"Okay, okay... I'll star in Kung Fu:
The Legend Continues!"
Laser Mission is the kind of film that drew us more deeply into the study of b-movies than we might have done if our only exposure had been Godzilla flicks and '50s science fiction pictures. Movies like this one made us keenly aware that there thrives a sub-culture of filmmakers who strive against limited time, talent, and resources to live out their dreams of becoming famous directors and more often than not, they fail in spectacular and hilarious ways.
One of the more tired expressions in the b-movie world is "this movie is so bad it's good." While that might not be exactly the way we would characterize Laser Mission, the picture does have flaws numerous and varied enough to keep boredom at bay. There are also other characteristics of the "so bad it's good" sub-genre present: has-been actors on their way down the ladder (Ernest Borgnine), young action stars on their way up (Brandon Lee), and a script so hackneyed and scattershot that it seems as if the writers simply threw in every 1980s action film convention they could think of, hoping that a miracle might happen to the material on its way from the printed page to the camera. By the time the movie was released all these clichés were so tired thay could hardly stumble, let alone fly, but the makers of Laser Mission still pushed the movie off a cliff to see what would happen.
"Seriously, though... why couldn't Airwolf talk?"
Michael Gold (Lee) is a mercenary spy, sent to the Soviet-ruled African nation of Kabango (spelling approximate) to retrieve a scientist (Borgnine) who has the plans to some sort of laser weapon in his head. At least that's what we're told this movie doesn't have nearly the budget to actually show a laser, or even the design for one. Michael is horrified by Borgnine's fake German accent, but mercifully our super secret agent is knocked unconscious with a dart fired by a shooter he cleverly managed not to detect at all. Michael is ensconced in an African hellhole prison (which is painted in surprisingly tasteful pastels) but he escapes, mainly thanks to the incredible stupidity of the troops who are guarding it. ("Heh heh!" laughs one guard. "We cut off your head mañana!") Some of these guys charge Michael with their arms in the air, even though Michael is wielding a Street Sweeper Shotgun.
Back at the American embassy Michael is dressed down by the guys who sent him on the mission in the first place. After the standard "you don't understand, you're just bureaucrats" speech, Michael agrees to go back into Kabango to find the professor. He agrees to do this for no pay, blatantly contradicting the song that plays in one form or another underneath half the movie:
"Hey Brandon my
eyes are up here!"
In the violence of the night
Where you hear the sirens scream
He only knows where he's going to
Like a dream within a dream
His heart beats like a hammer
Like the backbeat of a song
And the fire burns within him
And he knows he don't belong
He must be strong
He's a mercenary man, mercenary man, mercenary man (Mercenary maaaaaAAAAAAAAAaaaaaan!)
Yeah, a mercenary man
Yeah, the fire still burns
Turning wheels within a wheel
Only one thing (serves him? surprises him? it's garbled by a sax solo)
The price tag on every deal
Oh the mercenary man, mercenary man, mercenary man
Magnetic poetry is there anything it can't do?
Michael sneaks back into Kabango by disguising himself as a Cuban officer. This performance alone might be reason enough to watch Laser Mission, especially when one considers Lee's heritage and later career. Imagine the love child of Bruce Lee and Mel Brooks hamming it up in a ludicrous mustache and you might begin to get the idea. Proving that he is man of at least two disguises, Gold switches to his leper act to contact the professor's daughter Alissa (Debi Monahan), a zoo veterinarian. He makes a date with her for a late dinner (lepers get all the chicks), then breaks into professor's former apartment building, which just happens to be painted in the same tasteful pastels as the prison. There Michael is attacked by more Cubans and Soviets (whose uniforms and accents are curiously similar to those of Nazis), so he flees.
Sure, it's gross but what's
with that hat?
Michael makes his rendezvous with Alissa and the two discuss what to do next. They decide to visit one of the professor's friends, whom they find dying, but fortunately he has information of the professor's whereabouts to impart. Then a car chase breaks out and our heroes flee from military jeeps, using a handy VW Bus. Luckily for them Alissa is a crack driver, and Michael is a crack shot. As a matter of fact, Michael never misses a shot in the entire movie, no matter how unlikely. If there are twelve guys in front of him he can take them out with one sweep of his gun. He can hit people on the back of a moving truck that is following him while he's in a moving vehicle, and he can hit targets at long range using a short barreled shotgun. If this movie were just a bit funnier, we'd think it was meant to be a comedy.
