brag about how I was right – this and part 3, “Unfinished Business”, were intended to start a “Universal Soldier” TV series for Showtime – but to tell you what you ought to expect if you’re thinking of watching all the “Universal Soldier” movies in order. “Pilots that crashed” is one of our least popular, least worthwhile features here at the ISCFC, and this an unwelcome addition to that merry band.

To ease us into the UniSol world, we get the final few minutes of the original movie, reshot with new actors. Taking over the part of Luc Deveraux is Matt Battaglia, who’s one of those TV “that guy” actors – he’s briefly been in “Twin Peaks”, “JAG”, “Silk Stalkings” and more recently “True Detective” and “Hawaii Five-O”. He takes JCVD’s performance from part 1, goes “what that needed was less ability to be a human being” and really runs with it; once again, he’s effectively a passenger in the movie that’s named after him. Investigative reporter Veronica is recast with Chandra West, who’s excellent , and the new head of the UniSol program, which appears to have been semi-privatised in the intervening five minutes between the end of the first movie and beginning of this one, is a fellow named Otto Mazur. This is Gary Busey, post severe brain injury but pre becoming a sad laughing stock – he seems to be trying here, although it’s a curious performance.

Plot thread number one is that Luc has an “immediate recall to base” chip in his head, which his former employers use to get him to leave his home and go straight back to Chicago, where they’re based. Why they never used this in the first movie, where it’d have stopped pretty much all the problems that occurred from the several UniSols going off-reservation, is never mentioned (it’s different to the tracking chip which he removes during part 1).

One of the several plot threads is that Luc has a brother, who went off to war in 1960 or so (remember Luc is a Vietnam war vet who was kept on ice for 20 years), but in a coincidence so stupid and large I couldn’t even be bothered to be annoyed by it, was also taken after his death to be part of the UniSol program. Although whatever procedure it is didn’t take on him, so rather than just dump his body somewhere, they pay for nearly 40 years of cryogenic suspension – suspension so good that five seconds after his case is smashed, he’s quipping and kicking ass. I have absolutely no idea why this happens. His brother, Eric, is played by Jeff Wincott, one of the stars of 80s / 90s straight-to-video action, and far too good to be in trash like this – the scene where he’s educating Luc to be human is pretty funny.

The plot involves selling the UniSols to a Chinese terrorist group, led by the Filipino-American actor Von Flores, but not really as they just kill them and steal the diamonds they were going to use to buy them. That’s a tactic that’s only going to work once, I reckon, as other bad-guy groups will struggle to trust you in future…but what do I know? I was about to try and hide the identity of the main villain who’s manipulating all this, but the IMDB page reveals who it is immediately, so I won’t bother.

It’s the director of the CIA, played by Burt Reynolds. This movie goes above and beyond the usual “A-lister hired for a day” tricks, showing him from behind while an impersonator does his voice – they actually say at one point he’s using a voice scrambler for security reasons! Congratulations for one of the sleaziest tricks I’ve ever seen! His entire time on screen is maybe five seconds, as he pans into shot and makes some reference to his plans not being done yet.

For a movie called “Universal Soldier”, you’d really hope there’d be more action in it. Aside from the opening recap, nothing much really happens til the halfway point, and the fights are pretty small beer when they do occur. We still have no explanation what it is that makes the UniSols so strong – they don’t appear to be cybernetic, even though they have black box recorders implanted in their bodies, but it can’t be drugs as Luc suffers no withdrawal symptoms from being away from base for however long it was.

I think it’s lazy, though, and not just for the reasons I mentioned above. Jean-Claude Van Damme tends to be cast as a Louisiana boy if he’s an American in a movie, thanks to his accent. This is what happened in part 1, but by the beginning of part 2, they just drop this idea and specifically site the Deveraux family farm in Wyoming (even though the entire thing was filmed in Canada). It’s little things like this that show the big things were probably done in a similar slapdash manner. Director Jeff Woolnough and writer Peter Lenkov are both long-time TV guys, still working today, but this looks like it was not a passion project for anyone involved. Just do like JCVD wants you to do and ignore these two made-for-TV instalments completely.

