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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

June Bugs: Stung (2015)


Written by Adam Aresty
Directed by Benni Diez

Matt O'Leary:  Paul
Jessica Cook:  Julia
Lance Henriksen:  Mayor Caruthers
Clifton Collins Jr.:  Sydney Perch

My friend Bryan, who runs the totally sweet website Cinemasochist Apocalypse, watches and reviews killer insect movies as the summer heats up in his "June Bugs" event. And, well, if you do something twice it's a tradition. That means June Bugs is a tradition here at Checkpoint Telstar as well. Bryan himself recommended today's feature to me, which means I'm about to find out how mad he was that I gave him eight copies of the same book as an elaborate practical joke at B Fest a while back. Giant mutant wasps count as "bugs" for the purposes of June Bugs, so that's all right. Time to light this candle and actually get something watched and wroted up for the Checkpoint.

The film starts with a sweeping helicopter (or drone) shot of a forest in the autumn; some of the leaves are changing and some of the trees are bare. A CGI bee drones along in front of the camera until a wasp body-tackles it out of the sky and stabs it with its stinger. Let's give credit to the filmmakers; it's less than a minute into the film, including production company logos, and something got stung. This won't be one of those movies where promises are made but never kept.

The credits roll over shots of the bee's bodily fluids getting saturated with venom, going from yellow to cloudy white. Then clouds of red take over from the white, and bubbles of dark green and yellow suffuse the screen to take over from the red liquids. I don't know what exactly it's all supposed to be depicting, but it sure looks ominous. And slimy, when the wasp stinger pulls out of (or bursts out of) the bee's body. Hooray for nasty-looking things I haven't seen before in a movie!

The first line of dialogue spoken in the film is "Fuck!", shouted by the driver of the Country Catering truck as it barrels down a series of tiny one and two lane country roads. Paul is the driver, and goes into a sadistically long monologue about getting car sick and throwing up in reaction to seeing Julia (the serious one, cause she's wearing glasses) working on a checklist for their upcoming catering job. The bumpiness of the road leads Julia to spill her totally not Starbucks coffee on herself, which means she has to take off her hoodie and change into another shirt, which distracts Paul enough that he almost hits a couple guys trimming trees by the side of the road--and who will almost certainly be added to the Expendable Meat roster when it's time for people to get wasped up real good.

Julia motormouths for a while about how she's worried the business is going to fail which will make her a failure (and a deadbeat, because she can't pay Paul--although I understand borrowing from Peter works in that situation). Paul tries to be reassuring but is constantly distracted by having to drive the van as well as trying to sneak a look at his boss's tits while she changes clothes. Paul also asks if his boss smokes weed, which means it's probably his van if he's talking about drug use on the clock.

Generic rock chords fill the soundtrack as Paul pulls the van up to a huge and run-down remote mansion. Julia confiscates his cell phone so he can't fuck around while he's supposed to be working and Paul surrenders it with poor grace. He better be a fantastic cook if he's this much of an asshole. Julia reminds him not to drop stuff as he's unloading the van and makes another reference to her firm's economic instability this year. Monster movies always take on at least something of the tenor of their times (radiation causes monsters in the Fifties; pollution took over two decades later) but I don't know how the economy getting rocket-fucked by Goldman Sachs is going to result in giant wasp monsters showing up in this one.

Paul, attired in a business-casual ensemble with a red vest now that he's on the clock, gets stuck setting up folding chairs and tables out on the mansion's lawn (and utterly fails to win the Mister Logistics Person Seal of Approval for how much extra effort he's putting into things by trying to get it done quickly). He meets Larry the piano player who noodles his way through a royalties-free assortment of organ chords while a bee flutters around in the foreground. Inside the mansion, Julia helps an unnamed kitchen worker chop onions. Some conversation in the kitchen leads the audience to realize that Julia's father used to own the business and recently died. Julia's just trying to keep things together for the sake of her peace of mind as well as her finances.

Paul gets his shit together sufficiently to put tablecloths on everything and starts juggling Sterno cans (I can see the Sterno being used as a bug killer in the third act, but dare I even hope this movie actually will weaponize his mad first-act juggling skills?). Flora the kitchen lady says that Paul likes Julia, who reacts with a completely understandable "Yeah...no." She also says she'd rather jump off a cliff than get involved with her van driver / table setup guy, which makes me assume that the pair of them will be jumping off a cliff to get away from wasps by the climax of the film. Look, the dialogue in these things only really exists to set up things that will pay off later, okay? Think of the "You won't make a dummy out of me" line from John Vernon in Killer Klowns from Outer Space. That's how this stuff works.

Sydney Perch, a hunchbacked mama's boy played by a totally unrecognizable Clifton Collins, Jr., introduces himself to Paul during the tail end of the setup for the garden party, and asks that his private booze supply not be handed out to the hoi polloi who will come (from where? It was a 400 mile long empty one-lane road to get to the mansion...) and drink all the open-bar they can guzzle down. Paul promises to look after his stash. He demonstrates a little bit of self-control by turning down the offer of a beer with Sydney because he's on duty and while neither man notices, yappy poodle Percy is digging a hole in the lawn that a bee vacates with a quickness. I thought they built hives in trees, but my real knowledge of the apiaric arts is that the Honeycombs had a #1 hit in the UK with "Have I the Right?". Anyway, whatever's immediately underneath that hole on the lawn is making ominous rumbling noises but it's way too early in the film to get a good look at whatever's making it.

On the lawn, Paul manages not to drop a tray full of glasses when a huge (and pretty nice CGI, at least on my monitor) stinger-toting insect buzzes past his head. He smashes one of the glasses when he tries to go Full Khrushchev on it with his shoe, and warns Julia about the local wildlife when she drops off the ice pick that he left in the van. Paul's demonstrating more responsibility than I honestly expected when he tells his boss to watch out for the wasps because they're huge and terrifying--and also wonders if Sydney is allergic to them, and asks her to warn the guy while he's moving the van (and changing into a spare pair pants that Julia brought since he tore his flailing around when the wasp showed up).

The spare pants look to be about four inches too loose in the waistband for Paul, which means he's probably going to demonstrate utter dignity later on in the film. And he goes poking around in the greenhouse behind the mansion, because that's what happens in films like this. It gets established that the man who owns the place is a pharmaceutical company executive around this time, by the way, so if he was using his own living space as a dumping ground for unsuccessful antidepressants or failed boner pills that could be what makes the bugs get big. I mean, you need SOME kind of a reason for it and that's as good as any. The ominous rustling noise in the undergrowth turns out to be Percy the dog; while giving a good-natured but vulgar rebuke to Percy, Paul gets overheard by Ms. Perch, an elderly widow who macks on him a little bit before a honking car horn signals that it's time for Paul to go back and serve alcohol to the guests. He's pretty good at schmoozing with the customers and very good at judging how much liquor someone wants, so it might just be that his real skills are undermarketed.

Lance Henriksen walks up to the bar and announces that the party needs an autopsy while Julia and Paul are talking about how well things are going so far. He does say the appetizers are delicious and that he's going to need a caterer for his upcoming mayoral re-election party, so it's a real networking opportunity. Night falls while more ominous flapping and buzzing noises become more apparent and one of the bugs snags an entire "little piggy thing" out of the mayor's hand (done entirely through the power a dubbed-in sound effect and of Lance Henriksen looking at his empty hand and seeming surprised and put out).

Well, it's been twenty minutes and the monsters have become more and more apparent (including one that gets smashed into a disgusting gooey mess by Paul). And when the piano player stops by to offer to split a jay with Paul they sneak off behind a convenient tree to light up. Oh, that's probably going to be the signal for the second act to start (although not before Paul appears at Julia's side while she's taking over the bar and a creepy late-middle-aged dude makes eyes at her while she pours him a drink). Julia's got just enough time to bust on Paul for not sharing his weed when Sydney stands up to make a speech and thank everyone for coming by to have another garden party--the first after his father passed away (what is it with this film and dead dads?).

The speech tapers off and Sydney smashes one of the bugs against his own shoulder, but before he can realize something's gotten bug guts all over his sweater vest a partygoer starts gagging and choking. Paul turns out to know more than a little first aid, but the convulsing, hideously blistered man spasms uncontrollably, just as thousands of those huge creepy evil wasps burst out of that hole in the lawn. We get that stinger-near-an-eyeball image from the poster (someone's trophy wife) but she smashes the bug before it can attack her. The first on-screen stinging victim is the creepy dude that liked the way Julia held a booze bottle; try not to be creepy towards anyone if you're in a horror movie. You'll last longer.

Turns out that the wasp monsters inject an impossibly fast-growing giant bug monster that bursts out of its hosts' living bodies. That's not a good sign at all, and I find myself wondering how anyone in the cast is going to live through the attack if a single sting means getting parasitized and then torn apart. Also:  Points to Paul for whipping a tablecloth over his and Julia's heads while they run for the mansion. They get taken away when he drops the van keys on the lawn while panicking over the Tyranid that just split a trophy wife in half escaping from her thorax. The surviving party attendees (Lance Henriksen among them, thank goodness) hole up in the mansion's kitchen to compare notes about what's happening. Sydney confirms that nobody's going to get cell reception in the mansion and also turns out not to have dialed 911 to get help because he didn't think anyone would believe him. Which, to be fair, they wouldn't. (Why not just say there's a fire, or a shooting? That would summon lots of cars with flashing lights, especially if the mayor of Wherevertown is one of the people threatened by the situation...)

The survivors (Paul, Julia, Sydney, his mom, Mayor Carruthers, and Flora) take stock of the situation--some more than others--and Sydney shows Paul and Julia to the phone in the office just in time for a dying sting victim outside to drive into a telephone pole and cut the mansion off from the outside. Larry the piano player miraculously escaped getting stung only to get double-teamed by a pair of giant wasps in a scene to horrific and budgetarily intensive to actually depict. I'm a little worried, though; there's fifty-five minutes of movie left and we've got the cast whittled down to six sitting in a room. Here's hoping that the pacing for the remaining percent of the film doesn't ruin the good will that a cool premise, engaging actors, and nicely goopy practical effects and bug puppets have built up so far.

Paul turns out to be the only one who's got it together enough to plan things through and try to keep the people in the house alive; eventually, a whispered conversation arrives at a plan:  Everyone's going to hide in the basement, which will be easier to seal off than anywhere else in the house. Sydney is about to unlock the basement door when a scream rings out from the kitchen; Paul and Julia run back to see what's going on. Sydney follows reluctantly and they discover that his mother was stung; the bug monster escaping from her injured Flora and literally explodes out of Ms. Perch (and winds up wearing her necklace, in a ghoulish sight gag). Time to go to the basement, minus Flora once she gets stabbed through the kitchen door (and her skull) by the monster. Now we're down to four people in the house with one monster inside and several dozen outdoors. Great news.

According to Sydney, the basement door is "up to fire code standards", so the creatures won't be able to break through it. On the debit column, however, there's no way to communicate with the outside world and Julia dropped her wine bottle opener in the panic so there's no way for Mayor Caruthers to start work on the Perch wine cellar while they try to figure out what to do next. (And the ever-resourceful Paul has a bartender's trick to loosen the cork without breaking the bottle by putting the bottle in a shoe and whacking the base of the bottle against the wall, so at least if Lance Henriksen's character is going to die, he won't be sober when it happens.)

