From the film’s product packaging:
“Captured in a daring raid by ex-CIA agent Eric Mathews, the merciless terrorist hit-woman Samira is brought to the U.S. where she undergoes experimental brain surgery. Transformed into an unstoppable bionic warrior, she returns to the Middle East, where she obediently wipes out all of her former comrades. But when a malfunction reactivates Samira’s human memories, she launches into a frenzy of cold-blooded vengeance …”
There’s a bit more, but as it gets really into some unimportant details I’ve chosen to leave it at that. Suffice it to say, Programmed To Kill bites off an awful lot of subject matter – terrorism, nationalism, anti-Establishment, fringe science, etc. – and if ambition was all that was required for success then this Allan Holzman directed thriller should’ve made the grade. Alas, it didn’t – decades later, the feature only has a paltry 3.7 audience rating on IMDB.com – and probably fell into obscurity fairly quickly, despite having the marquee presence of Sandahl Bergman, definitely a bit of a phenomenon in genre circles in the 1980’s … but more on that in a moment …
While Programmed has a reasonably interesting and somewhat timely script from Robert Short (mostly known in Hollywood for his effects work), the production smacks entirely of a low budget exercise. Location shooting isn’t all that grand, set decoration is slim to none, and its effects and pyrotechnics spectacles are all a bit underwhelming. Feeling in some ways as if the central idea of a cybernetic fembot was meant to capitalize on the popularity of 1984’s The Terminator (in some countries, Programmed was released under the name The Retaliator), one might think that the producers would’ve made a greater effort minimally to showcase Bergman as a Schwarzenegger clone. Sadly, she’s given zero charisma, choosing to merely choke the bulk of her victims and leave them with mouths bloodied as she strides calmly away.
What? Not even a clever Schwarzenegger quip?
To my recollection, leading man Robert Ginty as contract agent Eric Mathews was never a big name. A quick review of his resume shows a fair amount of TV appearances and smaller movies including visits to Project U.F.O., The Exterminator (1980), and Warrior Of The Lost World (1984). As Mathews, he never quite displays the level of cunning and commitment (much less competence) that Short’s script ascribes to him; instead, we’re expected to accept his bona fides at face value and go from there. Granted, he’s given the obligatory family to protect in the final reel – a wide-eyed teenager played by the late Paul Walker and a frustrated wife who predictably just wants him to leave the danger behind – but he’s as much a stock player here as are the faces that surround him.
And speaking stock choices?
Short’s script is plagued by too many cliches of its day. The general distrust of government stemming from the Vietnam War and Watergate eras practically required that the next generation hero be someone working from outside “the (federal) system,” so it became increasingly popular for the protagonist to be a private contractor instead of a legitimate government agent. And because these contractors were functionally independent, they had to have their own private network of like-minded experts and/or consultants to draw upon when either the science or any other professional ‘know how’ escaped them, and Mathews has his own roster. Lastly, our hero (or is that anti-hero) would inevitably come into conflict with not only “Uncle Sam” but also another group of rogue elements representing national interests; and, yes, all of these cookie cutter sensibilities whisk any measure of freshness away from the film.
If anyone put in a bit more effort that tried to elevate the project, then Bergman deserves a small bit of recognition.
The actress found a bit of fame in the role of Valeria, the warrior who warmed Schwarzenegger’s heart in 1982’s Conan The Barbarian. Indeed, in that picture it was her death that spurred the Cimmerian to ultimately accept his destiny to rid the world of the evil Thulsa Doom. Then, the actress found an even bigger role in She (1984), a Fantasy production loosely based on the H. Rider Haggard novel. In it, Bergman again crossed swords with a plethora of villains in a post-Apocalyptic world, proving once more that she was ably suited when the script called for a mixture of strength and sensuality. Lastly, 1985 saw her reacquainted on the big screen with Arnold where they both played second fiddle to Bridgitte Nielsen in Robert E. Howard’s Red Sonja. Though the movie was largely critically panned, I’ve often enjoyed its campier sentiments as well as some respectable production work. Bergman’s Queen Gedren chews scenery in a few spots, and the picture – while not great – is still better because she’s in it.
In Programmed, Bergman’s introduction is handled well enough. When viewers first meet her, the actress convincingly wears the face of the modern revolutionary: as a terrorist gunning down innocent civilians in the street, she’s enjoying herself, guns a’blazing. As the attack draws to a close, she has the presence of mind to nab a few American children to take back to the den as hostages. However, once she’s transformed into the role of the film’s cybernetically-infused antagonist, Short’s script – along with Holzman’s direction – robs her of any emotion. Instead, she strides and struts around with a mostly blank face, even after her latent human memories emerge to counteract the CIA programming. In fact, we don’t see any emotion from the lady whatsoever until the final reel: once she realizes that bulldozer bearing down on her might spell her demise, she’s finally pulled from her robotic stupor … only a bit too late to save herself and the entire motion picture.
Still, films are always collective pursuits. When not everyone on board delivers the best that they’re capable of, then the group suffers as a consequence. An inferior script along with the inferior vision of a director banished the thriller to obscurity … and Bergman’s talent just wasn’t strong enough to rescue it from the trash bin on cinema history.
Programmed To Kill (1987) was produced by Retaliator Productions and Trans World Entertainment (TWE). DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated by the reliable folks at Kino Lorber. As for the technical specifications? While I’m no trained video expert, I thought the flick’s sights and sounds were mostly very good; there are a few sequences wherein I suspect some flawed set-ups likely contributed to the poor quality of the resulting image. Lastly, if you’re looking for special features? Then you have a disc boasting an all-new 2K scan of the 35mm Interpositive, the theatrical trailer, an alternate opening sequence, an interview with screenwriter Short, and an audio commentary featuring director Holzman and filmmaker Douglas Hosdale.
Only mildly recommended. Maybe even barely, considering how few marks it hit.
Methinks the issue with a forgotten film like Programmed To Kill (1987) is that it feels all too often like a product of its time: a mildly creative riff on a theatrical success (i.e. The Terminator) that was produced quickly and cheaply and without much thought and preparation. Likely, this was meant to get out into the marketplace – to the video stores shelves of the day – in order to capitalize on something else, rather than deliver something that could uniquely stand on its own two feet. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that – the entertainment industry is a business, first and foremost – I think it’s a crime to waste a commodity like Bergman on a script that gave her so little to do. She and her fans deserved better.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Kino Lorber provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray of Programmed To Kill (1987) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.