Also featured in the car chase are lots of fruit carts, clay pots, and a b-movie element we like to call "explodium." Explodium must be a major product of Kabanga because it's used in the construction of buildings, roadways and fruit carts of that country. It's basically stable unless a b-actor happens by, and then it can blow up at the lightest tap, especially if that tap comes from a vehicle of soldiers chasing a b-actor. Then BOOM! A huge orange fireball engulfs the vehicle.
"Give it to 'em with both barrels, Alissa!"
The action eventually moves further into the desert as Michael and Alissa continue their mission to rescue the professor. With the fate of the free world at stake, one might think that the U.S. government would send a few more (or at least more capable) people than a wisenheimer mercenary and his newfound veterinarian girlfriend, but that doesn't seem to be the case. The cocksure pair trade pathetically scripted mock insults before getting down to business in the bedroom. As any '80s action flick fan knows, sex is simply the prelude to betrayal. Alissa sneaks off while Michael slumbers and finds herself captured by Eckhart, the criminal mastermind of whom the entire cast is supposed to be terrified.
Eckhart's prowess as a hunter and cruel demeanor is referenced many times but rarely seen on screen. He does a lot of sneering and scowling in what we suppose is a South African accent, but rarely does he actually do anything that might be considered frightening or indicative of actual skill. He does have an impressive collection of artifacts at home, including a room full of latex heads. These heads once belonged, we are told, to the people he has tortured. Even if he is such a badass, it's unclear what a small-time plutocrat like Eckhart would want with a high-powered laser (referenced by Borgnine as a "nuclear weapon"), but trying to decipher character motivations in Laser Mission is like decoding the Dead Sea Scrolls, and not nearly as rewarding.
The b-movie traditions dutifully carried out in Laser Mission are too numerous to count. If one wanted to introduce a friend to the pleasures of low-budget film, Laser Mission would be a great place to start, because it contains so many classic b-movie features and because the filmmakers include them so cheerfully and so obtusely.
The odious comic relief, for instance Roberta and Manuel are supposed to be a couple of Cuban soldiers. They're played by Maureen Lahoud and Pierre Knoessen, respectively. If their names don't indicate the casting blunder that occurred, then one quick glance at the pair in action will remove any doubt. Lahoud at least has the right coloring and a tenuous grasp of comic timing, but Knoessen, a fair-skinned man with blue eyes, is clearly from the "speak earnestly, loudly, and with an obnoxious accent" school of comedy. Roberta and Manuel first encounter Gold in his "wacky" Cuban officer getup, but they follow the plot doggedly, eventually landing in prison for their incompetence. Following movie logic, they naturally switch to Gold's side when the opportunity arises.
Attendees of B-Fest are fond of shouting "day!" and "night!" during the annual screening of Plan 9 From Outer Space to subtly underscore Ed Wood's total disregard for the niceties of continuity. Laser Mission's time-of-day confusion is perhaps not so blatant, but it is a bit confusing for Michael and Alissa to have dinner "at nine" and follow it immediately with an afternoon car chase. This sort of thing happens a couple of times during the movie time appears to have passed with no clear indication of what the characters did in the intervening hours, or why they're still clad in their evening garb.
"Slug bus tan, no slugbacks!"
Speaking of evening wear, we were quite grateful that Alissa never does change her clothes after the dinner scene, so she goes through innumerable action scenes and long stretches of walking though the desert with every inch of her ample cleavage showing. Her cleavage is such an obvious target that after she's captured by the baddies and tied to a chair one of them passes the time by throwing diamonds into her mammarial gap. The diamonds, by the way, are from the diamond mine where our heroes spend the last twenty minutes of the film. Borgnine and Lee arrive there in time to prevent the slaughter of the slaves who labor there while simultaneously rescuing Alissa and freeing Roberta and Manuel from bondage. It's a busy twenty minutes, made all the more hilarious by Lee's abdominal bullet wound, an injury through which he fights, climbs, and even makes jokes.
Whatever else you say about this movie and take our word for it there's a lot more about which we could write one must admit it served its purpose. Brandon Lee made an aborted attempt at action movie stardom a few years earlier, resulting in Legacy of Rage and a couple of Kung Fu film for US TV. But as crappy as Laser Mission was, it led to series of increasingly better films until his untimely death on the set of the movie that might have made him a real star, The Crow. Everybody has to start somewhere, and this movie, that so embodies the tail end of the 1980s action boom, was Brandon Lee's start.