Friday, May 27, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Trancers (1985)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

In what should be the 23rd Century (although the film also calls it the 25th, so who knows), the delightfully subtly named future cop Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson) spends all his time mopping up the remnants of the mind-controlled zombie slave troops (so-called "Trancers") of his dead arch-enemy Whistler (Michael Stefani). His obsession is quite understandable, because Whistler killed Deth's wife, but still costs the cop his job.

Deth spends his new-found free time diving in the submarine ruins of Lost Angeles, until the Future's ruling council has need of him again. That point in time comes sooner than expected. For some reason the film is unwilling to explain, Whistler is still alive and has somehow managed to find his way into the Los Angeles of 1985 to do the Terminator thing. Obviously, Deth is the best man for the job to protect the council's ancestors and bring Whistler back in.

It looks like (the film doesn't bother to explain this point either) you can send dead matter back through time as you wish, but can only transfer the consciousness of people into the bodies of their ancestors. As luck will have it, Deth's and Whistler's respective ancestors both look exactly like they do, so Deth can go on a merry hunt through Los Angeles without having to look at a strange face in the mirror.

Jack ropes his ancestor's one-night-stand Leena (future Academy Award winner Helen Hunt, not as completely annoying as she would soon become) into working as his native guide - and of course future love interest. To make life a bit more difficult for him, he is only a lowly reporter, while Whistler's new body is a Police Detective without rank but with considerable influence.

Once, before his unhealthy obsession with living dolls overwhelmed Charles Band's complete output as a producer and overrode even the small interest in making watchable movies he might have had, the producer/director/writer/etc was trying to be a small-time Roger Corman, just with less talent and imagination. At least, Band had enough clout to rope in promising talent (see Reanimator). Trancers was made in that still promising phase of Band's career and is probably his best work as a director.

Of course, keeping in mind that I am talking about the future director of The Gingerdead Man and Dangerous Worry Dolls here, one has to keep one's expectations at a realistic level, which is my long-winded way of saying that, while words like "style" or "intelligence" just don't belong into the man's vocabulary as a director or producer, Band's work here at least doesn't suck completely. He points, he shoots, he doesn't embarrass himself.

The movie's script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, the pair responsible for the rather delightful "Tim Thomerson is Sergeant Rock and meets aliens" film Zone Troopers, has more logical flaws than my attempts at doing arithmetic. From the wildly inconsistent way time paradoxa work (people whose ancestors are killed and their own children disappear, but everyone still remembers them?) to the fact that the film really should have ended after about 30 minutes - a point where Deth has ample time and opportunity to get rid of Whistler - there is not much that stands up to even the mildest of scrutiny. Worse, the film never explains any of its concepts that need explaining. My remarks about the way time travel works are based only on conjecture, for example. Still, I can't say that I cared much about logic or needed explanations while actually watching the film, because what the film lacks in artfulness, it makes up for in (sometimes consciously ironic) low budget film charm. Following Deth, we flit from one obvious and silly situation to the next.

This is the sort of film that doesn't need to spare the killing of a department store Santa Claus for the grand finale, because it also has a (terrible, of course) punk rock club, little girls with the souls of gruff police chiefs and our hero riding a motor scooter instead of a motorcycle to throw at us. Among other things. But most importantly, Trancers not only shows us those things but does its best to let them be fun, by not taking itself serious. Not taking yourself serious in the good and entertaining way must be a lot more difficult to achieve than it looks like or most films that try for the effect wouldn't be as bad. The difference between Trancers' version of this brand of fluffiness and the bad sort as incorporated in Troma films or Band's later Full Moon Productions lies in the fact that it still takes its audience serious. Where a Troma film winks at itself in a mirror, this is a film still winking at us sitting in front of it.

While I usually just can't stand Helen Hunt, I do approve of the fact that the film doesn't make her character completely useless and only be there to be rescued by Thomerson and wear troubling fashion. She's useful, she has moments of being sensible, she's as much as you can hope for in a cheap SF actioner.

And she's next to nothing compared to the film's true trump card, the utterly awesome Tim Thomerson doing the perfect square-jawed cynical hero with delightfully silly one-liners (personal favourite: "Dry hair is for squids") while having at least one toe in the territory of a parody of a perfect square-jawed cynical hero, which, let's be honest, is the only way those guys can ever be made sympathetic. Somehow, Thomerson even makes Deth kinda cool.

A few years later, Band would go on to turn Trancers into a confused franchise of films that have nothing to do with each other beyond Thomerson, but none of the later films is even vaguely watchable, so this is the one to watch if one wants to see Thomerson doing what Thomerson does best.

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