The Lost Boys (1987)
We all know there is no such things as a perfect film, most directors are perfectionists and never see a film as complete, just ready to view, however there are some that get so close that you wouldn’t change one thing about them, whether this is pure skill from the film-makers or a case of everything coming together at the right time, when it works, it works. Of course, this comes down to personal taste and doesn’t necessarily include the accepted best in class; the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or the cinematography of Apocalypse Now (1979) are great but they may not be part of a film you can watch over-and-over and not see any faults. These films may have a strong nostalgic element, however if the film still stands up in the modern climate, it just means that nostalgia has enhanced the experience, rather than clouded your judgement. With this in mind, please find my first selection below, have a think about your own.
Using the name for Peter Pan’s motley crew in JM Barrie’s classic book, fits the idea of this 80’s vampire mash up perfectly. The delinquent vampires led by Kiefer Sutherland’s awesomely mulleted David, are Lost Boys, in the fact they will forever remain as young adults, trapped in leathers and riding motorbikes. They are also lost from society, patrolling the Santa Carla boardwalk, separate from the rest of the population, initially different due to their isolation as troublesome teens, then confounded by being turned into supernatural entities of the night. A wonderful 80’s take on an ancient legend.
One of the best opening sequences in cinema, must be the camera flying over the Pacific Ocean, to reveal the Santa Cruz boardwalk (doubling for the fictional Santa Carla) all to Gerard McMahons’s haunting but wonderful ‘Cry Little Sister’. The camera could either be introducing the audience to the films unique setting, or it could be the vampires themselves, on a night flight, coming home. It is left ambiguous and works perfectly either way. We also get a fantastic performance by Tim Capello as the unforgettable oiled up-sax man, looking like a WWE wrestler while performing ‘I Still Believe’. If you wanted a scene that represented the craziness and fun of the 1980’s, then here you are! We also get a great version of ‘People are Strange’ by Echo and the Bunnymen, which introduces us to our main characters, driving from Phoenix to California.
The film places a lot of trust in a young cast, they had to be strong for the film to succeed and luckily, they don’t disappoint. We have the two Coreys on the best form of their careers, Haim as Sam; cocky but vulnerable, he is the heart of the picture, ultimately wanting to save everyone. Feldman as one half of the inspired Frog Brothers, comic book nerds who are the only two people in town, who have noticed the vampire problem and are vaguely trying to do something about it. Feldman is completely over the top, with some great lines but shows he is vulnerable like the rest of us, when he has to tackle a vampire himself. Kiefer Sutherland is spot on as the vampire’s leader, manipulative, cold, with a stare and voice to match. His interactions with Michael are excellent, whether he is racing him almost off a cliff, explaining; ‘how far are you willing to go Michael?’ Or making him think he is eating worms instead of noodles, he is an antagonist that is a joy to watch . You could argue that Jason Patric is the weakest member of the cast, playing Sam’s older brother Michael, who is being slowly turned into a vampire. He has less personality than everyone around him, but his change drives the main plot brilliantly, and he certainly has the right look as an 80’s pin up with hair and earring to match. Diane Wiest is also great as she always is, as the long-suffering mother of Sam and Michael. To round it off we get Barnard Hughes as their eccentric Grandpa (In the classic final reel twist, the third person who knows about the vampires) and Alex Winter in a rare appearance not as Bill S. Preston Esquire.
The Lost Boys uses the aforementioned technique of a flying camera to represent the vampire’s ability to fly, which works really well and has prevented the film from ageing. There is also no shoddy CGI and all the makeup effects look satisfyingly gruesome. When the vampires are eventually shown on a hunt, we get a visceral and violent scene, with a group of skinheads partying on the beach being targeted by our Lost Boys. We get biting, blood spirts and a macabre thrill from the vampires themselves. We also get some inventive action scenes in the films conclusion as the Frog Brothers fill up water pistols from a church’s holy water basin, a vampire takes a garlic and holy water bath with gory consequences, and of course one of the undead receives an arrow to the chest, sending him crashing into a music player, giving us the line; ‘death by stereo’.