Rating: thumbs down

Chameleon 3: Dark Angel (2000)

Welcome to yet another instalment in our “pilots that crashed” series of reviews, which always get strong reactions from readers. Such as “why are you doing this?” and “are there not enough normal movies to review?”

“Chameleon” is unique in that all three parts of its trilogy are pilots, none of which were picked up. The only things the three movies have in common are:

  • Kam – played by Bobbie Phillips, she’s a “sub”, or “substitute human”. She has a small amount of animal DNA which gives her unique powers, although the exact amount changes from movie to movie (1% in part 2, 20% in this one).
  • The IBI – the crime-fighting organisation she works for. They’re occasionally bad guys, though, so the name is the only thing.
  • Sort of vague near-future setting

That’s it. One can look at the “Chameleon” series as what might happen if you gave three different scriptwriters those bullet points and no other information; it’s a shame, as it would’ve been nice if they’d built on the things that worked in the previous movies. But they were no doubt too busy desperately trying to get these pilots picked up to worry about anything as inconvenient as making them good.

We start off with an opening credits sequence straight out of a TV show – Phillips voice-over describes the world and herself, while clips from the action we’re about to see play. Do you not want to leave stuff for us to discover? There’s a reason movies don’t do this! We do discover, though, that she has the DNA from three specific animals – cougar, for…er…I got nothing; falcon, for the eyesight; and, of course, chameleon for the invisibility thing. We meet another sub later on who has three different animal powers, which conjures up the image of scientists with a bunch of labelled jars in front of them, picking three at random and injecting them into an egg.

The majority of the movie appears to be a cliché delivery system. Her boss tells Kam “you’re a wild card!”, the bad guy shoots one of his underlings for giving him bad news, people get taken off cases, someone does that thing where they keep getting closer to someone holding a gun on them til they’re able to kick it out of their hand, the whole set.

It’s not entirely cliché, though. A group of scientists, including 15 year old prodigy Tess (Teal Redmann) are doing some experiments with dark matter, and one of them, Dr Farrow, is actually working for the bad guys. Farrow might be the dumbest scientist in the history of science – my notes read “he’s not got any idea what he’s talking about” – but he’s not around for very long. There’s Kam and Tess, with occasional help from the rest of the IBI, against villains who have their own evil, super-powerful sub, who – not a spoiler because it’s the first line of the IMDB synopsis – is Kam’s brother.

First up, kudos to “Chameleon 3” (which, by the way, is subtitled “Dark Angel”, perhaps a trifle too close to the same year’s TV show “Dark Angel”, the Jessica Alba show) for predicting the future with its smart-watches. People do video calls on them, and I’m pretty sure we’re about a year or two from that happening to us. But the rest of the future is just the odd bit of tech here and there, with the rest of the world being identical to the one we have now.

Unfortunately, though, part 3 is just a catalogue of things that don’t work very well, or look stupid, or both. All the goons in one scene and one scene only wear balaclavas, as if they could only afford three extras and just kept recycling them; and the fight scenes are terribly shot, leaving what should be the most exciting parts of the movie just annoying to the eyes. They also throw in the “is that guy indestructible or are all these people just terrible shots?” conundrum.

There’s a romantic subplot between Kam and her IBI “handler”, Ben, but he alternates between seeing her as a machine to use as he likes, and a real woman with thoughts and feelings (“subs” can have their human status revoked at any moment, apparently). Plus, if you’re a straight man and can’t act more excited to be in bed next to Bobbie Phillips, then you’re not that good an actor – if you, the viewer, are a fan of extremely attractive women in tight leather outfits, then you’re in luck though.

There are two fairly large problems with “Chameleon 3”, though. First up is the weakness of the supporting cast, as they might as well just be a grey cloud that hovers around the background of about a third of the scenes. If they’d wanted it to go to series as much as they desperately appeared to, then this is a red flag, really. Second is the lack of use of her powers. She does the chameleon thing once, something which might be the falcon thing once, and I don’t think she uses cougar powers at all (although that might be a smell thing?) If you’re making a pilot epoisode about a woman with super-powers, then it might be handy to show her using those powers, build up a bit of interest in her, and so on. Or maybe that’s just me.

