Thursday, September 30, 2010

Royal Flash (1975)

The Movie: Captain Harry Flashman (the prolific Malcolm McDowell, last seen on this blog in Class of 1999) is a great war hero of the Afghan Campaign and the darling of the Victorian social scene. Unknown to his admirers, Flashman is really a deceitful, lecherous bully and, above all, a coward. Flashman’s troubles begin when he escapes a police raid on the club he’s in and makes two fateful encounters.

The first is the ambitious Prussian politician Otto von Bismarck (Oliver Reed), who Flashman immediately makes an enemy of. Secondly is the tempestuous dancer Lola Montez (Florinda Bolkan), who Flashman winds up having a torrid affair with. It doesn’t end well. Four years later, the ramifications of both are going to bite him on the ass.

Lola, now the queen of Bavaria in everything but official title, lures Flashman to Munich. Once there, she sets him up so that Bismarck’s agents can kidnap him. Bismarck, in his plans for a united Germany, needs Flashman’s help with the small country of Strackenz. The popular Duchess Irma (Britt Ekland, from the original Wicker Man) is about to marry the Danish prince Karl Magnus. Unfortunately, the prince will not be able to attend his wedding, but Bismarck insists that the event must go on. Fortunately for Bismarck, his old enemy Flashman is an almost identical twin to the absent prince.

But there is much more to Bismarck’s plans than he lets on; and other political factions are in play as well. The reluctant impostor finds himself thrown in the middle of a web of intrigue, deceit and rebellion. How’s Flashy going to get himself out of this one?

The Review:

“You call yourself a man!”
-Lola Montez
“I never did.”
-Harry Flashman

One of my all-time favorite series of books is the Flashman Papers by George MacDonald Frasier. They are delightful works of historical fiction written as the memoirs of one Harry Flashman, one of the most celebrated figures and greatest heroes of the Victorian age. However, as Flashman freely admits, his reputation is entirely undeserved. He is very much a total bastard in almost every way; and above all he is a coward. Flashman is more than happy to enjoy all the accolades and rewards that his reputation brings him, but he goes out of his way to try and avoid the actual situations that earn him that rep.

Unfortunately for Flashy, in that second one he always fails. Whether due to his ever growing reputation; or, more often, as the consequences of one his misdeeds; Flashman always winds up smack in the middle of the very situations he tries to avoid. Somehow Flashman keeps winding up a pivotal figure in most of the major events of his time period; the failed Afghan Campaign, the India Mutiny, the Charge of the Light Brigade, Little Bighorn, to name a few. And yet somehow, Flashman not only survives them all, but more often than not comes out perceived as the hero of the venture.

One of the Flashman Papers’ greatest strengths is that Frasier was obviously very familiar with the material he worked with. While the historical annotations are what turn a lot of people off the series, I find they add to the atmosphere, and it’s possible to enjoy the books without reading them. What’s more, Frasier had a great talent with character, and was adapt at placing historical individuals (Otto von Bismarck, Queen Victoria, Abraham Lincoln) alongside fictional ones (Holmes and Watson make a brief appearance in one of the books, Flashman himself was the villain of the novel Tom Brown’s School Days), and make it seem like things actually happened exactly like in the books. I actually find Frasier’s Queen Victoria much more convincing than how I usually see her represented in various movies.

But the greatest part about the Flashman Papers is the tone. Essentially, they are classical heroic adventure, but with a very un-heroic protagonist. As a result they come across as familiar, and yet the paradigm is skewed. Instead of the hero boldly setting off to do what needs to be done, you have Flashman trying to weasel his way out of it, yet somehow he gets shanghaied into doing what must be done anyway. Instead of boldly and valiantly facing the adventures head on, Flashman cheats, lies, seduces and backstabs his way through. All of this is told in a very cynical yet ironically truthful voice that makes the books so much fun to read.

So, considering all the difficulties that come with translating literature to cinema, how did the movie turn out? Amazingly well, actually. One of the very first things they did right was to get Frasier himself to write the screenplay. Although Royal Flash was modified from its source novel by necessity, it kept everything that made it fun. Frasier and the director present us with a world that’s very engaging and convincing. For one thing, the period sets and costumes look great. For another, there’s something happening in the background and foreground of almost every scene, creating the impression of a living, breathing world.

