Wednesday, January 16, 2013

No Dead Heroes (1986)

Bionic Commando was one of those video games on which I could never quite get a grip.  I suppose, like Khan Noonien Singh, my thinking is a little too two-dimensional (and if you’ve been reading these reviews for long enough, I’m sure you probably think it’s more like one-dimensional).  So, you’re now thinking to yourself, “But, Todd, Bionic Commando is a side scrolling game, and there’s nothing more two-dimensional than that.”  Yes and no, and if we’re out to lay blame at anyone or anything’s feet, I would blame the eponymous wrist tool (that just sounds dirty) of the eponymous soldier.  You see, you don’t just go from left to right in the game.  No, you have to go up and over and sideways (not in and out of the screen, I grant you, but I’m the type of guy who needs boundaries), and I wind up missing more goodies and getting hit by more baddies than is acceptable.  Give me something like Mega Man any day.  And never even mind games like (non-bionic) Commando which were vertical scrollers and your guy could go anywhere on the screen to get blown up.  What’s more, you couldn’t even see their faces.  How the hell can you trust a video game character like that?  You can’t.  They should be banned like asbestos (thanks and apologies to Berke Breathed).  Now, I was going to write an introduction about how Steve Rogers appears in Junn P Cabreira’s (as JC Miller) No Dead Heroes (aka Commando Massacre aka War Machine) as some anonymous green beret.  For those who don’t know, Steve Rogers is the no-longer-secret identity of one Captain America, and what he’s doing in this puddle is beyond me.  But there you have it.  I got sidetracked.  It happens more than I’d like.

The year is 1972, and the soldiers of some unnamed American unit in Vietnam are being ritually tortured and killed by yellow-haired (not blonde, yellow) Russkie nutjob Ivan (Nick Nicholson, who is tied with the entire rest of the film’s cast for the BEM Award - a first), who believes absolutely everyone is a CIA agent.  Meanwhile, actual CIA agent Frank Baylor (played with beady-eyed zest by Mike Monty) recruits grunts Richard Sanders (Max Thayer, oddly enough not playing a colonel) and Harry Cotter (the granitelike John Dresden) from Colonel Craig (David Anderson) to exfiltrate or kill the captured Americans, take your pick.  After much shooting and exploding, Sanders makes it to their chopper at the rendezvous point, but Cotter is shot and captured by the evil Reds.  Fourteen years on, Cotter is implanted with a microchip which now-handler Ivan can use to control the man’s actions via his Casio calculator watch.  Next thing you know, Sanders is being hauled out of retirement to track down his old pal.

If you’ve ever seen a film from the Philippines, then you sort of know what to expect when you sit down to watch this one.  There is a story.  There is a progression to that story.  But the way the film follows it is akin to being on a roadtrip.  If you close your eyes for a few minutes, let’s say (and assuming you’re not the driver), when you open them back up, you can still recognize where you are and what’s happening.  Nonetheless, there’s still a gap of those scant minutes in which something may have happened but surely couldn’t have, because you weren’t watching.  And yet, you’re now in the present and continuing to move forward.  That’s the best way I can describe the experience.  However, unlike the more fantasy-related films from the region, where these oddly-chosen elisions can be more readily forgiven due to those films’ more outré nature, films which are meant to be set in what we commonly regard as reality tend to call out and draw attention to themselves for these jumps (think like skips on a record, if you know what a record is).  It’s not that they ruin the film.  If anything, they accent it in the same way you wouldn’t expect to get chicken parmigiana in a Chinese restaurant, but you could still get chicken.  From what I have seen of Philippines cinema, this seems to be more of a cultural trend, an accepted means of telling a story which, I’m sure, to Filipinos makes perfect sense but to ugly Americans (like me) can seem sort of jarring and incompetent.  But since they get these films as they are (in the sense of comprehension, not physical delivery), and we generally don’t, I would be very reluctant to say that these films are necessarily inept nor that we are necessarily correct in such an estimation.

Like almost every film of the time featuring soldiers, No Dead Heroes deals with that eternal struggle against the oppressive overlords of the Soviet Union, and it illustrates the struggle through Cotter.  Disregarding the basic idea lifted straight from The Manchurian Candidate (and sans the matriarchal overtones), this film still makes a very strong statement about the feelings regarding communism during the 1980s (by accident or on purpose is yours to debate).  Cotter starts as a good soldier and fighter who follows orders but is also self-sacrificing and knows when to disregard his orders if it means saving human life (like Captain America but not played by Steve Rogers).  Naturally, after the microchip is inserted in his brain stem, his individuality vanishes.  Now, he is an even better soldier, his only purpose to serve his masters.  But his willingness to place other peoples’ safety over his own, that thing which made him a unique soldier (and we could argue human) has evaporated.  Yes, he will still lay his life on the line to protect another, but now he has no choice in the matter, and individual choices are what make us ostensibly better than them.  He is a cog in the communist machine.  He may be the first to successfully have this chip implantation procedure, but he will certainly not be the last, and consequently, he is now more disposable.  That Ivan cavalierly throws Cotter into life-threatening situations speaks to this fact.  If he were valuable to the Party, more care would be taken in selecting how he is utilized. 

By contrast, Sanders is the typical All-American, and in pitting him against Cotter, it’s like Rocky boxing Drago.  Not only are the two men embodiments of their respective sides in the Cold War, but they were once close friends.  That said, once Cotter crosses the line, Sanders really no longer has any compunction about taking his erstwhile brother-in-arms out.  In fact, Sanders even lights a prisoner on fire once he has extracted information from the man.  This act serves to further equate Sanders with Cotter, but what it also does is brings Sanders down in the audience’s eyes (or elevates him, depending on your particular view of things, but I go with the former) to the level of that which he is fighting.  He has become the monster which monster hunters run the risk of becoming by dint of vocation.  I don’t think I’m ruining anything by saying that the filmmakers’ handling of this juxtapositional story element could charitably be described as inconsistent.  But again, not being Filipino, could it be I’m complaining about the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye while ignoring the plank in my own?  At the risk of sounding immodest (me?), I don’t think so, but by that same token, I don’t feel that the approach (or my grousing about it) ruins what I found to be a fun, goofy Action film.    

MVT:  All of the film’s over-the-top elements make this an interesting watch.  Nothing seems too much or goes too far (did I mention there is a martial arts/communist guerilla training camp in the middle of this movie or a woman (Toni Nero) who makes Rosie Perez seem understated and coherent?  Well, there is).  Movies from the Philippines are experiences for which no amount of writing can truly do justice.  They must be witnessed.

Make Or Break:  In a scene as eyebrow-raising as it is nonchalant, Cotter comes home to America briefly and forces Sanders to commit to hunting his old Army buddy down.  It’s the Make, because it dances across the line this type of film so gleefully straddles.

Score:  6.25/10

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