Megaforce (1982) -****
It was no easy matter to make the stupidest action movie of the whole 1980’s. There were ninjas in the Earth in those days, and some of them had the power to come back from the dead and possess an ersatz Jennifer Beals. Sylvester Stallone challenged the Viet Cong to a rematch, then helped the heroic Taliban kick the Russians out of Afghanistan. Charles Bronson solved the crack problem with a ten-pound pistol, Chuck Norris proved that cheap beer beat spinach as the poor man’s super-soldier serum, and the traditional arsenal of vigilante heroes expanded to include flamethrowers and weaponized monster trucks. Teenagers could subjugate Libya with the aid of Louis Gossett Jr. and a stolen F-16, or liberate a supine America from the conquering hordes of Fidel Castro, and audiences would bat nary an eyelash. What could any mere mortal do to create a film so devoid of sense, taste, and plausibility that it could stand out against a background like that as a conspicuous low point? Well, the makers of Megaforce were surely mortal, but there was nothing mere about them. Indeed, this was an almost mystical convergence of bad movie mojo. Although Megaforce was released through 20th Century Fox, the production company was Golden Harvest, the Hong Kong side of the partnership responsible for The Big Brawl, who were apparently still angling for a piece of the American market two years after that commercial misfire. In the director’s chair, meanwhile, was Hal Needham, auteur of such milestone white-trash car-chase comedies as Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run. Throw in Barry Bostwick, of all people, as the world’s least convincing Chuck Norris counterfeit and an array of “futuristic” military hardware plainly designed with an eye toward the shelves at Toys ‘R’ Us, and you’ve got a more-than-promising starting point for a more-than-failed film.
It’s the wee hours of the morning in an imaginary Middle Eastern nation which we’ll call “Bullshitistan,” and an oil refinery or chemical plant or something sits surrounded by tanks belonging to the hostile neighboring state of Myassistan. The staff of the facility is lined up outside, just behind the enemy army’s perimeter, where they form a captive audience for a singularly uninspiring revolutionary oration by an agent (The Stepmother’s Michael Kulcsar) of Myassistan’s implicitly pro-Soviet puppet government. Luckily for the captives, though, Guerrera (Henry Silva, from Alligator and Chained Heat)— the aptly named Latin American soldier of fortune commanding the tanks— has no more patience for lame propaganda than they do. Guerrera cuts his “comrade” off in mid-ramble, skipping ahead to the shelling of the industrial site that is his real reason for being here. The raiding party encounters powerful opposition a few hours after dawn, but apparently the president of Bullshitistan is desperate for some reason to avoid an open conflict with his bellicose neighbors. Under no circumstances may Bullshiti forces cross the border into Myassistan, and General Edward Byrne-White (Eye of the Devil’s Edward Mulhare) is forced to break off the counterattack just as his men were starting to get the upper hand over Guerrera. (I’m going to assume that the exceedingly British Byrne-White is one of those “foreign military advisors” that have been so popular in the developing world since about the middle of the 18th century.)
All is not lost, however. The West has made great strides in the field of proxy warfare since the debacle of Vietnam, and NATO/SEATO client states too chickenshit to fight their own battles have a brand new foreign-intervention recourse that won’t embroil American or European armies in overseas guerilla wars of dubious strategic significance. Forget the Green Berets— what Bullshitistan needs now is Megaforce! A secret, stateless army of voluntary non-persons from all corners of the Free World, Megaforce is funded under the table by the black-ops budgets of every advanced nation this side of the Iron Curtain. They’re supplied with sample prototypes of all the latest weapons and gadgets, and not just from the usual stable of NATO military contractors, either. Megaforce gets its turn with advanced hardware swiped from the Warsaw Pact arsenal as well, as demonstrated by the F-111A masquerading as a Su-24 that we’ll see in the laboratory garage at the organization’s hidden underground headquarters before much longer. Head Megaforce scientist Dr. Eggstrom (George Furth, of The Man with Two Brains) cherry-picks the best bits of all this stuff, combining them with the fruits of his own mad genius to create the secret army’s own hypertech gear, which needless to say outclasses everything in use with ordinary fighting forces the world over. Megaforce has computerized dossiers on everyone who’s anyone in all the world’s militaries and intelligence agencies, together with audio bugs in the inner sanctums of every fort, command post, aerodrome, spy-nest, and naval base on Earth. The aforementioned hidden headquarters could stand up to a 25-megaton nuke in the unlikely event that anybody at the Kremlin ever managed to find it, and is designed for total self-sufficiency of operations. Megaforce even has the ability to project life-realistic holograms of Hawaiian bikini chicks anywhere, anytime, and under any lighting and atmospheric conditions, and we all know that’s what really counts on the late-20th-century battlefield.