While Paul and the mayor work on that bottle of wine, Julia and Sydney talk for a while; turns out those "good times" that Sydney mentioned in his toast before everything went awful never existed. Both parents hated him in their own way for being physically malformed, and after Julia walks away to give him a little privacy he starts itching at his shoulder while the "bug skittering" sound effect plays. Maybe he knocked a stinger into his skin while killing the bug that landed on him?

Percy's off starting to turn into the threat for the end of the film, so the mayor, Paul and Julia talk for a little while over that wine bottle. For what it's worth, Caruthers thinks that Paul really showed intiative and True Grit while saving everyone's lives (and we learn that Paul was a lifeguard at a swimming pool but has his belief in an ordered universe shattered when a kid he saved from drowning died of pneumonia contracted from the water in his lungs).

While Paul and Julia talk about what they'd do with the hypothetical overtime they're going to make off this job (I don't think driving to Hawaii is a very realistic goal, Paul) Sydney sneaks off to look at himself in a mirror--that scratch on his shoulder is huge, pulsing, and something's moving underneath it. Sorry, man, you got dealt a series of raw deals by life. But it turns out that the poor bastard knows more about what's going on than anyone could have reasonably expected--he says the incredibly illegal fertilizer he mixed up for his mom to use in her greenhouse mutated the bugs. Also, nice tip of the hat to The Return of the Living Dead on the fertilizer jugs, filmmakers--I definitely saw the word "Trioxin" on the label. And I no longer feel that bad that Sydney's going to get hollowed out by a giant wasp and tear him apart. I don't care how shitty your childhood was, putting Trioxin in your Weed 'N' Feed is asking for exactly the kind of trouble you're in. For that matter, winking at Dan O'Bannon's masterpiece of comic dread shows what the filmmakers were shooting for here. There's moments of emotional truth mixed in with the jokes and carnage, and Sydney himself serves the same storytelling focus that Freddie did in the 1985 film.

Before Julia and Paul can kick the shit out of Sydney for dooming everyone, the lights go out. Mayor Caruthers' dialogue is a hat tip to his own best film, where he wonders how a bunch of animals could cut the power to the house. The backup generator kicks in so the lights come back on and the group decides to make a run for it in the catering van. Which is right when Paul realizes he lost the keys and needs to go outside to "retrace his steps" and get them back. He also says he's the only one who goes outside, at least partially because he doesn't want to be responsible for anyone else's safety.

Paul leaves through a pair of windows in the basement and goes to look for the keys on the lawn, trying not to make any noise or otherwise attract the wasps. He runs around like a clod and hides while a rather nicely done scene shows a group of the giant wasps on the roof of the mansion building a nest (I think). Inevitably, he fishes the ice pick out of the cooler; at least he isn't completely unarmed at this point. I should praise the filmmakers here, by the way. They've changed tones from a workplace comedy to a grossout monster attack movie to a siege horror film, and now we've got Paul on his own trying to do the right thing and demonstrating more maturity than he did before.

While Julia waits at the window for Paul and Sydney scratches at the slowly growing mass on his shoulder, the mayor says he wants to try out that shoe trick and open another bottle of wine. He doesn't actually get to the wine rack before realizing that something's wrong with Sydney, and the scenes of him and Julia in the cellar are intercut with Paul on the lawn as he eventually finds the keys and sees Percy. Like all humans in movies like this, he tries to rescue the dog, and it turns out that yappy little poodles can carry a wasp monster host just like a person can. Paul manages to drop the ice pick when the monster jumps him, but manages to pick it back up and murder the creature before it can sting him. His triumph lasts about a third of a second before he hears Julia and the mayor screaming for help in the basement as the passenger Sydney was carrying in his hunch breaks out.

Paul dives back into the basement (shattering the window) and clocks Percy--who is the only person not to die instantly when the bug monster breaks out of his body, for some reason as well as the only one not to instantly get a giant wasp monster to burst out of his torso after being stung--with a shovel. Then, just to be sure, he and Caruthers knock a shelf full of stuff over on his prone body. The commotion attracts the notice of the wasp monsters that were up on the roof of the house and they start to move in on the survivors. Thankfully Paul didn't manage to drop the keys again on his way back to the basement. Also I did like the conversation between Julia and Paul before they went to make a break for it ("Is it safe out there?" "No."). They've got to try and get to the van anyway, so it's time to make some selections from the Improvised Weapons Catalog (they went with a fire extinguisher, a can of bug spray and a shovel) and sneak through the house, which now has wasp-monster secreted resin all over the interiors as the creatures have started building a nest.

The nest material means that getting out of the mansion isn't simple or straightforward any more; each room has to be navigated carefully and quietly by all three people. Partway through their escape a monster skitters by a big round hole in one of the interior walls and it's time for the trio to hide and be silent while the wasp thing turns on a radio by accident. Once the monster smashes the radio and flaps off to do monster errands the protagonists continue sneaking through the house in a sequence that stops being suspenseful and starts just becoming overlong and dull. They make it to the front door and find that the wasp resin is too hard to break so they're still stuck in the house.

Caruthers must have made a little too much noise because he gets ankle-grabbed through the door he was trying to open and dragged off to be eaten; the monster that got him bites through the fire extinguisher that the group brought along and gets stunned when it blows up. Paul and Julia manage to get away at least for the moment and barricade themselves inside another room (and hide under a table, perhaps in a nod to ducking and covering to survive an atomic blast). Julia and Paul stave off panic by admitting that nobody's going to hire Country Caterers after the events of the last few hours and it's time to explore different career paths. The conversation comes to an end when a monster breaks through the door and the top of the table--and it's nicely blocked, because neither of the remaining characters can see what's going on from the way they're sitting. Paul flips the table over and pins the monster down while Julia gets the Chair Leg of Truth and destroys the creature's head.

The victory is short-lived, though, with more of the monsters breaking through the ceiling and it's time to run through the house in another "suspenseful" scene that goes on a bit too long again. The pair wind up at a hole to the outside of the house and it's daylight again, so I guess they were hiding under the table for several hours. They stand around just outside the house without looking up so when a bunch of bloody skin and flesh land on the ground next to them that's the first clue that a giant bug is clinging to the wall of the mansion right above them. They run, but the monster's faster and can move in three dimensions easily, so it gets behind Paul and lifts him off the ground with a stinger through the shoulder (though he doesn't seem to get a dose of venom). Julia stabs the Christ out of the monster's tail with the trusty ice pick and severs it; the bug slaps her a dozen yards through the air in retaliation. Paul blacks out and the movie's point of view shifts to Julia as she wakes up on the lawn.

Our stalwart heroine crawls off to look for the van and gets a good look at the exterior of the mansion, which is now covered in wasp nest material. She leans into a corner of some conveniently sheltering brickwork and has a good cry (speaking for myself, I'd have been busy shitting my pants and bursting into tears much earlier in the day). She hears Paul screaming in pain and decides to go back to the house. What the viewer finds out and she doesn't is that Sydney and the bug head peeking out of his shoulder hump are both still alive. They've got Paul immobilized in the central chamber of the hive and Sydney says he's got to be strong and healthy for whatever the next phase of Operation: A Whole Bunch of Wasp Monsters Are In the Mansion is going to be.

As you probably guessed, there's a queen wasp monster to go with all the warrior ones that were bursting out of the party guests earlier. It's busy producing a bunch of larvae and Sydney picks one up, intending to cram it down Paul's throat so he can be the "new Daddy" in the family. If we can trust what Sydney's saying about the wasp queen, it's the one that grew inside of his own mother and he's still a devoted son so he's trying to take care of her like a good boy. Paul's seconds away from trying to swallow a ten pound wasp maggot whole when Julia cuts through Sydney's body with a hedge trimmer and Paul's smart enough to take the larva hostage as they get out of the central chamber. Sydney gets taken out for good by the wasp queen while Paul and Julia run for the kitchen. Julia pops the gas line off the wall and drops the larva down on a pile of Sterno cans, then lights one more more in the van and chucks it into the kitchen. Turns out one of the monsters busts out a Wilhelm scream as the explosion and flames hit it. Julia and Paul drive off down the creepy country road but it's a horror movie so things aren't quite done yet.

The filmmakers saved the crappiest effect in the film for last. Hooray? The flaming CGI wasp monster that attacks the catering van looks like it belongs in a SyFy Original movie, but nothing else in the this film did. I'm guessing they effects company either never had a good render of fire or ran out of time trying to make it work with the wasp models they already had. That's really too bad, because there weren't any really clunky gags in the movie up until now, either CG or practical. The fire bug just doesn't know when to die and jump on the van a second time after falling down in the road and it doesn't look any better the second or third time. Or through the windshield. Paul finally takes it out by punching the monster in the face and driving into a tree while it's busy trying to eat his hand (Julia is given the option of getting out of the van but won't leave her friend, which is actually kind of touching).

Paul wakes up first and tries to see if Julia's all right. After two perfectly good endings we're supposed to believe that in this third one she didn't make it, but of course she's still alive. And the cavalry (or at least an ambulance and a fire department car) get to the crash scene to take care of the pair of survivors while more royalty-free music (this time a guitar duet) wafts across the soundtrack. At long last the two protagonists kiss, which probably feels like rubbing wounds together in the back of the ambulance. But the prerequisite "it isn't over" ending needs to roll, so the last thing we see are a bunch of wasp monsters that incubated inside cattle zooming towards the screen.

How would I rate this one? Ehh-plus. It's got enough good going on in the first 60 percent of the film or so that I can't dog on it too badly but it seriously loses its focus in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth acts. The effects--other than that dogshit looking bug-on-fire--range from capable to amazing and all the performances work out pretty nicely. I'm happy to see Lance Henriksen in anything, so the movie gets some good will from me on that score as well. But overall it's just another monster flick that goes along like lots of other monster flicks. I'm not sorry I watched it and I'm definitely looking forward to the next thing from this writer or director, but you need more than just a hybrid of Party Down and Alien to make your killer insect movie into something really special.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Time Bandits (1981)




Written by Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam
Directed by Terry Gilliam

Craig Warnock:  Kevin

David Rappaport:  Randall
Kenny Baker:  Fidgit
Malcolm Dixon:  Strutter
Mike Edmonds:  Og
Jack Purvis:  Wally
Tiny Ross:  Vermin

Sir Ralph Richardson:  Supreme Being
David Warner:  Evil

John Cleese:  Robin Hood
Sean Connery:  King Agamemnon
Ian Holm:  Napoleon

Michael Palin and Shelly Duvall as recurring characters named Vincent and Pansy

It's time for the Celluloid Zeroes to talk about whackadoo children's movies, and additionally about movies that can be put on the "How I Got This Way" checklist as either signposts for nerd parents that want their kids to grow up with an appreciation for the finer things in cinema, or as biohazard signs warning people to keep their children 150 yards from these movies at all times.

Watching this movie made me the only David Warner fan in DuPage County with an age in the single digits, so I'll let you decide for yourself what kind of signpost should be up about this flick.

