For the record, I’ve never argued to the contrary on that point. Empire Pictures’ catalogue (as per their citation on IMDB.com) includes an incredible 71 different titles; and – while a deep dive might produce a stinker here or there – there are a solid handful or two of projects that were staples of the era credited to the explosion of home video. Heck, if you take a chance and read the bio of Band himself – 2021’s Confessions Of A Puppetmaster, Harper Collins reviewed here by yours truly – then you’d know that the talented writer and producer was literally at the forefront of making films available for home exhibition back in the day! As a consequence, he knew more than the average bear did about what accounted for a random project’s popularity, and he went about the business of delivering them – one after the other – for several fun-filled years.
Still, I won’t trouble readers with a dissection of Band’s entire library, mostly because what matters most today is 1989’s Robot Jox.
I first saw this one on home video back in the 1990’s, and it remains one of those rare flicks I can easily watch again (and have!) whenever I stumble on it playing in TV broadcast rotation or from streaming on Amazon.com. In fact, I think I rewatched it about six months ago specifically with the intent of penning a review for SciFiHistory.Net and just never got around to it. (Ah, the struggles of an everyday critic!) But when I received a copy from a distributor over the weekend in my mail, I knew there was no time like the present: I popped it in yesterday and was merrily transported back to yesteryear when giant battling robots set against a modest love story was definitely worth the price of a home rental.
Was it – quite possibly – Empire’s high point?
That debate will rage on so long as new fans flock to the studio’s output, and I, for one, hope the debate never ends.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“In the distant future, mankind has forsaken global wars for battles of single combat. The world has been divided into two opposing superpowers, with each side represented by trained champions.”
I kid you not: the very first time I was asked my opinion of the film post viewing, I said, “It’s the best flick that Tom Cruise never made.”
What, pray tell, does that mean?
Back in the day, damn near each and every Tom Cruise movie had the exact same formula. Whatever character the talented actor inhabited was a young Turk. A rebel. A hotshot. However, as can happen when you’re the best of the best, you inevitably experience a fall from grace of some sort; and then the true character arc begins as Tom went about the “acting business” of finding himself anew against the backdrop of failure, doubt, and humility. Yes, of course, he’d rise again – like a Phoenix from the ashes – in each and every picture’s last reel, and this narrative journey was used over and over no matter if Cruise was flying jets, racing cars, playing hockey, or graduating high school. It functioned. Audiences related to it. And it meant box office gold.
Essentially, this is what you have with Robot Jox. In Cruise’s place, the talented Gary Graham steps in as hotshot robot jox/pilot codenamed Achilles; and the man very admirably chews scenery up until he experiences his own kinda/sorta plummet from on high (figuratively and literally, since these are 100-foot-tall robots) and then has to reinvent himself once it becomes crystal clear that the world just can’t go on without Achilles front-and-center. Of course, the formula is varied slightly, but the script by director Stuart Gordon and science fiction novelist Joe Haldeman stays true enough to its foundation that Jox emerges as one of the greatest B-Movie pictures of all time.
If I had to pick on any fault to Jox, then it’s rather easy to point a stiff finger at the curious closing scenes, a narrative weak point that never quite rings true. This is a near 90-minute feature that sounds very much like a Top Gun (1986) rip-off to many where good and evil are given definite faces if not political equivalency. (The Cold War was still raging, so it serves the film best to think of it as a U.S. versus Soviet robotic showdown.) Alexander (played by the late Paul Koslo), spends the bulk of his screen time bemoaning not only Achilles’ way of life but damn near the man’s very existence; but – in the last reel – they’re suddenly reduced to just … what? Fighting buddies? Reality doesn’t get so much obscured as it does ignored, all for the sake of an overly saccharin ‘Happy Ending,’ one that tries to convince audiences that everyone can just get along.
Having lived through that era, I can assure you the Soviet Union would’ve happily wiped out its global adversary if they’d found a way to do so militarily; so this Achilles/Alexander peace summit felt inadequate on so many levels. Even as a cinematic ‘rah rah’ moment, I just never believed it probable, so I’m not sure those sentiments truly won any converts in the audience.
Robot Jox (1989) was produced by Empire Pictures and Altar Productions. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated by Arrow Films. As for the technical specifications? According to the press materials (viewed online as I was only provided an official screening copy), this is an all-new 2K restoration done by Arrow from the original negative; because this thing was likely produced and shot reasonably quickly, there’s a reasonable amount of grain here and there, but – overall – I found the sights and sounds to be of pretty exceptional quality. (Again, I’m no trained video expert, but it worked just fine for me.)
Lastly, if you’re looking for special features? This is Arrow Films, and they rarely skimp on the extras. Fans have plenty to get excited about as the disc boasts not one but two (archival) audio commentaries; all-new video interviews with actors Gary Graham and Anne-Marie Johnson (both excellent) as well as an archival one with actor Paul Koslo; a fabulous retrospective on the film’s special effects; and a huge assortment of stills, notes, and the usual fodder including theatrical trailers. Again, it’s A-R-R-O-W, folks, so you won’t be disappointed. Take my word for it.
Highest recommendation possible.
Honestly, I’ve always loved Robot Jox since I first discovered it on VHS back in the early 1990’s. I’ve watched it a few times (via streaming) since, so I was nothing short of thrilled to finally make my opinion of this B-Movie Classic official in this space. Of course, its practical effects are dated – as are maybe its performances and ideas – but its magic is timeless, especially for those of us who appreciate smaller films precisely because they think big, work with what they have, and manage to deliver a measure of passion unmatched more often than not by big studio productions. A rare gem, even its imperfections are downright perfect.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Arrow Films provided me with a complimentary copy of Robot Jox (1989) as part of their Enter The Video Store: Empire Of Screams Collection for the expressed purposes of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.