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The New Old: America’s Sweethearts

Recently, while felled with a lung infection that kept me from doing my day to day duties as a critic, I finally had time to catch up with and watch an enormous stack of DVD re-releases from the good folks at Anchor Bay that I hadn’t previously had time for. Here are the results of a completely lost week made up of mostly lost films from the 20th Century Fox archives. They are listed here in the order I viewed them in.

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The Ghost in the Machine (Rachel Talalay, 1993) – In some alternate dimension, I’m quite sure that Rachel Talalay has garnered the acclaim that Katherine Bigelow now has. The long time line producer of the Nightmare of Elm Street films would go on to direct the inappropriately titled and worst of the series Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare before getting some cult acclaim for her work on the “if you ask me it’s still fucking terrible” camp classic Tank Girl in 1995. But between Freddy and Petty was this often forgotten about and patently ludicrous technothriller that had the dubious honour of being the first film released in 1993.

Karen Allen plays Terry Munroe, a single mother trying to find her way in the modern world. One day while trying out some software on a now ancient PC that allows people to scan their address books into a computer, she leaves behind her own hard copy and it falls into the hands of Karl Hopkins (Ted Marcoux) who would turn out to be The Address Book Killer, a psychopath who sort of lives for this kind of mistake. In the middle of a torrential downpour, Hopkins gets put into a coma in a car crash and dies while getting an MRI, which naturally means he’s now sucked into the world’s Ethernet and power lines and he can attack from anywhere at any time. The family’s only hope comes in the form of a reformed hacker (Chris Mulkey) that somehow has access to a particle accelerator.


Hopkins might be one of the worst serial killers in film history, not just because he’s written by people who have no concept how anything electronic remotely works, but because he mostly can only create dickish pranks aside from making a microwave overload to turn an entire room into Chernobyl. He harasses people with phone sureveys, places large orders of lingerie to Terry’s office, hits a dog in the face with an ejected VHS tape, blocks Terry’s kid from looking at porn, and racks up huge phone bills. He’s also easily thwarted by magnets, band-aids, Q-tips, and tape. There’s absolutely nothing threatening about his powers in the slightest.

Everything in the film is highly illogical and improbable, and even though the film doesn’t really hold up now (nor did it upon release), it does help serve as an odd early 90s time capsule. As cheeseball as it is, though, there is a nod to Mac worship that still holds true today. Other than that, the glorious line “It’s a particle accelerator. It only has to protect itself against drunk students.”, and an appearance from Rick Duccomin, there’s not much here other than some great, unintentional laughs.

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Six Pack (Daniel Petrie, 1982) – It’s always been commonplace to try and cast musicians in synergistic film roles, but it very rarely works for country music stars. Since this film was released a few weeks before I was even born, I can’t really say with any historical accuracy just where America’s love affair with Kenny Rogers was during the making of Six Pack, but I’m assuming it was during that same career resurgence that he saw when he was doing guest spots on The Muppet Show. The idea of casting him as a stock car driver touring the country and grinding it out with a rag tag group of precocious kids in tow sounds like it should be a chip shot for any filmmaker, but director Daniel Petrie (A Raisin the Sun, Fort Apache The Bronx) woefully overestimates his leading man’s star power.


Brewster Baker (Rogers) hasn’t won a race in ages, but he feels on the verge of breaking through to glory once again. One day while stopping for gas, his car gets stripped by a bunch of orphaned kids in a dairy truck – led by a really young Diane Lane and featuring an equally young Anthony Michael Hall – and being the kind, caring soul he is, Brewster takes them on as his pit crew thanks to their infinite knowledge of cars. Along the way they learn important life lessons and are forced to stand up to a douchy rival (played by Weekend at Bernie’s Terry Kiser) who will stop at nothing to win.