Oh, and the science is terrible and nonsensical as well – dark matter, black holes, unlimited power, and so on. But that’s small potatoes. Probably the weakest of the three (part 2 is the only one I’d have been interested in seeing taken to series), Phillips is far and away the most interesting thing about it and I’m annoyed she didn’t get a starring vehicle, as she has a great action hero look and clearly got the memo about bothering to show emotion. Three interesting failures, sadly.

Rating: thumbs down

Chameleon 2: Death Match (1999)

The “Chameleon” series is, I think, unique in movie circles for having each of its three installments be pilots for TV shows that never got made; not only that, but all three have no relation to each other, apart from the main character.

It’s curious, to compare this to shows that did get made – anyone remember “The Lost World”? “Cleopatra 2525”? “Relic Hunter”? “Lexx”? “Starhunter”? All mostly forgotten, cheap, genre TV, and “Chameleon” would have fit perfectly in that lineup. Although, just a year or so after part 3, both “Dark Angel” – very similar in terms of format – and “Alias” – one of my favourite shows of its time – would come to TV and prove there was a market for female led, slightly sci-fi-based, action spy shows.

But enough of me reminiscing about TV shows no-one cares about any more! It’s 2059, and corporations have taken over the American government. Standard stuff. The IBI is the new corporate police force, and they’re led by Casey Siemaszko, who is a fine actor but doesn’t exactly fit a person’s image of an action series lead. Casey is Jake, Bobbie Phillips returns as genetically engineered / slightly cyborg-y Kam, and there’s a whole team of people who’d supply all the useful technobabble and skills Kam doesn’t possess throughout the intended series.

It’s a “Die Hard” clone. No sense beating around the bush! A group of criminals infiltrates a futuristic casino and holds corporate bigwig Henry Kubica (John Waters, not “the” John Waters but an actor who looks like the bastard offspring of David Warner and Gerard Depardieu) and his son Tyler hostage, along with lots of other casino-goers; Kam is undercover in a tight dress, trying to keep Kubica safe. The only real differences are that Bruce Willis couldn’t turn himself invisible and didn’t have magic cyber-sight; and that Bruce was largely a solo act, and this is a team effort. But other than that, it’s got the endless corridors and cocky villains and a huge explosion happening in a lift shaft, you know, the classic building blocks of a ripoff of this sort.

Phillips is fine, again, but she’s weirdly emotionless in some scenes, like she was directed to play it like a robot. The thing is, her animal DNA ought to make her more emotional, not less? I think? When she’s showing her inner self a little, she’s excellent, but there’s not enough of it. Siemaszko is a comic actor, and is therefore horribly miscast as the lead agent; and everyone else is solidly dependable, like most TV actors.

It’s a little cheaper than part 1, with weaker special effects and a smaller focus, plus at least one of the special effects (the bike run through the warehouse full of bad agents) is a direct lift from the previous instalment. Also, everyone is greasy, like the makeup person didn’t have the right sort of powder to put on their faces, which you can handwave away by saying the building’s air conditioning was on the fritz. On the plus side, through, it’s got a meaningless title (there are no “death matches” of any sort) if you like that sort of thing.

There’s a scene at the end where they’re trying to evacuate the casino, and all that happens is people in the background run in random directions, constantly criss-crossing to get to…nowhere in particular. Which is, I guess, a perfect way to describe this movie. Much more than part 1, this screams out “TV pilot”, and while I enjoyed it more (better focused, for one) I just wish they’d either made it a proper movie or that it had been picked up.

Fingers crossed that part 3 is a bit different, and hope that the ISCFC doesn’t have to review any more Die Hard ripoffs for a while.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Chameleon (1998)

“Pilots that crashed” is our wildly unpopular regular feature here at the ISCFC where we review a “TV movie” which is nothing more than the pilot for a TV show that failed for whatever reason; the reason we get to see it, is they spent enough money on it they feel obliged to try and recoup some of their losses by bunging it on TV, or selling it abroad. Our favourite of the ones we’ve covered so far is “Virtuality”, the Ronald D Moore effort from 2009 where inhabitants of a corporate-sponsored trip to deep space have their own virtual reality machines to stave off the boredom, but will this knock it off its perch?

