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Robot Jox (1990)
"High on melodrama. Low on actual Robot Jockeying."
IN THE FUTURE, everything sucks.
That seems to be the message that all of these post-apocalyptic movies set in the undetermined future seem to be telling us. Our children's children's children are gonna have it rough. While this may be a not-so-subtle way for filmmakers to say we better get our collective acts together, I'm guessing their reasons for making these movies are not nearly as altruistic. You don't need a permit to film on scrubland, and the wilds of Southern California, Romania, or, in the case of this movie, Italy, have that nice "scorched Earth" quality to them. It's a lot easier than filming on a busy street! Cheaper too! Just head on over to your local S&M leather outlet, pick up some wardrobe for the post-nuclear "mutants" to wear, and watch "Road Warrior" for all additional plot points.
The 80's were pumping out these post-apocalyptic snore inducers at a rate of about 3 a week. The only way that these movies could elevate and differentiate themselves from the heap was to think up some gimmick for the "survivors". The search for life, gas, and/or "Shangri-La" had been done to death. And "Beyond Thunderdome" pretty much wrote and then closed the book on "fighting as entertainment for the remaining masses".
Or so you thought....
"What if we put them in robots?", someone over at Charles Band's Empire Pictures asked. And so, "Robot Jox" was born.
The narrator grimly informs us that in the aftermath of World War III, war has been outlawed. International disputes (and by "international", they mean the US and Russia) are now settled by human pilots (or "Jox", if you prefer) who man the controls of enormous robotic combatants and fight each other until one of them is disabled, with the winning country claiming the land and resource rights of a particular disputed area. This opening monologue unspools over footage of the Russian Jockey (Joxer?) Alexander (Paul Koslo) stomping up in his massive robot to a prone US jock, whose begs for mercy fall on deaf ears. Alexander drops a big robotic foot on him and that's pretty much all you need to know about our Russian antagonist. It's not a clash of political and socio-economic ideologies. The Russians are just big, heartless meanies.
So now our focus shifts to the US Jox. The veteran of the American squad is Achilles (Graham), who's coming up on his 10th and final contracted robotic bout. He's the last of the lucky few who were "chosen" to be robot jox, as the program is being taken over by a genetically-engineered group of competitors known around the training grounds as "Tubies" (as in "test tube-bred", not to be confused with 'Teletubbies' in any way). Anyway, Achilles is set to face-off with the unyieldingly evil Alexander. We get about 5 minutes of stop-motion animated Robot Jockery before Achilles, in an attempt to stop one of Alexander's weapons from going into the poorly-placed spectator area, ends up crushing a large number of the futuristic bleacher bums. The match is declared a no contest, but Achilles has had enough and decides to call it quits. And herein lies the problem.
That's all of the "Robot" footage we get for the next 45 minutes or so. The intervening time is spent showing Achilles' struggle with retirement from the Jox Life, and two fairly weak subplots. The first deals with espionage within the Robot Weapon Information Community (which consists of two suspects, one who's shown EXCLUSIVELY with a guilty look on his face and a "IT'S HIM!" musical stinger during all of his appearances. It's absolutely NO surprise when the other suspect is revealed to be the spy). The other is a burgeoning love story between Achilles and the only female "Tubie", Athena (Johnson). It should come as no surprise that Athena will end up being chosen as Achilles' replacement in the Robotic Battles, providing the impetus for Achilles' comeback in the name of protecting her from harm. What stunned me was that Athena was supposed to be a "genetically-created warrior". Were genes from a Whippet used in her creation, or was she the product of an unspoken union between Olive Oyl and DeBarge? Because she looks to be about 70 pounds soaking wet and she's sporting a sad little mini-mullet.
At any rate, this pause in robot action only gives us time to grow incredulous with the vision of the future that's presented here. Truth be told, the settings of "Robot Jox" owes more to "Logan's Run" than "Road Warrior". The population scurries around the cement edifices of this future wearing surgical masks, living in relative poverty, with a limited educational system, and in constant fear of a prominent military presence. And that's in the US! One can only guess how things are going in the Soviet Union of the future! There doesn't seem to be much in the way of amenities, even for the Robot Jox (although, they do have access to the ubiquitous "Bar of the Future". And like all "Bars of the Future", the music sucks. Why is that?) All of this begs the question, why is Achilles a Robot Jock in the first place? He obviously feels no nationalistic pride, and from the looks of his cubicle-sized apartment, being a robot jock doesn't provide much in the way of monetary perks. I'd say it's the glory, but he's vehement in his decision to retire at the end of his 10-fight contract even BEFORE the accidental killing of his de facto fanbase. In fact, "complete lack of motivation or explanation for ALL character actions" is a motif for the entire movie. And that's rarely a good thing. People just "do stuff", with no regard for past actions or expressed beliefs. Two perfect examples of this are in the revelation of who the weapon tech spy is and, unfortunately, the finale.
