Tom Jolliffe kicks off a new feature at Flickering Myth entitled The Dusty VHS Corner; first up is a trio of 90s straight-to-video action spectaculars in Grid Runners, Martial Law and Back to Even…
Remember when films were on things called video cassettes? Remember when they were sold in rental shops, full to the brim with those big bulky covers (usually with great artwork on the front)? The joy of browsing, picking a gem you’d never heard of because IMDB wasn’t around to tell you if a film was bobbins or not. Good times…good times.
With those glorious days long gone, now lost in the streaming generation and having also gone through the DVD generation (which was never quite as brilliant a rental perusing experience for some reason), I will be looking fondly back to the video era of the 80s and 90s, up to the turn of millennium as video was dying and DVD was taking over. Three (or more) films based on whatever theme my flight of fancy of the week takes me. This week it’s a random assortment of straight to video action stars.
I’ll be re-visiting old gems I’d previously pulled from a video shop back in the day, or viewing films from that era for the first time. The purpose? To tearfully reminisce (world’s smallest violin alert) about an era when video premieres had a tad more charm than they do now, and also dish out potential Friday night viewing ideas to the discerning Flickering Myth reader. Switch off your brain, put that A-list blockbuster on the back-burner for now, and indulge in some B-movie badness/brilliance.
These films will be rated with a Beer Rating from 1-5. 1 being a film that’s surprisingly good and can be watched almost sober and 5 being a film that’s crazy bad but down five brewskies and it’ll probably be brilliant. Just remember, drink sensibly folks.
Most of these films will be easy enough to find. They might appear on the obscure Sky Movie channels, or on various (makes crucifix with fingers) streaming sites.
Grid Runners (1995)
After the release of the brilliant(-ly bad) Lawnmower Man, there was a brief spate of virtual reality themed films in the straight to vid realm. You almost couldn’t move for them, and they’d often feature ropey dawn of time CGI and ridiculous plots. Grid Runners is just one such example starring a man who will probably feature regularly in the dusty VHS corner, Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson. For the uninitiated (you poor people), Wilson was an action film specialist throughout the 90’s (to this day). Most of his early films would often credit him in the opening titles as “World Kickboxing Champion, Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson.”
Just in case the “Dragon” part wasn’t enough of a give-away to Don’s speciality in front of camera!
A scientist somehow manages to bring virtual reality characters to life. One is a maniacal fighter hell bent on releasing an army of VR cohorts, and the other two are two Cybersex babes. Wilson stars as a Grid runner, a cop specialising in border patrol, and VR based crime. He is tasked with defeating the villain, whilst also learning to relate to one of the Cybersex babes (yep…seriously).
With a plot-line like that this film is obviously a must see right? Well, yes. It’s a stinker, but in a good way. It features many staples of the mid-90’s straight to video action special: Lots of fight scenes that look thrown together last minute, plenty of gratuitous nudity, and dialogue that obviously gives Shakespeare a run for his money.
I’ve always found something quite affable about Wilson compared to some of his contemporaries in video land. He tends to be a straight up good sort, and normally likeable. He’s not exactly Pacino, but of course he’s not exactly reciting a Charlie Kaufman screenplay either. Don does his thang here, which is to say, kicks a lot of people in the head without ever managing to look as badass as he clearly is in real life (as a member of the kick-boxing hall of fame having won 11 different world titles).
Grid Runners survives on the ridiculous premise, and a level of charming badness including a fantastically cheesy villain who projects his (cheesy) voice without having to open his mouth. It also features Loren Avedon, another action video specialist, most famous for starring in No Retreat No Surrender 2 and 3, and one of the ultimate, so bad it’s good films, King of the Kickboxers.
Beer Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Martial Law (1990)
The less famous relative. A regularity in the straight to video movie world. I shall avoid an Eric Roberts joke here, on account of him being awesome, but other examples would be Don Swayze (brother of Patrick), Frank Stallone (brother of Sly) and Chad McQueen (son of Steve). Chad McQueen is the headliner of Martial Law. It would be fair to say that despite appearing in the first two Karate Kid films, Chad never quite matched his old man’s cinematic career. That said, for a time in the 80’s and 90’s, he was a regular headliner of straight to video action specials.
