Saturday, 19 January 2013

Blade Squad

Director: Ralph Hemecker
Writer: Peter Iliff
Producer: Peter Iliff, Brandon Tartikoff
Cast: Corin Nemec, Kirk Baltz, Mushond Lee
Country: USA
Year of release: 1998
Reviewed from: UK VHS

Sometimes you just want to kick back and relax with a bit of small-screen pap. An ex-rental big box video of some rubbish failed TV pilot from the mid-1980s, desperately pretending to overseas markets that it’s actually a feature film.

It’s a bit of a shock when you start watching something like this and then realise that it was made as recently as 1998. Good grief, did anyone really think this naff, juvenile nonsense could go to a series? And I know the people who make the film don’t also write the sleeve copy, but you’ve got to admire anything that proclaims, in complete defiance of both grammar and physics: ‘The only thing faster than their bullets are their blades.’

Blade Squad is set in a near future LA, the date of which is never identified but is ‘closer than you think’. The ‘Blade Squad’ or ‘chasers’ are an experimental police team of three guys and one girl who patrol on roller blades, with jet packs on their backs and a secret mobile headquarters inside a converted garbage truck.

I’ll just pause for a moment while you let that sink in, bearing in mind that this is not a spoof (though it seems that way at times) nor is it even tongue in cheek. It’s an attempt at launching a serious, adult, SF/cop/action series.

Jet packs on their backs and a secret mobile headquarters inside a converted garbage truck. Oh yes.

The remarkably ethnically diverse team consists of white, clean-cut golden boy Cully (Corin Nemec: Solar Crisis, The Stand, SS Doomtrooper, Mansquito and a recurring role on Stargate SG-1); proto-emo, ex-crack whore Jojo Rider (Lori Heuring: Mulholland Drive, 8mm 2); extrovert, black, bald, single father, former X-games champion Lank (Mushond Lee, miscredited as ‘Jonesy’ on the Inaccurate Movie Database: Street Knight, Conspiracy Theory, 2001 Maniacs); and hispanic gang-member-turned-cop Bravo (Yancey Arias: Time Machine remake, Die Hard 4.0) who has some sort of low-level rivalry with Cully - plus Asian mechanic/controller Kimiko (Days of Our Lives regular Joy Bisco who is actually Filipino) and squad leader Tark aka Sarge (Kirk Baltz: Reservoir Dogs, Natural Born Killers). Tark was invalided out of front line duty and founded Blade Squad rather than take a desk job but the team has not yet been approved and are waiting to hear their fate. This does not stop them patrolling the streets however, with Kimiko somehow monitoring their whereabouts using computer stuff in the mobile HQ and communicating by radio with all four cops.

Each ‘chaser’ has a helmet-cam and Kimiko has four screens, the respective officer names added underneath on strips of masking tape. Footage from the helmet cams is liberally mixed with (and to be honest, very well edited into) the ordinary footage, the only problem being that this is a sub-Blade Runner world of dimly lit buildings and perpetual night-time (albeit without the rain machines) and all helmet-cam footage has clearly been shot in bright daylight conditions.

In their padded leathers and stylish crash helmets, the Blade Squad quartet skate around this city, never bumping into anyone and jumping over obstacles in a manner that is probably ‘rad’ or ‘street’ in some way. Occasionally they fire up their rocket packs but these suffer from the genuine disadvantage that personal rockets have always had, which is that they consume fuel at a ridiculous rate and have very little room to carry said fuel, so Kimiko does remind her colleagues (and inform her audience) early on that they can only blast for one minute. I expected this to be a sort of limiting factor, rather like Ultraman’s crystal, but it never becomes relevant (at least in this pilot - maybe it would later) and really only serves to answer those cynics who might wonder why the cops don’t just rocket blast everywhere all the time.

The other disadvantage of personal rocket packs is that they fire intensely hot exhaust over your arse and you need to wear asbestos trousers. The chasers can only use the jet packs by crouching in an ungainly manner that suggests they’re just about to do a crap (or maybe a massive fart, which would be unbelievably dangerous in such circumstances) but even then the rockets are hardly useful since they still point down rather than horizontally. Scenes of rocket-propelled cops are very obviously speeded up to almost comical level because there’s no way for the stunt doubles to actually travel that fast.

