Throwback Thursday Movie: DEATH MACHINE (1994)
Loud Green Bird introduces its first themed-post day with today’s “Throwback Thursday” piece. On Thursdays, the Bird will write about movies that are at least twenty years old. The plan is to cover classics of film history as well as flicks that are just of a certain age. Today it’s the latter: 1994’s DEATH MACHINE.
The directorial debut of special-effects wizard Stephen Norrington (“Blade,” 1998; “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” 2003), this movie is about the fictional Chaank Armaments corporation. Based in Los Angeles in the near-future (2003), Chaank is the stereotypical evil American megacorporation. It considers itself above the law, selling weapons to whoever can pay the price.
The pre-opening credits scene shows Chaank’s “Hardman project” — an attempt to create the ultimate cyborg fighting machine — going terribly wrong. This debacle leads to mass protests by the public that are covered by the “networks” and “syndicates” of the press. Meanwhile, “humanist” operatives plan covert action against the company.
Enter our protagonist, Hayden Cale (Ely Pouget), a young, attractive, and smart corporate executive. Chaank has hired her to take over for the previous CEO, who died as the result of a freak “shark attack.” On her first day on the job, she confronts her rogues’ gallery of a management team, including slimy Scott Ridley (Richard Brake) and pompous John Carpenter (William Hootkins).
As Hayden tries to get a handle on the situation at Chaank, she soon learns that Jack Dante (Brad Dourif) is the evil genius behind all of the corporation’s nefarious projects. She decides to terminate Dante’s employment. She also demands full public disclosure of secret corporate operations.
Ridley and Carpenter oppose her. Carpenter argues that Dante is the most valuable asset that Chaank has. Ridley tells her in public that she’s now no better than any of the rest of the management team, but in private he admits that he’s afraid that Dante will kill him.
A psychopathic techno-genius who’s also a porno addict, Dante develops an instant attraction to Hayden when he meets her. Even though he knows she’s out to get him, he tries to win her over to work (and play) with him on his plans for chaos and destruction. Dante even admits that he killed the previous CEO with his latest project, an ultimate killing machine known as “Warbeast.”
Dante soon deploys Warbeast from the mysterious Vault 10 to eliminate another top executive, whose shredded corpse is discovered by Carpenter in the middle of the night. Called in by Carpenter to handle the situation, Hayden tries to pretend that she’s on Dante’s side as she works to get rid of him. She fires him and terminates his access to Chaank’s computer systems. Dante is about to kill her in retaliation when three humanist commandos break into the building and disarm him.
Led by Sam Raimi (John Sharian), the humanist team is a trio of pot-smoking eco-warriors who have infiltrated Chaank’s headquarters to breach Vault 10 and destroy its trove of digital assets. Their goal is to put the corporation out of business. They take Carpenter, Hayden, and Dante prisoner and try to force Carpenter and Hayden to give them access to Vault 10. Hayden refuses, but Dante offers to show Raimi how to get into the underground chamber without having to deal with Chaank’s robust security features.
Of course, Dante’s helpfulness is suspicious; things go south for Raimi and his team once the vault is open. This turn of events kicks off the third act. Carpenter, Hayden, and Raimi and his two sidekicks attempt to escape from the building, with Warbeast in hot pursuit. Where’s Dante? Who will survive? Who will win?
The fact that director Norrington (who also wrote the screenplay) named several characters after well-known genre directors of the 80s is not the first clue that viewers shouldn’t take the film at face value. DEATH MACHINE satirizes the films of the 80s from its beginning, starting with its cheesy title cards. Eventually, “you end up with a fantastic combination of Robocop, Alien, Die Hard, Predator and Terminator,” as The Cult Movie Guide puts it, featuring a “chomping killing robot . . . , clever genre in-jokes, [and] wise-cracking dialogue . . . .”
Another reason that this film is highly watchable is the acting of Dourif. His Dante is almost the same quirky, devious, yet strangely likable antagonist as Luther Lee Boggs, Dourif’s role in the X-Files “Beyond the Sea” episode (also from 1994). Unlike in Boggs’ interactions with Scully and Mulder, Dourif’s Dante is way over-the-top, providing almost a parody of his TV performance. Yet he still satisfies.
The Bottom Line
A sci-fi action-thriller with horror elements, DEATH MACHINE (1994) is cheesy 1990s B-movie goodness. A low-budget UK-Japan co-production, the film is also a self-conscious parody of the recent history of its subgenres. Taken in context, it’s an entertaining near-future dystopian flick. It’s currently available on Amazon Video (where it’s currently Prime) and on YouTube.
Frisco Kid’s IMDb Rating: 5 out of 10 stars