Sunday 11 June 2023

The Vindicator (1986)

Director: Jean-Claude Lord
Writers: Edith Rey and David Preston
Stars: Teri Austin, Richard Cox, Pam Grier, Maury Chaykin, Lynda Mason Green, Denis Simpson, Stephen Mendel, Larry Aubrey, Micki Moore, Catherine Disher and David McIlwraith

Index: The First Thirty.

The Vindicator is not a good movie. Let me get that out of the way right from the start. It deserves most of the jabs and criticisms hurled at it over the years. There are plenty of things objectively wrong with it. But, goddamn, it’s a heck of a lot of fun!

It’s as quintessentially eighties sci-fi schlock as the typeface used its the opening credits. I couldn’t remember its name so I googled “’80s computer font” and it was the first result. And, of course, it rolls onto the screen to the sound of a dot matrix printer but in the mainframe shade of green. Oh, and there’s a score that’s a clear knockoff of John Carpenter’s style.

What’s more, everything looks familiar and I don’t mean the movie. I think I recognise the car park and the glass architecture of the desk the receptionist sits behind. It’s that generic. It didn’t bode well but it picked up quickly.

We find ourselves in a clearly unethical lab with long suffering scientist types figuring out how to turn a mild mannered chimp into some sort of raging monster. Like you do. Of course, then the amoral lead scientist wanders in and promptly takes it too far so the chimp dies and he provides absolutely no emotional response.

He’s Alex Whyte, played to icy perfection by Richard Cox. Carl Lehman works for Alex and is wildly pissed at him for stealing his budget, his computer chips and his research. I wonder what might happen next, especially given that David McIlwraith got an “introducing” credit as Carl Lehman/Frankenstein. Take a wild stab in the dark. You’ll be on the right lines.

So yeah, Alex suckers him into a dangerous situation in the lab and stages an explosion to kill him. There’s a funeral and everything, but his body is still alive, kinda sorta, in a tank in Alex Whyte’s huge lab. It’s “a living brain in an indestructible mechanical body.” What could possibly go wrong with Project Frankenstein?

I absolutely adore the ambition here. This is kind of rocket science, given that Whyte’s real project is designing a spacesuit that NASA will be able to use on Mars, so I’m sure he and his team are extra-smart people. However, it’s the ultimate in arrogance to believe that they can plug something as complex as a human brain into a computer and control it with tech that struggles to manage 2D vector graphics.

Then again, this is such a B-movie rendition of the time-honoured Frankenstein story that we’re soon gifted with priceless dialogue like, “I still don’t understand why you connected the Rage Response Activator to the computer. If he senses any kind of threat he could turn into an uncontrolled killer.”

Shock horror! After they fail to activate this new rage machine and Alex storms off into the night to pout at the failure of his minions, the creature wakes and sits up just like he’s Jason Voorhees. Next thing we know, the very cute lab assistant, Gail Vernon, is taken down by a bevy of rage filled monkeys. Oh, the karma!

Just in case you hadn’t realised just how far into outright cheese this movie will go, I must explain that the monster escapes in a garbage truck that dumps him into an incinerator, but he just pushes the wall down and walks away!

Yet my brain pays heed to details like a kid who drives into this scene, sees the Vindicator half-melted and wildly threatening, so throws his car into reverse and speeds on out of there. When was the last time a character in a movie like this did something that sane?

Anyway, Carl goes home to talk to his wife, who’s sleeping in the most believably unsexy position ever, so more kudos there. Another clever detail is that he knows that he’s a killer now, fully at the mercy of his Rage Response Controller, so he doesn’t actually go inside to talk to his wife, just talks to her from outside.

Oh, and he has to deal with a biker gang on the way who just have to follow him into an alley to whip him with a chain. Guess how well that works out for them?

By the way, Biker #2 is some nobody called Shawn Levy who would direct all the Night at the Museum films and much of Stranger Things. I wonder how he remembers this!

Now, you may be wondering, once more for an eighties film, when Pam Grier will show up, but don’t despair. She gets a lot to do here and she has an absolute blast with every second of it, as if she’s relishing being back in some sort of exploitation flick.

She’s Hunter, because, well, she’s a hunter, and we first see her destroying Grand Master Wong at kendo. It’s a wonderful reveal as she takes off her bōgu. Whyte brings her in to find his new Frankenstein’s Monster with no holds barred. And she’s brutal! She kills Lisa with a needle to the back of the neck while sitting in the back of a car with her, offering sympathy for the loss of her scientist boyfriend who the Vindicator just threw out of a window. When he takes to the sewers, she pursues with a full team with flamethrowers modified to fire acid. Sadly for her team, our anti-hero pulls down a gas pipe so they blow the whole place up.

They both survive, of course, and Hunter is pissed. She storms right back to Alex Whyte to shout at him for lying to her. “Inside that suit is a man. And I’ve never ever lost to a man.”

There’s so much here to enjoy and, while an impressive amount of that is Pam Grier, who’s having a lot of fun, it’s frankly everywhere. In one scene, the Vindicator breaks out of a tank of resin while it’s in the back of a truck, which promptly explodes as it jumps a railing to fall off a cliff. It’s utterly ludicrous. It’s huge fun. I almost watched it twice just because.

Grier is perfect here, in a part that may well be as substantial as her prior eight films put together, even though it’s a supporting role. David McIlwraith does exactly what such an acutely ridiculous role requires. Richard Cox is pristine as the asshole scientist. Teri Austin is excellent as Carl’s wife Lauren. Even the overt traitor who we’re not supposed to realise is a turncoat is spot on. And I won’t tell you who it is, just in case, but c’mon.

And there’s a good ending! How many films like this have I seen that fall apart at the end? Far too many, but not this one.

There’s no doubt that this isn’t the best film in Pam Grier’s First Thirty. It’s not even close. But I haven’t got this much enjoyment out of any of them since at least Coffy, maybe The Big Bird Cage. I’ll certainly be watching it again.

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