The kids add a real foul mouthed sense of early 80s naughtiness that doesn’t get seen much these days and Petrie directs with some down home sensibility that makes the film now look and feel like a warm blanket from grandma’s house, but Rogers just flat out sucks the life out of the film. He has all the energy and wisdom of a single panel Ziggy comic strip. Trying to make it through the film and not falling asleep watching Rogers try to act is such a yeoman like chore that I probably wouldn’t have made it through if I didn’t have a cough syrup buzz on at the time. The intent was definitely there in Six Pack, but there’s just not much going on here to warrant ever watching it again.

Hear No Evil (Robert Greenwald, 1993) – No matter how big of a name someone manages to be, the curse of following up an Oscar win with a complete dud can befall just about anyone. While it hardly killed her career following her winning performance in Children of a Lesser God in 1986, deaf actress Marlee Matlin made her first big post-Oscar starring role in the ludicrous potboiler Hear No Evil opposite a fairly bored looking Martin Sheen, the “I could have had Paul Rudd’s career” charms of D.B. Sweeney, and directed by a man who would very, very wisely make the jump to making nothing but documentaries around the turn of the century since this film about a deaf woman caught in the aftermath of a heist gone wrong looks like it was shot and edited by a blind man.

Personal trainer Jillian Shanahan (Matlin) has come into possession of a rare stolen coin that’s been hidden in her beeper by an extremely twitchy journalist client of hers (played with over the top gusto by John C. McGinley). The coin has been stolen by a lackey of ruthless police lieutenant Brock who sees the formerly Alexander the Great owned trinket as his retirement fund. After the murder of her formerly deadbeat client, Jillian is forced to go on the run with the dead man’s former best friend (Sweeney) where love blossoms and they try to find a way to stay one step ahead of Brock.


From the writers of The Cutting Edge 3 (which Sweeney was sadly not invited back for despite probably having nothing to do), WarGames: The Dead Code, and, shockingly, The Outsiders, Hear No Evil has no clue how to keep its plot going and instead settles for deaf stereotypes and pointless contrivances to keep everything going. It also bears some very obvious early 90s hallmarks that have made it age worse than Ghost in the Machine has. Boyz II Men literally sing at McGinley’s funeral. Brock has a strange opera obsession and he likes to listen to it while interrogating and torturing people. A jazz flute score that plays over a game of cat and mouse in an extreme sporting goods shop. THE WHOLE PLOT HINGES ON A FUCKING BEEPER.

It also doesn’t help that Greenwald pretty much treats his leading lady alternately like a savant and a complete idiot. While Matlin is doing what she can with what’s given to her, it’s hard to believe that someone as intelligent and mature as Jillian would make such horrendous mistakes, deaf or not. But what’s even more excusable is how the film literally has nothing to do and no sense of pacing. It’s dragged out to nearly 100 minutes to forward an extremely lame romance with little flourishes of suspense when it decides it needs to keep the story in mind. Then, after wrapping up the film’s A-story literally an little more than an hour into the film (!), it throws together more of the love story before unleashing one of the most ill advised and illogical final twists in film history. At least everyone involved was able to move on to other things following this (and in Sheen’s case he was too established to really have anything kill his career by this point) and the film was far too slight to have inflicted any real damage on anyone aside from the audiences that were unfortunate enough to see it.

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The Pirate Movie (Ken Annakin, 1982) – Notoriously remembered for almost single-handedly being the film that killed off pirates as a box office, this misguided but oddly genial and well meaning loose adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance stands as more of a career changing benchmark for two leads who became American Sweethearts by eschewing usually safe choices and made careers off edgier fare. Yet here, when Kristy McNichol and Christopher Atkins sing, it feels like nothing but the safest and most sanitary film they could have possibly ever done.


Following McNichol’s work on the popular long running drama Family and a prominent co-starring role opposite Tatum O’Neal in the controversial Little Darlings (and in the same year when she would work with Samuel Fuller and Curtis Hanson on White Dog) and Atkins’ star making turn in the equally controversial The Blue Lagoon, it just seems odd and beneath both of them thematically for them to star in an equally old timey and annoyingly self aware musical from Disney vet Ken Annakin.