Starring as cloned genetically engineered badass Kam is Bobbie Philips, who’s fast becoming a favourite here. We’ve covered her early career, where she had the great misfortune of co-starring with Billy Blanks twice (“TC 2000” and “Back In Action”); she went on to be great in “Murder One”, then bummed around in all sorts of trash for a few years before abruptly quitting acting in 2004 to go into the hotel business with her husband. Respect to people who don’t hang around when they aren’t enjoying it any more; but she decided to get back into acting a couple of years ago and is picking some really interesting-sounding projects.

We’re in a fairly standard dystopian future, where the IBI is the last line of crime-fighting defence. I guess most of the people who work there are standard humans, but one or two of them are grown in labs (I think, the movie is a little vague on the details) and have super-senses as well as being pretty strong. Kam calls herself a “sub”, although just what that means, aside from being prepared to have sex with anyone to progress a case, is never mentioned. Kam’s special ability that no-one else seems to have is the title of the movie – she can turn sort-of invisible by blending perfectly into the background, “Predator” style.

A kid is the driving force of the plot. Oh, how I loathe child actors! Even if you’re a parent with a kid of your own, surely you wouldn’t enjoy seeing someone else’s stupid kid on screen? Yet because writers can’t be bothered to figure out how to create tension properly, we get a kid who everyone knows won’t die.

Sorry, the kid. His parents are rebels against the corporate system, and create a computer chip which will destroy the world’s economy in a matter of days. The IBI wants it, so they send Kam and a team of armed police to sort them out – but the parents kill themselves rather than be caught, and the kid escapes with the last chip secreted on his person somewhere. Kam goes after him but immediately changes from being a cold-blooded killer to a warm mothering type, protecting the kid, getting kicked out of the IBI, getting chased herself, etc.

You may have noticed that only a few paragraphs in, I’ve complained several times about things not being explained, or being too vague. Well, part of it probably comes from being a pilot, because you’ll need some secrets to explore later in the season; but an equal amount could come from it just not being very good (perhaps the reason it was never picked up). The worst of all is Kam’s sudden conversion to the side of the good guys, with zero explanation, to the stage where I stopped the video and rewound to see if there was something I’d missed. When you’re supposed to be won over by her mothering instinct, you’re probably more likely to be going “she’s in her late 20s and he’s in his early teens, he doesn’t need that much looking after”.

Kam and the stupid kid are chased by a rogue former IBI agent (who was kicked out for being too violent) who chases them with a couple of rottweilers and a redheaded IBI lady, who was clearly being set up to be the workplace antagonist. They’re trying to get to Newton, the leader of the resistance (I think), who ends up being nothing more than a boring philosopher who talks in the thir person. But never mind him!

There are a couple of cool-ish fight scenes, as well as a scene in a huge empty warehouse that felt more like a stunt showcase than it did a logical piece of filmmaking. Phillips is great and looks like she can handle herself (the promotional blurb lists her as a martial arts expert, but she doesn’t really do much of that). And some of the visuals of the wasteland outside the cities are done well too, even if they’re sort of standard.

Ultimately, it’s very standard stuff. Super-powered hero, kid in peril, dystopian future. I like Phillips a lot but she’s not got a lot to work with here, and if you were thinking of watching it for purposes of titilation, the sex scenes are shot from some pretty bizarre angles, to make sure you see as little skin as possible. It appears there are two more “Chameleon” movies to go, as well – amazingly, they’re all pilots with the same star as the same character, and all three failed! If you do choose to watch this, though, you can ponder just how many shows that look and feel roughly the same were made around the time, and why some of them succeeded (“The Lost World”, “Relic Hunter”, etc.) and this failed.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Youtube Film Club: Northstar (1986)

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“Pilots that crashed” is our wildly unpopular regular feature here at the ISCFC where we review a “TV movie” which is nothing more than a pilot for a TV show that failed for whatever reason; the reason we get to see it, is they spent enough money on it they feel obliged to try and recoup some of their losses by bunging it on TV, or selling it abroad (which seems to be the sole way most people ever saw this one, during its few outings on British TV in the mid 80s). Our favourite of the ones we’ve covered so far is “Virtuality”, the Ronald D Moore effort from 2009 where inhabitants of a corporate-sponsored trip to deep space have their own virtual reality machines to stave off the boredom, but will this knock it off its perch?

