Wednesday, July 25, 2007


This, my friends, is a momentous day. This is the day that I review ‘Laser Mission’.

Make sure you’re sitting in a comfortable chair and holding a strong drink. You’re going to need both.

In preparing for this review, I realised that it was going to have to be something special. 'Laser Mission' is so improbably crammed with incompetence, stupidity, shoddiness and an overall lack of talent that it would take a lot of work to bring it's myriad failings to light. Its awfulness is so exquisitely detailed that one would have to take one's time with it, lest one miss some glorious vein of ineptitude. It takes a certain kind of man to undertake such a massive, thankless task.

Fortunately, I am such a man.

'Laser Mission' was made in 1990, by the same South Africans who'd lobbed the live grenade that was 'Space Mutiny' onto the world stage two years earlier. I discovered it in a compilation entitled "Super Sci Fi", which I purchased at WA Salvage for $5. The fact that 'Laser Mission' isn't Sci Fi by any stretch of the imagination obviously didn't bar it from this collection. Perhaps it was included because it had "laser" in the title, and as we all know, lasers are science fictiony.

Although come to think of it, lasers have been science fact, rather than science fiction, for nearly half a century, so even that slim justification doesn't work. Oh well. It certainly sets the tone for the level of forethought and attention to detail of the movie itself.

We begin in an underdecorated set with fake windows, pretending to be a luxury salon, full of extras in eveningwear, pretending to be classy. They are there to witness the unveiling of the fabulous Varbeek diamond… “varbeek” obviously being Afrikaans for “tacky crystal door stop”. However moments after it is revealed, gas grenades go off inside the room and masked gunmen burst in. They grab the diamond, but not before their leader fires off a few rounds from his semi-automatic weapon into the glassware. Of course everyone is dead or unconscious already, thanks to the gas, so presumably he just has a thing against champagne flutes.

Cue the first of several abrupt scene changes, as we leap over to what purports to be Cuba, where chiselled mercenary Michael Gold has just arrived at the airport. Michael is played by Brandon Lee, who is not so much an actor as a set of well-defined cheekbones looking for a raison d'etre. Given his biological heritage and his flinty glare, for a few seconds the credulous viewer might actually believe that he's a little bit bad-ass. Sadly, however, it isn't long before he opens his mouth, and any illusions we ever had about his coolness are thus ruined.

Customs officer: Are you here for pleasure or business, Mr Gold?

Me: Don't do it, Brandon. Don't say "A little of both."

Brandon: A little of both, you might say.

Me: Dammit!

Customs officer: What kind of business do you do?

Brandon: People management and conduct behaviour modification.

Customs officer: That sounds very interesting and dangerous work.

Brandon: Let’s put it this way – I’ll always have a job.

Customs officer: Trouble is, are you always able to do the job? (stamps passport)

Brandon: You wouldn’t happen to know where I could get a good Cuban cigar, would you?

Customs officer: You Americans, with your sense of humour. You kill me.

Brandon: Another time, another place.

Me: Well, welcome to Cuba, and thank you for using the "Awkward Banter" window. Next!

Having baffled the local customs service, Brandon heads off the baffle Ernest Borgnine. Since Ernest was probably lured onto the set by wafting an open bottle of scotch under his nose, this shouldn’t be too difficult. Brandon finds him sunning himself on a bench by the beach.

Brandon: Mind if I sit, Professor Braun?

Ernest: Oh no, no, sit, it’s a free country.

Me: Uh, I hate to disappoint you, Ernest, but it’s supposed to be Cuba.

Ernest: Wait… who are you, and how do you know me?

Brandon: My name is Michael Gold. I represent a group of concerned citizens in the United States.

Ernest: Oh.

Brandon: You’re fond of birds.

Ernest: Yes. Yes, I have an affinity for them. My daughter works… what a strange approach! What do you want?

Brandon: We want to help you.

Ernest: “We”?

Me: Yes, Brandon represents People for the Ethical Treatment of Non Sequiturs.

Somehow, possibly with the promise of a hip flask full of horse tranquiliser, Brandon persuades Professor Borgnine to flee to America with him. Before they can make their move, however, he is captured by a trio of mysterious strangers and thrown into prison.