Now at this point there are two questions we simply cannot avoid asking. First, if Megaforce is an all-volunteer outfit (as we are assured it is), yet is also so secret that nobody knows it exists, then how the fuck is anybody supposed to volunteer for service with it? And if it’s so secret that nobody knows it exists, how the fuck does the president of Bullshitistan know where to send his daughter, Major Zara ben-Duda (Persis Khambata, from Warrior of the Lost World and Star Trek: The Motion Picture), and General Byrne-White to engage Megaforce’s services? There’s no glossing either of these issues over, either, because Megaforce goes out of its way to make us dwell on them by spending an inordinate amount of time on the Bullshiti envoys’ travel arrangements. By the time they’re finally sitting on that big rock in an unnamed desert, three hours by limousine (limousine!) from an unnamed airport, awaiting their escort to Megaforce HQ, the unexplained logistics of how they knew where to go in the first place are all any reasonably intelligent adult can think about.
Anyway, the escort arrives in the form of Dallas (Michael Beck, of The Warriors and Battletruck) and Zachary Taylor (Ralph Wilcox, from Summer of Fear and Gordon’s War). This is the point at which it first starts to look like at least one of the movie’s five credited writers believed he was penning a comedy. My money’s on Hal Needham, since Dallas and Taylor wouldn’t seem a bit out of place racing Captain Chaos across the Deep South. Dallas, as befits his name, is a Komedy Kartoon Kowboy, while Taylor is a black guy so square that he quotes Shakespeare and listens to classical music. Oh, the hilarity! No sooner have these two picked up ben-Duda and Byrne-White (and given us our first display of Megaforce’s holographic bikini chick technology) than their drive back to the base is interrupted by Megaforce commander Hunter (Bostwick, somehow managing to project even less dignity than in Project Metalbeast or The Rocky Horror Picture Show) leading a motorcycle squad on maneuvers. It’s certainly a memorable sight, albeit perhaps not in quite the intended manner. Each Megaforce battle-bike carries four launch rails for unguided rockets (of the type that are readily available at the better class of toy and hobby shops, I hasten to emphasize) and a trio of machine guns. (Actually, to judge from the limited volume enclosed by their fairings above the front forks, they’d almost have to be submachine guns instead.) These weapons are all fixed, however, and sited so that Hunter and his men must choose at any given moment between aiming and steering. Shooting at airborne targets, meanwhile (as they’re doing on this occasion), entails popping some pretty severe wheelies. Then there’s the paint scheme on the bikes, which might most charitably be described as ill-considered. Rather than anything sensible, like overall desert tan or a camouflage pattern of browns and grays, the cycles have white bodywork accented with honking great lightning bolts in black and gold. You can’t even excuse it as a disruptive scheme, because the placement and orientation of the lightning details is altogether too orderly to break up the outlines of the bikes or to obscure their bearing. Nevertheless, if the squad’s performance against that flight of big, beige balloons is any indication, they’ll have no trouble at all springing Patrick McGoohan from the village. Hunter concludes the operation with an Evel Knievel jump over Taylor’s truck, which doesn’t exactly endear him to his guests— who, truth be told, were in a bad enough mood to begin with. And yes, those sparks of fury that fly between Zara and Hunter do indeed mean that they’ll be making goo-goo eyes at each other by the middle of the second act.
It turns out that Megaforce is even more qualified to solve Bullshitistan’s foreign incursion problems than it might seem, for Hunter happens to know Guerrera personally. Back in the 70’s, when Hunter was still calling himself “Ace” and Guerrera was still calling himself “Duke,” the two men were both colleagues and friends, selling their services to deserving Third World war zones and building up a lifetime supply of the weirdest “good old days” stories that you or I are ever likely to hear. Guerrera turned cynical, though, after he was sold out in some unspecified way (Megaforce is really big on not specifying things— have you noticed that yet?) by one of the pissant banana republics that hired him. More recently, Hunter almost convinced Guerrera to become a founding member of Megaforce, but Duke evidently couldn’t bring himself to rejoin the giving-a-shit community, and flitted off to work for yet another well-paying utter bastard instead. Oh— and he stole Ace’s lucky Zippo, too. So basically, Hunter knows everything there is to know about Guerrera, and in a movie that didn’t totally suck ass with the power of five shitty writers, that familiarity would translate into a clear strategic and tactical advantage. Naturally, that means it does no such thing here.
That isn’t to say that Hunter doesn’t have a plan for how to deal with Guerrera. In fact, his plan is pretty elegant— the only absurd things about it are its unrealistically compressed timetable and the bare fact that Megaforce is going to be carrying it out. It just doesn’t require any of Hunter’s special knowledge of the enemy to formulate. If the problem is that President ben-Duda fears the consequences of pursuing Guerrera back into Myassistan, then obviously the trick is to goad Guerrera into an ambush on Bullshiti territory instead. To accomplish this, a 60-man Megaforce team will be air-dropped within striking distance of the depot site from which Guerrera’s forces conduct their raids. Hunter and his men will strike that depot an hour or so before dawn while Byrne-White assembles his regular army just across the border, and when the Myassi troops take off in pursuit of Megaforce, Hunter will lead them straight into the barrels of Byrne-White’s guns.