The Lost Boys works so well, as the tone is just right, we get comedy, action, gore and frightening scenes to deliver a tale that works expertly on a few levels. The vampire mythos is brilliantly served, paying homage to the genre but also creating something different by showcasing a group of young vampires, as troublemakers feeding off tourists in a boardwalk town, which traditionally have had higher than normal murder rates in the United States. We also get great characters and an allegory for the perils of becoming an adult, complete with a homo erotic undercurrent for gay viewers or a classic romance tale, courtesy of teen runaway Star (Jamie Gertz) for straight ones. It is not too silly, nor does it take itself too seriously. Director Joel Schumacher balances the title, soundtrack, cast and action, to make something almost perfect, so much so, I can forgive him for Batman and Robin (1997).
Total Recall (1990)
Total Recall is based on the short story ‘We can remember it for you Wholesale’, by mind bender extraordinaire Phillip K Dick (also responsible for Blade Runner (1982) and Minority Report (2002). It deals with a future world, where a menial worker wanting to experience life as a super spy on Mars, visits a company that implants memories, but finds out that he may have already lived that fantasy for real. It is a delicious idea, but the story is short and basic, so the film had to add a lot to make this a spicy prospect, including changing the title, the original doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. As well as casting the legendary Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime, it features a whole new section on Mars, a hard swipe at corporate greed and mutants. It also runs with the central idea that Arnold’s worker drone (Dennis Quaid) has dreams of Mars, but when he visits the wonderfully tacky Rekall, it awakens his real identity of Hauser, who is part of the Mars resistance battling the delightfully evil Cohaagen (Ronny Cox recycling his best corrupt corporate arsehole from 1987’s RoboCop). Unlike the original story, we then jump into a fully-fledged adventure on the red planet itself.
Total Recall looks fantastic, using models and animatronics instead of CGI. It presents Mars, not as a utopia but a repressed society, forcing people to live indoors, hampered by Cohaagen’s corrupt governor who controls the air supply. This has created a diverse range of mutants, yes including one with 3 breasts, that adds to the fun and strength of the world building. Mars feels like a fully formed environment and one you wouldn’t want to be part of. This culminates when Quaid eventually meets the leader of the resistance; Kuato, who turns out to be a mutant, resembling a Boglin that is attached to his ‘brother’. He looks grotesque, otherworldly and awesome. Total Recall is also a violent film, in keeping with director Paul Verhoeven’s style with Robocop and Starship Troopers (1997) on his filmography, we get blood splattering from squibs when a henchman is shot, Arnie breaking people’s necks and throwing someone’s arms down a lift shaft after them. Such violence can be described as gratuitous, it certainly is but it adds gravitas to the stakes and makes killing someone have true consequences. I often feel it is more irresponsible to feature deaths in a movie, but cut away at the crucial point, it makes you feel like that murder meant nothing and desensitises people to the horrors of real violence. It is also satisfying for a cruel villain to get his comeuppance, which we are treated to as Cohaagen gets to experience what it feels like to have no air, his eyes trying to escape his head on the barren planet’s surface.
As mentioned we have Arnie bounding across the screen, giving it his all, complete with one-liners. This may seem jarring for some, but it just works so well in this awesome adventure we are being exposed to. Sharon Stone is great as his pretend wife, tough and sexy, eventually being shot by Quaid with the line; ‘Consider that a divorce’. Michael Ironside is nasty and manipulative in all the right ways as right-hand man Richter, who is the man unlucky enough to have his arms thrown to him, with the line; ‘See you at the party Richter’ after he invites Quaid to a shindig after they attempt to wipe his memory. Rachel Ticotin also stands out as Melina, Quaid’s love interest and member of the resistance, she is capable and determined, fighting for the people of Mars and as described by the film she is athletic and demure, a perfect combination.
So, we have had an intriguing premise, bone crunching action and a fully realised world, complete with shades of grey, what more could you ask for? Well as Quaid inevitably saves the day, killing Cohaagen and creating a chain reaction with gives all the people of Mars free air, he says to Melina ‘...what if this is all a dream?’ As they kiss, and the screen turns white, you suddenly think back to Rekall where Quaid is asked to pick his ideal adventure, he selects the life of a secret agent, liberating the people of Mars, with a woman matching Melina’s description. Is he still dreaming? Is it more likely that he managed to live a fantasy or that he is sitting back in the cold hard chair of Rekall? The film leaves it ambiguous, wanting us to decide, firstly, which scenario we prefer and secondly, which one the film presents to us most accurately. These reflections prompt repeat viewings and the more time you spend with this funny, thrilling and thought-provoking film, the more you fall in love with it. Perfect cinema? It’s pretty damn close.