It’s in prison that he meets the man who is to become his nemesis. He is Kalashnikov, some sort of commie Russian army guy with a ginger buzz cut and a steely glare. Out of all the cast, his fake accent is the most convincing. It’s not actually Russian, of course, but it is vaguely eastern European. As for the rest of the cast… well, let’s just say that there are ducks who can do better German accents than Professor Borgnine.

Kalashnikov takes great delight in informing Brandon that he’s already been tried and found guilty by the People’s Court.

Brandon: What charges?

Kalashnikov: Treason. Espionage. The death penalty.

My Viewing Buddy: But Brandon’s not Cuban. How can he be charged with “treason”?

Me: Hey, if that’s the most illogical thing in this movie, I’ll eat my car.

But you can’t keep a good man down. Or Brandon, for that matter. He soon escapes, and tracks down the only person who might know what has happened to Professor Borgnine: his lovely daughter Alissa.

Alissa is played by Debi Monahan, whose qualifications consist, in their entirety, of her possession of a bleach-blonde perm and perky breasts. She’s a little suspicious of this strange man with razor-sharp cheekbones, a perma-tan and a complete inability to make one statement coherently follow another, but she agrees to meet him for dinner at 9pm.

At the restaurant, the sexual tension and repartee zing and sizzle like somebody dropping a dead jellyfish onto a beanbag. At the cost of great personal suffering, I’ve transcribed the entire, wretched scene. Witness the full, poetic glory of ‘Laser Mission’ romantic dialogue!

Debi: So tell me, why should I trust you?

Brandon: I’m somebody who wants to help you find your father.

Debi: My father? I think that my father’s dead.

Brandon: That’s possible. But I’ll find out if you’ll help me.

Debi: When I want to flirt, I’ll tell you.

Me: …the hell? Debi thinks that talking about her dead father is flirting? Ewww!

Brandon: Alright Alissa, I’m going to find your father.

Debi: That’s if they don’t kill you first.

Brandon: That’s my problem.

Debi: Yeah well it’s my problem too if I help you!

Brandon: Did he discuss his work with you?

Debi: No, we talked about birds, and music, and life. Never about his work.

Brandon: Who would he have discussed his work with?

Debi: Professor Rice, perhaps? His colleague and his closest friend.

Brandon: Where do we find this Professor Rice?

Debi: “We”?

Brandon: We’re partners, remember?

Debi: Oh, am I worth $100,000 too?

Brandon: I never put price tags on women. It's much more fun taking them off.

Debi: Some things come off very easily.

Brandon: Such as?

Debi: Such as... your head if you don't stick to business.

Me: Is Brandon dating Debi Monahan or Idi Amin here?

Brandon: Let’s go find Professor Rice, shall we? (stands and gestures to pull out her chair)

Debi: (sarcastically) Oh, such a gentleman.

Brandon: (under his breath) Oh, such a bitch!

It’s like Tracy and Hepburn all over again... after they’d been reincarnated as trolls.

Following dinner, Brandon and Debi leave the restaurant to meet Professor Rice… and suddenly it’s the middle of the day. It’s not merely blue-tinted filters filming day for night; it’s actual daytime. But they’re still wearing their dinner clothes. So it must be the same night. But it’s day.

It’s at around this point that my brain started to hurt.

Soon they’re ambushed by the military, and there’s a car chase, with Brandon and Debi in a 1968 Combi van and the Cuban military in whatever vehicles the extras happened to drive to the set that day. Considering the craptacularity of the rest of the movie, it’s a surprisingly professional car chase, although perhaps this is less surprising when you discover that “director” BJ Davis is really a stuntman. This may explain why the falls and explosions are pretty good, while piffling details like script and acting seem to have been thrown together by a coke-snorting Best Boy.

It’s also worth noting that even when playing to his strengths, BJ can’t resist the siren song of incompetence.

VB: Hey! That door fell off the Combi in the last shot! But now it's back again!

Me: That must be what the latin americans call "magic realism".

VB: That's not magic realism.

Me: Okay well maybe the “realism” part is a bit of a stretch.