Immediately on the plus side is star Greg Evigan, beloved as star of “My Two Dads” (which would 100% not get made the same way today) and slightly less beloved as the butt of a hilarious running joke on British comedy show “This Morning With Richard Not Judy”, as Major Jack North, an astronaut. While on a spacewalk, taking a video of a total eclipse (with a wonderful, massive, clunky space-camcorder), he’s blasted by a pure beam of radiation, or the sun’s rays, or something, and is almost killed. The great Ken Foree, last seen by us a few days ago in “Zombi”, is also on the Space Shuttle with them, billed simply as “black astronaut”. Sorry Ken! This entire section, rather than seeming like the opening sequence of a movie, looks like a reconstruction of what space flight is like for a kid’s TV science show.

 

Anyway, after a refreshingly small amount of confusion, it’s discovered that North has some hellacious super-powers. When he’s exposed to direct sunlight it all kicks off, and there are three levels. First is blue, and that makes him super-smart. Second is yellow, and that makes him super-fast and agile. Then there’s red, which turns him into a pulsating-head monster with super-strength (maybe, it’s a little unclear); if he stays on red for too long, he’ll die. This is handily illustrated with what I think they called a clone, but is actually just a fancy shop dummy made up to look like him – when the red power kicks in, his brain pulsates to twice its normal size, and his neck catches on fire.

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To handle the power, they make him a pair of the ugliest glasses known to humanity. Now, I’m no genius, but if you hire a young, good looking guy to be your star, obscuring his face behind 1940s protective goggles seems at best counter-productive. So anyway, he’s goggled up, and has a mystery to solve; the mystery of who killed his other fellow astronaut. He’s also got a potential love interest, a vital building block to any potential TV series, Dr Alison Taylor (Deborah Wakeham), who’s also the “hey, you shouldn’t go red, probably” wet blanket.

 

The cast is also full of “That Guy” actors – as well as Foree, there’s sitcom regular Mitch Ryan as the Colonel of the base, and Mason Adams as the old, friendly scientist. The sort of people who’d have been quite happy with a regular easy gig on a TV superhero show, I imagine, but solid hands all the same. When North needs to contact the Colonel and thinks the phones might be bugged, he basically invents the modern internet and Skype (it’s a bit of technobabble, but he wires a normal camera up to a computer and broadcasts it all via phone lines, untraceable). Given that it was made in 1985, it’s one of the more remarkable bits of accidental future prediction I can think of.

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Of course, as most failed pilots are, it’s very…standard. The main villain doesn’t die; there’s lots of people with skills the star doesn’t have (and they don’t die either); and there’s also plenty of world-building which might seem irrelevant. The world-building here involves little mysteries that the show could spend some time solving; such as the colour thing. He’s obviously going to have to go full red at some point, and there’s also what happens if he gets some special glasses and can access other sorts of light? It’s clearly made by TV professionals who, while they don’t necessarily have all the talent in the world, know that B should follow A. Sadly, there are no surprises in the writing or directing department, no-one who’d go on to write A-list blockbusters (unlike, say, “Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD”, a fellow pilot, which was written by David S Goyer).

 

I understand why it wasn’t picked up. The idea is sort of odd, and having a guy who’d be contractually obligated to spend a minute of every episode on the floor, screaming in pain as he was forced to use the red light power, would be off-putting. But looking more widely at American TV, the well-regarded show “The Greatest American Hero”, a superhero show with a more comedic bent, had just finished its initial run a few years previously, so it might have been made to fill that gap. Problem being, it’s not that funny, despite having one of the great sitcom actors in the cast they used him completely straight.

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Available on Youtube, if you’re bored one evening there are worse entertainment options. But there are lots and lots of better ones.

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Justice League (1997)

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The Justice League of America is DC’s crew of heavy-hitter superheroes, predating (and almost certainly inspiring) Marvel’s Avengers. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman are the three main members, they’ve had a space station base, and have fought such ultra-powerful threats as Darkseid and Brainiac. For some reason, their numerous comic authors, artists and animators have never chosen to show them as a group of sort-of nebbishes living in a small shared apartment – but now, we have this!