When I was six years old, the family went to see a movie featuring some actors my parents probably heard of but I, of course, didn't know who John Cleese or Sean Connery were (it's at least possible that I may have known that Kenny Baker was the performer inside the R2-D2 shell in the Star Wars movies in 1981, but odds are I learned that later on). I have no idea what Mom and Dad were expecting but I got a movie that was hilarious and terrifying, often at the same time. And it also made no real attempt to define anything as fictitious--when God (excuse me, the "Supreme Being") and Napoleon are characters in your movie and both are treated exactly the same by the cinematography (as well as Robin Hood, the Devil, a 600 foot tall giant, cowboys and knights in shining armor)...well, that's a lot for a first-grader to absorb.

I remember wanting to see that movie again the minute it was over, and getting my first taste of what it means to be in the cult for a movie when other kids at school who saw the movie thought it was stupid and that I was wrong for liking it. Terry Gilliam, of course, went on to direct milestones of science fiction cinema like 12 Monkeys and Brazil, so it looks like I was right all along. Or at least it looks like a focus group made up of randomly selected six and seven year olds in the brass buckle of the Bible belt might not be the best ones to judge the quality of a movie. Or it could be that even when I was too young to know for sure that Godzilla wasn't real, I was still a complete mark for a director whose vision was as bent and idiosyncratic as Terry Gilliam's.

(I am not 100% sure that Godzilla isn't real now, and I'm 41 as of this writing.)

The first image that the viewer sees is a map of the universe with alchemical symbols and writing that looks like it might be Sanskrit or Enochian; various dotted lines connect rings of symbols on a field of deep blue as the camera falls into the map. It's a three-dimensional depiction, with some of the circles moving faster than others and suddenly a grid of bright white squares slams over the navigational chart, stopping the motion of the camera and the title comes up with one letter inside some of the individual squares. Looking at it now, I think a couple of things:  One, it's like seeing a rational framework imposed on the sequence's chaotic and mystical look at the world, in some ways prefiguring Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle; two, this movie gets to its opening titles almost as fast as RoboCop.

The view plunges down through the cosmos to Earth, and then to a suburban neighborhood in England where a mother and father boredly watch television while their ten-year-old-or-so son Kevin reads a book (and is facing away from the idiot box as he reads, which is a bit of staging that is almost certainly intentional). There's a "kitchen centerette" advert playing that promises a full meal from frozen block of ice to piping hot delicious meal in fifteen seconds. Kevin's much more interested with his history book (admittedly, one pitched to a grade-school readership) with its lists of combat skills needed by ancient Greek warriors. His father isn't paying attention in the least to his excited declarations of all the different ways hoplites could wreck the shit out of their opponents, and sends his son off to bed when his digital watch beeps out an alarm.

It may not surprise readers of this blog that Kevin stays awake in his room reading past his bedtime (an experience that I was familiar with, even at age six) but nobody watching the movie or reading this review has ever had a knight in full armor charge out of his clothes wardrobe on horseback. Probably. The horse leaps over Kevin's bed and charges away into a forest that wasn't there seconds ago (where a bedroom wall should ordinarily be expected to stand) and the air is filled with some kind of unearthly shriek. Kevin dives under his covers and when he's brave enough to take another look around his bedroom is in perfect condition again (it's a mess, but not a mess sitting in the middle of a forest and the wardrobe doesn't have a gigantic burst-out hole in it).

Well, that gets Kevin's father's attention, sure enough ("What the hell is going on up here?"). He demands that Kevin stop making noise, turn his light out and go to bed. Which is actually pretty reasonable as well as proof that Kevin didn't dream whatever it was that just happened (and now that I'm looking at this with more hindsight than I did in the theater--a wardrobe that's a portal to magical adventures? Looks like this is going to be Terry Gilliam's Narnia film).

The next day, Kevin tries to get permission to go to bed early (which is denied, but neither of his parents notice his absence while they're half-watching a game show called "Your Money or Your Life", where a contestant's husband is apparently drowned in a giant vat of custard when she misses a question--I remember this semi-inexplicable scene horrifying me when I was a wee sprat and it's still pretty weird now). Kevin sneaks a flashlight and a Polaroid camera into his bedroom, apparently planning to document whatever it was that was happening and almost drifts off to sleep when a toy robot on his cluttered-as-all-getout floor starts to move around on its own. Then, when he's actually out cold, creaking noises emanate from his wardrobe and the door opens from the inside.

Instead of a knight charging out and making enough noise to get his dad's attention, it's six dwarves sneaking quietly out into Kevin's bedroom. They're dressed in wildly different outfits (one's in professorial tweed, one has a Viking helmet and one's got World War I-style airman's goggles and a red jumpsuit) and they have a whispered conversation about whether or not they've eluded their pursuer, whoever that is. They also mention that Kevin's bedroom isn't on "the map", which means they're lost (just as that knight probably didn't expect to wind up in a suburban bedroom 600 years or so in his future). When Kevin turns his light on the group of dwarves yell and try to flee, but there's not a heck of a lot of room to move in a kid's bedroom.

At least two of the dwarves are packing heat, and the one in the airman's goggles drops his gun and surrenders, calling Kevin "sir" and claiming that they can explain everything. Kevin, naturally confused, asks who they are and the dwarves respond by saying that the person pointing a flashlight at them can't be "him", whoever that is, if he doesn't know who they are. They immediately dogpile on Kevin and pummel the poor kid. All the intruders want to know is how to get out of Kevin's bedroom and he doesn't have any idea--after all, he's got no idea how they all got in there. After some threats and shoves, Kevin's got his back literally to the wall and Randall, the leader of the gang, pushes him just a little further.

And the entire wall grinds and moves back about a foot and a half, revealing a corridor with the same wallpaper as the rest of Kevin's room that either just popped into existence or was there all along. Randall says that's got to be the way out and attempts to to marshal his forces into pushing the wall far enough out of the way that they can leave. Unfortunately, Randall, Strutter, Wally, Og, Vermin, and Fidgit are complete idiots and barely get out of their own way in order to get a move on. They take so long in trying to get down the instant hallway, in fact, that whoever it is they were trying to get away from tracks them down, appearing as a floating head surrounded by brilliant white light and thick fog. The head pursues them, intoning in a sepulchral voice for the dwarves to return the map they stole from him. Kevin, terrified of this apparition, beats feet with the six dwarves and helps shove his bedroom wall down the hallway until the septet shoves the wall into empty space and plunges into a bottomless pitch-black abyss. Well, at least they got away from the giant floating head.

What looked to be a plunge into an endless void turns out to be something much weirder--a rectangular aperture opens in the sky above a rural stone farmhouse, and Kevin and the dwarves fall out of the sky and land near some geese. Randall commands everyone to take cover in a conveniently nearby barn so they can reconnoiter and see if the floating head found them. It looks like they're okay for the time being, and Randall pulls a map out of his satchel to see where they are. Fidgit clues Kevin (and the audienece) in to one thing, at least--the floating head was "the Supreme Being", not any mortal man. ("You mean God?" "Well, we don't know him that well. We only work for him.")

While Randall takes another look at the map, Kevin runs out of the barn to get away from the half dozen lunatics that have shanghaied him out of his boring life and into existence as a fugitive from God. Turns out that the first people who hear him crying for help don't like Englishmen (or boys); it's a trio of French cavalry officers in Napoleonic uniforms. They decide to leave rather than slash Kevin to death and gallop off into explosions, flame and smoke. A column of fleeing wounded refugees take up the road after the cavalrymen ride off, and one of them is kind enough to tell Kevin that he's near the town of Castaligione, which is currently being sacked by Napoleon himself. The dwarves haul Kevin out of the refugee line and Randall points to a spot on the map labeled "1796"; it looks like he's got a guide to travel in time as well as space.

Randall and his crew want to get into the city, but the roads are packed with refugees or soldiers, and both groups are targets for artillery crews so it's far too dangerous to get to Castiligione that way. Instead they appropriate a rowboat and sneak into the city under cover of darkness and war. Kevin naturally wants to know why they're going towards the danger, and Fidgit explains that he's part of a band of internationally famous criminals. Napoleon's sacked the city, and that means lots of portable wealth is going to be in one big pile. The six Temporal Robbers are going to scoop up as much of that stuff as they can carry and make a run to another time hole. Napoleon and his entire army can search for years without ever finding them; it's actually an extremely audacious plan.

Conveniently enough, Napoleon is taking a moment for himself during the war, watching a Punch and Judy show in a semi-ruined theater. Also conveniently enough, he (and everyone else Kevin and the Time Bandits encounter) will be speaking 20th century English. So when the puppeteer dies on stage thanks to an errant bullet (another scene that horrified me when I was six) Napoleon throws a snit fit and wants to see more "little things hitting each other". When none of the other acts at the theater meet with the military genius' approval (they're all too tall for Napoleon to enjoy), the dwarves offer to do a quick musical number to entertain the general. They're not too bad (although "Me and My Shadow" isn't going to be written for another 150 years or so), but their own natural belligerence and quick tempers mean that the song and dance number collapses into a six-man beatdown after someone's dance moves accidentally make contact with somone else's head.

The theater manager is ready to hang himself with the curtain ropes when Napoleon himself comes backstage to congratulate him. He thinks that musical performance is the best thing that's happened to him since he decided to take over Italy, having mistakenly believed everyone there to be really tiny. He shouts down and sacks his long-suffering staff officers when they try to get his attention back to the war he started, and invites the singing and dancing troupe to be his new generals. I am not certain how he got the reputation for genius in this particular world, because he's petulant and dismissive on a level I wouldn't associate with a political leader until about 2000 to 2008 in America.

Napoleon drinks himself into a stupor while complaining about various other historical badasses who were shorter than him; outside in the cold, his former general staff shivers in their long johns. Once he finally passes out, Randall dispatches Strutter to find the nearby time hole (which will only be around until midnight), and everyone else packs as much coin and ornamentation as they can into a tapestry. The time hole opens up just as Og twists Napoleon's gold prosthetic hand off (NOTE:  I spent a comically long time thinking that was the reason Napoleon kept his hand inside his jacket in all those paintings after seeing this movie; thanks for nothing, Terry Gilliam). The dwarves have less than a minute to get past Napoleon's loyal but dismissed soldiers with a giant clanking sack of their commander's worldly goods and it's a narrow thing, but they do make it into the time hole just before it shuts. It is, of course, the fired officers who have their commander's best interests at heart and who lead the charge against the bandits. But when they get to the time hole it closes and they all just bump into each other in an alley.

Five centuries or so earlier, in Sherwood Forest, a nobleman named Vincent and a lady named Pansy are talking about their future lives together (along with references to a "personal problem" of Vincent's that has cleared up and him not having to wear "the special..." thing that is not ever actually defined; when I was six, that all sailed miles over my head). Their kiss is interrupted by seven time-traveling criminals that fall into their coach and cause its destruction. Vincent and Pansy run for it while the dwarves and Kevin figure out where and when they are--unsurprisingly, Kevin knows more about the clothing of medieval England than the dwarves do.

