The realm of Science Fiction and Fantasy includes a unique subset of films that has been exciting viewers for well over a century: the Apocalypse – the collapse of civilization from war, drought, famine, virus, zombies, alien invasion, climate change, meteor strike, or even general collective apathy – explores what remains after said life-changing-event. Storytellers have been fascinated with such days all the way back until 1916’s The End Of The World, a Danish production from director August Blom that depicted the global catastrophes resulting from a comet passing too closely near our planet. I think it’s safe to suggest that, while horrified by the fate possibly awaiting us all, we – as viewers – still can’t look away.
Because the end could – quite literally – arrive at any moment, filmmakers have worked hard to introduce as many narrative variations as possible on the original idea. In their zeal, they’ve respectfully tried to present countless Armageddons with the cinematic freshness discriminating audiences truly appreciate, occasionally even going back to Hollywood well in search of a story done earlier and elsewhere that might benefit from the whole new level of Apocalyptic flavoring. After all, if there are only seven scripts in existence, can’t each of them become Science Fiction with the welcome addition of mutants, celestial calamities, and laser guns?
Today’s evidence that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks is 1991’s Neon City. This Fantasy-fueled road trip picks up where John Ford’s 1939 Oscar-winning Western Classic – Stagecoach – left off, teleporting viewers from the days of the Wild West into the future where cowboys and lawmen of a different sort brave this new Final Frontier in search of nothing more than the chance to survive. Brought to the screen by actor, producer, and director Monte Markham, Neon City is credited to screenwriters Buck Finch and Jeff Begun – along with contributions credited to Markham, too – and it stars Michael Ironside, Vanity, Lyle Alzado, Valerie Wildman, and Juliet Landau in key roles.
Saddle up, readers. Doom is on the horizon, and the road ahead won’t be easy.
(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 …)
“’Mad Max’ clone set in the not-too-distant future about a group of people trying to escape to a safe haven called Neon City after a solar disaster has decimated the Earth.”
If there is an Apocalypse waiting at the end of days, count me amongst the contingent voting for big and small screen tough guy Michael Ironside to lead us to the big finish. Throughout the 1980’s and into the 1990’s, the actor either headlined or was in the cast for a good number of gritty thrillers – SciFi and beyond – and he even stood toe-to-toe opposite Hollywood heavyweight Arnold Schwarzenegger in Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990). While Ironside might’ve lacked the charisma to outshine fellow screen talent like Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, or Chuck Norris, he clearly had his own following – fans loyal to him despite the fact that he was often cast as the villain – and they definitely wished that one truly big breakout role would propel the man to some much-deserved stardom. Though he had the right stuff, household recognition remained just out of reach.
But in much the same way legends endure, Ironside continued in the business; and his appearances continued to energize both viewers knowledgeable of his resume as well as newcomers only discovering what the man brought to his work. His IMDB.com profile today shows a resume fast approaching an astonishing three hundred different professional credits, so there’s ample opportunity for those wishing to delve into his portfolio to find something they like. (Might I suggest a visit back to Science Fiction of the 1980’s when he brought a rugged Han Solo type to the small screen aboard NBC’s original V? He was a winning addition to that ensemble.)
While I’d read about Neon City, I’d never seen it; and that’s been rectified today as Kino Lorber has released an all-new 2K scan of the production for consumption. It looks and sounds incredible for a mostly forgotten and/or overlooked smaller transport into the days of a dark tomorrow, but Ironside’s lead demonstrates why so many fans were drawn to his ability to kick ass and chew bubble gum at a time when bubble gum had gone the way of the dodo.
