Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Full Eclipse (1993)

Back in the 70s, Marvel Comics started grinding out horror-themed books (so did DC and other publishers, but they’re not our focus here).  They had published stories featuring monsters previously in titles like Tales to Astonish back in the 50s/60s, but the vast majority of those tales were focused on giant creatures, either manmade or alien-spawned (including the introduction of everybody’s favorite monosyllabic tree, Groot).  The plots also tended to be very formulaic, following the atom-age, science fiction tropes of the 50s.  This conservative approach to the genre was largely a result of the implementation of the Comics Code Authority, which tied the hands of creators and publishers alike (the impetus for the Authority and all that entails is really a subject for a much longer essay, though there has already been more than enough ink spilled about it, and you should be able to get the whole picture on that with just a few mouse clicks).

At any rate, the Code was loosened a bit in the 70s, and monsters like vampires and zombies were now allowed so long as they were “handled in the classic tradition.”  Up popped titles such as Monster of Frankenstein and Tomb of Dracula.  Taking their cues from the loosening of societal norms and the increased interest in things occult, characters like the Son of Satan and Ghost Rider soon emerged into the spotlight, as well as the even more unorthodox Man-Thing (a concept at once both a throwback to monster books of the past as well as [thanks, in my opinion, largely to writer Steve Gerber] a commentary on modern society and its ills).  Of course, all of this is a roundabout way to touch on the lycanthropic character of Jack Russell (get it?), who made his first appearance in a feature called Werewolf by Night in Marvel Spotlight #2 (he would graduate to his own eponymous title in short order).  The character was tragic in the way that most werewolf characters are tragic, but the creators (including Gerry Conway and Mike Ploog) managed to tie in not only mystical themes (with artifacts like the Darkhold Scrolls) but also superheroes, with everyone from Tigra to Spider-Man interacting at some point or another with Jack and company.  Naturally, this book and its brethren were like Pixie Sticks (read: retro-crack) to a young me, with its amalgamation of monsters and superheroics, and it’s this same flavor that initially interested me in Anthony Hickox’s Full Eclipse.

Max Dire (as in “dire wolf,” and played with granite inscrutability by Mario Van Peebles) is a tough cop who doesn’t follow the rules but knows how to get the job done.  After his partner Jimmy (Tony Denison) makes a miraculous recovery from life-threatening wounds but then starts displaying alarming preternatural abilities, Max encounters Adam Garou (as in “loup garou,” and played with granite inscrutability by Bruce Payne), the man behind it all.  Recognizing Max’s potential, Adam indoctrinates the young man into his personal army of werewolf cops, theoretically in order to wipe out crime.  But is the price of justice too high?

According to this movie, the short answer to that question is “no.”  Full Eclipse uses the classic set up of a cop who is good at heart but unorthodox in approach being tempted to move completely outside the system in order to clean up the streets.  Max is the sort of cop who will storm a hostage situation solo, plunge through a ventilation shaft, and take out the baddies using the twin .45s he brandishes (something I always like to think is in homage to characters like The Shadow, but we all know is actually in imitation of filmmakers like John Woo [though maybe Woo is homaging The Shadow?  Hmmmmm……]).  For however much of a rogue Max is, he still abides (somewhat) by the law.  Nevertheless, Adam and his crew are attractive to Max for several reasons.  One, they get rid of criminals permanently.  Two, they have more physical power than normal men.  Three, they are sexy (in fact, part of the reason Max gets involved with them at all is because Casey (Patsy Kensit) seduces him).  Naturally, all three of these reasons are also attractive to a great many male audience members (and some female audience members, I’m sure), thus there’s a strong inclination to identify with max and his dilemma in a wish fulfillment way.  The basic conflict of the film is posited as whether the ends justify the means, but this is also something which the filmmakers lose sight of as they go along, and by the fade out, they wind up negating almost the entirety of the film that came before it.  Without saying too much, this is the type of film that, even while it is trying to subvert expectations is also completely bowing to them.

What’s interesting about Adam and his pack is that they are scientifically manufactured werewolves.  This intermeshing of science fiction and monsters is another callback to my beloved Marvel horror comics (with characters like Morbius the Living Vampire) as well as 50s science fiction films like Them! and Tarantula.  Between this and the superhero aspects (they wear uniforms like costumes with a tiny bit of variety in color and design to distinguish them from each other, normal human weapons are generally ineffective against them, they even grow awkward knuckle-claws like Wolverine from The X-Men), if this film isn’t a love letter to comic books, I don’t know what is.  And like many comic book characters, Full Eclipse’s wolf powers come with a price.  The monster cops are essentially junkies.  They have to shoot up with Adam’s serum in order to kickstart their powers, and they have to continue to shoot up in order to maintain them (and their health in general).  This power is not something with which every character can successfully cope, and it causes burnout and self-destruction in some.  As Nietzsche said, “Beware that, when fighting monsters you yourself do not become a monster…for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”  This all relates back to the film’s primary question.  Is the risk worth the reward?  The audience knows the answer to this.  The film acts like it knows the answer to this.  But ultimately, it either truly doesn’t or it truly doesn’t care about it, because Hickox and company wanted to have their cake and eat it, too.  So, rather than being satisfying or unsatisfying on its own terms and based on the decisions its creators made, the film frustrates to some degree by trying to be both moralistic and cynical.  It’s still watchable for its individual elements, but damned if I can’t shake the feeling that it might not have been worth the effort and time spent.

MVT:  The action sequences are very well shot and edited (again, owing much to the then-popular genre films coming out of Hong Kong), with lots of gunshots, explosions, and slow motion keeping the excitement level cranked up high.

Make or Break:  Jimmy’s big action set piece works astonishingly well, in spite of (okay, maybe because of) its more ridiculous aspects (we’re talking tall fence leaping and bus surfing, amongst other things).  Even though the film’s script doesn’t stick the landing in the end, at least the action sequences do.

Score:  6.5/10      

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