It turns out that the brazen theft of Napoleon's stuff was the first time out for Randall's crew, and Kevin asks to join them (more out of a sense that he'll be able to see things he's only ever read about than out of a desire to take stuff from people with impunity, and good for him). While the other dwarves gather up all the coins, goblets, jewelry and trinkets that fell out of Vincent's coach Randall explains that he and the other bandits stole the map to all of creation from the Supreme Being. Creation, according to Randall, was a dauntingly massive job to put together in just seven days so God used a lot of subcontractors to make little things like ferns and trees while he was working on dividing the waters from the firmament, giving life to the first man and woman, and instilling to capacity for good and evil in his creation. After Og designed a six-hundred-foot-tall tree that smelled awful, the entire greenery department was busted down to the maintenance department and told to patch up all the fraying threads in the fabric of Creation. Instead of doing that, they swiped the map and ran off to fill their pockets to their six hearts' content.

Kevin takes a picture of the six dwarves with his Polaroid (with Randall brandishing the map and everyone grinning proudly) when they hear Pansy yelling "Help! Robbers!" Wally thinks that's a request for robbers to show up and the crew rushes off to see what they're needed for. Vincent and Pansy have been tied to a tree and robbed blind; Kevin and the dwarves walk right by them to follow the huge scary dudes who took Vincent's stuff. All seven of the bandits walk into a snare trap and wind up hanging upside down while some distinctly scabrous and frightening-looking Merry Men want to know what's up with them, as it were. Randall says he's the leader of a gang of horrible robbers and the Merry Man decides to take them all back to meet the boss.

Back at the Merry Men's hideout, there's all kinds of Terry Gilliam-style slapstick (the first two robbers we meet are arm-wrestling; one tears the arm off the loser and throws it on a wheelbarrow full of severed limbs. Yes indeed, six-year-old Tim freaked out at this scene as well). There's also a group of men target-spitting at some frying pans (and the bandits), and a general aura of squalor and filth to the point where you can practically smell the pre-Renaissance BO in the camp. The whole crowd of degenerate thieves falls into terrified silence when the boss finally shows up, and...

...it's John Cleese acting like a genteel upper-crust snob forced to rub shoulders with the hoi polloi. He's also wearing a spotlessly clean costume of frilly green velvet over a perfect white tunic--the disparity is amazing. I didn't notice for years how goofily huge his Robin Hood hat is as well. He winds up looking like a ridiculous cartoon. The upper-crust twit is deeply impressed with the haul that the bandits have brought to his camp and can't wait until he gives it all away to the poor. You can practically hear the mental "...Wait, WHAT?" from Randall once it becomes clear that Robin Hood will be taking all of the gang's ill-gotten gains and distributing them to the impoverished people in and around the greater Sherwood Forest metropolitan area. But the bandits are surrounded, outnumbered and completely cowed by the Scary Merry Men, so off their loot goes into the hands of the poor (they also get a punch in the face from one of the hugest Merry Men available, which is explained to Robin as something that is regrettably necessary; the nobleman acquiesces and tells them to carry on, of course).

Randall decides to leave the Merry Men since they're just going to take all their stuff, and during a thunderstorm (passing Vincent and Pansy, still tied to the tree). Fractures in the band's leadership structure manifest themselves, and while everyone other than Kevin squabbles in a mud puddle over who's going to get the map, the scene shifts to a scrying pond in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, where Evil is looking at the bandits and plotting to take their stuff. And this is where I became a David Warner fan for life (Hi, Mr. Warner, on the extremely minor chance that you're reading this. You are the best.)

Evil is stuck in a dingy industrial space with his minions, who are a bunch of thickheaded middle-aged and older louts in protective plastic clothing. Whenever one of them says something that Evil doesn't like (which is often) he zaps them with lightning from his hands, destroying the henchman in a fit of pique. Which is right and proper for a mastermind, because hench are a dime a dozen.

I should point out here that Warner isn't playing Evil as "the devil", although he's wearing flowing red robes and is explicitly described as a creation of the Supreme Being. He's Evil. That means that he is short-sighted, brutal, cruel, subtle, devious, witty, egomaniacal and obsessed with proving his place in the world--which, to him, is "in charge of the whole shooting match". He claims that he created himself and that he's all powerful, so you can add "deceptive" to that list of adjectives I listed a line or two farther up in this paragraph. Of course, one of his hench asks why he can't escape the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness if he's really all-powerful (and of course all the remaining peons shuffle away from that guy as he asks the question, because they know what's coming). Evil claims that he's hanging out with his coterie of bozos because he wants the Supreme Being to think he's safely locked away. But if he gets his hands on the map, he'll have the ability to go anywhere he wants, at any time. And that means a universe made over in Evil's technophilic image ("I would have started with lasers. Eight o'clock, day one!"). And he does have at least a glimmer of a point, in that the Supreme Being came up with three and a half dozen different types of parrot. Are they all truly necessary?

While Evil's ranting about his future of a world where everything's part of a massive mechanical construct his minion Benson spots the bandits and Kevin with the map. After vowing a horrible torture for his follower if the guy's wrong about anything, Evil decides to get the bandits' attention by mentally dominating Og, the dimmest of the crew. Speaking through Og, Evil tempts the bandits with the promise of "the most fabulous object in the world", and everyone but Kevin thinks that sounds like a really cool thing to have. But before a vote can be taken about whether or not they should go get whatever the most fabulous object in the world is, events force their hands. What Wally mistakes for a forest fire is something arguably worse for the crew as that giant floating head shouts at them to return the map before something bad happens. They bolt for a nearby time hole and find not one but two of them. Kevin gets to the site first and finds not one, but two time doorways. He runs through one that closes right behind him as the bandits struggle through the gale-force winds to get away from the giant floating head.

This has the function of returning the focus exclusively to Kevin, since he's been separated from the bandit gang and is now completely on his own. The time hole he ran through drops him off in ancient Greece (just like he was reading about at the start of the film). In fact, it's Kevin plummeting down from a hole in the sky that fatally distracts a minotaur that was winning a fight against King Agamemnon. The legendary actor that plays Agamemnon wound up in this movie thanks to a willingness to schedule the film around his availability as well as a joke in the screenplay that the original agent 007's agent heard about (something along the lines of "The king removes his helmet to reveal it is none other than SEAN CONNERY or an actor of equal stature that the production could actually afford"). After making short work of the minotaur, Agamemnon decides that the child who fell from the heavens and saved his life must have been sent by the gods. Therefore he should treat the boy with respect and gratitude, even if "Kevin" is not a name that sounds particularly divine. He rides back to Mycenae with Kevin in tow for a celebratory feast (and showing off the minotaur's severed head as a trophy).

This turns out to be a pleasant interlude for the boy, with crowds of admiring ancient Greeks cheering him (and their king, of course) as they enter the city. There's plenty to eat, no homework, and as many hyperviolent murals showing battles between hundreds of warriors as a kid could want. And in Agamemnon, Kevin finds a father figure that's supportive and interested in him, a complete 180 from his own loutish father back in England and several millenia in the future. And it's interesting that Kevin appears to be getting what he needs from this relationship rather than what he wants (he thinks learning how to swordfight would be brilliant; Agamemnon is more interested in showing off conjuring tricks to perhaps the one person in the city-state that won't excessively fawn over him). Kevin burns through at least a couple packs of Polaroid film capturing images of the city and tells the king that he wants to stay there rather than returning home to his real father and his friends. Well, Agamemnon assumes he's got friends but I'm betting a bookish ten-year-old did about as well in England in 1981 on that score as I did in 1985 in the suburbs of Chicago.

Agamemnon declares that the next day he'll make an official proclamation about whether or not Kevin's going to return home, although what anyone's going to do without the map of holes in time to restore him to his rightful place is anyone's guess. A pair of silent, golden-masked figures drag Kevin out of his bed and place him on a horse, leading him into Agamemnon's public audience chamber (and Kevin, like the viewing audience, has no idea if these guys are planning to kill him or not). It turns out that he's hit the jackpot--Agamemnon not only says that Kevin can stay in Mycenae, but that he's going to be adopted as the king's son and heir. Looks like Kevin picked the right time hole to flee through, though from the scowl on the queen's face when she hears that news (which Kevin and Agamemnon utterly fail to notice) he might want to invest in a couple guards and a food taster.

Speaking of food tasting, there is a celebratory banquet after the king's pronouncement complete with a troupe of masked and elaborately costumed dancers spinning and shaking their way through the throne room. Six of them, as it turns out, none of them taller than a child. Once their full-head masks come off Kevin recognizes his erstwhile gang, and shouts that he doesn't want to go when they drag him towards their heap of treasure "donated" by the guests at the banquet. They raise a tapestry up to shield themselves from the revelers' gaze and when it falls to the ground they've all vanished completely. It's Agamemnon who first figures out that they're not coming back, and the film cuts to smokestacks on a luxury liner in the Gilded Age before he can do more than stand up in shock. Like his arrival in Mycenae, it looks like Kevin got what he needed out of the bandits' arrival, not what he wanted.

On that luxury liner, incidentally, are another Vincent and Pansy, professing love to each other despite Vincent's nose (it's got a "thing on the end of it" in his words). Vincent's marriage proposal is fatally injured by six dwarves and a child landing on top of him and dislodging his toupee, the poor bastard.
But despite an inauspicious arrival, the bandits settle in for a pleasant sea voyage. They had enough gold and jewelry to pay for a ticket, it would appear, and the on-board tailor has fitted all of them out in perfectly tailored tuxedos. They all clean up quite well, as it turns out. But even with suits and bow ties and fresh-cut carnations in their boutonnieres the bandits are still greedy little jerks. But now they're greedy little jerks with a plan. Randall took a look at the map and found that the most fabulous object in the world really does exist, and its location is indeed listed on there.

It turns out that the ultimate treasure is hidden away in "the Time of Legends", which sounds like the right place for it. There's no time hole that leads to the legends though; you just have to believe in it strongly enough to get there. Randall also mentions that the most fabulous object in the world is stashed away in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, which means that Evil just has to hang out for a little while longer vaporizing the occasional henchman in a fit of pique until Randall and his gang bring the map to him directly. Kevin's not really sold on this plan (and is still sulking about getting kidnapped out of ancient Greece) but it looks like events are going to make his mind up for him quite soon. That luxury liner of the Gilded age they're all sailing on? It's the Titanic. Incidentally, the lifesavers in the movie have "S. S. Titanic" painted on them, but the actual ship was the RMS Titanic. This also makes the James Cameron blockbuster the second movie to have both David Warner and the Titanic sinking in it.

There's nothing like clinging to a scrap of wreckage in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic to make people get over their misgivings, and the seven members of the group decide to believe their way into the Time of Legends as opposed to dying in a shipwreck. Og's the one who tells everyone that it's time to start the quest (but Evil's voice is overlaid on the soundtrack when he talks) and the group gets sucked down a whirlpool of Evil's making as they start believing their way into the place they need to get to. They wind up falling up into the sky while the film is reversed (a low-budget but neat way to show that things are different where they've gone) and find themselves bobbing on alien tides as a pirate ship floats near them.