After being ditched by her peers on a pirate themed spring break pirate themed cruise, a flannel wearing nerd (McNichol) gets caught in one of those one person storms while out alone on a sailboat and she’s transported into a Wizard of Oz style scenario where she’s playing Mabel, the youngest of a large family of bitchy sisters who falls for a young pirate named Frederic (Atkins). The young pirate has just turned 21 and fulfilled his duty to the Pirate King (Ted Hamilton) so he just up and decides he will devote his life to killing the pirates (eventually) and chasing girls. After being forced to walk the plank for being a complete moron, he meets McNichol and immediately falls in love, but in order for the two of them to wed he has to prove himself to her Major General father (Bill Kerr) and steal back their family treasure that was stolen by pirates long ago.

While the performances and musical numbers hold some camp value for generous viewers, the film comes hampered by an almost aggressively cut rate budget that reduces some of the film’s biggest set pieces to lacklustre, lifeless scenes that take place in empty rooms or open fields. Annakin (who provides a stellar commentary track/Q&A on the DVD) tries to inject some life into the film, but he’s always seeming to find his hands tied. Add to that some DREADFUL pokes at pop culture (calling white guys “honky,” a chorus of people that say “Aw shit” in unison, a lightsaber for absolutely no good reason, pointless and crappy looking animation blended with even less convincing live action) and it’s easy to see why the film never went beyond any sort of cult status and why it did less than nothing for its stars.

After 1982, McNichol would cut back on acting quite drastically aside from a prominent role on the sitcom Empty Nest, while Atkins would go on to become one of the kings of the direct to video scene. The film would stand alongside Roman Polanski’s Pirates and Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island as the biggest pirate themed duds of the late 20th century, and sadly Annakin would only make one more North American feature film before his recent passing in 2009 (The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking, also featuring pirates and sucking something awful), but aside from being hopelessly cheesy, it’s not as awful as it looks or its reputation might suggest.


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Jack the Bear (Marshall Herskovitz, 1993) – Hands down the best film of the entire mini-festival I made for myself, the little seen and often unremarked upon Jack the Bear showcases the talents of then budding screenwriter Steve Zallian (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, co-writer of Moneyball) in a twisty, tough, and heartfelt tale of a young boy and his stunted, depressed father trying to grow up together in the face of a pair of shocking tragedies.

Based on the novel by Dan McCall and set in early 1970s Oakland, Danny DeVito gives a phenomenal performance as John Leary, a recently widowed father of two and late night horror movie show host that’s started hitting the bottle and becoming increasingly aloof about what’s going on around him. His eldest, the titular 12 year old Jack (Robert J. Steinmiller Jr.) ends up taking care of his little brother Dylan (Miko Hughes) and generally being the responsible one. Despite the average teenage torment of falling in love (with a really young Reese Witherspoon) and becoming embarrassed by his father’s antics, a more evil presence in the neighbourhood starts to come to light in the form of the creepy Norman (Gary Sinise), a 29 year old man still living with his parents and harbouring an awful secret that will put him in direct and violent opposition to John and his family.

Told from Jack’s point of view, Zallian knows how to use voiceover and narration quite well and the film’s script and performances often compensate for some fairly annoyingly shot flashbacks that seem to be trying too hard to be artsy and in spite of a conclusion that turns into an outright horror film. It’s far from an easy film to watch, especially when the storyline involving Norman takes centre stage almost an hour in, but the film is ultimately extremely rewarding as a portrait of a man and his son trying their best to keep it all together despite neither of them having any answers as to where they should go in life or what they should do. It’s also a credit to DeVito for playing John as a low key drunk (with the exception of an on air meltdown that serves as the film’s tipping point) that can stay clear and focused if he puts his mind to it. Just like many alcoholics, John isn’t always a let down, but he’s wildly inconsistent. It’s easily one of the best performances of his career and also one of Zallian’s finest moments as a writer.

