“The weapons of the future are alive…” in this DVD double-billing of Albert Band’s ROBOT WARS and Charles Band’s CRASH AND BURN, two Full Moon Entertainment sci-fi pick-ups courtesy of Shout! Factory.
A sequel to the Empire Pictures flick ROBOT JOX (on DVD from MGM), ROBOT WARS is set in the future after a toxic gas scare in 1993. The scorpion-shaped mega robot MRAS-2 to escort tourists across the desert (to visit the Crystal Vista ghost town – which looks like downtown Los Angeles) and to patrol for the decidedly ethnic rebel Centros who inhabit the desert. The MRAS-2 is piloted by cocky Drake (Don Michael Paul, ROLLING VENGENCE) and his comic-relief mechanic Stumpy (James Staley, PACIFIC HEIGHTS). When their latest trip turns into a battle with Centros using a laser-armed tank, Drake is adamant that they stop the tours before someone gets killed. His boss Rooney (Peter Haskell, CHILD’S PLAY 2 and 3) downplays the danger so as not to hinder a business deal with the Eastern Alliance leader Wa-Lee (Danny Kamekona, KARATE KID, PART II) for the MRAS-2 stripped of weapons (for entertainment purposes) in exchange for funding for an upgraded version. Drake meets cute with scientist Leda (Barbara Crampton, RE-ANIMATOR) – she punches him because her specimens were destroyed during the scuffle with the Centros, which was passed off as a security drill by Rooney to the frightened tourists – who is investigating the Crystal Vista ghost town. It seems the town is built on top of a type of soil that did not exist until twenty-years after the toxic gas scare, and Leda believes that it was built to hide something. She meets up with reporter friend Annie (Lisa Rinna, TV’s MELROSE PLACE) to share her findings. Drake takes a vacation from piloting the MRAS-2 to fight the rebels on the front and comes back with the remains of weapons technology he believes was sold to the Centros by the Eastern Alliance. Rooney dismisses his finding and takes Drake off the flight roster. Drake is replaced by Boles (Steve Eastin, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS) on the next MRAS-2 trip to Crystal Vista, in which Wa-Lee is given the privilege to sitting with the pilots. Leda and Annie have little luck finding anything in the basements beneath the town, but Leda decides to stay while Annie goes back with the tour group to the MRAS-2. While Leda continues investigating, Annie and the other tourists are ambushed by the Centros and Wa-Lee, who hijacks the MRAS-2. Rooney enlists Drake and Stumpy to come to the rescue. They save Leda from some Centros and the three discover a humanoid-shaped MEGA-1 robot that was supposed to have been decommissioned and destroyed. While they try to power it up, Wa-Lee is using the MRAS-2’s lasers to burn through the protective barriers of the desert structure used to safely contain toxic waste.
ROBOT WARS is a choppy 71 minutes (even shorter minus the three minute opening credits and the equally long end credits crawl), and one suspects that a lot was cut out. Drake and Leda’s admittedly obligatory romance is equally choppy; Paul’s Kurt Russell circa BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA-esque sexist pig character and Crampton’s hot scientist do not have much chemistry and are given little time for battle-of-the-sexes sparring. I don’t know if what might have been cut was more complex, but here it seems a given that the Asian characters are evil serial villains and we learn nothing about the Centros. The whole thing comes across like a quickie production made using sets, props, and actors from a similar production. Director Albert Band (DRACULA’S DOG/ZOLTAN, HOUND OF DRACULA), father of Full Moon Entertainment’s Charles Band, directs with little flourish and keeps things largely painless. Paul, who scripted and co-produced HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN and went on to direct such hits as Steven Segal’s HALF PAST DEAD, and WHO’S YOUR CADDY?, is stuck in macho asshole mode throughout. Crampton seems less inspired here than in her other Empire/Full Moon outings and seems at a loss for anything to do while sitting in the flight deck with Paul during the final battle scene. Rinna, who went on to soap operas and now a reality show with husband Harry Hamlin, is hammy, but like the rest of the cast she is at the mercy of the script’s dialogue (scripter Jackson Barr wrote seven Full Moon titles, including the original SUBSPECIES, as well as the first three BODY CHEMISTRY erotic thrillers). J. Downing, GHOULIES 2’s greedy yuppie, turns up as a tour guide Annie has the hots for (his exit is not so memorable as in the former Empire Pictures film). Haskell does a futuristic variation on the JAWS-type mayor who downplays danger for the tourist trade (and a business deal here). Staley’s comic-relief falls flat and his character’s bantering rapport with Drake seems forced. Full Moon regular David Allen Productions (SUBSPECIES) handled the stop-motion robot effects, and it is as proficient as his other projects. Adolfo Bartoli’s cinematography is clean but unspectacular; as is most of his work for Full Moon (he went all out in atmosphere for BEYOND THE DOOR III/AMOK TRAIN). Milo’s production design is nothing you have not seen in any other low budget science fiction film: generic control rooms (with Sony Trinitron product placement), rusted metal and automobile debris scattered in the desert to suggest destroyed cities. A theater marquee in the ghost town advertises PUPPET MASTER 4. David Arkenstone’s score is a bit loftier than the film deserves.
