ROBOT JOX (1989) Blu-ray
Director: Stuart Gordon
Scream Factory/Shout! Factory

The film that finally bankrupt Empire Pictures, ROBOT JOX, hits special edition Blu-ray courtesy of Shout Factory's Scream Factory line.

Fifty years after the nuclear holocaust, the world is divided between The Confederation (the Soviet Union) and The Market (the United States), and disputes between territories are settled by one-on-one combat in the arena in gigantic robots controlled by trained fighters known as the "Robot Jox". Confederation champion Alexander (Paul Koslo, HEAVEN'S GATE) has not been content to merely beat his Market opponents, he annihilates them. His third kill is an upset to Jox trainer Captain "Tex" Conway (Michael Aldredge, THE ENTITY) whose champion fighter Achilles (Gary Graham, THE LAST WARRIOR) has been "saved" by Market Commissioner Jameson (Robert Sampson, THE ARRIVAL) for the fight over resource-rich Alaska. Achilles has taken the loss of a teammate more personally, and sees that games becoming more inhumane as Professor Laplace (Hilary Mason, DON'T LOOK NOW) is training the next generation of "Gen Jox" (or "tubies"), humans especially bred for fighting and winning. Jameson and weapons expert Dr. Matsumoto (Danny Kamekona, THE KARATE KID PART II) suspect a mole within The Market giving away their secret weapons to The Confederation. Alexander quickly gets the upper hand on Achille using the same secret weapons, but Achilles manages to hold his own. When Alexander's robot projectile hand flies off course and threatens the audience in the bleachers, Achilles tries to block the impact and ends up crushing three hundred spectators. Although the commission has declared the fight a draw because of Alexander's illegal weapons use, a guilt-ridden Achilles refuses to fight in the rematch. As the Gen Jox fighters train to replace him in the fight, Achilles starts to fall for the only female fighter Athena (WHAT'S HAPPENING NOW's Anne-Marie Johnson). When Achilles' likely successor Sargon (DAYS OF OUR LIVES' Thyme Lewis) is killed during training and Athena is announced to fight against Alexander, Achilles decides to return to the arena (dangerously underestimating Athena's genetic drive to win).

Begun in 1986 but not finished until 1989, the $6 million dollar ROBOT JOX was Empire's (and Stuart Gordon's) most ambitious project and attempts in every way to compete with the mainstream other than a name actor (although the film was not released until 1990 when Empire was no more, Graham did not start ALIEN NATION until after the production was finished). The photography of Mac Ahlberg (HELL NIGHT) and production design of Giovanni Natalucci (CATACOMBS) are reasonably slick if still economical, and the Paris Philharmonic-performed orchestral score of Frederic Talgorn (EDGE OF SANITY) sweepingly epic in the more cost-effective but no less capable Ultra Stereo. The stop-motion animation of David Allen (PUPPET MASTER) and visual effects of Peter Kuran's Visual Concepts Engineering (THE THING) are impressive, although the same techniques that were affectionately nostalgic in films like GHOULIES and TROLL probably did not impress audiences accustomed to your average Industrial Lights and Magic sideshow disguised as a feature film. Graham and Johnson are good leads, although the love story is as mundane as the intrigue angle. The climactic battle is drawn out by a nonsensical trip into space, and the ending probably played better on paper. Ian Patrick Williams (TERRORVISION) and the director's wife Carolyn Purdy-Gordon – both of whom had been in Gordon's DOLLS – appear briefly as Achille's brother and sister-in-law (WHITE SQUALL's Jason Marsden and two of Gordon's own children play three of Achille's five nephews and nieces) while Gordon himself plays the bartender at Achilles' local hangout while Jeffrey Combs (RE-ANIMATOR) cameos in the crowd during Achilles' fight with Alexander. In different territories, both Full Moon's ROBOT WARS and CRASH AND BURN were released as ROBOT JOX 2 but the former is the more obvious sequel, sharing some of the same settings and themes (while re-casting Kamekona as an entirely different character); if anything, CRASH AND BURN might be the post-post-apocalyptic outcome of the events in these two films.

Released theatrically in 1990 by Triumph Releasing, an early eighties RCA/Columbia art film distribution company (DAS BOOT, QUERELLE) revived in the late eighties to theatrically distribute Epic titles (including Mark Damon's Vision PDG like WILD ORCHID and DARK ANGEL) and then on VHS and laserdisc in 1991 by RCA/Columbia, ROBOT JOX would wind up with MGM on a barebones, anamorphic widescreen DVD in 2005. Scream Factory's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen transfer sports strong colors (maybe a bit too much as some actors besides Mason looking a bit rosy-cheeked in close-ups) and mostly good detail with some shots including composites and CFI optical transitions look a bit coarser. White specks pop up elsewhere intermittently, but I am uncertain of how it compares to the German Blu-ray (which presumably comes from MGM's master). The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 encoding of the UltraStereo soundtrack is immersive, with the various explosions and laser blasts having as much presence as Talgorn's score. Optional English SDH subtitles are also included.

