I may only have blogged 13 entries in the Chain Reaction Film Club, but we’ve been going for long enough to reach 50 films. What, you’re thinking? Wasn’t the last film number 48?
Yes it was.
Aren’t I jumping the gun then?
To smash through the 50 film barrier we managed to link our way to a Paul Verhoeven triple bill at the Prince Charles Cinema in London’s fashionable West End. In honour of the milestone I’m ditching the usual format and going freeform.
Last time up we watched Traffic (2000). It was sort of like a rough draft of The Wire told in just 2 hours. Take the plunge and watch The Wire instead.
The late Miguel Ferrer played a grouchy drug lieutenant and provided our link to the first of the triple bill and film 49 of the CRFC:
I’m 36 years old. And this was my first time seeing RoboCop.
I know, I know, what the hell did I do with my youth? I’ve been pondering that, and I think I kind of bypassed the violent action film phase and went straight to the horror phase. I amassed a nice little collection of the former video-nasties as soon as I was able – the Evil Deads, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Re-animator et al. Over the years I’ve filled in some of the blanks, but there’s plenty I should have seen that I haven’t (and a lot I probably shouldn’t have seen that I have). So yes, RoboCop for the first time in my thirties. Just in case you’re worried, I studiously ignored the remake the other year, you’ll be pleased to learn.
First up, Miguel Ferrer was a joy. It’s odd but always feel slightly protective of our linking actors, like me combing through their filmography means we’ve bonded in some way. There’s often a part of me that thinks about putting the CRFC on hiatus while we work through someone’s whole filmography, taking in the good, the bad and the experimental to get a sense of the arc of a career. In Traffic, and most other things I know him from, Miguel had a downbeat, snarky, rumpled quality. By contrast he’s a ball of energy in Robocop, almost a Patrick Bateman kind of figure but having a lot more fun.
And the film? Well ED209 has not aged well. The model shots are painfully obvious. Otherwise, it was a hoot.
I have mixed feelings about seeing classic films at the Prince Charles. I don’t find the audiences tend to be particularly respectful of the films – there’s a lot of over the top, frequently inexplicable cackling (despite warnings against cackling beforehand) – which I found really annoying at a Labyrinth screening a while back. I got the sense though that I might have enjoyed RoboCop less if I’d seen it without an audience treating it like a comedy – I might have been tempted to take it more seriously. The humour is clearly there, just like it is in other satirical Verhoeven films (more on that later) but having it flagged up as acceptable to find it that funny really helped. Certainly young me wouldn’t have laughed as much. Jolly good fun all told, and I can see the influence it’s had – I saw Neil Blomkamp’s Chappie recently (god that sounds filthy), and there’s a clear debt owed.
The prime baddie in RoboCop was Ronny Cox as an almost moustache-twirling evil-man-in-suit type. Handily, he plays an almost moustache-twirling evil-man-in-suit type in the second of the triple bill and film number 50 of the Chain Reaction Film Club:
Total Recall (1990)
I very much have seen Total Recall before, though not for a number of years. I even started watching the remake because… I guess I must hate myself a little bit. So I remembered the main thrust of the plot, some eyeball popping and, sigh, the three-breasted woman.
The thing that struck me most on this rewatch, particularly coming hot on the heels of RoboCop, was the humour. Where RoboCop had satire at its base, Total Recall just has one liners. It’s like a Bond film, or your stereotypical Arnie film in that regard, and feels like a worse fit for Verhoeven. Arnie kills someone, says something not particularly funny. Rinse and repeat. It’s a formula that I find a bit dull – if you want to make a funny film, make a funny film. Add humour, not shit one liners that feel tonally out of place.
This is going to sound odd, but I find the last act really stressful, and not in the good way. When the air is turned off to the red light district I kind of find the whole thing a chore and want it all to be over. I don’t know why – maybe the instant atmosphere that saves everyone just feels too deus ex machina.
In RoboCop Peter Weller’s cop gets transferred to a new precinct and partners with a female cop who we first see kicking the hell out of a suspect. She then proves to be a resilient, feisty officer who can go toe to toe with the best of them.
Total Recall features two feisty women in notable roles who can also do a bit of the old violence. One is a sex worker, the other is being paid to pretend to be Arnie’s wife, including sleeping with him. Most of the other women in the film are sex workers. Hum.
Talking of feisty women though, it’s time for film number 51 and the final film of the triple bill. And they saved the best for last:
Starship Troopers (1997)
Ten years on from RoboCop, but in effects terms it seems like a century. Jesus it’s aged well. Shockingly well. There were a few shots of ships that looked a bit outliney but otherwise it’s golden. Michael Ironside is the link – he loses his arms in Total Recall, only has one arm in this and then loses his legs. He must love working with Paul Verhoeven.
With the satirical newsreel clips it felt like a direct successor to Robocop – so much so that it was a bit of a shame that Total Recall was sandwiched between them. Then there’s the role of women in this futuristic society – there’s a mixed gender sport team, relatively balanced gender in the military recruits, the head of the military (or Chief Sky Marshall) is a woman – towards the end at least. It’s particularly surprising because it’s such a traditional gung-ho masculine fantasy. It’s not all plain sailing, but makes for an interesting starting point.
The film works so well because the society is plainly flagged up as some kind of authoritarian regime – early on Johnny Rico’s father references being willing to take a punishment whipping in a public square, the tone of the news broadcasts is fascistic – and yet by the end I’m always whooping and cheering for the ‘good’ guys in their SS-style uniforms. It’s a masterpiece of manipulation that’s as funny as it is thrilling.
I saw it at the cinema when it came out and was utterly gobsmacked that it was a 15 (it was subsequently bumped up to an 18 on video release). There are body parts and mutilations and scooped out brains galore. These days I’m shocked by some of the stuff that gets a 12A certificate (the opening of X-Men Apocalypse is the most recent example I can think of) but this was the first film where I really considered the rating. Worked in my favour though – I was 16 so may have missed it at the cinema if the BBFC had been more strict in the first place.
So there we go. One night, three films and we’re over the half century. All this started with 90s actioner Chain Reaction, and here we are at 90s actioner Starship Troopers. The oldest film we’ve watched so far is Bonnie and Clyde from 1967, with the most recent being a couple from 2013. All have been British or American. Hopefully in the next few months we’ll get a bit further back (some of my favourite films are from the 40s, so I’ve certainly got nothing against going further back) and maybe even overseas. Standouts so far? Well The Fifth Element – but I’d already seen that. The Duellists, Day of the Jackal and Mud are some of my favourites. The Net and Renaissance Man by far the worst. You can see the full list here.
And Paul Verhoeven? I haven’t seen many of his other films – not even Basic Instinct or Showgirls. However this year’s Elle was phenomenal so if you missed it at the cinema I’d recommend checking it out when it’s on Netflix/DVD or whatnot.