The Rock (1996)
Michael Bay’s second movie is a cracker, ridiculous in all the right ways, which is evident from the set up. Uber stoic Brigadier General Francis X Hummel (Ed Harris) is upset that reparations haven’t been paid to the families of dead soldiers, who were killed in Black ops missions. So, he does the only logical thing; hires mercenaries, steals deadly VX gas, takes a tour group visiting Alcatraz hostage and then threatens to fire rockets containing the gas at San Francisco, unless he receives a large sum of money from the government. Apparently he had exhausted all other avenues, or just hates paperwork. Luckily the leading expert on VX gas is on hand, the uptight but hilarious Stanley Goodspeed (the legendary Nicolas Cage) who is a chemical weapons expert for the FBI but is a self-confessed lab rat. But we are not done yet, the government needs someone who knows the layout of the prison and the only person still alive is Sean Connery’s John Patrick Mason, a former SAS soldier, and detainee of The Rock, who has been imprisoned and disavowed ever since he stole and hid some sensitive microfilm. Now these two great characters must break into Alcatraz and disarm the rockets! The concept or the characters couldn’t be more over the top and ridiculous, which makes the film so deliciously enjoyable.
This is where the film truly comes to life and is the first example of Michael Bay’s love for the military, which would truly come into fruition with The Transformers Franchise (2007-2017) - fawning over jets and helicopters like they were beautiful women. The Rock has an abundance of military bluster and what could only be described as 'dick measuring'. From when Hummel firsts contacts the government, laying out his demands and the FBI director asks; ‘I want to know who I’m talking to?’ to which he assertively responds; ‘This is Brigadier General Francis X Hummel, United States Marine Corp, from Alcatraz out!’- to establishing his character, the White House Chief of Staff, reading out his service record ‘…two purple hearts, two silver stars and the congressional medal of, Jesus this guy is a hero.’ To which a General replies ‘I think legend is a better description Mr. Sinclair’ ,‘Well now we can add kidnapping and extortion to his list of accolades’ he replies, ‘Sinclair General Hummel is a man of honour’ the general fires back, making Sinclair look like a naughty school boy. He is then lambasted mere seconds later for having no knowledge of historic military campaigns in China, which General Hummel replies; ‘by your ninth birthday I was running Black ops into China with over 200 enemy kills’. What a great establishment of character, ramping up the jingoism by the minute. Then of course we have the great interactions between Goodspeed and Mason, a mismatched couple that need to work together to save millions. After trying to get Goodspeed up for the task Cage replies; ‘I’ll do my best’ to which Mason, slightly put out responds ‘you’re best, losers always whine about their best, winners go home and fuck the prom queen.’ Then when the two of them are inevitably captured and placed in the old prison cells, Goodspeed, cycling through Mason’s original escape from the prison frantically exclaims; ‘how in the name of Zeus’s butthole, did you get out of your cell. I only ask because in our current situation, it could prove to be useful information. Maybe!’ delivered with an angry erraticism only Cage could deliver. There are so many other scenes of military might and jostling for power that keep you chuckling, too many to name here.
The Rock keeps the action flowing, with loads of great set pieces all to a smashing score by Hans Zimmer. The opening sequence where General Hummel steals the VX, is exhilarating, setting the tone and showing us the gruesome effects of the gas. We also get a chase in downtown San Francisco complete with yellow Ferrari and even a mine kart chase, reminiscent of Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom (1984). The best action set piece though is saved for the end, where Goodspeed, shatters a sphere of the gas in a mercenary’s mouth and has to inject himself in the heart to counteract the effects. Half conscious, he makes it to his knees, arms stretched with two green smoke flares, letting the oncoming jet fighters know that they have completed their mission. This shot sums up the film, dramatic, patriotic, ridiculous but enthralling.
The Rock is an example of everyone coming together at the right time in their careers; Bay, Cage and Connery are all at the top of their game here, I certainly haven’t seen Ed Harris in a better role. The script, which was probably meant to be serious initially, is so bombastic and silly, it is a pure delight, add to that a premise to die for and some genuinely solid pieces of action and you have truly got something special here. It is no surprise that most people involved haven’t managed to create such magic again, lightning rarely strikes twice.