By now, Brandon and Debi have learnt that Professor Borgnine is being held in the desert compound of a villain named Eckhardt, so Brandon decides that they should drive “south” to get there. The only problem is, they’re supposed to be in Cuba, and Eckhardt’s lair is supposed to be in Namibia.


And you know what? I say fine. Drive south from Cuba to Namibia.

To do this, of course, Brandon will need to get the Combi converted into an amphibious vehicle. Fortunately he's in Cuba, where such conversions aren't uncommon. From there, it's a quick jaunt across the Caribbean Sea to Columbia, and south to Peru, then Chile. At Puerto Williams, the southernmost point of Chile, it's back onto the high seas for the several hundred kilometres to Antarctica, and thence across a vast plain of ice to the South Pole. There, Brandon will apparently use the advanced technology of his 1968 Volkswagen to reverse the polarity of the Earth magnetic fields, causing the North and South Poles to swap. Then it's off across the ice again! Once he reaches the coast, there's several thousand kilometres of the tumultuous Southern Ocean to cross before he makes landfall at Capetown, and from there, it's just a short run through South Africa to Namibia.

Of course the reversal of the Earth's magnetic fields has caused mass extinctions of migratory birds, fish and mammals, leading to a cascade of ecological disaster that will eventually wipe out humanity, but at least we can all die in the knowledge that Brandon Lee did what he set out to do, and reached Namibia by driving south from Cuba!


How!? How does a scriptwriter forget halfway through his movie where he’s set it!?

Set it in Cuba if you want! Set it in Namibia if you prefer! We don’t care! But don’t suddenly decide to shift your entire story to the other side of the planet without a word of explanation!


Sorry. I just had to get that out of my system before I had an aneurism.

Okay. So now we’re in Namibia. Brandon and Debi lose their long-suffering Combi to murderous militias armed with RPG launchers, walk through the hellish Namibian desert for a bit, find a horse, ride that for a bit, then eventually end up in a decent-sized town with a luxury hotel where they can rest, freshen up and give in to their seething sexual tension and do the nasty. Fortunately for all concerned, the strong puritanical streak in South African culture prevents us seeing anything more graphic than Brandon unzipping Debi’s dress and giving her the old lip lock.

Some hours later, while Brandon sleeps, Debi notices a car pulling up outside and Kalashnikov getting out. She sneaks downstairs, and while Kalashnikov is beating up the desk clerk, she hotwires the car and roars away. An infuriated Kalashnikov carjacks a passing Volkswagen Golf and takes off in hot pursuit.

When Brandon eventually wakes up, he receives a phone call from Debi.

Debi: Listen, I’ve got good news about Kalashnikov.

Brandon: What about Kalashnikov?

Debi: He’s dead.

Brandon: You killed him?

Debi: With pleasure.

Me: Wait... you killed him with pleasure? Whoa!

VB: Me next! Me next!

But Debi’s lying; Kalashnikov is holding a gun to her head. She’s going to be his little insurance policy when the Irresistible Force that is Brandon Lee hits the Immovable Object that is the plot.

Brandon eventually finds Eckhardt's lair, breaks in, and meets Eckhardt. They fight, as you’d expect, and Eckhardt is killed after he falls into some spiked iron railings. Of course even this relatively straight-forward death scene couldn't be done without glaring logical errors... despite the fact that he fell down onto the spikes, one of his arms is resting in such a way that it could only have got there from the side. You've got to love a considerate corpse that arranges itself postmortem to its best photogenic advantage.

And then Brandon gets attacked by a ninja. Because… well, by this stage we know better than to ask why. He just does.

Once the ninja is dispatched, Brandon heads back inside to untie Professor Borgnine, and to ask the question that's been on everyone's lips: how did he get from doing 'Summer of the Seventeenth Doll' and 'From Here To Eternity' to this? And also, why did Eckhardt want the Varbeek diamond?

Ernest stays mum about the myriad failings of his career, but he does reveal that Eckhardt wanted to use the diamond in conjunction with the Professor's laser expertise to create a doomsday device.

Professor Borgnine: You see, with the Varbeek diamond and my laser, I can create a nuclear weapon.

Me: What!?

VB: He can create a nuclear weapon with a diamond and a laser? How?