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Vanishing Point (Charles Robert Carner, 1997) – The answer to a question I thought no one would be dumb enough to ask, this Made for the Fox Network remake of the seminal 1971 Richard Sarafin helmed car chase epic of the same name posits that the main character of the original (a weed smoking car pusher who made a bet to get from point A to point B at any cost) was actually a right wing hero misunderstood by the goddamned liberal government and was really just trying to make it back to his sickly wife. While he appeared in some dreck early on in his career, Vanishing Point easily stands as the worst thing star Viggo Mortensen has ever had his name attached to.

Jimmy Kowalski (Mortensen) leaves behind his pregnant Lupus suffering wife to take a job driving a show car from his home outside of Boise, Idaho to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Instead of hopping a bus back home, the former Desert Storm soldier with an assault conviction on his record from defending his crackhead mother decides to make some extra cash driving a 1970 Dodge Charger back up to Utah. Just after setting out on the way home, Jimmy learns his wife is in the hospital and she might lose the baby, causing him to speed back. He’s stopped by an overzealous trooper and so begins his days on the run being chased by an equally car obsessed Utah statie (Steve Railsback), an FBI agent (Keith David) who’s convinced Jimmy is running guns for militia men with absolutely no evidence to back his claim up, and with a right winger Colorado DJ known only as The Voice (a terribly cast Jason Priestly) lauding him as a hero and trying to clear his name.

The politics and religious iconography in this remake of a film that simply wanted to stage awesome car crashes is beyond abhorrent to the point where I couldn’t finish watching the film. I was already sick and to see what they had done to a cult classic in the name of the Fox Network made me sicker. I had to take a lengthy break following my aborted viewing of the film since I know there was no way that the ending of this film could be logical or have any meaning outside of absolute martyrdom for the main character. Even worse, the main reason for seeing the original, the stellar car chases and practical effects crashes, are so horribly staged and arbitrary that Carner’s remake becomes easily one of the worst and most pointless reboots ever constructed. Stick to the original as this should not be viewed by anyone, for any reason, at any price. Even free.

Tough Enough (Richard O. Fleischer, 1983) – Better than I was expecting and still far too long, this redneck reboot of Rocky has some really nice touches, tight direction from screen veteran Richard Fleischer (Tora! Tora! Tora!, Soylent Green), and an equally physical and musical performance from a young Dennis Quaid.

Quaid stars as Art Long, a down on his luck aspiring 29 year old country singer who refuses to do any profession he doesn’t like, much to the chagrin of his wife, child, and father (Wilford Brimley!) who realize that he simply can’t pay the bills. On a whim, Art decides to enter a Fort Worth, Texas toughman competition (basically amateur boxing with looser rules) to put his skills at beating the hell out of hecklers to good use. After catching the eye of a shifty promoter (Warren Oates, in his final onscreen appearance) and landing a knowledgeable cornerman (Stan Shaw), Long wins the tournament and decides to press his luck at the national finals in Detroit for $100,000 and a chance to sing on a national talk show. His wife shows concern, the fights might be rigged, and I’m pretty sure you all know how the rest of the story goes.

The script from John Leone (who only ever wrote this and one other film) holds some surprises despite Fleischer padding the film with occasionally redundant fights in an effort to give the audience what they really want. It functions almost as a precursor to last year’s Warrior minus the familial aspect. Art Long is an oddly relatable and affable character that people want to see succeed, and the ending is a pure crowd pleaser in every possible fashion. It’s pretty cut and dry stuff, but it’s better than some of its ilk. Also, huge props to any film from the early 80s that has a character named Gay Bob who isn’t constantly the butt of jokes AND the character that gets the best fight scene in the film opposite the lead.

