C.A.T. Squad: Operation Python Wolf (1988)

After a first movie which I was quite surprised by my enjoyment level of, the three main cast members return, along with director William Friedkin, for a sequel. I have no idea of the genesis of this, whether they were two separate pilots for a TV series that never got made – one very dark and serious, the other a little lighter; a couple of TV movies that Friedkin made because he had nothing better going on that year; or the first six episodes of a TV show edited into two chunks and sold overseas. Your guess is as good as mine, and the internet is devoid of information.

(Talking of selling overseas, my version is the British VHS tape, and on the beginning of it has a music video from the Schwarzenegger movie “The Running Man”, by John Parr, the most 80s of all musicians. Parr is originally from about ten miles away from me, a small town called Worksop, and there’s every possibility my father hurled drunken abuse at him on several evenings, as he would have been in the working mens’ clubs Parr originally plied his trade in, at roughly the same time. If he did, I’d be even prouder of the old man).

The Counter Assault Tactical Squad – aka boss Doc Burkholder (Joe Cortese); John Sommers (Jack Youngblood, and it’s a little bit confusing as the two men look a lot alike); and Bud Raines (Steve James), are trying to stop the sale of plutonium to South Africa, back in the bad old days when apartheid was still a thing. Their boss doesn’t return, and neither does Doc’s love interest – in their place we get Nikki (Deborah Van Valkenburgh, who I just discover made her movie debut in “The Warriors”), who’s a solid member of the team as well as being John’s fiancee.

It’s the villains who you’ll be delighted about, if you’re anything like me that is. The South African baddie Bekker is played by English character actor Alan Scarfe (“Lethal Weapon 3”, tons of genre TV) and the American doing the fixing for the sales of plutonium is the late, great Miguel Ferrer (too many amazing credits to list, but my favourite will always be “Hot Shots 2”). He’s firmly in sleazy corporate scumbag territory here, and I love it.

When John and Nikki decide to get married, just before John goes on a rather poorly-explained mission, in an SR-71 Blackbird, for the Air Force Reserve, she might as well have a timer above her head with “hours left to live” on it. Poor woman! It’s quite curious, that the one plane with a member of CAT Squad on it, is shot down by a South African lunatic with a special laser who’s also the guy involved in the plutonium buying which CAT Squad are investigating – by odd, I mean “coincidence of bizarre pointlessness”.

Let’s talk Steve James for a moment. His agent must have negotiated some sweet scenes for him in this sequel – it looks like he can play trumpet, so he gets to play, and he talks jazz a little too. Although, curiously, he gets his ass kicked on several occasions, despite being a massive, ripped dude who we know can legitimately kick ass (the American Ninja movies). Seeing him lose to a pudgy, middle aged fella is disconcerting to say the least – let us hope that it’s not related to William Friedkin’s curious fetish of having a white guy shout the n-word in his movies.

It’s a fairly light movie, with people smiling and having fun, until it lurches into really dark territory in the last third. People are killed in curious ways, and when the CAT Squad finally get to South Africa, what they find is so completely bleak that it sort of wanders off the path of entertainment into sternly political territory (with it just being a couple of years before the end of apartheid, this feels both incredibly sad and the product of a much worst time). But then…it has a charmingly naïve view of international politics at other times, so it’s tough to wrap your head round. And the CAT Squad, with its prominent black member, teams up with the South African military at the end! I wonder how Steve James must have felt about that?

Add on a magnificent “Python Wolf” logo for, apparently, the US Air Force, and you’ve got yourself a movie. It’s tonally all over the place, which means it’s not quite as satisfying as part 1, and the ending is so dark, but absolves the real villains (the South African state) from any responsibility for their crimes, so you’re left confused more than upset or pleased the bad guys finally get theirs. There’s a fun set piece in a nuclear processing plant, but it’s too little, too late, really. It feels like the end of an episode of TV rather than a movie, which is perhaps what it originally was.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

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Van Wilder 2: The Rise Of Taj (2006)

PRODUCER 1: We should make a sequel to Van Wilder.