The ship turns out to be crewed by a seven-foot tall snaggle-tusked ogre and his wife (who was supposed to be in extensive makeup until the actress convinced the director that it would be funnier if she was just a perfectly ordinary person married to the ogre). In keeping with Terry Gilliam's bent sensibilities, the monster and his wife are a perfectly happy middle-aged couple devoted utterly to each other. Their domestic bliss is interrupted when the ogre casts a net out into the sea to catch his dinner and winds up with six dwarves and a child on the deck of his boat. The ogre's got a bad back ("I grew too fast when I was younger", he complains) so he can't do much more than roar at the dwarves when he tries to terrify them, but that turns out to be quite sufficient until the ogre inevitably throws his back out picking up Kevin.

Kevin's gotten better at thinking fast since he got dropped out of his bedroom and into an adventure and he tells the ogre (who turns out to be named Winston) that if he and the dwarves stretch his limbs out it'll fix his back. That even turns out to work, but the main thing Kevin wanted to do was get the ogre on his back while he and the dwarves grab his limbs. Winston and his wife are rather easily outwitted, as fairy-tale monsters are, and after the ogre coughs hard enough to fill the boat's sails the crew makes their escape. Everything looks like it's going well for once until the ship runs aground on something that lifts it into the air. Which turns out to be a giant so huge that it doesn't notice the ship on its head as it stomps off onto the shore (an amazing image on the big screen, and pretty great even just on television).

The scene with the giant, incidentally, is one of the more Pythonesque bits in the film. In the Monty Python's Flying Circus television show Terry Gilliam's job was to link the various sketches together in each episode with his trademark cutout animations. Here in the film each previous vignette ended when the Time Bandits had to put on their boogie shoes and flee the giant floating head, but this time it's the giant striding along that gets them away from the ogre and on to the next section of the narrative. And that's certainly random and surreal enough to be a Terry Gilliam linking animation, even if it is in real life.

The episodic nature of the film can also be explained by the fact that two of the Monty Python troupe wrote it--it's the sort of thing that would make up an episode of their show. Other than having the continuing group of characters in Kevin and the dwarves, I can certainly imagine that an episode of the Flying Circus would make fun of Robin Hood one moment and have Satan griping about how God put nipples on men for no reason in another. It's the through-line of Kevin's adventures that makes the narrative cohere, although how many acts the screenplay is using and in what order they are is an open question.

The bandits try to figure out a way to stop the giant, and the best they can come up with is prying up the planks in the bilge and hitting the giant's exposed head with a mallet. Of course he doesn't even notice that, and it's up to Kevin to think of something again. The ogre had a bunch of patent medicines and pharmaceuticals to deal with the infirmities of middle age--among them is a gallon jar full of sleeping potion. Filling a fireplace bellows with the knockout elixir and using it as an improvised hypodermic needle means that after a slight stinging sensation on his scalp, the giant wants to take a nap. One he lies down it's a simple matter for everyone to bail out and make their way towards the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness.

Somewhere in a gravelly wasteland where the map indicates the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness is supposed to be (but where nothing's visible to the horizon in every direction, the crew walks straight into an invisible barrier. ("Oh! So that's what an invisible barrier looks like!"). Nobody figures out how to breach it until an argument with Randall turns more violent than usual; he throws a skull at Wally when his subordinate takes the map and the barrier shatters, leaving a hellishly jagged mountainscape filling the screen while the fragments of the barrier show an empty stone desert stretching off impossibly at the same time (this one shot, more than anything else in the film,  proves that Terry Gilliam was going to have one hell of a career in fantasy and science fiction cinema).

The group is suitably awestruck at the sight in front of them and proceeds towards the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, a slate-grey castle made of spikes and spires, and impossibly tall. The group tries to sneak inside, their minds on the most fabulous object in the world, when the gates slam shut behind them and trap everyone in Stygian darkness. A dazzling spotlight illuminates the subject of the group's quest off in the distance and the stone maze they have to traverse is another staggering vista made possible by a matte painting and Terry Gilliam's outsized imagination.

It turns out that the most fabulous object in the world is actually just that kitchenette that Kevin's parents barely paid attention to on that game show in the first five or ten minutes of the movie--which is nothing that he's impressed with, but Randall and company sprint off to find their way through the maze to get to it. None of them listen to him when he tries to explain that it's got to be a trap, but when he sees his own parents behind the MC he knows for sure that it's got to be some kind of illusion.

Not that it helps anyone when Evil snags the map from Randall. Kevin, even though he wasn't dumb enough to run right into Evil's power, gets captured by a shrieking black-cloaked figure with a horse skull for a head and joins the dwarves in an iron cage that's hanging by a rope above a massive black abyss, with darkness as far as anyone can see in any direction, including up--another striking yet simple image from Gilliam and his production designers. Incidentally, one way to make the space look even bigger than it was? Having some of the other model cages built half-size so they look farther away from the cage the protagonists are in. With nothing other than a black void on the screen, it's impossible to accurately judge the distance between things.

 Moping in the cage and reflecting on the fact that Evil's going take over the universe, Kevin sorts through his pictures and spots the one of everyone holding up the map. Which means he's got at least a cruddy copy of the map that can get him and the bandits anywhere in time and space. And, happily enough, there's a massive time hole in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness. All they have to do is figure out some way to get from one cage to the next and work their way back to the fortress (and then defeat Evil and get the map back, but first things first). The plan involves picking the lock on the cage door with a knife Kevin appropriated in his adventures and then slicing strands of rope from the gigantic knot securing the cage. Tying the rope around Strutter's waist, he becomes a living grappling hook on a pendulum and eventually grabs on to the next cage. Now he's got to hang on while Wally swings to the next cage and serves as an anchor for the rope so each of the bandits can slide to safety. It's an ingenious plan, and shots of the rapidly fraying rope atop the original cage show the audience how little time and how much risk is involved in carrying things off. The sequence is almost wordless as well, showing rather than telling as each phase of the plan is carried out.


The plan succeeds and Randall is ready to find the gigantic time hole and run away; Kevin tells him that Evil's going to destroy everything if he keeps the map and it looks like the bandits have been changed by their exposure to Kevin because they immediately agree to go back into mortal danger to keep the map out of Evil's grasp. Right now Evil's coming up with a plan to "remake man in Our image, not His". While he's working on his plan, Evil turns one of his surviving henchmen into a dog and commands him to guard the map (correctly assuming that a dog would do a better job than the idiots he's been saddled with). As he walks off with another henchman explaining computers and nuclear reactors to him the dwarves sneak in along with Kevin and Benson, growling to warn Evil about the intruders, gets told to shut up by his master and then winds up distracted by a bone.

Og snags the map and chucks it at his compatriots, but gets found out and Evil zaps him, turning him into a pig-man. As the Time Bandits make a run for it Evil summons a shrieking cohort twelve foot tall, of horse-skull-headed demons that bash their way through solid stone while tracking down the intruders. But they're not the cleverest beings in the whole entire world and miss their quarry while searching. Kevin comes up with a desperate plan:  Each of the dwarves other than Og (who can't talk while he's a pig) will dive into the gigantic time hole in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness and bring back help. Hopefully that'll be enough to defeat Evil. In order to buy time for this plan, Og and Kevin are going to stick around in the fortress and distract the forces of Evil.

After Kevin yells at the demons to get their attention in an insanely reckless charge, he turns a corner and comes face to face with the glowering form of Evil. Surrounded and outnumbered, he still refuses to hand over the map (and even threatens to burn it after swiping a torch from a conveniently close and slow minion). Evil incinerates all of his forces and blasts Og when the half-pig tries to run, then swipes the map from Kevin when he's distracted by that. His face glowing red, Evil advances on Kevin when a tank busts through the wall with Randall in command. A quartet of knights in shining armor, a squadron of Roman archers, a spaceship piloted by Wally and a trio of cowboys all join in as well, and each one is made short work of by Evil as they attack.

The cowboys are flung over the walls of the fortress to fall into the abyss while Evil flicks the arrows back at the archers with universally fatal results. The knights charge in and Evil puts on a gas mask as evil yellow smoke billows around him (which is almost certainly a comment on mechanized warfare of the Twentieth Century and its total disregard for the laws of chivalry). The horses get out of that boondoggle but the knights all wind up spitted on their lances and wind up looking like a macabre piece of modern art. The tank and spaceship are taken over by Evil (who laughs about how machines are his to control) and Fidgit doesn't survive the attempt to take Evil down.

I should point out here that knights, soldiers, cowboys and spacemen are all the kinds of heroes a grade school boy would have (and the archers are also the kind of thing a bookish history buff would know about); there have been several hints over the running time of the film that all the adventures are taking place in one fantastically detailed dream of Kevin's--for one thing, everyone he meets speaks English that Kevin can understand, which doesn't seem too likely in Sherwood Forest or in ancient Greece. The tank, the knights, the spaceship and everything else he's encountered so far can be glimpsed either on the incredibly cluttered floor of his bedroom or on the wall that he and the dwarves shove down an impossible hallway to get away from the Supreme Being at the start of the film.

Speaking of the Supreme Being, he's the only thing that could possibly stand between Evil and the destruction and blasphemous recreation of the entire universe now that Evil has the map, so it's a good thing for the surviving (and human-shaped) protagonists that he petrifies Evil and ends the threat more or less effortlessly. Randall and his compatriots scoop up all the fragments of Evil they can find (after a hint from their boss, God, that they should be doing that). While they're busy picking up chunks of charcoal in the shape of a David Warner statue the Supreme Being restores Og to his normal shape and Fidgit to life. Because, after all, he has powers even greater than Evil does and also because those stone fragments aren't going to pick themselves up.

While the dwarves are busy putting all the chunks of carbonized Evil in a post box (where the British postal service can apparently be trusted to ensure that it will never be seen by anyone else, ever again) Kevin gets his travel-demolished clothes back from the Supreme Being--who, in a charmingly fussy detail, makes the boy sign for them before handing them over. But Kevin's not satisfied with the conclusion of his adventures, and takes the Supreme Being to task for all the people who just died in a futile attempt to defeat Evil. He winds up asking the ultimate question (and one that marks the intellectual development from a child to an adult as far as I'm concerned):  Why is there such a thing as Evil in the world, if the Supreme Being that created everything is supposed to be benevolent?

And the film doesn't put any remotely convincing words in the Supreme Being's mouth when he gets asked. First he ducks behind a pillar to avoid engaging with Kevin and then steps back out to say "I think it's something to do with free will". Forget the ogre married to a middle-aged British woman and the arm-wrestling match that tears someone's limb off every time they lose; that line of dialogue is the most twisted thing in the film, and viciously unsuitable for a child to overhear. I'm indebted to Gilliam on a level I can barely articulate for having heard it when I was too young to process what it meant.

Randall and company are all punished by the Supreme Being for running off with his map and stealing things by getting demoted as well as a pay cut "backdated to the dawn of time" but considering what kind of things the old man did to smite anyone that looked at him cross-eyed in the Old Testament they got off lucky. And as for Kevin, he gets restored to his bedroom in a cloud of smoke that could either be a reference to the pillar of white smoke that gets sucked up into the sky with the dwarves and the Supreme Being in it (another really cool looking thing that Gilliam put in the movie) or the billowing yellow smog emanating from a loaf-of-bread sized fragment of Evil that everyone overlooked while cleaning up.

