Saturday, May 28, 2005

Review: Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold (1987)


Adventure hunter Allan Quatermain (Richard Chamberlain) and his fiance Jesse Huston (Sharon Stone) are packing to leave their home in Africa for the U.S. where they're planning to get married. Before they can get away one of Allan's adventurer friends comes crawling up the front walk half dead, with some guys who appear to be black members of the Ku Klux Klan in hot pursuit. Allan's pal is wounded and sick but he manages to grunt out a vague but ominous story about Allan's brother Robeson having found a legendary lost city of gold. Allan and Jesse decide they have to put off their wedding and try to find Robeson.

Allan recruits help for the expedition in the form of Umslopogaas (James Earl Jones) - a large and imposing African warrior who carries a giant axe. A gold-obsessed fakir named Swarma tags along as well. Together they trek - on foot - through about three climate zones. Eventually they end up in canoes (which I guess they must have whittled in their spare time), crossing some dangerous river rapids. They pass into an underground chamber filled with fire and rubber snake puppets, emerging right at the lost city of gold.

The city is inhabited primarily by what seems to be an unknown tribe of Swedish Africans (a bunch of blonde-haired white people). Sure enough, Robeson is there, gadding about in a white kaftan and having a grand old time. He tells Allan how the people there had an idyllic life until an evil "priest" named Agon showed up and started demanding human sacrifices, dipping people in molten gold, and just being a general pain in the ass.

Allan immediately starts making trouble for Agon, who tries unsuccessfully to kill Allan. After Allan starts an anti-human-sacrifice revolt among the city-of-goldites, Agon flees the scene and rounds up a bunch of really stupid guys to help him reassert his power. Agon and his army of idiots attack the city but Allan and his friends fight back. Molten gold gets poured on the bad guys. Allan and Jesse get kissy-face. The credits roll. The audience demands its money back.


Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold (hereafter to be referred to as AQatLCoG) is a follow-up to the 1985 film King Solomon's Mines. I have not seen King Solomon's Mines, but I am told on good authority that it sucks. It could not, however, suck anywhere near as much as AQatLCoG. You just can't believe how much this movie sucks. Even after you see it, you will still not believe it. "Is it as bad as Battlefield Earth?" you may ask. Well, maybe not, but it's close.

Where to begin... Let's start with the cast, shall we? Someone really should have told Richard Chamberlain that he was the star of this film. Half the time he doesn't seem to realize he's even in a movie. He comes across with about as much charisma as a bucket of potting soil, which can be a drawback for an action hero. The only emotion he ever displays is a sort of vague smugness. They could just as easily have filled some jodhpurs with Cream of Wheat and made that the star of the film, and nobody would have known the difference.

Anyone who thought Kate Capshaw was annoying in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (as I did) should pay close attention to Sharon Stone in AQatLCoG. She is, perhaps, the most insufferable female character to appear in any movie, ever. Most action-movie leading ladies show at least a few glimpses of bravery or initiative, but not her. She whines, screams, and whimpers through each scene suctioned to Richard Chamberlain's arm like a shrill blonde leech. Ten minutes in you're hoping she falls into a pit of cobras or something, but no such luck.

Another unbearable character in this film is Swarma, played with bug-eyed fervor by Richard Donner. Not only is Swarma insufferable as a character; he's also one of the most broadly played and offensive ethnic stereotypes in the film. That's saying a lot considering that this film is built almost entirely on ethnic stereotypes. The cobra pit would almost be too good for Swarma, but regrettably, he also makes it through the movie alive.

Poor James Earl Jones. He's made so many bad movies over the years, and he really deserves better. I guess it's tough making a living doing Athol Fugard plays, but man, when you look in his eyes in this movie you can feel his embarrassment. Admittedly, he's the only good thing in AQatLCoG, but it just hurts to watch him.

I would be pretty disappointed if I had walked halfway across Africa in search of a city of gold and it turned out to look like this one. It's not so much a "city of gold" - really it's more of a "fancy stucco apartment complex with some gold accents." Sure, there are a lot of gold knick knacks around the place and an unfinished basement with a pool of brown stuff that's supposed to be gold, but I'm guessing the whole "city of gold" moniker was just something the tourism bureau cooked up.

This is a movie that never feels like it has to explain anything, and I have to say I've got some questions about AQatLCoG. Why was Allan's explorer friend so desperate to give him the dire story about Robeson, when Robeson was just hanging out drinking banana daquiris with the blonde Africans? How is it that nobody in the rescue party seems to have a map, and yet they find the legendary city that's been lost for aeons in twenty minutes? What about the giant worm-snake monster things in the cave? And the mysterious underground pillar of fire? And the spear-proof shirts that save Allan's life about a dozen times? These are all points to annoy the inquisitive viewer, but the logic-defying climactic final battle takes the cake.

Let me just describe the battle scene, and you tell me if it makes sense. Agon and his henchmen are attacking the city. There is some thunder and lightning. Allan notices a huge gold dome at the top of the city's temple. He climbs up on the dome and gets Umslopogaas' axe. He starts beating on the dome with the axe. Blue special-effects lines start sparking off the dome, and the gold statues at the bottom of the dome start melting. The melted gold runs down all over the bad guys. Several minutes later when Allan is down in the temple fighting Agon, molten gold is still running off the dome in vast sheets. Agon backs into the gold waterfall and is killed. I won't go through all the things that are wrong with that scene, but suffice it to say that it really buried the needle on the WTF-ometer.