Me: Sweet merciful crap, Ernest! It's a diamond and a laser! THERE ISN’T EVEN ANY FISSILE MATERIAL!

VB: I have just now lost all faith in this movie's narrative coherence.

But now Kalashnikov has the diamond, and has hightailed it to his diamond mine, for reasons of... well, he just has. Such considerations as "reasons" were left behind twenty scenes ago.

At the diamond mine, we’re reintroduced to a couple of bumbling Cuban guards who filled some earlier comic relief roles back in Cuba, and who are now part of a mine chain gang. I for one don’t ask why. At this point, my brain isn't so much hurting as disintegrating. Heck, I see no reason why the two Cuban guards shouldn't suddenly turn up in Namibia. They are manifestations of an eternal comic archetype, not intended to resemble real people or be bound by the laws of time and space. They appear for the same reason that wealthy dowagers keep improbably turning up in Marx Brothers sketches, or that Kenny keeps coming back to life in South Park; because they symbolise an aspect of Thaleian truth that overrules all more mundane modes of discourse. Shakespeare understood this, and so, apparently, did 'Laser Mission' scriptwriters David A. Frank and Philip Gutteridge. It may seem strange to mention them in the same breath as The Bard, but hey, why not? They deserve it.

Meanwhile Kalashnikov is in his office, amusing himself, as any red-blooded man would, by lobbing large, uncut diamonds into Debi's cleavage.

No, really. She’s tied up, he has a handful of diamonds, and he's tossing them, one by one, into the little triangular space between her breasts and the front of her dress. Maybe that's what they do for fun in South Africa. This sight gag is genuinely hilarious, and as such it must be a piece of improv. It certainly can't have been part of the script, since every other joke in this movie is as laboured as Michael Moore's breathing.

In due course Brandon and Professor Borgnine turn up, and the big climactic shoot out occurs. Brandon gets shot in the stomach, which causes him to wince and stagger around a bit, but a minute or two later he’s running, leaping, cracking jokes and not, you know, bleeding to death. What a trooper. Meanwhile Professor Borgnine is manoeuvring his massive beer gut around the scene like a man wrestling a walrus, possibly in an attempt to demonstrate that even at the age of 73 he can still take part in action sequences. It’s like watching your grandad shuffling his way through the Macarena.

The movie ends with Kalashnikov and all his men dead, and Brandon and Debi laughing in an 80s sitcom kinda way, as Brandon declares that he is now the rightful owner of the Varbeek diamond. Obviously he has a door somewhere that keeps slamming shut.

And so it ends, with all of our souls besmirched by its foulness.

Despite the fact that this review is now three thousands words and counting, I've barely scratched the surface of 'Laser Mission's ineptitude. I had to leave out the hilarious "being chased by the world's least competent bounty hunters" scenes, the "Alissa at work as a female version of Steve Irwin" montage, and the haunting "Mercenary Man" theme song written and performed by Mark Knopfler's underachieving little brother Dave. I am only one man, with only so much snark to give.

Before I finish, however, I think it only fair to hand out a few Colmie Awards (named after MST3K stalwart Coleman Francis) to a few of the people behind the scenes who made ‘Laser Mission’ all that it was.

Philip Gutteridge, scriptwriter, who couldn't have had less of an ear for rational human dialogue if he'd been raised by wolves.

Marina Bekker, who was responsible for continuity, and judging from the evidence on the screen spent the entire shoot lying dead drunk under the catering van.

E. Selavie and Bob Yrtuc, who edited the film with all the panache of a three year old mashing play-doh into his hair.

And of course BJ Davis, a man with a dream he wanted to turn into a film, who didn’t realise that it was one of those dreams that cause you to wake up screaming.

Anyone can make a bad movie. Heck, give me a hundred bucks and a camcorder and I can make something completely unwatchable right now. The exquisite pain of movies like ‘Laser Mission’ is that they are technically competent. The lighting, the sound, the stunts and the camera work were all indistinguishable from proper, professional Hollywood movies. It’s in the areas that require creativity – the acting, the scripts, the direction and the editing – that movies like ‘Laser Mission’ reveal the complete and comprehensive lack of talent in their makers.

It's the perfect storm of bad movies, and we will never, if there is any justice in the universe, see its like again.


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