9/7/09

Multi- Monday Gets Beat Dead By Robocop

In 1988, the Soviet Union was crumbling, the Iran-Contra affair was blowing up in the government’s face, Rain Man was ruling the box office, and the literary world mourned the death of Robert Heinlein. Meanwhile, action films were going new places with movies like Die Hard and Young Guns breaking the established mold. For today’s Multi Monday, I want to talk about two independent action films to come out that year. One was a flick I grew up watching that I love more and more each year while the other is a new favorite that I have just discovered thanks to the guys at Outside the Cinema.

If I said to you that I wanted you to check out a low budget, independent action film from 1988, most people would politely decline. That would really be too bad because Jim Van Bebber’s Deadbeat at Dawn is a film that is not to be missed. Van Bebber had a passion for films from a very early age, making films throughout high school with a Super 8 camera. One of the films he made, Into the Black, would garner him a scholarship to Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. After attending one year, Van Bebber applied for a student loan to continue his education, but unbeknownst to the financial establishment that loaned him the money, Van Bebber dropped out of school and began to devote his time to making his first feature film that would become Deadbeat at Dawn.

The film follows Goose (Van Bebber) the leader of the Ravens street gang. Following a rumble in the park where Goose is cut up by Danny, the leader of rival gang The Spiders, Goose’s girlfriend Christy (Megan Murphy) urges him to quit the gang. Goose goes out to the graveyard to practice his Nunchucks, reflect (which means screaming at the city “You motherfuckers!”), and finally decides that he would rather be with Christy than lead the Ravens. He tells his second in command Keith (Ric Walker) that he is leaving the life. All he has to do is sell off a batch of Crank and he and Christy will be set until he can find a legal way to make money, but when he goes out to do the delivery, Danny sends a couple of thugs to go to Goose’s place to kill him. Finding Christy home alone, the thugs proceed to beat her to death instead. Goose is distraught and hits rock bottom, but once he gets himself back together, he knows he must seek revenge on the people who killed Christy.

Deadbeat at Dawn has to have one of the most interesting histories of any film ever made. To see if he could get any interest from a distributor, Van Bebber shot what would become the last forty minutes of the film and took it to New York. Getting some encouragement from a distributor, he took the film back to Ohio and raised money to shoot the opening to the film. Taking the film back to New York, he found that the distributor had folded so he took the film across the street and sold it for viewing on the grind house and drive in circuit. The whole film, which Van Bebber described as a “simple revenge kung fu film”, was made on a budget of less than $10,000.

While the lack of funding may show through, the amount of heart that Van Bebber put in the film makes up for the lack of polish, and there are plenty of unpolished areas in this film. The acting is terrible from Van Bebber on down, but that’s not to say it’s not plenty of fun. The shining star of the affair has to be Danny’s thug Bonecrusher played by Marc Pitman. His soliloquy on hating people is one of the best unintentionally humorous scenes in movie history, and it ends in the infinitely quotable line, “I’m the best motherfucker you’ve ever seen, man!” If you can watch that scene and not be having a good time, then it may be that your heart is two sizes too small.

While the acting may not win any awards, I have to give it up for the effects and stunt work in film. The shots of gore are really well done considering that Van Bebber had very little to work with, and there’s a scene with a rotting corpse near the end of the film which is both well done and incredibly disturbing. The really amazing part is the stunt work in the film. All the stunts were done by Van Bebber, and I don't know how he wasn’t killed while being chased by cars, repelling from a building, or jumping off a dam. Not only are they death defying and well done, I have to have respect for a man with the cahones to take so many chances.

I’m not just talking about the stunts, but in making the film itself, he took a major chance. Now I want you folks to take a chance. Deadbeat at Dawn is an extremely entertaining film. Sure one part Death Wish, one part The Warriors, and mixed up with a generous helping of low budget cheese, but that’s what makes the film so great. I can’t recommend this film enough. If you haven’t seen it, see it soon. It may not be the “best motherfucker you’ve ever seen”, but it’s pretty damn good.

Bugg Rating



At the other end of the financial spectrum was Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop. While Verhoeven’s little indie film had a budget of more than five times that of Deadbeat at Dawn, it was still an indie financed by Orion Pictures which had a distribution deal with Warner Brothers Studios. Robocop originally was conceived by writer Edward Neumeier who got the idea after asking a friend what the film Blade Runner was about. When his friend told him it was about “a cop who chases robots”, Neumeier immediately was inspired to write a film about a “robot cop”. Pairing with writer Michael Miner, the pair crafted the tale and tried to shop it around Hollywood.

