Saturday, December 24, 2005

Review: Santa with Muscles (1996)


It's Christmastime in California, but health food tycoon Blake Thorne (Hulk Hogan) isn't giving much thought to Old Saint Nick (or Jesus, for that matter). He's busy creating ego-massaging packaging for his new line of products and inventing random motivational slogans called "Blake's Rules." What little spare time he has left is spent beating the living crap out of his chauffeur, personal chef, and butler (strictly for exercise purposes, of course), and playing paintball. It's a good life.

When one of Blake's paintball games goes wrong the California P.D. - under the command of dim-witted Officer Hinkley (Clint Howard) - come after him, and he leads the cops on the most thrilling high-speed chase since O.J.'s Bronco ride. Ditching his Hummer, Blake runs into a shopping mall and disguises himself as Santa Claus to avoid detection. His brilliant plan goes awry, however, when he tries to hide in a garbage chute. A janitor dumps several tons of mall trash on him, causing him to lose his grip and fall down the chute and into the basement.

Blake, suffering multiple contusions and severe head trauma, can't seem to remember who he is! Fortunately, a sleazy, scheming mall elf (secret heart of gold implied) named Lenny is hanging around by the trash chute. Lenny helps himself to Blake's wallet, and since the mall Santa didn't show up that day anyway he convinces Blake to head up to the food court and play the part of Father Christmas. Still in the heady initial throes of brain damage, Blake goes along with the idea.

Blake is a little confused at first, but soon he starts getting into his role as St. Nick and before you know it - BANG! - yuletide personality displacement! Meanwhile, on the outskirts of Santaland a couple of hoodlums are trying to steal the money jar for the "Save the Orphanage" fund. Our white-bearded hero springs into action and gives them a good old-fashioned Christmas ass-kicking. Upon seeing the orphanage sign Blake feels compelled to go there and help out. Having realized that this "Santa with muscles" is actually a millionaire amnesiac, Lenny tags along hoping to bilk some more cash out of him.

At the orphanage, Blake and Lenny meet the caretakers, Leslie and Clayton, and all three of the orphans. It seems that all the land in the neighborhood has been bought up by an evil germophobic millionaire named Ebner Frost (Ed Begley Jr.). Now Frost and his henchmen are trying to force Leslie and Clayton to sell out as well. Soon enough we discover the reason why: the entire area is sitting on a network of caves encrusted with energy-producing crystals! Blake gets into a fight with one of Frost's underlings and falls off the roof of the orphanage and into a trash truck. His second trash-related head injury causes him to lose consciousness, and when he wakes up he's back in his mansion with his memory restored.

Blake, accompanied by his butler, chef, and chauffeur, pile into the Hummer and head to the orphanage, where Frost and his men have taken over. On the way they pass Officer Hinkley, who spots the Hummer and gives chase. Blake is able to lose the police when one over-zealous officer shoots off a rocket launcher at him (!!) and accidentally blows up Hinkley's patrol car, reducing Hinkley to a charred, dim-witted husk.

Before the climactic finale, Clayton reveals that Blake himself was once a child in the orphanage, as was Ebner Frost (a fact which Blake apparently forgot even after his memory was restored). In fact, Blake and Frost were there at the same time and hated each other back then, too. Blake battles Frost in the magical crystal caves and, with a little help from Leslie, Lenny, and the orphans, he triumphs. The crystals explode, causing the orphanage to be sucked into another dimension, sort of like the house in the end of Poltergeist. Frost and his minions are arrested by the extra-crispy Officer Hinkley and forced to pick up trash by the side of the road. Calling on some heretofore unknown California law of eminent domain, Blake commandeers Frost's mansion and gives it to the orphans to live in. Ho, ho, ho!


I have to admit it - I love Christmas. The colored lights, the carols, the presents... I think there's supposed to be some sort of religious element, too. But nothing says "Christmas" to me like a good Hulk Hogan movie ("good," in this case, meaning "eye-poppingly, mind-numbingly, amnesia-causingly bad.") Santa With Muscles is the sort of Christmas movie that could make Jesus wish he'd never been born.

I remember quite well the wrestling craze of the early '80s - a huge cast of large, muscular characters body-slammed their way into our hearts: Andre the Giant, Junkyard Dog, the Iron Sheik, Rowdy Roddy Piper, "Macho Man" Randy Savage, Brutus "the Barber" Beefcake, and of course, Terry "Hulk" Hogan. The nation was gripped with Hulkamania - it was a happy time. As years went by, Hulk's career began to lose some of its luster. I don't know exactly when he decided to make the transition from pretending to wrestle to pretending to act, but it was a dark day for both the wrestling and film industries.