Best of all, Royal Flash keeps the tone of its source material. Royal Flash is, on its surface, your typical period swashbuckling picture. All of the expected tropes are there; daring swordfights, clever dialogue, swinging from the chandelier and crashing through windows. However, once again the nature of our “hero,” and the fact that he’s no better than his enemies, turns the paradigm on its head. The end result is something that is both familiar, and yet surprising. The climactic battle, especially, plays out like an Errol Flynn movie gone very, very wrong.

Of course, all of this wouldn’t be anything without a good cast. Fortunately, that’s not an issue here. The Royal Flash cast is packed with well knowns and up and comers, all of whom do a fantastic job. However, there are two actors in particular I would like the address. The first is Malcolm McDowell.

I will confess when I first heard there was a Flashman movie, McDowell was not the first actor to come to mind for the lead. However, after having seen him I have trouble picturing anyone else in the role. In appearance and personality and mannerism, McDowell is Flashman almost exactly as I imagine him from the books. Admittedly, movie being a different medium, the part had to be a bit more visually blatant about Flashman’s personality than the books. However, the script and McDowell strike the perfect balance; it is obvious to us, the audience, what Flashman truly is, yet it is also easy to see why so few others have caught on.

The other individual I would like to address is Alan Bates as Rudi von Sternberg, Bismarck’s right hand man on the Strackenz project. Rudi is fully Flashman’s equal in everything but courage (Rudi actually has some), and is the main foil for Flashman. The two actors bounce off each other wonderfully. Also, Rudi is given some of the movie’s best lines, which he delivers perfectly.

In conclusion, I would like to say that Royal Flash works as both a portrayal of the original book and as a fun (although perverse and subversive) stand alone period swashbuckler movie. After seeing how this movie turned out, I'm rather disappointed that they never made any more. If you are a fan of the books, you should definitely see this movie. If you aren’t familiar with the books, but you enjoy swashbuckler movies; or you’d like to see what a classic Errol Flynn movie would look like if Flynn played a total bastard, see Royal Flash.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Class of 1999 (1990)

The Movie: In the far-flung year of 1999, the last decade has been bad. The rise of gang activity and the growing gap between the rich and the poor has resulted in parts of cities being declared “free-fire” zones, areas completely under the control of the gangs, where the police will not enter. Gang problems at public schools have resulted in the formation of the Department of Educational Defense; who seek to find a way to control the gangs.

In a grand experiment, Dr. Forrest (the prolific Stacy Keach), representative of the megacorporation Globotech, provides a potential solution. Mr. Bryles (Patrick Kilpatrick), Mr. Hardin (John P. Ryan), and Ms. Connors (Pam Grier, famous for such blacksploitation flicks as Coffee and Foxy Brown); three android teachers, will be employed at Kennedy High School in Seattle. Kennedy High is right smack-dab in the middle of a free-fire zone, and the new principal, Miles Longford (the extremely prolific Malcolm McDowell, of such diverse flicks as Royal Flash, Tank Girl and A Clockwork Orange), is eager for the chance to clean up his school.

Our hero is Cody Culp (Bradley Gregg, of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors), who is being released from jail to participate in the experiment. Cody doesn’t know that he’s part of an experiment; all he knows is that he’s back in jail permanently if he screws up one more time, and he’s determined to avoid that. However, that seemingly noble goal is faced with some serious obstacles.

First, Cody’s old gang the Black Hearts, who his brother, Angel (Joshua Miller of Near Dark), is about to be initiated into, is furious that he wants out. The Black Hearts’ rivals, the Razorheads, want to get their own payback from Cody now that he’s an easy target. And then there’s the authority, in the form of the new teachers, who have signaled him out as a threat. This gets further complicated by his growing romance with Christie (the beautiful Tracy Lin of Fright Night 2), the principal’s daughter.

The new teachers, it turns out, are refurbished battle droids; and they are falling back on their old military programming, seeing the gangs as an enemy to be eliminated. Cody starts to see signs that they are systematically murdering problem students, but nobody will believe his suspicions. Then, just as Cody starts to put the pieces together, the androids exacerbate the Black Hearts’ and Razorheads’ mutual animosity into a full-fledged gang war. Cody’s only hope is to unite the warring gangs against a common foe. But can he do it? And will even that be enough?