PRODUCER 2: Ryan Reynolds costs too much-

PRODUCER 1: Kal Penn was in that “Harold and Kumar” movie last year! He’ll do!

PRODUCER 2: We don’t even have a script-

PRODUCER 1: Well, I’ve got this script from 1986. How about we just go through it and CTRL-F the star’s name with “Taj”, make the villain a racist and throw in two extremely brief references to Van’s character?

PRODUCER 2: I love it!

That is, I’m sure, how “Van Wilder 2: The Rise Of Taj”, was created. Were it not for 1990’s “Getting Lucky”, this would be in the conversation for worst comedy we’ve ever covered here. The first gag is Taj mentioning how he was “king of cool at Coolidge College” – if you laugh at that, you’ll probably be okay (because you’d clearly laugh at literally anything).

Into the beautiful English university of Camford comes a character with the same name and played by the same actor as Taj from part 1, but otherwise sharing no characteristics whatsoever. He’s basically Van Wilder, which either indicates Van rubbed off on him completely, or they just didn’t bother changing the spec script featuring Ryan Reynolds they’d already prepared. He’s come for his master’s degree and to work as a TA, and as his father (seen in a flashback from 1965, even though hippies and painted VW cards and all that wouldn’t come along for a few more years) is a legacy at the Fox & Hounds secret society, so he’s got a great place to stay – only they’re a bunch of idiots who apparently get to reject whoever they like then force those rejects to stay in a dilapidated barn somewhere on campus.

ASIDE: British universities don’t have fraternities, although they do have what amount to drinking clubs for rich people. No huge buildings, no bedrooms for members, none of that at all (one society I read about owns a building, but they rent most of it out and only have a small area to use as a “clubhouse”).

So, Taj is forced to go to the barn, and meets the collection of stereotypes that anyone who’s ever seen one of these movies before will know and “love”. The super-smart nerd, the violent Irishman, the slutty girl, and the computer gaming nerd; you may also spend a few seconds and think “this is going to end up in a competition of some sort, isn’t it?” and you’d be entirely correct. Taj forms the “Cock and Bulls” society and enters his outcasts in the Hastings Cup, a series of entirely unrelated events scattered throughout the term which the Fox & Hounds have dominated for years.

The villain, an actor whose career has hit the skids so hard he doesn’t even have a photo on IMDB, is doing a sort of evil Hugh Grant impersonation, and his girlfriend is Lauren Cohan, bumming around in trash like this til “The Walking Dead” catapulted her to stardom, with her extra-posh English accent just waiting for Taj to show a whisker of character growth so she can hop into bed with him. There’s nothing new at all here, and it’s so dull and formulaic I started doodling rather than writing notes, occasionally being roused to pen something like “they’re the most obvious body doubles I’ve ever seen” (although it appears Cohan didn’t use one) or “it’s like the worst 70s British farce ever”.

There are a very small number of bits that crack a smile, though. For instance, the bit where the villain, just before the “climactic” sword fighting scene, says ‘We are going to settle this like our ancestors would have!’ to which Taj responds ‘you’re going to exploit me economically?’ – a reminder that Kal Penn can deliver a line well when he really has to. There’s the small visual gag of the writers of newspaper articles having names like “Ben Derhover”, “Anita Hanjaab” and “Mike Oxsbig”. Taj’s parents, British sitcom stars Kulvinder Ghir and Shobu Kapoor, appear beamed in from a slightly funnier, more self-aware movie.

I don’t know where to lay the blame. Is it director Mort Nathan, who got his start as a writer / producer of “The Golden Girls”? Or is it writer David Drew Gallagher, a bit-part actor for whom this was his only writing credit? Or is it one of the 19 (!) listed producers?

