Friday, April 25, 2014

Dirty Trancing!

I was standing in line at the local grocery the other day and while waiting my turn I perused their rack of "previously viewed" dvds. I've bought one of these before with unhappy consequences, so it was not without qualm that when I stumbled across a boxed set of the first three Trancers movies that I slid them onto the conveyor belt with my bread and milk and other essential items.

I've heard of the Trancer movies, seen them in video stores (when those existed in those halcyon days of yore) and whatnot, but I'd never actually watched one. Tim Thomerson, who plays the lead is a reliable and harmless talent, so I gave it a chance, the price was right.

Trancers (released in theaters as Future Cop apparently) is a blend of classic film noir and science ficiton tropes. Jack Deth lives in the future of the 23rd century where he hunts down "Trancers", human beings who have fallen under the spell of a deadly force which for all intents and purposes turns them into zombies, zombies hiding in plain sight until they are unleashed. The where and how are pretty vague, but we follow the lead of our hero Jack Deth (Thomerson) who is a "Trancers Hunter", a specialized cop living in the ruins of Los Angeles which has to no small extent disappeared under the waves of the Pacific. Deth is a hard-boiled and lethal fellow in the Sam Spade mode and the movie owes more than small nod to Blade Runner and The Terminator as well. Deth gets a mission to travel back in time via drugs which will allow him to inhabit the body of one of his ancestors to track down a master villain who has gone to 1985 to unleash his Trancers and kill the ancestors of the future political leadership. Deth lands in the modern world and gets about it, including meeting and falling in love with Lena (Helen Hunt) a youthful Punk Rock wannabe. Needless to say they have to work like crazy to solve the mission, but they do and Deth ends up stuck in our world.

Some years later the story picks up in Trancers II when another mastermind from the future heads to 1991 where Deth and Lena have been married for six years and are pretty happy. Unfortunately the future council sends Jack's first wife (who died some years after her mission begins and Jack was there) back to solve the problem and of course Jack and Lena get drawn into the mission. This direct-to-video effort is far less effective save for some reasonable acting turns by several members of the cast. The reliably sinister Richard Lynch is on hand to give the movie a proper villain, but he's not enough to save this peculiar "film noir" effort that takes place almost exclusively in the bright California sunshine. The movie is passably entertaining with some clever plot turns, but alas never achieves the right mood.

In 1992 Trancers III is unleashed and to some extent so is Jack Deth. In a classic film noir turn he ends up in a divorce with his wife Lena and ends up himself quickly transported to the future where the Trancer war has erupted with devastating results. Deth is transported to 2005 where the Trancer menace originated and he finds a black ops military unit led by Andrew Robinson (infamous Dirty Harry villain Scorpio) experimenting with steroids which create the Trancer effect. He struggles against this new threat with reasonable effectiveness, this time assisted to some degree by a future android Shark, who happens to have the head of a weird robotic shark, sort of. The end of the movie is pretty standard for an action movie, okay but not really full gear. It results in a change of premise as Jack is turned into an agent specifically charged with traveling in time to eliminate menaces, and his new partner is Shark. There are three more Trancer movies, so I assume this premise is realized.

The Trancer movies are a mixed bag by any measure. The first one has some real bite, a solid attempt to create a proper atmosphere. Deth is neatly operated within the confines of classic hard-boiled types we've seen in dozens of movies, part of a tradition, but nicely fitted into a sci-fi setting. The Blade Runner inspirations are hard to miss and it does at once help and hurt the movie, if it's to be judged on its own merits. One area these films miss is action, which almost always seems staged and slow relatively to slicker productions. They seem to rely on the actors to do a lot of the stuff and they are up to it, but it often lacks the crisp editing which really makes such things work.

It's clear that budgets were pretty meager for these movies, which have to accomplish a lot with very little. It shows sadly despite the earnest effort by the cast. The Trancer movies are diverting fun and slightly trashy entertainment, and they are slightly smarter and wittier than you might at first suspect. But they aren't great movies by any stretch, regardless of how charming Thomerson is in the lead.

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