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Sunday, August 4, 2019

Robowar (1988) review


Reb Brown (Major Murphy "Kill Zone" Black), Catherine Hickland (Virginia), Massimo Vanni (Private Larry "Ditty Bob" Guarino), Romano Puppo (Corporal Neil Corey), Max Laurel (Quang), Jim Gaines (Sonny "Blood" Peel), John P. Delaney (Alfred "Papa Doc" Bray), Mel Davidson (Mascher), Unknown actor (Lieutenant Martin Woodring)

Directed by Bruno Mattei (as Vincent Dawn)

The Short Version: Italian bandwagon master Bruno Mattei directs Reb Brown and others to do their best Sylvester Stallone impersonations against a cyborg wearing a motorcycle helmet in ROBOWAR, an awful PREDATOR and ROBOCOP copy. Mattei's sense of unintentional humor shines even in the stifling heat of the Filipino jungle where mercenaries never run out of bullets nor worry about actually aiming at whatever they're shooting at. Next to HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980), this has the biggest cult following of the director's works. Its fans will love it even more with this 4K restoration from Severin. Those with a tolerance for terrible movies will get a kick out of it; everyone else will likely find this more of a ROBOBORE.

An elite squad of anti-guerrilla experts dubbed BAM (Big Ass Motherfuckers) are hired for a vague 2-day mission to rescue hostages held captive on an island by a Central American military force. What they don't know is, their real mission is to see how well they handle themselves against a military-created, cyborg killing machine dubbed Omega One that's gone rogue deep in the Filipino jungle. Armed with an array of firepower, the military wishes to keep the renegade robot soldier a secret.... at all costs.

Without American blockbusters, Italy's genre output in the 1980s would have been slim pickings indeed. Bruno Mattei's career--built on clones of whatever was popular in the United States--would likely have been very different as well. To watch his pictures, you'd think his contract stipulated he would not be delivering a good movie, but an entertainingly stupid one; and that's what ROBOWAR is.

For the most part, Mattei's movies are impossible to take seriously. Like Umberto Lenzi, Mattei has a signature style that is unmistakable. In Mattei's case, it was displaying an eagerness for uninspired filmmaking paired with excruciating dialog that almost always ended up vapidly appealing. Even so, Mattei (frequently directing under his oft-used pseudonym Vincent Dawn) has a loyal fan base that appreciate his work for just how brazenly awful his films are. Rarely has a filmmaker wallowed in mediocrity and it played to his advantage.

In contrast, WOMEN'S CAMP 119 (1977), an early title on the director's resume and one of the numerous Nazi atrocity subgenre of Italian exploitation cinema, is astonishingly well made when compared to his later pictures. It was like it was the work of another director. Competency would go out the window for Mattei a few years later when he'd find his calling making movies that were lively, yet brain-dead clones of other, better movies. The absolute nuttiness of the gore-drenched HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980) is his best known production globally, establishing Mattei's uniquely vacuous style celebrated in many of his intellectually barren pictures that followed; ROBOWAR among them.

Rossella Drudi's mechanical script is efficient at counterfeiting its sources--mashing highlights of both PREDATOR and, to a lesser extent, ROBOCOP, into an incredible lack of originality that only the Italians would attempt back then. Dialog is what you'd expect although not nearly as consistently hand-to-chalkboard as something like Mattei's laugh-infested RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR (1984). Drudi worked on many of Mattei's movies, frequently collaborating with her husband Claudio Fragasso, Mattei's confidant and frequent co-director.

Other than some surprisingly good photography by Richard Grassetti, there's virtually nothing else of genuine quality to be found. For those expecting it, gore is minimal, and mostly restricted to a few melted bodies and skin-stripped corpses courtesy of brothers Francesco and Gaetano Paolocci (THE BARBARIANS [1987]; AFTER DEATH [1989])

To be fair, ROBOWAR plays much better in the Italian language version; which is slightly different from the English dubbed track in relation to sound effects and lines of dialog. 

For lovers of unintentionally funny movies, though, what's bad about ROBOWAR is what's good about it; delivering some chuckle-worthy antics typical of Mattei's work....

The script labels the soldiers-for-hire as the haplessly named BAM--an acronym for Big Ass Motherfuckers. Thankfully, they're referred to as BAMsters only once. Dopiness abounds in scenes of the mercs firing indiscriminately at anything that moves while seemingly in competition to see who can do the best Rambo yell; Reb Brown drawing attention to both himself and his group by screaming his lines; ROBOWAR's clone of PRED's Billy character holds a snake right at the base of the head to somehow decapitate it with a machete--the loss of his hand is saved by a distraction at the last second; the Omega-One cyborg fires lasers into the air but in the next shot they're coming downward into their targets; cringe-worthy attempts at one-liners; and home movie-level recreations of scenes from PREDATOR (1987) all work in the film's favor.