The smoke follows Kevin to his bedroom, where a fireman smashes down the door and hauls him out of his bed while flames billow in the hallway. Outside his parents are arguing about whether or not to run back into the inferno to rescue their toaster (mom votes for it; dad's against the idea). Kevin's still got his satchel with him, though, and inside it are a series of Polaroid photos featuring daily life in Mycenae, a group of eclectically dressed dwarves holding up the map of all the frayed spots in time and space, and everything else he captured for posterity on his journey. Oh, and the fireman that grabbed him up and yanked him out of mortal danger? He looks pretty familiar to the boy.

But there's still one last jolt coming. The toaster oven was apparently running all night and whatever was inside it started the house-destroying fire. What's left inside it now is a carbonized lump a little larger than a closed fist that's emitting a foul-looking yellow smoke. A very, very familiar-looking yellow smoke. Kevin shouts to his parents that it's evil and they shouldn't touch it...and, well...they really should have listened to their son for once. The firemen drive off and Kevin looks like he's got the real adventure ahead of him, with no help from anyone to get him where he's going. Congratulations, kid, you just grew up in a matter of seconds.

I adore this movie. I am an utterly biased reviewer. You should watch it and you should make sure your children, if you have any, see it when they're too young to process all the caustic wit and realize what Gilliam is really saying at the end. This film is one of the things I saw that was wrong for me, and I wound up desperately wanting more. I still do.

_____________________________________________________

This review was part of the Celluloid Zeroes' look at oddball movies pitched to children but possibly screamingly inappropriate for them. You know, for kids. The other entries in this roundtable are as follows:

The brain behind Cinemasochist Apocalypse tells us about watching horror movies with his kids.

Micro-Brew Reviews studies The Magic Serpent and draws several conclusions.

Psychoplasmics cracks The Gate open a bit to see what's on the other side.

Seeker of Schlock swings into view with Spider-Man.

The Terrible Claw Reviews puts on a referee shirt for Gamera Vs. Viras.

The Web of the Big Damn Spider counts up The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.




Monday, March 28, 2016

Extreme Prejudice (1987)



Story by John Milius and Fred Rexer; Screenplay by Deric Washburn and Harry Kleiner
Directed by Walter Hill

Nick Nolte:  Jack Benteen
Powers Boothe:  Cash Bailey
Michael Ironside:  Major Paul Hackett
Clancy Brown:  Master Sergeant Larry McRose
William Forsythe:  Sergeant Buck Atwater
Maria Conchita Alonso:  Sarita Cisneros

I just saw Turbo Kid yesterday and now I'm in the mood for some more scenes of Michael Ironside being a total badass. While I'm at it, I'm also in the mood for some Walter Hill-directed action and the original mission statement of this blog ("Use the movies of the time to examine Cold War politics") means that I really ought to take a look at something that uses the War on (Some of the People Who Take Some Varieties Of) Drugs as a plot device.

So here we are. I'm sure this one will be testosterone-poisoned, even for a Walter Hill Joint. There are five different characters listed as some kind of sergeant in the IMDB credits as well as two deputies and the intriguingly named "Man with Chub" and "Chicken Champ Kid". A quick scan of the performers shows that the gender balance of the movie is about 19:1 in favor of men. That's the kind of imbalance you normally only see in a Chang Cheh movie, and since it's Walter Hill in charge of this film I'm willing to bet that it'll be saying things about masculinity, not just having characters be really masculine over the running time.

The title is a fragment of the phrase "terminate with extreme prejudice", which is CIA and military slang for a shoot-to-kill order, or more colloquially, "Wreck the shit out of that guy", and hopefully some day there will be a direct-to-VOD action movie called Wreck the Shit Out of That Guy. Or, if we're really lucky, that will be the subtitle for The Raid 3. Now on to the narrative.

Hey, remember teletypes? It's what people used before text messages, cell phones, the Internet, and other 21st century communications technologies to get information around quickly. And they were bulky machines, usually owned by newspapers, the military, and spy agencies--at least in movies. I wouldn't know about how they got used in real life. At any rate, the first image on the screen in Extreme Prejudice is a dot-matrix teletype cranking away informing the Clancy Brown character that he's been reassigned to "Zombie Unit". The word "Werewolf" shows up without any context--and in too close of a shot to get any context for its appearance. Dare I hope that this isn't just a Walter Hill action movie about a border war between drug gangs and a Texas Ranger, but that it's also going to have monsters in it? I think a werewolf with a Stetson hat and a Ranger badge would be a heck of a thing to put in a film (Asylum studios, if you're reading this, email me! We'll come up with something!). The viewer sees words, then sentence fragments (in a closer shot) and then just individual letters (in an even closer shot). Which probably means that the viewer, like the characters, is deliberately not being given the full story right from the start. Which is completely appropriate for a war-on-drugs movie from 1987, or an unfortunate artifact of the DVD I've got the film on, which is cropped to full frame instead of widescreen.

Master Sergeant Larry McRose steps off a bus toting his luggage and sporting a really impressive several-weeks-growth beard. We only get to see him for a second or two before his ID card from the US Army gets shown on screen as well as a caption that he was declared missing in action in 1972 and is officially presumed dead. At the same bus terminal, there's the loudmouthed hick Buckman Atwater, officially killed defusing a bomb in 1974 and his "body damaged beyond recognition". A third sergeant, Charles Biddle, was officially killed in a helicopter crash in 1983 and his body never recovered. I realize this is the same setup for joining MegaForce, but I'm willing to overlook that in favor of seeing what Walter Hill does with the concept of badass military men who can never go back to their previous lives. Biddle's attempt to set up a booty call on a pay phone is interrupted by a fourth sergeant, the towering Luther Fry, "killed" during a training exercise in 1977. Their conversation is interrupted by Staff Sergeant Declan Coker literally jumping up on Fry to greet him; Coker was on a chartered plane that went down in 1984 and his body was never identified. Collectively they're team and their individual roles are the Leader (Hackett), the Conscience (McRose), the Muscle (Fry), the Techie (Biddle) and The Guy Who Doesn't Really Get a Trait (Coker).

That's a lot of dead-on-the-paperwork soldiers to be in one place. And the sixth one, a major named Paul Hackett, is listed as killed in action during the evacuation of Saigon in 1973; there was a mass burial, so Hackett didn't even get an individual gravestone to show where his body is supposed to be. The soldiers catch up with each other with an expected amount of dick measuring and friendly insults, with Fry and McRose immediately breaking off their hostilities when the major tells them that there are no problems. Well, technically there was probably a question mark there but Hackett was undeniably telling his subordinates that they were not going to have a problem with each other.

Then it's time for the credits over a red-and-orange sky at sunset; Nick Nolte and Powers Boothe have first and second billing but neither of their characters were in that opening scene. Walter Hill gets his name on the screen just as the sky is going fully black, and then the scene shifts to jacked-up trucks driving in a torrential rainstorm. The Texas Rangers in the lead truck pull up to a bar, where they identify a known dope runner's vehicle outside and wonder why the Border Patrol is so terrible at catching up with criminals who make their way from Mexico to Texas. While the passenger radios the Border Patrol to let them know that a criminal named Chub is driving back over the border and maybe they could try to capture him this time, the driver, Jack Benteen, brings a shotgun into the bar--which is full of Hispanics that don't look like they want a Texas Ranger in there at that particular moment. Benteen notifies a drug grower named T. C. that they're going to be leaving together. T. C. notifies Benteen of his refusal to put handcuffs on himself and go out to the Ranger truck by drawing a pistol; the criminal winds up dead and one of his friends gets smacked unconscious with the stock of the shotgun. Which shows that Benteen isn't one of those "shoot everyone" kinds of 80s cops--he's willing to take people in alive but concussed but alive, which is pretty unique for action movies of this vintage.

The other Ranger provides some backup and the third member of T. C.'s organization gets cuffed and hauled out as well; the film doesn't mention it but presumably crime scene photographers will get there soon and an ambulance that won't be bothering with lights or sirens will be along for T. C.'s body eventually. Benteen goes back to his place and wakes up his girlfriend Sarita, who works a different shift than the Ranger and is happy for the opportunity to actually see him without having to schedule time for it in advance. Benteen's not thrilled that he had to kill someone earlier (which makes him rather atypical for an action hero in this decade), and even less happy that he did it because farming pays so little in the region that dope running for someone named Cash Bailey is the only way for some people to hang on to their land and livelihoods (how in the hell did a nuanced look at drug importation get on American movie screens in 1987?).

Meanwhile, somewhere else, a stubbly guy in a sweat-stained white suit and cowboy hat watches a helicopter approach his ranch and plays with a scorpion that climbed out of a big bag of weed before crushing the arachnid in his bare hand. That's our introduction to Cash Bailey. Bailey's operation is being watched by a couple of the soldiers from the opening scenes; there's a rust-bucket truck three decades old that transports ledgers and cash for Bailey's operation. It makes sense to me that a smart drug lord wouldn't flash a lot of style in this area--everyone wears jeans, not Armani suits, and having a gleaming black limo drive up to the bank twice a week would effectively put a blinking neon sign up saying YOU CANNOT IGNORE THAT I AM A DRUG LORD with Bailey's signature in bright electric blue. As it is, his operation has attracted the notice of the black ops squad, but that's a completely different level of attention that forcing the local police or sheriffs (or Rangers) to do something about you.

Whatever operation is going on, the Dead Boys know who Jack Benteen is just like they know how the drug profits are being laundered at a tiny local bank. And they watch one of Bailey's goons deliver a bomb in a rabbit cage to a local restaurant to take out some dude named Andy. As a consequence of this, Ranger Benteen and some local law enforcement types grab a low level dealer in order to tell the guy that he has a choice:  get arrested for selling drugs or tell Cash Bailey that Benteen wants to set up a meeting (in Mexico, out of the Ranger's jurisdiction). And the location is given as "the old blind where we used to hunt deer", which does not sound like the kind of thing you'd usually hear from a crusading lawman.

Another helicopter-landing-fueled transition ensues as we watch two of Bailey's goons (one of whom is played by the unmistakable Tom "Tiny" Lister, Jr.) tell Benteen they need his gun (the Ranger refuses, naturally) and Cash Bailey stepping out of the whirlybird to tell his hench that they can just back off; he trusts Benteen enough to keep a firearm in his possession in the drug lord's presence. Interesting. That quote from E. M. Forster about choosing between your country or your friend to betray comes to mind. It's been a while since they've seen each other but the affection that Cash and Benteen have for each other appears to be completely unfeigned. Cash, in lieu of talking about their present circumstances, reminisces about the past and asks about a girlfriend the pair of them had (at the same time, if Bailey's story can be believed). Bailey implies that the bombing was a punitive action because one of his partners was skimming from the till, but also says he would like to set up a deal with Benteen to have the crime solved. Then, of course, he offers to bribe his old friend to the tune of a hundred grand a year to switch sides, and Benteen says he'd be perfectly willing to cross over but he'd have to quit being a Ranger if he did, and his value to the Cash Bailey personal cartel would be minimal without his badge.

