Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014)

2016 #28
Mark Hartley | 102 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | Australia, USA, Israel & UK / English | 18 / R

The director of Not Quite Hollywood, a documentary on Ozploitation movies that I bought on DVD at some point and haven’t got round to watching (and which shares a “The Wild, Untold Story of __” subtitle), turns his attention to a similar kind of thing from a different continent: the output of Cannon Films, the studio renowned for producing a slew of cheap but surprisingly successful B-level genre movies throughout the ’80s.

My main takeaway from the film was a massive list of films I now want to see: Inga, Joe, The Apple, House of the Long Shadows (a PG horror movie!), The Last American Virgin, The Wicked Lady, Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, Ninja III: The Domination, Sahara, Breakin’, Breakin’ 2, Bolero, Invasion U.S.A., Lifeforce… Even though the talking heads in the documentary keep saying how awful all of these movies are, the film makes them look awesome. I mean, not “award-winning” awesome, or even “genre classic” awesome, but like magnificently trashy fun.

As a film, Electric Boogaloo is relentlessly, insanely fast-paced to begin with, and though it does settle a smidge, it still rockets along, which keeps things engrossing and very watchable. There’s an excellent array of talking heads — not many you’ll’ve heard of (unless you’re a Cannon aficionado, perhaps), but they were there, they lived it, and they have first-rate insights into the craziness. Craziness like the story of the competing Lambada movies, which ended up being released on the exact same day. I mean, you’d think one Lambada movie would be more than enough, but two, competing… If you wrote it in a fiction, the audience would laugh at the ridiculous contrivance of it, but it happened. Elsewhere, there’s a chunk where they just slag off Michael Winner for a bit (awesome), and director Franco Zeffirelli describes them as the best producers he ever worked with and the only ones he ever liked. Like I say, you couldn’t make it up.

Documentaries can be hard films to assess from a “film criticism” perspective — you can get lost down lots of blind alleys about the merits of archive footage or talking heads or reconstructions or structure or whatever other variables there are. Some reviews of this film have done that, which I find a little inexplicable because I thought it was very well put together. Plus, generally speaking, if you’ve got a good story and you’ve told it well, I’m satisfied, and I think most viewers are too. This viewpoint means assessing the quality of a documentary becomes more concerned with the subject matter than the documentarian’s skill as a filmmaker, but unless you’re a student of the documentary as a genre, that story (and if it’s told effectively, rather than the issue of if its telling is effective) is all that really matters.

Which is a really roundabout, film-theory-ish way of saying that Electric Boogaloo has a bizarrely fascinating story to tell, and does so in an immensely entertaining manner. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s actually a lot better than the films it’s about.

4 out of 5

Death Wish (1974)

2010 #29
Michael Winner | 93 mins | TV | 18 / R

Apparently, the recent Michael Caine-starring Harry Brown is a Death Wish for modern times. I’ve not seen Harry Brown yet (Michael Caine killing chavs? Why haven’t I seen this yet), but — as you’ve probably guessed from which review you’re reading — I have seen its spiritual predecessor.

The Death Wish series, as it would later become, seems to be remembered with a certain degree of contempt these days (despite an expressed love for Death Wish 3 from Edgar Wright & co), and I suspect that may be due to the sequels. Not that this first film is a masterpiece or something, but it has plus points.

The characters are surprisingly believable for a start, with serious effort put into their motivation and progression. One expects a shallowness from the genre, plot and director — that the hero’s wife would be killed and daughter raped, and the next day he’s on the street killing scum, building to a climax where he finally gets the gang who committed the original crime — but it’s not so. Months pass before Charles Bronson’s unlucky architect, Paul, grabs his gun and hits the streets, and even then it’s not like he’s slaughtering foes left, right and centre every night.

Indeed, realism permeates: Paul’s encounters aren’t all easily won; he gets injured; his crimes create a media storm, on which public opinion is divided; he never conveniently come across the attackers of his wife and kids — after the crime, they’re never seen again; and so on. There are still unrealistic bits, certainly, but by employing enough believability and leaving aside certain rules of the revenge thriller — for one thing, he never actually gets revenge — Death Wish manages to rise a little above the “heroic vigilante” sub-genre.

The strongest element is probably Wendell Mayes’ script, because it constructs all this. Weakest is Michael Winner’s direction — some of it’s fine, the occasional shot even good, but largely it’s pedestrian and sometimes mediocre. That said, Winner has become such an unlikeable public figure that it’s somewhat difficult to gauge how much of this is bad direction and how much bias. Still, it’s not the kind of work to make one think, “he’s an idiot, but he knows how to do his job”.

As noted, I hear the sequels get increasingly ridiculous, which I can well believe: as a standalone film, Death Wish has strength in a certain degree of realism; imagining a franchise spun off from it, however, it’s easy to see how it would quickly become diluted and lose the power such veracity gives. One wonders, though, if a well-chosen director might produce an even better remake…

3 out of 5