So often mistreated in similar genres, a case in point the 'misfits' in the ill-judged The Predator (2018), the team of mercenaries led by Major Dutch Schaffer (Schwarzenegger) is spot on. They may not have complex personalities, yet we spend a lot of time with them and crucially we see them complete a mission, well before any extra-terrestrial shenanigans are afoot. This is an example of character development through action, a script can tell you a character is adept at something, but without seeing it for yourself, the words seem empty. As an audience we really get the impression that this unit is elite, as they effectively complete their mission with aplomb, we see how Dutch is respected, maintaining complete control of his team, which includes; Billy, a mystical tracker with an affinity for the supernatural. Mac; tough as hell but with a dark streak and a possible weak mind and Blain; no-nonsense but reckless, complete with mini-gun. Carl Weather’s Dillon is the perfect outsider, an old friend of Dutch who works for the CIA, who is distrusted when they realise that the mission he sent them on (to retrieve intelligence from the Russians, well of course it is the 80’s after all) was a set up. The real key is that the film could have just been about this military unit stuck in the Colombian jungle, and it would have made a great action film, fuelled by testosterone and grenade launchers. But then the group suspects something is hunting them…
It is important to remember that we don’t know what the creature looks like or what it wants. This is sometimes jaded by the popularity of the Yautja (to give the Predator its official species name, retconned through comics, sequels and video games) but at the time we knew as much as Billy, who states; ‘there’s something out there waiting for us, and it ain’t no man.' This is slowly built up, starting with the team first discovering skinned bodies hanging up, assuming a Guerrilla unit is responsible. We then see that there is a creature, who can appear invisible, see in thermal imagery and mimic voices. This creates tension and a sense of dread, even though this military unit is elite, it is about to be tested by something even stronger. Of course, at first they think it is another unit attacking them, however as people start to die in unrecognisable ways, including a plasma cannon to the head for Mac, who shows his weak mind, by running off on his own, forgetting all protocol - or Dillon being stabbed with a large blade, the team starts to unravel. Dutch knows they are in trouble when he notices the normally stoic Billy, is visibly shaken, convinced he can see a figure in the trees, Dutch snaps at him; ‘what the hell is wrong with you!’ All seems lost for the group, until after a fire fight, Dutch notices some green blood, uttering the classic line; ‘if it bleeds, we can kill it.’ Finally a glimmer of hope for the doomed group. Then when only Dutch is left, we finally see The Predator in all its glory, forced to turn off its camouflage after falling in water. It looks awesome, a great mix of ancient and advanced - mask and shoulder cannon mixed with scaly skin and bare feet, like a tribesman crossed with RoboCop. Famously the original creature design was a bug with a long neck, played by Jean Claude Van Damme, I think getting Stan Winston (responsible for Alien (1979) and Terminator 1984) to redesign, was the right decision.
Predator is known for its muscled men with large guns, and is delightfully over the top in places, Dutch and Dillon’s initial handshake that lingers on their muscles typifies this. Nevertheless, the action is top class, from the team’s assault on the military base, to the Predator hunting and killing the team - its loud, exciting and bloody. Then we have our climax, Dutch confronting the alien himself by going primal. He is stripped of all his weapons and explosives, so he must set traps and go back to the basest of human skills, to finally defeat such a deadly adversary. This works so well in the movie’s context, as it is inferred that the Predator hunts for sport and won't attack if you are unarmed, therefore it is obliged to fight Dutch with its bare hands. Unable to rely on his strength, the creature being shown to be bigger and stronger, he must find the will to survive mired in blood and mud, finally using one of his traps to gain the upper hand, utilising brains over brawn. It really feels like an achievement to finally defeat The Predator, Dutch having to give everything he has to be triumphant.
Director John McTiernan, also responsible for Die Hard (1988), proves to be adept at not only bombastic action, but the build-up of tension, so often lacking in action films. He spends so much time establishing these mercenaries that we are suffering with them in the claustrophobic and humid jungle, as an unknown entity picks them off one-by-one. We could have been set up for disappointment, but when the creature is slowly revealed it had such a connection with audiences that its lore would be expanded upon in other media, continuing until the present day. Not only do we have set up then pay off, but we get quotable lines, great action and a sense of fun. Every time you watch it, you forget how long and detailed the opening act is, making you appreciate the carnage of what is to come even more. The spin-offs and remakes all forgot to concentrate on the protagonists and not the Yuatja, the main characters lay the foundation, while the Predator is the icing on the cake, and a wonderful tasting one at that. What a film!