It’s a movie made by people who have no idea about youngsters, or the UK, or comedy. Perhaps one of those 19 producers lost their virginity during a showing of long-forgotten 1984 Rob Lowe movie “Oxford Blues”, and wanted to recreate it only much much worse. I’m honestly at a loss here, people. It has no reason to exist – the first Van Wilder movie wasn’t that big a hit and Taj was a one-note supporting character, at best. Lazy is the best way to describe it – like Van apparently giving up his beloved dog to the guy he was briefly at college with, or saying Taj is from the USA when the first movie very clearly said he was Indian (perhaps to justify his constant accent slips).

As I hope I’ve indicated in the last five years, I like lowbrow humour as much as the next man (significantly more than most) but I also like it when the people who have the huge privilege of getting paid to make movies actually put some effort in. This is a miserable failure.

Rating: thumbs down

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

Ski School 2 (1994)

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This is the story of a man who, spiralling into depression following the end of his relationship, lives in squalor for a year before making a last-ditch attempt to win his ex-girlfriend back during the weekend of her wedding. His antics become more and more psychopathic before he finally ruins the wedding ceremony itself and is arrested, spending the rest of his life in an asylum (while having a dream, over and over, where the woman leaves her husband-to-be at the altar and they live happily ever after).

That is, honestly, the most sensible reading of this movie. Four years after the rotten, sexist, homophobic “Ski School”, someone was presumably contractually obliged to make a sequel. Dean Cameron looks like the last four years had been very very hard on him, and the wacky hijinks that seemed at least tolerable when a young-ish guy was doing them seem kinda sad when performed by someone like Cameron in 1994 (despite him only being 32 at the time, he looks a good decade older).

Dave Marshak (Cameron) gets an invitation to his ex-girlfriend Beth’s wedding, and decides to try and win her back. To this end, he enlists his best friend Alex, a man who is literally irresistible to women; Toddorbert, the resident semi-dangerous lunatic (£10 says you can guess the story behind his name before the film tells you); and Tomcat (Will Sasso, in a very early role), the perpetual beginner on the slopes. The four of them discover that the guy is only marrying Beth because she owns the ski resort and there’s a clause in her father’s will that if he marries her, he gets control of it; rather than just explain it to her calmly, they do weird stunts and throw snarky insults at the guy, including at one point calling him a paedophile.

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Making the fiancee an idiot is the easiest cop-out imaginable. Beth split up with Dave because he refused to commit, and during the course of the movie he makes zero growth as a character and only wins out at the end (spoiler, I don’t want anyone watching this) because the competition is even worse. The idea of Beth not wanting either of them, with very good reason, is never even hinted at.

It’s just so lazy! Because they need an easy joke or two, the ski resort town can support a very busy heavy metal lesbian bar; when Dave decides to crank this party up a notch and starts serving drinks, they run through the lame list of cocktails with rude names, a gag which must have been showing its age even then. For no reason other than to be cruel to the guy, our heroes divert a male stripper from Beth’s bachelorette party to that bar so he gets his ass kicked. The hot mysterious new skiier tells Dave she’s a nude painter – but she doesn’t paint nude people, she paints in the nude! On a snowy mountain! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

Luckily, there’s still plenty of boobs in this movie. Alex, for no reason, turns women into senseless sex monsters just by being somewhere near them – I mean, he’s a good looking guy, but the effect is supernatural. Still, it’s slightly less offensively sexist than the last one, which indicates progress had been made in the intervening years, I suppose. But they try! Beth wins a skiing tournament and the course commentator spends most of the time talking about her fiancee.

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There’s an occasional ray of light, though, even in a movie as bad as this. Will Sasso was clearly given no direction in some scenes, so you can see him in the background, pulling an insane series of faces while talking to no-one. I get the feeling he was trying to warn us.

It’s such a pointless movie. Made for no reason, enjoyed by no-one, not funny, not titilating, and quite deeply sad a lot of the time. Also, as I’m a bored movie reviewer and count these things, there are 10 different skiing montages in the movie that do nothing other than take up space. I feel bad for everyone involved.

Rating: thumbs down