Final Analysis

AQatLCoG is the sort of film I love to hate. The plot is unapologetically moronic. The characters are so thin you could stack them all together and fit them in a manilla envelope. The special effects include rubber snake-monster hand-puppets and a scene in which our intrepid heroes are quite obviously replaced with tiny little action figures. I laughed; I cried; I moaned in mock anguish. Get out to your local video store and rent this film immediately.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Review: Death Wish 3 (1985)


Semi-retired vigilante Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) arrives in New York City to visit his old friend Charley, who has been having trouble with a neighborhood gang. Unfortunately, Paul walks into Charley's apartment to find the gang goons have beaten the poor guy into a pile of stroganoff. Even more unfortunately, the cops show up and arrest Paul for the murder. Down at the station the police chief recognizes Paul, probably having seen his exploits in previous Death Wish movies. Since the chief hasn't been having much luck dealing with the gang he decides to recruit Paul to help clean up the neighborhood. On his way out of the police station Paul encounters Kathryn, the attractive Public Defender and his soon-to-be love interest.

Paul moves into Charley's apartment and makes friends with the various elderly folks and ethnic stereotypes who live in the building. They tell him about the aforementioned gang that's been terrorizing them. The gang's leader is a bright young fellow named Fraker, who sports a reverse-mohawk and face paint. Paul helps the old folks set up some Wile E. Coyote-style traps to keep the creeps at bay and he sends for his "friend" Wildey (which turns out to be the largest handgun in the Western hemisphere.) He starts a slow but steady campaign of blowing holes in bad guys.

Kathryn tracks Paul down and inexplicably asks him on a date. They end up going out on a second date as well, but then Fraker and his pals knock her unconscious, put her in Paul's car, and push the car down a hill into oncoming traffic. Evidently Paul keeps dynamite in his trunk because the car instantly explodes and Kathryn is killed. This depresses Paul and he decides to ratchet up the revenge killing a few notches.

Fraker calls in reinforcements from the Thug Recruitment Center and soon dozens of mix-n-match hoodlums, bikers, punks, and lowlifes of every size, shape, and description are pouring into the neighborhood. With enthusiastic support from the fed-up local citizens, Paul sparks off an impressive pogrom against the gang. Scores of colorful extras are sent flying off rooftops and fire escapes to their deaths. Buildings explode. Paul blasts Fraker through a wall with a rocket launcher. The bad guys give up and run away, and with nobody left to kill, Paul wanders off to seek financing for another sequel.


I probably enjoyed Death Wish 3 a little more than I should have. It's got everything I love in an 80's action movie - a ridiculous plot, paper-thin characters, plenty of mindless violence, and a very American brand of optimism. It's no surprise it was produced by the same studio that brought us the Delta Force. Charles Bronson makes a very endearing vigilante. He seldom has more than one line of dialogue per scene, and it's obviously a minimal effort for him to play the Paul Kersey character yet again. I can't explain it, but even when Bronson is clearly phoning his acting in, it works. He seems very comfortable in his b-movie environment.

His adversary in this film is one of the least threatening action-movie villains I can think of. Obviously, the reverse-mohawk and the face paint don't help matters, but Fraker just doesn't come across as particularly scary. Mostly he just sits around in the decaying bunker where his gang is headquartered and makes vague, threatening phone calls. His facial expression just before Paul reduces him to a charred husk is a must-see.

There are some entertaining cameos in Death Wish 3. Martin Balsam plays a tough old guy who lives in Paul's building. He goes after the gang with a 50-caliber machine gun from World War II, but it jams up and he gets tossed over a railing. Alex Winter (who went on to play Bill to Keanu Reeves' Ted in the Bill and Ted's movies) makes what I think is his screen debut as one of the thugs. The strangest cameo is probably that of Marina Sirtis (Counsellor Troi from Star Trek: the Next Generation). She plays the female half of a couple from Paul's building. The hospital calls her husband to tell him that she's been attacked by the gang and has a broken arm. Paul and the husband rush to the hospital only to be told by a grim-looking doctor, "Mrs. Rodriguez has... expired." Huh? Is a broken arm frequently a fatal injury? Why not at least give her the dignity of a stab wound or something - how humiliating is it to die of a broken arm?

The riot at the end of the film is hilarious. The producers were too cheap to spring for squibs or even fake blood for the extras so when they get shot they just sort of flail around and fall down. A surprising number of them climb up onto rooftops only to be shot off like tin cans in a carnival game. The New York citizens display an alarming brutality when they take on the gang members, using guns, clubs, and even push-brooms to send the criminals to meet their maker.

One thing I don't quite understand Kathryn's approach to dating. She sees a guy about twice her age being let out of jail. Knowing nothing about him except that he was recently charged with murder, she goes to great lengths to track him down in the extremely dangerous neighborhood where he lives, and asks him to dinner. At her house. Is this wise? Does she often hang around the front of the police station scanning the newly released prisoners for possible dating prospects? Is this what women used to have to do before

While on her first date with Paul, Kathryn makes an impassioned speech which pretty much sums up the message of Death Wish 3. She says "Dammit, people have got to start to fight back - and HARD!" If we can extrapolate a little bit from the content of the rest of the film, the best way to "fight back" against crime is not through increased funding for police or reforming the judicial system. The best way is to grab a gun the size of a kosher salami and pop a cap in the ass of anyone vaguely resembling a criminal. I'm not sure it's the most practical tactic but you can't argue with the results in this movie.

Final Analysis

For those who like their action movies stupid, violent, and undemanding, Death Wish 3 is an excellent choice. It's a veritable buffet of bad-movie cliches. The dialogue is cheezy enough to be highly quotable and the violence is so cartoonish, it's funny. Highly recommended for fans of Charles Bronson and/or the reverse-mohawk.