Story by Stuart Gordon; Screenplay by Joe Haldeman
Directed by Stuart Gordon
Gary Graham: Achilles
Paul Koslo: Alexander
Anne-Marie Johnson: Athena
Michael Aldredge: Tex Conway
Danny Kamekona: Doctor Mastumoto
Jeffrey Combs: Guy with four lines who is crushed by a falling robot in the first act. What the hell, movie?
Science fiction writers are supposed to be thinking about the future--extrapolating the now and seeing where it might take us. Sometimes they get it staggeringly right (among the many reasons John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up is worth reading is that it has antibiotic-resistant bacteria as a plot point and the book was published in 1973). Some times they don't see something coming that changes life completely (I can't think of any 60s or 70s SF writers saw the internet coming, oddly enough--and only after computers had already been networked did the cyberpunk guys really start working on the implications of what that could mean). And sometimes history just steps up and rochambeauxs a perfectly good setting. What I'm getting at here is that Robot Jox is one of those Future Cold War movies where the political situation is the one thing expected to stick around forever. It's got a screenplay by Joe ("I wrote The Forever War so you can't judge me") Haldeman and it's directed by Stuart Gordon. It's produced by former indie powerhouse Charles Band. Ever seen a Puppet Master movie? He's the guy who came up with that gimmick, among so many others. It's got a pretty damned good late 80s pedigree, but it never really jells. And then the Berlin Wall fell and Germany reunited about a year after the movie came out and it looked as obsolete as an 8-track just about instantaneously.
As the stentorian voice of the film's opening announcer reveals, the Earth was devastated by a nuclear war, with both the population and the infrastructures of the capitalist West and communist East depleted and almost destroyed. Apparently unable to take even the least subtle hint possible, the two massive power blocs reorganized into the Market and the Confederation and continued a struggle for political and territorial dominance over the world. Instead of using weapons of mass destruction or huge conventional armies--the former would devastate the undamaged areas of the planet and there might simply not be enough people to make up huge armies any more--there are agreed-upon arenas in otherwise useless Market and Confederation territory, where gigantic robot warriors smack the Jesus out of each other until one pilot is killed or yields. We see the final moments of the ninth Confederation victory as the opening credits run, where the Market pilot going under the name Hercules yields to the Confederation pilot who uses the fighting name Alexander. Alexander, being a Commie asshole, gets his victory judgment and then steps on the disabled cockpit to kill Hercules. He then does a great Villain Yell saying that he'll be killing Achilles in the next bout.
Switch to everyone at Market Robot Jox HQ, where a whole lot of exposition is dropped on the audience. A recap:
-Achilles will be fighting to prevent the Confederation from taking control of Alaska.
-It's his last fight out of ten.
-There are a bunch of test-tube-baby Jox coming up as the next generation of robot pilots; they've been engineered for superior reflexes and bloodlust, and trained to fight like cornered rats.
-The arms race continues; the Market has their genetic program to produce robot pilots at least partially because the Confederation
-Espionage is rampant in the world of Robot Jox, with both sides trying to figure out the new secret weapons for their counterpart; for obvious reasons, it's a good idea to come up with a countermeasure for something you know you're going to have launched at your face.
-Each surviving Jok (I'm assuming that's the singular term, just as I have been known to offer people a single Twik from a pack of Twix) is expected to contribute a DNA sample so that more next-generation genesoldiers can be grown from the people who have already shown their abilities piloting giant robot warriors.
-I never, ever, ever wanted to see Gary Graham and and Michael Aldrege clink sperm-sample containers together like they were making a toast. Hey, the filmmakers put that image in MY head, and misery loves company.
So. We're set up for the big bout between Alexander and Achilles, and the movie finally gives us more than a tiny glimpse of what we came here for: huge stop-motion robots shooting lasers at each other and getting into a fistfight (along with a kick that is described as "tricky", but I fail to see how deceptive it can be when it takes a full four seconds to deliver). The "big robot on the gantry" scene takes a while to get through, but it really does show a sense of scale and mass. There's also a quick preflight checklist sequence that serves the double purpose of showing just how the Jox control their robots--a body suit wired to the servos and motors in the robot, so that the Jok mimes fighting and the robot replicates his motions.
