Monday, February 16, 2015

FCS ’15: Electric Boogaloo—the Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films

They were decades ahead of the curve, making profitable films about terrorism long before it became an overriding concern for Americans. Of course, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus happened to be Israeli, so they understood how dangerous the world could be. Unfortunately, they were not as canny judging the American marketplace with the releases that followed Invasion U.S.A. and The Delta Force. Mark Astley compiles a breezy oral history of their rise and fall in Electric Boogaloo: the Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (trailer here), which opens this year’s 2015 Film Comment Selects.

Yes, Hilla Medalia’s Cannon doc The Go-Go Boys just played the New York Jewish Film Festival, but there is always room for more Cannon. Reportedly, Go-Go is considered the B-movie moguls pre-emptive attempt to tell their side of the story. Hartley’s film even acknowledges the competition, comparing it to the dueling lambada films the former partners rushed to the marketplace after their contentious split. While Medalia spends more time on their early days in Israel, Hartley delves further into the early history of Cannon before Golan and Globus acquired it to serve as their Hollywood beachhead.

Plenty of the executives, writers, and directors associated with Cannon fondly remember the duo’s eccentricities, but there is not a lot of nostalgia coming from Frank Yablans, the former MGM studio head, who was contractually obligated to distribute their mid-1980s output. Hartley, who previously documented the Australian exploitation cinema of the 1970s and 1980s in Not Quite Hollywood and surveyed the low budget foreign and domestic action movies filmed in the Philippines with Machete Maidens Unleashed, not surprisingly shows an affinity for the nuttier movies in their filmography, like the notoriously spaced out futuristic rock opera The Apple and Tobe Hooper’s sci-fi grand guignol, Lifeforce.

Of course, it was their ill-conceived bids for Hollywood blockbuster respectability with the peacenik Superman IV and the Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling epic Over the Top that would be their undoing. Frankly, it seems they never really understood their true comparative advantage: action cinema. Cannon really did take Chuck Norris to the next level and they substantially prolonged Charles Bronson’s career. They also discovered a Belgian waiter named Jean-Claude Van Damme. Unfortunately, they never really figured out what to do with their potential breakout star Michael Dudikoff, beyond the completely awesome American Ninja franchise and never recognized the untapped star-power of frequent supporting player Steve James (who frustratingly goes unmentioned again, after being overlooked by The Go-Go Boys).

Hartley marries up generous helpings of off-the-wall clips with some hilarious commentary (it is especially nice to see Catherine Mary Stewart remembering The Apple with self-deprecating humor). However, some of his talky head witnesses suggest some of the Hollywood resentment of Golan and Globus was a dark product anti-Israeli, anti-immigrant sentiments, which is a place Medalia’s film never treads. Boogaloo (taking its title from their ill-advised break-dancing sequel) also gives the almost-moguls credit for successfully backing a number legit art films, but it is less interested in this side of their business than Go-Go Boys.

Go watch The Delta Force (with Chuck Norris, Lee Marvin, and the late Steve James) and try to pretend it doesn’t hold up today. The best of Cannon really defined the 1980s. Even after two documentaries, the full importance of those action movies still has not been fully explored. For instance, James may well be the first African American cult actor whose fan-base at the height of his productivity was nearly entirely white (and probably right-of-center). That seems culturally significant, but nobody wants to pick up on it. Regardless, Electric Boogaloo delivers plenty of entertaining nostalgia and attitude. Recommended for genre fans, it kicks off the 2015 edition of Film Comment Selects this Friday (2/20), at the Walter Reade Theater.