Neither old friend wants to hurt the other (I know this is how I'd feel if Captain Telstar, the best character I made in seven years of playing City of Villains, ever had to throw down against BioVolt the lightning-throwing City of Heroes character played by my decades-long friend Joel). But there's still a pair of deaths to account for and the small matter of a drug pipeline from Mexico to the United States run by Cash Bailey. Benteen tells him that he's willing to look the other way long enough for his old friend to cash out and run away to some place that doesn't have an extradition treaty. Bailey isn't willing to consider cutting and running, and tells Benteen that he's on the wrong side of the Rio Grande to make threats. Benteen is implacable, even when Cash starts asking about Sarita, the woman from before, and mentions that he should have married her himself back in the day. Benteen won't be distracted, though, and tells his old friend one more time to skip town while he can and then walks away. Cash Bailey gets the last word, though, saying he's got a feeling that the next time they see each other one of them is going to be leaving feet first.

Whatever the Zombie Unit soldiers are up to, it starts in an unemployment office in Texas. Sergeant Atwater starts talking smack about the towering black dude a couple spaces ahead of him in line to talk to a clerk, and gets one-shotted out cold by Sergeant Fry as part of whatever plan this is. One assumes that Atwater's irritating enough that Fry volunteered for the chance to punch his lights out. Meanwhile, Major Hackett is talking to that bank president we saw briefly, wondering just how safe their safes are on site. And Atwater and Fry are shown in jail cells, setting up some kind of remote microphone system smuggled into the building in Fry's hollowed-out shoe heel. Atwater, acting serious for a change, lists off all the guns and riot gear that the police have in their station (and sums it up by saying they're perfectly set up to handle drunken hicks--damning with faint praise if I've ever heard it). Meanwhile, Hackett and his sinister black briefcase stop by the car that Sergeant McRose is driving; his trip to the bank was meant to give him the chance to scope out the security system there. I'd guess there's going to be a bank robbery coming up, and the soldiers want to know what kind of worst-case-scenario police firepower can be brought to bear against them.

Got room in your heart for another "meanwhile"? Meanwhile, the county sheriff that has been working with Benteen brings in a dossier on Cash Bailey that lists what he's been up to and how he became a weed baron over the last decade or so. He's got enough money and clout to escape legal consequences in Texas and in Mexico, and he's been successful enough that he thinks he can keep going that way indefinitely. And Benteen still thinks of Cash as his old friend, regardless of where life has taken the pair of them. The sheriff says that the easiest way is just about always the wrong one and uses a metaphor for water following the path of least resistance to explain why rivers and men go crooked. The sheriff leaves Benteen's office after cheerfully warning the Ranger about that Chub Luke guy they failed to catch earlier outside the bar where T. C. got shot to death; apparently Chub is going to lay some kind of ambush for Benteen on his drive home.

Nothing happens that day, but when he wakes up in the morning Sarita knows that Benteen had a meeting with her old ex-boyfriend Cash Bailey; apparently the Mexican community has a fully functional rumor mill that keeps people updated on all the important happenings in town (such as, say, a Texas Ranger slapping a low level dope seller around a little bit in order to set up a meeting with a big-time dope seller). Sarita asks what Bailey said about her and Benteen lies to her, saying the subject never came up--which boils over into an argument when she's showering and he's brushing his teeth. Sarita wants to know if Benteen's ever going to make an honest woman of her after two years of them sleeping together, and Benteen's obviously thinking about how much more his old buddy Cash has to offer her than he does--at least on a material level. It's also the angriest we've seen him so far in the film, which is interesting because we've seen him walk into a potential death trap, shoot someone who pulled a gun on him and try to save the life of an old friend from his rather distant past without getting rattled.

Over at his office, Benteen is taking his fight with Sarita out on everyone nearby, and the sheriff tries to defuse things (since it's Rip Torn, he more or less succeeds). A tip comes in about some drug deal stuff going down and Benteen heads out with the sheriff to go deal with it; they go right past the cell holding Sergeant Fry--a great reminder that the two plotlines are indeed intertwined, and that the military guys are going to get warned about what's going on thanks to that radio transmitter rig.

Next follow two scenes in cars--the sheriff and Benteen talk about how things are deteriorating in town and how T. C. used to be a really good kid along with his brother Chub (the sheriff mentions going on fishing trips with their father). In the other car, Sergeant McRose is driving Major Hackett somewhere and they're talking about having to blow up a building as a distraction before robbing the bank; Hackett says that they're only stealing money from the bank to cover up that they're also going to raid the safe deposit boxes. He also tells his driver that it's a national security issue when McRose says that he's not thrilled about using his black ops skills against American targets (especially if it means blowing up someone's property as a distraction for the sham operation that's covering the real operation). I'm really not used to Clancy Brown playing the nicest one in a group.

The sheriff and Benteen pull up to a dilapidated gas station that wouldn't be out of place in one of those spam-in-a-cabin movies. Arturo, the guy who owns the place, comes out to tell him there's been some Mexicans hanging out in the middle of nowhere drinking beer and waiting for someone; he says the guy with the beard got called "Chub" by the others. That's all our stalwart lawmen need to hear in order to jump into action. Benteen sneaks around to the back door while the sheriff and Arturo remain up front. And from a distance, Hackett and McRose keep an eye on the situation so they know what the local law enforcement is like.

Once the bullets inevitably start flying, the sheriff gets taken down by Arturo and Benteen is outnumbered as well as outgunned. Benteen has a lever-action rifle and some kind of automatic pistol up against a half a dozen people with submachine guns and assault rifles. But he's smarter and knows to do things like duck behind cover instead of walk around like he owns the place (he also, like the head of the Irish mob in Miller's Crossing, knows that shooting someone in the foot is a hell of a distraction). Chub and a couple of his underlings get away, and Benteen isn't going to be driving his Ranger truck anywhere without some extensive body work. The pickup truck full of dope slingers makes its way to Hackett's station wagon and Chubb and a nameless hench with a machete make their ultimate mistake when trying to carjack the pair of black ops soldiers. Hackett kills the machete guys with his bare hands, because you don't threaten Michael Ironside without serious consequences.

Time for another "meanwhile", wherein a call from Cash Bailey's lieutenant to a bank president is monitored and recorded by Sergeant Biddle, the guy who uses all the computers for the group. Every crew needs a tech guy, of course, and for fans of clunky Eighties computer and A/V gear this scene is a real treat. After we see that the shadowy military forces know what's going on with Cash Bailey's cash flow, Hackett shows up in disguise as a glasses wearing, pencil-pushing Fed to talk to Benteen about efforts to monitor the drug traffic along the Texas-Mexico border. benteen isn't particularly having any of it, and blows the "bureaucrat" off in no uncertain terms.

Time for a musical number. We all know from our reading that Walter Hill likes to put the occasional song in his films from time to time, and this one has Maria Conchita Alonso as the chanteuse at a bar, backed up by a mariachi band. The fake Fed invites himself to drink with Benteen, who happens to have very high standards for boozing partners. It also transpires that Benteen has requested help and information from the DEA for more than a year but never heard back from them, so he's less than thrilled that an unrelated paper-shuffler has shown up and assumes assistance from the local Texas Ranger will be forthcoming.

Once he starts talking, though, Benteen finds it hard to stop. He's sore about the sheriff getting gunned down, and furious that the drug tip that sent them to Arturo's was a trap. After dropping Cash Bailey's name as the local big fish and cause of all the recent ruckus, Benteen gives a shell casing from the scene to Hackett and is told that the manufacturer's mark on the brass--which Benteen doesn't recognize--can get ID'd in a day. Benteen says if that really happens he'll be impressed enough to cooperate with the federal guy's investigation and walks off. In 1987 people were awfully cavalier about the chain of evidence in homicide investigations. At least in Movie Texas, they were.

Sarita realizes that her man's knotted up and angry because of the sheriff's death, but Benteen says he can't talk about it (he's not the kind of man who does that). Instead, he's going to do something about it (because he is the kind of man who does that). Sarita wants to talk to her man about what's going on, and Benteen says things are too complicated right now with him, Cash and Sarita so he wants her to give talking about their situation a break; they part on bad terms.

The next morning, Atwater gets bailed out of his jail cell and goes to a car that has the three other sergeants in it. He's his usual happy asshole self until he finds out that the plan to rob the bank has changed and that it's going to be a "daylight hit". Even the jerkiest of the crew realizes that will result in deaths, and he didn't sign up to kill innocent Americans in his second life as a black ops soldier any more than any of the other men did. But McRose follows orders, just like he expects all the other men to do as well. A little later, we see Atwater and Fry in a sewer tunnel looking at the power cables going into the bank (and there's a completely gratuitous scene where Atwater stabs a sewer rat).

That night, and across the river in Texas, Bailey gets dropped off at an apartment building by his goons. He's not using the helicopter at this point, since that's a little conspicuous. He's still got a bright white suit on, though, so there's a limit to how sensible Bailey is willing to be. Biddle's still in the crew's surveillance van and we hear Bailey talking from a bug before we see who he's visiting. He makes reference to proving that he really wants whoever it is because it's a massive risk for him to be on the American side of the Rio Grande. Inevitably, it turns out to be Sarita that he's visiting. Just as she's not satisfied with what she gets from Benteen, she's not certain that fleeing the States and living life as Cash Bailey's kept woman is what she wants--after all, he left her before and he could do it again if he gets bored or spots someone he likes better. Bailey says it'll be different this time, and that Sarita's the best woman he's ever known. When the scene breaks off, it's an open question of whether or not Sarita's going to go with Cash, but the drug lord mentions a big Independence Day celebration coming up, and if I know my Walter Hill movies there's going to be plenty of fireworks that day.

Back at his office, Ranger Benteen is going through a CIA-supplied catalog of cartridge case markings; it looks like he's not convinced that the lab in Austin or his new friend with pull in Washington will be helping him out in time. He's just starting to consult the binder full of shell casing marks when Hackett shows up and tells him it's German ammo shipped to Montreal. The working hypothesis is that Bailey is buying foreign ammunition for some reason--perhaps American manufacturers weren't openly selling to Mexican drug cartels in 1987.

After changing his suit (the "D.E.A." functionary wears a white suit, a necktie and glasses when he's talking to Benteen; Hackett is in black with no glasses or tie when he's with his men) it's time for the official Heist Briefing. Rule One of Heist Club is that they have to look like civilian bank robbers in order for the overall plan to work. Rule Two is that they won't be using radios at any point once the robbery starts. Rule Three is that timing is paramount and Rule Four is that they will use beepers to signal their base of operations once things have been accomplished. It's not quite as precise as the First Gotham Mafia Bank getting knocked over by a crew of five (then four...three...two...oh, just the Joker at this point) but there's certainly plenty that has to go right in order for all the men to get away safe.

Hackett's going to give the go signal on site at the bank while everyone else takes their places and preps their tasks. Atwater rigs a semi truck with some kind of bomb as the distraction; Coker's stuck driving it and he's had the least dialogue in the film so far. He doesn't get blown up, though. He dives out of the semi before it smacks into a warehouse, sending it up into a cloud of smoke and flame and distracting the hell out of the local police (including Benteen). Several minutes after the warehouse goes up, Fry kills the phones at the sheriff's station, and the dispatch guys are too busy trying to get a dial tone to even suspect that something's up.