Alexander takes early initiative and shows that the Confederation has already learned how to deflect the Market's new green laser weapon; he then cracks Achilles' bot one right in the shoulders with the old Captain Kirk double-chop. Achilles manages to do the equivalent of a tendon-severing attack on Alexander's robot and both mechs are on their backs on the ground. Instead of an MMA-style ground game (imagine putting an armbar on an Evangelion!) Alexander--against the "no ranged weapons" rule for that stage of the match--launches the fist of his mech like a Shogun Warriors toy and Achilles tries to get in front of of the rocket punch before it can hit the spectator seating and kill dozens of people. How well does that go? Well, check out my description of Jeffrey Combs' character under the poster graphic. 300 casualties. I'm sure you meant well, Achilles.
The international referee board for Red Ronin Smackdown decides that the match is inconclusive and must be refought--Achilles refuses, saying he's fought his ten fights and he's done with the game. The leader of the Market goes for the tried-and-true negotiating tactic of calling the person he desperately needs an idiot and then reaches for his checkbook. Achilles decides he's done with the game (given the apparently astonishingly high fatality rate for Market robot pilots, I doubt anyone could blame him) and goes out to get wasted. Hey, the bartender was played by the director! Neat.
And so the second act is put into play--the Market needs to train a new pilot incredibly quickly since the rematch is in one week and they still want to keep Alaska (I won't be making any jokes about the writers not seeing Sarah Palin coming because there is no way that anyone could expect even the mighty Criswell to see the Alaska Quitbull coming from 20 years out). Achilles quits to public condemnation and scorn; Athena trains to take his place; he and Athena have their obligatory hostility that gives way to romance leading to the third act; he decides to come back and fight again to protect Athena; she gets pissed off because she was literally born to run an Armored Core for great justice and slips him a Mickey; Achilles wakes pilots the world's cheapest looking hovercar via remote control to get him to the control booth. Honestly, it's all pretty much anything you've seen in "lone competitor" boxing movies a dozen times before. Coupled with this is the revelation of who the spy for the Confederation turns out to be and his eventual suicide, but that part of the plot honestly just seems like padding and a reason to keep everyone keyed up and suspicious. Let's put it this way--it's either the movie's genius weapons designer or their equivalent of the Brooklyn guy. I'll let you guess who it turns out to be.
While I'm pointing out that the script was bought off the discount shelf at the used movie parts store, I should also mention some extremely interesting developments here that the movie frustratingly hints at but never really goes into satisfying levels of detail. I'm especially intrigued but the idea that Achilles' brother has a business reading things for illiterates (Achilles himself can't read his own contract). The other interesting things about that business--to me, at least--is that he doesn't appear to be making much money at it. Perhaps the only real jobs for literates in the busted future involve working on the Robot Jox programs and maybe Achilles' brother can't quite bring himself to do it. I have no idea. The movie barely touches on it, like I said. And the obscene-phone-call uses for picture phones are shown. Mercifully, not in too much detail. I actually kind of like the obvious cheapness of the sets; it looks like there really aren't that many resources left for the Market and they're burning through their resources to keep the Mechagodzilla Boxing program running.
All right, back to the A plot. There's the duly scheduled beatdown between Alexander and Athena but Achilles takes over partway through the match.And then things get genuinely whackadoo, in a movie that's been a little too staid and television-like considering it's about Jaeger Walloping Contests. Every dime of the budget that was saved by getting the cast and props that they used gets pressed into service (and Stuart Gordon makes me smile because the part of the fight that takes place in outer goddamn space doesn't have any sound effects. Just like Destination Moon when they leave the rocket!). There is a moment involving a chainsaw appendage that you will not believe even after you see it. And then things get even weirder, with both pilots fighting hand-to-hand in their control suits after both robots are wrecked. The ending? Well, apparently Haldeman wrote several of them. I don't know why the director picked the one he did, but it's a nicely baffling wrapup to the entire story.
It's interesting to watch this one and realize just how much things have changed societally--a bunch of God-huffing lunatics with box cutters have been the cultural boogiemen for the last decade and change instead of the treacherous Soviets and their willing pawns in the States. (Some day, I simply must review the Rambo and James Bond movies where they teamed up with our friends, the courageous and heroic Taliban...) Sure, people like Glenn Beck still get a lot of mileage out of calling things Communist, but I suspect a sizable slice of Beck's listeners are not aware that the Soviet Union and East Germany don't exist any more. There's something to be said about nostalgia for the days when I thought everything was going to go up in a mushroom cloud. It's nothing good, I suspect. But today gave everyone the news that some bomb-planting asshole wanted to murder people at the Boston marathon, and I guess I'd rather be worried about nation-states than individual lunatics with a bomb and a grudge.