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?
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.
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 and...it 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!"
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...
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.
Epitomizing Megaforce's strange world view -- not to mention fashion sense -- is Barry Bostwick's gung-ho protagonist, Ace Hunter.
And perched atop this Apollo's royal mop of blond hair -- like a crown -- rests a Dirk Diggler head band.
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.
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.
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 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 (and our feature next week): 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.