To describe Hulk's screen presence as "leaden" would be too charitable. He's more like an ingot cast from some of that super-dense material at the center of large planets. His gravitational pull is such that it sucks personality out of the other actors, creating a sort of charisma black hole. No actor sharing screen time with Hulk is safe from the effect, and believe me, his costars don't have any charisma to spare.

Santa With Muscles' cast is populated with a wide array of second- and third-tier actors from the large and small screen. Some are well-known, such as "Saturday Night Live" veteran Garrett Morris and minor cult favorite Clint Howard; others are just familiar enough to make you say, "hey - there's that woman from Star Trek 3," or, "isn't that the kid from that one t.v. show?" The most annoying of these lesser characters is probably Blake's sidekick Lenny, played by Don Stark. He comes across like a hyperactive mafioso ferret, which gets old really, really fast.

It's no wonder the world is going to hell if this is the kind of movie we're foisting on our children. Just because your film is aimed at kids doesn't mean you have a free pass to ignore things like logic, continuity, and coherency. Santa With Muscles isn't content to be merely sloppy, though - it ratchets up the stupidity until it makes no sense whatsoever. Not only do Leslie and Clayton feed the obviously disturbed guy who thinks he's Santa, they give him a room in the orphanage right amongst the children! Not only does one of the kids sew up Blake's torn Santa suit in one night, she alters it and sews him leather gauntlets to match! Not only are there ancient catacombs under the orphanage, Leslie lets the orphans use them as their clubhouse! A toddler could point out the problems with this script.

And what about these amazing crystals that store energy? The movie can't seem to decide if they're magical or real. There's some mumbo-jumbo early on about how the windows in the orphanage chapel glow when you sing, but the connection to the crystals is never explained. They try to make us believe these crystals actually exist by having one of the kids say "Oh - I read about these in my geology book!" Geology book? Written by who - Shirley MacLaine?!

In the end, though, my biggest complaint about Santa With Muscles is its lack of heart. A Christmas movie can be excused for many sins if it has heart - it's probably the most crucial element in these films. In Santa With Muscles, the rich jerk at the beginning of the movie is still a rich jerk at the end. Nobody has a change of heart, and nobody gets redeemed for anything. I thought the movie's ending was a fitting example of this problem. After the orphanage is destroyed I assumed Blake would take the orphans into his palatial estate, but no - he just steals Frost's house and gives that to the kids. That really warmed my soul, let me tell you.

Final Analysis

I'm sure that Santa With Muscles will eventually take its place among other holiday classics like It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and A Christmas Story. If you want the experience of watching Santa With Muscles but can't find it at your local video store, a close approximation can be obtained by watching one of those other Christmas films while sitting in a bucket of fire ants.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Review: Spacejacked (1997)


Sometime in the near-future a spaceship called the Star Princess is gliding from Earth toward the moon. The Star Princess is a luxury cruise ship which takes the extremely wealthy on pleasure trips, and this voyage is one such excursion. The passengers are all billionaires with the exception of Dawn, an administrative assistant who won her trip in a contest.

With the cruise underway, the guests are busy making use of the virtual reality couches, mood-altering drugs, and free booze. On the bridge, however, there seems to be a malfunction with the ship's life-pods. We soon learn that the malfunction is actually sabotage, perpetrated by the ship's second mate Barnes (Corbin Bernsen) and his android partner-in-crime Gibson. The two ne'er-do-wells kill the Captain, deploys all but one of the life-pods and cause an explosion that nearly destroys the ship (the size of the explosion having been a little bigger than Barnes intended.)

The surviving passengers in the ship's lounge include Dawn, first mate Taylor, the bartender, the cruise director, a seemingly mentally retarded android named Mac, and a handful of billionaires. Barnes appears to them on a monitor from the ship's bridge and demands bank account access codes from the rich folks, threatening to leave them there to die if they don't comply. He inexplicably gives them thirty minutes to "think it over" (which in movies always means "try to escape.")

Taylor hatches a plan to try to make his way to the bridge and send a distress signal. The explosion knocked out life-support for most of the ship, so Taylor sends Mac to retrieve a space suit for him. This almost works, but when Mac runs into an exposed and very live wire he fries his already questionable mental circuitry and goes wandering up to the bridge himself. Barnes shoves him into the airlock and jettisons him into space.

When the allotted thirty minutes have elapsed Barnes has Gibson bring one of the billionaires to the bridge. Barnes forces the bank code out of him and then guns him down, not bothering to confirm that it was the correct code first. It isn't, of course, so Barnes is forced to use a code-cracking computer program instead. Meanwhile, Taylor and Dawn find another way to the space-suits and make their way toward the bridge. Knowing that the life-pod can only hold seven of the eight "good" people on the ship, Taylor sends Dawn back to gather the other passengers and lead them to the pod while he continues to the bridge to make another attempt at sending a distress signal. Barnes, aware that Taylor and Dawn are up to something, sends Gibson to kill them.