 

This movie belongs to our long-running review series, “Pilots That Crashed”. From SyFy’s “Lost City Raiders” to “Beastmaster 3”, we’re big fans here of “TV movies” which are nothing more than pilots for shows that never got picked up. To recoup some of the money spent on producing them, they’re repackaged and sold to low-rent TV channels, and that’s how we got to witness perhaps the most 90s piece of entertainment ever.

 

What “Justice League of America” looks like is the special feature on a DVD. Using a framing device of the cast being interviewed, in character, against a backdrop of muted grey that reminds you of school photograph day, we’re introduced to most of our heroes – The Flash, the Green Lantern, The Atom, Fire, and (with the first half operating as her origin story) Ice. They’re just normal people with normal lives until they’re needed, such as Fire having to leave an audition (to play the part of talking fruit in a TV ad) to go and save some people. It’s not terrible, just incredibly low rent. The Atom, for example, a character who in the comics can shrink so small he goes into “micro-universes”, first uses his powers to rescue a cat stuck under a porch and seems to be able to shrink to one size – about three inches tall. Not so much “Atom” as “Quite Small Man”.

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While we’re on the subject, let’s discuss characters. If you’re a fan of superhero movies, you’ll probably be aware of certain characters almost always having certain personality traits. Iron Man is a playboy; Captain America and Superman are goody-two-shoes, slightly out of time;  Batman is dour and implacable; Spider-Man is a wisecracking teenager. While they’re perhaps not at that level of fame, the Flash and Green Lantern have pretty established personalities (Flash is upbeat; Green Lantern is a parody of ultra-jingoistic types) and this movie just flat-out ignores them. Green Lantern has no personality at all, really, AND HIS OUTFIT ISN’T EVEN GREEN, but the Flash has been transformed into an unemployed sad-sack which is perhaps the weirdest choice of all. Why bother having these characters if you’re going to do this with them? It’s fun to see Ice, but only because you can remember her on brilliant sitcom “Son Of The Beach”.

 

I’ve not even gotten to the plot yet, have I? Well, the great Miguel Ferrer is “The Weatherman” (not to be confused with a member of the 1960s radical organisation the Weathermen, as if anyone would) and he has a generic super-villain idea. Ransom, etc. Martian Manhunter, the super-powerful alien member of the Justice League, must corral his troops to fight this deadly threat, while they deal with incredibly mundane real-life stuff – for instance, Fire has a teenage admirer, played by David Krumholtz, who is a complete time-filler, and would presumably have played more of a part if the show had gone to series. And Green Lantern has a girlfriend who is getting bored of his problems with intimacy, and is more in love with his superhero alter-ego than she is with him. The very mild tension is created by them briefly thinking Ice is The Weatherman, because she freezes some stuff early on.

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“Failed TV pilot” operates both as a description of what it is, and its quality. It looks exactly like a double-episode of some cheap 90s basic-cable show, and while it’s not terrible, it certainly is completely inconsequential. It could have done with a plot, or jokes that were actually funny and not slightly sad; also, Martian Manhunter is played by David Ogden Stiers, perhaps the oddest casting choice in recent memory. He’s a portly middle-aged man and looks it. Which brings me on to the superhero outfits! They are so terrible, so cheap-looking, that fellow ISCFC reviewer @kilran said cosplayers would be embarrassed to wear them. Plus, all the masks look exactly the same shape, which isn’t a huge point, but is another sign of no-one really caring at all.

 

It’s probably best to treat this the way its makers intended and ignore it. It’s never been shown on TV in the US, apparently, and has certainly never had an official release of any kind. While it’ll certainly be funnier than the upcoming “Justice League” movie, it probably won’t be better, so just save your pennies up for that one.

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Rating: thumbs down

Lost City Raiders (2008)

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It’s always a nice feeling to watch a SyFy Channel original movie and realise halfway through that it’s actually pretty good. Even “average” is cause for celebration sometimes. We’ve got some strong lead actors and a pretty interesting plot to thank for that; but because SyFy doesn’t want to surprise us too much, we’ve got some comically bad dubbing and padding too.

 

“The Da Vinci Code” was released two years before this, and it’s safe to say its shadow looms large over “Lost City Raiders”; but with an environmental disaster twist. The ice caps have melted, and seismic activity has pushed all the water that was under the Earth’s crust up (I didn’t quite get this bit either), and all this has led to “The Rising” (surely the original title of this movie), where all water levels have gone up by 15 metres and billions of people have died.

