REVIEW: Starship Troopers (1997)

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1997 brought us so many entertaining films across a variety of genres, it’s really hard to pick a handful of films to focus on. As a fan of director Paul Verhoven, especially his previous sci-fi blockbusters Robocop (1987) and Total Recall (1990), one film that stands out for me is Starship Troopers.

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The Dutch director has a brave, devil may care attitude, and he injects these films with such energy and playfulness, many people forget the films also provide a subtle social commentary and intelligence missing from other films in the genre.

These films form an unofficial trilogy of sorts and their DNA is unmissable –  the heady mix of futuristic tech, cartoonish gore and black humour. In today’s formulaic movie landscape, these films would no doubt be shoehorned into the one thing that makes a studio executive drool – a shared universe!  Like Marvel but the Crazy Dutchman Cinematic Universe (CDCU) if you will.

“Would you like to know more?”

Starship Troopers reunites Verhoven with Robocop writer Ed Neumier and it shows – the satirical news snippets are a hilarious highlight and make it a spiritual sequel to Robocop. Writer and director rekindle their magic and take the po-faced 1950s novel by Robert A. Heinlein, strip it of its high tech Iron Man esque mech warrior warfare whilst keeping  the basic tale of teens becoming adults in a fascist future, that in today’s political climate seems scarily prescient.

Its a simple tale of a handsome boy, Johnny who’s in love with a girl, Carmen, so he signs up for military service to impress her/seal the deal. Johnny’s friend, girl next door Diz, is clearly also in love Johnny, so she follows him into military service. Then space bugs destroy the white-washed future Buenos Aires by hurling their spores through space (don’t worry about that too much) – forcing them into an intergalactic (planetary! – sorry, force of habit being a 90’s teen) war with some terrifying bugs, that come in all shapes and sizes. As I said, a simple tale.

“its a film about unrequited love, growing up, accepting responsibility, and perseverance. It’s just told across a backdrop of stylised sci-fi action with impressive special effects that still look passable today

On the surface, it’s like many a teen romance – its a film about unrequited love, growing up, accepting responsibility, and perseverance. It’s just told across a backdrop of stylised sci-fi action with some impressive special effects that still look passable today (courtesy of Jurassic Park’s Dino Supervisor – Phil “You only had one job” Tippett).

The film’s narrative plays out of order to provide a thrilling opening of a failed invasion on the planet  before probably introducing us to the film’s Beverly Hills 90210-eque leads. We are quickly transported to the Mobile Infantry’s training camps to provide a futuristic spin on the story staple often found in Vietnam films. We’re introduced to all the bug fodder, a literal game of lazer tag and some communal showing – because…shut up, it’s a Verhoven film, that’s why!

We get to see some great battle scenes, revealing a plethora of grotesque bugs that offer a variety of gory deaths – flying bugs that decapitate or giant tanker bugs that melt you alive (a nod back to Robocop, perhaps?) The film also manages to honour/homage Aliens and Zulu  – our heroes with all their military hardware – the giant machine guns and hand sized nukes, find themselves  completely out of their depth when faced with hordes of foreign savages who just keep coming.

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The film has a decent cast – mostly. Leads Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards bring beauty and soap opera quality acting that works amongst the ridiculousness of it all. Neil Patrick Harris displays some of that witty charm we’re now so familiar with, before going all serious psychic space Gestapo towards the end.

Clancy Brown and Dean Norris provide the gruff military authority in the training camp scenes that they’re both so good at (and have been typecast in).

Then there’s Michael Ironside – what a legend!  Ironside, the sneering sidekick and party pooper from Total Recall is perfectly cast in the grizzled war veteran come mentor role.