It eventually landed in the lap of Dutch director Verhoeven who had only recently made his U.S debut with the Rutger Hauer film Flesh & Blood in 1985. Verhoeven originally thought the script was just trash and treated it as such, throwing it away, but his wife rescued it from the bin and convinced him that the film was far more substantial than he originally thought. All I can say is God bless Mrs. Verhoeven because Robocop is one hell of a film.

I’m sure most of you have already seen this flick at least once if not several times, but just in case anyone hasn’t, let me run down the plot for you. In the future, Detroit has become a haven for criminals and the cops have no chance of keeping up with the vast array of crimes being perpetrated. The city decides to bring in Omni Consumer Products to take over the police force and, at first, they field the idea of the ED-209 law enforcement droid. When the ED-209 is brought to a board meeting, it malfunctions and takes out one of the executives. Junior executive Bob Morton thinks that it’s high time to try out his “Robocop” program instead. When Officer Alex J. Murphy is gunned down by a vicious gang lead by Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), he is brought to the hospital and becomes the first candidate to become a cyborg cop. Murphy begins to clean up the street, but when Morton is killed by Boddicker’s gang (in the employ of one of OCP’s senior executives), the Robocop must overcome his own programming to get at the real criminals running Detroit.

Robocop is undoubtedly one of my favorite action flicks, and it's one I’ve returned to time and time again. The film just has everything, action, explosions, humor, gore, and even that substance that the lady Verhoeven saw. Robocop works on themes of power, greed, and the buildup of corporate influence in governmental agencies. All of these are themes that still ring as true now as they did in 1988, but the rise of corporate influence is perhaps the portion that is the most important. The film questions the choice to turn over a public agency to an entity that has a bottom line to maintain. In recent years, the headlines have been full of examples of the government outsourcing its responsibilities to companies with disastrous effect, and if they had just taken a lesson from Robocop then they could have saved a lot of time and money.

In the end, Robocop remains hopeful. Thanks to the incredible performance from Peter Weller, the character of Murphy is able to overcome his programming and regain his humanity. The corporation tries to dehumanize him, but no matter how much of his human body they stripped away, the human spirit could not be overcome. Weller handles the role perfectly, and I always enjoy seeing the Murphy character slowly regain a sense of self over the course of the film. It was a role that Weller put not only his acting skill behind, but his body as well. The Robocop armor was incredibly bulky, and Weller has stated that he lost as much as three pounds a day wearing it. It all pays off in the end with a role that is both memorable and nuanced.

While Weller is great and the corporate stooges may be the overwhelming “big bad”, Kurtwood Smith steals the show as the human baddie Clarence Boddikker. Smith is so damn charismatic throughout, and watching him sleaze his way through the film is almost as fun as watching the Robocop blow up a gas station. One thing that always strikes me is how the actors who played Boddikker’s gang are all actors went on to play jerks on TV. You’ve got Ray Wise who would go on to play Laura Palmer’s dad on Twin Peaks and Satan on Reaper, Paul McCrane who was consistently an asshole on ER, and of course Smith is best known now for being grumpy dad Red Forman on That ’70’s Show.

Robocop is a film that just never gets old. Each time I find myself pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoy it. So I hope you folks enjoyed checking out my thoughts on these two indie action flicks from the good old year of 1988. They just don’t make films like this anymore, and that’s a shame. So instead of going out to check out what remake is hitting the screens or what CGI mess is looking all flashy, take some time to sit down with a couple of flicks that deserve your attention.

Bugg Rating

2 comments:

  1. Robocop is in my Top 5 favourite films of all time, and I've seen it multiple times (including its edited form on tv as a child, which included highlights such as the guy in the gas station screaming "Why me?" over and over before being killed - I thought there was something fishy about that even as a ten-year-old...).

    Still, reading your review was a heart-warming experience - thank you! Oh, and I agree, Peter Weller is amazing. I call it the best physical performance of all time.

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  2. I would stand by your assessment of both these films. DEADBEAT is a hell of a good time and ROBOCOP is one of the best action movies ever made. I just saw it again a few weeks ago on FX--and that's when I know a film is good, when I'll sit through it on cable--edited and with commercials.

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