Before this surprisingly sensible scheme can be put into action, however, we must take a detour that somehow manages to be a sappy romantic montage and a pitifully non-badass training montage at the same time. Zara wants to go on the mission, you see. Hunter’s main reason for not wanting her along is unquestionably a good one— Megaforce acts as a team and trains as a team, so there’s no room in their tactics for non-team-members— but instead of saying that at the outset, he objects on the dicktastic grounds that Zara couldn’t possibly be good enough to make the Megaforce grade. A full reel of skydiving, helicopter flying, and combat simulating later, he and the major are all in love and shit (‘cause nothing impresses the ladies like telling them they’re not worthy to play in your sandbox), and it’s that much harder for Hunter to break the news that he was never going to let her join up no matter how well she performed. Dishearteningly, this does not result immediately in Hunter getting crotch-kicked into next week. Instead, it results in him and Zara exchanging what almost has to be the most peculiar gesture of affection ever devised by humankind on the runway that night— like some farcical and almost nauseatingly cute hybrid of kiss-blowing and thumbs-upping. Then and only then do we get the mission, with its bloodless battles, harmless explosions, wild mass missing, and total lack of even the mildest casualties for the heroes. Surprisingly, however, the writers permit Guerrera a degree of competence denied to his men, and when the first clash with Megaforce goes decisively against him, the mercenary commander outmaneuvers Hunter in the political arena instead. Now that it’s Hunter’s turn to be sold out by his paymasters, will he turn into an amoral old sourpuss like his former best friend? Hell no! He’s a good guy, and the good guys always win— even in the 80’s! (Actual Megaforce dialogue. No, for real.) What he will do, however, is blow up his betrayer’s personal helicopter as it sits parked beside a press conference on the way home, as a sort of high-explosive middle finger. He’ll also ride a flying motorcycle, in a climactic scene that I swear you will never forget no matter how bad your Alzheimer’s symptoms become.
For fans of the stunningly misconceived, Megaforce is a genuine treasure. It’s one of those rare films that not only do absolutely everything wrong, but do it with total and shameless commitment. It’s the sort of film that takes such childlike pride in its mistakes as to play clip reels of their highlights under both sets of credits, treating the audience to a few of its finest visual bungles no fewer than three times. It rewards repeat viewings every bit as richly as a classic “Simpsons” episode or one of the more densely layered Zucker-Abrams-Zucker farces, except that Megaforce achieves the effect mostly by accident. Each time I watch it, I find something that I missed before— a new harmonic of nonsense in the plot or the dialogue, a new failure of choreography or frame composition, a new nuance of tackiness in the sets, props, or costumes. You could easily spend an entire screening dissecting the poor choices in Barry Bostwick’s physical appearance alone. The really impressive thing, then, is how much fun Henry Silva seems to be having. Even if nobody else did, Silva gives every indication of understanding exactly what a ridiculous project this was, and when the camera closes in on Guerrera’s look of bemusement as Hunter’s motorcycle infamously takes to the sky, I really don’t think Silva is acting.
Looking back from the 21st century, the first thing any savvy viewer will instinctively think upon being exposed to Megaforce is, “Okay, I get it. They wanted to make a G.I. Joe movie, but they didn’t want to pay Hasbro for the license.” That obvious interpretation is almost certainly incorrect, however. Although Megaforce’s release did coincide with the relaunch of the toy line, it predated G.I. Joe’s glory days as a pop-culture phenomenon by some three years. Indeed, Megaforce premiered in the same month that the first issue of Marvel’s tie-in comic (the first of the licensed G.I. Joe media) reached newsstands. Furthermore, the 1982 G.I. Joe toys were not at all the goofy, sci-fi-inflected things that dominate my own memories of the line. Those earliest offerings were much more sedate and “realistic,” with all but two of the weapons and vehicles recognizably derived from genuine NATO equipment. In other words, G.I. Joe evolved to resemble Megaforce, not the other way around! And in a truly bizarre twist, the closer resemblance is not between Megaforce and the Joe team, anyway, but rather between Megaforce and the villainous terrorist outfit, Cobra. Think about it: secret, stateless international organization; hidden headquarters in the middle of nowhere that somehow anybody can find when it’s convenient to the plot; the most advanced weapons money can buy, cobbled together into ludicrously impractical but totally bitchin’ form by an on-staff mad scientist; gaudy spandex coveralls instead of rugged and inconspicuous fatigue uniforms— it’s all right there in front of us. Now I doubt very strongly that this was deliberate; with its ticket sales justly unimpressive and its licensing empire limited in the end to a paltry fan-club promotion advertised on the back covers of contemporary comic books, Megaforce had no coattails to ride. It does, however, turn this largely forgotten and riotously crappy movie into an object lesson in the value of being second. Golden Harvest were just a hair’s breadth ahead of the zeitgeist. A year and a half, maybe two years later, and today’s nostalgia junkies might very well have found themselves crabbing about Stephen Sommers desecrating their childhoods with Megaforce: The Rise of Guerrera.