Shout! Factory seem to have only had access to an older master for this film. While the exteriors look clean, there is plenty of chroma noise and aliasing on the backgrounds of the control room scenes. While shot with video in mind, the compositions look tight, more so when zoomed into 16:9 (there is a zooming out during the end credits crawl that causes the lettering to shrink, suggesting that the fullscreen master was slightly cropped rather than fully open matte). The Ultra*Stereo audio is not very sophisticated, with much of the directional activity coming from the laser blasts and the score. There are no extras, although the Paramount tape and laserdiscs had a VideoZone segment (I’m not sure about the previous – possibly laserdisc-sourced – DVD edition which appeared in one of the Full Moon boxed sets).
Unicom motorcycle courier Tyson (Paul Ganus, DRIVE THRU) delivers a shipment of Freon to an abandoned power station-turned-TV studio in the middle of the desert run by Lathan Hooks (Ralph Waite, GIRLS ON THE ROAD) and his 16-year-old granddaughter Arren (Megan Ward, AMITYVILLE 1992: IT’S ABOUT TIME). Lathan is resentful of Unicom, who have influenced the government into banning the use of computers by civilians (who they blame for causing an economic collapse) as well as the use of Synthoid robots (because of something having to do with the Book of Revelations), but Arren insists that Tyson should stay because of the coming thermal storm which will raise the temperature considerably in the desert. Also inhabiting the studio are sleazy talk show host Winston Wickett (Jack McGee, BASIC INSTINCT), prostitutes Sandra (Elizabeth Maclellan, PUPPET MASTER II) and Christie (Katherine Armstrong, THE ARRIVAL) who are his guests – the topic being the use of human prostitutes in place of banned Synthoid prostitutes – Parice (Eva Larue, THE BARBARIANS) who teaches children remotely from the TV studio, and handyman Quinn (Bill Moseley, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART II). While the storm rages outside and the others sleep, Lathan is murdered by an unseen assailant, the power is cut (causing the temperature inside to rise), and the satellite is knocked down. While Quinn and Tyson go outside to bypass the power supply, Arren is convinced that Lathan was murdered and does some investigating of her own. She finds Lathan’s illegal computer and discovers that a Synthoid was sent to eliminate Lathan and conveys this information to Tyson. Tyson reminds her that the Synthoids were programmed not to kill humans, but Arren tells him that it can be overridden with a “crash and burn” virus transmitted by UHF signals and she suspects that Unicom is using the Synthoids to eliminate rebels. They do a THE THING-type blood-drawing test to discover which of the people in the studio is not human, but the results are inconclusive. When Tyson discovers that the Freon shipment he has delivered is actually full of blood, he realizes that one of them has tricked them. While Arren is messing with the computer to try to reactivate the MEGA-1 robot lying abandoned in the dirt outside the studio, another kill order is sent and she is stalked through the hallways by Quinn. Tyson comes to her rescue by emptying a couple shotgun cartridges into Quinn. When Arren hits Quinn with a sledgehammer, she accidentally crushes his “conscience chip” which prevented him from killing humans unless specifically ordered. It also removes any means of exterior control and he sets about whittling down the rest of the cast while Tyson and Arren try go alert the outside world and destroy the Synthoid.
CRASH AND BURN, confusingly marketed abroad as ROBOT JOX 2, was made during Full Moon Entertainment’s glory days in partnership with Paramount Pictures and benefits from make-up effects work by Oscar-winner Greg Cannom (BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA), stop motion work by David Allen Productions (PUPPET MASTER), and slick photography by Mac Ahlberg (HELL NIGHT). Richard Band’s score (one of a handful of Full Moon soundtracks that were released by Intrada after Full Moon’s own Moonstone Records label folded) is heavy on the Synclavier for both orchestral and electronic parts, and it complements the action nicely. SUBSPECIES director Ted Nicolau served as film editor. Ganus and Ward are engaging leads and Waite is his professional self in an extended special appearance. As always, Moseley relishes his villainous roles, grinning maniacally under Cannom’s prosthetic appliances while spouting a monologue (he also gets a shower scene with a topless Armstrong). La Rue has a Jennifer Beals-thing going on and Maclellan’s is good as the more sympathetic “fallen woman.” McGee makes his sleazy, hypocritical talk-show host memorable and earns an appropriately violent comeuppance. Unlike ROBOT WARS, CRASH AND BURN is rated R has its share of violence, nudity, and language. Although it plays a bit like a sci-fi slasher, it is overall the superior film.
CRASH AND BURN was previously released on a single-disc as part of the CHARLES BAND DVD COLLECTION VOLUME ONE from Full Moon. Shout!’s transfer looks good overall, especially compared to ROBOT WARS’ transfer, but it lacks the gag reel and VideoZone segment from the previous tape and disc editions. Considering that the Full Moon titles picked up by Echo Bridge have been stuffed onto single-layer double-feature discs and stretched to 16:9, Shout’s dual-layer double feature presentation is at least respectful and they have adjusted their suggested retail price accordingly. (Eric Cotenas)
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