Robot Jox/Robojox (1989) **
One of the last movies Charles Band produced for his old Empire Pictures label before moving on to start Full Moon, Robot Jox makes for an especially stark illustration of just how far Band’s star has fallen since the turn of the 1990’s. Robot Jox, though it falls rather far afield of just about anybody’s definition of a good film, represents a scale of production that Band simply couldn’t afford to attempt today. Its “futuristic” sets and props may cut a lot of corners, but none of them are instantly recognizable as a public school corridor on a Sunday afternoon or the first-floor conference room of the local Best Western. Most of the cast members are unknowns, but they don’t seem to have been recruited straight from the drama club at the nearest community college. And most importantly, no present-day Band enterprise could afford to tackle a project with this much stop-motion animation, let alone hire Dave Allen to ride herd on the special effects. At the same time, it may also tell us something about why Band sank as low as he did to observe that even with all those advantages, Robot Jox is still a defiantly mediocre film.
Fifty years have passed since humanity was very nearly wiped out by nuclear war. The survivors on both sides— now reorganized into the Market (formerly the United States of America) and the Confederation (formerly the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics)— don’t like each other any more now than they did before the war, but they have wisely recognized that the world can ill afford a replay of the great holocaust. With that in mind, the leaders of both nations have agreed to renounce war, and to settle their differences by means of stylized single combat between highly trained men piloting powerful fighting machines— the robot jocks. As the movie opens, one such bout is taking place in eastern Siberia between a Market champion called Ajax, and a seemingly invincible Confed known as Alexander (Paul Koslo, from The Omega Man and Chained Heat II). (For some reason, all robot jocks adopt “fighting names” drawn from classical mythology.) The battle isn’t going well for the Market; Alexander was prepared for Ajax’s supposedly secret tar spray weapon, and once the duel moved into its hand-to-hand phase, it didn’t take him long to cripple the Market’s robot warrior. And just for the sake of being ee-vil (he is a Russian in a 1980’s action movie, you know), Alexander kills his opponent even after Ajax concedes the match and the referees declare victory for the Confederation. But this battle was really only the prelude to the upcoming clash over the territory of Alaska.
This will be the first time in many years that Market territory has been directly at stake, and Commissioner Jameson (Robert Sampson, of Re-Animator and Indecent Behavior) is understandably anxious about the outcome. It is for precisely that reason that he has been holding in reserve his best (and now also only) robot jock, Jim “Achilles” Conway (Gary Graham, from Necronomicon and the “Alien Nation” TV series). Achilles has remained not only alive but also unbeaten through nine of his ten contractual bouts, and it seems plausible enough that he’ll match his father’s record-making achievement of retiring undefeated after he takes on Alexander for command of Alaska. This is doubly so because old Tex Conway himself (Michael Aldredge, of The Entity and The Incredible Melting Man) is going to be directing his son’s efforts from the Market fight commission’s control center, while Chief Engineer Matsumoto (Night of the Warrior’s Danny Kamekona) has devised a new high-energy, green-wavelength laser with which to arm Jim’s machine. Achilles is therefore the betting-pool favorite, even despite Alexander’s televised claim to have already killed him “in here” (said while pointing to his head, in his best Ee-vil Ruskie accent).
But even if Achilles wins the fight for Alaska, his contract will be up at that point, and the Market has already lost all of its other jocks. Not to worry, though— a Market scientists named LaPlace (Hilary Mason, from Dolls and I Don’t Want to Be Born) is way ahead of the game. Very early on, LaPlace got it into her head that robot jockery was far too important a business to be left to chance, so she began developing a strain of genetically engineered, artificially gestated humans, bred and trained specifically to be the best possible robot jocks. And it is now— just in time for Jim Conway’s retirement— that the first generation of LaPlace’s gen-jocks is coming of age. Achilles and his father have been assigned to train these warriors of the future, and to provide “raw materials” for subsequent batches as well.
The best of the prospective gen-jocks, and the only one we need concern ourselves with specifically, is Athena (Anne-Marie Johnson). If Athena is chosen to succeed Achilles, she’ll make history on two fronts— becoming the world’s first female robot jock as well as the first to be artificially created expressly for fighting. Naturally, Tex doesn’t take Athena seriously, and just as naturally, his son falls in love with her. Athena, for her part, is too self-assured to pay any mind to Tex, and her interest in Achilles is mainly academic; she wants to know what he has that makes him so great when he’s just an ordinary, “accidental” man.
