Monday, July 13, 2020

"Technology Doesn't Have Feelings" - Robowar (1988) - Film #182

It is probably redundant to claim that a film with Claudio Fragasso and/or Bruno Mattei in the credits is a masterpiece; those gentlemen are synonymous with the highest levels of filmmaking. Robowar (1988) is another example of their craftsmanship and their ability to take the barest hints of lesser films--in this case, The Terminator (1984), Predator (1987) and Robocop (also 1987)--and turn these ideas into far superior works of art.

Truthfully, I am getting exhausted by the failure of your universe's critics to recognize quality. Case in point: Reviewer err_42 writes, "This one is just a pain to watch....This movie is confounded by bad acting, lame dialogue, and from the looks of it, the script is only about 15 pages long!! It rarely makes any sense at any given time!...This film is rubbish!" Reviewer BandSAboutMovies writes, "On my deathbed, I will pull my family close and whisper, 'I only regret one thing. Robowar.'" And reviewer HaemovoreRex, who has the courage to admit to being a Bruno Mattei fan, writes, "Robowar is overall, a fairly bland affair. A real shame."

Not so! Please read on...

The film begins in a 1970s-era combat helicopter flying over a jungle. The co-pilot indicates they are looking for “the central memory bank” of something called “Omega One.” Their flight is intercut with the Predator-like point-of-view of a robot moving through the jungle and firing artillery; the robot is efficient at blowing things up, particularly in light of its pixelated display with a resolution of about 640 x 480 and at most 16 colors (all shades of orange).

Artillery fires at the helicopter, which is blown up by a laser somehow. Everyone aboard is killed.

The film moves to a military base where officers are putting together a crack squad of men whose names are Neil Corey, Diddy Bop, Papa Doc, Blood (whose real name is Sunny), Quang (whose real name is Nung Quo), and Kill Zone (whose real name is Murphy Black, played by Reb Brown). (Unfortunately, Mr. Brown is never referred to as “Kill Zone” at any other time in the film.)

“Why do they have nicknames?” asks a man in a nice striped button-down shirt named Mascher.

“You should know what the group is called,” says an officer. “BAM.”


I will not relate what the acronym stands for, but it starts with “Big-Ass” and ends with a word that suggests the acronym should be BAMF. “They’re your best bet for finding our lost friend, Omega One.”

In the Philippines, the BAM team is transported across the sea on a boat cleverly named African Queen II (a name painted on every single surface of the boat, as well as on the pilot’s t-shirt). They meet Mr. Mascher, the group’s technical advisor, on a pier, where the mission is revealed (and so is Reb Brown’s crop top).

After Mr. Mascher tells them the mission is simply to beach two rafts, Reb Brown says, “I don’t like this business. I don’t like you.”

“You don’t have to like me,” replies Mr. Mascher. “You have to work with me.”

“You know what this mission’s all about and you’re not saying, right?”

Mr. Mascher says nothing.

The group, having changed from their bright pastel tourist clothes into (sleeveless) camouflage gear, appear on a beach with two inflatable rafts. It is possible they have floated to another island on the rafts, but the filmmakers fail to make this clear. In any case, apropos of nothing, Reb Brown says, “You know what they say. Life’s a bitch, then you die.”

They walk into the jungle.

At one point, they see something move in the underbrush. Blood fires his machine gun, destroying half the forest. “Whatever it was, it ain’t no more.”

They move forward and find a skeleton. “I couldn’t have done all that,” Blood says.

“Of course not,” says Papa Doc. “Can’t you see he’s been dead for days?”

They find a man sitting in a tree and all of them, including the doctor, waste hundreds of rounds of ammunition to shoot him down. When he falls, they find he has been bloodily gutted, not by their gunfire but by some other force.

In a suspenseful sequence, the team walks for five minutes.

Eventually, Blood steps on a spring trap with nails that closes on his foot.

Neil Corey tells him, “Old Papa Doc’s gonna patch you up and make you strut real good.”

For some reason, Reb Brown and Mr. Mascher wander off by themselves. They see something moving and Mr. Brown investigates. Mr. Mascher whines, “You’re gonna leave me here? All by myself?”

Meanwhile, Quang (who, incidentally, speaks exactly like Tonto in The Lone Ranger TV series) finds a field of more dead bodies and bones, most of them steaming.

Finally, at the 25-minute mark, a robot appears. Mr. Mascher sees it and exclaims, “It’s you!”

The robot throws a knife at Mr. Mascher, but the man escapes to find the rest of the group. He tells them he was attacked by a guerilla, not a robot. They find the knife buried in a tree up to the hilt. “It’d take a man with a sledgehammer to do that,” says Reb Brown, perhaps inaccurately.

They continue, inevitably, through the jungle. An example of the film’s tight military dialogue follows:

“We’re stalking something.”

“Yeah. Quang’s ass.”


“Stalking what?”

“I don’t know.”

“Does it make any difference?”

They reach a highway and a bridge, where two Jeeps full of guerillas are chasing what appear to be tourists and shooting them. The BAM team waits for the guerillas to slaughter everyone except a blonde woman. Then they mow the guerillas down with their automatic weapons, shooting indiscriminately. At the end of the carnage, the surviving guerilla takes the blonde woman hostage but Reb Brown shoots the man, rescuing the woman.

Then a robot attacks and blows up the Jeeps with laser beams, though Reb Brown thinks it’s just another guerilla. The BAM team takes the woman into the jungle.

At night, after much walking through the jungle, Reb Brown finds out from the woman that she was part of a UN group building hospitals when they learned a village was razed to the ground. “There’s something really weird going on in this region,” she says.

The next day, they continue walking through the jungle.