“Ironside brings a gravitas to the film that others cannot, I think very few people could deliver a line like “They’ve sucked his brains out!” with such conviction”

He’s the perfect citizen, a man who’s sacrificed his arm protecting the body politic and will gladly die for it, as long as it’s an honorable death. Ironside brings a gravitas to the film that others cannot, I think very few people could deliver a line like “They’ve sucked his brains out!” with such conviction. Like Air Force One (1997) and Gary Oldman, as soon as Ironside exits, the film seems to lose momentum – perhaps it’s because Rasczak is the only character we’re genuinely invested in.

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Ironside and Verhoven are such a good match, part of me thinks he should be digital inserted into Robocop as Clarence Boddicker – though that would mean losing the equally awesome Kurtwood Smith. One thing I love about these Verhoven films is the memorable character actors like Smith, Ronny Cox and Dean Norris in the supporting roles.

Troopers didn’t make a huge dent in the box office and I think a key reason is that some multiplex audiences took the film for it’s surface detail and completely missed the right wing political satire.

Most will probably consider this the weakest of the trilogy, lacking Robocop’s intelligence or the pace and thrills of Total Recall but there’s still a lot to enjoy, come for extreme violence, stay for the satire! Unsurprisingly there’s been recent news of a remake, despite the poor reception to both Robocop (2014) and Total Fuckall (2014). Verhoven, when questioned about it made a valid point “the studios always wanted not to have a layer of lightness, a layer of irony, sarcasm, satire.”

Adapting a straight faced adaptation of right wing sci fi allegory is hard work – watch Ender’s Game (2013) for further evidence. When viewing a fascist future through Verhoeven’s lens, it may be brutal, gory and sometimes scary, but hey, at least it’s fun.

  • MVP: There’s only one Michael Ironside!
  • Alternate Title: Sexy Space Nazis
  • Fun Fact: More ammunition was used in this film than in any previous movie.

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Your opinion guarantees citizenship!

  • What are your thoughts on Verhoven’s sci-fi films?
  • Do you love Michael Ironside as much as we do?
  • Let us know in the comments!

REVIEW: Air Force One (1997)

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RetroRamble’s George McGhee gives a more in depth look at Air Force One in terms of how it stacks up today.

No time to read the article?  Listen or Download the podcast episode here!

Following the success of Die Hard in 1988, Hollywood tried to recreate that high concept/ elevator pitch “It’s Die Hard in a …” which was pitched one man against the odds (usually of the international terrorist variety) in a confined environment.

Some were successful at copying the template but for every Under Siege there’s a Sudden Death.

Air Force One was one of the last from this phase, two years after Die Hard with a Vengeance, ironically ditching the confined one man army template it had created and one year after fellow air-bound thriller Executive Decision.

I realise there was a bit of resurgence recently with the competing Die Hard…In The White House with White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen – I haven’t seen either, so can’t comment.

So why pick Air Force One? Why does it work?

Well it’s  a combination of great casting, solid direction and some brassy patriotism. Sure, there’s been plenty of films about the POTUS, (real and fictional) but how many of them kill a man with their bare hands and are Harrison Ford?!

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The script has some very cheesy and simplified moments but Wolfgang Peterson is a competent director and he has form delivering tension in a confined space – check out the excellent U-Boat thriller, Das Boot for proof. The snappy script allows Peterson to open with a gripping marine mission, show and tell us what’s special about Air Force One, (the plane is capable of withstanding an action film), it’s passengers and the kind of President James Marshall is.  He’s bloody everything!  He knows everyone’s name, he’s a family man, a loving husband,he drinks beer and loves football. God bless America!

All this establishes the personal stakes at hand, which is the underlying concept – would a world leader sacrifice their political stance if their family and friends were under threat? An intriguing question, especially when the world leader in question can handle machine gun and fly a plane. This military background is neatly provided by a military general on hand in the control room, I like to call him, General Exposition.

Another reason this film holds up is it’s casting – what a support cast! Dean Stockwell (channeling Dick Dastardly) William H Macy at the start of his career and the always dependable Glenn Close the Vice President.

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Trivia: Glenn Close provided her own wig for the movie.