So anyway, the plot. Billy Mustard (Zack Ward: Star Hunter, Lancelot: Guardian of Time, Freddy vs Jason, Resident Evil: Apocalypse) is an effete jewel thief whose brother Jonesy is killed very soon after his release from prison by running in front of a lorry while being chased by the Blade Squad. It’s really terrifically bad luck for Jonesy because said lorry is one of the very few vehicles we ever see moving in this apparently perpetually gridlocked city. Later, Billy and two goons rob a jewellers and gun down a regular cop who tries to stop them. The trio escape on two motorbikes, pursued by our rollerblading heroes. In a hilarious scene, Jojo uses her rocket pack to catch up the goons’ bike, climbs on board and fights them - without the motorbike ever even wobbling. Billy doubles back and shoots both goons before they can squeal; the cunning swine has a police radio receiver strapped to his chest and so knows in advance where the cops, including Blade Squad, will be.

During this chase, Cully gets knocked off his bike and comes to in the hospital, paralysed from the neck down. Fortunately, in the next room along is temporarily wheelchair-bound ex-ice hockey star Grinnell (David Sheinkopf, who subsequently gave up acting for art direction and later presented the home improvement TV series Design on a Dime), the cop who took two shots in the bulletproof vest while trying to halt the jewel heist. Tark hires him to be the newest member of the squad while promoting Bravo to team leader.

Billy Mustard has a personal vendetta against the Blade Squad for, as he sees it, killing his brother although he wants to get them all at once so he doesn’t make a move on Bravo while pretending to be an underworld grass nor does he attack Jojo after he picks her up in a bar. He even visits Cully in hospital, sticks a gun to his head then thinks better of it and simply takes a photograph.

The squad trace Billy to his luxury pad but find only a dead junkie girlfriend and a box with red LED numbers on it. “Why is it counting down?” asks a puzzled Jojo, easily the dumbest response to an obvious bomb that I’ve seen since Space Marines. When Kimiko yells over the radio to get out of there, the chasers leap from second story windows, closely followed by carefully timed explosions, and crash to the ground in a shower of glass - a sequence which is not only shown in slow motion but is scored with what sounds remarkably like the 'Flower Duet' from Lakme!

The only image they have of the guy they’re hunting has a full-head ski-mask over his face but Kimiko’s computers can do something which removes the mask from the photo, revealing not only what the ruffian’s face looks like but also the colour of his hair. Jojo is shocked to see that it’s the weirdo who picked her up in a bar and the team set out to find him, having first stopped at the hospital to pick up Cully - who is securely strapped/bolted to an upright bed-thing - because they know that Billy can get to him. With their quadriplegic colleague rather precariously installed in the back of the fake garbage truck, they set off in search of the perp using the fantastic high-tech method of wandering the streets, showing people the photo-image from Kimiko’s computer and asking, “Have you seen this man?”

While the four chasers are out on this job, the truck stops so that Tark and Kimiko can buy some dim sum from a roadside vender, a task which apparently requires both of them to leave the vehicle. Billy and a newly-recruited junkie goon cosh the two inattentive cops and steal the truck, completely unsurprised to find that it’s not a regular refuse vehicle but is in fact a high-tech mobile HQ full of computers, spare rollerblade wheels and quadriplegic cops.

In the only genuinely effective scene in the movie, Billy taunts the immovable Cully, even threatening to jab a pin in his eye but eventually just sticking it in his chest where he can’t feel it; this is an analogy for the way that nobody notices people like Billy because ‘golden boys’ like Cully think they’re so much better, we’re told. (Of course, Cully is intelligent and honest so he really is so much better, but that’s not something that bothers Billy Mustard. Also Cully doesn’t have a really silly name.)

Billy’s goon drives the truck into a jewellery shop and Billy helps himself to the loot while Cully tries to move his fingers enough to switch off a bomb, the control of which is dangling oh so close to his frozen hand. This is commendably tense but goes nowhere because Billy switches the bomb off remotely at the last second anyway, on account of the other Blade Squad members not being present. He waits round the corner for the team - who realised that something was up when they couldn’t raise Kimiko or Tark on their radios - to reappear. Three of them enter the truck but where’s the fourth? He’s behind you! Whomp!