When they reach a guerilla outpost, they attack. Reb Brown demonstrates his charming habit of screaming wildly whenever he fires his machine gun. Then he impales a guerilla with a knife while saying “Don’t move” and then winking. Also, Blood demonstrates the fascinating maneuver in which one blows someone up with a hand grenade and then shoots them with a machine gun for good measure.

The blonde woman (much later identified as Virginia) discovers a building full of dead children—it’s not clear if they were killed by the guerillas or the BAM team in the crossfire.

Then a robot kills Blood with a laser.

Finally, the BAM team sees the robot in the jungle. Attempting revenge for his friend Blood, Diddy Bop runs after the robot and the team follows. “Hey, Diddy Bopper!” yells Neil Corey. “Come on out, man!”

The robot kills Diddy Bop and drags him through the jungle while reciting the following robot dialogue: “Bop bop bleep bloop beep beep boop boop.”

In the next scene, there is more walking through the jungle. Oddly, both Blood and Diddy Bop are prominently featured walking with the BAM group, despite being killed a few minutes earlier.

Eventually, they see the robot again. Despite firing at it, it gets away. Mr. Mascher tells Reb Brown that the robot is Omega One, “the perfect and ultimate weapon. It was released to reverse the situation.” He also admits he led the team that created Omega One.

“Well,” Mr. Brown says logically, “if you created it, then you can destroy it.”

“Afraid not. I don’t even know everything this thing can do.”

Mr. Brown, as he is wont to do, stares blankly at Mr. Mascher before having a one-minute flashback about Vietnam in which a friend was killed.

While crossing a river, Papa Doc is pulled under, presumably by the robot. The rest of the team follows the river downstream.

Meanwhile, Papa Doc wakes up on the riverbank. Before he can reunite with the BAM team, however, he sees the robot again and runs off into the jungle. He is quickly reunited with the others, but when everyone believes him to be safe we see some kind of robot arm slither through the underbrush toward Papa Doc.

As if making a joke, Neil Corey says, “Hey, what’s that on your foot?”

Papa Doc looks down. The robot hand grabs his ankle and pulls him back into the jungle.

The robot hand drags Papa Doc behind a bush and somehow turns him into a steaming skeleton within seconds.

A few minutes later, the BAM team survivors have built a shelter and buried mines all over the area. Virginia asks Mr. Mascher why he built the killer robot. He explains cogently, “Technology doesn’t have feelings. Either function or malfunction.” Then he reveals he has a small detonator that will destroy the robot, but Mr. Mascher is the only one who can use it, and the detonator must be close and have direct line-of-sight to the robot.

The robot approaches and shoots lasers to blow up the mines. For some reason, Corey says, “He stepped right on them like it was dog shit,” though this statement in no way reflects what happened.

Mr. Mascher decides to attempt to use the detonator himself. He walks into the jungle, approaching the robot. Nobody stops him.

The detonator explodes, but it blows up Mr. Mascher.

When Corey attempts to retrieve the detonator (the one that just exploded), the robot kills him and picks up the still intact detonator. Then the robot blows up the shelter, forcing everyone to walk through the jungle again.

Soon Reb Brown and Virginia are the only survivors. When they hear Quang blow up, Mr. Brown appears close to tears.

They find an abandoned village. She says she knows of a hospital she built nearby. “Let’s go there,” Reb Brown says. Then he leads the way, for some reason.

Fortunately, Virginia knows how to make napalm with medical supplies, so they rig the hospital to explode. 

As they wait for the robot to arrive, Mr. Brown listens to an audiocassette that Mr. Mascher gave him before exploding. The tape reveals the robot is not just a robot but a cyborg, endowed with a bionic brain. “You are well acquainted with the man we chose to transform into Omega One. Black, Omega One is your friend, Lieutenant Martin Woodring.”

The robot arrives. Instead of shooting the survivors with lasers, he starts punching Mr. Brown. Shockingly, however, when Mr. Brown says the man’s name, he opens his helmet to reveal his human head.

Mr. Brown and Virginia get the upper hand, steal the robot’s laser gun, run outside the hospital, and shoot the robot, blowing up the whole hospital.

“It’s over,” Mr. Brown says. “It’s finally over.”

But it’s not over. The next day, when the survivors run to the beach to signal their boat, the robot, slightly more damaged now, returns. For some reason, Mr. Brown no longer has the laser gun, so he is forced to run around the beach while Virginia swims toward the boat. 

In the end, Mr. Brown confronts his old friend on the top of a waterfall, but the robot gives Mr. Brown the detonator and mimes pushing the button. Mr. Brown takes the detonator but hesitates (perhaps forgetting that he intentionally blew up a hospital to kill his friend a few hours ago).

“Destroy me,” the robot says.

Then Mr. Brown pushes the button and jumps off the waterfall. The robot explodes (again).

Then the end titles roll with pictures identifying the actors and their characters. Blood and Corey are mixed up, however.

It must be said that few things in this world are more charming than a young Mr. Reb Brown working to show sadness. His two opportunities to cry during Robowar (once when Qwang dies and once when he debates whether to blow up the killer robot) are a gold mine for acting students. Actually crying would be too easy. Mr. Brown does the far more challenging work of picturing sadness in his mind and allowing that mental exercise to build emotion in the viewer. Robowar is another step in Mr. Brown's journey to becoming one of the most charming actors of his generation (see also David A. Prior's 2012 opus Night Claws for a later example).

Although Robowar is much classier and less exploitative than many of Mattei and Fragasso's collaborations, it is one of the finest examples of their work, and of the writing skills of the no-less-talented Rossella Drudi, Mr. Fragasso's wife since 1978. The late 1980s were a cultural pinnacle of Italian filmmaking, and Mattei, Fragasso, and Drudi were three of the bravest explorers to climb to that pinnacle. Nothing more need be said.