There's just something about a guy
with his own name on his shirt...
If you want things like good acting, a logical storyline, or state-of-the-art special effects, then we will fully admit that Flash Gordon is not a very good movie. But we can't deny that we find this film amazingly entertaining. It's funny, it has enough action to be exciting, and the whole movie has a vibrant, colorful look to it. And a babe. We can't stress that last point enough.
The movie starts off right, with a memorable credits sequence. The titles are shown over panels from Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon comic strip, while the truly excellent "Flash Gordon" song (composed and sung by Queen) plays along. This catchy tune clues us in to a couple of the film's subtler subtexts, such as the fact that Flash is the "king of the impossible" and that Flash will "save every one of us." The opening sequence is so compelling that it even takes the sting out of the credit that reads "Produced by Dino De Laurentiis."
Flash Gordon has been recast for the 1980s as a star quarterback for the New York Jets. The Earth is under attack by Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow), who is sharing megalomaniacal playbooks with Princess Dragon Mom. He's sending stock footage of hurricanes and earthquakes to conquer us humans, as well as something called "hot hail," which for all we know, is hail wearing little garter belts.
Hmmm. Tums probably isn't going to take care
of this particular stomach problem.
Flash (Sam J. Jones) takes an ill-advised plane flight during the crisis, and he and fellow passenger Dale Arden (the blandly pretty Melody "Manimal" Anderson) wind up stranded on the estate of well-meaning-but-mad scientist Hans Zarkov (Topol, best known for playing a musically inclined independent contractor). Zarkov has built a space capsule that will take him to the source of the attacks on Earth, but he can't take off without someone to hold down a pedal in the capsule's control room. Yep, Zarkov can build an interstellar spaceship, but he's not smart enough to tie a cinder block to the accelerator.
Flash finds himself volunteered for the job of co-pilot, and Dale comes along for the ride. They crash-land on the planet Mongo, where Ming's minions quickly capture them and bring them to Ming's palace just in time for the presentation of the tributes brought by the alien races Ming has conquered. Soon thereafter Flash is leading the recalcitrant (and combative) aliens in a rebellion against Ming's rule while (almost) making time with alien babes and falling in love with Dale via telepathy. (Don't ask.)
Sam Jones isn't really bad as Flash Gordon, but he doesn't stand out either. We also have to fault him for never settling on a great costume that says "Flash Gordon," unless you count the white t-shirt he wears early in the movie that says "Flash" on it. Flash Gordon really ought to have a helmet and a jet pack and such. Instead we get tank tops. Compounding the problem is the fact that Flash doesn't really do anything. He is led from place to place by the supporting characters until the end of the film, when he finally does something heroic -- and then winds the plot up accidentally.
"I mean it, Blessed. If you pinch
my ass one more time...!"
Flash's love interest Dale Arden is even worse. We can only guess that her character was modeled on the "sassy" Lois Lane from the Superman films. But sassy doesn't cut it, especially as Anderson really isn't as sexy as the role requires her to be. C'mon, Ming is supposed to fall in lust with her instantly, and in order to convince us of that, the filmmakers had to insert a scene in which Ming "tests" Dale's responses to his magic ring. After seeing the results, we find ourselves in need of therapy. Flash, on the other hand, thinks that "it was pretty sensational."
Max Von Sydow, on the other hand, is great fun as Ming. Okay, the Fu Manchu make-up they make him wear is a bit much, and Sydow seems to have some sort of facial tremor in a lot of scenes that undercuts his ability to project authority, but he has fabulous costumes and delivers even the goofiest lines like he means them. It's too bad that the film's best line ("Bring me the bore worms!") was uttered by his sidekick Klytus, whose outfit resembles what Darth Vader might wear, were he a Vegas dancer.
The alien princes of Mongo are played by Timothy Dalton as Prince Barin (playing the role entirely too seriously) and Brian Blessed as Prince Vultan. How does Blessed (a longtime favorite of ours) play the king of the hawkmen? Imagine that you have just won $100 million in a lottery, that Carmen Electra has offered to marry you, and George Lucas has asked you if you want a part in the next Star Wars film. Now imagine that as you find all of this out, someone asks you: "How're you doing?" The level of enthusiam you would put into your answer to that question is the same level of enthusiam that Blessed puts into every line he delivers, including "Is this seat taken?" Blessed is probably more over the top in this movie that he's been in any other role that he's played, and that's saying something. Man, can he dislocate his jaw or what?
Rumor has it that Lucas stole Queen Amidala's
costumes from Princess Aura.
Extra incentive to watch this movie comes from the aforementioned babe, Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), daughter of Ming and pursuer of Flash's affections. Like all of the women in this production, Muti dons a seemingly infinite number of skimpy costumes designed to hamper useful movement while displaying the maximum amount of flesh that the MPAA will allow. Not that we're complaining. You'll notice that all of the doors on Mongo are extra wide to allow for Aura's outrageous hairdos. That Ming -- always thinking ahead!
Even with all of these terrific supporting actors keeping us entertained, there is just one reason that we've awarded this film four lava lamps: sheer spectacle. Few films have this kind of Cecil B. DeMille-like disregard for budget, logic, and fashion, but Flash has it in spades. The sets are large, opulent, and well-populated, the matte paintings are gorgeous yet obvious, and the sparkly costumes thrown willy-nilly on to the backs of anyone willing to stand in front of a camera testify to the carefree mood of Ferdinando Scarfiotti, the prouduction designer (who was also responsible for the designs in The Last Emperor and Toys). Ah, those wacky Italians -- sometimes there is no substitute.
If you consider yourself a fan of science fiction, your education is not complete until you've witnessed the melodrama of Flash Gordon. Pop the popcorn, fire up the VCR, and keep your foot on the red pedal, or the G-forces will kill us all!