Another regularity you might have seen in a straight to video production back in the day (and now) might be the one time star who found himself picking up any paycheque he/she could get their hands on when their career had hit the skids. One such star was David Carradine, who between his TV stardom in Kung Fu, and his resurrection in Kill Bill, would regularly be seen popping up in video premières. Carradine takes villain duties here. Also co-starring, as Chad’s lover and partner is the first lady of action herself, Cynthia Rothrock, at the height of her fame.
Martial Law plays out as a fairly routine cop film with a little bit of token family drama, as cop Sean Thompson (McQueen) struggles to rein in his younger brother who’s on the wrong side of the law and working for Dalton Rhodes (Carradine). When his brother ends up dead, Thompson tries to infiltrate Rhodes’s organisation and bring it down, with the help of Billie Blake (Rothrock).
This film is not that bad. It’s not great either, lacking the unintentional humour to be in the so bad it’s good category. That said Philip Tan, stunt man extraordinaire and a face you’d recognise from many an action film (big and small screen) from the 80’s and 90’s, does his best to push it into that realm with his hilariously bad attempt at a Cockney accent.
Some reasonable fight scenes punctuate the film but Rothrock isn’t in it nearly enough. She’s the best on screen fighter of the bunch and is relegated to support, whilst McQueen doesn’t quite have the presence, not just to come close to his dad, but to match many of his B-action contemporaries.
Still, for some passable cops and robbers fighting, with Carradine phoning in a serviceable villain, this isn’t too shabby.
Beer Rating: ★ ★
Back to Even (1998)
A front cover featuring a punchy three word title like Back to Even. Then two names, accompanying the pictures of stars: Lorenzo Lamas and Michael Pare. Thus far the evidence points to two factors. Firstly, this is probably straight to video. Secondly this is probably an action film with lots of fighting in it. Only one of these points rings true with Back to Even, and that is the fact it’s a straight to video feature.
Lorenzo Lamas might be best remembered as the star of mid-90’s action series, Renegade. The image seared into most minds which have a recollection of Lamas would be long hair, leather jacket (probably open with no shirt underneath) and riding a Harley. Michael Pare’s best known role was in Walter Hill’s 80’s classic, Streets of Fire.
Lamas and Pare play former childhood friends who have grown up and a gone into wildly different paths. Lamas, as Mitch is the foreman of a paper printing warehouse, whilst Pare, as Boyle runs his own small gambling enterprise and has become something of a low level Mafioso who becomes ever darker and more ruthless. Their paths still cross, but only when Mitch needs to place down a bet. Mitch ends up over his head, in debt to Boyle, and has no choice but to help him steal a top of the line money printing press. All the while, Mitch suffers personal tragedy when his father is severely injured at work (he works with Mitch), losing an arm in a printing press.
Surprisingly, considering the principal cast, this is more of a drama than an action film. Perhaps more surprising is the fact it’s actually not too bad either. Pare has always been a reliable and solid B-picture actor who probably deserved better than his fate (which of recent years has been a constant collaborator with Uwe Boll). Pare gives a solid performance here making Boyle suitably villainous when needs be, but with a sympathetic layer underneath. Lamas has seen his most iconic roles come in TV, and his movie career, though varied, has largely been in action, given his physique and martial arts background, but he’s also decent in this.
Director Rod Hewitt does a fairly solid job. It’s nothing new. It’s kind of a very (very) poor man’s Scorsese style of film, from the way it’s shot (there’s a long, one take establishing shot of Mitch’s work place for example), the script and the tone. Whilst this, of course, never comes remotely close to achieving the levels of a Marty crime saga, it does a pretty reasonable job for the sort of straight to video flick you might normally see appear at two in the morning on one of the movie channels. There’s a few dramatic scenes, particularly between Lamas and his on screen father, and Lamas and Pare. Hewitt almost gets it right. Almost, but not quite. Still, the intent is there and is to be commended.
Beer Rating: ★
Next Time: Stock Footage Spectaculars.