The action scenes are energetic but goofy with everybody firing their machine guns in a rapid, horizontal motion. The limited hand-to-hand action is surprisingly good--filmed in a way that foreshadows the over-the-top, under-cranked zombie attack in 1988s wacky ZOMBI 3 (also shot in the Philippines). Stuntman and actor Massimo Vanni gets to show off the most--his uncanny resemblance to Chuck Norris in full military regalia recalls Cannon's Braddock MISSING IN ACTION movie trilogy.

As fortuitously inept as Mattei's movies turn out, the man had a knack for corralling surprisingly spirited action sequences that was reminiscent of the hyper-kinetic brilliance of Hong Kong's unique daredevil style of action filmmaking of the time period.

Romano Puppo (see above) does double-duty as both Corporal Corey and the cyborg nemesis, Omega-One. Someone else wears the costume in one scene where it's required for both to be onscreen at once. It is said co-director/writer Fragasso wore the costume but he denies this. Decked out in shoulder pads and a motorcycle helmet, it looks nothing like either the Predator or Robocop. It does, however, bear more than a passing resemblance to the supernatural street racer avenger in THE WRAITH, a minor cult item from 1986. The robot's vision is similar to the Predator, only heavily pixelated like an old Atari video game; the silly electronic noises the robot makes (only on the English dub) are about as threatening as a Texas Instruments Speak and Spell.

The connection to ROBOCOP is foreshadowed early on, but comes into bloom during the finale when Reb Brown discovers he knows more about this cybernetic killing machine than he realizes. According to writer Rossella Drudi, there's a fleeting nod to ALIENS (1986) in the form of a treacherous character assigned to tag along with the heroes-for-hire to keep tabs on how they stand up in battle with the robot hunter.

American actor Reb Brown returns to Bruno-land, having previously screamed his way through Mattei's napalm-fueled RAMBO 2 clone, STRIKE COMMANDO in 1987. Reb had been acting since the early 70s, first appearing as a bully in the underrated king cobra cult horror SSSSSSS (1973). He's most well known for starring as Captain America in two Made For TV movies in 1979; and co-starring alongside Gene Hackman in the hit action-war film UNCOMMON VALOR (1983). Brown found himself periodically employed overseas headlining silliness such as YOR, THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE (1983) and LAST FLIGHT TO HELL (1990).

Catherine Hickland is the other name in the cast. Famous as a soap star in America, she was known for those same roles in Italy, too. Hickland's character doesn't add much to the movie; she's basically playing a Caucasian version of Elpidia Carrillo's role in PREDATOR.

As bad as the movie is, everybody seemed to be having a blast in spite of the heat and dangers indigenous to the Filipino jungles. Occasionally dull and frequently insipid, ROBOWAR (1988) has a sizable following in cult film circles; but till now, was unavailable in a quality presentation. Severin's restoration is better than this sort of picture would ever expect to get. If you're familiar with Mattei's filmography, then that alone will be enough to know if ROBOWAR is the sort of movie you wish to hunt down for your blu-ray collection.

This review is representative of the Severin blu-ray. Specs and Extras: 4K scan of the original negative; 1080p HD 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; Italian/English options; English subtitles; seven interviews with cast and crew; Catherine Hickland's behind the scenes home movies; trailer; bonus soundtrack CD limited to the first 3,000 copies; running time: 01:30:43


garyjive said...

Hey there! Loved this crazy movie. - I need to ask - what made you want to seek out and watch Robowar? I'm intrigued to understand how this became a cult hit!

venoms5 said...

I knew about it back in the early 1990s just never bothered with buying a bootleg of it to see it. I knew a handful of people that love the movie (along with other Mattei movies), and upon being online, it became apparent there were a lot of fans of the film; especially in European circles. I've no idea how large the fan base is, but it must be sizable for a DVD/bluray company to do a 4K restoration on it. I wasn't crazy about it, but it was about as good as I expected. I had a good time with it, but it's not something I'd revisit very often if at all.

garyjive said...

I get it. It seems to be all about reputation with this one - kinda like The Room? Can I ask, is there any other obscure, random movie you'd recommend that most people wouldnt have heard of? Cheers!

venoms5 said...

What sort of genres interest you? I've reviewed many of that type of film here.

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