Monday, April 28, 2008

They Live

The Action Mutant…
was rowdy before rowdy was cool, man!

They Live

review by Joe Burrows

Note: I know that most readers will most likely roll their eyes at the anticipation of a “wrestling rant” here but considering the star of the feature being reviewed here, it’s to be expected.

Though it’s laughable to most with enough sense, there is an actual debate among wrestling circles as to which wrestler has been the most successful actor to come out of the industry. Of course, that debate was really fueled by one Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea, the most financially successful grappler of the 80s. Now, Bollea’s pretty much an egotistical, delusional hack that believes he single-handedly made the pro wrestling industry the cash cow it was in that era (Truth? WWF owner Vince McMahon was going national, creamed over Hogan’s physique and basically picked the right guy at the right place and the right time to be his star attraction, all while exploiting the newly burgeoning technology of basic cable and increasing popularity of MTV). He also has the misguided notion that his crossover appeal into films gives him the label “movie star”. Because everyone remembers No Holds Barred, right? Suburban Commando? Mr. Nanny? Santa with Muscles? Exactly. Hogan’s whole delusional aura stems back from his cameo as pro wrestler “Thunderlips” in Rocky III. Granted, it was arguably the most memorable sequence in the film but the man has basically ridden his entire “film career” off of the fact that he was once in a top grossing film. What’s my point? That out of all of his cinematic “success”, he has never starred (as in top billing) in a #1 grossing film in America (Bolivia, maybe?). Only two pro wrestlers have that distinction: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and the star of this review’s film…the villain (or heel) many credit with making the start of Hogan’s run so memorable, Roderick “Roddy Piper” Toombs. So, if any Hogan fan boy comes up to you with the whole “Hogan is God” argument, do some research at IMDB or to confirm what I’ve said and spit in their eye for me. Because the next time I do that will be my third strike.

The Plot, as it was:
Piper stars as Nada (as he is known in the credits; he’s not referred to by name at any point during the film), an unemployed drifter that seeks refuge in a homeless commune. He starts to notice strange activity taking place at the church across the street so he checks it out. Nada stumbles onto a box of dark sunglasses but these are not your normal sweatshop manufactured counterfeits. When he puts a pair on, Nada starts to see some people as aliens in disguise and advertising as propaganda being pushed onto the unsuspecting human public (with ads that simply say “CONFORM”, “OBEY”, “CONSUME”, etc.). Nada and his construction worker buddy Frank (Keith David) soon join up with a small band of human resistance and try to find the alien’s secret video control signal before its too late.

Don’t shoot me…I’m only the reviewer!:
John Carpenter’s They Live is the tale of two movies and thankfully (for me), they were both very fun and enjoyable. The first half is very much a satire on the era; an indictment of “Reaganomics” and the era of wants vs. needs. This is taken with a slow burn approach as the message of how bad things are for the working class is made abundantly clear before the story starts taking a weirder turn (the downbeat music by Carpenter & Alan Howarth just adds to the sense of dreary oddness in the air). The second half is more like any Sci-Fi alien film one has seen from the 50s, only with more blood and naughty words. Those expecting some of Piper’s patented goofy repartee will be half right in that assumption. Sure, there are the funny ad-libbed zingers (the infamous “bubblegum” line, “Mama don’t like tattletales!” and calling an older looking woman “Formaldehyde face”) and the obvious macho posturing of an action hero but Piper plays a surprising amount of the action with a straight face. He conveys the role of being an outsider well and the audience relates with him discovering the truth as we are. But make no mistake about it; when the film goes all gung ho with action, the Pipes is there to oblige. The fight between he and David has taken on a life of it’s own since the movie was first released and is the definitive highlight (a bit out of place, yes but entertaining nonetheless). Add in appearances by B movies favorites Meg Foster (AHSE) and Buck Flower and the whole retro feel to the B&W alien world and you have a guilty pleasure that’s a notch or two above what you’re used to. So, put the damn glasses on already!

Character/Supporting Actor Sighting!:
- That’s Al Leong (Endo in Lethal Weapon) as the uncredited Asian revolutionary.
- Boxing fans and anyone unfortunate enough to see Rocky V (lucky me, I fit into both categories!) will recognize Tommy Morrison as one of the resistance guys in his first role (though he is also uncredited).

Body Count/Violence: 46 (30 aliens and 16 humans). Nothing fancy here, as “Rowdy” Roddy just blasts away at anything alien with a shotgun or some sort of automatic weaponry. There’s also plenty of shooting during the resistance meeting scene along with a fall through a window and a police beating being thrown in. Speaking of beatings, there’s the much lauded Nada/Frank brawl. For well over five minutes, the two punch, kick, rip, gouge, suplex, slam and choke each other in a fight that never seems like it wants to end. According to legend, Carpenter was only going to have the fight be 20 seconds or so but the two actors planned it to go longer and only pulled punches to the face and groin. Carpenter was obviously impressed and the rest is cinematic history.

Sexuality/Nudity: The only pair of tits is during the flick’s closing shot, as a mid-coitus display is interrupted in the weirdest way possible.

Language/Dialogue: Not constantly strong but it has its moments. I think its fun just to hear Roddy drop the F bomb a few times.

How bad was it?:
Shockingly enough, They Live was not as critically maligned as you would think. Though it was never praised in “high art” standards, many critics appreciated the satire and felt Piper fit the everyman role very well. Some critics couldn’t sit back and have fun with it though (why must I always give the stinkeye to Leonard Maltin?). My favorite argument was that it wasn’t original and was too much like the old 50s “aliens take over the world” pics. Um, wasn’t that the whole fucking point? To have it resemble the older cult classics while referencing the current day’s social ills? Idiots.

Did it make the studio’s day?:
As already mentioned, They Live was #1 when it opened up on 11/4/88. Filmed on a relatively low $4 million, it cleared that its first weekend but just barely with $4.8 million. It had some weak competition to be fair, as the highest profile opener it beat was the documentary U2: Rattle and Hum. It fell back a spot each week for four weeks and finished its run with a gross of $13 million. As you may have guessed, it has developed a healthy cult following since then, even having the big fight scene being parodied on an episode of South Park (with the two crippled kids, Jimmy and Timmy, fighting in a shot by shot recreation).

Film: ***1/2/*****
Entertainment value: *****/*****

Copyright 2008 The Action Mutant.

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