McRose and Fry--in security guard uniforms--get into the bank, disarm the requisite on-site elderly security guard, and start making their withdrawals. Meanwhile, Coker has driven into a ditch and can't get the car out of the sandy soil on the side of the road (even with Atwater pushing).  While the two fake security guards clear out the cash on hand, Hackett takes the bank president into the safety deposit box room, sticks a gun literally in his face, and asks if he feels like dying for Cash Bailey instead of handing over the man's safe deposit box. He's not interested in the money in there, but takes a couple of notebooks instead. Around this time, Coker and Atwater get their car back on the road and head into town for the rendezvous that they're probably just slightly late for now.

Bailey's money man takes about a step and a half into the bank before getting clubbed unconscious by Fry; he had two suitcases full of cash on him, so Hackett's people are probably financed for the next couple of decades. Add in the money they're swiping from the bank as well and they're doing fine. Well, they would be, but...answer me this. You ever seen a heist in a movie that went the way the criminals planned it to? Me neither. The first any of the soldiers know about things going wrong, it's when Fry gets shot to death by an Uzi-toting hench of Cash Bailey's. That guy lives about another four seconds more than Fry does, and the robbers leave in two vehicles just as Benteen drives up and sees Coker throw an illegal U-turn. A rather choppily edited chase scene ensues (I don't get much spatial information from closeups of Nick Nolte behind a steering wheel, myself) and when Coker drives down the wrong alley and racks his car up, he and Atwater surrender to the Ranger rather than compromise things any further.

Which means that Benteen runs their fingerprints once they're booked back in the sheriff's station (under fake names, which means I'm expecting Bill Forsythe to talk about using code names for the bank robbery). Seconds after he has the fingerprint cards ready to fax to the FBI, one of the deputies tells him the markings on some of the shells from the shootout at Arturo's were Special Forces issue, and therefore not to be listed in the standard catalogues of bullet casings. Oh, and when Benteen figures out that he needs to talk to the D.E.A. about their man, the personnel office says they've never had someone named Frank Ralston on the payroll. Benteen might be a cowboy more than an investigator, but he's far from stupid and he's starting to put two and two together a couple of times.

In the cells, Coker and Atwater are trying to figure out how to break out and rejoin their crew; McRose and Biddler are waiting around at their crappy van at the rendezvous point and wondering how long they should wait for Hackett. They also process their feelings about watching a friend and colleague die because the operation went south, with McRose pointing out that the grunts always wind up catching a bullet when the officers' plans don't work out perfectly. Biddle's also steamed that his friend was killed on American soil doing an op rather than in one of the hot spots they're used to working in.

Meanwhile, back at the sheriff's station, the records for Atwater, Coker and Fry have been sent over from the Army's records office. Benteen doesn't know precisely what's going on but he does know that it's something big and secret if three soldiers listed as KIA have been in his jail in the last week. Add the fake D.E.A. agent and the real bank robbery and it sure looks like some shadowy conspiracy type shit has been going down under his nose. He leaves the station after giving orders for a deputy to stand guard with a shotgun and gets to the cantina, where the bartender tells him Sarita left with "an old friend" and went to Mexico.

Benteen tracks Hackett down and brings a loaded rifle to their discussion--and Hackett gives him his real name and rank, though he doesn't bother with the serial number. After being asked the perfectly understandable question about why the U.S. military is robbing banks on American soil, Hackett says that Cash Bailey has documents that would embarrass the American government stashed in that bank along with a ton of money. If Hackett can be believed, Bailey used to be an undercover D.E.A. agent who went native and used what he knew about the law enforcement side of the drug war to set himself up as a regional power. Hackett tells Ranger Benteen that he and his men can sneak into Bailey's compound and take him out; all the major wants are Bailey's notebooks (again, if one can trust the word of a known liar). Benteen goes back to the station and relieves his (sleeping) deputy, then unlocks the door for Atwater and Coker. Next thing you know, the four military guys and Benteen are on a rickety old bus bound for Mexico, with Hackett telling the Ranger that he's going to have to follow orders on this operation and Atwater mumbling about how he has his buddies in the squad and his country and that's all he's got in his life.

In a crumbling hotel, everyone sits around sweating and loading their guns. Benteen leaves to go talk to Cash, having been told that half an hour after he gets to the Bailey hacienda the four soldiers are coming in guns a-blazing. Once he leaves, Hackett tells his squad that the rules of engagement are as follows:  Kill Bailey, and other than the soldiers he's talking to, nobody in the compound is to be considered a friendly. I mean, we knew Hackett was a villain because Michael Ironside is playing him, but still. That's cold. McRose pushes things as far as he's willing to (not far), but gets his objections on the record.

Benteen walks into the compound while the soldiers take a quick peek at the place from a distance and mark the defenses they need to account for. When the Ranger gets to the front porch of the hotel Bailey's taken over, the drug lord himself saunters out with a bottle of booze in his hand and says Benteen can take Sarita back over the border, but he's planning to stay. Benteen responds by challenging his old friend to a gunfight, one on one, like in the olden days. Bailey can't back down in front of all his men, so he agrees to it. Benteen surrenders his gun so that he can go inside Bailey's fortress and see that Sarita's all right before the showdown. This is what happens when someone watches too many Westerns as a kid.

In the calm before the storm, both Benteen and Cash talk to each other about how much they miss the old times and wonder what happened to each other. Benteen gives his back story--he left the little map speck border town he lived in and went to a series of big cities, but nothing felt right for him till he came back home and became a Ranger. I'm not sure I was expecting that, but it's nice that there's a scene with Nick Nolte and Powers Boothe just talking to each other about their regrets and how much they miss each other. In several of Walter Hill's movies, things come down to a one-on-one showdown--think of the dueling guitarists in Crossroads or the unforgettable sledgehammer fight at the end of Streets of Fire. This is the first Hill movie I've seen where it's an actual Western-style gunfight that things are headed towards.

During the conversation, Bailey loses his cool, saying there's no such thing as right or wrong--just choices. He's made his, and he's going to live or die by them. But he's not going to let anyone take his empire away (which leads me to think that Cash doesn't want people to know he started out as a snitch for the D.E.A. if he's getting so angry about the possibility of giving up his spot on the org chart). He punctuates his declaration of his place in the world by shooting one of his lieutenants point-black in the head, then telling Benteen that the man was stealing from him. Which means that he abused Cash's trust, and he will not abide that at all.

Bailey gets himself liquored and coked up but good, nerving up for the confrontation that he knows is coming. Benteen rises to order a tequila and gets joined at the bar by Atwater, who tells him that the half hour of lead time has been cut in half and Hackett wants the Ranger shot on sight. Even a lout like Atwater has his limits, though, and he warns the lawman rather than going along with his orders ("When the shootin' starts, keep your goddamned head down" is his exact advice).

Before the shooting can start, though, Hackett tracks down that money-toting dude from earlier in the film. He says they need to destroy all their records because the Mexican police and the D.E.A. have worked out a deal that ends the protection they've enjoyed so far. I have to say, even for a double-crossing sonofabitch, Hackett's quite a jerk. I don't think he's told the actual truth to anyone in the film, even the men he expects to follow his orders.

Down in the bar, Benteen notices cops filing in right before Sarita breaks away from Cash and goes to him. Upstairs, Hackett tells Merv the money guy that he needs Cash's notebook, then shanks the dude when he won't release it without Bailey's permission. Before he can even clean the blood off his knife, McRose pops in to see what's going on and puts his commanding officer at gunpoint.

Downstairs, it's just about duelling time between Cash and Benteen; the drug lord keeps up a constant stream of patter about how things are going to go because he's nervous and because Powers Boothe sounds great talking stuff up and Walter Hill knew that when he cast the man. Cash declares that the duel is a personal matter between him and Benteen, so his hundreds of guards with assault rifles are not to interfere. He also complains to Sarita that if she starts crying it's going to change the whole tone of the enterprise and he just doesn't feel like it's helping anything.

While we're experiencing duellus interruptus in the courtyard, McRose figures out that the bank robbery was Hackett working off the books and without permission on U.S. soil, The only thing that went wrong for the major wasn't Fry's death, it was the other four sergeants' survival. Hackett wants a gigantic pile of money, and he wants to retire somewhere and try to forget all the awful, awful shit he did for his country. He thinks that's perfectly reasonable, and worth setting his men up to die in a mission that was never sanctioned by anyone in the command structure. Just as McRose is about to shoot the major, two things happen. First, the pair of duellists in the courtyard reach their tenth step apart from each other and get ready to shoot. Second, one of Cash's guards walks in on McRose pointing an Uzi at the major and gets blasted in pre-emptive self defense. Then his body hits the courtyard and the shit well and truly jumps off.

For every one of Cash's security goons with a gun there's two or three unarmed partygoers. Benteen's on his own, Hackett is on his own, and the four sergeants don't all know they've been betrayed. Which makes for an interesting running gunfight, because the various factions don't all know what's going on and who their real enemies are. Benteen, for his part, gets Sarita into a Jeep and flees the chaos rather than try to fix things on his own. The unofficial creed might be "One riot, one Ranger" but he's not stupid enough to think he can outfight everybody with a single automatic pistol. Hackett gets taken out by his own men, who are almost immediately killed by two dozen of Bailey's goons, and after the battle is over it's time for Cash Bailey to face down his old friend again. This time Cash just wants Sarita to count to three and the shooting will start. It takes Ranger Benteen telling her to do it for her to start, but she refuses. So Cash just decides to draw on his oldest friend. He's a rotten shot, though, and misses every time. Benteen empties his gun into Bailey after giving him one last chance to surrender, which Bailey refuses to take.

And then it's one guy facing down a couple dozen armed Mexicans, with Benteen negotiating his release by telling Bailey's highest-ranking remaining hench, Lupo, that it's time for that guy to wear the white suit and give orders. Lupo says gringos are crazy, and it's time for the Mexican cartels to just go into business for themselves. Ranger Benteen and his girl walk off into their uncertain future, and since this isn't that kind of movie they aren't going off into the sunset. Instead it's just a hot summer day with a whole lot of bodies left behind them and the promise that nothing has truly been resolved.

Man, why couldn't Artisan have released that DVD in widescreen? I feel like I missed about a third of the movie with the shots getting framed the way they were, especially in the car chase before Atwater and Coker are captured. Other than that, it was a fine experience, with a much more subtle and reasonable treatment of the drug trade than I would have expected for the penultimate of the Reagan years. Perhaps that's one of the reasons this flick doesn't really get a lot of love that I've seen, even among action fans and Walter Hill cultists. I mean, showing that the entire system is compromised from top to bottom and the requisite One Tough Ranger is barely able to escape with his life at the end of it? I wasn't expecting that in the least. And knowing that the drug gangs are going to continue smuggling their stuff across the border and do whatever they want? I wasn't expecting that either. Finding out that the super-awesome soldiers doing secret missions for the government were all suckers betrayed by their CO? Didn't see that coming either. It's the kind of movie I'd expect from Walter Hill, where the tough stoic men live or die based on the strength of their character. And it's something that flies in the face of virtually every other action movie I can think of from that decade, saying that problems are messy and unsolvable by direct action, even by a man who's the third Texas Ranger in three generations in his family. Hell, I'm not even sure he gets the girl at the end or if they just stick together till they're back in Texas.