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MechaMarch - Robot Jox

We’re already almost halfway through the month and I’ve failed to unleash a theme, so let me take this opportunity to welcome you to MechaMarch! We’ve already seen a return to our Transformers reviews and now it’s time to dive headlong into some movies and TV shows! Now, of course, the best way to start this off would be with the two Pacific Rim films…but we’ve already looked at those. And while I certainly cannot claim today’s film, Robot Jox, was a progenitor to del Toro’s franchise, well, it’d be pretty hard to argue against the fact that he’d had to have seen it at some point. And now, the synopsis:

In a post-apocalyptic future, nations no longer wage war but instead settle their disputes in contests between giant hulking machines and their pilots, the Robot Jox. But even this time-honored tradition seems to be undergoing a transformation as the ‘sport’ is now riddled with spies, genetically engineered pilots and new, more dangerous weapons put the spectators in danger. All of these factors come to a head as the eastern Confederation seeks to take Alaska from the western Market. Each nation’s champion, the bloodthirsty Alexander and the retiring Achilles, will take to their thousand-ton death machine, but which Robot Jox will come away victorious…and alive?

While it may come as a surprise to find this film sprang from the mind of Stuart Gordon, more typically associated with horror classics inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft such as Re-Animator, Castle Freak, From Beyond and Dagon, it was even more of a surprise to me that the inspiration for the film was when Gordon came across Transformers! From his initial idea, writer Joe Haldeman was brought in to create the screenplay. In yet another twist, while one would think that the one pushing for more adult or darker themes would be Gordon, it turns out that it was Haldeman instead, as he described the friction with Gordon as “I was trying to write an adult movie that kids would be able to enjoy while he was writing a kids movie that an adult would be able to enjoy.” This kind of tonal conflict is present in the film as most of the characters are fairly simplistic while at the same time there’s a lot going on here, at times making the film feel like its starting to burst at the seams from its own plot-points. The major twist, however, revolving around the presence of a spy and the dead Jox that have resulted from their handiwork, does retain a more adult feel, giving Haldeman the edge in this particular creative conflict. Lastly, it’s worth noting that there is a bit of a wink and nod to the Iliad here. It’s seriously not much, hero gets hots for woman, goes off to sulk while replacement goes to fight his battle, then returns to fight his fight…that’s literally about it. So, I mean, it’s there, but there’s no real giant-robot/literary epic sort of crossover to set the world ablaze here which one cannot help but wonder if Gordon and Haldeman had been on the same page how much deeper such a story beat could have gone. Alas.

Troubled writing aside, what this movie pulls off on a typical 80s Charlie Band/Empire Pictures budget really is kinda gobsmacking. Think about it, you’ve got the 80s equivalent of famed cheapskate producer Roger Corman doing a movie about giant robots? And it doesn’t devolve into unwatchable dreck? [The Asylum, I’m looking at you and your Transmorphers! – Ed.] Pulling that off in 1989 in and of itself is a miracle…but maybe not too much of one. Robot Jox did command the largest budget that Empire Pictures had ever put forth at the time, $7 million…and the stop-motion animation and model work show that at least some of the money was very well spent. Bonus nugget for you cinema nerds out there, but the legendary Ron Cobb was brought in on mech design. Sure, the mechs are brought to life using technology dating all the way back to King Kong in the 30s, but no 80s low budget movie about giant robots should look this good. That’s not to say the effects can compete with, say, del Toro’s Pacific Rim…but in the context of their time…they remain pretty snazzy. Where you see the hits to the budget are some of the sets, especially Achilles’ living quarters where the flimsiness of the set actually becomes a bit of a story point! [Intentionally or otherwise. – Ed.]

Acting here runs the gamut, as you’d expect on a low-budget production. Gary Graham as Achilles does the best with what he has to work with and Paul Koslo absolutely gnaws every scene he’s in as the Confederacy’s bloodthirsty champion Alexander. Michael Alldredge and Danny Kamekona as Tex and Matsumoto have smaller roles in the film as a former Robot Jox turned trainer and weapons specialist respectively but prove to be solid in their roles. Alldredge’s Tex, yes, can and does fall into more a caricature of a Texan but this ultimately proves to be forgivable given the character’s fate. Kamekona’s character work really only comes into play near the end of the film, but when it hits, it hits hard and leaves the character in a favorable light in spite of his lack of charisma earlier in the film. The low point does have to be Athena, a genetically engineered Jox played by Anne-Marie Johnson, but it may not be entirely her fault. The problem is that we’re dealing with a ‘born yesterday’ type who is supposed to be the love interest of our hero, Achilles. Sadly, the combination of how she’s written and how she’s portrayed just doesn’t allow her to garner much in the way of sympathy or support from the audience. In fact, she’s pretty unlikeable for the bulk of the film where you kinda wonder why the hell is Achilles so interested. Oh, and of course, eagle-eyed viewers will be able to catch glimpses of some Stuart Gordon favored players such as his wife Carolyn Purdy-Gordon (in a rare instance where her character survives) and Jeffery Combs.

Taking designs and story beats more from BattleTech than the Transformers that actually inspired it, is Robot Jox any good? That’s hard to answer if I’m being objective. The story is simplistic and yet has too much going on. The effects are great for their time, but are very much of their time. But you know what? For what it is…yeah. Sure, you could take what I said about the effects as a negative, but you have to sit in awe of the gumption Gordon and his crew had to pull this off. And to end up doing it so well? A big old bravo to them. Honestly, if you’re here to watch a low-budget movie about giant robots fighting, you’re in for a hell of a treat, if for no other reason than the effects. Yes, I think the writing could’ve used a little more spit and polish (or, at the very least, a team that was on the same page), but Robot Jox proves to be a perfect example of the other side of the coin when it comes to 80s and 90s straight-to-video releases. So many nostalgic reviewers seem to focus on the horror films released via these means and end up forgetting about some of the better sci-fi films that came out around this time too. And Robot Jox stands proudly among them. So pop open a few brews, drink ‘em A to Z, knock fists with your buddy and say it with me now: “Crash and Burn!”

Goofy at times and certainly flawed, it’s the sheer ambition of the filmmakers and the excellent stop-motion animation effects for the mecha that easily earn Robot Jox a Happy Cat rating, rose colored glasses and all!

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