Friday, January 13, 2012

The Films of 1982: Megaforce

Director Hal Needham's action epic Megaforce (1982) represents my first and perhaps most unforgettable lesson in movie hype and PR. I remember reading about the film in the pages of Starlog Magazine back in 1982 and anticipating an exciting, action-packed, and fresh movie-going experience. 

Missile-launching motorcycles? Flashy and futuristic, laser-equipped all-terrain vehicles with lightning bolts emblazoned on their sides?  International war and sashbuckling adventure?  A hero (Ace Hunter) like no other before him? 

How could it go wrong?

Well, my friends: deeds, not words...

For bad movie fanatics, Megaforce is understandably legend. This is a movie highlighting horrible special effects, mainly because of a weird over-reliance on rear projection even in moments that don't really require it.

If you add to those bad effects some unaccountably bizarre performances (Barry Bostwick, j'accuse),  dialogue so wretched you can't believe you're actually hearing it, and an over-abundance of loving but ultimately dull close-ups of vehicles and weaponry, you begin to understand Megaforce's appeal to those who cherish bad film making. 

In general, I attempt to look for a movie's good side when I pen a review. I seek out unexcavated or unappreciated qualities of subtext and film style, for instance. But Megaforce doesn't have a good side.

Actually, that's not entirely true. 

Megaforce never takes itself too seriously, and that, at least, is a blessing.  It is a film delighted by its own rampant stupidity and by its parochial viewpoints regarding racial diversity, sexual equality, American military interventionism, and other topics. 

In some weird way, this profound, proud stupidity makes the film bearable. Knocking it too hard is like kicking an over-affectionate puppy.  Yes, the movie is dumb and terribly cheesy, but Megaforce still provokes chuckles of spectacular disbelief actually grows on you in its childish one-dimensionality and un-ending desire to please. 

For example, the film's final sequence still has me in complete awe of its utter ridiculousness, a ridiculousness so profound and inconceivable that it deserves not scorn, but kudos. Quite simply, you can't imagine anything like it. It involves a moment wherein the most glorious of a filmmaker's intentions are crushed and annihilated under the enormous weight of incompetent execution. What must have read as exciting and inspiring on the page is rendered ludicrous and embarrassing in practice.

Well, maybe you can imagine something like Megaforce if you've seen the incredibly funny Team America: World Police (2004), which perfects the Megaforce alchemy by making the jingoism, sexism, and racism intentionally humorous.

Turns out, that was the key...

In short, Megaforce strides arrogantly across the screen like it is indeed the ultimate adventure movie -- spandexed chest puffed-up and proud -- and yet every step along the movie's victory march is saddled by an unknowing hilarity. If you like this sort of thing, Megaforce will indeed float your boat.

Just don't park in my harbor.

"Well, if it's a comfortable tour you're looking for, I have connections at Disneyland!"

In Megaforce, the nation of Sardun faces aggression from its neighbor Gamibia, whose military is now under the control of a diabolical mercenary named Guerrera (Henry Silva). 

Two representatives from Sardun, the lovely Major Zara (Persis Khambatta) and the stuffy General Byrne-White (Edward Mulhare) visit the United States to enlist the services of Megaforce to defend their country from this new threat.

Megaforce is an international organization operating under the auspices of SCUFF (Supreme Command United Freedom Force) and commanded by Ace Hunter (Barry Bostwick), who once trained and served with Guerrara and knows his moves. 

While Megaforce plans "Operation Hook, Line and Sinker" to destroy Guerrera's considerable military forces and bring him to justice, Zara endures several tests to join Megaforce. She passes all of them with flying colors, including a skydiving exercise and a battle simulation, but Hunter still refuses entry on the grounds that every man in Megaforce shares the same mind (!) and that a stranger in the midst of the group would negatively affect the esprit de corps.  Meanwhile, Zara and Ace share a romantic attraction...

Megaforce drops its powerful, high-tech vehicles into Gamibia, and devastates Guerrara's headquarters.  fter the mission, however, "political exigencies" leave the team stranded on the ground.

Worse, Guerrara has maneuvered his surviving forces into a dry lake bed: the only geography nearby where recovery planes can land to retrieve the deployed Megaforce. 

Ace plots a daring new strategy to face down Guerrara (who has stolen his prized cigarette lighter...) and to get his men into the air, and back on home soil.

"It's all on the wheel. It all comes around."

Epitomizing Megaforce's strange world view -- not to mention fashion sense -- is Barry Bostwick's gung-ho protagonist, Ace Hunter. 

As you can see from the photographs accompanying this post, throughout Megaforce Commander Ace Hunter wears a skin-tight, golden body suit that makes him look as though he should be singing back-up beside Marilyn McCoo and Andy Gibb. 

And perched atop this Apollo's royal mop of blond hair -- like a crown -- rests a Dirk Diggler head band.

