Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Vindicator (1986)

The Canadian superhero team Alpha Flight was introduced in 1979 in issue #120 of Uncanny X-Men, but their leader was introduced individually a year earlier in that same comic’s issue #109.  Although more popularly known as Guardian in his team’s own title (which premiered in 1983), James MacDonald Hudson was actually first known as Vindicator (okay, Weapon Alpha if we’re picking nits) with his ass-kicking battle suit.  I have never disguised my outright love for Alpha Flight, and the first thirty-six or so issues are some of my favorite comics from the Eighties (possibly ever).  Now, Vindicator wasn’t my favorite member of the team (that would be Sasquatch), but he was remarkably different from other superheroes of the time (at least to my young mind) in that he was a scientist more than a man of action from the very outset.  This nature would mold how he led the team and ultimately shape his destiny.  

It’s a good thing the name Vindicator was changed, since, aside from sounding neat, it doesn’t pertain very much to the character.  The word vindicate basically refers to clearing an accused person’s name.  It has nothing to do with kicking ass, taking names, or battling supervillains.  As a codename, Guardian, on the other hand, fit Hudson well since part of his and Alpha Flight’s job was to guard Canada as a state-sanctioned superteam.  Funny enough, there was another, non-comic-related Vindicator out of Canada, and he is the titular character of Jean-Claude Lord’s The Vindicator (aka Frankenstein ‘88 aka Micro-Chip-Man).  Ironically, the moniker fits him slightly better than it does John Byrne’s four-color creation.  Slightly.

Evil corporate muckety-muck Alex Whyte (Richard Cox) and his evil scientist minions have finally completed work on a space suit which can be remotely controlled but inexplicably also has the built-in function of inducing primal rage in its wearer anytime anything touches them (how handy).  When good scientist (he wears jeans and a Hawaiian shirt to work) Carl (David MacIlwraith) raises a stink over where the money that’s been cut from his budget is going (three guesses), Carl quickly becomes a liability that has to be eliminated.  One laboratory explosion later, and Whyte now has a prime human test subject for his project (speedily and oh-so-covertly renamed Project: Frankenstein).  Unfortunately, there is an issue with the remote control unit that restrains the rage defense.  Oh, no!  That’s gonna leave a mark!

This is another one of those films where, if you were just told the plot, you would think it was lifting ideas wholesale from more successful American films, particularly Robocop, Darkman, and Universal Soldier.  You have a human scientist whose body is decimated in a deliberate “accident.”  You have a corporation’s conscription of said human’s body for their own project.  You have the project’s turning on his creators.  You have a human turned into a living weapon.  You have the idea of a man who pushes away the woman he loves because he no longer feels human.  And yet, this film was released one year before Verhoeven’s film, four years before Raimi’s, and six years before Emmerich’s.  Of course, it also has allusions to films like the much earlier The Colossus Of New York and the Frankenstein story in general, though of the two, I’d say it’s closer to the former than the latter.  Aside from the “playing God” angle, this film has absolutely nothing to do with Mary Shelley’s tale.  It’s just a convenient touchstone for the filmmakers to use strictly for its place in the public’s consciousness.  

After his transformation, Carl is supposed to embody the film’s pathos and provide its violent catharsis.  So, we have scenes like the one where Carl spies his reflection in a store window and pitches a wicked pity party.  This is alternated with scenes where Carl talks to his pregnant girlfriend Lauren (Teri Austin) though her synthesizer and avoids her seeing him because of his ugliness.  Then we have a scene where Carl bloodily tears through some bad guys.  Then we have a scene where Carl takes off his mask, notices his reflection in some water and pitches a wicked pity party.  And so on.  Now, I think an audience could accept one scene where the sight of his own deformity causes Carl to have a violent episode.  But two or more are simply earmarks for a sad sack character, and they’re tough to want to follow.  There’s also the idea that because someone looks grotesque they must behave grotesquely.  This works for the revenge/action scenes.  Lamentably, the emotional scenes don’t work as well, because Carl is so hellbent on being miserable while still trying to maintain contact with his lady, he comes off as dejected and little else.  Had Carl watched Lauren from afar, interceding on her behalf only as necessary, but never daring to make contact, this theme of the monster who feels undeserving of love would likely work better.  It wouldn’t necessarily be more original, but it would work better (it would also hew closer to Frankenstein, I think).

The one aspect of the film I like is the concept of Carl being literally desensitized.  He cannot feel pain or ecstasy (he lacks genitals in that regard, anyway).  If he is touched, he is programmed to respond with wrath, thus removing him from humanity even further.  He has become almost precisely a brain in a box.  And yet, he doesn’t even have complete control over that since he cannot completely command his body to do what he wants it to do.  And then, like almost everything else in the film, this intriguing plot device is negated utterly out of hand.  In fact, this film has got a whole lotta dumb (sing it to the tune of the Led Zeppelin song) going on in it.  Why would you give a synthetic being a rage defense mechanism activated simply by touch?  Lauren’s roommate Catherine (Catherine Disher) literally mocks her best friend only days after she has presumably buried the man she loves.  The bounty hunters (including Pam Grier as Hunter; get it?) are going to use vaporized acid on Carl (as if a strong breeze wouldn’t blow it back in their faces).  Hunter also seems to gain and drop her moral compass like a rabbit’s vaunted rate of intercourse.  A truck explodes immediately upon impact with a guard rail but before it plummets over a cliff (a classic, to be sure).  A corpse just shows up in a closet it would never have been within a million miles of just for a quick jump scare.  The score for the film’s finale made me think A.C. Slater was going to show up and bust a move at any moment.  I’ll save the very best of the dumb moments, because it’s pretty spoiler-y, but rest assured, if you watch this film, you’ll spot it in a heartbeat (although in fairness, you could very likely feel that some other dumb element is the most egregious, and you would still be right).  

All of this said, if I had seen this film as a fourteen-year-old boy, I would have loved a lot of it.  There’s some fun action.  Some of said action actually springs from some cool ideas.  There’s a little bit of nudity.  There are some sleazy bits.  Alas, the dumb moments, the moments that make you throw your hands up in despair, really overpower the moments that could have made this a better entry in the Sci-Fi/Action genre.  They did for me, at any rate.  The Vindicator isn’t detestable, but it’s not memorable either.

MVT:  The suit, designed by Stan Winston Studios, is pretty nice for a low budget film.  It looks a tad unwieldy, and it doesn’t appear to be very functional at all, but with the mask off, the facial makeup effects work fairly well.

Make Or Break:  The first kill scene with Carl versus some bikers is the Make.  The villains are classic cardboard thugs, and the justice meted out to them is satisfying while also being a nice step or two over the top.

Score:  5.75/10     

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