Not the most satisfying ending but then it’s not exactly a satisfying TV pilot. The predictable epilogue sees the team learning that they have been approved and can continue. Although sadly Warner Brothers were not as impressed with their performance as the City Council so this was their first and last assignment.

Blade Squad isn’t terrible and even has some things to recommend it, with the characters at least clearly delineated even if they’re not terribly rounded. Cully has a famous father he has never mentioned; Lank has a kid he has never mentioned; Kimiko has a crush on Lank she has never mentioned... The acting’s pretty good, the direction is competent and the editing's really rather splendid plus there are numerous unexplained clips of old Tex Avery cartoons. The sound, on the other hand, is terrible which muddies even further dialogue that is sometimes impenetrable because of a determination to mix police jargon with quasi-cyberpunk street slang.

But the main problem here is simply the central premise. Rollerblading may be fun to do but it simply isn’t exciting to watch and, most significantly of all, it has no bearing on the police procedural plot. Apart from Jojo’s chase and very silly capture of the two goons on a motorbike, the fact that these cops have rocket-packs and roller-blades is irrelevant to their work (as is the never explained garbage truck HQ). There is one scene, before they enter Billy’s booby-trapped apartment, when we see them remove the wheels from their shoes but otherwise there is no attempt to address how impractical roller-blades are in most circumstances. You can see why the show wasn’t picked up.

An eclectic cast includes Liverpudlian Phino Oruche as a bartender with a crush on Tark; she was in three episodes of Buffy and starred in The Forsaken before returning to the UK for Footballer’s Wives and I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. Gary Cervantes (Howling VI, Warlock: The Armageddon, Wild Wild West movie, Firestarter 2) plays the police chief, Shannon Elizabeth (American Pie, Scary Movie, Love Actually) is a nurse and One Life to Live star Michael Storm appears briefly as a TV newsreader. Jeffrey Anderson-Gunter (Maniac Cop 3) gets an ‘and ... as the preacher’ credit at the end but his role as an occasionally seen street preacher has no bearing on anything as far as I can tell.

The man behind Blade Squad was writer/executive producer Peter Iliff whose belief that in the future we will all have wheels on our feet was previously explored in Prayer of the Rollerboys. He also wrote Point Break, Patriot Games, Varsity Blues, Under Suspicion and an unproduced version of Arthur C Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust, as well as doing uncredited script doctor work on Mimic and Phantoms and directing an episode of Tales from the Crypt. Robert Wolterstorff (who wrote three episodes of Quantum Leap) and Mike Scott (whom the IMDB confuses with the lead singer of the Waterboys!) share story credit with Iliff while Brandon Tartikoff shares credit. Former Paramount Chairman Tartikoff died in 1997 while Blade Squad was in post-production and his work was continued by his widow Lilly, uncredited here. This is possibly his last on-screen credit and the movie is dedicated to his memory, as are contemporary episodes of Seinfeld and Deep Space Nine. The dedication is undoubtedly sincere but I can’t help feeling that Tartikoff would prefer to be remembered for Star Trek or Seinfeld rather than an obscure failed pilot trundled out a year after his death as a movie of the week.

Director Ralph Hemecker also wrote, produced and directed the Witchblade TV series as well as helming episodes of The X-Files, Millennium, Kindred: The Embraced and Dead at 21. Cinematography is shared between the intriguingly named Anghel Decca (12:01, Witchblade) and Stefan von Bjorn (Netherbeast Incorporated) while the editor was Alan L Shefland who has cut episodes of Charmed, The Twilight Zone (2000s version) and Quantum Leap. Production designer Bernard Hides worked on The Tommyknockers, Space: Above and Beyond, Smallville and Jericho. Visual effects are credited to Geoff McAuliffe, a British-born effects artist who works mainly on commercials and collects photographs of late 19th/early 20th century English industrial life. Tom Bellissimo and Charles Belardinelli (both of whom worked on Jason Goes to Hell, From Dusk Till Dawn, Dogma and Saw) handled the special effects.

Broadcast in August 1998, Blade Squad slipped out onto video in various territories the following year including a German release as Inline Cops. I somehow can’t see it turning up on DVD anytime soon.

MJS rating: C+
Review originally posted 18th February 2008

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