So, this is the practical "gear" Megaforce expects our soldiers to adopt in the future (meaning the 21st century).

Who needs body armor, after all, when your flesh and blood are protected by skin-tight spandex and head bands?  The wardrobe is incredibly silly, and harks back to Olivia Newton John's video for (Let's Get) "Physical" rather than any established military tradition. 

But to his credit, Bostwick owns it. No gesture is too big for his Ace Hunter, no non-sequitur too dumb. Ace is a grinning, quipping, blow-dried, shiny paragon of American 1980s might. And this is an important thing. Remember that as late as 1979, America was in a severe slump regarding its military's, uh...prowess. There was the failed attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran, and President Reagan promised a revival of our military, both in terms of morale and funding.

But I don't think gold spandex jumpsuits were what he had in mind.

Nonetheless, Megaforce ends with a kind of valedictory signature shot -- form echoing content? -- as the triumphant Commander Hunter faces the camera, and proffers a trademark gesture for the ages: an enthusiastic kiss planted upon a triumphant thumbs-up. 

Then, in the time-honored tradition of bad 1970s and 1980s series television, we get a lingering freeze frame of Hunter offering that hand signal to the audience, sort of the ultimate visual "kiss off."  

This witless finale, the icing on the cake as it were, follows up a sequence in which Hunter taunts his enemy, Guerrera with the line that "good guys always win, even in the eighties" and then jets away on a flying motorcycle...with wings.  That line of dialogue is perfect for the film, being fully emblematic of  Megaforce's black-and-white brand of triumphal but shallow thinking.

For instance, the film makes a big deal about the fact that nobody in Megaforce possesses a rank.  Everybody is equal (except the commander).  So it's a kind of glorified, military meritocracy.  But then, of course, when a woman, Major Zara, qualifies in spades to serve in the unit, she is denied entrance on the basis that she doesn't share the men's camaraderie. Is this also a legitimate dis-qualifier, we must wonder, for new men approaching the group? 

More succinctly: how can any newcomer enter Megaforce if the pre-existing solidarity of the corp is the primary consideration regarding entry?  It's clear that the idea here -- especially from all the dialogue about women fighting -- is that girls should stay out-of-battle and leave the fighting to men.  So despite the egalitarian reputation of Megaforce, it disqualifies legitimate recruits on the basis of sex. 

If that's not enough, the film attempts to mine humor early on from the fact that a member of Megaforce listens to classical music and can quote Shakespeare on a moment's notice. And get this...he's black!  Isn't that a riot?  A black dude who can appreciate great music...and can even read! What a hoot!

When you couple the sexist and racist attitudes of the film's creators with Megaforce's negative commentary on stiff-upper-lipped foreigners (tight-ass surrender monkeys who aren't there for you when the chips are down...), you start to get an idea of the film's juvenile, closed-off world-view.

One very funny scene also notes that in the last fiscal year, Megaforce has spent over 40,000 dollars just to clean up its 10 million square foot underground base.  Obviously, budget cuts don't apply to defense spending, right? 

Nice to know where our hard-earned tax dollars are going: rainbow cloud-spewing motorcycles equipped with "holographs" (of women frolicking in the ocean surf, naturally...).

The many unquestioned assumptions of Megaforce about African-Americans, women, and military interventions are made all the funnier, however, because of the very *ahem*  form-fitting costumes of the athletic and fit men in the "unit" and the fact that their motorcycle smoke screens spew not red, white and blue exhaust, but all the aforementioned colors of the rainbow.   

What's the secret message here?

Don't ask, don't tell...

It would be easy to dismiss all of these silly aspects of Megaforce if any tension whatsoever were created around the team's mission to take out Guerrera.

Instead, Silva -- one of the three people in the world who looks less comfortable in a tank and helmet than did former governor Michael Dukakis -- plays all his scenes for laughs, buddying it up with Bostwick's Hunter to an alarming degree.  It's another example of the movie's steroidal male bonding (see: Michael Beck's entire performance as Dallas...) but it plays like something out of The Cannonball Run. Nobody can be bothered to actually create an authentic character or take things too seriously...the movie's just a party, and an excuse to blow things up.

A former stunt man, Hal Needham obviously boasts a reputation for making solid action films and for filming stunts well. Yet the stunts in Megaforce are mostly rendered ridiculous by the dramatic over use of rear-projection. A sky diving "love scene" between Khambatta and Bostwick looks atrocious because of this selection of techniques, and Hunter's triumphal flight to a helicopter is as egregiously phony. 

Some moments, however, do carry a kind of visual power.  There's a shot of two transport planes banking over the treacherous desert landscape that is legitimately impressive, but otherwise the movie doesn't achieve much in terms of shock and awe.  Many missiles are fired. Many motorcycles do pop-a-wheelies. But the important details -- like who is shooting from what position -- are left virtually unattended.