Close does the best she can, staring intensely at a conference phone for the duration of her screentime. It’s good to see a strong female role that isn’t cannon fodder or a damsel in distress – though she does get a bit stressed by the end of it.

Who’s getting Glenn sweaty? Blighty’s very own Gary Oldman, giving us more of  the unhinged menace he delivered in Leon, whilst chewing on a thick Russian accent.

Unfortunately the film slightly loses it’s way once Oldman is thrown off Ford’s plane and the plane changes it’s flightpath to borrow liberally from Top Gun and then Airport 77 before literally crashing into the sea, in a flurry of Playstation 2 level pixels.

Yes, it’s cheesy, unbelievable and gung-ho but Ford still sells in the emotional punch, you really believe this man would sacrifice his beliefs for his family. “I’ll do it, just don’t hurt my family!” Anyone else delivering that line would probably be laughable – except for Kevin Costner, who almost got the role before Ford.

Could this movie be made today? After September 11th? Not likely. With Donald Trump about to move into the Oval Office, it’s highly unlikely he’d be facing Russian terrorists – more likely some angry middle-class Americans…

MVP: Despite the strong cast, this is Ford’s movie.

ALTERNATE TITLE: Get Off My Plane!

FUN FACT: Donald Trump used the theme for his presidential campaign trail….and was politely told to stop using it by Jerry Goldsmith’s Estate.

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What’s your favourite Die Hard in a…. film?

Let us know in the comments!

George McGhee, Retro Ramble 2017

REVIEW: Face/Off (1997)

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Face/Off (1997) is a product of it’s time, a time when leading Hollywood actors could indulge in a big-budget, violent action film – or to be more blunt, back when a big studio would bankroll such a project.

No time to read the article? Listen or Download the podcast episode here!

Nowadays, every summer blockbuster is family friendly and the better bunch of action films like The Raid (2011) and John Wick (2014) rarely build significant cult reputations via home viewing, not box office.

The plot is a simple concept: top cop and criminal mastermind are forced live in each others shoes, literally, because they’ve swapped faces. Essentially it’s a body swap comedy like Freaky Friday (1976) but with lots of guns, doves and slo-mo.

It was the time of high concept for Hollywood, so it’s no surprise the script began development in 1990 with various stars attached along the way, including Schwarzenegger and Stallone.

Whilst there were in-demand names in front of the camera, there was also one behind it – Hong Kong action director, John Woo. Face/Off is Woo’s third Hollywood film, after Snake-punching, man-hunting Hard Target (1993), and nuke-chasing, stealth bomber thriller Broken Arrow (1996). Both are guilty pleasure B-Movies, whilst both deliver on the action fronts, they lack the character building and pacing of Woo’s HK classics, Hard Boiled (1992) and The Killer (1989).

Face/Off was a return to form for Woo, being a critical and box office smash – Empire gave it 5 stars, hailing it as “a strong claim on the title” on the best action movie ever made. It’s not hard to see what attracted Woo to the project, as it riffs on familiar themes found in his HK films – vengeance, undercover cops, opposing sides working together and honour amongst criminals. Woo injects it all with his trademark balletic action choreography – he’s the man responsible for making everyone dive through the air whilst firing two guns.

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The story is set up fairly quickly, FBI agent, Sean Archer (John Travolta) is chasing down arch-enemy and terrorist for hire, Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) because one, he’s a terrorist, and two, he killed Archer’s son, in the films prologue. After an explosive and expensive chase scene including planes, helicopters and a fleet of FBI vehicles, and a shoot out inside a hanger, Troy is kicked into the path of a jet engine and knocked into a coma – psst, typical.

Amongst the wreckage the FBI discover incredibly high detailed plans for a chemical bomb that Troy has planted somewhere in LA. For plot convenience, thankfully it’s a bomb with the longest countdown timer ever – something like 2 weeks. To uncover the whereabouts of this bomb, Sean Archer is sent undercover as Troy, by surgically swapping his face with the comatose Troy. But wait, besides their faces, don’t Cage and Travolta have different builds? Fear not, these top secret surgeons have lasers and shit.