 

There’s a really good comic called “The Massive” about something similar – environmental disasters wipe out much of the Earth’s population, the old systems try and cling to power as people start to build new societies. It’s exciting stuff, and would make a great TV show – “Raiders” sort of hints at what wider society is like now but only has 90 minutes.

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The Kubiak family are divers, going into the world’s submerged cities to salvage precious items for rich folk. Led by James Brolin, who must have owed the producers a favour, most of the work is done by sons Thomas (Jamie Thomas King) and Jack (Ian Somerhalder, post-Lost and pre-Vampire Diaries). They’re hired by the Vatican to retrieve a book from LA, which has information about the location of the Sceptre of Sobek, which can apparently cause the water levels to recede. Also after the Sceptre is evil billionaire Nicholas Filiminov (Ben Cross, “Chariots Of Fire”, the first JJ Abrams “Star Trek” movie); he decides to hire Jack’s ex-girlfriend Giovanna (Bettina Zimmermann), who’s spent the time since they broke up becoming a super-genius geologist. Throw in a hot but clumsy mechanic Cara (Elodie Frenck) the brothers meet in a bar, a good guy Cardinal and an evil Vatican guy, and you’ve got yourself a movie.

 

Sorry, did I say “Vatican”? I meant “New Vatican”, which is helpfully located in “New Rome”. The problem is, it’s the same place as old Rome, and the Vatican hasn’t moved at all, so I’m not entirely sure why they’d be so quick to put the “New” in front of their name. It’s only been 40 years, you guys! Rome’s been there for over 2000 years!

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There’s lots of diving footage which isn’t amazingly shot, as you’d expect from this budget, but if you ignore the CGI, it’s fine. Lots of ancient buildings and Templar graves, and while there’s a bit of filler in these segments (there are two different runs through old buildings that I could barely tell apart; the movie could have comfortably lost one and not suffered at all) it’s a lot of fun. I’m not entirely sure I buy that old buildings which have been entirely submerged for 40 years would still have working fire-based booby-trap systems, but if I’m going to start bringing logic and science into this…well, while I’m down this meaningless nerd rabbit hole, let’s talk polar ice caps. The big plan with the sceptre is to put all the extra water back down underneath the earth’s crust, or possibly to raise the tectonic plates and put it all under them. But the ice caps are still gone, and aren’t they sort of important in regulating temperature and providing an ecosystem and all that? I feel like “Raiders” could have brought this up, but the inevitable doom of a human race which has learned nothing isn’t really the wheelhouse of a light SyFy movie.

 

Somerhalder, while not the rangiest actor in the world, has a shtick which I enjoy, and if you’ve liked him in anything, you’ll like him in this. Ben Cross is too classy for OTT villainy, and his plan’s a bit silly (why does one person really want world domination? What would you do when you controlled everything?) but he’s fine too. Sadly, James Brolin appears to have either forgotten how to act or is just going “can’t believe I signed a contract to be in a SyFy movie”, and everyone else in the cast is a pretty abysmal actor too. Most of the smaller parts, played by German actors it seems, are dubbed, up to Cara, and given that there are plenty of other thick accents on display, dubbing makes no sense at all.

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I was also annoyed by the Templars stuff, and the electromagnetic ley lines nonsense which led to the (admittedly, fairly decent) climax. If you only watched SyFy and the History Channel, you’d be convinced that the Templars and Freemasons were responsible for every big event ever, so if you’re in the mood for a bit of “what actually happened?” then go to www.jasoncolavito.com and read some of his excellent articles.

 

ISCFC sexism watch! There’s a scene in the bar where Cara is working, and there’s one shot which is the sleazy bar owner in the background, talking…while the entire foreground is taken up by a closeup of Cara’s boobs. Okay, they’re at least partly covered, but it’s so blatant and so out of place that it just made me angry. Ian Somerhalder, a man who must have plenty of straight female and gay male fans who’d be delighted to see more of him, never even takes his shirt off, yet some poor supporting actress has to be treated like that. Sexism is everywhere and we need to demand more from the producers of our entertainment – that the only dramatic scene they could find to give her, later, involves her fighting off a potential rape, is just the crap cherry on top of the misery cake.