Taylor sneaks onto the bridge through an air duct and jumps on Barnes. During their fight a stray shot from Barnes' ray-gun hits a pipe and black smoke comes out. Taylor wisely zips up his space-suit but Barnes is unprotected and the smoke causes him to choke. He dies in seconds, frozen in a goofy position for all eternity. Gibson finds Dawn and nearly strangles her, but she sticks some C-4 on him and blows him through a wall. She collects the other passengers and they head for the life-pod. On the way the bartender is pointlessly killed, opening up a slot in the pod for Taylor.

Dawn, somewhat unwisely, sets the life-pod to launch in five minutes and then rushes to the bridge to get Taylor. She and Taylor don't quite make it back in time and they're left behind on the ship, which is slowly losing life-support. Fortunately (I guess), Mac the android shows up just in time with a rescue party and saves them. Hooray.


According to the Theory of Special Relativity, a person traveling very quickly through space may experience a peculiar phenomenon known as "time dilation." The idea is that if you move fast enough you will experience time differently from someone at a fixed point. For example, if you left Earth on a spaceship traveling at 99% the speed of light, and continued at that speed for 86 minutes, back on Earth 602 minutes would have elapsed (because time is distorted by a factor of seven at that speed.) Coincidentally, watching Spacejacked can also make 86 minutes stretch to what seems like 602.

Seriously, this movie hurt me in a deep and profound way. In trying to write the synopsis I had to stop to question my memory several times - so many things just didn't add up. Was I remembering incorrectly? I consulted with my wife (who endured this pile of space-crap with me), but our questions only served to confuse us further. With all apologies to any hardcore Spacejacked fans out there, I did the best I could with it. Actually, I think my summary might make more sense than the movie did.

Spacejacked is a film which lacks any redeeming qualities whatsoever. Terrible acting, cheap production, bad effects, incomprehensible script - I really can't think of a single nice thing to say about it. Well, it had a couple of sex scenes for those desperate for a peek at some boobs, but that's it. And if I were those boobs, I'd feel very wasted on this movie.

Of its myriad offenses, its plot is perhaps Spacejacked's weakest point. The general concept is pretty generic - that much I could forgive - but as the story unfolds there are so many inconsistencies and unanswered questions that you're left feeling completely bamboozled. How, for instance, can a ship as seemingly massive as the Star Princess get by with no support staff? Why does Gibson plant C-4 all over the ship and nearly blow it to kingdom come before the plan is even underway? Why does Barnes need to hold the billionaires hostage when he has a computer program that will crack their bank account codes? What is the mysterious black smoke that comes out of the pipe and causes Barnes to freeze like a statue? Why does Dawn have to set the timer on the life-pod for five minutes? I'm sorry - I shouldn't burden you with these questions. I brought this on myself.

Another fatal flaw in Spacejacked is the performance of Corbin Bernsen. Before seeing this film I had a reasonably positive impression of the man, but his portrayal of Barnes is so unbearable that I found myself gritting my teeth each time he came on-screen. When he's not bellowing like an enraged gorilla or tormenting his space-captives he's throwing petulant tantrums and berating his android. I don't know if he smoked a bad batch of crystal meth or what, but his behavior is so psychotic that I really started to pity his costars (and myself) for having to endure him.

While I was gratified to finally see a movie where the androids weren't played by Frank Zagarino, the two androids in Spacejacked made me almost wistful for his beefy, stoic performances. Gibson and Mac are both so feckless that you wouldn't trust them to fix your refrigerator, much less operate a spaceship. Gibson is spastic and unpredictable; Mac seems sort of like the android equivalent of that guy from Sling Blade. If this is the future of human simulacra, I think I'll take a pass.

The one thing about Spacejacked that truly sets it apart from other films of its ilk is its soundtrack. I hesitate to use the term "score" because I'm afraid it would give it too much credit, but I think I can say without reservation that Spacejacked has the most inappropriate music in film history. It almost (ALMOST) makes the movie worth watching - I laughed out loud several times at the unbelievable disconnect between the music and the action. What best suits a tense, dramatic scene? A three-minute bongo drum solo, of course. How about a jolly, lilting clarinet tune to go with your action-packed fight scene? If you told me that the entire soundtrack was lifted directly from an unreleased feature-length episode of "Scooby-Doo," I wouldn't doubt you for a second.

Final Analysis

Despite the entertainment value of its soundtrack, Spacejacked was truly a painful movie experience. It starts with a tired and overused premise and then makes it almost unintelligible through bad screenwriting, directing, and acting. It's bad, and not a good kind of bad. This little mission never should have made it off the launch pad.