The Film:Robot Jox The Principles: Directed by Stuart Gordon. Starring Gary Graham, Anne-Marie Johnson, Paul Koslo, Michael Alldredge, Jeffrey Combs and Danny Kamekona.
The Premise: In the future war is outlawed and a single combat match between two giant robots piloted by highly trained human warriors settles all the world’s territorial disputes. National hero Achilles (Gary Graham) meets his adversary Alexander (Paul Koslo) for a match in Death Valley that will determine which superpower takes control over the much-desired Alaska. During the fight over three hundred spectators are crushed when Alexander topples Achilles’ machine from an illegal move resulting in a draw. When Achilles refuses the rematch he’s replaced by Athena (Anne-Marie Johnson), a genetically engineered combat warrior designed for the game. She is almost killed during the battle, so Achilles takes control of the robot and challenges his nemesis to a final winner-take-all death match.
Is it any good?: Hell, yes it is! Horror master Stuart Gordon’s awesome live-action mecha anime classic is more fun to watch now then it was back in ’89! It takes the typical post-apocalypse scenario from that time period and creates something new by adding giant, rocket-powered robots that fight each other with missiles, lasers and even hand-to-hand.
It’s long after World War III and two powerful nations now determine who controls which part of the globe with a match between their finest warriors, Achilles (who fights for what’s obviously the U.S.A.) and Alexander (who clearly represents the former Soviet Union). During a match to decide who takes Alaska, Alexander fights dirty and causes Achilles’ robot to fall on a crowd of spectators, killing hundreds. This results in a draw and calls for a rematch, but Achilles was only contracted to do ten fights and he wants to walk away. The horrible tragedy haunts him too greatly, so he returns to everyday civilian life instead.
A beautiful female warrior named Athena, who was genetically created in a test tube to be one of the robot jox, is picked to fight Alexander. Unfortunately there’s a traitor on the team who’s been giving their weapon secrets away to the competition and Athena is defeated. But the vicious commie Alexander defies the rules and forfeits the match when he tries to finish his opponent while she’s down. Achilles returns to the arena, replaces Athena as pilot of the robot and challenges Alexander to an epic final battle to the death.
This was one of Empire Pictures most ambitious films and it shows. The classic stop-motion animation featured here is some of the finest you will ever see. It might all appear rather quaint now to our CGI-trained eyes, but the robot fights are pretty amazing to watch, especially when you consider that it’s all in-camera effects done with practical models. The final showdown between Achilles and Alexander is as grand a spectacle as anything you’d see in any one of Michael Bay’s fighting robot flicks, but without all the commercial endorsements, silliness and Shia to put up with.
As far as story goes it’s pretty simplistic, but the subtext of nations using huge mechanized monsters to settle their disputes reminds me a lot of the original Rollerball, which was dystopian sci-fi loaded with social commentary at its finest. This one is not-too-subtle in its obvious cold war comparisons, but it works. Gordon creates a very Verhoeven-ish vibe with his PG rated opus, while adding some nice touches here and there. All the main robot jox are named after characters from Greek mythology and at one point during a fight, Achilles loses one of his feet. The regular civilians are all covered in robes and breath masks and for the low budget he had, Gordon really creates an atmospheric post-apocalyptic world. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, the Russkie bad guy’s robot is equipped with a mechanical chainsaw-penis.
Is it worth a look?: If giant rocket-powered robots beating the shit out of each other is your cup of tea, find it, watch it, live it, love it. If you’re a fan of Stuart Gordon and you haven’t seen it yet, shame on you. It’s part serious science fiction, part Saturday morning cartoon and it’s one hell of a good time.
Random anecdotes: It cost about 10,000,000, making it Empire Pictures most expensive film ever. The company went bankrupt during filming and it was picked up and completed by Epic Productions over two years later.
Cinematic soul mates:Rollerball, Running Man, Rocky IV, Robocop, Robot Wars, Crash and Burn, Robo Warriors, The Transformers Trilogy, Real Steeland Pacific Rim.