Robot Jox (1989)
Gary Graham (Achilles), Anne-Marie Johnson (Athena), Paul Koslo (Alexander), Danny Kamekona (Dr. Matsumoto), Michael Alldrege (Tex Conway)
“It is 50 years since the nuclear holocaust almost destroyed mankind. War is now outlawed and all territorial disputes between the two great alliances are settled by single combat. Here at the Confederation playing field in Siberia, a battle rages between two gigantic fighting machines piloted by their nation’s champions: The Robot Jox.” – Opening narration.
Robot Jox has always been a cultural oddity for me. I’ve heard about it numerous times, seen articles on it, but just never had the desire to watch it. For one thing, I understand the budget and technological limitations of the year and studio in which it was made, I know it’s not going to be wall-to-wall robot fighting. For two, it has one of the most awful titles I have ever seen. But thanks to Pacific Rim the film has seen a resurgence in popularity and as it is post-apocalyptic and since I’m covering Full Moon stuff this month anyway, I figured I’d take a look at the doomsday films made by Charles Band’s previous company Empire International Pictures. As such I’ll be posting six articles this month rather than the usual two, the next one will publish this Friday, followed by next Monday, next Friday, and then the two Mondays following.
We open on a snow-covered field as a large hunk of metal crashes to the ground and a bloody and battered pilot pulls himself halfway out of the wreckage. A narration tells us that after the events of a nuclear war, all war has been outlawed and disputes are settled by one-on-one robot battles. The pilot’s better, still in a fully functioning robot, walks up to the ruined mech and towers over it, the pilot submits but the victor is a sore winner and crushes the man beneath his robot’s heel.
The pilot of the bad-guy robot is Alexander (Paul Koslo) and he has killed all of Team Good-Guy’s pilots save one, their best which they are saving for last, Achilles (Gary Graham.) Achilles is the last hope for Team Good-Guy in the territory dispute for Alaska but a spy on the inside keeps telling Team Bad-Guy all the new weapons he has in each battle, allowing them to have countermeasures in place to combat any surprises he might have up his sleeve.
In the fight for Alaska, a runaway weapon from Alexander’s robot is heading for the stands and though Achilles manages to block it, it causes his robot to fall on hundreds of horrified spectators. The battle is declared a draw and Achilles vows to never fight again. Now Athena (Anne-Marie Johnson) a genetically engineered woman destined to become the next generation of robot pilot, rises up in the ranks only for Achilles to come back so long as there will be no spectators at the match. Furious with Achilles for taking her shot at the big times, Athena steals the mech and goes out to fight Alexander on her own.
Robot Jox is an ambitious movie. First of all, while the robot fighting is only limited to a couple of scenes, they get their money’s worth. The movie cost ten million dollars in 1987 money to make and that shows. There is some top notch (for the time) green screen, stop-motion animation, and puppetry on display. The fights are full of great, unique set-pieces and are very memorable, if brief. The sets and costumes are obviously made of whatever futuristic-looking components could be put together: the suits the characters wear feature AV jacks from a VCR and dishwasher hoses on the shoulders, but it all looks good. Spoiler warning until after the next picture.
The story doesn’t fare so well; the conflict at the center of the film is fairly low stakes and the villain is reduced to pretty bare bones characterization. Even Achilles and Athena aren’t terribly well fleshed out. Athena’s character arc just makes her seem like a petulant child and its resolution near the end doesn’t tie anything up. I have no idea if a sequel was intended but the movie ends on a weird note as she loses to Alexander and Achilles just takes her chair as she’s lifted to safety and never seen again.
Achilles doesn’t have much of an arc either. The ultimate battle between Achilles and Alexander is pretty great, but Achilles loses fair and square, it’s only because Alexander is a massive tool and decides to try and kill him and the referees after he’s already been declared the winner that there’s any question as to how the battle turns out. This of course makes the ending, where the two men are fighting on the ground amongst the wreckage of their mechs and Achilles tells Alexander that they can both live and Alexander grins and they fist bump, nonsensical because Alexander is going to be a war criminal. What happy ending does this movie want us to think it has?
Even the mid-movie twist where Achilles’ trainer/precursor Tex turns out to be a turncoat is so heavily telegraphed that you’d have to be actively ignoring the movie not to pick up on it. There are pieces of a deeper story here but they’re mostly just debris of an earlier and likely smarter draft of the script.
I had heard that Stuart Gordon and writer Joe Haldeman had clashed frequently in the production over the tone and audience of the film. Gordon wanted something camp and cartoonish and Haldeman wanted a serious science fiction film with allegories about war and conflict. I had heard the film came up more on Gordon’s side of the argument but I didn’t understand how until it got to the final fight.
Alexander’s bad-guy robot having spider legs was one of the first signs that this movie was about to descend into camp and the way that the robots have jetpacks that allow them to blast off into space for no reason was certainly a sign that this movie was getting silly. Still, the moment that I realized the cartoon aspect was when Achilles turns his robot into a tank and blasts lasers into the crotch of Alexander’s, only for said crotch to be containing a massive chainsaw penis which Alexander uses to fuck the face off of Achilles’ robot. It’s an absurdly silly scene for a movie which had been almost entirely straight-laced up until that point.
I think, overall, Robot Jox succeeds in spite of its bad storyline. The cast is good, the effects are good, the action is satisfying, if only the movie had made more than roughly 1/10th (I don’t have any proof that this was the movie that killed Empire, but logic would dictate that it was at least a significant factor) of its budget then we likely would’ve seen a sequel that maybe would have tied up the story a bit better. Around the time that Pacific Rim came out, Stuart Gordon stated that he was getting deja vu and that if he had done a sequel to Robot Jox it would’ve involved robots vs. aliens.
I should probably give a nod to Stuart Gordon as well. There are a lot of beloved ’80s directors still hanging around in some form or fashion, but Gordon is one of the few who hasn’t lost a step. He hasn’t made a feature film since 2007’s Stuck but that showed that the man who made Re-Animator and From Beyond was still alive and well and capable as ever at making violent, bleak, blackly comic movies. I think a lot of Robot Jox’s quality can be attributed to Gordon’s talent, even if he himself conceded that he should’ve made the movie that Joe Haldeman wanted.
Robot Jox isn’t as smart as it wants to be, can be, or should be and the storyline is mostly just marking time between robot fights, but it’s a satisfying movie that everybody needs to watch at least once in their life.
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