We lost a great filmmaker in Stuart Gordon last week. In his honor, we’re going to revisit an old Awfully Good favorite…
Robot Jox (1989)
Director: Stuart Gordon
Stars: Gary Graham, Anne-Marie Johnson, Paul Koslo
GIANT! ROBOTS! FIGHTING!
Stuart Gordon is mostly known for his work in the horror genre with movies like RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND, but he also made some films we’ve covered in this column, such as SPACE TRUCKERS, starring Dennis Hopper and Tywin Lannister’s cyborg penis. However, there’s one gloriously cheesy entry in Gordon’s filmography that I always felt was underappreciated: ROBOT JOX.
Sign the petition for John Goodman to play The Thing in Marvel’s inevitable FANTASTIC FOUR reboot!
Inspired by his desire to see a live action TRANSFORMERS movie, Gordon pitched his giant fighting robots flick to longtime collaborator Charles Band. Yes, that Charles Band, the legendary B-movie producer behind PUPPET MASTER, EVIL BONG and the upcoming shameless cash-in CORONA ZOMBIES. They brought on respected sci-fi author Joe Haldeman to pen the script and things were looking good. That is until Gordon and Haldeman began fighting over the direction of the film, with the director wanting a lighter, family-friendly tone and the writer pushing for more serious science fiction. That tension is all-too-obvious in the end product, like a silly Saturday morning cartoon with a solemn, not-subtle cold war commentary. Though it has its goofy moments and cheesy lines, the finished film isn’t that bad and probably would’ve been a bigger hit…had the studio, Empire Pictures, not gone bankrupt. Instead, ROBOT JOX sat on the shelf for nearly two years and only got a limited release in theaters, never making its money back and being considered a failure. But over the years it’s rightfully gained something of a cult following.
People, please save masks for medical professionals and not watching giant robot fights.
The movie takes place in a future where the world has been destroyed by nuclear annihilation. Now the remaining two factions of humanity (USA vs. Russia, naturally) fight for land and global domination. However, instead of fighting each other in actual war like real men, the two countries now solve their differences in carefully refereed “games,” where guys controlling big ass automatons duke it out for territory. Essentially they’re playing a real life game of Risk with giant Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots. That’s pretty much ROBOT JOX in a nutshell.
The main draw here is obviously the robo-action and for the budget and time, the effects aren’t that bad. The robot designs are fun, with the mechs boasting the standard laser cannons, flying fists and chainsaw penises. (More on that later…) And I give Gordon a lot of credit for using stop-motion animation as opposed to men-in-suits, thus sparing ROBOT JOX from a grim Power Rangers fate. Going that route makes all the action feel more “real” and while there aren’t that many robot fights in quantity, the quality is there and the thought they put into everything makes them surprisingly effective. Just don’t expect PACIFIC RIM-style carnage or GODZILLA-levels of destruction. This was still made in the 80s after all.
Some choice words for PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING.
The movie itself is also a cheesy relic of Cold War flicks from that time with the stereotypical characters and cliché plot points you’d expect. The hero’s an old-school alcoholic with no time for the new generation of robot jox. There’s a twist involving a secret spy that you can see coming a mile away. And of course they shoehorn in a completely unnecessary “love” story between the protagonist and his genetically-engineered subordinate that feels awkward and predatory. The only real surprising beat in the movie is the scene where the hero tries to save a crowd of onlookers from being injured by an incoming robot missile…and instead falls on the bleachers, slaughtering 300 innocent lives. USA! USA! USA!
Star Gary Graham overacts like a champ as sulky American hero Achilles (“I’m gonna get in this thing and I’m gonna KICK…YOUR…ASSSSSSS!”), while looking like an intriguing mix between Billy Bob Thornton and a young Powers Boothe, depending on the camera angle and lighting. His character is also oddly illiterate, which has no bearing on the story, but is brought up once and never mentioned again. However, as much as I love America, the true MVP of ROBOT JOX has to be Paul Koslo as Alexander the bloodthirsty Russian villain, the best of his kind since Ivan Drago. Alexander exists solely to laugh evilly and taunt our hero with hilarious one-liners about death and blood. It’s made even better by the fact that Koslo’s accent comes off more like Dracula than Russian.
Even the other actors had a hard time deciding if it was Powers Boothe or Billy Bob Thornton.
All that animosity between the Americans and the Russians comes to a head in the insane final showdown, which sees the robots fighting each other, one of the robots fighting the referees, robots flying and fighting in space, a robot transforming in to a laughable-looking tank, and even robot vs. human combat. It’s an embarrassment of mechanical riches. And I can’t be the only person that noticed the not-so-subtle robot anal rape scene, where Alexander flips over Achilles’ bot so its metal ass is in the air, unleashes a phallic chainsaw out of its crotch, and then proceeds to hump him in to submission. That really happened, right?
However, none of that holds a candle to the ending, which is both amazing and amazingly stupid. [SPOILERS] In the final scene, after years of national hatred, attempted murder, and serious trash talk, the American hero decides not to kill the Russian villain, instead telling him they should both be friends and live. Then the two men awkwardly smile and give each other a thumbs-up fist bump, in what is clearly the greatest man-to-man arm gesture outside of COMMANDO. It’s completely unearned and out-of-nowhere, but is executed with such fierce sincerity (backed by a great score from Frédéric Talgorn) that you can’t help but appreciate the effort and proceed to turn off the movie feeling like a champion of world peace.
Sadly, his “robot” was not more than meets the eye.
Take a shot or drink every time:
- Someone says “Crash and burn”
- Someone says something sexist or racist
- The hero’s scars change position, size or texture
- You can see strings on the special effects
- Alexander says something awesome
- Someone gets slapped on the ass
Thanks to Stuart Gordon for all the great movies!