MechaMarch - Robot Wars
I’m always leery when the packaging on a movie, be it old school VHS, DVD or Blu-Ray, calls out “From the makers of…”. It’s as if they don’t have enough confidence in their product, they have to remind you that you liked something else that they made, so why not give this thing a shot, even though it’s probably crap. I ranted about this in my old Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV movie review, where they did something similar. So here we find my younger self staring at the VHS box of Robot Wars. It says it’s from the makers of Robot Jox…and it is, kinda. It’s a Charles Band production, this time under the banner of his Full Moon Features as Empire had gone bankrupt. David Allen Productions was on board, the team responsible for Robot Jox’s stop motion robot battles…but other than that, it’s a clean slate (with one exception that we’ll get into later). But younger me would always put the box down in favor of something else. Now that I’m older, I found myself back in that same quandary, now with a DVD case in my hand and this time I took the plunge. Was it worth it? Was younger me right? Let’s find out after the synopsis:
In a world where giant robots had been the main combatants in war, a post-apocalyptic society has emerged where such warriors are a thing of the past, save for one, the MRAS-2, a scorpion-like mech now used to shuttle tourists to restored pre-apocalypse towns while running security checks along the North Hemi border for invading Centros. As North Hemi closes in on a deal with the Eastern Alliance to provide smaller mechs, an act of betrayal will lead to a mad general kidnapping the MRAS while holding a group of tourists hostage. Can a reporter and a washed up mech pilot track down the clues to the final resting place of the MEGA-1, a long lost mech prototype, to end the threat of the Eastern Alliance’s mad ruler and save the innocents?
The blurb on the back of Robot Wars is kind of why I prefer writing my own synopses for these reviews, because the copywriter here either hadn’t watched the movie or watched it while high (which I might actually recommend, because that’s what I did!). Even in my blurb, I couldn’t escape some of the jargon of the film, so let’s hammer that out first. The Eastern Alliance is essentially Japan, North Hemi is the US and the Centros are your Latin American nation of choice.
Let’s start off with the positives. Replacing Stewart Gordon in the director’s chair is Albert Band, Charlie’s father. Having seen his Doctor Mordrid and Zoltan, Hound of Dracula, he’s capable enough and certainly well versed in low-budget filmmaking. That being said, you’ve gotta walk into this expecting some nacho cheese here, and there’s certainly a fair amount. Also, if you loved the robot stop motion in Robot Jox, you’ll love it here in Robot Wars as David Allen and his team bring it now as they did then. Now, if we’re looking at just the movement and fighting of the bots, it’s all fine. But the change from Empire to Full Moon likely came at a budgetary trim…if not outright chop. Credit to Allen and his team, but you can’t tell from the bot design and movement. We’ll get to where you CAN tell in the negatives. The last thing to mention in this column is that the film doesn’t waste your time. Coming in at just 71 minutes, the pace remains brisk and plot points are dolled out without any real distractions or dovetails. Everything happens for a reason and all the loose ends are tied up by the end of the film.
That being said…man does it feel short…like there SHOULD BE 20 more minutes in there. Take for example the romantic arc between Don Michael Paul’s Drake and Barbara Crampton’s Leda. There’s no “Will they/Won’t they?” mainly because the writing makes it WAY too obvious that yes, indeed, the people you thought were going to get together are totally going to do so. This is probably the biggest negative to the film is that the writing is very very simple. Like, 1940s serial simple. Now, look, I’m not expecting something like Dune coming out of a film called Robot Wars, but every character in this film is lacking in a third-dimension. Drake’s the rebellious mech pilot, Leda’s the too smart for her own good love interest and damsel in distress. There aren’t so much characters in this film as there are caricatures which unfortunately ends up giving us a plot-by-numbers. The robot battles, like stated above, are great, but if there’s no weight or reason to care, what’s the point? Also, if you compare this to the battles in Robot Jox, the scope of the battles here is very limited. Hell, Robot Jox went briefly into space for a bit! Achilles’ bot had a basic transformation! None of that is present here. While we have some interesting robot designs, they are still essentially standard robots. And while the final beatdown is fun, it lacks the twists and surprises we were treated to in the earlier film, suggesting that in a classic problem for sequels, the budget was likely sliced and Allen’s team was expected to try and do more for less, and that so very rarely works out…if ever.
Given the negative aspects of the film, it’s hard to be critical of anyone’s performance in the film, given that they simply didn’t have much to work with here. I’m a big fan of Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, From Beyond, Jakob’s Wife, etc), but she’s not really given much to do here. I’ve never encountered Don Michael Paul before, so it seems unfair to judge his acting here. In fact, there’s really only one performance I feel qualified to critique here and that’s Danny Kamekona as General Wa-Lee. While he’s the only actor to appear in both Robot Jox and Robot Wars, his roles couldn’t be any more different: in the former, he played a super serious weapons developer but in the latter he’s a manic bad guy that chews on every bit of scenery he can get. I mean, “Peek-a-boo…I. KILL. YOOOOOU!” is fucking AMAZING…and might just be worth the price of admission right there. Still, it's good to see Danny get revenge for being killed in Robot Jox. Oh, and before I forget, given that invoked that horrible Nick Fury TV movie at the start of this review, we do have Lisa Rinna in an early screen performance here as Leda’s reporter friend Annie…but like everyone else, she really doesn’t have much to do here.
Look, more than likely, you came here for some good old school analog robot smashing action, and when Robot Wars gets to that, it doesn’t disappoint. But there isn’t much beyond that here to recommend. That being said, it is a bit of a positive that given its pretty short running time, it’s not like you’re gonna regret the time you spend with it. This manages to bring the film up to a Plain Cat rating. It doesn’t recapture the magic of Robot Jox, but if you’ve got an hour or so for some robot hijinks, you could do worse.