***SPOILERS AHEAD!!! TURN BACK IF YOU DON'T WANT ALL THIS HOT ROBOT JOCULARITY RUINED FOR YOU!! SPOILERS AHEAD!!!***
The two spy suspects are the weapons tech Dr. Matsumoto (Danny Kamekona) and former jock-turned coach Tex Conway (Michael Alldredge). Doctor M spends all of his screen time looking guilty as hell, while Tex is just a rootin', tootin' ex-jock who loves his buddy Achilles and hates them damn Ruskies! So, naturally, Tex ends up being the spy in the end. The problem is, they never tell us WHY! He goes from a dyed-in-the-wool good ol' boy to a Russian spy without blinking an eye. He even laughs it up when confronted with his treasonous ways and the murder of Doc Matsumoto (right before he commits suicide via an unintentionally hilarious run-and-jump from the 4th story control tower). Tex's 'about face' is downright smooth when compared to Alexander's change of heart in the end.
After a 15-minute final robot battle, both Achilles and Alexander have ejected from their robo-cockpits and have now resorted to duking it out in the burning rubble of their once proud robots. Up to this point, Alexander has done little more than laugh menacingly at all other jox, declare his superiority over all that oppose him, and grin with glee as he squishes all that come within stomping distance of his robotic feet! I think he'd be comfortable with being described as a "homicidal maniac". I bet it would even be a source of pride! So, after a prolonged and fairly uninspired bit of wrastlin' around the smoldering landscape, Alexander has his mortal enemy laid out in front of him, defenseless. He's visibly INSANE with MURDEROUS RAGE! But, then Achilles brings out the big guns. Eyes welling up with tears, he simply says these 4 magical words (and no, it's not "I love you, Alexander"):
"Let's just be Jox."
That's all it takes. Alexander helps Achilles to his feet, they give each other (I swear to God) THE THUMBS UP!, and we fade to black. It's a poignant ending. One can only assume that had John Lennon lived to see this cinematic vision, we'd all be singing, in unison, "ALL WE ARE SAY-ING.... IS LET'S JUST BE JOX!" Truer words have never been spoken!
The Fightin' - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4
While the Robot Jox-ecution is the undisputed star of this movie, we are treated to some guffaw-inducing examples of hand-to-hand combat training. Gary Graham looks passable during his tussles with his "Tubie" training partners. But all suspension of disbelief is halted when he starts getting man-handled by the animated silly-straw that IS Anne-Marie Johnson. Not to mention, all of this full contact, highly acrobatic combat training is completely useless when operating the hulking robots. In fact, it seems like "mime-training" should be at the top of the training exercise list. Achilles does a pretty sweet "walking against the wind" to operate the legs of his robotic exo-skeleton. Ah, the robots.... I've always been a sucker for stop-motion animation. "Clash of the Titans" occupies a prominent spot on my DVD shelf. I wouldn't say "Robot Jox" is up to Harryhausian standards, but it's good enough to get my inner child all pumped up. Unfortunately, we're only treated to about 20 total minutes of Robot Battlin' action, which isn't nearly enough to inspire me. My Transformers will stay safely stowed away in my parents' attic, rather than being used in an epic re-creation of Achilles and Alexander's ultimately pedestrian Big Fight Finale.
Overall Rating - 1 - 2 - 3
In the end I was really left with only ONE question? "Who was this movie made for?" As a drama it's laughable. As a sci-fi epic it's got far too much talky, not nearly enough robot-smashy. I'd say it was aimed at children, but there's plenty of cursing and just enough bare-ass lockerroom antics to make it inappropriate for them (it still got a PG rating though). Plus they'd be bored out of their minds waiting for the giant robots to appear. What we've got (with all apologies to the "Gary Graham Fan Club") is a movie without an audience. And that's unfortunate, because I had expected more out of this one.
|Starring: Gary Graham,
|"Reviewing the best (and worst) in Pugilistic Pictures!"|