To see how an international thriller like this might really be vetted with skill and intelligence, one need look no further than another film of 1982 vintage: Clint Eastwood's Firefox.  Although that film also relies on dated special effects in its finale, it otherwise manages to craft a believable and tense world around its futuristic technology.

Megaforce may be loved as a film that's so bad it's good, but I don't think Ace Hunter would have appreciated the sentiment.

Sadly, to quote the great man...that's the way it is.



  2. I always thought of MEGAFORCE as if THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI had been directed by Burt Reynolds.

    This is the kind of film that is a blast to watch when you're a kid with zero critical faculties but has not aged well at all for all of the reasons you mentioned.

    This is jingoistic military porn at its most ham-fistedness but I do understand the "it's so bad it's good" attitude towards it. The film is just so kitschy and camp but not in a cool way like the 1980 FLASH GORDON was.

    It's a weird film to be sure but hey, at least it's partly responsible for spawning TEAM AMERICA so there's that going for it.

  3. David: I can't blame you. The movie is truly awful. It is leavened for me, only by the 1980s touches which strike at that most useless of emotions, nostalgia.

    J.D: I love your terminology: "jingoistic military porn at its most hamfisted." I could write about Megaforce for days and never strike upon that apt (and PERFECT) description of the film. Excellent!

    I can't totally hate Megaforce, as you say, because it paved the way for the wondrous Team America.

    Best wishes to you both!


  4. I don't mind art (used in the very very loosest sense of the term) being so obviously of a time period or mindset, but double yikes.

    I'm glad J.D. brought up Flash Gordon, perhaps a cinematic equivalent of that over-affectionate puppy? If it doesn't have a heart of gold, it's at least got the heart of a lovable doofus.

    Of course, having said all that, mid-80s Cinemax was probably the last time I saw this, and now I have to see it again, though I'm afraid disco-era Bee Gees is gonna be in my noggin the rest of the day.

  5. Ha. Great to read. I have had no interest in seeing this film ever John and I suspect I never will.

    There's not enough time to see the quality films nevermind the garbage.

    But, enjoying your review may be where it ends for me with MEGAFORCE. Gosh, that trailer looks awful to boot.

    Also, I don't think nostalgia is useless. I mean, I suppose there is good and bad nostalgia right? Because there's just too much out there that is a delight to reminisce on.

    And I like the Bee Gees. : )


  6. Well, gee. Now I feel like there must be something wrong with me. As a long time fan of movies that have, shall we say, dubious quality, I found this terribly entertaining.

    Not that I can put a finger on why. As has been said, the effects were pretty horrible, the dialogue's not great, there's not much meaning to be found in anything, and there's really never a sense of where anything is in relation to anything else in the fight scenes. But, all that considered, there was just something captivating about it.

    As bad films go, you can do considerably worse. Death Bed: The Bed That Eats, for instance.

  7. More great Megaforce comments!

    Randal: Megaforce is a terrible movie, and yet it is that over-affectionate puppy. It's so happy with itself, and that happiness kind of brushes off on the audience. It's hard to explain the exact alchemy, but I think this element of the film is what makes so many people continue to enjoy Megaforce.

    SFF: I don't think your world would me significantly enriched by viewing Megaforce, so I don't really recommend it unless there's burning curiosity to see it. I forget who said that nostalgia is the most useless of emotions, but I've always taken to that quote. But you're right, the argument is probably over-stated.

    And I also like the Bee Gees! :)

    Sirrus: Hey now, you shouldn't feel bad for enjoying this movie. There's nothing wrong with you at all. Megaforce is beloved by a whole lot of people, and I don't want to dismiss that appeal. The movie has "some" quality to it, as I hope I characterized in the review, that makes the thing compelling to watch; even while you understand, intellectually, the movie is bad. I do get that. I also agree with you that there are many worse movies out there. This isn't a contender for worst film of all time, by any means.

    I don't know if I'd call the movie captivating, but Megaforce is certainly...diverting.

    best to all,

  8. I haven't seen the film, but I do own the soundtrack from the film, courtesy of La la Land Records.

    Just love that synthy-orchestra-disco theme song, and it's from the man behind the Dallas theme song, hard to believe, huh?

    Here in Iceland a few years ago, they used Megaforce in a few Domino's commercials to advertise their "Mega-week", when all their pizzas are at the same special lower price than normal. A teenager/young man is watching Megaforce and wonders why they never did Megaforce 2.

  9. I know this is an old post but I just discovered the site recently and am delightedly making my way through the articles. You can criticize (and make fun of!) Megaforce for MANY things but "a weird over-reliance on rear projection" isn't one of them. The gloriously terrible effects shots were done via the "Zoptic" system, a form of front projection (also used in the first Superman movie). At least you didn't call it green screen!