Tom Jolliffe takes a time machine back to the booming straight to video action era of the 90s, and looks at some of the headliners…
Call me sentimental but the idea of a VHS player whirring away in its machine, having been carefully picked from the local video shop gets me all misty eyed. In the grand pantheon of film perusing, the long distant days of the video shop were probably the most enjoyable experience for film fans, something that will never be matched by modern streaming.
In my formative film years the video shop offered a candy store worthy array of wondrous possibilities and before the internet could advise me otherwise, the only thing I had to go on was the recognition of all the biggies I knew of (your Indiana Jones’, Back To The Futures etc), or the video covers. Artwork these days is often uninspired, lacking the eye catching majesty of 80’s and 90’s video covers (and particularly the action and horror genres).
Growing up I was a huge action fan. Everyone knew of Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, but the video shop (or a friend’s older brother’s video collection) promised even more options. This was a time, in the wake of the big boys, you had the level below with Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal vying to compete on the big screen (before all heading direct to video). Then below them were reams of ex-whatevers (usually sportsmen, martial arts champs, soap actors, and more) who were physically able and convincing as an ass kicking action hero. Some had a smattering of success, flirting with big screen, and some began and ended their careers as video specialists. In any case, there were masses, and it almost came a point of fascination to me to delve into the respective CV’s of many of them. If I saw more than two films in the action section with any particular star, the assumption was, they must be quite good. And so with respect to those ass-kicking badasses, whilst some didn’t particularly have the greatest acting ability, they had enough presence to maintain lengthy careers.
So, that brings me to a marathon for the ages, aided largely by films readily available on streaming sites like Amazon Prime and indeed YouTube (if you feel so inclined). I’m doing a run through of as many 90’s action video stars as I can think of and picking one film to watch from each.
Lorenzo Lamas in C.I.A. Code Name: Alexa
Lamas, best known as the jock in Grease, his role in 80’s US Soap Falcon Crest, or mildly popular mid-90’s action show Renegade (an enjoyable show in that kind of Baywatch, A-Team, Knightrider vein) stars here. I had other Lamas options available to me, from oddly artistic underground fighting film Final Impact, to any one of the cheap run and gun trilogy of Snakeeater films. Lamas, often with pantene perfect long hair (usually worn down, or in ponytail) was a kind of Chippendale, catalogue model equivalent to Steven Seagal. He forged a productive career in the 90’s as an action man having spent most of the 80’s as a soap pretty boy.
C.I.A. Codename: Alexa (which spawned a sequel) co-stars O.J Simpson (yes THAT O.J Simpson) and Lamas’s ex-wife and (at the time) regular co-star Kathleen Kinmont. One major plus point this film has is that it is from PM entertainment. A productive company who spent the 90’s firing out masses of enjoyably goofy, carnage filled action films which seemed to bely their meagre budgets and made for TV aesthetics (all appear in full frame). One of PM’s figure heads, Joseph Merhi (the other was Richard Pepin) directs this one, and by this point and beyond was an assured hand as a low budget action director.
The film is cheesy, almost coming across like a skit in It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (think their version of Lethal Weapon) but in every way, this perfectly encapsulates typical C-Level video action of the era. As was the PM calling card though, this packs in a lot of action and some impressive stunts. They were always a good showcase for stunt guys.
Lamas tended to flit between handsomely bland, outright wooden, and a fairly decent actor within his career (call it Wheel-o-Lamas). Occasionally he seemed to be in soap hangover mode, and he’s not brilliant here. Lots of pouting, wistful stares and ‘capture my good side’ kind of acting (for more engaging Lamas, check Final Impact). Still, he’s got a presence. Kinmont is actually pretty decent and gets a bit more complexity from her role than you might expect a woman to get in a 90’s straight to video action film. O.J Simpson actually comes across as the man with the gravitas in this film shot a couple of years prior to ‘that court case.’
Olivier Gruner in Automatic
Maybe it was the somewhat monotone voice or blank stare, but Olivier Gruner seemed to relish playing Cyborgs in some of his best roles. It probably would have been too obvious to opt for his most iconic role (and the one video that caught my eye more than any of his others and indeed many actioners full-stop) in Nemesis.
Whilst Nemesis was a great example of Albert Pyun’s erratic and engaging direction in (reasonably) well funded unrestrained mode, Gruner had an array of pretty solid action films of the era. Savate, which was a breakout film for specialist directer Isaac Florentine (who these days seems to fight over Scott Adkins with Jesse Johnson) was a decent old west kickboxing film, and Sci-Fi actioners like Savage and Velocity Trap also marked enjoyable outings.
Automatic is actually one of Gruner’s most solid. It’s an enjoyable largely single setting action film where Gruner plays an android who breaks programming to protect a female employee being raped by an executive (accidentally killing the attacker). The company sends a hit squad to eliminate the rogue android and the female witness. Gruner’s pretty effective, physically for sure but also in playing the android. He’s suitably mechanical (and that’s not meant as a sleight as it’s so easy to over or even under play a cyborg).
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