I can’t for the life of me remember what it was, but there was a grocery store in my youth that my family did not go to often, being as it was a fair distance from our home. They, like a number of grocery stores I knew at that age, had a small movie rental section. This one stuck out because it also rented games–even PC games (which, even then, I thought was awfully stupid). As on walked in, one saw the PC games, but a turn to the right and all the way to the end would find one in the science fiction section, where I saw the rather eye-grabbing cover of Robot Wars. A robotic scorpion “mecha” fighting a more humanoid robot? Really, you would be hard-pressed to find another cover that would draw me in so rapidly and completely. I know that I rented that, and later discovered it had a relative (allegedly a prequel, but not truly one), Robot Jox. I know I rented it as well, and I know I ignored whatever plot there was outside the giant robots in both cases, because that was the only thing that could interest me then. When I discovered Stuart Gordon had directed Jox, I gladly threw down a couple bucks to pick this one up, for nostalgia and for directorial completeness.
Seventy years after a world war that ended in nuclear holocaust, war has been outlawed and has left all territorial combat up to gladiatorial matches between pilots from the two remaining alliances: the Confederation and the Western Market, each piloting a giant mechanical suit, typically anthropomorphic, in both ranged and mêlée combat. Achilles (Gary Graham, whose other major role was that of Detective Sikes, the human lead on Alien Nation) is the Western Market’s strongest pilot, and also the only one alive after Confederation pilot Alexander (Paul Koslo) viciously murders the long since yielded Market opponent in the prologue sequence. Professor Laplace (Hilary Mason) sees this as the perfect opportunity to test her “gene-jox”–genetically engineered warriors designed to be the best pilots in the games. The two primary candidates from this lot are Athena (Anne-Marie Johnson) and Sargon (Thyme Lewis), both proud, cold and arrogant. Achilles has one last battle in his contract though, and he and Alexander duke it out in Death Valley, with the final round of un-ranged combat resulting in a tragic accident that kills 300 spectators. Referees determine the match is a draw, but Achilles is haunted by the image of broken bodies below his robot and refuses to continue, leaving Athena and Sargon the better chance to gain an opportunity to pilot instead.
It’s fairly public that there was a conflict between renowned sf author Joe Haldeman, who authored the script, and Stuart Gordon as director and story-writer insofar as tone and audience to aim for, with Haldeman aiming for serious drama and Gordon aiming for caricatured fun for younger people (the term “kids” is typically used, but the end result is too much of a mix for me to believe either was aiming quite that young). Unfortunately, this is all too apparent in the film as shown. While the DVD is a bit more explicit than the original theatrical showings (a teensy bit more violence, for instance), thanks to one of many shrugging studio transfers that neglects to look carefully (not a big issue here, honestly–this version was released internationally, so it’s probably nicer to have this lengthier cut, really), it’s still a bit childish. It’s clear that this is intentional (or perhaps I just hoped it was that clear, knowing Gordon), with the clear idea that the Confederation represents the Soviet Union (still around when this was originally filmed in 1988, its release delayed by the production company, Empire, being bankrupted), and Alexander, despite being played by a German, having a thick and ridiculous “Russian” accent.
Probably the biggest hamper on the film, and I sort of feel bad for saying this even as it’s true, is that it’s littered with television actors. Certainly, good actors can perform on television primarily or even exclusively, but there’s a certain type of actor that seems destined to remain on television, barring brief escapes into low-budget, indie pictures–or maybe bit parts in larger ones. Graham is actually pretty solid as Achilles, at least achieving the right emotional content for scenes that require it and comfortably shrugging into the role itself, even managing both the drunken depression of guilt after the accident and the swaggering braggadocio of a confident sportsman. Koslo is just shy of scenery-chewing as the “Evil Red Menace” (who is never named as such but reeks of this mentality), but is fun and pretty airtight in the role, cartoonish though it may be. Similarly, Michael Alldredge as ex-Jox Tex Conway is a bubbling stereotype (of a Texan! can you believe it?) that works, despite every synapse in my brain screaming out about how ridiculous his accent, hat and mannerisms are. Johnson, Lewis, and Mason, however, are pretty overwhelmed by their roles–or at least underwhelmed by the production–and have ridiculous and cringe-inducing performances, that, despite their earnestness, leave the actors flat on their faces, being neither serious nor stereotypical. Cardboard, perhaps, but not stereotypical (which was allegedly Gordon’s aim). The lone soul who appeared interested in a Haldeman-style story was Danny Kamekona, a Hawaiian actor who seems to have a history of being given roles as Japanese, in this case an engineer named Matsumoto, who is behind many of the Market’s designs. He’s somber and worried throughout, making the clash with Tex Conway over suspicions of espionage on both parts bizarre, even as it mostly works (the physical exchange between the two is poor and sluggish, though).
This is not a hidden gem in Gordon’s crown, nor is it a hidden shame–it’s a “mixed bag” as we like to say, and the robot scenes (mostly using puppets and the wonderful glory of stopmotion) are almost worth it all on their own–heck, they probably are. The plot with the human portion of the film really isn’t too bad, but the weak mainstream-television-style performances put a serious damper on this, as does the mixed tone. Worth seeing, but only if the idea of giant piloted robot combat drops your jaw or sets you salivating.