Sunday, July 12, 2015

ROBOT JOX (1990) Blu-ray Review

Robot Jox (1990) d. Stuart Gordon (USA)

Can a film be both derivative and ahead of its time? Drawing from Hasbro’s popular line of Transformers toys, Japanese kaiju and anime, and Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds TV series, Robot Jox is an entertaining grab bag of influences and styles that, even if it never quite gels into a consistent tone, emerges as an enjoyable cinematic Frankenstein’s Monster, lurching back and forth across the line separating satire from silly, but noble sincerity. It’s also more fun and cohesive than any of Michael Bay’s wretched Transformers flicks and serves as an obvious forerunner to Guillermo Del Toro’s very similar Pacific Rim.

Set in a dystopian future (is there any other kind?) 50 years after a nuclear war wiped out much of the human race, outright war has been outlawed. To solve territorial conflicts between “The Confederation” and “The Market,” each side sends a warrior into gladiatorial conflict where they pilot a giant robot. These pilots call themselves “robot jox” and go about their training and battles with the swagger of superstar athletes.

As the film begins, Achilles (Gary Graham) watches as Alexander (Paul Koslo), the Confederation’s maniacal pilot, kills one of his teammates. The Market’s team of weapons/robot designer Dr. Matsumoto (Danny Kamekona) and battle strategist Tex Conway (Michael Alldredge) are angry and paranoid, convinced that there must be a Confederation spy in their midst to allow Alexander to know all of their new weapons and battle plans in advance. With Achilles tenth – and final – battle pitted against Alexander over rights to Alaska and its precious resources, there is immense pressure on all involved to not only find a way to beat the seemingly unstoppable Confederation pilot and his robot, but also to root out the traitor in their midst.

When the battle between Achilles and Alexander ends suddenly with an accident that kills 300 spectators, the contest is called a draw with a rematch set up in one week. But Achilles, shaken by the deaths of the spectators, refuses to fight, citing his contract that only calls for ten matches. Desperate for a new fighter, the Market turns to Athena (Anne-Marie Johnson), a genetically engineered warrior conceived and raised for the specific purpose of piloting a robot in battle.

While athletically superior and programmed to be cold-blooded in battle, Athena realizes her training will only get her so far and turns to the unusually successful (most pilots are killed before they fulfill their ten-match contract) Achilles for help. But Achilles is only interested in getting drunk in an effort to forget the deaths of the spectators. He sneeringly refers to Athena as a “tubie,” because of her artificial conception (when he’s not trying to get her into bed, that is). But when it becomes obvious that she stands no chance against Alexander, Achilles reluctantly agrees to return as a pilot, setting up a bloated third act confrontation that sees Gordon tie the numerous plot threads together in a neat, if not always satisfying bow.

Aside from occupying a soft spot in the hearts of a generation of adolescents who discovered it on VHS in the early ’90s, Robot Jox strangely does not have much of a reputation. Despite Gordon’s unimpeachable cult reputation and some impressive stop-motion animation and miniatures work, the closest thing the film seems to have as a legacy is as “the one Charles Band-produced fighting robots movie that isn’t terrible.” It’s a back-handed compliment does not do justice to a flick that has aged rather well.

Jox’s primary attraction is the work of stop-motion animator/visual effects director David Allen. A talented artist who contributed effects to everything from Larry Cohen’s Q and The Stuff to big budget fantasies like Willow and *batteries not included, Allen wound up working repeatedly for Charles Band, providing good-to-great effects and animation on tiny budgets. Here, combining detailed stop-motion miniature work with some dodgy blue screen shots of the cast interacting with the robots, Allen (assisted by Frédéric Talgorn’s robust orchestral score) manages to capture the spirit of the kaiju and anime efforts that inspired Gordon. The achievement of Allen and his effects team is even more impressive when you realize Gordon was trying to create a blockbuster look and feel on a typical Charles Band shoestring budget.

In fact, it is Gordon’s over-reaching that occasionally lands Robot Jox in trouble. For a filmmaker with such a subversive, sometimes downright cruel sense of humor, everything feels a little too calculated toward broad audience appeal. I don’t expect a story built around two giant robots beating the hell out of each other to be a serious work of art, but there are hints of a more adult-skewing, intelligent social commentary that bubble to the surface before Gordon retreats into kid-friendly slapstick and silly accents.

