Stephen Norrington’s (he of the inaugural Blade film) Death Machine opens in the “Near Future.” The camera dollies past smoking wreckage and dead bodies. Inside a diner, several armored soldiers led by John Carpenter (William Hootkins) come upon a crazed cyborg (Stuart St. Paul), part of the “Hardman” project, punching a bathroom wall repeatedly and terrorizing a waitress (Jackie Sawiris) until he overloads and shuts down (a known design flaw). Back at the Chaank Corporation, new CEO Hayden Cale (Ely Pouget) finds out the hard way that the public doesn’t like weapons manufacturers, and she hasn’t got many friends inside management either, with slimeballs like Scott Ridley (Richard Brake) actively working against her. But down in his workshop, weirdo wunderkind Jack Dante (Brad Dourif) is working on something that will surprise them all (but really, probably shouldn’t). Oh, and there are domestic terrorists Sam Raimi, Weyland, and Yutani (John Sharian, Andreas Wisniewski, and Martin MacDougall, respectively, and I hope you’re noticing the trend here), to boot.
In case you missed it, this film is as much homage as it is blatant ripoff. You have the cyborg elements of the Robocop and Universal Soldier films. You have the unstoppable, maniac robot elements of Chopping Mall, Terminator, and Hardware. The Warbeast’s (our titular machine) head closely resembles that of the Xenomorphs from the Alien franchise with bigger teeth. The rest of the movie’s generic facets are as expected. The settings are appropriately industrialized and dystopian. The Chaank Corporation is evil, its officers self-serving and power-hungry. The mad scientist is unhinged in the sort of way you honestly have to wonder who the hell thought it was a good idea to hire this guy no matter how smart he is. On the other hand, the naming of characters shows a clear adoration for Norrington’s (who is also credited as screenwriter) idols that doesn’t feel simply like name dropping. For as many influences and components thrown in here, though, that’s also the amount of directions in which the film tries to pull. Rather smartly, it doles these sections out in small enough bites that, even though it doesn’t completely cohere, the film is entertaining and fast paced enough that each piece satisfies like a handful of “fun size” Snickers bars (or insert your favorite candy bar here). By the time the credits roll, I could think of worse ways to have spent my time.
One of the more interesting aspects of this film is in its depiction of the future. Yes, it is dystopian, as all cinematic futures seemingly are. But everyone and everything in this one is unhinged in some way or another, and not in the sort of satiric way we saw in the world of the Robocop films. You get the feeling that this world and its occupants are very much on the cusp of falling over the edge. Violent demonstrators flock around the corporate headquarters (but they conveniently disband after normal business hours), and one even socks the unsuspecting Cale right in the nose. Every character, with the exception of Cale, screams many of their lines in bug-eyed histrionics, including a police officer (Alex Brooks), who flies off the handle so fast, you have to wonder if he’s been smoking bath salts. The terrorists toke huge, odd-shaped joints, and they all behave like sleazy villains from an Eighties Action film, sneering and leering at everything.
Which brings us to Dante. He dresses like a member of a Nineties grunge band (jeans with multiple slits down the legs, black shirt, black leather jacket, long lanky hair, finger rings, including several I assume are knives, though I can’t say I noticed any plaid flannel). His workshop is littered with technological bits and pieces, pages torn from porn mags, and toys. The fact that the filmmakers cast everybody’s favorite onscreen nutjob Dourif is evidence enough of what the filmmakers were envisioning. Mission accomplished. Dante is pure id, his main drives being aggression and sex. Meanwhile, he’s developmentally arrested, a child entertaining childish wish fulfillment fantasies, though he has the resources to make his nightmares reality. He lives in a sub-basement of the company, locked in a world (read: vault) of his own creation. The only input he gets from the outside world, aside from the computer hacking in which he specializes, is endless scenes of violence and porn on his monitors. The real world is nothing to him but base stimuli, so he interacts with it in that way. There is the strong indication that he was this way to begin with, and his isolation from reality only helped widen the gap in his twisted brain. That said, Norrington also decided to give Dante a sense of humor, I suppose with the intention of either taking some of the edge off him or enhancing his menace through his morbid world view (or a combination of both in the vein of Freddy Krueger, Chucky, et cetera). Unfortunately, the jokes largely fall flat, and our villain winds up just looking foolish. I think, had they cast someone much younger than the then-forty-four-year-old Dourif, the character may have worked better as the petulant man-child he is supposed to be. As it is, though, it feels off, and not in a good way (though Dourif, as always, is certainly one of the standouts of the film).
Dante posits himself as an agent of chaos, a bringer of entropy. To his eyes, the breakdown of order into chaos is “the way of the world.” Like the Joker both before and after him, he is presumably anarchist by design. Inside a building full of precise, industrial environments and governed by strict corporate structure, he sits inside a cave with no seeming rhyme or reason to where anything is. The outside of his workshop is covered in bright, messy graffiti, marking it off from the rest of the building as a danger zone portending the unexpected. Nevertheless, for as “organic” as Dante’s world and character is put forth, he is merely the flip side of the assumedly cold business people above him. Neither care about the value of human life. They are both, in fact, in the business of ending them as efficiently as possible. Cale is the only person associated with Chaank who actually cares about the ethical and moral implications of her job (which really doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense, considering where she works). Yet for all his crowing about the ineffable decline of societal systems, Dante’s machinations require planning, and thus negate their intended outcome (or at least his core philosophy). His Warbeast required planning to design and build. The technology he relies on so heavily for his ends is borne of order, not chaos. Dante is the one controlling the Warbeast, his finger on the trigger. If he actually believed in the randomness of chaos, he would make of himself a target equal to those he hates. Although, the film is enjoyable as it stands, I think this would have been a nice little twist and would have added an interesting layer to Death Machine. But backseat driving doesn’t get you to your destination any faster, does it?
MVT: The Warbeast is a wonderfully designed piece of machinery. Norrington and company also did a solid job shooting and editing around it, so you get a concrete feel for the size and power of the thing and what it’s capable of without having to show it all onscreen. Low Budget Filmmaking 101: Leave as much to the viewer’s imagination as possible, and show just enough to leave them wanting more.
Make Or Break: The Make is the scene inside the elevator. It’s tense and gory, and it serves a purpose in the plot. Nuff said.