The film is accompanied by two audio commentary tracks: the first by director Stuart Gordon, moderated by Michael Felsher; and the second with associate effects director Paul Gentry (whose collaboration with Band goes back to LASERBLAST), mechanical effects artist Mark Rappaport (PREDATOR 2), and stop-motion animator Paul Jessell (MOSQUITO). Gordon discusses the film's long development period and that the opening credits background was the miniature footage developed to sell the film to investors (and shot on a table top unlike the effects shots in the Mojave Desert for the body of the film), the influence of TRANSFORMERS and the Japanese anime shows (as well as the influence of "The Illiad" and THE RIGHT STUFF). The script was by Joe Haldeman whose book "The Forever War" who had reframed his Vietnam experiences in a science fiction context. The original title was ROBOJOX when it was started in 1986 – the third of a three picture deal with Empire that included DOLLS and FROM BEYOND – but they had to change the title since ROBOCOP came out the following year (and ROBOT JOX of course was not finished until 1989). He discusses casting Graham and Johnson, and how they got into a political argument during their introductory dinner (him being a conservative Republican and her a liberal), as well as how that contributed to their onscreen chemistry (first at odds and then developing a mutual respect), and also reveals that the film's uncredited conceptual designer was Ron Cobb (CONAN THE BARBARIAN). Felsher prompts Gordon to expand upon the contributions of the Empire technicians, especially the ways in which production designer Natalucci and others realized the world of the film within the budget.

On the second track, Gentry, Rappaport, and Jessell not only point out their individual contributions, but also those of many credited and uncredited crew members. They also warmly discuss their working relationships with Allen, go into more detail about the difficulties of the Mojave Desert shoot, and keep the discussion mostly on the effects themselves and less on the onscreen action apart from the actual effects shots. They describe how the robot models were heavier than the usual stop motion models (yet just as delicate) and could not hold their own weight when trying to make them walk (requiring counterweights to take the pressure off the rest of model whenever one of the feet was lifted). They also have a laugh over how the referee floater vehicle was held up by nine wires to keep it perfectly steady as it moved, and how all nine of the wires simultaneously snapped and shattered the ship into "a million pieces" (and is apparently still in that condition). Old school effects fans/hopefuls will also be interested in hearing about the various store-bought materials repurposed for the effects.

In the only new video featurette "Looking Back" (10:12), actor Koslo recalls the genius of Gordon, connecting with his co-stars (he saw the film for the first time last year at a screening with Gordon and Johnson), working with Graham to make their climactic hand-to-hand combat more intense, the film's effects (chucking over the phallic chainsaw), as well as Ahlberg's abilities to match miniatures and full-scale sets, as well as working in Italy (and fearing for his life with Italian drivers). Also present are a series of archival interviews, the source of which is curious as there it would on the one hand seem footage from a documentary on the late Allen (who is mentioned in the past tense), yet the singular focus on ROBOT JOX suggests that it was produced for a release of the film (although I'm not aware of any releases with extra material). These are edited interviews rather than raw footage, so they must have been prepared for something to do with the film. Gordon's comments (7:26) are a bit more general, covering some of the same ground as the commentary, as well as how Allen may have regretted his decision to shoot in the Mojave Desert - which offered varied natural backdrops that could be used in forced perspective with various miniatures - with all of the floods and sandstorms that extended the effects shoot from six months to a year.

Pyrotechnic supervisor Joe Viskocil (7:57) discusses his specialty of miniature pyrotechnics while associate effects director Paul Gentry (7:14) discusses how he got his start as Allen's effects director of photography, stop-motion animator Paul Jessel (7:46) reflects on the difficulty of capturing realistic motion from the robot models, and animation/visual effects artists Chris Endicott and Mark McGee (7:48) reiterate some of the same stories while remembering Allen as boss and collaborator. The behind the scenes footage (14:16) of the Mojave Desert shoot gets to an uninteresting start with coverage of many of the miniature elements but soon reflects effects artists' comments about the late Allen being an all-around nice guy. The film's theatrical trailer (1:25) features a Trans World logo as well as mention of an Avon novelization. A TV spot (0:30) is also included, as well as behind the scenes and artwork galleries. The flipside of the cover features the original artwork. (Eric Cotenas)