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I’ve been perhaps a little harsh on this, which was plenty of fun and had an interesting plot. It’s also a “pilot that crashed”, even though the villain died – all the heroes survived; the supporting cast all complemented each other; and there’s tons of world-building going on. I think it would’ve been interesting to see this go to series, although we’d have been deprived of Damon Salvatore in “The Vampire Diaries”.

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Youtube Film Club: Dr. Strange (1978)

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After our experience with the original 1979 “Captain America” movie a few weeks ago, none of us could bear the thought of watching the sequel. Too slow, too boring, too much like a bad episode of “Quincy”. But luckily, Marvel tried a number of times in the late 70s to bring their franchises to the screen, so we’ve got options. “The Incredible Hulk” and “Spider-Man” both had their feature-length pilots picked up for series, but sad sad failures were both Captain America and this, and failure is what we like here!

Fellow ISCFC reviewer and Marvel more-expert-than-me @kilran informed us that Morgayne, or Morgana Le Fay, isn’t really a Dr Strange villain in the comics, and I was keeping my fingers crossed that was the worst crime this movie committed. But I didn’t mind when I realised that playing Morgana is the great Jessica Walter, star of “Arrested Development” and “Archer” and one of the great comic actresses of the last decade or so. She was 37 when she made “Dr. Strange” and it was weird seeing the demented matriarch of the Bluth family as a beautiful younger woman, but she’s absolutely brilliant in this, scheming and doing magic and so on.

The basic gist is, Morgana is working for a demon, who tells her he’s a bit annoyed she failed to kill the Sorceror Supreme 500 years ago (presumably, a reference to the Knights of Camelot, even if the timeline’s a bit off). But he’s now old and weak and will need to transfer the power to a successor, so she needs to swoop in and kill one or the other, so demons can rule the earth, probably. I never pay attention to the world-conquering plots in movies like this, because it’s not like they ever happen.

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The Sorceror Supreme is Earth’s primary defender against magical attacks, and is played by John Mills, who must have been bored that week, or had a kid who was a huge Marvel fan or something. He’s a pro, though, so his bits have a weird gravitas; his assistant is one of the great “That Guy” actors, Clyde Kusatsu. It’s Dr Steven Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme’s chosen replacement, who’s the odd casting, though. Peter Hooten is his name, and largely disappearing from the movies since the 80s is his game. He’s okay, I guess? Just a bit bland.

I made a similar criticism of the Captain America movie, but I just can’t imagine being a fan of the comic, full of demons and magic and excitement, and enjoying this. Strange is a psychiatric doctor (which makes his surname even more inappropriate), and a fairly hefty portion of the movie is based around hospital politics. Now, in the comics, Thor’s day job is doctor as well. Could you imagine Marvel making a Thor movie where he has to argue about what medication to give to a patient? There’s an argument to be made that it was a money-saving procedure by the studio at the time, but there has to be something more exciting they could have done – for instance, the 2001-style psychedelic tunnel effect was great, a bit more of that sort of thing please.

There’s a normal human woman roped into this too, of course, Strange’s love interest from the comics. There’s reference to a “psychic bond” between her and Morgana which is never really explained; and, towards the end, Strange almost walks away from it all because he just doesn’t believe in magic, despite having been sent to the Astral Plane and battling demons. What? Add this lack of explanation to the almost funereal pace of the rest of the movie and it’s a really unsatisfying experience.

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Morgana’s plan fails, in part, because she’s attracted to Dr Strange. Thinking about it, that’s normally a male failing, so it’s quite refreshing to see. Personally, I’d have picked Morgana’s offer of excitement, adventure and really wild things over being a doctor and hanging out with my boring human girlfriend and John Mills, but that would have been a rather different movie, and is a good reason for never offering me magic powers. I would definitely use them for evil.

If I didn’t know better, I’d suggest that CBS hated Marvel and was on a mission to make all their most exciting comic characters look as boring as possible in order to ruin them. This is 15 minutes or so of moderate excitement surrounded by 75 minutes of tedium. For those of you keeping track, it also fulfills all the “pilot that crashed” criteria.

Rating: thumbs down