This web of relationships takes on enhanced importance after Achilles and Alexander meet in the battle arena in Death Valley. (Your guess as to why the contest over Alaska is being fought in Arizona is as good as mine…) The battle ends with both robots disabled, the Confederation potentially disqualified by Alexander’s use of a projectile punch attack during the hand-to-hand round (though technically a hand attack, a rocked-propelled fist would seem a clear violation of the rule against ranged weapons at that stage of the fight), and 300-some spectators dead in the worst disaster since the advent of the robot jock system. After hearing all the arguments on both sides, the referees rule the outcome inconclusive, and schedule a rematch in a week’s time. Achilles, however, refuses to fight again. He’s had his ten matches, and the sight of 300 corpses in the stands has given him a whole new perspective on his erstwhile profession. Sure, everyone but his family calls him a coward, but he can deal with that. What he finds he can’t deal with is the prospect of the girl he loves risking her life against Alexander; as soon as the news reaches him that Athena has indeed been selected to replace him, Achilles rushes back to the commissioner to negotiate a contract for one final fight.
Athena, however, is not pleased at all with this turn of events. At first, she believes that Achilles was deliberately playing hardball with Jameson in order to get more money for the rematch, and her opinion of mercenaries isn’t a whole lot higher than her opinion of cowards. But gradually it dawns on her that Achilles’s real motive for coming back is to protect her from the hazards that she was literally born and raised to face. Noble though that motive may be, Athena is incensed at the patronizing attitude it implies, and she begins working on a plan to put herself in the cockpit when the day of the rematch against Alexander rolls around.
Meanwhile, events are unfolding that make it look like the odds are against a victory for the Market no matter which jock is at the controls on the big day. It ended up having little effect on the outcome, but when Achilles fought Alexander, it turned out the Confederation robot was armed with the same green-band laser as the Market’s, even though that weapon was supposedly secret. This makes seven times in a row that the Market has lost an advantage because of a security leak, and this time the circumstances paint that leak as a very serious one indeed. There are only two men on the team who knew the new weapon’s specifications: Dr. Matsumoto and Tex Conway. Whichever one of them is the traitor, the implications for the upcoming rematch are most dire for the Market.
Robot Jox is a movie that really needs to be seen in a theater. On the big screen, Dave Allen’s battling mecha-titans are impressive even despite the somewhat jerky animation (even in the Empire Pictures days, really smooth stop-motion animation was beyond Charles Band’s means), and the spell of that impressiveness lasts long enough that you might not notice how infrequently they’re onscreen. On a TV set, however, that magic simply isn’t there, and the film’s notably lackluster story elements are forced to carry most of the weight. It’s hard to believe this movie was plotted and directed by the same man who gave us Re-Animator and the Full Moon The Pit and the Pendulum, but that is indeed Stuart Gordon’s name on the credits. Gordon will probably lose most viewers with the premise alone, but that isn’t what bothers me— in fact, I like the seemingly loopy idea at the heart of Robot Jox. A system not unlike the one depicted here really was adopted in Italy in response to the cataclysmic internecine bloodbaths of the Renaissance era, and I can easily imagine one being adopted again in the aftermath of a nuclear war that stops short of exterminating the human race. (In case you’re curious, the Italian scheme was known as conditierri warfare— that is, captains’ warfare—and it basically amounted to a live-action game of chess. Opposing commanders would maneuver their armies around the battlefield in an effort to take up positions from which it was accepted as axiomatic that they would win in the event that real fighting occurred. The commander who became cornered in a disadvantageous position would concede defeat without more than a ritualized skirmish or two, thus sparing both sides the savage destruction that had periodically swept over the countryside during the time of the Medici.) No, what bothers me is Gordon’s misidentification of which plot threads are going to command his audience’s attention. Is it really possible that anyone who picks up a movie promising deadly combat between giant robots is going to care much about the chronically stymied romance between Achilles and Athena? What initially sounds like an intriguing cross between Rocky IV and “Mazinger Z” ends up getting sidetracked, Top Gun-style, in the least interesting part of the narrative.
The inordinate focus on the movie’s relationship drama aspect is rendered even more damaging by the fact that it demands actual acting from people like Gary Graham and Anne-Marie Johnson, and none of these folks are up to the challenge. Gordon would have been much better off with a script that left all characterization at the level of caricature where Paul Koslo’s Alexander dwells. Cartoony, one-dimensional villains need cartoony, one-dimensional heroes to play off of, or they just draw attention to their own absurdity. And since none of the good guys in Robot Jox is played by an actor capable of much else, it’s hard to see Gordon’s handling of the film as anything other than one big hour-and-a-half-long string of miscalculations, culminating in one of the falsest-feeling feel-good endings ever to bring down the curtain on a low-budget action flick.