Quaid really musters some great energy here, performing and writing songs himself and doing all his own stuntwork whenever possible. The music isn’t much to listen to, but it serves the story well, and Quaid and the cast sell it all wonderfully. Overall it satisfies the potato chip and beer drinking on a Saturday afternoon demographic that it’s squarely aimed at.

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Quicksilver Highway (Mick Garris, 1997) – I doubt there has been a novelist and director partnership more longstanding than the one between Stephen King and Mick Garris. Adapting King no fewer than seven times (mostly for television, including The Stand and the King approved adaptation of The Shining), Garris pulls together this okay made for TV anthology effort that features one far lesser story from King and a genuinely interesting one from Clive Barker.

Featuring wrap arounds starring Christopher Lloyd (in a choker and sporting fading ginger hair) as a storyteller travelling the country for the dark underbelly of America, Garris (who also adapted the short stories the vignettes are based on) spins two tales so vastly different that the whole enterprise seems like two pilot episodes of a longer series stitched together.

The King story leads off with “Chattering Teeth,” the story of a salesman (Raphael Sbarge) travelling through a blinding sand storm in the Nevada desert with hopes of getting back to his wife and son for his kid’s birthday. At a rest stop, the man picks up not only a pair of enormous metal novelty teeth, but an extremely suspect hitchhiker going under the obvious pseudonym of Bryan Adams (Silas Weir Mitchell) with less than honourable intentions. Sbarge and Mitchell have a good chemistry together, but the story really feels too slight to sustain even a short. It’s all pretty obvious and unsurprising, and not helped by a week ending.

Garris seems far more energized by the second story with his adaptation of Barker’s “The Body Politic,” a tale of a plastic surgeon (the always great Matt Frewer in an admirably physical performance) who can only watch as his skilled hands literally revolt against him as they develop minds of their own. It’s bizarre in the way only a great Barker story could be (one of the hands literally wants to start a revolution of ALL THE HANDS IN THE WORLD), but this one also has the wit, gore, thematic interest, and style the first short was sorely missing.

In a nice touch, the actors in each of the shorts are the poor souls that have to listen to Lloyd’s stories, and had this become a regular series the novelty probably would have sustained quite well. It almost deserved better than the token TV movie treatment it got, but leading off with the Barker tale would have been much more advisable. Or selecting a better story from King, who certainly has no shortage of material.

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Firestorm (Dean Semler, 1998) – After only appearing in one previous feature film (Broken Arrow) and making a big splash on Fox NFL Sunday, former pro quarterback Howie Long was somehow deemed worthy of his own star vehicle, and quite unsurprisingly the film failed to make a splash, opening almost exclusively in second run theatres in many markets. In a way, that’s kind of a shame since the movie built around him isn’t all that bad.

Firestorm basically takes the exact same template as Renny Harlin and Sylvester Stallone’s Cliffhanger and applies it to the high adrenaline career of smokejumping. These daredevil firefighters drop themselves into raging forest based infernos to rescue stranded people, protect the land, and contain major blazes. Jesse Graves (Long) gets more than he bargained for when a master criminal (William Forsythe) disguises himself and escapes from a Wyoming work crew with several inmates using the man made inferno as cover to escape to Canada and reclaim the $37 million he has stashed away.

The basic template speaks to Long’s limited strengths as an actor, and honestly, he’s not that bad. He has screen presence and his line readings are mostly solid, but he just can’t stop smiling for two seconds. At least director Dean Semler has surrounded him with credible pros like a gleefully deranged and cold blooded Forsythe and Scott Glenn as his gruff, kindly, and semi-retired mentor. A sub-plot that takes over involving Graves having to protect a trapped bird watcher that knows the criminals’ escape route grates since it mostly relies on banter, but there’s enough action going on so that it never drags the film down with it. Also, the fire sequences are truly some of the best ever captured on film, so if anyone finds Long’s constant million dollar smile annoying they can just bask in the warm glow of chaos and Forsythe’s performance.

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