So Archer becomes Troy, and is sent to prison to extract the bomb location from Castor’s brother, Pollux. Then Troy wakes up and after some trademark hysterics from Cage, he becomes Archer and assumes his life as FBI agent, father and husband to a teenage dream daughter and Joan Allen as his wife.

Don’t get me wrong, Joan Allen is a great  character actor, but I think she’s totally miscast as the wife that Troy (as Archer) lusts after. It’s  an interesting move on Woo’s behalf, wanting to cast someone talented, rather than eye candy.

Archer (as Troy) escapes super prison, and takes up Troy’s glamourous criminal life of crazy drugs (leading to some more classic Cage Crazy), guns and designer warehouse spaces. Following an impressive gunfight played out to the sounds of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, we quickly get the finale involving even more stand-offs, gun battles and an amazing boat chase, let down only momentarily by some shockingly obvious stuntmen sporting much more hair than either of the starring cast.

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Cage and Travlota facing off in err… Face/Off

Does it still hold up? Hmm, mostly. The leads are clearly having fun in their dual roles – Cage brings his trademark craziness as Troy in the opening scenes and genuine pathos as Archer – the scene where he reveals himself to his wife is a highlight. Part of me wishes he got to play the bad guy for longer. Meanwhile Travolta delivers some weary determination (i.e grumpy)  as Archer and then ranks up the ham/camp factor to eleven as Troy – whilst it’s fun to see him attempt to mimic Cage, it’s not a huge progression on his villain in Broken Arrow.

The script is little bit uneven – the prologue features Troy as a calm collected (and mustachioed) assassin, yet in the next scenes he’s a raving loon, head banging to gospel, groping anything in a skirt and ranting he doesn’t give a fuck – quite a character arc.

After the explosive opening, it feels like we’re in prison or with Archer’s grief stricken family for a long time before the bullets fly again- to allow for more character building maybe? However once the prison escape takes place, the film pretty much ramps it up to the finale.

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Would a police patrol boat really explode this much? Who cares!

Everyone, (except probably poor Joan Allen) seems to be having fun in this movie, whether it’s Alessandro Nivola as Troy’s brother Pollux, Nick Cassavetes’ charismatic arms dealer, Dietrich or Gina Gershon as Troy’s love interest, who isn’t afraid to hold her own with a semi-automatic. Yes, these people are murderers, scumbags, but hey, they’re fun to be around.

Whilst such an absurd premise (especially in a modern day setting), Woo tackles the film with gusto and his choice to use dramatic actors over established action stars (Con Air came out later that summer) works for the most part, attempting to add some depth to the craziness of it all.

Sadly, for Woo, this marks a career high for his Hollywood output, after this we were given the over-indulgent Mission Impossible 2 (2000) (though I class as a guilty pleasure), reuniting with Cage on WW2 actioner Windtalkers (2002) and the forgettable Paycheck (2003) – where Ben Affleck forgets stuff in the future. Woo’s since returned home, favouring historical epics over bullet ballets, however he’s kept his flair for stylish action – check out Red Cliff (2008), if you have time (beware, it’s a long one).

It’s a shame this type of film is a rarity these days but with one of 2016’s biggest surprise hits being the violent and foul mouthed Deadpool, maybe there’s hope for the return of the more adult blockbuster after all.

Like many of the films we focus on, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we get a remake in the next few years – but who would be cast as the leads?

Let us know in the comments.

MVP: Travolta (when played by Cage)

ALTERNATE TITLE: FaceSwap: The Movie

FUN FACT: In 1995 John Woo was asked to direct Goldeneye but politely turned it down to do Face/Off instead!

COULDA, SHOULDA: Originally developed to star (producer) Michael Douglas vs Harrison Ford.