Saturday, June 25, 2022

40 Years Ago Today: Megaforce (1982)

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.

1 comment:

  1. This movie is in dire need of a remake, but by a director, writer, and producer that know what the frak they're doing (maybe, Abrams, Orci, & Kurtzman) or somebody that can write and direct said story in an intelligent and adult manner, and not in the way Needham and the film's scriptwriter did it (also maybe the people who did G.I. J.O.E.: The Rise Of Cobra?) Also, half of the Megaforce members shown in the movie would have to be 'Rule 63ed' (this is so Zara wouldn't be in the movie-she's a weak and unneeded character to begin with, but as I'm changing some of the characters, I'm also changing the plot as well.) The cheese would be toned down, and the uniforms would also be made better as well. As for the plot, well, the plot will be about a terrorist organization trying to cause trouble, and the MegaForce stopping it (similar to the G.I. JOE movie's plot or the plot of the videogame Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X.), rather than be about the MegaForce stopping a war between two countries.

    So John, do I have a great concept for a remake, or what?


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