Sadly, the Markham production never quite found the right gear to propel this one into the pantheon of ‘must see’ Science Fiction and Fantasy apocalypses. It’s good enough for what I’ve often called Saturday Night fare – the kind of forgettable flicks that used to be the mainstay of the SciFi (aka Syfy) Channel or any number of lesser pay cable channels – but the cast of supporting players who never had the kind of shelf life required to give it the necessary recognition did this film no favors. Markham himself – a somewhat familiar face in TV fare – appears briefly; and WKRP’s Richard Sanders (faux newsman ‘Les Nessman’) is also along for the ride as a comedian eeking out a feeble existence in a mostly laughless tomorrow. Football player turned actor Lyle Alzado appeared as ‘Bulk,’ a kinda/sorta adversary kinda/sorta sidekick to Ironside’s darkly named ‘Harry M. Stark,’ and I’d also note that the picture is credited as Alzado’s last: the NFL legend passed from brain cancer barely a year later, a consequence of steroid abuse.
If there’s any great inspiration aboard Neon City, then I’d argue that was whoever’s idea it was to essentially copy the highs and lows of Stagecoach … because that’s what services here as the real story. Consider Stark and the passengers as settlers on the road to a better and brighter tomorrow – one wherein all of their troubles are truly left behind in the dust of the wasteland they’re trying to cross – and the film both works efficiently and achieves the desired results. Anything greater? Well, that would’ve cost more; and this was truly a no-frills expedition.
Frankly, City feels very much like what may’ve started out on the drawing board as a telefilm, perhaps even the pilot for a weekly series. (I’ve done some reading online, but I’ve found no confirmation of that possibility.) The script breezes lightly over its cast of characters much in the way many shows from the era introduced supporting players with as little baggage possible; and then it goes about the business of testing whether or not each of them has the meddle to survive in the harsh future. (FYI: not everyone gets out of this one alive, and some of that is owed to the subplot of a – gasp! – murderer on board!) Who knows? Could a regular procedural featuring Stark and crew crossing a deadly border have worked in serialized format? It certainly could’ve featured monsters of the week – as well as told any number of stories about folks hell bent on the return to normalcy Neon City promised – but, alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
As a wholly independent feature, City operates on its own internal combustion, mostly giving Ironside the chance to grin occasionally in between sequences of his trading blows and firing weapons. If it truly was the Apocalypse, then one would think the survivors would want to go easy on wasting so much ammunition – they do finally run out thanks for to a convenient plot twist than anything else – but perhaps brain power will ultimately be in short supply in our last days. Model and singer Vanity is along for the ride as a kinda/sorta fugitive from justice who is both captured and released by the disgraced lawman Stark; but the later half sees her essentially reduced to a love interest that feels a bit forced when a smarter script could’ve handled it with greater nuance.
So … would’ve I have been in the audience turning in weekly to watch Ironside do his thing had this thing somehow ended up in broadcast rotation?
You’re damn right I would’ve.
It would’ve been my goddamn pleasure.
Neon City (1991) was produced by Kodiak Films, Little Bear Productions, and Trimark Pictures. DVD distribution (for this particular release) has been coordinated by the fine folks at Kino Lorber. As for the technical specifications? While I’m no trained video expert, I thought that the sights-and-sounds of what’s advertised to be a brand-new HD Master from a 2K scan of the 35mm interpositive to be exceptionally good; the film looks crisp – so much so that one might think it was produced today – and the audio is equally impressive. Lastly, if you’re looking for special features? This disc boasts an audio commentary from director Markham, an all-too-brief interview with Ironside, and the theatrical trailer. It’s a good collection, but – as always – I’d always welcome a bit more.
Though I’m known to appreciate a good Apocalypse, I still found it hard to fawn over Neon City. Yes, it’s occasionally interesting, technically adequate, and features the great Michael Ironside during his screen-chewing prime; but the story – a narrative imitation of 1939’s Stagecoach updated to end times – fails to fully define this world, its people, and their individual and shared circumstances. Without that measure of depth, Markham’s feature just feels too much like a forgettable road trip; and I think true SciFi and Fantasy audiences want a bit more to chew on with their cinematic snacks.
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 Neon City (1991) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.