Sylvester Stallone is feeling nostalgic, he’s consumed by an abstract yearning for the golden peak of the 1980s (and a touch of the succeeding 90s) when meat ruled the marquee. The flex-steady maestro behind the sweat laden brow of such one man brick walls as John Rambo and Rocky Balboa has just vomited his action hero soul up on celluloid for all the world to digest, tagged it ‘The Expendables’ and stuffed the retro centric result into movie shacks nationwide. The films’ extensive novelty value comes almost fully from a loaded cast of manly manness employed to FLESH out its’ shamelessly formulaic ‘rag-tag mercenaries attempt to thwart a third world dictator’ storyline. Many a heartfelt dose of top shelf thespian character development and deep existential contemplation follow suit (bullshit!). Oh, and lots of stuff get lit up, go BOOM!
The most sustaining after shock this beefcake almighty demolition parade left upon the nerd-chic brain pan of yours truly was the faded recollection of days now ancient when little studios that could, actually did. Believe it, or just play along, but there once was a time when dopey and violently quite charming non-intricate shoot ‘em ups appeared on a steady basis at my local Bijou to aptly sate a particular niche of sub-par exploitation devotees. No longer officially ‘grindhouse’ but not yet absconded from public awareness to direct-to-video oblivion, many such pictures managed a meager helping of box office attention before being supplanted by the next tacky trinket out the factory. Speaking of such factories, there were several notables. Let’s see, there was the Roger Corman fathered trifecta of New World Pictures, Concorde Pictures and New Horizons, Vestron (the ‘Dirty Dancing’ people) and even eternally smarmy huckster Charles Band’s infrequently worthy Empire Pictures (who helped propel the career of Stuart ‘Re-Animator’ Gordon and also made a bunch of movies with dwarves and shabby looking puppets) all of which made much cheap shit with lasting cinematic impressions on my young and feeble mind. None, however, held sway over the court of sub-important moviegoing at the level of prolific ferocity that The Cannon Group did.
You see folks, Cannon had a wee something extra, a spark of charismatic showmanship that culled its very impetus from both the brazen studio system of old (contract players and all that cunning, media savvy manipulation of the distribution process) and the brand of ‘quick scheme to make a buck while the gettin’s good’ philosophy that formed the appeal of many a William Castle type product. Keep it topical, keep it cheap, make it look flashy, get asses in seats. Such was the Cannon modus operandi, and it served them well, for a time.
But wait, first, a compact history lesson.
The Cannon Group was first given unto an unsuspecting movie going culture in the fall of 1967 care the efforts of Dennis Friedland & Chris Dewey, two entrepreneurial types who’d set up shop to both showcase lower profile international product as well as fund their own low cost ($300,000 or south) features. Along the way, these early era Cannonites struck minor paydirt with the Peter Boyle dark satire ‘Joe’. Sadly, the success story was short lived for Cannon’s young fathers and so in 1979 the pair sold their baby off for a strikingly low rate=$500,000 to two Israeli born cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. This duo had already been creating and hustling pictures in their homeland before making the leap stateside, Golan himself frequently took on the role of director as well (a position he would return to time and again during his Cannon tenure) and the boys had a plan cemented in their minds as to how they would make a lasting and financially fulfilling mark on this crazy American thing called ‘Hollywood’.
Golan-Globus (as the cult film world would come to know and adore them) set about procuring a fat catalog of inexpensive and genre faithful scripts to shove into production on the low cost/easy market tip. The fattest of their big screen returns came from the mass of grade B+ action epics and genuinely unabashed sequels to films most folks could have done without one of in the first place (‘Exterminator 2’, huh? why?). Granted, the company did branch out through the possibilities of several types of cinema, championed both break-dancing(more on this below) AND lambada pictures, helped run Tobe (‘Poltergeist’) Hooper’s career into the ground (regardless, I still love both ‘Lifeforce and ‘Texas Chainsaw 2’) and even courted art-snob and literary circles a few times (including both a later stage contribution from John Cassavetes-’Love Streams’- and oft lauded author Norman Mailer’s see-it-to-believe-it curo ‘Tough Guys Don’t Dance’) but the bread that held their butter was mostly laden with bullet shells, supplement infused musculature and many a simplistic line of dialog. It fostered the careers of Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Michael Dudikoff (c’mon, you remember the ‘American Ninja’ guy, don’t you?) and a waning Charles Bronson.
