Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Megaforce (1982)

Let's face it, to the world at large comic books were considered kiddy fare before 1986 (and to many are still considered so to this day). They were marketed specifically to children, and if you weren't below the age of fourteen and you read them, there was something wrong with you. But as far as the non-geek world is concerned, 1986 was a watershed year for comics. It's when they "grew up." The two titles responsible are familiar even to many people who have never even read a comic. They are, of course, The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. Naturally, there were comic books that tackled more adult topics prior to the existence of these two books. Green Arrow's sidekick, Speedy, was discovered to be a heroin addict back in the 70s. The horror and crime comics published by EC in the 50s led directly to the establishment of the Comics Code Authority (though this was spurred more by the desire of several competitors to put EC out of business and grab a larger share of the market than the offensiveness of the actual material). Let's not forget the whole underground comix scene that sprang up in the 1960s or the entire culture of Tijuana Bibles going back as far as the 1920s. 

Yet to the uninitiated (and the purveyors of pop culture in general), comics are nothing more or less than "the spandex set" (never mind the films based on comics they may have seen and probably enjoyed like Road To Perdition, A History Of Violence, or Ghost World). Going back to the serials of the 40s and 50s with Captain Marvel, Batman, the Phantom, and so on, the focus of comic books onscreen has primarily been on superheroes and their garish adventures. The stories required little in the way of sophistication since their sources were deemed largely unsophisticated themselves. This isn't to disparage these early efforts, since it's predominantly their sense of fun and innocence that made them enjoyable in the first place. And though we may view them through a campy prism today and laugh at what may have enthralled us in our youth, they still manage to do what they set out to do in the first place (i.e. entertain).

Colonel Duke Guerera (Henry Silva) and his destructive tank brigade have been a thorn in the side of General Byrne-White (Edward Mulhare) and Major Zara (Persis Khambatta) for too long. Enter Commander Ace Hunter (Barry Bostwick) and Megaforce, "a phantom army of super elite fighting men whose weapons are the most powerful science can devise." Enlisted to lure Guerera's forces across the border and secure him as a prisoner, Ace concocts an elaborate, three-tiered plan to capture his old friend (their animosity began after an allegedly stolen Zippo) and bring him to justice.

Despite the advertising surrounding it, Hal Needham's Megaforce is not a superhero movie, nor is it based on any comic book of which I'm aware(as a matter of fact, I don't think there was even a comic book adaptation of the film). Still, this is, I must say, a fun little romp and extraordinarily family friendly. I don't think there's a single curse word or fatality in the entire film (with the exception of a few stuntmen who dump their motorcycles, but they're all accounted for by the end). This is complete fantasy from start to finish. Megaforce's headquarters are located in a mountain and contain cutting and bleeding edge weapons from around the world as well as those devised by their resident dork, Professor Eggstrum (George Furth). There are holographic projections (okay, one projection, but it's a nice one), laser cannons, and motorcycles that fly. The countries involved in the plot's skirmish are fictitious, and it's impossible to tell whether they're supposed to be located in the Middle East or Central America. They're just two countries that have issues with each other.

The treatment of women in the film is, to be fair, dichotomous. Zara is an officer in her country's armed forces, so she's presented as a strong woman at first glance. However, we later find out that she's also related to a high-ranking politician, and suddenly we're not so certain that her status was gained through her own determination or via political favoritism. Zara asserts herself by insisting that she be included in the upcoming mission, so Ace and his team test her to see if she's qualified. After a lengthy sequence where she does indeed prove herself worthy, Ace let's her in on the joke; She's still not coming on the mission, but it sure was fun watching her jump through hoops (I suppose for his and his men's amusement). Naturally then, Zara is attracted to Ace. She is, after all, the only woman in the entire movie. By turns, we're shown that she's a strong, independent woman and then shown that this is still very much a man's world, and women are second fiddles. This sort of thing is nothing new in film (and probably even more prevalent at the time this was made), but here it just feels forced and contrived, as if the thought of strong female characters are in themselves a joke, but we'll humor them for a spell, and they'll not only like it but be even more attracted to the guys behind it afterward. I've never understood this attitude in popular culture.

Bostwick and Silva are both magnetic as all hell in the film. I've always regarded Bostwick as a master of comedic timing, and I've never found him less than enjoyable onscreen (he has an affability about him, I don't know). Still, the material here is hardly up to his skills, but he does manage to elevate it in several instances. Nonetheless, someone really should have stepped in with regards to his look. Between a coiffure of Hasselhoff-ian stature, Dan-Haggerty-inspired facial hair, a powder blue bandana, and a lycra jumpsuit that leaves little to the imagination, it would be hard to take him or the film totally seriously, even if it were intended as such. When I saw ads for the film in comic books at the time, I always thought he was James Brolin. My bad, but Brolin was in The Car (which I had seen), while Bostwick was in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which I hadn't). Silva fares better, costuming-wise, and the man showcases his adeptness at humor here. But when these two share the screen, their chemistry together is undeniable. They're not quite on the level of Reynolds and De Luise (also Needham mainstays), but they're a joy to watch work off each other.

Since Needham made his bones as a stuntman, it's only fitting that his films would contain a large component of stunt work and effects. Even if we discount the possibility of some of the things these machines can do, when they do them onscreen, it's almost always thrilling in a spectacle sense. Say what you will about the level of juvenilia in much of the man's work, but Needham knows how to stage and shoot action. The night raid that begins the mission is solid enough to appear in a movie of today and still captivate. Needham's films are also comprised of a lot of "guy talk." His characters are friends of the closest variety, and consequently their relationships revolve around banter and ballbreaking bred through their deep familiarity. This element reinforces the light-action feel of the film, and ultimately that's what the audience is left with – a pleasant bit of fluff that isn't out to rock any boats but instead blow them the hell up (and blow 'em up real good). Well, all right, there aren't any boats in the movie, but you get the picture.

MVT: Barry Bostwick has charisma to burn, and it's on full display here. Even though Ace pulls a few jerk moves, particularly in regards to Zara, Bostwick's performance makes him forgivable and finally likeable (though Zara's fondness for him still baffles).

Make or Break: The night raid is a terrific action setpiece, and it is executed with dynamism and a tightly-constructed energy. Good stuff.

Score: 6.5/10

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