Yet, that very push/pull between Gordon’s darker sensibilities and the inherent silliness of the premise is what allows the movie to hold up as an entertaining, if flawed, venture. Despite all apparent intentions for family friendliness, Robot Jox has a harder edge to its violence; the footage of burned and bloodied audience members after the accident seems silly at first, but then Gordon focuses his camera on numerous extras with graphic burn makeup. When characters get hit or cut, the violence shows real world consequences through realistic bruising and free-flowing blood. A character even gets shot in the head resulting in a blood splatter worthy of an R-rating the film somehow avoided.

This edge extends to some of the tangential areas of this post-nuclear war world. People wear ventilators to walk around outside – at one point, a character tells someone to close the door to avoid letting the air in their apartment. While the Confederation is supposed to represent the Soviet Union and the Market is a stand in for the United States, all indications point to the Market being a fascist government with people doing their jobs under the threat of execution and women urged to have as many babies as possible to outbreed the enemy. The Cold War was still very real when Robot Jox was shot in 1986-1987, but when Band’s Empire Pictures declared bankruptcy, the film was shelved for several years. When it finally received a barely-there release in 1990, the Berlin Wall had fallen, making the film feel like the product of another time and place.

Additionally, any attempt at seriousness is severely compromised by the performances. Graham is fine as the stoic, square-jawed Achilles and Johnson capably displays the cold intelligence and curious nature of Athena, never giving in to the urge to be a more sympathetic character. But Koslo and Alldredge are in full scenery-chewing, goofball mode from the beginning. Koslo’s silly Russian accent and insistence on screaming his every line grows tiresome almost as quickly as Alldredge’s black cowboy hat and over-drawled Texas accent.

Despite these minor complaints, I enjoyed Robot Jox. It’s not a great movie, but it is fun. Its sneaky intelligence and sense of barely controlled chaos keeps the film feeling unpredictable, even when it never colors too far outside of the lines. Gordon simply wanted to create an entertaining film for ten-year-old kids that their parents could also enjoy. A few hiccups aside, that’s what he pulled off.

Shout! Factory has given this sorely neglected gem an impressive HD presentation that gives vibrant life to Mac Ahlberg’s colorful cinematography. The downside is that the wires used for a lot of the models are now blatantly visible in certain scenes. But if you’re of the mind that it simply enhances the film’s handmade charm (like I am), this is hardly a deal-breaker.

The main attraction of the bonus features is a new commentary track by Stuart Gordon (with Michael Felsher prodding along his occasionally reticent subject). Gordon acknowledges his obvious story influences (Transformers, kaiju), but also mentions that this is basically a sci-fi spin on the battle of Achilles and Hector from The Iliad. Gordon also talks at length about his efforts to make a movie for both children and their parents and how he tried to inject a little more silliness into the script, much to the dismay of well-regarded sci-fi novelist Joe Haldeman. While Haldeman does not take part in any of the bonus features, Gordon describes how the author brought his experience as a soldier into play, lending authentic details to the way the characters talked and related to each other – including coming up with the oft-repeated “Crash and burn” mantra the characters say instead of “good luck.” Gordon also repeatedly points out the numerous similarities between Robot Jox and the mega-budgeted Pacific Rim, and seems more amused than embittered by the connections.

The other commentary track features associate effects director Paul Gentry, mechanical effects artist Mark Rappaport, and stop-motion animator Paul Jessel. As expected, their conversation is more technical and fairly dry, though it is amusing that they seem far more annoyed about the Pacific Rim situation than Gordon.

A new interview with Paul Koslo is amusing, if slight. While several older interviews with Gordon and many of the special effects artists are repetitive, they do point out how his decision to shoot almost all of the miniatures and stop-motion effects outside in the desert led to more realistic footage. (A decision that also extended shooting to a year and half as opposed to the projected six months.) These interviews also serve as series of tributes to David Allen who passed away in 1999. The extras are rounded out with the expected trailer and TV spot, behind-the-scenes footage, and still galleries.

Robot Jox is available now from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE:

--Review by Matt Wedge

Check out Matt’s other reviews at his blog:


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