The Review:

"Now be careful; these things are like some bad, fucked-up George Jetson nightmare."
-Cody Culp

Admittedly, Class of 1999 requires a few suspensions of disbelief right off the bat. First is the date; 1999 having come and gone without the specific scenario portrayed. Hell, I was in the class of 2000. Then there’s the idea behind the androids that, more than ten years after this movie allegedly takes place and more than twenty after it was made, are still far beyond our current technological capacity.

However, once you get past those two suspensions of disbelief, Class of 1999 has some elements that I find entirely too plausible. The end of the Reagan Era, when this movie was made, saw a huge gap between the wealthy and the poor; one that has only gaped wider in the two decades since. They have since cleaned up most of the inner cities, but I understand that this just means the problems have moved to the suburbs. With the current economic situation, who knows what this country will look like in another ten years?

Then there’s Kennedy High School, which is portrayed as a fascist police state. I happen to remember high school as a fascist police state; albeit nowhere near the level shown in this movie. The middle of my high school years saw some highly publicized school shootings, the most notorious being the Columbine shooting in Colorado. Considering the idiotic measures the Powers That Be at Mouth of Hell High School took to show that they were on top of a problem that might, ever so possibly, happen; a clear and present danger such as warring gangs on the doorstep would definitely have inspired Kennedy High levels of extreme measures. The only difference is that MHHS would not have been able to afford half as many rent-a-thugs.

The cast is mostly decent, good enough as far as B-movie standards go. Gregg and the script make Cody Culp a fairly believable character. Cody in this movie is portrayed somewhat weary of his environment, having seen firsthand where it leads. However, while Cody doesn’t do the macho posturing of his fellow gangers; he doesn’t pass up on doing the right thing, or let others roll over him. This is why the authorities find him a threat, even though he’s not as blatantly disruptive as the gangers. In fact, the movie suggests that the Black Hearts really look up to Cody, which is why they’re so pissed about him wanting out of their ranks.

Gregg comes across as a little wooden at a few points, but overall does adequately. The parts I find most convincing are the scenes that show his relationship with his brother. Gregg and Miller do a great job at portraying two people who really love each other, even though they don’t “get” each other anymore.

Grier, Kilpatrick and Ryan do a great job as the android teachers. All of them present clear personalities; Kilpatrick is great as the stereotype sadistic gym coach, while Ryan is near perfect as the arrogant, and sadistic, intellectual. Grier, I would say, pretty much reprises her roles from her blacksploitation days; except that here she plays an outright villain instead of a sympathetic anti-heroine. The three alternate between their character stereotypes, inhuman machines, cackling villains and black comedy; but overall they hit all the bases well. They’re the most engaging part of the movie, and they give the impression of having a lot of fun with their roles.

Stacy Keach is wonderful as the slimy, villainous corporate head. Whoever thought of those creepy contact lenses he wears should be commended. McDowell, meanwhile, does a good job as a well-meaning principal who doesn’t realize the full extent of the Faustian bargain he’s made until it’s way too late. Lin is decent as the love interest, though I really wish she could have been a little more competent and a little less the helpless, screaming heroine.

Finally, I think James Medina does great as Hector, the leader of the Razorheads. Most of the movie he’s kind of creepy and threatening, but he does reveal some good traits after he joins with Cody against the teachers. He has some good interactions with Gregg as well.

For the most part, I love Class of 1999 because it is competently made, albeit low budget; and because of its anti-authority message. One of my favorite touches, the moving signs around school that kind of act as a Greek chorus, help bring out the kind of nightmarish world the characters inhabit. When the characters first enter the school, it’s under one such sign that displays the words “Respect, Obey, Learn!” The school represents the system that has placed the gang members in their current position, and in the end is what they unite together to bring down. The explosive (literally) final battle in the end is obviously on a low budget, but the crewmembers just as obviously did everything they could with what they had.

Overall, Class of 1999 is a low-budget but competently made little B-movie about striking against authority. It requires a little suspension of disbelieve, but it has a few parts that seem prescient. Above all, it’s fun. Class of 1999 isn’t high art, but not all entertainment has to be.