By the mid section of the 1980s, at the sheer height of their productive powers, the cousins were slapping the slick Cannon logo on as much as 40 or more films in a given 12 month period. Chuck Norris’ Vietnam war inflected tentpole ‘Missing In Action’ did enough wide release business to justify two follow ups, Van Damme flourished with his kicks (if not his line readings) in the supposed true story ‘Bloodsport’ (supported by a young Forest Whitaker) and old man Bronson would milk the shit out of his ‘Death Wish’ anti-hero, Paul Kersey, all the way to a part 5.
Much of this Cannon fodder adhered religiously to the bare bones b-movie mantra of self-righteous ‘good’ overpowering some form of leering ‘evil’ (often heavily stereotyped foreign people). No matter if it was Chuckie Norris single handedly deflecting an impromptu Communist infiltration in ‘Invasion U.S.A.’ or former television heartthrob Richard Chamberlain aping Indiana Jones in ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ (one of many blatant derivatives of Spielberg/Lucas’ beloved archaeologist the Cannon folks would cobble together), the end result remained the same, the world is rendered free of villainy care the fearless exploits of a grizzled scenery chewing second-tier hero.
Which swings this whole thing back in the direction of that new Stallone flick. You see, not only does ‘The Expendables’ bare strong stylistic and thematic similarities to an atypical Cannon action programmer, it also bares some fraternal ties on the casting front. Within the line up of the film, I counted at least four fellows who had participated in the solidifying of the esteemed Cannon legacy(and if I have overlooked someone, too bad). Not only are Dolph Lundgren (He-Man in the wonderfully clunky ‘Masters of the Universe’), Mickey Rourke (‘Barfly’-not quite action, but they can’t all be) and main baddie Eric Roberts (‘Runaway Train’) guilty by association, but the man in charge Stallone has not one, but two Cannon lovelies to call his own (‘Cobra’ and the arm wrestling standard barer ‘Over the Top’). So, as one can clearly see, the bloodline flows on, albeit at a considerably higher cost (‘The Expendables’ ran up a tab in the neighborhood of $80 million, that could easily have funded a dozen or so Golan-Globus puppies).
So, in the end, is it all worth it? Does a pricey, ensemble homage to the good if not so clean big screen heroics of yore really warrant any measure of genuine affection? Why, shit yes, it sure do. Sly and the family steroids have pummeled all the pieces in place to smack your ass back to the age of perfect, cut muscle fibers and bias, well timed gun play. From the moment the elephantine Lundgren bellows out ‘Warning Shot!’ ‘til the last bullet shell falls, ‘The Expendables’ lives up to the one thing so many of this year’s offerings fail to even touch (‘Inception’ not withstanding), it’s promise to give you a reason to head back to the theater. May the ghost of The Cannon Group smile down upon Stallone and his over stretched flesh, first ‘Rambo (2008)’ and now this, the man has made body counting fun again.
In keeping with this month’s ever compelling subject matter, I offer up a dandy double header I snapped up at one of the local Wal-Marts (yes-I gave some dollars to pure evil, if you don’t like it-invert me) for a basement level $5. The object in question is a two disc DVD repackaging of Cannon’s love poem(s) to the finest dance craze of the 1980s. ‘Breakin’ and the vastly superior ‘Breakin’ 2-Electric Boogaloo’ (think of it as ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, only with break dancing and an L.A. back drop, and no Billy Dee). Both fine features follow the plucky efforts of two street smart youths (Adolfo ‘Shabba Do’ Quiñones and the legendary Michael ‘Boogaloo Shrimp’ Chambers) and the sweet thang (Lucinda Dickey) from the wealthy side of town that wants hang and learn to be ‘real’. The trio utilizes their expertise in hip dance moves to put on a show and save both their street cred (in part 1) and save an inner city community center from demolition (the untoppable ‘Electric Boogaloo’).
Both films thrive as vivid and addictively cheesey time capsules of a prehistoric period when a pop, a lock, a drop and a spin could make you famous and ICE-T ruled the earth (he cameos in both films). Pure energy raised to a level of beautiful stupidity that just cannot be forced, the concept of cult status was created with movies like these in mind. More than recommended as a cure for the doldrums of sanity. VIVA CANNON!
For more great, disposable info on the Cannon Group, visit this=www.cannonfilms.com