Thursday, June 19, 2008

Random Movie Report #49: Trancers

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The TRANCERS series is interesting in that nobody seems to have heard of it yet it’s got as many entries as the STAR WARS saga. The reason for this, of course, is that it’s a Charles Band production, and though he had yet to found the Full Moon studio known for direct-to-video epics like the PUPPET MASTER series and DOCTOR MORDRID, his ability to exploit a concept as much as the law would allow was already being developed. I eventually decided I was curious as to just what this series was and rented the first film on that basis, and it’s an odd one. A mash-up of popular sci-fi imagery from the mid-Eighties, the picture makes some good use of a limited budget and has Helen Hunt paying her dues, but ultimately loses its way and fails to deliver on what is some considerable potential. And then there’s the lead.

Tim Thomerson is Jack Deth (I shit you not), a future cop whose job is hunting down Trancers, the mind-slaves of the evil Whistler (Michael Stefani), who wants to rule the world or something. The elite of this post apocalyptic world (we get a nice matte painting of a submerged Los Angeles) are blinking out of existence, and have worked out that Whistler has somehow jumped to the past and is killing them retroactively by going after their ancestors. They send Deth back to apprehend Whistler, and he ends up in mid-80s L.A. in the body of his ancestor Phil Deth (an accountant with the most badass name in history), who has just hooked up with the lovely Leena (Helen Hunt). She quickly gets sucked into the action when Trancers start popping up, and Whistler has the advantage of being in the body of his ancestor, a police detective who quickly enslaves the LAPD to his will, putting Jack and Leena on the run.

So far, so good, right? For a while I actually enjoyed this, as low-rent as it is. Obviously writers Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo smushed together BLADE RUNNER, THE TERMINATOR, and probably SCANNERS; it’s lazy as Hell, but it’s such a pure distillation of 80s science fiction that it almost sums up the state of the genre. Psuedo-cyberpunk, techno-zombies, and time paradoxes, it’s all there. And there’s a quirky sense of humor to a lot of scenes, as when a mall Santa becomes one of Whistler’s slaves, and when Jack and Leena have to talk to some particularly deluded hobos to get information.

Speaking of Leena, Helen Hunt is goddamn awesome in this film. Obviously this was well before she was famous for anything at all, so she’s got a fairly typical “modern LA romantic interest” role, but she totally makes it her own. She’s cute, she’s witty, she’s energetic, she’s got star power galore and is generally much better than the material around her. If you’re a fan of hers you may just have to see this, and not just for purposes of completism.

Jack Deth, meanwhile, is pretty much the embodiment of an 80s B-movie action star. He doesn’t quite have the brawn or firepower of a Schwarzenegger or Stallone, so he compensates with attitude out the rear. He’s the kind of tough future cop who mouths off to his superiors and has a troubled past and a personal vendetta against the villain, because a Trancer killed his wife. It’s pure boilerplate but Thomerson gives it a manly swagger. If you like this sort of thing you’ll be amused.

In the end, though, the film fizzles out, and may ultimately be a victim of its budget. Whistler has big plans for the past, wanting to conquer the world early and making the city’s transients into a legion of Trancer slaves. Now, ladies and gentlemen, somewhere in the dusty books of filmmaking law there is a rarely-cited but ever-important clause: you do not promise the audience a hobo army and then not show it. Not that this is the only problem; the final third of the movie just doesn’t go anywhere interesting, and boils down to some dark fumbling around in a warehouse and a profoundly unspectacular final showdown. The damn thing doesn’t deliver. So there you have it.

Obviously TRANCERS combined enough popular elements to be a commercial success, and it still has some curiosity value. Individual elements of it are kind of neat, but they fail to come together. I can’t quite recommend this film unless you fall into the category of Helen Hunt fan or lover of cop movie clichés (and I’m genuinely curious to know what kind of overlap those categories have), but it’s pretty painless. A middle of the road picture, designed not to linger in the memory, for better or worse.

Written by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo
Directed by Charles Band

Grade: C

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